11 October 2009

CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL '09: THE ECLIPSE (McPHERSON, IRELAND)

There's no such thing as a serious film festival run that entirely misses the occasional bad movie, but I am a bit disappointed that my first real clinker of 2009 happened so quickly. The film in question is The Eclipse, which I plugged into my schedule without reading the capsule, solely for the grave and considered reason that i wanted to be sure that I had an Irish movie. Though even if I'd actually taken a closer look at the thing, I might have still pulled the trigger: it stars Ciarán Hinds and Aidan Quinn! It was written by Conor McPherson! It got really good notices at Tribeca! It's a ghost story! It's an Irish ghost story!

It's also a suffocating, completely unimaginative 90 minute slog that all adds up to: what, exactly? I cannot tell. If there are any stakes in this drama, high or low, then I somehow managed to miss them; through it is presumably the case that this is the tale of a lonely single man learning how to reconnect with the big wide world around him, it would seem that the filmmakers were not so invested in that fact to bother foregrounding it to a place that the audience could actually notice it. Besides, McPherson's shockingly flat characterisation of this lonely single man, Michael Farr, is so simplistic that it leaves Hinds, an actor who is not of the best of his generation, maybe, but is usually quite enjoyable to watch, shackled in a mopey glower that seems to be all he can do with a character who never really expresses an emotion that isn't ultimately a synonym for "dour". Even when he is responding to some nightmare-spawned image of his still-living father-in-law as a rotting corpse in one of the movie's half-dozen or so jump scares, his mortal fright still manages to register as very hangdog fright.

Michael is a driver at the 11th Annual Cobh Literary Festival, where some of the anglophonic world's best and brightest writers meet in an unheard-of seaside town to do all the things that people do at festivals and conferences: spend an hour talking about your working and meeting fans, and then the rest of the multi-day stay getting roaringly drunk and screwing around with other festival attendees. This latter part certainly applies to two American, Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle), an author noted for her dramatically sensitive ghost stories, and Nicholas Holden (Quinn), whose particular genre is never really noted, although it is probably a very smug, assholey genre, like technocratic spy novels or sarcastic deconstructions of suburban mores or Twilight rip-offs, given that every single thing we see him do in the four days that the movie spans leads us to believe that he is a smug asshole himself, yammering on at a Q&A about the upcoming movie adaptation of one of his hugely bestselling books, and oh yeah, he was married the year before when he hooked up with Lena, and he still is, hasn't told his wife, and he's so shocked that Lena might not actually want to rekindle their old dalliance that he stalks her pretty much from the second that his plane lands, just to make sure she's not playing hard to get.

Michael spends some time driving both of these two, but he gets much more satisfaction out of his trips with Lena; she is a kindly sort, who listens when appropriate and says only smart and wise things when she speaks, and they forge a really nice little friendship over the course of the festival, the kind of friendship that could turn into something bigger at any second. This would already cause Michael some problems, we could expect - in the time since his wife died, he apparently hasn't so much as thought the word "woman" - and he has even more to deal with, in the form of those ghostly visitations from his wife's dad, alive and well in a nursing home, but still appearing occasionally to scare the shit out of Michael and leave him something of a nervous wreck every moment of every day.

In a film not lacking for major problems, here is what unquestionably bothered me the most about The Eclipse: why the ghosts? A question that cuts two ways. First, why are they appearing at this moment to Michael? Second, why are they present in the movie? I think the answer to the first question probably handles the second, but McPherson is deeply unconcerned with explaining either way. There's a late moment where it is implied that Michael needs the approval of his wife's ghost to actually move on with his life, but there is nothing indicating that this late moment has anything whatsoever to do with e.g. the moment where Michael is nearly sucked to hell via the floorboards in his wardrobe.

Lesser problems abound: the terrible matter of Nicholas, played without shame or restraint by Aidan Quinn in a startlingly caricatured performance, the character zips from foolish Romantic to pest to terrifying, rapey stalker with most unbecoming speed; and I expect this largely explains the actor's inability to keep the character from seeming like a cartoon. There's nothing else to his arc besides swinging madly from cliché to cliché. That Hinds is himself stuck in one mode I have said; indeed, the only actor who really gives a terribly credible performance is Hjejle, a Danish actress who has done very little that has made it to America; but her work in English is quite creditable. There's a certain leery sadness to her, mixed with an almost girlish fear of the dark. It's a tender performance in a movie desperately short on real emotions.

Visually, Ivan McCullough's cinematography is striking and full of nicely-toned shadows; but it is also a bit oppressive, like the gloomy feeling that permeates Michael had to be splayed across every frame of the movie as well. And because there's no real variation to the imagery, there's little distinction between the "horror" moments in the film, in which we are meant to share Michael's growing feeling of dread, with the "domestic" moments. The result is that there's never really any rising tension in us, so that when the jump scares occur, they are certainly startling, but also really cheap, and there's not much more that pisses me off than cheap scares. But anyway. The film is pointless, and close to being a total waste; just a bit of performance here, some shallow, handsome visuals there, and otherwise you have a film about ghosts that nobody can see, because the audience is too busy sleeping to pay attention.

5/10

3 comments:

Zev Valancy said...

That's a shame--McPherson is very highly regarded as a playwright (though I've somehow never managed to see one of his plays), and it would have bee nice if he'd made a good movie as well. Maybe the literalness of film was baffling to someone used to creating most of his scares with words? Hard to say.

One question though--how can a movie that's "pointless and close to being a total waste" still get 5/10?

Also, the phrase "shackled in a mopey glower that seems to be all he can do with a character who never really expresses and emotion that isn't ultimately a synonym for 'dour'" reminds me why I love criticism. Thanks much for that.

Tim said...

Handsome cinematography - even if in service of nothing or, as here, detrimental to the film - always counts for a least a few points in my book.

Dayna said...

I'm so disappointed! How could it not be great? I had to sleep with the closet light on after just reading the Weir.