After the Life
Runs Sun., May 16–Thurs., May 20, at Varsity
The pleasures of Lucas Belvaux's three-genre trilogy cycle are akin to the dual-perspective pictures of M.C. Escher: Two generic human figures simultaneously, impossibly ascend and descend the same stairway at different angles, and the image forces your eye to shift back and forth between the two possible orientations of the staircase. The effect is to give your visual cortex a bracing jolt, as if you were flipping a toggle switch in your brain.
Belvaux's three films depict the same characters, settings, and events, but from different vistas, each existing at disorienting angles to the others. In the initial thriller, On the Run, jail-breaker Bruno (Belvaux) eludes cop Pascal (Gilbert Melki). In the following comedy, An Amazing Couple (reviewed last week along with Run), Pascal turns from faceless crime-stopper to comic foil in an adultery farce. And now, in the triumphant final drama, After the Life, Pascal switches character again. This time he's the tragic, noble, yet morally compromised husband of a junkie schoolteacher, Agnès (Dominique Blanc). We've seen her before, but in On the Run she's faceless, a generic figure. Here, we feel every erg of her agony, and every tug her suffering exerts on Pascal's heartstrings. Blanc's dark eyes sink into her skull like a filthy coal melting into snow.
Like a good-Bad Lieutenant, Pascal's been scoring her heroin by ripping off dealers for years, allowing her to function more-or-less normally. But when Bruno kills her connection and takes aim at the dealer's mobster boss, the boss demands that Pascal murder Bruno or his wife gets no more dope. The ensuing action is absorbingly intricate, perfectly paced, rich in character, kinetic and philosophical, and bristling with visual intelligence that drives home emotional points.
When Pascal gets slapped after making an anguished pass at married acquaintance Cécile (glamour-puss Ornella Muti)—a scene played for laughs in An Amazing Couple—it seems like a moment out of time, from a parallel universe. Some have criticized the farcical incident for being startlingly out of context with the drama of After the Life. They miss the point of Belvaux's art. To say it's jarring is like complaining that people in real life couldn't simultaneously go up and down Escher's staircase. Belvaux wants to make you flip that brain switch, to feel how cut off Pascal is from Cécile's cozy, conventional world of Gallic marriage and fretting over adultery. To illustrate how swiftly normal life is leaving him behind, Belvaux's camera shows us Cécile receding out of sight in Pascal's car's rear-view mirror as he speeds ahead into moral horror.
After the Life is, like Escher's art, arresting yet limited—gimmicky. It's a first-rate work by a second-rate imagination. It's also the best movie of the trilogy, and certainly one of the best movies in town right now. (R) TIM APPELO
Opens Fri., May 14, at Varsity
If you didn't know this heartfelt profile was the work of Jonathan Demme, you might think it was the pet project of some unknown, highly impassioned leftist kid. What's amazing about The Agronomist—besides its central figure, slain Haitian broadcaster and political activist Jean Dominique (1931–2000)—is that Demme brings to the picture the sort of exuberance and grit totally lacking in recent efforts like The Truth About Charlie. This biography is as rigorously honest and fiery as its subject.
Before the dictatorship of François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, Dominique studied agronomy and later applied his studies to the impoverished Haitian countryside. By the '60s, and through the subsequent dictatorship of Duvalier's son, "Baby Doc," Dominique remade himself as a political figure. In 1968, he became director of Radio Haiti Inter (RHI), the country's oldest radio station.
The Agronomist swiftly sketches the next 18 years in Haiti's sad history, during which time RHI remained one of the country's few uncensored news sources. (It also broadcast in Creole, not the French of the Duvalier elite.) As a result, the station was repeatedly targeted by Duvalier thugs. After Baby Doc fled the island in 1986, populist priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president—initially with Dominique's support from his exile in New York, where he was living with his wife, Michèle Montas. (See related interview, this page) It was there that Demme began filming him in 1991.
The result is less a sentimental portrait than a lively mosaic, composed of interviews with Dominique; testimony from his wife and daughter (who took over RHI after his death); and original music by Haitian-born hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean. Dominique's assassination in Port-au-Prince remains a mystery; by 2000, he had tangled often with Aristide. (Demme includes an interview between the two that makes Aristide seem something less than a simple man of God.) The director sums up Dominique's courage and immutable legacy with footage in which a newly widowed Montas announces on RHI that her husband, despite reports to the contrary, is not dead. She then plays a recording of one of her husband's old editorials. Demme accompanies his defiant voice with a montage of the same Haitian landscape the erstwhile agronomist tended so many years before, as if to say: This man is part of the land, and every plant and person on it. (NR) NEAL SCHINDLER
What the #$*! Do We Know?
Opens Fri., May 14, at Uptown
Like a slightly less dorky version of those videos your science teacher used to pop in the VCR on movie day, What grafts an awkward fictional narrative onto an otherwise straightforward documentary covering quantum physics, complex brain functions, the mysteries of perception, and the question of what God is (and isn't). The nonfiction portion of this hybrid is a parade of talking heads, including physicists, biologists, neurologists, and the occasional guru. The story component of What exists primarily to set up the scholarly interludes: A Portland photographer (Marlee Matlin) wanders the city in a post-breakup daze, encountering her chipper housemate, a freakishly smart 12-year-old, and a lovable geek who courts her at a wedding reception. That party is the film's low point: Its embarrassing animated sequence is intended to explicate the physiological nature of emotions, but I don't think anyone over the age of 6 needs to watch a big, red, gelatinous human cell wearing sunglasses sing Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love."
Otherwise, the film doesn't pander; its three creators—William Arntz, Betsy Chasse, and Mark Vicente—place scientists on a refreshingly level playing field with theologians (and even cultists like Yelm's J.Z. Knight). What never pretends there are simple answers to ancient enigmas, nor does it promote one school of thought over another. Though its metaphysics are muddled at times (what does it mean that some matter "pops in and out of existence"?), What made me question my supposedly healthy skepticism—like attributing more credibility to someone with a Ph.D. than a New Age mystic who claims to be channeling a 35,000-year-old dude named Ramtha. (NR) N.S.