By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “Radio On,” Plexifilm]
Rare is the film that endeavors to, and succeeds at, encapsulating a cultural and generational Zeitgeist not the “spirit” of movies or fashion or entertainment trends, but of life in the street, in the bars, in the underfurnished bedrooms and in-between meeting places populated by the age’s new grown-ups, caught somewhere between the burning questions of teenage-dom and evasive answers of adulthood. Wong Kar-Wai got famous making these movies in Hong Kong; the legacy of arthouse cinema, from Michelangelo Antonioni to Wim Wenders to Leos Carax and Gus Van Sant, is rich in Zeitgeisty goodness. Christopher Petit’s 1979 debut “Radio On” may be the subgenre’s purest tissue sample, because it freeze-dries England on the dusk of the punk era without seeming to try very hard (and does it at a time when British cinema was all but completely moribund). Supported by a nominal narrative, the movie is really a mood piece, viewing the British landscape with a gimlet eye and finding solace only in postpunk pop singles, which structure the movie much as they structure the day for Petit’s disenchanted contemporaries, and several generations of jaded kids since.
The music, always heard on LPs, cassettes or radio play, is by David Bowie, Kraftwerk, Lene Lovich, Devo, Robert Fripp, Ian Dury, etc.; the philosophically beautiful black and white images were shot by Martin Schafer, longtime behind-the-camera cohort to Wenders, who co-produced the film with the BFI. Schafer’s saturnine compositions may stand as the most gorgeous monochromatic cinematography ever shot in England, and the visions of industrial waste, semi-rural nowheresville, urban disconnectedness and late-capitalist angst state Petit’s position better than any narrative could. As it is, the story hardly tries a numb and introverted DJ (David Beames) drives in his old coup to Bristol to look into his brother’s mysterious suicide. Of course, he discovers nothing, except England itself along the way, home to lost immigrants, political fugitives (like Proll), hustlers, dispirited laborers and punks with nowhere to go. (As a service-station attendant still mourning the death of Eddie Cochrane, Sting makes his first film appearance.)
What “Radio On” gets at is difficult to articulate a mournful portrait of national anomie, a trapped-in-amber windshield view of a conflicted, self-esteem-challenged country in economic decline. Petit (who was a 70s film critic for Time Out in the UK) is strictly observational, whether it be via the unforgettably evocative roving-camera intro through the dead brother’s flat, set to Bowie’s “Heroes,” or the infinite variations on road-movie transcendentalism, as private car interiors are contrasted against the stark, inky landscapes through which they travel. Clues to history are honey-dripped throughout (a patch of glimpsed graffiti reads “Free Astrid Proll,” a railroaded member of the Communist splinter group the Baader-Meinhof Gang), but “Radio On” itself is something of a historical marker no film has ever captured that epochal time and place in more telling detail.
Or there’s Chabrolville, which despite septuagenarian French New Wave stalwart Claude Chabrol’s years remains forever in the present day. Given his doggedly consistent fascination with psychopathic crime intersecting with contemporary bourgeois lives, it’s a surprise to find that his recent film “The Bridesmaid” (2004) is only Chabrol’s second adaptation of one of mystery-doyenne Ruth Rendell’s novels (1995’s “La Ceremonie” was the first). It is, in any case, a psychodrama of typically brisk efficiency and relaxed gallows humor. The semi-functioning family at the center is sketched in responsible son (with incestuous lurkings) Benoît Magimel, high-spirited single mom Aurore Clément, bickering sisters before we meet the titular catalyst at a family wedding: Senta (Laura Smet), a sensuous but off-putting seductress with a mysterious past. Magimel is all pro, deciphering life with his eyes as the chump who gets vacuumed in by this odd girl’s impulsive devotions and Nietzschean delusions, but Smet, all eyelashes and butterscotch skin, is the film’s prize; she doesn’t act out the character’s slowly revealed pathologies so much as keep them barely contained behind her mesmerizing stare, like mad dogs in a cage. Chabrol sets us up, of course, which is half the fun, and the experience is a delight for lack of pomposity (his visual storytelling remains no-nonsense) as well as matter-of-fact genre expertise.
“Radio On” (Plexifilm) will be available on DVD on April 3rd; “The Bridesmaid” (First Run Features) is currently available on DVD.