Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Mar 31, 2022 4:17 pm 
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Lapid grows more personal and more angry in the second of two taunts directed at his native Israel

For his last movie, Synonyms, the Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid found Tom Mercier,* a startlingly confident and impressive-looking young, untried actor accomplished in dance and judo. For his new one, called, rather deceptively, Ahed's Knee, he had no one but himself, or, that is, a stand-in for himself in the person of a director called "Y" (Avshalom Pollak). He doesn't go to Paris; he stays in Israel, where he is initially seen at work on a video installation about a teenaged Palestinian girl jailed and maimed (with a smashed knee) for slapping an Israeli soldier - a film he can't make.

Pollak, with his trim frame, wiry gray hair, and far-off eyes, has his face literally in our faces throughout. The same cinematographer, Shai Goldman, who pursued Mercier rough-shod around Paris, follows Pollak out into the bled, where "Y" comes to present one of his films at a library. Pollak is almost as photogenic as he is intense. He hasn't the talents or the physicality of Mercier, but his anger, putatively channeling more directly that of Lapid himself, carries him through. This movie is about this anger and that is its motive force and power.

In Synonymes, Mercier 's character, Yoav, sneaks somewhat inexplicably into Paris to get away from Israel, which he despises, and adopt France as his country and French as his language. Lapid has explained that he tried on such a pose himself once briefly (he went to Paris after studying philosophy at Tel Aviv University and then performing military service). His reasons were his own for adopting Paris and French. Though the film doesn't make this explicit, such a transformation is more logical for Mercier, who, as his name shows, actually is French on his father's side - connected with forebears who fought bravely for France in World War I.

These trappings are dropped in the much simpler and briefer traffic of the screen in Ahed's Knee. There's just the desert, a lake, pebbles, and a young woman library official from the region, Yahalom David (Nur Fibak) sent by the all-powerful Ministry of Culture to greet "Y" and, more importantly get him to toe the line - sign a document that will restrict the range of topics he can discuss during his appearance with the film. This enrages "Y" and is the pretext for a cloud of condemnations hurled down on the government and people of Israel, both of whom he sees as in a continual progress of self- and externally-exposed dumbing-down. Since that was only the starting point of Synonyms, this might seem a considerably more provocative film from the Israeli point of view.

But is it? The credits that come with the movie indicate government approval. And though the rant is far lengthier, still the most grievous faults of the country, its longtime mistreatment of the Palestinian people and seizure of their lands and property, its total economic dependence on the US, are never mentioned here. What is mentioned is "Y's" mother suffering from cancer, a reference to the filmmaker's own material collaborator and her own sufferings.

Despite the strong presence of the desert, handsomely photographed by dp Goldman, and the brief appearance of a crowd from the film showing, hostile when "Y's" tricky exposure of government repression threatens also the job of home-girl Yahalom, Ahed's Knee has a strong theatrical quality. It never achieves anything as cinematic and visually memorable as the opening sequence of Yoav's bath and naked wanderings in the Haussmannian apartment complex in Synonyms. It leaves us with a somewhat blurry cri de coeur. And yet, its anger's nonetheless real, and its form very bold. One can sympathize with Make D'Angelo's notes: "AHED’S KNEE is divisive; as someone who found Lapid’s previous films overbearing, I paradoxically loved this one, in which he cranks his formal aggression to 11." One sees the point also of Richard Brody, in describing this as the tale of "a filmmaker's crackup" and calling it "emotionally intense, intellectually incisive, and physically demanding." Yet cinematically it can still be disappointing.

Seeing Ahed's Knee on the big screen leaves one shocked and numbed by its angry shouting, accusations, and loud pop music, but the brief time frame and limited character development provide less to remember than Synonyms. It led me to rewatch that to again savor Mercier's sexy theatricality, and again see how the glow of the opening scenes is strong enough to hold together the relatively fluffy later sequences. Mercier decided - unlike the young post-army Lapid - to remain in France, and his career has continued. It's included a strange French sci-fi miniseries called "La Corde" (The Rope), a moody film of nocturnal Paris called Ma Nuit, and Luca Guadagnino's engaging, complex HBO series, "We Are Who We Are," set in Chioggia, Italy, perhaps the most richly specific depiction ever of life at a US military base abroad. In "We Are Who We Are," Mercier plays Jonathan Kritchevsky, a transplanted Israeli who has become a US Army NCO under the authority of Chloë Sevigny's lesbian unit commander who forms a brief, teasingly sexual connection with her son Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer), one of the two self-questioning 14-year-olds who are the show's co-protagonists.

Ahed's Knee (Hebrew: הַבֶּרֶךְ‎, romanized: Ha'berech, "The Knee"), 109 mins., debuted n Competition at Cannes Jul. 7, 2021, sharing the Jury Prize with Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Memoria. Also shown at Warsaw, Karlovy Vary, Toronto, the NYFF, Yerevan (as opening film), Busan, London, Gent, Montreal, and 9 other festivals. It opened theatrically in France Sept. 15, 2021, in the US Mar. 18, 2021. AlloCiné press rating 3.5 (70%), Metacritic rating was 76%. (Now up to 79%...and now 80%...)
*Mercier credits since include his role as Jonathan in Luca Guadagnino's great HBO series, "We Are Who We Are."

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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