Le Grand Silence (Film) by Philip Gröning
While in Paris recently, I jumped at the opportunity to see a film that had a brief run in Toronto this past year. It has
been playing in at least two theatres in Paris for many months and there were about ten of us on hand to see the showing that
I attended. I’ve always resisted the arch-sounding "film" designation as rather pretentious, compared to the populist
"movie". But this is one case where "film" seems appropriate. It’s not a movie in the sense of a story told on screen.
What you’ve got is a study presented through a bunch of pictures on film. And, even by the standards of arty films,
it’s something of a phenomenon: two and three-quarters hours of watching the lives of the cloistered monks at the monastery
of Chartreuse, near Grenoble.
We open with a thirty-second shot of a monk praying. Then thirty seconds of a grey sky with snow falling from it. When
the monks wash their hands before a communal meal, we get lingering shots of the damp spots on the white towel where they
have wiped their hands. The lighting is all natural and sometimes there isn’t much of it, which means that a lot of
the shots are grainy. Natural sound too. As far as I can remember, there isn’t any added music. Lots of Gregorian chant
in chapel, of course, and reciting of prayers. Apart from that, the human voice isn’t often heard, given that these
monks are silent most of the time. The camera is simply there in the corner, spying on them, and the monks carry on with their
lives as they always do. No voice-over and almost no commentary or explanation – just the occasional scriptural or quasi-scriptural
quote on the screen. Either you get it or you don’t. Does it make sense too you that – for the sake of some ideal,
some principle – people would give up so much of what we take as necessary to our comfortable lives? If so, fine. The
film doesn’t attempt to persuade you.
Early on, we see a couple of young monks being welcomed into the order and we think: aha, this is going to be the story
– we’re going to watch how these guys fare in their new lives. But no, they eventually blend into the surroundings
and we don’t take any particular notice of them from then on. If the film has any structure – not to say plot
– it would be the passing of the seasons. The film opens in winter and returns to winter in the end. Occasionally, by
way of a poignant comment, you see a jet plane passing silently overhead in the blue sky. We also get frequent time-lapse
sequences where the sun sets on the monastery, the stars come up, race across the sky, then the sun comes up again.
I could go on for the whole two and three-quarters hours about fascinating bits in the film, but just a few favourite moments.
Somehow or other, Herr Gröning persuaded each of the monks to sit and look into the
camera for about ten seconds. The results are what could only be called portraits on film. You can see how some
monks are perfectly comfortable facing the camera; for others, the experience is nervous-making. One austere, intelligent
looking man, around fifty years old, stares down the camera unflinchingly until just around the seven-second mark, when you
begin to see the slightest twitch of a smile starting to break out around his lips. I also enjoyed watching an old monk muttering
to himself as he heads into the barn to feed the cats. When one of them doesn’t show up, he calls out to it and takes
down a teddy bear from a hook, presumably to entice the missing cat out of hiding. In another scene, we see a monk kneeling
at prayer in his cell. Then he gets up and steps into his sandals, then turns towards the camera. There is a huge grin on
his face that seems to say: you think it’s interesting to watch me put on my sandals? Ok, then, go ahead and watch me
if you want to!
Which attitude, I think, helps to explain why the monks agreed to the making of the film. There’s no vanity involved.
So what, if the film-maker wants to observe them? No skin off their noses. Probably none of them are ever going to see the
film. It’s not as if any of them might be thinking that some Hollywood agent will come pounding on the door with lucrative
As a kind of break from the severity of the routine, the monks have a communal meal once a week rather than eating
alone in their cells as they do the rest of the time. Reading from a pulpit takes place during the communal meal but afterwards
we see them donning straw hats and heading out into the fields for a stroll and conversation. On this particular day, they
happen to be discussing the relevance of the ritual washing of their hands before the communal meal. One of the monks, the
one who must be the official stand-up comic of the group, even makes a nice little joke about the whole thing. (It would be
cruel to reveal here a punch line in a film that only has one.) Near the end of the film, at the return of winter, we
see some of the younger monks heading out on recreation to scale a snowy cliff. Then they start sliding down. I thought one
of them was snowboarding until I realized he was simply coming down in his shoes. To hear the laughing and shouting after
all the solemnity choked me up somehow.
The only incongruous note in the whole film was the sight of a bottle of commercially produced water on the table in one
monk’s cell. Haven’t those monks heard? The film falls down slightly, perhaps, in not making it quite clear to
us how the monks make their living. We do get some shots of cattle and goats and there’s planting in the garden in spring,
so perhaps they’re self-sustaining. (One scene shows the abbot poring over a list of bills and tapping hesitantly at
a computer.) And I also felt cheated in that the film showed us nothing about the arrangements for personal hygiene. There’s
one shot of a young monk rinsing his head under a tap after a haircut, but that’s the only glimpse of anything having
to do with such matters. I wanted to know: does each monk have his own toilet and shower? Or is it gross of me to wonder about
such a thing? I don’t think so. When life has been pared down to the essentials, you can’t help wondering how
these guys deal with some of the most basic aspects of being human.
Only near the very end of the film do we get anything by way of commentary from any of the monks. A very elderly, blind
monk, whom we have seen tottering through the monastery in previous scenes, speaks some of his mind and soul to the camera.
The clips are obviously taken from several sessions, because sometimes he is shaved, sometimes not. In a very soft, sing-song
voice, he says things like: "God is so good, God only wants what is good for me, so everything that happens is for my good....Afraid
of death? But I am going to meet the Father. How can I be afraid of going to meet the Father who loves me so much?"
In the context of the way of life we had been watching, his deeply felt words had quite an impact on me. Not necessarily
in theological or doctrinal terms. But I took his apologia in what might be a kind of Zen-Buddhist spirit:
what happens to me is my life, the important thing is to appreciate the gift of it, to enjoy my opportunity to be part of
the human story; it’s not so much what I want or what I expect that matters, but the fact that I exist and that I am
a tiny part of the amazing and marvellous Oneness that embraces us all.
Rating: B+ (Where B = "Better than most")
Le Malade Imaginaire (Play) by Molière, directed by Claude Stratz, starring
Alain Pralon, Catherine Hiegel, Julie Sicard and Loïe Corbert, at La Comédie-Francaise
Salle Richelieu at La Comédie-Francaise-Francaise is exactly what God intended
a theatre to be: charming, luxurious and entirely on the human scale – about 900 seats with an orchestra and four balconies,
lots of red velvet and gilt. For anybody who loves theatre, a visit is well worthwhile, no matter what's playing.
And when it comes to repertoire, you’d think that, if La Comédie was going to
do any playwright justice, it would be Molière. In this case, you’d
be right. Mind you, a visitor can’t help noticing that the writing is a bit thin, certainly not up to the comedic standards
of our best English playwright (no, I’m not referring to Neil Simon). The piece moves along smoothly but you get some
standard situations and characters – cranky father, conniving mother, comic maid and romantic daughter who’s in
love with an unsuitable swain. There’s not a lot of satisfaction in the artistic department. Or the intellectual, for
that matter – except for some interesting ideas about medicine in the discussion between the two brothers. Until that
scene, the play has been clicking along like the Métro but it suddenly feels as though
the train is stalled in the station.
All of the acting was top-notch but I have a few quibbles. Catherine Hiegel, as the maid Toinette, the comic engine of
the piece, is obviously a very accomplished actor. But she struck me as one of those women about whom there is nothing inherently
funny. She got lots of laughs, of course. Who wouldn’t, given her lines? But she seemed the kind of actor who would
be more comfortable in the role of a contemporary CEO or the chief inspector on some cop show. I kept thinking of English
character actors who would have given the role more flavour. And it surprised me that Loïe
Corbert, as the young lover, had not learned the classic style of delivery. He didn’t caress the words on his tongue
and spit them out the way all the other actors did. It wasn’t a problem of volume; rather, his speech was too much in
the back of his throat, like that of a typical young man today, with the result that it was very hard for me to make out much
of what he was saying. Even if he did look smashing in his silks and tights. Opposite him, Julie Sicard as the ingenue brought
tears to my eyes with her very touching grief over her "dead" father.
The look of the production was, for the most part, sparse and drab. Argan held court in a lofty, drafty salon, practically
bare of furniture. The lighting was rather dim downstage. I suppose this was in keeping with the spirit of 17th century
realism. But I figure that, if I were meant to get 17th century realism, I would have been born in the 17th
century. I hate it when the actors' faces are shadowed in any production – it feels as though I’m
not getting my money’s worth – but in this case, not being able to see the actors' lips clearly made it doubly
difficult to understand their French.
The program seemed to indicate that director Claude Stratz (recently deceased) intended to emphasize the elements of ballet
and masque that were an important part of Molière’s original production. In
the brief breaks between scenes, we got masquers and mummers cavorting in silhouette against a white sheet hanging across
the proscenium. Eventually, the brick walls of the salon caved in as the mummers came crashing through and the play
ended with a highly-choreographed bacchanal. I don’t remember getting this surrealistic slant in North American
productions of Le Malade.
For the curtain calls – rather extended – the entire company kept running on and bowing, rather perfunctorily,
then running off and running on again, hands joined. No solo bows. One has to admire the spirit of égalité, fraternité, and all that,
but the fact of the matter is that I missed the excitement building up to the bows by the big stars. One nice thing about
this curtain call, though, it turned out that star Alain Pralon is actually much younger than he seemed as the ornery Argan,
quite handsome and has a very charming smile. One never would have known.
But maybe the best thing about the whole show was hearing the delighted laughter from kids all over the theatre.
The Bubble (Movie) written by Eytan Fox and Gal Uchovsky; directed by Eytan Fox; starring Ohad Knoller, Yousef
‘Joe’ Sweid, Alon Friedman, Daniela Virtzer
This movie was getting lots of attention when I was in Paris recently. Presumably, it will arrive on North American screens eventually.
Three young, left-wing Israelis are sharing an apartment in Tel Aviv – two guys and a girl. The guys are gay
(but not partners), the girl is straight. The younger of the gay guys (Ohad Knoller), who has just come off military duty,
falls in love with a Palestinian guy (Yousef ‘Joe’ Sweid). That’s the main story but it’s inter-woven
with the affairs of the other apartment mates.
If only, for the sake of finding out what life is like for young people in that part of the world, the movie’s worth
seeing. Apart from the occasional bomb and the security scares, it’s pretty much like life for twenty-somethings everywhere:
working in crummy jobs while hoping for something better, partying as much as possible, constantly calling each other on their
cell phones. On top of that, these young characters bring lots of charm and humour to the story. For this viewer, they’re
at their most charming, when, for the sake of pulling off a scam while impersonating journalists, they opt to speak English
with French accents. I particularly admired the acting of Alon Friedman who plays the older of the gay apartment mates. He’s
one of those characters who, you think, is going to be too outrageously faggy, to the point of cliché. But he pulls back, revealing a droll irony and self-awareness that make you realize there’s a lot of
wisdom and a true knowledge of people under his campy exterior.
As a whole, though, the movie doesn’t quite hang together. It feels as though there’s too much effort being
expended trying to keep various stories going. (Admittedly, it may be easier to follow if you’re not having to read
subtitles.) For instance, there’s a lot of build-up to a rave on the beach but, in the end, it doesn’t have much
to do with anything. The very dramatic ending makes a powerful statement but it’s contrived, in that the incident that
brings on the climax seems more a coincidence staged for the sake of the effect than a coherent outcome of what came before.
Rating: C (i.e. "Certainly worth seeing")
Un Ballo In Maschera (Opera) by Giuseppe Verdi; conducted by Paul Weigold; design by William Orlandi; starring
Evan Bowers, Ludovic Tézier, Angela Brown, Elena Manistina, Camilla Tilling, Orchestra
and Chorus of the Paris National Opera; Opéra Bastille, Paris, July 13/07.
This was my first time for "Ballo". Being Verdi, it’s full of glorious music, of course. But I wasn't keen on all
the Latino flim-flam about curses and witches and fortune-telling and magic potions. And the stuff like: "I catch my
wife talking to another guy, so I have to kill her...And by the way, if I don't keep my promise to kill the guy too, you have
my permission to go ahead and kill my only son." Give me a girl dying of consumption any day. On the other hand, I did get
into the idea of a leader who thinks he is so totally loved by his people that he is immune to any threat. Anyway, it’s
all worth it when you get to the end with him lying on the stage dying and the chorus are singing their gorgeous lament about
how great he was and how they never really appreciated him, if only they'd known, etc, etc.
It was very well sung. Tenor Evan Bowers seemed to be a replacement as Riccardo, in that he wasn’t listed in the
main program. For my money, his singing is fine, although his top notes don't have much ring. Angela Brown in the role of
Amelia is very much of the avoir du poids variety of soprano but sings gorgeously. For some reason, baritone Ludovic
Tézier seemed to be the favourite of the guys who yell in the upper balconies. Maybe because
he is handsome, in a gaunt way. He sang well but he's certainly not the most amazing baritone I've heard. The singer that
I liked most was Camilla Tilling in the trouser role of Oscar, the page. Especially in the ensembles, her voice soared bright
and clear over everything.
The most interesting thing about the production was William Orlandi's design -- very stark, mostly black and white
and grey. In the opening scene, the male chorus are sitting in a semi-circular arrangement of white marble tiers that looks
like the roman senate or something. They're all in greyish Abe Lincoln outfits -- long coats, mutton chops, etc. The women
were in Mary Todd Lincoln garb -- drab gowns, hoop skirts, low necklines, lumpy hair-do's. It took me quite a while to figure
out that they were actually pushing a Lincoln theme. The tenor had a throne to sit in that was very reminiscent of Lincoln's
perch in the famous monument in Washington. I know Verdi had censorship problems with this opera and that he had to set it
in the US because they wouldn't tolerate regicide on the stage in Europe. But I didn't know that there was a suggested Lincoln
connection. Is this a common slant in productions nowadays? Don't know.
In any case, the stark setting worked wonders in the final ball scene-- all black and white, pillars and mirrors, with
the ballet dancers in Harlequin garb. Such a relief from those operatic productions where you feel they’ve raided the
local costume rental houses for the frilliest, most colourful garb they can find.