by Ryland Walker Knight
Two very different films that linked up rather well before and after lunch yesterday. It's hard to compare them at first glance but there's something going on in that programming choice beyond the masculine masterpiece of old followed by a pretty smart contemporary comedy populated primarily with women. A quick reduction: Sternberg's phenomenal understanding of the cinema as material as much as medium gives his mise-en-scene a palpable quality of light (whites burn, blacks pool, smoke hangs dense), and amplifies the melodrama in ways you don't see now. Leigh's new film is just so full of affection (the camera pushes in close and stays there) for its characters that I could not resist its hilarious and stubbornly optimistic embrace of this world, which elevates its perhaps simple story. I was pretty giddy, and touched: both films subscribe to that notion that life is worth living, and loving, even when it gets ugly, despite the troubles of acting in the world (with other people, by its rules, as love). Both offer enormous generosity towards their characters, but each takes a different tack to profess the frequent failure but persistent drive to love everything that pushes lives forward: The Last Command is a tragedy structured around loss (of memory, of capacities, of meaning) that ends with a (rather triumphant and restorative) death while Happy-Go-Lucky is a comedy of manners, of sorts, structured around lessons about how to move within the world with productive, joyful creativity. Plus, Sally Hawkins is nothing but lovely, even when she's annoying, because her Poppy really seems to believe that there's good to do, even if it's just putting your smile into the world.