Formal Attire

Minimalist Journeys and Maximum Overdrive

It's been a century since the violent, fast-moving pulse-pounder The Great Train Robbery left the nickelodeon audience agog. To their credit, motion pictures are still looking for, and sometimes even producing, new sensations—be they gross or subtle. Abbas Kiarostami's Ten and Gaspar Noé's Irréversible are both art movies with aggressive "countdown" structures designed to question the nature of film narrative. But while the former is something of a cerebral cool breeze, the latter means to launch a frontal assault on the viewer's cerebellum.

Like Kiarostami's first-person documentary ABC Africa, Ten is a movie made possible by new digital video technologies. This is the Iranian director's most form-minded experiment since his hall-of-mirrors staged doc Close-Up. A small digicam planted on the dashboard of a moving automobile records either the vehicle's driver or its passenger. The first of 10 numbered sequences begins when a boy of 12 or so (Amin Maher) climbs into the car and immediately begins browbeating the unseen motorist—who, it soon becomes apparent, is his mother.

Their family quarrel escalates as they navigate Tehran. The mother has divorced the boy's father and remarried; the child is upset. He dislikes her new husband even more than her feminist rationale for ending her marriage. Plus, he feels that his father's honor has been besmirched. (In order to get a divorce, his mother had to testify that her husband took drugs—a swipe at Iran's clerical laws.) Ignoring her placating offer of ice cream, the boy petulantly hectors his mother while loudly complaining that she lectures him. He is, in every sense, a little man, elaborately refusing to listen to what she says and then—when she raises her disembodied voice—grandly informing her that "a woman doesn't shout in the street."

Neither fiction nor documentary: Amin Maher in Ten
photo: Zeitgeist Films
Neither fiction nor documentary: Amin Maher in Ten


Written and directed by Abbas Kiarostami
March 5 through 18, at Film Forum

Written and directed by Gaspar Noé
Lions Gate
Opens March 7

Laurel Canyon
Written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko
Sony Pictures Classics
Opens March 7

The sequence, which lasts around 10 minutes and feels like a single take (it isn't), ends with the kid dismissing his mother as an idiot and disembarking for soccer practice. Only then does Kiarostami cut to the driver as she waits for a space and parks her car. The mother (Mania Akbari, who may or may not be a professional actress) proves unexpectedly glamorous in lipstick, shades, and a fashionable white chador. For the rest of the movie, which extends over several days, this unusually independent Iranian woman serves as our Virgil, driving through Tehran in the company of various other females, as well as her never less than irate offspring. Subsequent passengers include her sister, an old woman on her way to pray, a hooker who jumps into her car (reasonably assuming it to be driven by a man), a recently deserted wife, and a younger woman who is having difficulties with an unwilling fiancé.

Every ride is a conversation—although the somewhat stilted trip with the unseen, disconcertingly snickering prostitute—is more of an interview. (She too calls the driver an idiot, although not for the same reasons that her son did.) These sometimes banal discussions of men and women or God and fate take on an unexpected poetry for unfolding in the street—all manner of traffic glimpsed outside the moving car—and yet on such an intimate scale. The only time the camera leaves the automobile is to show the hooker getting into another. The movie's forward velocity is so constant that there's a narrative jolt at one point when the car stops so that the driver can turn around and look at her passenger.

Ten is conceptually rigorous, splendidly economical, and radically Bazinian. Despite certain intimations of allegory and several ongoing storylines, the movie has no dramatic ending—or, rather, it ends as it begins, with the child shouting at his mother as they journey through the midst of life. From a perceptual point of view, the movie is extremely modern. Ten is suffused in urban overstimulation and filled with the stuff of the photographic unconscious: fugitive expressions, haphazard compositions, and chance occurrences. Neither fiction nor documentary, it operates in the gap between the two—even as it prompts a certain fascination as to just how it was produced. (Among other things, Kiarostami features the most stridently obnoxious performance by a pre-adolescent boy since little Andrew Giuliani disrupted his father's first inauguration.)

Auditioning a number of non-actors, Kiarostami evidently determined what they would talk about in a given scene, and then removed himself when the movie was lensed—at a most generous shooting ratio of 15:1. Thus, one of the few filmmakers since Andy Warhol to rethink the nature of on-screen acting, Kiarostami has called Ten a movie made without a director. In fact, the notion of "director" is redefined as the one who plots the course and sets the vehicle in motion. Paradoxically, Kiarostami's own absence serves to push his style to its limit. The more minimal the movie, the more it is recognizably his.

The far showier Gaspar Noé begins Irréversible with the movie's final credits, then proceeds through 12 single-take episodes arranged in reverse chronological order. In the first, the camera corkscrews around an airshaft, peeking in on the beefy butcher (Philippe Nahon) of Noé's I Stand Alone as he sits naked on his bed, before continuing its dying-duck spiral down to the tumultuous street below, where two guys are being dragged into a police van.

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