Films With Meaning

Cyclist Out Of Sight

“Death of a Cyclist” (1955), by Juan Antonio Bardem

“Death of a Cyclist” (1955), by Juan Antonio Bardem

This image in the opening moments of “Death of a Cyclist” is so powerful for how perfectly it sets the viewer up for what’s to come, for what it represents thematically, and for the way it demonstrates how visual simplicity can highlight and heighten what always matters most: story. As we open, Juan and Maria are driving home on a country road at dusk, and they hit a cyclist. Juan gets out of the car and runs over to the cyclist to check on him and finds he is still alive. There is so much we learn here about these characters, like how Juan feels genuinely concerned for the wellbeing of the cyclist, while Maria feels concerned only for her own wellbeing. This reveal sets up their dynamic for the whole movie in a clever, yet subtle way, and sets up the personal stakes for each character.

This image does more than set up the characters, however, it also sets up the thematic exploration of the film. By keeping the cyclist just out of the frame, it sets up the game of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ the characters will attempt to play, which we all know ends with obsession of thought rather than freedom from thought. Things are always worse when we cannot see them, and letting our imagination run wild with what could happen always ends up worse than just accepting reality and facing consequences. In the image, Juan is right up in the face of this reality, while Maria stays lost back in the distance so she can avoid seeing it. It foreshadows clearly that Juan and Maria will always be pulled in two different directions based on their priorities and will struggle to stick together through this horrible situation.

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Finally, this image shows the power of simplicity in visual storytelling. Nowadays, filmmakers have access to the most amazing equipment, the most amazing visual effects, and to mountains of money, so they are pretty unlimited in the visual and imagery they can put up on the big screen. However, this little black and white film from 1955, when none of those things existed, proves that sometimes what you don’t show and what you don’t see if more powerful than what you do show. They didn’t show the car hitting the cyclist, and they didn’t show the cyclist’s body. Obviously they could have done both, and with the limited resources of the time, it may have looked bad, or they may have done a wonderful job, but that doesn’t matter. The director knew that not showing it would be more unsettling for the audience, leaving us to imagine it. More importantly, he knew everything I already talked about, that it was the right visual choice for this particular story to subconsciously implant all the themes of the movie into the viewer’s mind right from the start. Film is a visual medium, and that is masterful visual storytelling from J.A. Bardem.

The reason I chose to focus a majority of this essay on one image from the beginning of the movie is because it really does tell you everything about the characters, about the visual style of the film, about the type of story to come, and about the director’s approach to telling that story. To my mind there is no need to talk in depth about other parts of the film to let you know what it is about or to explore the ideas that will be presented. And to me, as someone who admires and respects the power of visual storytelling above all else, there is no greater sign of a master filmmaker than being able to set up and encapsulate an entire story in one simple visual right at the start of a film. And I have talked many times about the importance of “show, don’t tell” in visual storytelling, but this film highlights the natural extension of that philosophy for a deeper level of visual storytelling, which is “imply, don’t show”.

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The best way to explain both is to talk about the inverse method which many films use. It is so frustrating when a film uses character dialogue or voiceover narration to tell you everything that is happening, has happened, or is going to happen. It is a sign that the writer, director, or both do not trust the audience to follow the story so they spell everything out. It is also frustrating when a film doesn’t spell it out with words, but shows you every little bit of action and everything that happens and leaves nothing to the imagination. Viewers are smart enough to infer what might be happening out of frame if given proper context and visual cues, or through character action/emotion. Feeling the need to “tell” or to “show” everything in a film is not just a lack of trust in the audience, but also a lack of trust in the actors and the creative team behind the film, including a filmmaker possibly not trusting themselves. Ok, now let me step off of my soapbox for a second and say of course there is always a place for “showing” and “telling”, and it depends on what kind of film is being made, what are the goals of the filmmaker, and how creatively it is done. The point of my holy diatribe is just that it should not be done out of fear or laziness or lack of imagination, but out of thought and choice.

Let me wrap up this essay by getting back to the film in question, and briefly highlight a few more notable aspects of the film I really appreciated. There is some really standout editing at points that surprised me and felt innovative for the time period. There is one match cut for instance, where two male characters in love with the same woman are smoking in different locations at the same time, and the film cuts from a medium close up of one of the men blowing out smoke into the empty space out of frame to a medium close-up of the smoke of the other man’s cigarette being blow in the face of the woman. The shots and the cut are so perfect that it all appears to be one man in one place, and the ethereal movement of smoke across not only the screen but across space is just a beautiful example of the magic of cinema. The movie also touches on the political climate of Spain at the time, that is so relatable to today as well, highlighting the impact of wealth inequality not just on society, but on our conscience if we try to ignore, as we have. There could be a whole other essay just on that topic. It is a theme also contained in that opening image, as the victim is on a bicycle while Juan and Maria are in a car; and also we can see Juan and Maria and how fashionable and attractive they are, while the poor working class victim is kept out of view so as not to upset us.

Out of sight, out of mind.

Eyes Without A Phoenix

Nina Hoss in “Phoenix” (2014), by Georges Franju

Nina Hoss in “Phoenix” (2014), by Georges Franju

In this film essay journey, I planned to watch and write about a movie a week. However, after watching “Eyes Without a Face” by Georges Franju last week, I found myself without anything to say. Every time I tried to write, nothing really stood out as important for me to write about with that film. This week, having no idea there were any similar themes between the two films, I watched “Phoenix” by Christian Petzold. I don’t know whether to call it intuition, serendipity, or just dumb luck, but I am really glad that I didn’t write about “Eyes” last week, because the main theme of that film is addressed in “Phoenix” as well, but in a much deeper, more complex, and interesting way. The simplest way to say it is that both of these movies are about identity, but of course our identity is tied into so many other things, both superficial, like beauty, and incredibly deep, like personal values. They both understand identity is not just what an individual thinks about themselves or how they see themselves, but also about what other people think about you and how they see you, and how the individual takes in those perceptions. The biggest difference between the two, and the real failing of “Eyes Without a Face” for me, is that while “Phoenix” focuses more heavily on the philosophical questions about identity and the feedback loop of how others views affect your own, “Eyes” unfortunately focuses more on the superficial aspect of beauty and its implications on self-worth and worth to society. While I find that topic incredibly valuable to explore, I found the way it was explored in “Eyes” not that impressive compared to the many other films in which you can see it examined. For instance, I felt that “Phoenix” explored it better, and yet it was a much smaller part of that film’s focus and attention. With that out of the way, I myself will focus most of my attention now on “Phoenix” and it’s strange beauty. 

Lost Identity in “Phoenix” and “Eyes Without a Face”, side by side

Lost Identity in “Phoenix” and “Eyes Without a Face”, side by side

As we begin, Nelly is returning home to Berlin from the concentration camps after World War II with heavy bandages hiding her disfigured face. Immediately we learn that what she worries about most is that if no one can recognize her face, what happens to her identity, and who does she become? Since Nelly is most concerned with her physical facial appearance, I will start there with this question of beauty and what reflects back to us from society. During a consultation with her doctor, he asks if she wants her old face reconstructed, or new face. Of course Nelly wants to be herself again, but the doctor warns her that it might never match her memory and cause her pain and as part of the appeal of a new face which he offers is the beauty of the different faces she could choose and how in fashion they are. His goal is not about identity at all, he only sees value in aesthetic beauty so that is what he recommends to her. Later, when Nelly is driving with her family member after her new face is revealed, she expresses concern over whether she will ever look like herself again, and they reassure her that she looks beautiful. She also shows that she places the most value on aesthetic beauty by believing that is the only thing Nelly is concerned about. However, for Nelly, is it about matching the old image of her, the only one the world knows, because anything less than that leaves her unknown to the world, and thus to herself. It is so heartbreaking to see these people who supposedly care about her reduce Nelly to her beauty and send her the message, as we always have to women, that it is her only value because it is the number one way they identify her.

After Nelly has returned home and started healing, she starts to seek out her husband Johnny to find out if he still alive. The problem is that with so little left to hold onto about her old life now that her sense of safety and freedom has been thoroughly shattered, she begins to define her identity entirely by her relationship with Johnny and beings to fixate on him. If Johnny can recognize her, then she will be herself again. But he doesn’t. And it wounds her deeply. But she cannot let go. So she follows him. And he notices her following him. He says she looks a bit like his dead wife and asks her to pretend to be herself so they can collect her inheritance and split it. This is where things get really interesting as she heads into a hall of mirrors trying to find out which image of her is the real her. Johnny tells her what to wear and how to be and who to be, and she follows because Johnny is now the judge of how herself she is. So now she is reconstructing her identity not on her own perception of it but on how Johnny sees her. Johnny is defining Nelly. This is such a brilliant way to represent the way that, for much of history, women were defined by the men they were with, and often times, they defined themselves that way as well because it was easier than dealing with the constant cognitive dissonance between who they are and who society demands they be while knowing that they don’t have the power to change it. Nelly is so much more than how Johnny sees her, but her desperation to cling on to her old self forces her to do whatever is necessary to be the Nelly that Johnny remembers. 

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This film stays very narrowly focused on Nelly’s personal search for an identity, so while the movie is set in Berlin just after the war, all of that heaviness serves mostly as a backdrop for her story. However, it is obvious these questions about identity that Nelly is exploring are impacted by and reflected in the same questions about Germany’s identity after the war. Nelly can never again be the Nelly from before the war because she can never again feel quite as safe or quite as free in the same way Germany can never again be the Germany from before Hitler because it can never forget it committed genocide. And Germany is a great example for Nelly because rather than try to pretend it could go back to being the old Germany, it made a conscious effort to continually remind itself and the world that an atrocity did happen, and thus Germany needed to be different so it would not happen again. Nelly also needs to accept the reality of what happened and understand she is different, and to find her identity now she has to let go of the old one. And this is something we all struggle with I think, the idea that identity is fixed, when in fact it can be very fluid. We all love to have strong values and beliefs and personality traits because we feel like those things give us a strong identity. The struggle is when we hold onto some of those things even in the face of a new reality that is screaming at us that it is time to let go of an outdated part of ourselves that no longer serves us and evolve with the world around us. 

I could go on forever about these themes, and there is much more intrigue to the story that I have not touched on, but I’ll wrap up with some brief thoughts about the visuals, performances, and direction in the film. The entire film I felt so comfortable being in the hands of a director so clearly in control of every aspect of the film that it was hard to pick everything he was doing, but I could feel it. The visuals are not flashy, but so haunting, often due to their simplicity and uncluttered nature. The above image, for instance, of the fragmented mirror in rubble showing two reflections of Nelly is so simple and clear in its implication, yet packs so much more than meets the eyes inside of it. The movie is loaded with less overt but equally powerful imagery throughout the film. Nina Hoss as Nelly gives an almost numbing performance, in that it’s almost too much to take in the totality of what she is going through, yet we can see it in every moment through her physical performance, so you almost become numb watching her to avoid the pain of her reality, just as her character is avoiding it. The supporting performances were good, but this film lives and dies on Nina’s performance and she carries every bit of this movie, its philosophical exploration, and its emotional devastation. If you, like me, sometimes hesitate to watch movies about really heavy topics like the Holocaust and World War II, I urge you not to avoid this movie because it is beautiful, meaningful, and only brings in the heaviness of the circumstances surrounding Nelly in service of Nelly’s personal story, which is really a self-love story.

Art in Close-Up

Hossain Sabzian and Moshen Makhmalbaf in ‘Close-Up’ by Abbas Kiarostami

Hossain Sabzian and Moshen Makhmalbaf in ‘Close-Up’ by Abbas Kiarostami

This seminal documentary-narrative hybrid film by Abbas Kiarostami holds a special place in Iranian cinema, documentary cinema, and among hardcore film fans for how it discusses the art of film and the meaning it can hold for an average Joe’s life. Our average Joe is Hossain Sabzian, an impoverished family man who is accused of fraud for impersonating a famous filmmaker to take advantage of a wealthy family in Tehran. The details of the case and even the method of storytelling by Kiarostami are secondary to Hossain’s story and the way he tells it, such is his screen presence. Of course those other factors are interesting to discuss when dissecting this film, but they pale in comparison to the words of Hossain in defense of himself and his actions. Even in America, the land of the free, we have major systemic injustices that create far fewer opportunities and options for certain segments of the population, no matter how much we want to tout it as the land of opportunity where anyone can be anything. Yes it is true, but certain people have a much easier path to that anything than others based on race, gender, religion, wealth, and many other factors. When you get outside of America, the disparity of opportunity is often much greater, as it can be in Iran. 

Hossain represents the have-nots, a poor working man struggling just to afford enough to eat for his family. He is also a deeply feeling man who finds relief in the cinema of filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a cinema that uniquely captures the struggle of the working class in Iran and reflects the struggle of Hossain’s own life. Hossain’s appreciation for Makhmalbaf’s art even provides him a reason to live and to keep on struggling. He dreams himself of being a filmmaker and providing the same kind of relief to millions of other people who are struggling so much so that he pretends to be Makhmalbaf one day on a city bus ride when talking to a mother of two young men interested in film. What starts as a lark for Hossain turns into something much more, a fleeting moment of dignity and respect in a sad and lonely life. So he continues to play his role of a lifetime, visiting the Ahankhah family, promising a role in his new movie to one of the sons, and scouting their house as a location for a future film. When he borrows money from the family which he knows he cannot repay, he crosses a line that brings his ruse to an end, and he states in court his willingness to accept responsibility and be punished for his deception. However, his words in defense of his actions provide the heart of “Close-Up”, as his face is shot in close-up pouring his heart out to the court and the camera.

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Essentially, the legal question at the heart of the case is, “what constitutes fraud?" Was it Hossain’s intention to deceive the Ahankhah family, and was it for personal or financial gain? But there is an even more interesting philosophical questions beneath the case: “what do human beings need to survive?” In regards to the question of fraud, Hossain argues that it was never his intention to deceive the family, and although he did borrow money, he was not attempting to gain anything from the family. He really had a desire to be a filmmaker, but did not feel he had the means or opportunity to become one, so posing as Makhmalbaf was the only way to be a filmmaker in his mind. When he saw the way the family respected and admired him, he did not want to give up that role and he did not want to let them down. This gets to the question of human need. In his daily life, people do not listen to Hossain, they do not respect his opinion, and they do not pay him special attention because he does not matter in society. What is a man to live for if he has no dignity, no respect, and no appreciation from the society around him? 

When Hossain was with the Ahankhah family, they would do whatever he told them to do to prepare their house for filming, the sons would listen to his advice on how to make it in the film industry, and they appreciated his presence in their lives. Everyday after he would leave their house he would instantly return to his reality as a nobody that was almost invisible to the world around him. The characters in the films he loved so much from Makhmalbaf were poor, working class, struggling nobodies who became really meaningful to people around the country by virtue of being a subject of a work of art. Likewise, Hossain's meaningless life was suddenly given meaning by this new role as director. But what’s more than that, art imitated life, because Hossain’s actions became the subject of a film and he himself became a character who became a symbol of the same struggles explored in the films he loved. Going back to human need one more time, I believe this film is actually an argument that art is a human need. Art and stories give us the strength to carry on by relating to us and providing the inspiration that things can change and things can get better. Stories have been with us basically as long as language, and they help us to understand the world and our place in it. Art gives expression to our innermost feelings and our deepest humanity, connecting us to one another. For Hossain, a life without art would be a life with only struggle, a life without hope. 

The final scene in the film is of his hero Makhmalbaf picking him up and driving him by motorbike to go visit the Ahankhah family together. In the end, a movie was made at their house, and Makhmalbaf came to their home to speak to them. So, is Hossain a fraud, or a film prophet?

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Dying Days of The Music Room

A performance in ‘The Music Room’ by Satyajit Ray

A performance in ‘The Music Room’ by Satyajit Ray

This is a weird place to start, but after watching ‘The Music Room’, I realized I have an unconscious bias against most of  Indian Cinema. This realization has nothing to do with ‘The Music Room’ itself, which I expected would be great and was great. It has to do with my knowledge that Satyajit Ray was a master filmmaker on par with his peer Akira Kurosawa of Japan, and then the reputations of the two countries' film industries diverged greatly after they helped lay the foundations. Japan has produced numerous internationally acclaimed and recognized filmmakers in the decades since, whereas India has been mostly associated with Bollywood blockbusters and flashy stars. Ever since I’ve been into movies I could go to any art theater throughout the year and catch the latest critical darling of Japanese cinema, while I had to seek out the Indian cinema, if there was one, and see one of the 3 or 4 Bollywood films currently playing. Indian cinema was separated and almost acknowledged as it own populist thing in America, whereas Japanese cinema sat alongside all of the other arthouse, independent, and foreign film fare. Being the good student of cinema that I am, I discovered the name Satyajit Ray early on as an important name in world cinema history, and then not much else after him that easily came onto my radar. The impression all of that left on me I now realize is that Indian cinema as a a serious art form pretty much died after Ray in favor of populist escapism for the masses. 

However, after the film I searched for the best Indian films in history and found a whole list of films and filmmakers that are a whole lot less known, even among film fans, but are regarded for the excellence and significance in shaping Indian cinema. I have a whole lot of films to check out before I can pass such a simplistic judgment on the cinema history of an entire country. As a film lover, I do not think the bias I had casts me in a good light nor am I particularly proud to share it, but I think it’s always important we acknowledge our biases and where they come from when they come to our awareness so that we ourselves, and others can learn from them. India has probably the richest and most unique artistic and cultural heritages in the whole world, so of course I want to see that represented and reflected in their films because it is my favorite art form. Maybe it is because my standards are so high that I allowed vague impressions of modern Indian blockbuster cinema to color my perceptions of over a 100 years of Indian cinema history outside of Satyajit Ray, who I accepted merely because I knew he was anointed by the critical consensus. That is sad, and I have a lot of educating myself to do by starting with my new list of must watch Indian classics. 

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Now let’s finally enter ‘The Music Room’ and discover what revelatory melodies Ray and his cast have to play for us. Mr. Roy is a nobleman living in an isolated crumbling mansion in the Indian countryside. His profound love of music demands he have a special music room for private concerts to be performed by the best musicians in the region for special guests at his pleasure. It is not only a way to take pleasure in his love of music, but to demonstrate for his special guests the incredible nobility, wealth, and sophistication he possesses. Unfortunately, his wealth is rapidly diminishing at the same time as his working man neighbor’s wealth is just as rapidly increasing. This threatens him so much that he feels an even stronger need to display his nobility and sophistication, which he knows his neighbor cannot match. And when his neighbor proves his sophistication by inviting the most renowned classical dancer around to his own gathering, Mr. Roy later desperately hires the same dancer while clinging on to his only advantage: his nobility, his blood, the one thing he can never lose, but also the one thing he did nothing to gain. This is what’s at the heart of Ray’s curiosity in ‘The Music Room’, old money vs. new money, the nobleman vs. the self-made man, pedigree vs. accomplishment, the past vs. the future of India. 

These ideas were very much in the consciousness of India at the time as the country started to rethink some vestiges of the past, such as the caste system, and to embrace a more modern economy and culture. It’s interesting because America is one of the few countries that never really had this concept of royalty and noble blood built into its foundation, however, we have since assigned a similar status to the wealthy and politically powerful which gets passed down to the children through generations and creates a different kind of favored bloodline, and we have in turn passed that on to India as part of the modern economy and culture they are adopting. In modern India, finally, anyone can have the status of royalty, as long as they can buy it. Now that’s the American way! But back in 1950s India, poor Mahim Ganguli, the neighbor, can never buy that social status no matter how rich he becomes, and someone like Mr. Roy will not let him forget it until his dying breath. Because with his dwindling wealth, crumbling mansion, shrinking guest list, and the sudden departure of his wife and son in a terrible tragedy, his noble blood and the airs with which he carries himself are the only things he has to distinguish himself within the society. So the musical recitals and parties must go on, money be damned, until the last cent is spent, and then he knows there is only one way out, because he cannot live a second of his life undistinguished. 

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I really do not want to be political in my writing, but it is impossible not to picture Trump in this role. He has been exaggerating his wealth while hiding the truth behind a smokescreen of bankruptcies and investors and mysterious tax returns for years just to name the obvious, and he is now clinging so desperately to his image as a powerful, successful, and rich businessman that he will say and do anything to stay in power, to stay relevant, to stay in the media, because he knows deep down that his image is forever tarnished the second he leaves office. Love him or hate him, agree with him or don’t, but one thing is undeniable: before he ran for president his public image was almost universally positive as a successful and rich celebrity businessman (despite evidence that was freely available that this positive image was mythical already), and now after his presidency it will be at best hugely divided between positive and negative, and at worst it will in time become universally negative. That means he was willing to risk his entire legacy and that of his family just to increase his status and public image in the present, to do whatever it takes and cling on until the last moment that status and power remains in his grasp. That is what Mr. Roy is willing to do for his music room and the lifestyle it represents, because he too knows that when the money runs out and he is gone, it’s his entire family legacy that he is tarnishing, and that will be HIS legacy. So live it up while you’ve still got it, because it’s going to slip away, and soon.

I Want L'Argent, It's What I Want

L’Argent by Robert Bresson

L’Argent by Robert Bresson

I must admit before I begin that I have long considered Robert Bresson a spiritually minded director by reputation, which is my favorite kind of director, and ‘L’Argent’ is a film I have been wanting to watch for years. It’s hard to write about this film without that context, because it is nothing like the expectations I had for it, which makes it hard to process and discuss properly. I try to never write traditional reviews in these essays or say whether I like or dislike a film, and ‘L’Argent’ is clearly a classic film artfully made, but it definitely threw me off with its aesthetic style and the narrative direction it took. It has a very disaffected feel to it, and none of the characters in the film show emotion or possess redeemable qualities. The very nature of the film is transactional, as we follow several characters attempts to lie about, steal, or reclaim money. As the title suggests, it is all about the money. 

Given my own personal assumptions and expectations about the film and its director, I expected to get some sort of uplift by the film’s end, but instead it almost wallows in the darker side of human nature. The camera itself often focuses in closely on objects and bills reflecting the characters’ focus on them above human relationships. It is also focuses in a lot on doors and drawers, specifically handles and locks, and how people use them to separate themselves  or their possessions from one another. It also portrays the city as a cold and unfriendly place, an anonymous playground where other people also become objects for one’s own aims and thoughts of the consequences on others rarely seep in. To me, it presented modernity itself as nihilistic, without redemption. Even when we receive a reprieve from the oppressive coldness of the city, it is only to watch the way the disease of city life spreads and infects the unspoiled countryside through one of the main characters who has been spoiled by the city. While I can agree with most of the philosophical points I believe the film to be making, and I tend to love a lot of dark and depressing films, even I found it hard to sit through so much coldness without a light at the end of the tunnel.

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That leaves me to ask, what is about this film compared to other heavy films I have loved that keeps me at a distance? For one, I believe it must be the blatant and intentional focus on object over character, especially in its visuals. Another major emotional turnoff right from the start was the entitlement of the two characters who set the whole chain of events in the film in motion. They are the young and spoiled offspring of wealthy families who pass off a counterfeit bill that is the downfall of many other characters simply because the allowance one boy receives from his father is deemed insufficient compared to his friends. I am not one to complain about entitlement, and in fact I hate that word entirely because I loathe listening to the actually entitled people in America, the wealthy and privileged, bemoaning the entitlement of millennials in order to deceive the public and distract from the negative effect their own greed and self-preservation has had on the world. However, these two young men come from exactly that kind of family where their entitlement is learned and enabled by their parents, who give them money and also use money to buy their way out of trouble. Thus, the two characters who do the most damage with their careless behavior face the least consequences of anyone. It is something we see everywhere in America and the rest of the modern world, and I believe it is a large part of what is driving the current frustration around the globe, which is then being exploited by those same people who are causing it. I guess seeing that reflected so clearly in this film and the trickle down effect it has on the poor and underprivileged characters is a bit too real given where the world is at right now to allow for an enjoyable experience for me personally.

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Despite my own reaction to the film, I do not want to leave you with the impression that this is a bad film by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, for me to have such a reaction the film must be a quite astute and technically impressive piece of art. I have never seen a film shot and edited so precisely to highlight the material objects in our lives and how they drive us to act badly. Of course it is not the objects themselves that create this response in us, but our relationship to them. The way the film favors the characters’ relationship to these objects and physical spaces over their relationships to each other is a feat in itself, and colors the way we see the world of the film. I started by questioning if this film had any spiritual nature to it, but of course spirituality cannot be properly understood and appreciated without the absence of spirituality. By highlighting a world without spirituality, in a way, I suppose ‘L’Argent’ could be considered a spiritual film. 

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