The Duellists (1977)

Ridley Scott is a truly intriguing case. How can the director of Blade Runner and Alien go on to create mediocrities like Exodus: Gods and Kings and The Counselor? Why is it that his career has been so uneven and inconsistent? I haven’t the slightest clue. What I do know, however, is that his earliest works are the ones that will forever be regarded as his masterpieces, as the films that cemented Scott’s place in the pantheon of film makers. The Duellists is one of those films, even if it is one of his more obscure and largely forgotten works. It isn’t a cult classic like Blade Runner, or a trend-setter like Alien. It is more an exercise in style than in innovation, but is nevertheless one of the most impressive debuts in film history.

The Duellists follows the story of a small feud between two officers in Napoleon’s army, d’Hubert and Feraud. The cause of this quarrel is insignificant, as Feraud claims to have had his honor slighted by d’Hubert during their very first encounter. What follows is a series of duels, set in different parts of the world, that stretches over more than two decades. One might imagine that the dueling would become quite dull after the first few engagements, but that assumption would be quite far from the truth. The novelty of their fights never wears off. The circumstances of their battles change with each iteration, weapons switch, as do the rules of their duels. But the main focus of these bouts of saber-rattling and gun slinging isn’t the physical act of fighting, it’s what this fighting represents for the two men. Their first duel is quick and largely impersonal, it looks and feels much like the opening scene of the movie in which Feraud battles and defeats an unnamed character. The monotony of this fight is broken in its very end, when d’Hubert prepares to deliver the final blow, by Feraud’s wife. She lunges at d’Hubert and scratches at his face, saving her husband. This interruption, this break with normality, serves as the introduction to their unusually long rivalry.

The most memorable round is also their most bloody. Unlike previous duels, we’re introduced to this one after its beginning, we’re thrown in the middle of a frantic spar in a dimly lit barn. Both men are wounded, heaving and striking at each other ferociously. Their lives are at their lowest at that point, and the fight represents their mental state. Each blow is vicious, delivered with both hands and with as much strength as possible. This is also the first fight that becomes almost intimately physical as they desperately tackle each other trying to get ahead. The camera is hand held, the editing is at its most frantic, the score is tense and thriller-like. All this, combined with the choreography and the fact that Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine both did their own stunts, makes for an incredibly kinetic scene that delivers on all fronts. This practice of using fight scenes as a means of exploring the character’s psyche was later used to even greater effect by Scorsese in Raging Bull where Jake LaMotta is, in the words of the late Roger Ebert, “…a man with paralyzing jealousy and sexual insecurity, for whom being punished in the ring serves as confession, penance and absolution.” But, unlike LaMotta, d’Hubert and Feraud do not seek penance or absolution. Their feud is utterly absurd, even by d’Hubert own admission.

The absurdity of the feud is what makes The Duellists a truly special movie. Instead of focusing on the psychology of the men or wading too far into anti-war territory, Scott explores the way this obsession affects both of them separately, the queer relationship that arises from their frequent battles, the mutual respect that develops over time. It’s a case of protagonist and antagonist establishing a connection at a fundamental level, even if not purposely. There’s a deep beauty to this film, it explores something very human, very natural. It doesn’t look at society as a whole, it doesn’t bite off more than it can chew. Instead, it looks at the way life can spiral out of control by no fault of our own through the character of d’Hubert, as well as the cyclical nature of violence towards the end of the movie when Feraud stands on the edge of a cliff and contemplates the way his obsession drove him, how it framed his life and completely consumed him. This last shot is incredibly meaningful because it doubles as a commentary on the pointlessness of war without being overt or obvious. It’s a reference to a painting of Napoleon Bonaparte on St. Helena by Francois Joseph-Sandmann, as he watches the ship that got him there sailing away. His lengthy campaign amounted to nothing and his life returns to the monotony of balance and normality.

Some have called The DuellistsBarry Lyndon-lite”. It’s easy to see the parallels. The setting, the decor, the way that interiors are shot with seemingly natural light emitted by candles or by the rays of the sun coming in through the windows. There are plenty of establishing, wide-angle shots that show the character slowly making his way through the big world, but these similarities are merely visual, the effect they have on the picture is very, very different. Barry Lyndon is a Kubrick movie, and as such it bears the distinct feeling of cynical detachment that Kubrick is known for. It’s almost as if an alien is looking at the lives of humans, coldly judging them from a distance. The Duellists is much more intimate. There are plenty of close-ups and moments of emotion taking precedence over logic and sound judgement. That said, Scott’s film does indeed owe much to Barry Lyndon in terms of the way that d’Hubert’s life is portrayed in the later parts of the film. The way that the camera shows up early on in the scene, showing characters just sitting around or going about their business puts an emphasis on naturalism and realism, and that is something that Barry Lyndon had in spades.

Overall, The Duellists is a brilliant film that served as a stepping stone for Scott on his way to creating two of the most influential films of the past 50 years. It’s refined and beautiful, though it does not truly reach very far. More than worth a watch for anyone looking for a good historical drama.

Under 800: The Tree of Life (2011)

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is quite possibly the most frustrating, uneven movie I’ve ever seen. It was also the most profound cinematic experience I’ve ever had.

As Preisner’s Lacrimosa crescendos, the dust finally settles. What started off as a slightly confusing sequence showing the birth of everything that is, turns into a visualization of the grandeur of existence. We see galaxies in their full brilliance from impossible angles that make the viewer feel immaterial, a ghost flying through the beauty of this finite Universe that we have found ourselves in. We see the clouds of creation, we move towards them, through them, despite their size, despite the physical impossibility of it all. It was at this moment, as Lacrimosa reached its very peak, that I felt The Tree of Life had achieved something unimaginably profound and meaningful – it had dwarfed the viewer. It’s a visual experience that beats even Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s art in its most raw, unfettered form, and it’s cinema as Tarkovsky saw it – no symbolism, no ideology or attempts to make a point, no place for rationalization or coherent thought. It’s an emotional experience that gives a sort of nebulous appreciation for the very essence of being and nothingness. It’s not something that can be precisely put into words, because it’s not meant to be. I urge everyone to watch at least the first 40 minutes of The Tree of Life.

And this is where the frustration sets in. The rest of the film focuses on the life of an American small town family in the 1950s. Mr and Mrs O’Brien have three kids and we see them growing up, but the story is mostly told from the point of view of Young Jack, the oldest of the children. He goes through multiple phases during his adolescence, from witnessing the death of one of his friends and questioning the existence of God at a rather tender age, to praying for his father’s death and even considering bringing it about himself. Sounds interesting enough, right?

Except it isn’t. What we get is a jumbled mess of poor cinematography and unlikable characters. Constant close up shots, dutch angles and poor cutting and editing make the experience a particularly jarring one, as the viewer struggles to understand what’s happening on-screen. The themes this latter part of the movie explores aren’t particularly hard to spot. There’s contemplation on the constant cycle of life and death (which is a recurring theme even outside of the family’s story, as evidenced by the frequent underwater shots of overhead waves, penetrated by rays of light, and the pitch black transition shots that linger long enough to make their presence known) and its effect on those of us left behind after a person’s passing; there’s religion, spirituality, a child’s realization that their childhood is slipping away from them and there’s nothing they can do to stop the process, innocence, anger, the list goes on. And that’s exactly the problem – while trying to tackle almost every single aspect of human nature, The Tree of Life fails to flesh out and truly explore any one of them. The result is the cinematic equivalent of name dropping during a rap song. It’s void of any sort of substance to the point where it’s almost insulting at times. I firmly believe that the only driving force behind this part of the movie is the viewer’s imagination and projection. I could definitely understand someone who grew up in the same environment enjoying this part of The Tree of Life, but it did very little for me. I appreciate what Malick wanted to achieve here, but it just felt like a complete mess, despite the interesting yet underdeveloped themes. Oh, and there’s Sean Penn’s part of the movie that is somewhat confusing, to the point where even he’s admitted he had no idea what he was doing.

And this isn’t to say I disliked this movie. If I were to compile a list of my ten favorite films of all time, The Tree of Life would be a strong contender for a spot in it. If only because the first half of it left me awestruck and managed to transport me into a place that’s both real and magical at the same time. In a sense, The Tree of Life suffers from the Full Metal Jacket syndrome. Kubrick’s film about the Vietnam war also starts off incredibly strong, a beautiful look into the way young men’s identities were subverted and replaced by predatory instincts. The main character of that first part is Pvt. Leonard Lawrence, who is out of shape and out of depth in the military world. He’s bullied, beaten and shamed into complete madness and, in his madness, kills Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, a vile man with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, before turning the rifle on himself in a haunting scene that showcased the cold determination of a suicidal man. Then the movie moves on to Vietnam and loses a lot of its steam, though the drop-off isn’t even close to being as steep as that of The Tree of Life. Are both of these movies worth watching? Definitely. But don’t be surprised if you’re left feeling that they could’ve been so, so much more.