'New Orleans, Mon Amour' - Alex's Review

Reading synopses since 'New Orleans, Mon Amour' was first shown at a festival I wasn't prepared for what I actually saw. At all. And in my disarmed state I must say, the film has, without doubt, fascinated me with its take-it-or-leave-it logic and imagery.

Don't expect broad gestures on a par with the Katrina disaster, this feature knows better than attempt to tell the definite story. It trusts the setting, the post-hurricane cubistic hallucination posing as a city, and the local people to be able to speak for themselves. And the pseudo-documentary style (including grit on the lens), first thing you register, is just a decoy. This is not a Katrina film, but a drama about two people, Henry (Chris Eccleston) and Hyde (Elisabeth Moss), set in New Orleans.

So it shouldn't be surprising that neither of them is a standard-issue victim or hero or any other typical role you'd like to ascribe them. Henry is a surgeon, well-off, without much to worry about. By far not the worst affected. And yet he is, broken as good and proper as if he lost everyone and everything. His is the world of nostalgia and small-time anguish. Is it perverse to be this self-absorbed in the context of multitudinous human tragedies? Trying to restore his own personal life, he dislodged himself from the present, main problem being, when you're building on the voided past, there's nowhere to anchor.

In a more cynical moment you might call it a usual mid-life crisis, but it's not your statistical and safe reality. It doesn't do to be sane. He drugs himself to be able to carry on, but the suppressants aren't programmable, aren't everlasting. He knows very well what he's supposed to be, to want and to stand for, but it's not sourced in his mind, in it theory and praxis run parallel. And his vague attempt to will himself to stay afloat, to care is automatic and moribund, and finally just an ingrown - schooled, maybe - habit. The look in his eyes you will remember: alternating between wry disbelief, a kind of languid horror and serenity beyond despair.

NOMA undoubtedly excels in showing the world as it is seen by the main characters, the world of absence, displacement, and, in Henry's case, the world that's leaving him. 'You can be involved', mocks the sign. Why, where, with whom? Whose blood is it and who passes him the scalpel? It's indeed calmest in the centre of the storm, but the rage around is unrecognisable and unknowable and destructive negation negates itself into sublime emptiness.

There's no doubt, this is a perfect vacuum. The misplaced monologue, the misaligned dialogue are typical of the film, there's plenty of spoken and unspoken thoughts, and the way they're strung together reminds of tuning into one radio station after another, these words never really reach you. If you look at the two main characters, they're capable of talking together, but what about when they're with other people?

While it's Hyde, who says she had been proclaimed suspiciously nonchalant, Henry, who only remarks that he's distracted, has it much worse than that. All the people around him, going through their own personal hell, they're nothing but random words in between static. But what would you do if you were him in his world? You're shown what happens when you go by clichés and theories, no matter whether you abhor or ignore them (and - even if you're tempted - this is why you can't really dismiss the film as merely one).

There's also the constant contrast between the ever persevering cultural, spiritual life (great music throughout the film) and the equally indomitable, still dead up town - but it's old news, luckily eclipsed by the emergence of washed out sleeper agents, Hyde and Henry. As much as they're aliens to the natives of the devastated suburbs, they're aliens to their backgrounds as well, Hyde's - fellow volunteers, a living oxymoron of socially aware and educated anarchism, and Henry's - dowry in form of upper caste surviving from the heyday of American Dream, segregated from the frustrated and cynical of the post-industrial age.

Henry's story is basically that of surrender. Hyde's - of progress. She's changed in the six years they managed to stay apart, she's constructive, yet she's still half his age; her feelings are more expressed, and she's liable to fall to pieces again. She is weaker because of her new strength and as such she is in control. Henry is both too strong and too weak, too strong for her to resist him, too weak to ditch the crutches of standards. That might come, but so far he's prone to descending to childish riot and escapism, make-believe world that unexpectedly hurts to smash. So he readily accepts this chance to give in instead and welcomes the curve downwards.

There's no independent escape route for either of them, still, it's not necessarily a tragedy starting to happen; it depends on whether they'll manage to find the balance, inside themselves, between themselves, whether Henry will acknowledge that Hyde did change. It took me some time to realise that there are positive outlooks still available, somewhere.

It is not the goal of the film to belittle those who suffered during the storm or those who help; selfless or not, sane or not. Neither is it to show the two main characters as monsters. Its goal, I think, and a daring gesture, is to show the no man's land of Henry and Hyde's.

So, to conclude, in many regards NOMA is brilliant. The fragmentation, the abruptness, the truthfulness - not because of sharper focus, but because of multiple options available. Add the hunch that this is the best Eccleston has done since 2002, of big screen features. When the end titles ambushed me, I was perfectly adapted to the not quite breathable atmosphere and ready for much more.

2009-10-21

3 comments:

Karen P said...

You know - I watched the movie last week and honestly didn't like it at all. But based on your two reviews and impressions, I think I might give it another watch and see if it strikes me differently this time around. Thanks!

¡Oye Cristóbal! said...

Good idea to give it a second chance, and yet - it's certainly not the most loveable film, if it doesn't click for you, there's probably no way to improve the situation. But please tell us how it goes.

For me it was a very personal experience, it connected with what I've been thinking about - and I enjoyed the ambience too. Suppose it's a perfect example of liking a film in the mind as opposed to liking a film on the screen.

chiclit said...

Karen, I agree with Alex above, that you might give it another try, but regardless, please feel free to share your impressions, good or bad. I brought a personal connection to disaster/Katrina aspect, and was simply glad to see Eccleston doing something different-however I fully agree that there are some aspects of the film that didn't live up to the potential of the talented people involved.