Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Bibliothèque Pascal (2010): Storytelling as Survival

Bibliothèque Pascal (2010)
dir: Szabolcs Hajdu

Bibliothèque Pascal would not be possible without Terry Gilliam.  Terry Gilliam is a consummate storyteller fascinated by the concept of storytelling. While he even had a Trilogy of Imagination - Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen  - many of his films deal with charletans, storytellers, liars, flights of fantasy, dreams, and downright delusions. From The Fisher King's medieval fancy to Tideland's fantasies of escape to The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus' incredible machine of generating storytelling, Gilliam has always been fascinated with stories where we're dealing primarily with the imagination of one main character.

Certainly, other movies made by people other than Gilliam have dealt with the imaginations of a single character.  Recent notable examples of these other movies include Pan's Labyrinth, The Fall, and The Cell.  All of these movies include flights of fancy, and the former two are fantasies to escape the reality of the world in which they live. The Fall even concerns a storyteller weaving a fantasy in order to entertain a little girl to entice her to get him drugs.  But, they all owe a great deal of debt to Gilliam, who, in turn, also owed a debt to Fellini though definitely not nearly as overtly.

Like all of these movies, Bibliothèque Pascal is all about storytelling. (Warning: full plot breakdown ahead, including spoilers) The movie opens with a young woman, Mona, in Romanian child protective services office trying to win custody of her child who has been taken away from her. Mona had left her daughter with her aunt to take care of while Mona was away. Subsequently, her child was seen performing for money, and subsequently was taken away from Mona's aunt.  Mona, back in Romania, is now trying to win her child back with this interview.  The CPS agent asks Mona what happened, and we're launched into a technicolor fantasy of her creation for the majority of the movie.

Years ago, Mona, who seems to be a Romanian gypsy or wanderer of sorts, leaves her cheating and jealous boyfriend to a different city, with a beach.  While on the beach, she is taken hostage by a wanted criminal who has recently murdered a man solely for being gay and kissing another man in public. This criminal is also a dream projector, in which he projects his most vivid dreams onto other people. During the kidnapping, he projects a love dream onto Mona, who is so enthralled she has sex with him before he gets assassinated the next morning.

Fast forward and Mona has a daughter.  She is making a living telling stories with puppets at fairs.  The story shown is an allegorical retelling of her history so far, with the above criminal being represented by a scorpion. With it, we learn that her mother died when she was young.

At the fair, she meets up with her father, who is shown hanging around the fair. Her father is a prostitute dealer, and needs to replace a girl he was going to sellt. He is first shown being rejected by a one of the hookeriest hookers you could imagine because London trade is rough.  When he meets with Mona, he tricks Mona into being the replacement by feigning an illness and the need to see a doctor in Germany. And, so she is sold to human traffickers who, in turn, sells her to Pascal, an affable chap who runs a swanky nightclub and brothel, Bibliothèque Pascal.

Inside the brothel, the sex workers (3 women, a man, and a boy) act out different literary scenes for their clients.  There is a Lolita, a Pinocchio, a Dorian Gray, a Desdemona, and Mona's first story: Joan of Arc.  As Joan of Arc, she has to act out the scene of penance with a subsequently forced sex scene acted out.  She is drugged between acts, and bites the tongue of Pascal when he tries to kiss her, causing her to be placed as Desdemona, in a rubber suit, to get suffocated and raped.

But, she is rescued by the dream projection of her daughter, which is the street performance her daughter was doing.  Her daughter was sleeping, and dreamed of creating a marching band, led by Mona's father, to rescue Mona from the library.  And, scene.

When the CPS guy doesn't believe her (for obvious reasons), she recants and tearfully tells her real story in short sentences.  She met the father on the street, but doesn't know who he is.  He gave a false name and job.  She had the kid anyways.  She had to work odd, menial, jobs to survive.  She thought she could make more money and a better living as a prostitute in Britain, and left her child with her aunt promising to pay her from her wages.  But, she couldn't make a living in London, and couldn't send her aunt any money.  Thus, to cover costs, her aunt made the child perform.  And, that gets her her child back.

The film closes with her and her daughter having a fantasy dinner, and her daughter happily eating and drinking air in a gorgeous technicolor kitchen. And, Mona subsequently puts her daughter to bed, where she tells a story about how all the princes and princesses in fairy tales had disappeared, and now they had to deal with reality instead of being allowed to live in their fantasies which added color and zest to their life.  And, we pull back to discover that this touching scene is actually in a model setup in a department store.

And, so, Hajdu has created a movie about a woman weaving and embellishing, or entirely fabricating, her life story in order to escape the mundanities of reality.  It is a movie that isn't even ambiguous between whether or not it is lying, but instead asks you if you'd rather hear another sad tale about single mothers and sex trafficking and sex work, or if you'd like this fantasy story where the good people are good, and the bad people are bad.  The sex work is horrible, but the brothel is fantastic (in terms of fantasy, not in terms of good).

In the flights of fancy, the sex work is brutal and abusive.  In the flight of fancy, Desdemona is suffocated to the point of unconsciousness or death before she is fucked by two strange men in rubber suits.  In the flight of fancy, there is also the auction of women of sorts for the johns to buy and sell. And, in the reality, Mona says that the work was lousy, the wages were pathetic, the rent was high, and the pimp took way too much of a cut of the profit, rendering it unsustainable.

The one thing it might get wrong is that it suggests it was easy for Mona to leave the pimp and the sex work when she was frustrated by it.  She just ups and leaves to return to her daughter.  Considering that she went to sex work willingly, this might be one type of reality, but it also ignores the reality of sex workers who are trafficked from foreign countries and forced into sexual slavery.

It also is an interesting painting of a woman's story as told by a man. Hajdu's wife is the star of Bibliothèque Pascal, and much of the inspiration came from her sitting in a Hungarian jail cell, on a vehicle registration charge, with a prostitute who would spend her time spinning bizarre yarns about prostituting in London.  These are the worlds we create in order to survive.  These are the worlds we create to escape how humdrum the struggle for life for some actually is.

The main problem people will have is the sex work, and the sexual violence are all in the fantasy.  Unlike, say, Pan's Labyrinth, Mona isn't escaping a violent fantasy world which is marked by war and murder.  Mona is embellishing to make her life seem less pathetic.  And, as such, it is presented pretty unabashedly.

It also is a tad rapey, and I can't get around that.  Even though the whole story was a flight of fancy in order to get away from rehashing another boring, pathetic life, the story was also meant as an embellishment to create sympathy from the CPS agent.  No, my daughter wasn't performing just for money.  Her performance was also a dream projection meant to rescue me from this horrible brothel where I was raped in the worst way possible!  This wasn't just any brothel, this was the most fantastic brothel you could imagine, with the most horrible rapey sex ever, including rubber sex.  Can you imagine?  The movie never portrays the rape in a good light, and it almost always portrays it from a third party camera view in the first person storytelling.  But, it is rapey...and it is almost rapey as a throwaway device, which is, ultimately, kind of a fault of the movie.

This is a sultry movie which goes through its paces of fast and slow.  It's like the jazz music that populates the movie.  Sometimes its slow, and almost lulling you to sleep, then it can be eclectic, and sometimes it can be zippy or bombastic.  It is also visually stunning, owing much to Tarsem's The Cell and The FallBibliothèque Pascal is a gorgeous work, immaculately framed and conceived.  It's borderline messy in its plotting, but aren't all flights of fancy?

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