The Place Beyond the Pines & Tabu

May 11, 2013
Screen Shot 2013-05-22 at 3.48.11 PM

Although I’m not much interested in the celebrity circuit, it was surprising to read, late last year, that Bradley Cooper had been named The Sexiest Man Alive by People magazine. By all accounts the most outraged constituency were fans of Ryan Gosling, the other Hollywood pin-up boy of our era.

If it achieves nothing else, The Place Beyond the Pines should settle this controversy. The movie features Ryan Gosling as a blonde, tattooed stunt rider who takes up a life of crime, and Bradley Cooper as an honest cop with political ambitions. Quite simply, Gosling is the epitome of cool, while Cooper is a stodge. This piece of casting seems absolutely right. One need not be female or even gay to appreciate that Gosling is about 500 times sexier than Cooper, as well as being a more engaging actor.

Having said that, the role of policeman, Avery Cross, must be one of Cooper’s best ever performances as it gives him a chance to be something other than gormless. On the other side of the law, Gosling’s Luke Glanton is a deceptively complex character who harbours strong feelings behind an impassive exterior.

The Place Beyond the Pines is a long, ambitious film that strives self-consciously for greatness but doesn’t quite measure up. It is a second feature for director, Derek Cianfrance, who enjoyed a critical success with the film, Blue Valentine (2010).

There is such an endless outpouring of brainless,  formulaic movies, one must be thankful when a director strives to do something different. The problem is The Place Beyond the Pines is a film of epic length, but not epic proportions. It is a film in two halves that seems to grow a third half when you thought it was all-but-over. The pacing and continuity is uneven, with moments of tension and drama offset by patches of dullness. The story lingers in the mind, but I’d never be tempted to see it again.

When Luke Glanton, a stunt rider at a travelling carnival, finds he has fathered a child after a one night stand with a waitress, Romina (Eva Mendes), he decides to give up the itinerant life and stay close to his infant son in Schenectady, NY. The problem is that Romina is in a relationship with another man, Kofi (Mahershala Ali), and doesn’t need Luke in her life. In order to raise money and lure her away from her secure lifestyle, Luke takes up a career as a bank robber, with the aid of a low-life friend, Rob – played by Ben Mendelsohn, who seems to specialise in such roles nowadays.

Patrolman Avery Cross enters the picture when Luke’s last robbery goes terribly wrong. Acclaimed as a hero, he enjoys his moment in the spotlight, but is shocked by the levels of corruption that exist within the force. Increasingly, he finds himself at odds with his fellow officers, and obliged to follow the dictates of his conscience.

The final strand of the movie jumps 15 years into the future, showing how the sins of the fathers have a tragic impact on the next generation. This may sound quasi-religious, and the amount of music by Arvo Pärt on the soundtrack only confirms this impression.

One of the persistent themes of the film is the search for transcendence – for a sense of freedom, or solace for the soul, that goes beyond the humdrum life of a small town. For inarticulate Luke, this yearning for a spiritual dimension finds expression in his motorbike riding, and his desperate need to act as a father to a lost son. Avery seeks salvation in public life, feeling that he can make a positive contribution to a damaged system.

Both attempts unravel – Luke falling into violence and crime, as he pursues his goal; Avery getting caught up in the mechanisms of politics at the expense of his marriage and his relationship with a troublesome son, A.J. (Emory Cohen).

There is a ‘place beyond the pines’ that features in at least three scenes, in each part of this film, but the title has to be read metaphorically. The place beyond the pines is the freedom and happiness that proves so elusive for the main characters, who remain trapped in the wreckage of their lives. Cianfrance invites the viewer to apply this formula to his or her own predicament. If there is such a place, it may be glimpsed occasionally, but not retained. The only permanent ‘place beyond the pines’, is death.

Tabu is another ambitious film that never quite manages to reconcile its different aspirations. Although it might be classed as an arthouse production, the movie is sustained – at least in the second part – by a strong narrative thrust.

The first noteworthy aspect of Tabu is that it comes from Portugal, a country often used as venue for European filmmakers, but whose homegrown product rarely makes it into the international market. This is partly because the Portuguese film industry is chronically underfunded.

A second claim to distinction is that the film is shot in black-and-white: a choice that makes the story seem sumptuous, poetic and dream-like. As The Artist (2011) showed so well, taking the colour out of a contemporary film lends the production a ‘retro’ feel,  removing distractions that prevent us from engaging more directly with the characters.

Tabu is the third feature by Portuguese director, Miguel Gomes, who averages one film every four years. As a former critic, Gomes is deeply knowledgable about the history of the cinema, and Tabu is filled with self-conscious references to earlier movies. The most obvious is to F.W. Murnau’s 1931 film of same name, which is set in Polynesia and also divided into two sections called ‘Paradise’ and ‘Paradise Lost’.

In contrast to Murnau, Gomes puts ‘Paradise Lost’ at the beginning, in a sequence that recalls Jean-Luc Godard’s movies of the early 1960s. He includes the same eliptical conversations between characters, and even reproduces the grainy look of those movies – a paradoxical mix of the drab and the stylish.

The tale begins with a brief melodrama about an ‘intrepid explorer’ in Africa, pining for his dead wife. This is revealed to be a film watched by Pilar (Teresa Madruga) a single, middle-aged woman living in Lisbon. Pilar is a practising Catholic who devotes herself to human rights, and becomes increasingly concerned about her eccentric neighbour, Aurora (Laura Soveral) – an aged dame who has seen better days, but is now reduced to living in a small apartment in the care of her maid, Santa (Isabel Munoz Cardoso).

The first half of the film spends a lot of time establishing the parameters of Pilar’s life. She works for good causes, prays to the Lord, and goes on dates with a middle-aged artist who feels an affection for her that is not returned. At one point she has to fetch Aurora from the casino, where the old lady has lost all her money. Before she leaves, Aurora insists on making her rescuer listen to a long account of a dream.

The second half of the film, ‘Paradise’, takes place after Aurora’s death, and is told in one extended flashback. The narrator is Gian Luca Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo) an elderly man who was Aurora’s lover perhaps fifty years ago, when they lived in the foothills of Mount Tabu, a fictional location in Africa.

The story unfolds on-screen like a fairy tale as we listen to Gian Luca’s voiceover. The method is so seductive one rapidly becomes absorbed in these memoirs of adulterous passion, guilt and retribution, along with a surreal vision of life in the colonial enclave.

The young Gian Luca, (Carloto Cotta) is an icy heartbreaker who has led a shiftless existence. He comes to Mount Tabu after a meeting with Mário (Manuel Mesquita), a refugee from a Portuguese seminary who yearns to return to the life he led as a child in the colony. Gian Luca accompanies him back to Africa, where he plays drums in Mario’s band and works at a nearby mine.

Aurora, (doe-eyed Ana Moreira), and her husband are friends and neighbours of Mario’s. She is an heiress with a passion for big game hunting. For Gian Luca, the heartless seducer, she is initially just another conquest, but he soon finds, to his surprise, that he has fallen in love. It is a romance, partially narrated in a series of intense letters, that will end in disaster.

While the lovers’ paradise was quickly lost, the ‘paradise’ that is modern day Lisbon has a depressingly familiar appearance. It is the same squalid, crowded city one finds everywhere in the world. The distant glamour that once adhered to Europe’s colonial powers has been dissipated by economic realities. The contemporary city in which Pilar lives seems sterile in comparison to the exotic Africa conjured up by Gian Luca’s narrative.

One might accuse Gomes of portraying the colonial era in a nostalgic light, but his vision of this world is so bizarre it seems to stand outside of history. Tabu is more concerned with the way individual lives may be shaped by unforseen events, and be forever haunted by powerful memories.

The transition between the two parts of the story acts like chasm in the landscape, dividing the dreary present from the exotic past. Viewers who can overcome this obstacle and surrender to Gomes’s story of forbidden love, may find Tabu to be one of the more intriguing films of the year.

 

The Place Beyond the Pines, USA, rated MA 15+, 140 mins

Tabu, Portugal/Germany/France/Brazil, rated MA 15+, 118 mins

 

Published by the Australian Financial Review, May 11, 2013