For a perfect, exciting balance between thrilling entertainment and artistic complexity, when has Australian auteur George Miller ever disappointed? Never. So it was surprising that his new film, the first since he conquered the world with the near-perfect Mad Max: Fury Road, was released by its Australian distributor with no pomp and circumstance. Even stranger that no invites to a Sydney screening were sent to film critics.
It’s not my intention to sound bitter about this – the only inconvenience is not having enough time to write this review before the film is accessible to the general public – but you’d think a marketing department would be pleased to have critics spread the word. And, for many of us critics, it’s easy to advocate for a film about the emotional power of stories. After a whole career spent switching from genre to genre, perfecting the best techniques for telling a story to the broadest audience possible, in Three Thousand Years of Longing Miller pays tribute to the human love for narrative.
The film starts with Alithea (Tilda Swinton), a lonely narratologist, arriving in Istanbul for a talk about the influence of storytelling on human culture. We get a glimpse of the session, which effortlessly sets up the film’s theme. In her presentation, Alithea examines how religious myths, all the way from the earliest times to the post-modern world of the superhero, are ways to explain the unexplainable, but are ultimately rendered irrelevant as science progresses.
Back in her hotel room, Alithea is inspecting a recent purchase, a small bottle she felt drawn to, when, lo and behold, a Djinn (Idris Elba) materialises and offers her three wishes. Clever Alithea understands that offers like these always have a catch. As she says, “All stories about wishes are cautionary tales,” but the Djinn professes his honesty and, to convince her, tells three stories of the experiences that left him trapped in a bottle – stories about love, devotion, obsession, patience, and tragedy. All of them with an underlying message about connection.
There is so much that can be said about Three Thousand Years of Longing, but I’ll keep it simple for brevity’s sake. Besides all the philosophical layers and the tremendously intelligent script, it’s a film that pulsates with love. It yearns, in a way very few movies do.
For me it is an antithesis of Ang Lee’s The Life of Pi, a film I had problems with, mainly because its messages somehow justify religious dogma. In a way, Lee’s film (and Yann Martel’s book, the source) say that the metaphysical lie is preferable to the metaphysical truth. In Three Thousand Years of Longing, there is no difference between the truth and the lie. It’s all within us, and not even science – not even knowledge – can take that away from us.
I have heard some complaints about the ending – that it’s abrupt, maybe rushed. I disagree. Granted, the last act isn’t as ecstatic as the rest, but its slower pace brings a sad melancholy. And this melancholy, while not as entertaining as magical beings and blood-thirsty kings, is a necessity for an over-stimulated audience: at the end of the story, we all need to just stop and smell the roses.
If George Miller is a master craftsman of cinematic storytelling, Claire Denis is the intrepid auteur who defies even our unspoken expectations. It’s always impossible to know what kind of film she will be bringing to the table next, but we can expect to be constantly challenged.
Take her new film, Both Sides of the Blade, her third collaboration in a row with Juliette Binoche. It follows High Life, a high-budget sci-fi thriller with Robert Pattinson that owes more to Kubrick and Tarkovsky than to the genre itself. Before that, there was Let The Sunshine In, which was what could pass as light and optimistic in Denis’ repertoire.
Both Sides of the Blade is an unapologetic drama about our human inability to express our rawest emotions. Sara (Juliette Binoche) and Jean (Vincent Lindon) are going through a happy phase of their relationship when Jean starts a new business venture with François (Grégoire Colin), Sara’s ex-partner. In the beginning, Sara and Jean believe they can be adult about the whole situation. In expressing her passion, Sara confuses physical with emotional proximity. More taciturn, Jean focuses on the job, not paying attention to Sara or even to his mixed-race son (Bulle Ogier), who lives with Jean’s mother.
As expected, as Jean becomes more distant, Sara turns her cravings to François, who is willing to take the time to rekindle the relationship, thus creating an almost impossible love triangle.
Denis is great at having rational people behave irrationally. For every character in the film, almost every decision made without discernment turns out to be wrong. Why didn’t Sara communicate her frustrations to Jean? Why didn’t Jean act when he noticed his relationship was losing its spark? Why did Sara endure making love with François even once his intentions were exposed as insincere? For Denis, this is because we are all flawed, miscalculating beings.
Binoche and Lindon are terrific, as expected. There’s a wonderful argument scene near the end where they flex their experience and talent from toe to toe. Completely unrivalled. I doubt I’ll see two better performances this year aside from that single scene.
Conveying the idea that communication is the key is easier said than done. Usually, a story on those lines story tends to be more complex – and that complexity stems from not knowing how to express that strange, odd idea in the hard-core steel of our guts. Miller can tell us stories that keep our emotions alive. But Denis, showing us there are sometimes no right words to tell them, slaps rational sense into us.