Tuesday, June 09, 2015

How not to plot a story

I know that European filmmakers have long seen themselves as anti-story, anti-plot and the like, and sometimes this has produced some wonderful 'art' movies ('art' here meaning the film successfully does its own thing regardless of the rules of storytelling). More frequently it produces films that meander, that lose the plot at the very moment they should be maintaining the plot and that, as a result, lose their audiences.

Two such movies in the last week: one starring Michael Caine and Clémence Poésy in a film set in Paris. The other, also French, is about a girl who wanted to become a great pianist, was foiled, and then takes revenge. More on this later.

There will be spoilers...

The Michael Caine movie is called Mr Morgan's Last Love though you may also find it listed simply as Last Love. It concerns an American philosophy professor, Matthew Morgan, (Caine, with a varying American accent) whose wife died a couple of years ago. He still talks to her, and seems to have been deeply in love with her; in fact he was so in love with her that his two children, now adults, suffered from neglect. Apparently. He spends his days in a lonely state, refusing to learn even the most basic French, and hating any change to his routine.

Of course Pauline (Poésy) comes along. She's a young dance school teacher, and Matthew falls in love with her, but very quietly, almost trying to avoid saying what he's feeling. She accepts him as he is, just as a friend. When he accidentally (?) overdoses on his sleeping tablets and winds up in hospital, his two American children, Miles and Karen, turn up (Justin Kirk and Gillian Anderson - she has a very brief time in the film, regrettably). Miles is perpetually angry - he's the one who's felt most neglected by his father as a child - and furthermore, his own marriage has just gone down the tubes, though he has custody of his young son.

The usual argy-bargy ensues, the children claiming that Pauline is a bimbo about to take away everything their father owns - which, of course, is rightfully theirs. (Poésy as a bimbo? Hardly.). So far, all fairly predictable. But then the writer/director, Sandra Nettleback, gets herself into a plot-hole, and never quite makes it out. Don't read further if you want to watch this movie. 

Miles, surprisingly, falls in love with Pauline. Yup. Which totally wipes out Pauline's integrity as a character. Miles and his dad have a reconciliation, which is good, but it's not good in terms of what's just happened. Matthew commits suicide. Sorry? (Incidentally, this film is billed as comedy and drama on IMDB.) This awful crunching of gears comes as a result of the thing being forced into a corner by the writer. Did she think that the story needed a bit of pepping up at the end? Did she write herself into a corner because she didn't know how the Matthew/Pauline relationship could work? Who knows. The movie got made, and it leaves an odd taste in the mouth.

Caine, incidentally, is very good, as are the two main women - Anderson strides all over the place and should have been given a lot more screen time. Perhaps it would have been better to have made her the main third character, instead of the dull and boring Miles. She would have dealt properly to Caine and Poésy's situation. She certainly livens up what is often a quite slow movie.

The other movie is The Page Turner. It's a tale of revenge, a perfectly acceptable genre, even if we do wind up on the side of the one doing the revenge.

The main character of The Page Turner (or La Tourneuse de Pages) is Mélanie (played with a cold-eyed sweetness by Déborah François). As a child she goes in for an exam in order to enter some music academy. Rather remarkably (from a musician's point of view) she's playing a fairly straightforward piece, one that might get her through a grade in Trinity College exams, but probably wouldn't get her into an academy. She has five examiners. (Yup, five.) One of them is a famous concert pianist. Ariane, (played by Catherine Frot - she begins with arrogance, but later has an increasingly bemused look about her, which may not be surprising, given what her character goes through). Ariane, in an extraordinary piece of plot nonsense, allows another parent into the room while Mélanie is playing, and signs an autograph. It puts Mélanie off. (As one reviewer said, 'If something as little as that puts her off, she probably shouldn't be going to the academy anyway.')

Mélanie goes home, shuts up the piano, locks it and never plays again. Hmm. Flash forward a few years and she gets an intern's job in a law firm. Hang on! The lawyer in charge just happens to be the husband of Ariane. Does Mélanie know that when she applies for the job? It's not clear, but she then offers to look after the lawyer's son during the holidays - someone else couldn't do the job. Two coincidences in a row. Okay...passable.

Mélanie recognises Ariane; Ariane never, never, never during the course of the film recognises Mélanie. Nor does Mélanie ever tell her who she is. Consequently Ariane, from now on, presumably wonders why this cold-eyed young woman seems to be doing some very odd things.

Mélanie ingratiates herself into the household: she gets on with the young boy, who also plays piano. She not only offers to turn pages for Ariane at a concert that's coming up, she makes herself indispensable. (Ariane has been the victim of a hit and run accident some time before, and is 'fragile' according to her husband. Fragile is putting it mildly. She can barely hold herself together.) Furthermore, she starts touching Ariane in what can only be described as in an oddly inappropriate way. Yes, we know what the French are like, but this is a bit over the top. Ariane, at first confused, responds, although it's all low-key.

All goes well at the concert. Okay, you think - because there is a deal of suspense being set up - the next concert will be the one when she doesn't turn the page at the right moment, and laughs maniacally (as an old friend used to say) at her employer's distress. But there isn't a next concert (what were the writers thinking?). Instead there's an audition for an American, presumably a promoter of some sort. No audience, but him, and the agent.

What does Mélanie do? As the audition is about to start she just wanders off somewhere, and can't be found. Ariane makes an absolute hash of playing (even though another page turner is brought in), and the American walks out in disgust. And not surprisingly either: Ariane's playing is ridiculously awful; no career pianist would make such a mess of things however fragile they were. Plainly the director thought if it wasn't obvious to a non-musical audience that Ariane was making mistakes, then the scene wouldn't work.

But the scene doesn't work because the Page Turner isn't there! Surely this was a scene in which Mélanie should have once again done her duty effectively, and built up the tension still further. Instead Ariane, by now somewhat besotted with her, just lets her off with a 'sorry.'  Good grief. Ariane is super fragile, don't forget.

Where is the big climax in a concert hall full of people, with the will-she-won't-she-turn-the-page scene? The scene where Ariane is ruined for life? It could be done so simply: turning a page at the wrong moment (as anyone who's done it knows) can be seen as an accident. It doesn't have to be deliberate. There's the opportunity in the film for it to be seen as an accident by the concert audience, but deliberate by Mélanie, and yet this scene never happens. 

Instead, a couple of other things that have been set up, things that are secondary to the main revenge plot, work themselves out in the last scene, and Mélanie walks off into the sunrise. (She'd got up early that morning.) Ariane and her family are in a mess, but not one of them knows why this invaluable young girl has done what she's done. HUH?

Yes, I know we can become too used to a plot working out according to the normal lines. But an audience also needs to see logic and suspense building to a certain point - think The Man Who Knew Too Much with Doris Day and James Stewart, where no item of suspense is missing, and where even though the audience knows how it will work out, they\re still kept guessing till the last minute. Audience expectation is a great deal of what makes a suspense movie work. Denis Dercourt (again, a writer/director) builds up the tension well, with several suspicious scenes (the discussion of how to kill a chicken, the boy being nearly drowned but it being taken as a joke) but none of these come to anything. At the end we're left with a plot that picks up all the wrong pieces and leaves behind the vital ingredients.

Why am I making such a fuss? Because my co-writer and I are currently working on a very difficult story, the third children's book we've written in the last couple of years. All the bits of the plot have to fit neatly, or something else will fall apart. We know how difficult and frustrating it is to make a plot work, and yet at the end of the day it's very satisfying for the reader to see things click into place. What's the point of building up the suspense if you're going to let it all dissipate?

Dercourt has the directorial touch to have made a suspenseful movie that would build to a solid climax. Instead he lets himself down with an ill-plotted script. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian called this film 'a treat for lovers of intelligent cinema.' Plainly I'm not intelligent enough.
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