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The Uncivil Servant: End-of-the-Year Films to See

Mitchell Abidor
January 3, 2015

by Mitchell Abidor

c5c5d07c-0394-4362-bc39-02a8e84977daTHE YEAR PAST wasn’t a great year for film, but ended with a flurry of releases by some of the most important filmmakers working today.

The best of them is Two Days, One Night by the Belgians Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Sandra (pictured at right, played by brilliant Marion Cotillard, intentionally drab) wants to return to work after a medical leave for depression, but the bosses have decided that her return should be put to a vote: she can return, but if she does so the workers at her solar panel factory will lose their annual 1000 euro bonus. The film follows Sandra as she meets with her coworkers to obtain their support, and we suffer along with her through every second of her journeys. She meets resistance from many of her colleagues, and the Dardenne brothers take no cheap shots at those who prefer their bonus; they are suffering and can’t afford to lose the money, which as one of them says, can cover his utility bills for a year. The word “solidarity” never appears in the film, and even those who support Sandra do it not from any ideological reasons (with the exception of one African immigrant, who credits his support to his Christian beliefs), but rather from strictly personal ones: she asks her fellows simply to put themselves in her place. The film demonstrates how capitalism has won, reducing life to a zero-sum game, where my gain is your loss and where Sandra is blamed by her peers for placing the workers before such a terrible choice — not the owner and foreman, who are the ones who actually set the conditions. Capital carries the day once the battle is worker against worker. The Dardennes don’t twist reality to meet their beliefs, and the result is as moving a film as can be imagined.

2014, MR. TURNERMike Leigh’s Mr. Turner gives us a brutally human portrait of the great painter JMW Turner. There is nothing effete about the artist: played enthrallingly by Timothy Spall, he is a rutting, grunting, Cockney whose speech is littered with malapropisms and whose lumbering walk and turned up snout perfectly express his personality. Spall’s performance is brutally physical, and so is the art, as we see Turner spitting, smearing, scratching at his canvases. Art, we are reminded, is a product of labor, labor of a special kind and a special genius: Turner looks at one of his canvases on display and place a red daub on it and walks away, stunning the other artists in the room who are puzzled by his marring of the painting. He returns later, touches the daub, which is converted into a buoy, and the painting is perfect. As is Mr. Turner.

KEY-winter-sleep-086454-©-nuri-bilge-ceylan-0-2000-0-1125-cropNURI BLIGE CEYLAN is perhaps the greatest filmmaker working today, and his Winter Sleep (a curious choice, since the Turkish title is Hibernation, which works perfectly), an adaptation of Chekhov set in the wilds of Anatolia, adds to his luster. Aydin, a wealthy retired actor (his wealth inherited) runs a bizarrely beautiful hotel and has a considerably younger, discontented wife (the Chekhov story that serves as the film’s basis is “The Wife”). The film is one of set pieces, of lengthy discussions in which Aydin reveals himself to be indolent, cruel, and selfish, with the occasional (mean-spirited) burst of generosity. He never does anything for himself throughout the nearly 3 ½ hours of the film: never drives, makes a cup of tea or coffee, cooks or carries a suitcase: everything is his due. His graying handsomeness explains why his beautiful young wife would originally be with him; his egoism explains why they live apart in the same home. All the elements of a great Russian novel are made Turkish here — including the length, which is perhaps excessive.

leviathanFinally, there is Andrey Zvyagintsev’s devastating Leviathan. Set in the Russian north, the Leviathan of the title is both the whale bones we see on the shore and the omnipotent Russian state, from which Nikolay is attempting to save his home and business. If Ceylan’s Turkish Russia is one of long talks in dim light, Zvyagintsev’s is the one we more commonly think of as Russia today: corrupt, brutal, drunken; one where the citizen has as much chance fighting the authorities as he does a whale, nay, less of a chance. Bribes, beatings, and murder are common currency, all carried out by the state and covered by the Church. As Putin looks down from the town’s mayor’s walls as he confiscates a man’s life. Life here is, indeed, as Hobbes write in his Leviathan, nasty, brutish, and short.

Mitchell Abidor is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his forthcoming translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His Anarchists Never Surrender, an anthology of anarchist writings by Victor Serge, is about to be published.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.