The Last Animal Centurion (Weekly Links)

Centurion: release the crackin’.

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week:

Centurion. “Stripped-down and disillusioned.”

The Last Exorcism. “Some life left in this lo-fi game of pretend.”

Around a Small Mountain. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

A finely-wrought miniature of a movie, “Around a Small Mountain” is rumored to be the final effort of the French master Jacques Rivette, an important figure in the French New Wave in the 1960s.

Rivette likes working in a long form; his 1991 masterpiece “La belle noiseuse,” for instance, goes for four hours, and some of his stuff is much longer than that. This new one clocks in at 85 minutes, yet it seems to be just about exactly the right length.

It begins with a wordless meeting on the road: Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto, who acted in Rivette’s “Va Savoir”) stops to fix the engine of a car belonging to Kate (Jane Birkin, a European icon), which has broken down in the countryside. Vittorio, a wandering sort who doesn’t seem to be operating under any clock, stops in a small town where he realizes Kate is setting up with a small traveling circus. She’s actually returning to the circus for a visit after abruptly quitting some 15 years earlier.

Almost nobody comes to the shows given in the tiny tent. But that’s all right: we’re observing Vittorio’s interest in Kate, and his fascination with a particular clown act involving a stack of dinner plates, a chair, and a gun. This act has been played so many times by the clowns that it has the burnished precision of a religious ceremony. There’s a wonderful sequence later in the film, after Vittorio has followed the circus around for a few days and watched it every night, when he must go onstage as one of the clowns.

Going into the ring, he immediately breaks all the plates. Because we’ve seen pieces of the routine a few times by now, we know this means the entire precise act will now have to be improvised—a strangely exciting moment that says something about life, and about how planning and expectation must inevitably, someday, meet chaos.

Rivette’s films tend to be about this: about art, and life, and how they coincide. And about how much of life might be a sort of performance anyway. “Around a Small Mountain” gives a tiny account of this idea, and it feels like a minor work in the director’s career. Yet it has the winsome presence of Castellitto and Birkin, and a sense of breathing room about it, as though a soft breeze were blowing through the movie.

Rivette is 82 now, and maybe he has some big statement left in him. But if this is it, then it’s a very graceful way to go out.

Looking for Eric. “Isn’t exactly a comedy, but isn’t kitchen-sink misery either.”

Animal Kingdom. “Family values can be a funny thing.”

Takers. “Drearily bad on so many levels.”

Mesrine: Killer Instinct. “Cassel is up to the challenge.”

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Steve Scher and callers about the representative movies of summer 2010: listen here. The movie bit kicks in around the 14:55 mark.