Triumphs and Failures in Historical Cinefiction: “Love & Mercy” vs. “A Little Chaos”

“Qu’est-ce que le cinéma?” (“What is the cinema?”), asked the great French film theorist André Bazin. The simple act of posing the question is enough to force us to consider the idea that film – like all art forms – needs a raison d’être. There must be properties unique to the moving image that make us – when confronted by its better examples – exclaim in wonder and recognition that this particular story (or idea) could only have been expressed in this way in this medium. And so in today’s post, I review two recent films (both period pieces): one that shows the power of cinema; the other, nothing more than a fanciful waste of time and effort.

Love and Mercy

Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad, 2014)

Much of the credit for the artistic merits of Love & Mercy, the new biopic about Brian Wilson, co-founder of the Beach Boys, goes to screenwriters Oren Moverman (I’m Not There) and Michael A. Lerner (August. Eighth). Together, they have fashioned a story that ping-pongs back and forth between Wilson’s early heyday as the brilliant creative force behind the Beach Boys’ success – and his subsequent mental unraveling – and the dark period of the 1980s when he languished under the autocratic care of his guru-like psychologist, Eugene Landy. The result is a masterful portrait of a troubled genius, the tolls of fame, and the virtues of perseverance and love.

The film (which takes its title from a 1988 song by its subject) is as much a portrait of the creative process as it is of Brian Wilson. We learn plenty about the Beach Boys and about Wilson’s private life, but some of the great joys of the movie are the scenes in the music studio. In particular, we see how both “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibrations” were recorded – or, at least, how the screenwriters and director imagine they were made – and the sequences reveal how much of an innovator Brian Wilson was, in spite of his growing problems with mental illness. We need to understand the genius in order to mourn his loss (and hope for his recovery).

Much credit should also go to director Bill Pohlad and his cast. This is only Pohlad’s second feature film as director: his first, Old Explorers, was 25 years ago. Since then, Pohlad has worked primarily as a producer, including on The Tree of Life; he shared in that film’s Best Picture nomination. Here, he has assembled a first-rate group of actors, and made the vital decision to cast two different actors as Wilson, both of them up to the task: Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood), as the younger, 1960s Wilson, and John Cusack (The Paperboy) as the older, 1980s Wilson. Given that Dano is in his early thirties, it’s legitimate to wonder why he couldn’t have also played the older Wilson, with added makeup. But therein lies part of the brilliance of the film. Casting two such different actors to play the same character at different stages of his life – the one before a major physical and mental cataclysm, the one after – helps to underline that character’s significant transformation, and the obstacles in his way as he tries to recover. Cusack has further stated, in a recent interview, how even though he and Dano studied Wilson’s life with a similar intensity, neither consulted with the other to make the two performances match in any way. They end up both delivering fully committed portrayals of the same man at vastly different times in his life, and it works perfectly.

The rest of the cast is quite strong, as well. Elizabeth Banks (Pitch Perfect 2), as Melinda Ledbetter, the woman who helps Wilson in his struggles to free himself from Landy, is a marvel of warmth and restraint. Paul Giamatti (Sideways), as Landy, has the difficult task of playing the villain, but he succeeds in making him three-dimensional, if not sympathetic (which the film doesn’t intend him to be). If their final duel is as scary and cathartic as it ultimately is, it’s due to the power of these two actors in these roles. It’s too bad that not all of the other actors – in particular, the rest of the Beach Boys – are as strong, but at least – with Dano, Cusack, Banks and Giamatti – we have a formidable foursome.

What surprised me most as I watched the film – and made me fall in love with it – was how unconventional it was in its approach to the material. Because we are dealing with a man – Wilson – who suffers from both severe hearing loss in one ear and auditory hallucinations – the soundtrack quite often reveals completely unexpected noises, or sometimes drops out entirely. In fact, the opening of the film almost feels like there’s a problem with the projector (be patient), because we start on Dano at the piano, in distress, then cut to black, then land on Cusack, and then slowly begin to discern other sounds as the credits begin. Though the movie settles down, for a while, to tell enough of a story for us to gather salient facts about Wilson in both the 1960s and 1980s, it returns, time and again, to these experimental techniques, reminding us that art – like Wilson – when made with purpose, can seem as it if knows no boundaries. This is a movie with a definite raison d’être, and method to its madness.

Little Chaos

A Little Chaos (Alan Rickman, 2014)

Unfortunately, the new film from actor Alan Rickman (Snape in the Harry Potter films) – whose only other directing credit was in 1997, with The Winter Guest – does not have much of a raison d’être. Neither based on a true story nor based on an idea of merit, the film is a total wash. As expected when a talented actor directs other talented actors, the performances are, individually, mostly a pleasure to watch, though they don’t all belong in the same movie. With a cast that includes Kate Winslet (The Reader), Matthias Schoenaerts (Far from the Madding Crowd), Stanley Tucci (Margin Call) and Rickman, himself, it’s hard to make a total stinker, yet in this case there is nevertheless very little to recommend.

And yet we start with promise. We are in the Paris of 1682, and Louis XIV (Rickman) is preparing to move his court from the Louvre to the as-yet-unfinished Palace of Versailles. His favored landscape architect, André Le Nôtre (Schoenaerts) – a magnificent designer of gardens (Versailles will be his masterpiece) – is struggling with the magnitude of the new project, and is looking to hire additional artists who can help him with some of the details. Along comes Madame Sabine de Barra (Winslet), a widow who has made a name for herself as a garden designer, with plans for an outdoor ballroom that might just help Le Nôtre make Versailles extraordinary. There are immediate sparks between Le Nôtre and Madame de Barra – which manifest themselves initially in argument – but soon the two forge a bond that threatens to become less (or more!) than professional.

That’s not a terrible premise, which even holds out the possibility of some feminist take on the past. Unfortunately, since the story of Madame de Barra is entirely fictional, and since her big moment as a designer, later in the film, would not have been possible without the patronage (and romantic inclinations) of her supervisor, one has to wonder about the motivations of the filmmakers. Why tell this story? Why invent a tale of passion (and loss – don’t forget that Madame de Barra is a widow and that we will, indeed, discover her backstory) that only serves to diminish Le Nôtre’s magnificent achievement at Versailles. Were there no actual women whose story one could borrow and tweak to revisit the past? One of the great joys of Belle – that Austenian fable about a biracial young woman raised in late 18th-century England – was knowing that there was an actual person on whom the story was based. It could – maybe, perhaps- have happened as we saw it on screen. Another joy was seeing how the story addressed issues of race, class and gender, weaving them into the time period in a seamless and believable way.

Sadly, there’s neither the hint of the real nor the hint of the relevant, except in one delightful scene. When Madame de Barra is invited to court, she spends a precious few moments in the company of the wives and mistresses (and former mistresses) of the nobles. Suddenly, we discover what the film might have been, as we see and hear these women as they speak of their loves and losses. They are not quite as superficial as we have been led to believe. Surely one of them – all based on real historical figures – had a story worth telling, no? Instead, we are left with what remains: gorgeously shot fanciful nonsense.

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