The following article contains vague spoilers for Elles, Laurence Anyways and ParaNorman, and fairly crucial spoilers for Silver Linings Playbook and Wanderlust.
‘Motifs in Cinema‘ is a discourse across 22 film blogs, assessing the way in which various thematic elements have been used in the 2012 cinematic landscape. How does a common theme vary in use from a comedy to a drama? Are filmmakers working from a similar canvas when they assess the issue of death or the dynamics of revenge? Like most things, a film begins with an idea – ‘Motifs in Cinema‘ assesses how the use of a common theme across various films changes when utilised by different artists.
Photo © MGM
Cinematic protagonists are, by and large, unusual individuals. They might be outspokenly individual, charging against political injustice, or the quieter, essentially more ordinary Everyman who nevertheless finds themselves in opposition to something. King Vidor’s silent classic The Crowd provides an emblematic image for cinema’s automatic mode of storytelling where it cannot help but find the individual in the society, silently suffering in the machinery of the world around him. John (James Murray) isn’t so much a man against society as a man engulfed by society, but the individualistic focus of cinema is still evident from the very first decades of the medium. Films telling the story of society as a whole are practically non-existent, and those where men work for society are pretty much the domain of actioners, war movies, and various other masculine genres. The Dark Knight Rises might guise itself in glumly decadent intellectualism, but ultimately its peculiar characterisation of the city crowds fighting against Bane’s takeover of the city betrays a herd mentality to restore society to its former, satisfactory glory.
Adult cinema – that is, cinema made for conscious and discerning adults – invariably comes motivated by a desire to reflect societal injustices and repressions. As political and social change is ongoing, so is the requirement of art to feed those changes, to suggest different ways of existing and interacting. Cinema might not directly change society but by reflecting and commenting on the world, it can shift public feeling towards certain issues and contribute, for better or worse, to more general social changes. The cinema of 2012 included stories of man fighting against society from a manner of different approaches.
Mads Mikkelsen, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard & Alicia Vikander in ‘A Royal Affair’
Photo © 2012 Metrodome Distribution
Pablo Lorrain’s No, the final third of his loose trilogy set against the backdrop of Pinochet’s regime, brightly recounts a crucial blow against the General, the ‘no’ vote in the 1988 general plebiscite. Denmark’s A Royal Affair also delves into the history books to tell its story of Queen Caroline (Alicia Vikander), whose affair with royal doctor Johann Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) is the undoing of their collaboration to manipulate King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) to bring about social progression in the kingdom. Both incidentally nominated for Best Foreign Film at the upcoming Oscars, No and A Royal Affair bring vivid and idiosyncratic life to their disparate historical periods. No uses 35mm film to resemble archive video footage, immersing itself in the colourful, eccentric realm of the advertising that won the ‘no’ campaign its success. A Royal Affair is coolly, crisply photographed, but its loose, open approach to the routines of court life give the film a similar feeling of immediacy and briskness. Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained too uses a historical period to enervate social discourse, notably provoking a great deal of debate even though its narrative quirks are invented and typically flamboyant of this director. He satirises and mocks some of the darkest human interactions, conflating the horrors of slavery with the merciless, dark pleasures of violence.
David Costabile, Daniel Day-Lewis & David Strathairn in ‘Lincoln’
Photo © 2012 20th Century Fox
Lincoln, rather more staid in its form, also brings energetic life to discourses of slavery, though the man working against society is, fascinatingly, the man at its head. Tony Kushner’s script makes evident how individuals form into the mass society that must be fought against, at one point particularly examining the individual motivations behind some of the politicians who intend to keep slavery enforced. Change is, of course, achieved, but Lincoln is not shy about showing the shady methods employed to reach these changes – the backdoors and tricks to railing against society from within. In their style and form, these films interpolate their political opinion into the very fibre of their being, openly existing as left-wing celebrations of historical periods that had markedly different outcomes. Simultaneously, they provoke questions about our modern society and how the embers and repercussions of these narrativised realities might be affecting us now.
Anaïs Demoustier in ‘Elles’
Photo © 2012 Artificial Eye
But then there are the inherent outsiders – the obnoxious, the righteous, the freedom fighters, the progressive, the lonely and the brave. The teenage subjects (Anaïs Demoustier and Joanna Kulig) of Elles, Malgoska Szumowska’s underseen feature, are students prostituting themselves for more than mere financial reasons, and their interaction with the film’s journalist protagonist (Juliette Binoche) leads her to question her comfortable existence and causes large ructions in her family. Alicja (Kulig) is particularly fierce in her convictions of the thrill and emotional solace of her unexpected profession, and Elles laudably ends without any judgment on the girls’ decisions. There’s is a societal conflict both unexpected and unintentional – they aren’t fighting anything, merely trying to survive. Likewise, Pat Solitano Jr. (Bradley Cooper) in Silver Linings Playbook is simply trying to make his way through life without his mental illness repeatedly compounding his status as an outsider – in the final event, he’s essentially (though not literally) healed by finding love with a fellow outsider in Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). Cinema’s happy resolutions are so often found by outsiders forming their own societies outside of the ones that have rejected them.
Or they might try and fix them, as ParaNorman‘s Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) does, exposing the rotten core of the judgmental local town which is rooted deep in its pilgrim history and using his individualism to ensure the contentment of the entire society. Sightseers‘ Chris (Steve Oram) takes a darker approach, violently working against the myriad of sins he sees people committing. His girlfriend Tina (Alice Lowe) starts their journey unconsciously aloof, with her provocative knitwear and pasta sauce, but by the end has become so fully possessed by Chris’ social tirades that she fails to recognise its limitations, surpassing Chris’ pointedly political reasoning and genuflecting against society for the sheer giddy thrill. Her unknowing, and seemingly uncaring opposition to society is a greater threat than Chris’ focused anger.
Melvin Poupaud & Suzanne Clément in ‘Laurence Anyways’
Photo © Lyla Films / MK2 Productions
In Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways, Laurence (Melvin Poupaud) is inherently against society from the moment he reveals his desire to transition to life as a woman. His initial, bold steps with female costume in his daily life as a teacher demonstrate a commendable desire to allow society to accept him as he is. The interior conflicts of a society are shown within the microcosm of the school, where the students are largely nonplussed by the change in their teacher, but the fear of the parents and the cowardice of the faculty soon finds Laurence let go. Still, he continues to display remarkable comfort in his exterior shift, powered by the progress towards interior happiness. It’s Fred (Suzanne Clement), his girlfriend and support system, who is the sight of the crisis here – fighting for equality, driven by empowerment, but aggrieved by the attention and wounded by the difficulty of the situation. She’s matched, perhaps, by George Gergenblatt (Paul Rudd) in Wanderlust, pulled between his wife Linda’s (Jennifer Aniston) affection for their new home of Elysian, an idyllic commune, his discomfort with it, and their joint fatigue with the consumerism, shallow world they lived in. The revelation that Elysian is headed by as corrupt a man as they’d found in their cosmopolitan lives seems, despite the film’s content denouement, to betray an ultimate truth: society can never be perfect. Fight against it for the sliver, that silver lining of happiness you might be able to get from it, or be prepared to remain on the outside. Hey, it isn’t so bad out here, you know.
Paul Rudd & Jennifer Aniston in ‘Wanderlust’
Photo © 2012 Universal Pictures International
Head over to Encore Entertainment to read the other contributions to the ‘Motifs in Cinema‘ event.