Tomorrow night Doc Films will screen Days and Nights in the Forest, one of Indian director Satyajit Ray’s greatest accomplishments, and on Friday Hong Sang-soo’s minimalist Grass opens at the Gene Siskel Film Center for a weeklong run. What do these movies have in common? For one thing neither seems particularly interested in storytelling—both feel like collections of social observations, organized around the characters’ unforced behavior. (Both films are, in fact, exquisitely written, developing themes and even subtle suspense through the careful sequencing of nonevents.) It speaks to the power of cinema that narrative filmmakers can achieve greatness without obvious plotting. In the right hands, the intricacies of performance, visual composition, and atmosphere can be more than enough to sustain a motion picture.
For many cinephiles, Yasujirō Ozu will always be the master of the “plotless”narrative. Viewers remember his run of postwar masterpieces for their meditative quality, their ability (to paraphrase Roger Ebert) to blur the distinction between stillness and movement. Yet there are countless ways that filmmakers can create something out of nothing. For Éric Rohmer and the directors he inspired, verbose conversation can present clues to the characters’ pasts and their desires for the future. For Chantal Akerman, looking long and hard at seemingly trivial routines can provide insight into the social codes that govern our behavior. Below are five capsules from the Reader archives of movies that contain few events of obvious consequence but which manage to speak multitudes.
The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice The dissolution of a Japanese marriage: the wife complains of her husband’s dull provincialism, the husband chafes under his wife’s western pretensions. Yasujirō Ozu’s delicate melodramas (this one dates from his finest period, 1952) avoid any sense of cliché in their restrained, sometimes painfully subtle study of family relationships. Ozu is the master of a difficult and austere style, in which the lack of camera movement sometimes speaks more than the elaborate techniques of his contemporaries. —Dave Kehr
La Collectionneuse The fourth episode of Éric Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales” series (actually the third in order of shooting, and the first of feature length). Haydée, the “collector” of the title, is a young woman who hoards sexual experiences, though she refuses to sleep with either of the two stuffy males with whom she shares a villa. Rohmer’s impossibly light, graceful way of posing profound moral questions hasn’t yet wholly coalesced, though this 1967 film does have his soft, slow rhythm. With Patrick Bauchau and Daniel Pommereulle. —Dave Kehr
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles Chantal Akerman’s greatest film—made in 1975 and running 198 minutes—is one of those lucid puzzlers that may drive you up the wall but will keep you thinking for days or weeks. Delphine Seyrig, in one of her greatest performances, plays Jeanne Dielman, a Belgian woman obsessed with performing daily rounds of housework and other routines (including occasional prostitution) in the flat she occupies with her teenage son. The film follows three days in Dielman’s regulated life, and Akerman’s intense concentration on her daily activities—monumentalized by Babette Mangolte’s superb cinematography and mainly frontal camera setups—eventually sensitizes us to the small ways in which her system is breaking down. By placing so much emphasis on aspects of life and work that other films routinely omit, mystify, or skirt over, Akerman forges a major statement, not only in a feminist context but also in a way that tells us something about the lives we all live. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Slacker Richard Linklater’s delightfully different and immensely enjoyable second feature (1991) takes us on a 24-hour tour of the flaky dropout culture of Austin, Texas; it doesn’t have a continuous plot, but it’s brimming with weird characters and wonderful talk (which often seems improvised, though it’s all scripted by Linklater, apparently with the input of some of the participants, as in his later Waking Life). The structure of dovetailing dialogues calls to mind an extremely laid-back variation of Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty or Jacques Tati’s Playtime. “Every thought you have fractions off and becomes its own reality,”remarks Linklater himself to a poker-faced cabdriver in the first (and in some ways funniest) scene, and the remainder of the movie amply illustrates this notion with its diverse paranoid conspiracy and assassination theorists, serial-killer buffs, musicians, cultists, college students, pontificators, petty criminals, street people, and layabouts (around 90 in all). Even if the movie goes nowhere in terms of narrative and winds up with a somewhat arch conclusion, the highly evocative scenes give an often-hilarious sense of the surviving dregs of 60s culture and a superbly realized sense of a specific community. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
The River In Rebels of the Neon God (1992) and Vive l’Amour (1994), Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang followed Lee Kang-sheng, a young, nonprofessional actor, through the streets of Taipei. A seductive misfit, an alienated urban dweller struggling with loneliness and sexual identity, Lee is reunited in this 1997 feature with his fictional family from the first film. The mother (Lu Hsiao-ling) works as an elevator operator and seeks solace and affection in a trite affair with a porn-video salesman; the father (Miao Tien, a former kung fu actor), now retired, cruises Taipei’s fast-food restaurants and bathhouses for young male bodies; and Lee, against his better judgment, agrees to play a corpse floating in a dirty river to help a commercial film director (Ann Hui). As always in Tsai’s films, water means trouble, excess, passion: as soon as Lee dips into the river he experiences excruciating pain in his neck and shoulders, which traditional Chinese medicine is powerless to cure. Meanwhile a leaky faucet wreaks havoc in the father’s bedroom, but since the members of the family barely talk to one another, nothing is done about it until the dark, moving, unexpected climax. Filmed in a single cut, with the minimal sounds of breathing and rustling paper, this scene is one of the most beautiful, disturbing, yet tender produced by contemporary Taiwanese cinema. A quiet masterpiece. —Berenice Reynaud v