MONDAY MORNING (Otar Iosseliani, 2002)

Jacques Tati’s comedies, including the beauties Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953) and Playtime (1967), derive much of their delicate though combustible humor from the little bits of mayhem that Monsieur Hulot causes unawares, this obliviousness of his a defense against a capricious and, increasingly, mechanized and dehumanizing universe. (Personally, I find Tati’s Oscar-winning My Uncle (1958)—Mon Oncle, Monsieur Hulot—the least of his accomplishments.) Otar Iosseliani’s hommage to Tati, Lundi matinMonday Morning—takes a different tack. Vincent, M Hulot’s Everyman-descendant, is quite sensitive to everything happening around him; he has few, if any, defenses to counter a modern world of monotonous routine and iron-clad restriction that bars him from smoking at almost every turn. In the gentle division (Godard’s 1967 Weekend belongs to the savage division), Monday Morning is the finest French comedy since Tati’s intricately choreographed masterpiece, Playtime, and Iosseliani fully deserves the Silver Bear he won at Berlin for directing it. It’s unlikely that the 21st century will produce a richer, more humane, funnier satirical comedy.

Vincent’s collar isn’t as white as Monsieur Hulot’s. A welder at a local chemical plant, Vincent endures voluminous industrial smoke daily, as do his co-workers, rendering sorely ironic the fact that they all have to snuff their cigarettes at the factory gate. Safety first. Everyone takes every last puff he can before dispensing with pleasure for the day’s grinding labor; it’s part of the routine. Vincent is indeed a creature of routine. Slippers await him on the outdoor steps of his place for his morning walk to his blue car parked in the driveway; they are left outside the car door and exchanged inside the car for work shoes. When he comes home at day’s end, the process is reversed, leaving the slippers once again on the steps. We pick up on this process twice—four rounds of identical activity, where two of the occurrences mirror-image another two.

At home, after the home repairs his wife prevails upon him to attend to, Vincent intently paints a landscape, a tiny dot of which represents the solitary person there, presumably an anonymous and indistinct projection of himself. We can’t help noticing that Vincent isn’t a very good painter. Is he a frustrated soul whose restricted experience has denied him an opportunity to grow as an artist, or when he paints is he simply unwinding, relaxing? Vincent can also smoke at home. (His wife, a nonsmoker to begin with, wouldn’t think of bringing the factory home by denying him this minimal bit of freedom and pleasure.)

The couple have two children. One is a small schoolboy, who in the contemporary western fashion is monstrously rude and unkind to his father, rebuffing the man’s keen interest in his son’s attempt to repair a mangled bicycle wheel. Vincent accepts this ill treatment as part of his lot; the boy in effect wears a “No Papa-ing” sign in lieu of the factory’s “No Smoking” sign. Vincent’s tall, teenaged son is another matter. While as protective of his privacy as his younger brother, he is warm, courteous, at times even deferential to the father he just a bit—we can detect this if we squint—idolizes. (This boy is also an artist.) This is absolutely brilliant of Iosseliani, who wrote the film as well as directed it; the relaxing of disciplinary rigor in raising children has indeed de-Oedipalized family dynamics, making possible the advance (rather than decline) in filial respect from childhood to adolescence. But there is something else, of an older order, anchoring the teenager’s burgeoning humanity: His elderly grandmother, his father’s mother, lives right downstairs. She is also working her magic on the younger boy, reading him bedtime stories; and the care and concern with which the older boy interacts with her is pure tonic. Both brothers thus far live outside the monotonous routines that define both their parents’ lives. Twice we watch the older boy and his girlfriend up in the heavens, triumphant over the world below, flying on a handmade glider. This freedom is what, responsible, Vincent no longer has. Iosseliani’s film is about his taking back from life a little bit of the freedom it has taken from him.

One day Vincent doesn’t pass through the gate into the chemical factory. He pauses long enough to turn around and spend the day instead on a grassy hill in deep contemplation of things. He decides to leave wife, kids, home and job for a vacation. He is a small and quiet man in need of an adventure. Others may negotiate their mid-life crises by having extramarital affairs; he will simply take off for a bit. Estranged from his mother, his gravely ill father—their scene together is deliciously funny and intimate—provides the means: the elder’s life’s savings. Venice, Cairo, Constantinople: the itinerary is set. Without a word to wife, mother and sons, Vincent takes off—but not before encountering an old friend, with rats for (much loved) pets, who, a man, masquerades for his job in a bar as a woman—this, an ironic aside reminding us of the tightness of the market that renders even a job as unpleasant as Vincent’s a boon and a blessing.

Up until this point the film has paid almost equal attention to the boys, especially the older one, as to their father. In particular, we have watched son pay silent tribute to his father as he paints in the local church Saint George slaying a dragon—a painting based on a sketch that his father probably made when he was the boy’s age. (The boy’s younger brother thus unwittingly pays homage to their father by indirection when he recruits a local alligator for a “real-life” enactment of the legendary event.) But now the film will mostly follow the boys’ father on his “journey.” The film is indeed Homeric in a number of ways, not the least of which is its attention to Vincent’s odyssey away from home and back. (But Vincent’s of course is the much shorter!) Too, the film, in epic fashion, begins in the middle of things—in the middle of middle-aged Vincent’s loop of routines. Finally, the film, like Homer’s epic poems, is full of repetition—of happenstances, though, rather than of phrases and images. For example, in Venice the elegant, beautiful woman whom Vincent sat opposite on the train glides regally across the canal. A funny example: The pickpocket who relieves Vincent of his money upon his arrival tries another day to rob him again, whereupon Vincent, this time detecting the quick hand, pulls out his pants pockets, saying, “Not this time.” Vincent gets drunks twice, once in France, once in Italy—and so forth and so on. His routines both at home and at work are also repetitive in the extreme.

In Venice, where he takes his holiday, Vincent escapes his routines, but, ironically, this excursion of his crosses the circle of other people’s routines: a Venetian friend; his father’s old comrade, a retired concert pianist played very humorously by Iosseliani himself; the pickpocket. Venice is a problematic place for Vincent’s adventure, and viewers perhaps should know in advance that, unlike other films, this one imbues the city with no startling beauty or special charm. (The color cinematographer is William Lubtchansky, and he and Iosseliani conspire to give the film a consistently ordinary and appealingly natural look. There isn’t a pretty image throughout.) “Why Venice?” an interviewer has asked the director. Iosseliani’s reply: “To avoid reaching the Pyramids. Because Byzantium no longer exists. There is so little left of our past: Mussolini bombed the Parthenon, Istanbul has become Turkish. Venice still looks like a chocolate box, but it was once the territory of the Doges and the Bridge of Sighs—a bloodthirsty and very violent place where Marco Polo was imprisoned so he couldn’t reveal the secret formulas of spaghetti and gun powder. All that is left is tourism. . . . You have to climb onto the roofs of Venice to see the this city’s spirit.” Indeed, Vincent’s Venetian friend, acting here as Iosseliani’s surrogate, literally takes him onto a roof to show him the mysterious and provocative past: the Venice the tourists cannot see.

The pickpocketed Vincent gets no farther than Venice, although he creates the illusion of wider travels by sending various postcards home, all of which his wife, miffed, rips up without reading. (Her mother-in-law must break into her backyard-buried pot to get at her savings in order that the family may continue during her son’s absence from work.) This is among numerous implicit points in the film that contributes to its elliptical and elusive quality—a wondrous metaphor for the thread of his life that Vincent feels has slipped out of his grasp. How, for instance, do we know that Vincent doesn’t make it to Egypt despite his postcard home picturing the pyramids? Well, we know he has no money, and while we can interpolate his borrowing enough to get home, we can hardly imagine his borrowing enough to continue on an eastward journey. Also, he later mentions to his wife that he has seen his father twice. We ourselves have witnessed the first of these visits, when his father has Vincent open the safe and take out the money inside it. The second visit must have occurred immediately after Vincent’s return, when instead of proceeding with his adventure he, it’s reasonable to assume, would have had to explain to his father why there is no money whatsoever left for him to return. Throughout, the film is like that; so much isn’t spelled out. The overriding fact here, of course, is that Vincent has had his brief adventure, that indeed the pickpocketing incident was a part of that adventure that broke the uncharmed circle of his monotonous routine.

Upon his return home, despite a remark or two from mother and spouse, Vincent is greeted with the continuation of family routines. He isn’t castigated; he is permitted to slip right back in. The next morning, something happens that constitutes one of the most moving events in all of cinema. Before Vincent is about to scoot off to work, his wife kisses him for the first time in the film.

Back at work, Vincent cannot see what we see, but doubtless he can feel its effect: a stunning long shot of the fume-belching factory.

Monday Morning provides a brilliant example of one of the most critically important aspect of a filmmaker’s art: his use of the camera. Iosseliani’s moving, roving camera is exactly correlative to the riches of life—and humanity’s appetite for these—with which this life-affirming masterpiece abounds. It’s rare to see such a lovingly rendered film where the mise-en-scène seems so unmannered, “uncomposed”; what we see appears effortlessly lighted upon, adding to the sense of the film’s airy naturalism, which combines beautifully with all the odd touches, like the alligator that pops up, or the contingent of cossacks, seemingly out of time, singing in Russian at a table in the French bar. Both the camera and the mise-en-scène especially delight us, besides, because this is a genuine film, not a stage play or a television program. It is, in fact, virtually a silent film with sound effects. The dialogue is sparse, and so the visual aspect, disclosing Vincent’s life and his adventure and, as in a Yasujiro Ozu film, the humanity of all the relationships takes precedence over all else. We keep watching and watching and, in tune with Vincent, our surrogate, have a quiet, wonderful adventure of our own. The film assuages our loneliness a little, and this, too, helps bring us to a film that is, after all, about the lonely lives people lead even within a family and a community. You won’t find here a blunt assault on modern alienation. Iosseliani is sensitive to the low-keyed hum of contemporary alienation.

I regret to say I have thus far seen no other film by Iosseliani, either during his Soviet period (after short films, his first feature was banned, after which he went to sea and later worked in a foundry) or his French period,* although a few of the latter works have taken significant festival prizes. Monday Morning makes me want to see everything he has done. I agree with Andrei Tarkovsky that Iosseliani is one of the greatest film artists, a judgment the late Russian master arrived at without ever having seen Monday Morning.

To every single man, woman, boy and girl, Iosseliani’s cast is perfect, priceless. Particularly wonderful are Anne Kravz-Tarnavsky as Vincent’s wife, Narda Blanchet as Vincent’s mother, Dato Tarielashvili-Iosseliani (son? stepson?) as Vincent’s older son, Nicolas, and, above all, Jacques Bidou as Vincent. Who is this Jacques Bidou, who, fiftyish, never acted in a film before but gives a performance of such effortless humanity? He is the producer or executive producer of numerous French-African films, including one of the most brilliant films of the 1990s, Jean-Pierre Bekolo’s Aristotle’s Plot (1996), from Zimbabwe and Cameroon, and South African-born Raoul Peck’s Lumumba (2001), about the (Belgian) Congo leader, Patrice Lumumba. How rare the opportunity to put a face on a film producer! How did Iosseliani come up with such a choice for the lead role? He explains: “I admire Jacques Bidou for the work that he has produced and his uncompromising stance. Most of all, though, I admire him as a person.”

Miraculously, Iosseliani’s choice panned out. What luck. What humanity.

* This is no longer the case. This site includes at least three other entries on Iosseliani films.

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