Remembering “Providence” – fearless films

Remembering “Providence” – fearless films

In honor of the memory of Alain Resnais, who died a few days ago, here’s a revisit to a brief piece on his remarkable film Providence  that appeared in this space almost exactly two years ago:

Alain Resnais’ 1977 drama  Providence rarely comes up when movie buffs meet, but it’s a fascinating piece of work that deserves to remain part of the ongoing conversation.

Critics were unkind when it was released, a number of them dismissing it as an art film overly impressed with its own complexity and cleverness – but a recent second look reaffirmed my own positive take on the material when I first viewed it 30-plus years ago. It’s certainly smarter and more complicated than, say,  Transformers, but it really requires no more careful attention than following the convolutions of  Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Providence was, and remains, a gorgeously constructed piece of work. Mirroring the obsessions of its characters, it often resembles a control freak’s dream with its beautifully sterile sets and geometric staging, that sense of control extending to a Miklos Rosza score so subtle that it’s nearly subliminal. The screenplay by David Mercer is equally meticulous and positively dripping with bile, delivered by a first-class cast of sharp-tongued performers.

John Gielgud, at the beginning of a remarkable late-career renaissance that would run for nearly another quarter of a century, is brilliantly acerbic as a famous but second-rank novelist near the end of his days, a man whose nights are consumed by vicious drunken ramblings and searing bowel problems. The bulk of those ramblings are given over to spinning a narrative about the loveless marriage of his philandering mean-spirited son, an attorney who’s currently defending a soldier accused of a mercy killing.

Dirk Bogarde is dagger-sharp as the supercilious son, chilly as an iceberg and an even match for Gielgud in his delivery of Mercer’s nasty and highly literate dialogue. As his unhappy wife, Ellen Burstyn provides effective contrast with a hypnotically underplayed performance. Elaine Stritch, though uncharacteristically muted, retains an intensity as unnerving in its own quiet way as Bogarde’s. And David Warner as the accused soldier combines a performance of mounting dread with an air of otherworldliness that ties into the film’s more bizarre passages.

As the story progresses, we realize that there’s more than a domestic drama underway. There are unsettling moments that take place behind barbed wire in a concentration camp setting. And most unexpected at all is the gradual insertion of a subplot involving werewolves, with various characters succumbing to a kind of lycanthropy plague that’s often viewed as a background detail.

In the end, we realize that much of what we’ve been told about these characters is untrue, but we’ve hardly been cheated. Thanks to the remarkably adroit sleight of hand performed by Mercer and Resnais, we’ve been privy to an ingenious meditation on the creative process as communicated by the discipline and impressive versatility of Gielgud and his fellow actors.

Any film lover with a taste for intelligent and unconventional drama should give  Providence a look…which for many will surely lead to a second look, as well.

Nebraska – fearless films

Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is a wonderful little film, blessed with a first-rate script, gorgeous monochrome photography and a fine understated cast. But its secret weapon, even more powerful than all those blessings, is the lingering effect of Bruce Dern’s haunted gaze.

Dern, 78, has one of the most rewarding roles of his long career as Woody Grant, a reality-challenged former mechanic who’s quietly drinking his life away in Billings, Montana. Cranky and remote, Woody is a lost soul who barely speaks to his wife and two grown sons, a man who seems to have lost all reason to live…until he receives a piece of junk mail that changes his life.

The letter is a thinly disguised Publishers Clearing House flier soliciting magazine subscriptions, but the part that registers with Woody is the classic come-on telling him that he may have won a million dollars. Convinced that he’s hit the jackpot, Woody sets out on foot to make the 800-mile trip to the company’s home office in Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his fortune.

It’s the first of several attempts by Woody to hoof it across state lines, and eventually his son David (Will Forte) – a mild-mannered electronics salesman who’s starting to feel as useless as his old man – decides to gamble a road trip to Lincoln in the hope of finally bonding with the father he’s never really known. Along the way, a drunken Woody manages to injure himself, and they decide to take a side trip to give him time to pull himself together before continuing on to Lincoln.

That detour is to Hawthorne, Nebraska, the small town where Woody grew up. It’s a run-down little burg a million miles from anybody’s idea of an economic recovery, filled with some good-hearted souls and more than a few hopeless bitter jerks. At first, Woody is received as a feeble-minded old face from the past…but when he begins rambling about the million dollars he’s on his way to collect, people start miraculously remembering old debts and things start to turn ugly.

Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson have crafted a quiet, sad and frequently funny story about a family that discovers it was never quite as broken as its members thought it was, brought to life by a talented group of actors who effortlessly occupy their roles. Forte is quite fine as a decent soft-spoken schlub who slowly evolves from grudging and embarrassed babysitter for his wrecked father to a respectful and protective son. Character actress June Squibb is a revelation as Woody’s deceptively sharp-tongued wife, walking away with half the scenes she appears in, and Bob Odenkirk as David’s not-as-shallow-as-he-seems brother turns in first-rate comic support. Stacy Keach also scores with a vaguely sinister performance as one of Woody’s old Hawthorne cronies with a plan to benefit from his former friend’s good fortune. But as good as everyone is, it remains Bruce Dern’s picture all the way. The consistency of his hazy and wounded character is utterly admirable, never deigning to play for our sympathy yet managing to capture it nonetheless. It’s a quiet and magnificent performance, the spine and soul of a lovely example of American moviemaking.