Friday, July 03, 2009

ELDORADO—A Critical Overview

The San Francisco Film Society's longstanding working relationship with Film Movement ensures the theatrical exhibition of several festival-lauded films on the Sundance Kabuki's SFFS Screen. For this, Bay Area audiences should be especially grateful. Recently, Film Movement's collaboration with SFFS provided Munyurangabo; this week they're providing Eldorado (July 3-9); and in future weeks they'll be providing encore screenings of both La Ventana (July 17-23) and Lake Tahoe (July 24-30), which were featured at the 52nd edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival.

This week's entry, Belgian director Bouli Lanners' Eldorado—a "small but damn-near perfectly formed serio-comedy" (Leslie Felperin,
Variety)—was selected for the 40th anniversary of the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs (Directors' Fortnight) at the 2008 61st Cannes Film Festival where it won Best European Film. Eldorado was likewise the official entry from Belgium for the 81st Annual Academy Awards (Oscars®), received a special mention at Italy's Pesaro Film Festival, and was nominated for a César for Best Foreign Feature.

Bouli Lanners—as profiled when Eldorado was featured in the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs—was born in Belgium in 1965, opposite an orchard. Painter, autodidact, he worked in a wide variety of jobs on film sets before becoming popular on Canal+Belgium with Les Snuls. Since then, he has directed films and played supporting parts in Belgian and French films. In 1999, he wrote and directed Travellinckx, a black and white Super 8 road movie which traveled the international festival trail. Two years later, Muno confirmed the director's singularity and was selected for the Directors' Fortnight. Not only has he directed Eldorado, but he is also the film's screenwriter, and one of its two lead actors.

With Eldorado, Lanners returns to the genre of the road film to express his sad, absurd tale of temporary companionship on route to disparate destinies. The skillful balance between humor and melancholy is—as Felperin states it—"just so" and the film "never puts a wrong foot forward in the direction of sentimentality or cliche." Plot points "that cruder hands might have milked for more pathos" are "unfussily revealed." As Melissa Anderson states in her
Village Voice review: "When the traveling companions reveal their backstories, the monologues avoid mawkishness, further upending all low expectations of this frequently trite genre. In its final act, Lanners's film is smart and confident enough to acknowledge that certain lives are dead ends, while others get tired of just spinning their wheels."

Though Slant's Joseph Jon Lanthier found the film flawed for its "sheer incredulity", he astutely acknowledged the "visual chemistry" successfully (and comically) engendered by the "mismatched physiques" of the film's two leads: Yvan (played by Lanners) is "beefy", "overweight and unkempt", whereas Elie (Fabrice Adde) is "smack-scrawny", "incompetent" and "pathetic." In a Cineuropa interview with Aurore Engelen, Lanners admitted he was "immediately touched by Adde's "beanpole appearance" when they first met. He added: "Our Laurel and Hardy-like duo interested me, for it had definite comic potential. It was a question of striking the right balance so as to avoid crude parody, whilst still infusing a sense of humor." Lanthier picks up on the Laurel & Hardy riff, describing it as "bewhiskered" and "bohemian."

Not only is the visual chemistry between the two lead actors notable, but the beautiful and desolate summertime landscape of the Wallonia region of Belgium—"filmed to resemble a miniaturized American West" (Stephen Holden, New York Times)—is contrasted against claustrophobic car interiors. Lanners explained in his interview with Engelen: "[T]he car is a sort of artificial cocoon in which the characters come into close contact with each other. It acts as a catalyst in the relationship between Yvan and Elie. Trapped inside the car, they are forced to listen to one another and communicate. We were originally supposed to shoot the film in a Cadillac Eldorado (whence the title), as it fitted the mood of the film." This contrast between exterior and interior shots stages a compelling visual tension. Lanthier states: "[E]ffectively placed edits juxtapose wide shots of the overcast Belgian countryside with tight, in-vehicle close-ups to emphasize the characters' isolation—as though the duo has been expelled from the rural Eden in their very midst as a punishment for their social atrophy." At Trustmovies, James van Maanen observes that the wide-screen format used by Lanners and his cinematographer Jean-Paul de Zaetijd "produce some memorable vistas", yet the view the audience takes away is precisely "interior." He articulates: "The bond that forms between the two stems from the need and desire to help, and this keeps the movie on a kind of moral ground from which it never veers."

That bond is particularly poignant for being so fugacious and—before the final act's reveal—nearly mysterious. The look Yvan gives Elie when he recognizes the boy is an incompetent heroin addict—a look that seems almost like Yvan has fallen in love—belies a commitment limned with regretful hindsight. Matched against a countenance of concerned resignation at film's end, a depth trembles in Eldorado's seeming insouciance. The haphazard and absurd adventures of their shared road trip converts into precise meaning and acquired insight.

"Once Yvan and Elie reach their destination," Stephen Holden writes, "Eldorado turns into a sad contemplation of fractured family relationships and eternal regrets. Elie's mother (Françoise Chichéry) regards her wastrel son with the stricken look of a woman who knows in her bones that he is doomed but loves him with a hopeless desperation. When Elie briefly disappears and we hear in the background the shouts of a savage father-son battle, the mother clutches Yvan's hand, her eyes wild with grief and terror." What makes this scene so wrenching, however, is that the camera is held tight on the two of them looking at each other as they overhear the argument, and only belatedly backs away to reveal that they have been grasping each others' hands. And when Yvan drives away from Elie's parents' home, Elie looks back bereaved, muttering, "Mama." The breadth of this scene is devastating.

Holden interprets this as a reflection on "the consequences of forsaking human (especially family) connections to go it alone in the world. Because Yvan understands the personal cost of ignoring ties that bind until it's too late, he tries to be an older brother to Elie. But for men fleeing pain for the freedom of the wide open spaces, whether of Montana or Wallonia, the movie suggests, the price of that freedom may be an unbearable loneliness."

If, for some reason, you're unable to catch Eldorado at the SFFS Screen, Film Movement will be
releasing the film on DVD come July 14th, 2009.

Cross-published on

1 comment:

Michael Hawley said...

I'm really looking forward to seeing this on the SFFS Screen later this week -- my anticipation heightened by this excellent overview. Thanks!