Friday, March 14, 2014

La Moustache (Emmanuel Carrère, 2005)

Don't be fooled by the apparently innocuous title. Written and directed by first and foremost writer Emmanuel Carrère and based on his own novel, La Moustache is a powerful, unsettling film that will make you feel uneasy long after the end credits have rolled.

The premise is disarmingly simple: one day Marc decides to shave off his mustache for a change. At first he conceals for fun what he's done to his wife Agnès, bowing himself while doing his shoes up or hiding his face behind a towel. When Agnès finally sees his face, to Marc's great astonishment she doesn't notice any change. What is worse, all his friends as well cannot remember him ever sporting mustache.

Understandably, the situation triggers a series of misunderstandings between Marc and Agnès. He gets paranoid, convinced as he is to be the victim of an elaborate prank. In turn, she suspects her husband is suffering from a hallucinatory state. We as viewers always share Marc's point of view, so that we must necessarily take what he sees or hears with a grain of salt. A little bump on his forehead is possibly another warning about his sanity.

(*Spoiler Alert*)

However, figuring out where the truth lies proves a difficult, if not impossible task for us, since the unfolding events oscillate continuously between two irreconcilable versions: a photo album of a holiday in Bali seems to be the definitive evidence that Marc sported mustache, but his inability to trace his parents' home - although in the middle of a downpour - is a further reminder that we'd better not rely on his point of view.

But does a reliable point of view exist in this story after all? The main problem is that objects themselves seem to have lost their significance. A photo album, or Marc's cut out mustache recovered from a garbage can - unlike what would happen in a CSI-like police procedural - don't account for evidence anymore, at least no more than words or remembrances.

In this case, mathematics might be a useful tool to analyze how the director works. The famous Gödel's incompleteness theorems state - to keep it simple - that a system with certain properties, say the set of natural numbers {1, 2, 3...}, cannot be complete and consistent at the same time. In other words, in a world without contradictions there is always a statement that cannot be proved within the rules of the system itself, i.e. that statement is undecidable. Proceeding according to this principle, Carrère seems to start from the following question: What if a trivial fact - let's say a man shaving or not shaving off his mustache - was undecidable? Then, he explores the extreme consequences of this set-up.

Given the premise's instability, other events as well begin to oscillate between reality and non-reality in a sort of chain reaction. Let's consider the photos of Bali: their existence would confirm Marc's version, while their non-existence would support Agnès'. As a consequence, they necessarily fall into undecidability too, and that's why we never get a doubt-dispelling scene where they examine the photos together. The same happens with the persons who could easily verify the protagonist's version - his parents, friends Serge and Nadia - who float nebulously in indeterminacy. So Marc and Agnès inhabit two parallel worlds: one where they have been on holiday in Bali, Marc sports mustache and his father is alive, and another one where just the opposite happens. In mathematical terms we are dealing with two different systems, depending on whether we accept the existence of Marc's mustache as an axiom or not.

However, the movie does much more than simply providing a mind game to solve. By means of a non-realistic plot device, it truthfully depicts a couple's crisis, pointing out how frustration and diffidence can create a wall of incomprehension between two universes that once intersected. The restaurant scene is key in that it vividly explains the characters' lack of communication with a synesthesia. During the dinner, punctuated by Philip Glass' ominous score, Agnès compares to color blindness her distorted perceptions about the food's taste. It is also a hint to a chromatic leitmotif of the film: red and green - typically the colors that color blind persons are unable to distinguish - are often combined to achieve an effect of uneasiness and displacement. Later in the film, Marc admits the deficiency of his perspective, too. During his voluntary exile in Hong Kong, he tellingly writes in a postcard addressed to his wife: "Without your eyes, I don't see anything". Images of reflecting waters insistently overlapping with Marc's thoughts bespeak once more the impossibility of a clear vision.

Like in Dalí and Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou, in Carrère's film a "cutting moment" fires a sequence of events that defy traditional logic. However, by the end the couple's integrity is somehow re-established: as Marc is trying to build a sort of routine in Hong Kong again, Agnès mysteriously reappears out of the blue in his hotel room. At this point, the unsent postcard parallels the mustache at the beginning: it threatens to wreck once again the cohesiveness of their universe, being the only tangible connection with a contradictory, uncomfortable past. Anyway, this time Marc chooses to preserve his newly-recovered routine by throwing the postcard into the sea, but at the expense of truthfulness. This circular pattern is highlighted many times in the film. In one scene, circular takes of Marc sleeping are intercut with shots of the spinning drum of a washing machine, while the protagonist's back-and-forths with the ferry boat in Hong Kong can be interpreted as an attempt to restore a cyclical pattern in his life.

Interestingly, Carrère's La Moustache and Haneke's Caché were both presented at the Cannes Film Festival the same year. In different ways, they both challenge our desire of a coherent explanation of the events we witness. Far from being only sterile exercises in style, they are both vivid portraits of couples struggling with essentially unsolvable issues that ultimately only voluntary oblivion can mend.

No comments:

Post a Comment