Wednesday, September 10, 2008

La Lettre



La Lettre (The Letter)
Directed by Michel Gondry, France, 1998. 10:19 minutes.


La Lettre, which marked Gondry's first attempt at dialogue, was commissioned by Canal +, a French television program, as a part of short film series broadly titled "En attendant l'an 2000" (Waiting for the Year 2000).

The film is, for the most part, very simple. Two brothers have a conversation in hushed voices, during which they discuss the imminent New Year, photography, and the younger brother’s love for his classmate, Aurélie. The dynamic between the brothers is typically...well...brotherly. The older brother (who I thought was strikingly reminiscent of Buzz McAllister in Home Alone) is gangly and appears to have just begun to develop a smear of a mustache. He makes Stéphane feel insecure for not yet having kissed a girl, pressuring him to make his move on Aurélie before the year 2000 and dramatically making out with the air to demonstrate the proper kissing technique.

The interesting part of the film (which is also where Gondry’s style really peeks through) begins when Stéphane’s brother goes to bed, and Stéphane, waiting for his photo to finish developing, begins to drift off. He then has a vivid surrealist dream in which he is at a New Year’s party and everyone is chanting for him to kiss Aurélie. But a giant camera is where his head should be, and as the two get closer to each other, he bumps heads (cameras?) with her and knocks her to the ground. To add insult to injury, then the Eiffel Tower falls on him. It’s every kid’s biggest fear, a fear so consuming that even viewers well beyond pre-adolescence cringe with embarrassment of the I’m-so-glad-that-wasn’t-me variety. And as for the symbolism, it’s obvious: Stéphane has been distancing himself from social situations by passively taking pictures of people and events (e.g. Aurélie) instead of actively participating (e.g. kissing her).

The next day, Stéphane races over to Aurélie’s house to pick up a letter she’s written for him, certain that in it she’s confessed her mutual love for him. Tragically, however, Aurélie has written that it’s Stéphane’s brother she “fancies,” and the film ends with Stéphane sadly removing the pictures of her from his wall.

This film piqued my interest partly because of the dream sequence, but also because of the photography theme—specifically, the use of negatives. Aurélie’s image projected on the wall of Stéphane’s hallway is obviously a negative, but she appears to him in his dream as a negative image—the only negative image in the entire dream--as well. And finally, at the end as Aurélie’s voice reads the letter addressed to Stéphane, there is a sweeping view of houses, which appear as negatives until just before the last line of the letter, “Enjoy your vacation.” I’m coming at this as a Lit major, so I can only come up with a nauseatingly corny interpretation: that Stéphane’s image of and love for Aurélie is, visually and literally, undeveloped. But what do you all think it means? Does it mean anything or is the use of negative images a purely aesthetic addition to the film? Or better yet, does it have to mean anything?

14 comments:

Phil Gartland said...

I am not really sure how your interpretation is "nauseatingly corny." I see it more as an innovative way to show his detachment from her. Anyway, another interpretation could be the negatives show how his thoughts regarding Auriele are doing a 180 as he is reading the letter.

Michael said...

Actually, Stephane has many developed images of Aurelie and I would argue that his love for Aurelie is developed, as well. Why else would Stephane have become so sentimental when Aurelie discloses her passion for his brother? In regards to the use of negative images, I, ratherly, believe they were insinuations to aspiring artists to develop their talents. Consider Stephane's age and his passion for photography. Also, recall the older brothers lewd behaviour when encouraging Stephane to kiss Aurelie which, to me, represents an attempt to corrupt the young mind. Certainly, Aurelie has become iconic to Stephane; she is the focus of his work. However, when Stephane "dreams" of kissing her, his "dream" ends with him being "crushed" by the Eiffel Tower. When Stephane discovers Aurelie has passions for his "older" brother, he removes all of her pictures from the wall which can be interpreted as him giving up on his talent.

kylos said...

with all the analysis of symbolism, i'm surprised no one pointed out the obvious phallic failure of a falling eiffel tower.

excuse me while i go clean all this alliteration off me.

Jen said...

Man, sometimes I'm almost convinced that the only characters Gondry feels like embracing are these cloyingly stunted adolescents.

Cecilia C-W said...

Is this a negative thing though? While from a certain angle we could read this as a pathetic projection of Gondry's self-image, but I think there's something to be said for filmmakers who show consistency, who have a recognizable style/theme/character/what-have-you.

david said...

I see the photos as Stephane's attempt to create or control his memory/reality, which he can't do in his dream or life, so he gives up on that control. What filmmaker can't obsess about that?

So Cecelia, I guess I somewhat agree and disagree with your description of the photography as passive. Is art necessarily "passive" to "active" daily life?

Jen said...

I guess if Gondry's motivation is to portray this stunted growth and childlike adherence to emotion and fantasy as his recognizable theme, then that's cool. He certainly wouldn't be the first. Unfortunately, everything I see by him somehow gets referenced back to "Silence of Sleep" and, well, that's irking.

Cecilia C-W said...

Well, I think art is necessarily passive to active daily life if you use art as a forum through which you obsess about something/someone instead of acting on that obsession. In this case, it becomes less a work of art and more a crutch for your insecurities.

I like the idea that he's trying to control reality, but I still think that in this attempt to control it through such an isolated means (the only gallery in which Stephane displays his photos are his bedroom wall--the ultimate childhood sanctuary!), he's being passive.

Ryan said...

The 'obsessing over something/someone instead of acting on that obsession' comment, I think could apply to Gondry's own work, and his oeuvre as a whole. His films tend to focus on images and aesthetics rather than stories or dialog to create the emotional experience of his characters. Handcrafted props, like the camera mask in la Lettre or the Robocop suit in Be Kind Rewind, tend to be among the most memorable elements of these films. I see this as a sort of obsession on the part of the director; the props and sets supplant the actual story. The care and worry devoted to set design greatly outweigh the thought put into plot development and second acts. In films like Be Kind Rewind and The Science of Sleep, the focus on how many handmade sets the protagonists can dream up can seem like a crutch for Gondry. But it's not that he is trying to mask the fact that his scripts are as thin as a rice cracker; his stories almost look as if they are a series of excuses for more amazing set designs that are loosely strung together by his adolescent, or stunted adult, protagonists' neuroses.
In shorter films, like la Lettre, the dips into cardboard surrealism work. Here Gondry doesn't venture too far from his approach to commercial and music video direction. But in longer films, without the help of a screenwriter like Charlie Kauffman (i.e. Eternal Sunshine, Human Nature), he fails to create a story engaging enough to carry or bring about these scenes. They're like Rashomon without the torment of injustice to push the men discussing the police inquiry from one subjective sequence to the next.

Cecilia C-W said...

Interesting. Even in "Pecan Pie" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IjDY1Tfozu4), which is downright silly and obviously not as well made as his other films, Jim Carrey is infantilized by being put in a set of pajamas and substituting a car for a bed. You're right, this theme does seem indicative of his oeuvre as a whole.

Johnny said...

on the theme of taking pictures rather than kissing the girl: this made me think of occasions when i've been at concerts, taking pictures of musicians as they play. it's been my experience that while framing shots through the viewfinder, thinking about composition and shutter speeds, and all the other details that go into a picture, my ears will just about turn off. it's gotten to the point where i'll make sure to listen to a few songs before picking up my camera, so that i'm sure i enjoy some of the music. it's a matter of focus, sorry about the lousy pun.
but as far as art creation as passive in contrast to living as active...
i don't buy it... the optical illusion that would suggest such a conclusion is the fact that any behavior, including the creation of art, can become the means for manifesting obsessive-compulsive tendencies. i would argue that the way that artists grapple with ideas, working through them on both a mental and physical level while assembling a body of work, is actually a much more engaged way of living than your average person's.
by the way, can somebody tell me what the french term for 'french kiss' is? it sounds like they're saying something "roullait", but i can't quite hear it. i'd always wondered if the french referred to open-mouth tongue kisses as 'portuguese', 'latvian', 'greek' or what. how did 'french kiss' become the english term? language is a funny thing.

Jan Michael said...

Interesting story, and fascinating how the hushed dialogue really caught my attention - things were said that they didn't want to share. The filming in black and white made it mysterious!

::TajN:: said...

I really liked everyone else's comments....

I'll just add that I liked the innocence of how Stephane viewed his good friend Aurelie in the beginning, and the effect that his older brother's comments had on his relationship with her. I think that if the brother had not insisted that Stephane is "in love" with her and thus forced him to label his feelings for Aurelie, he would not have been as crushed at the end of the film when she expressed her attraction to his older brother...

....It brings up the question: did Stephane experience the pain of "rejection" at the end of the film because his older brother built up expectations and established a social norm in his head? If the conversation at the beginning of the film never took place, would Stephane feel the same way when he read the letter?

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