on POLICEMAN, THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER, CRUEL STORY OF YOUTH and THE GIRL ON THE MOTORCYCLE
It’s nice to stand back every now and then from the madness that is the weekly release schedule. Also because it’s good to revisit stuff you’ve seen a while ago – you’d be surprised at what best survives the test of time, or how something that you found throwaway or weren’t particularly enthusiastic about turns into a time capsule or benefits from the gift of hindsight.
Some films only seem to gain stature with time – like Nadav Lapid’s 2011 Policeman, which I caught in advance of the Israeli director’s retro at the Vila do Conde short film festival (whose competition he won two years ago with his wry 40-minute From the Diary of a Wedding Photographer). Policeman, his first feature, is a game of two halves. First, we follow a couple of days in the life of a SWAT officer in the Israeli counter-terrorism police; then, Lapid switches to follow a couple of days in the life of a radicalized angry young woman, part of a group of college-age youngsters planning the kidnapping of three millionaires to protest social inequality in modern Israel.
On one hand, a silent hyper-macho culture of patriarchal violence sworn to protect the status quo; on the other, a high-minded talkative rebellion against that same status quo. The ironies are constantly visible throughout, and the personal is always political: the cops don’t make enough money, yet are sworn to protect those who have all the money and look down on everyone else; society couldn’t care less about moral stands, and there’s a whiff of hypocrisy in seeing well-meaning bourgeois kids playing at being revolutionaries (“revolution is not poetry, it’s prose” says someone at some point); everything is neatly labeled – cops are heroes, terrorists are scum, millionaires are above the law, nobody is really listening to anybody else.
Violence seems to be the only common language all the characters share in a society profoundly corrupted by money. Lapid may be talking of his native country, but his film, shot in a distant, neutral, quasi-procedural style, steers clear of the Israeli-Palestinian issue and prefers to look within the fabric of Israeli society, sketching a sense of injustice, polarization, random chaos that turns out to be pretty universal and reflect a lot of what’s going on in our own days (not only in Israel). Policeman articulates questions rather than answer them; though made in 2011, it talks spookily to 2018 in ways that have gotten more visible with time.
If Policeman is uncomfortable, Lapid’s follow-up, 2014’s The Kindergarten Teacher, multiplies that by a factor of ten. I can’t say many films have made me squirm as much in my chair - I felt like I didn’t really want to be seeing it. This is actually a really good thing: like Policeman, The Kindergarten Teacher works by upending your expectations of where the film is taking you, and by making you understand its characters (and by extension all of Lapid’s characters) are not strange people, outliers, rather productive members of society. Nira, the title character, is married happily, has two grown children, is taking a poetry workshop in her spare time. But the extent to which something is missing in her apparently orderly life will only be revealed as she becomes obsessed with one of her kindergarten wards: Yoav, a young boy of six who will, every now and then, spit out a perfectly composed, extraordinarily adult poem, as if in a trance. (Lapid shoots most of the kid’s scenes with a mobile camera that suggests the automatic-writing aspect of his creations.)
In a society where art and poetry are thought of as dilettante pursuits and where everything is geared towards utilitarianism, survival, money, Nira feels it is her duty to protect this delicate, surprising talent from the assaults of the world – going to extremes that turn out to be worrisome, if not openly deranged. But Nira does have a point, even if she belabors and stretches it to breaking point, and Lapid wants us to empathize with a lonely woman who has more to give than what society is interested in from her.
That’s why the way she careens into a sort of madness is so well structured by the director and by his actress, Sarit Larry, becomes so profoundly uncomfortable to the viewer: it’s as if Nira becomes a sacrificial victim to the very world she wants to protect the little poet from, since she’s ultimately the only one who truly cares. But what is she caring for? Poetry, the young boy, herself, her convictions? The Kindergarten Teacher suggests that this sort of self-imposed obsessive slide into derangement is present in all of us – after all, everyone else in this film is self-absorbed, only in different ways. It’s not the individual that is the problem.
In that, Lapid’s features connect with the late Japanese provocateur Nagisa Oshima’s second feature, 1960’s Cruel Story of Youth, a cautionary tale of young people in love facing a post-war society that expects them to conform to a box they don’t want to fit in. Makoto and Shinjio are playing with fire, mostly out of despair and energy, and the petty larcenies they engage in to survive prey on the hypocrisies of a Japanese society that hides everything behind a veneer of decorum. But when you’re in your early twenties decorum is the last thing in your mind – cynicism, cruelty, nihilism, naïveté, wanting everything now, all of this is blown around in our angry young people’s misadventures. Hence the film’s sumptuous melting-pot of visual shoutouts to the American rebels-without-a-cause youth melodramas, all strong colours, widescreen framing and brisk editing.
Yet there is also a surprising, mysteriously contemporary connection to the rebellious filmmaking being made in Europe at the time - the British kitchen sink dramas with their social issues, the stylistic freedom of French Nouvelle Vague – and an omen of the New Hollywood that was still a few years away (I swear I thought of Malick’s Badlands). It’s all about standing up for a new approach to storytelling that takes into account the societal changes taking place.
Still, it’s important to point out that, even though Cruel Story of Youth is formally daring within its context, its narrative construction remains very much within the constraints of a classic melodrama – as the story progresses and its plotlines start criss-crossing, there’s a sense this could almost be Sirkian in its tragic undertones. But that was part of the appeal of using the same building blocks to create something entirely new.
At the other end of sixties anomie you find the curio that is Jack Cardiff’s hipster-existentialist The Girl on the Motorcycle. Shot at the height of the swinging sixties, it features Marianne Faithfull at the height of her it-girlness as Rebecca, a bored housewife who races from her home to meet her lover. “Races” should be taken literally: the film follows her road trip to Germany astride the glorious Harley-Davidson that her lover, a sly philosophy teacher, gave her as a wedding present.
Adapted from a 1963 novel by surrealist writer André Pieyre de Mandiargues, The Girl on the Motorcycle has long gone down in history as one of those follies possible only in the permissiveness of the sixties, made by middle-aged men trying to catch the young spirit of the times. The stilted construction of its narrative, interspersing Rebecca’s journey with remembrances in flashback of her love affair, narrated in her own voiceover, are scored by British MOR icon Les Reed and shot in wannabe psychedelic flourishes by Cardiff, 53 at the time of the shoot and the ace British DP of Powell & Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes, Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa or Huston’s African Queen.
Seen today, inside the incoherent artsiness of the project lies a truly tantalizing, if inachieved, meditation on the free will of a modern woman. Like Nira in The Kindergarten Teacher or Makoto in Cruel Story of Youth, Rebecca is not content with playing the part of the prim household fairy, she wants more out of life. It’s disturbing in these days of #MeToo that, at one point, Rebecca describes herself as “an adulterous teenage bride… born too soon, a randy bitch permanently in heat”, as if eroticism and the pleasures of transgressive sex would be the only escape routes available to her.
But the consideration of a woman’s role in a patriarchal society is all but undone by the fact that, ultimately, The Girl on the Motorcycle collapses into exploitative, peek-a-boo erotica with a hypocritically cautionary ending, saved only by the contradictory perfection of the casting. Faithfull may have been unable to give her lines any depth, but she looks positively radiant in full leather as she practically rides her way into a massive orgasm, mere putty in the hands of the predatorial Alain Delon, who gets first billing but is pretty much a supporting role as the lover with an almost off-handed animal presence. He is the man who has it all and takes it gladly; she is the woman who gives all of herself to him. As far away from the kitchen sink realism of the late fifties, this was one case of sexual liberation gone awry – yet what might have lain in store here!