Spout Mavens Disc #14, Part 7 of 13: Shorts! Volume 3 - L'Entretien [The Interview] (2002)

Director: Kathleen Man
French/US, 20 minutes, b/w
Cinema 4 Rating: 5

rik_tod awoke in the middle of the night to find that the Dutch animated color short he had been watching was transformed into a monstrously confusing black and white French film.

I am going to "man up" here and admit that L'Entretien (aka The Interview) is the first film on the Shorts! Volume 3 DVD of which it was necessary for me to listen in on the director's commentary. Usually, this is a practice of which I do not partake until I have gained my own deep familiarity with a film. I hardly ever purchase films for the extras, preferring to leave the movie watching experience as pure as possible and initially concentrated on the two most important elements: the film itself, and my immediate reaction to it. This isn't to say that I do not enjoy extras or commentaries. I just prefer to have formulated my own opinions about a film before I let others in to ruin my fun.

What did I get from director Kathleen Man's commentary on her 20-minute tale of corporate hopelessness and alienation? Well, I certainly learned a bit more about the architecture of Paris and the dividing lines between the old and new sections of the city. I learned a lot about arches, and the proper way to overly pronounce the French names of those arches whilst bouncing back and forth into English so that I wanted to kick my foot through the television. I learned that she is perhaps overly impressed with certain shots in her film that I didn't find particularly interesting or entrancing (save one). But I also gained an understanding that were I her, and filming this exact short in the exact location in which she did, I too would probably be impressed with my shot selection given the conditions under which they had to shoot it, with precious little opportunity for retakes and also learning how to deal with shooting around the crowds and businessmen that usually frequent the area.

What I didn't need to gather from the commentary is what was fairly evident from even that first half viewing: the Kafkaesque feel of the film. Director Man does point out that her chief inspiration was Kafka's A Common Confusion, a swift, sharp, single paragraph amusement that I recall being required to study in school (though I am not sure to the extent that others have been). Regardless, Man mentions her film is not a true adaptation of the piece, merely an extensive trifling with the time-and-mood-hopping logistics of it. To say too much is to ruin what fun a viewer outside of myself may make of it, and certainly there will be a large contingent that will fall in love with its stark setting and unsettling but dry humor.

But I didn't. Understanding where this film falters for me is partially to recognize, and this is not a direct criticism of any element of this film per se (ahem...) that a Kafkaesque feel is sometimes not all that difficult to achieve. I can't tell you the number of times I have seen short (and the occasional long) stage works where the writer/director/actors practically jump through hoops attempting to duplicate what seems to have come so easy for Herr Kafka. In film, with our noses pressed full and close to the action, it can be even more nausea-inducing when improperly managed. While Franz certainly worked expertly and hard for his effects, it can often feel that anyone who employs sloppy editing, stiff acting, poor camera technique, underwritten characters and a shortage of expository dialogue can almost accidentally achieve a Kafkaesque mood.

Important tip: adding the suffix -esque only implies that the film is "like Kafka," not actually "Kafka" himself. The problem is that so many people, influenced by his mood, style, and deeply ironic humor, believe that they have become one with Kafka, that they have replicated him far beyond mere influence, and they understand him better than everyone else, as if there were some form of prize for this. Certainly many playwrights might hold a secret wish to become their era's Shakespeare, but it would never mean the same thing unless they were Shakespeare in his own time. If one is said to film in a Lynchian style, that person certainly doesn’t David Lynch (unless it actually becomeis Lynch himself trying to pass something off as a parody of his own style, which might be true of some of his projects), but is merely performing an emulation of David Lynch.

With L’Entretien, where it is clear which attempt is being made here -- that of a short film initially influenced directly by a particular Kafka piece -- what does it become? Is it an attempt to become Kafka, given the fact it does have one of his short stories within the rise of its creation? Or is it an attempt to be Kafkaesque, straining to become its own novelty while still remaining submerged within his unmistakable style? If one is adapting Kafka, then the filmmaker should actually be shooting for Kafka, not Kafkaesque. But if it is not a true adaptation, and rather a mere homage in style, then Kafkaesque is all it needs to be.

Either way, I found that the length of the film (nearly 20 full minutes) ran counter to the pace (leaden is a kind word) to such an extent that I, who never misses a chance to check out a film within the three-to-four hour range, gave up caring about the issue of "Kafka vs. K-esque" (especially after repeated viewings). I finally decided that choosing a winner was arbitrary once I first hit upon the notion that the film really wasn't worth the concern. There are scenes that I do admire in L’Entretien -- the eating scene on the park bench, Man's beloved shot on the jetty overlooking the train system, and even the restaurant scene works for me too (but not in the way that Man insists it does) -- but they are not enough to win me over all the way. Or more than halfway.

And director Man is surely in denial on one minor but nagging point. She mentions that a specific scene in the film -- one with two dark-suited agents with earpieces holding a man under arrest, who then stare down the main character menacingly -- has been pointed out as seeming like a nod or tribute to The Matrix. She is amused by this, but swears she had no intention whatsoever of conveying this to her audience. Watching the film multiple times, I do not see how this could not have come up even in filming it, as it is so like the Mr. Smith scenes in the Wachowskis' sci-fi epic as to almost be copyright infringement unless it were meant as parody or tribute. She has got to be joking on this one.

Basically, it comes down to this… A person named R. was scheduled to meet up with a film numbered 7, but R. slept through half of another film numbered 6, and woke up after film 7 had already gotten underway. All of this happened around 2, the time, not the film. He would not have fallen asleep during the film numbered 2, no matter how sleepy, because he really liked 2. However, he was inwardly hurt by his inability to remain awake through 6 and opening his eyes at 2 to great confusion over what he first saw in 7, R. sought to seek some form of resolution with 7, so R. started 7 over again to figure 7 out from the beginning. 7 remained firm, however, in 7's intent to remain obscure and blandly creepy, and so, once 7 left the screen, with the hour at 3, R. sought out the advice of director K., who was very forthcoming, perhaps too forthcoming, on various issues within K's making of 7, and while R. learned many interesting things during this discourse, still he remained unfulfilled overall by 7. After a final attempt to reconcile with 7, and find some reason to consider its excellence, R. gave up, flicked the remote savagely to remove 7 from his presence, and skipped to the films numbered 8, 9 and 10. They were neither Kafka nor Kafkaesque, nor did 8, 9 or 10 attempt to be. Nor did they attempt to actually be any good at all, or even worthy of comment, though R. knew he would have to try tomorrow. It was the only way he would ever miss 7.

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