It’s impossible to watch Lincoln without thinking how little, and how much, American politics has changed since the days of the Civil War. The same ramshackle cast of opportunists, ideologues, yes men and non-entities sits in the House of Representatives, but nowadays the radical thrust comes from the right not the left. The radicals of Abraham Lincoln’s day fought bitterly for the Enlightenment principle that all men are created equal, which brought an end to slavery. Their counterparts today are equally passionate in their belief that wealthy Americans should pay the smallest amount of tax, leaving the country mired in a hopeless debt crisis.
This is presumably one of the messages behind Lincoln: that there was a time when politicians believed in what was good for all Americans, even if the white majority had no special love for the blacks. Today they fight on behalf of money and privilege, being willing to cut welfare payments for the poorest citizens to ensure the increasing prosperity of a rich minority. It’s an irony that Lincoln’s Republicans were the drivers of the anti-slavery movement, while the same party is now a breeding ground for right-wing extremists.
This is a simplistic characterisation of American politics, but to the outsider it often seems like a spectacle that defies all common sense, and a perversion of democracy.
Steven Spielberg may be the only director who could convince a Hollywood studio to make a film such as Lincoln. In an environment in which the projects that routinely attract major funding are geared to the lowest common denominator, it is a miracle to produce a feature in which characters sit in a room and discuss ideas, principles and political strategies. These sequences recur throughout the story, lending it a certain staginess, but the dialogue – written by the experienced Tony Kushner – is always sharp enough to sustain our interest.
The two great strengths of this production are the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role, and the unvarnished portrayal of the political process, in which the most underhand tactics are used to achieve a noble outcome.
Henry Fonda was convincing in John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln of 1939, but Day-Lewis brings the President to life like never before. It would be scandalous if this portrayal doesn’t secure him the Academy Award for best actor.
Day-Lewis captures Lincoln’s gangly, stooping posture; his manner of talking; his homespun humour that both delights and infuriates his colleagues, and the passionate, steely determination that lies behind the placid exterior. We forget that Lincoln was only 56 years old when he was assassinated. Day-Lewis shows us a man fighting against a great weariness, prematurely aged by the stressful ordeal of leading the Union through the Civil War. Although he speaks and acts with courtesy and humour, there is not a moment when we are unaware of the burdens he carries, both as a statesman and as a husband and father. This is brought home powerfully in a scene towards the end of the film, when he keeps an impassive face as he rides slowly across the battlefield, between heaped corpses.
The movie concentrates on a few weeks in Lincoln’s life, when, shortly into his second term as President, he decides to force through the Thirteenth Amendment which will make slavery an offence under the Constitution. He believes that if he waits till the war is over, and his emergency powers terminated, there will be a legal wrangle over the question of whether or not slaves constitute ‘property’.
When his colleagues insist he should postpone this action, he replies: “If you can look into the seeds of time and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak then to me.”
Lincoln realises the American people are weary of bloodshed and fundamentally indifferent to principle. There is a great residual fear that freeing the slaves will take jobs away from poor whites. He is aware of the effect that fear-mongering can have in that area where democracy is most problematic – where the will of the majority, based on anxiety and ignorance, enshrines pernicious and inhumane legislation. Sound familiar?
Spielberg may be sending a memo to Barack Obama about the need for strong leadership, but the film also shows Lincoln getting his way through a mixture of persuasion and skullduggery, against equally unscrupulous opponents. We realise that Honest Abe presents merely a legalistic appearance of honesty. His main priority is to ensure the passage of the amendment by whatever means are necessary. In this, he requires the assistance of radical leader, Thaddeus Stevens – a robust performance by Tommy Lee Jones – who has to be persuaded to compromise his own heartfelt beliefs for the sake of the cause. In Stevens’s summary, the amendment is “passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”
Meanwhile, Mrs. Lincoln (Sally Field) is giving her husband hell at home. If anything, this portrayal understates the wilfulness of Mary Todd Lincoln’s personality. Some commentators believe she was bipolar.
This is not a perfect film by any means. It is unsettling when so many characters seem to be making speeches instead of having conversations, even if the words are sourced from historical records. One of the corniest dodges comes at the very beginning when Lincoln meets black and white Union soldiers who can recite the words of the Gettysburg Address. In fact, the famous address was a flop at first hearing, only attaining its posthumous grandeur in the twentieth century. An irritating Spielbergism is a tendency to drop in a few bars of sentimental music by John Williams whenever a big moment arrives.
There are many nitpicking details that may be queried, but if this is the price we pay for the possibility of seeing such a movie, there is little reason to complain. Lincoln is a magnificent achievement in its efforts to harness the lessons of history as a moral warning to our own troubled times.
Elles is also a film for our times, although the focus is personal rather than political. Juliette Binoche is Anne, a feature writer for French Elle, who is putting together a story on young women that turn to prostitution to get themselves through university. The interviews she undertakes with two girls – Charlotte (Anaïs Demoustier) and Alicja (Joanna Kulig) – are threaded into the film in short segments, while she struggles to make sense of her own domestic affairs.
Anne’s problem is that she and her husband, Patrick (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), have reached the stage where they are only going through the motions as a married couple while being preoccupied with their careers. There is a younger son obsessed with video games, and an older one who skips school and views his parents with the kind of casual contempt that comes so naturally to teenagers.
As she talks to the college girls, getting slowly drawn into their world, Anne becomes increasingly conscious of the sterile, unhappy nature of her own life. This frustration is symbolised by small mishaps, such as her ongoing battle with the fridge door, or cutting her finger with a kitchen knife. In one scene she lies on the bathroom floor masturbating, in another she stands up in the middle of a dinner party and silently leaves the apartment.
Clearly Anne is not a happy housewife, but director, Malgoska Szumowska’s implied message – that married life is little more than another form of prostitution, is too banal to be taken seriously. Another possible interpretation is even less credible, suggesting that prostitution is a perfectly decent and valid way for a girl to earn some income while she pursues her studies.
Alicja, for instance, is a Polish student, who can’t afford accommodation until she turns to the game. When Anne goes to see her, she is settled into an apartment that is luxurious by Parisian standards.
The encounters with clients which are recalled and played out – often quite explicitly – for the camera, are a mixed bag. Some customers have a sadistic streak, others are sad and pathetic. The prize goes to Alicja’s first ever client, a middle aged man who, pre-and-post coitus, likes to strum the guitar in the nude while singing Autumn Leaves. His big thrill is to get Alicja to join in the chorus, which is something his very sensible wife won’t do for him at home.
Whereas Alicja is slightly vampy and insists on Anne drinking vodka with her, Charlotte is the classic freckled-faced girl-next-door. She dislikes the lies she has to tell to her boyfriend and her parents, but is addicted to the money. It’s a vast improvement on her previous job working in a burger joint. Anne is touched by the sensuality of one girl, and the sweetness of the other.
Perhaps the best way to approach this deadpan drama, which often feels like a documentary, is to jettison any ideas of a message or a moral. Elles is a slice of modern life in which nobody is really to blame for another person’s unhappiness. One could say that Charlotte and Alicja were forced into prostitution by social and economic factors, but in both cases it was a personal choice, and they seem comfortable in that role. Anne’s marriage is in the doldrums, but she is a workaholic who will sit up all night to finish an article.
We are so accustomed to seeing films that promote certain values and question others, that it is unusual to come across a movie that leaves all these issues dangling. It’s not dramatically satisfying, but Szumowska would probably argue that the same could be said about life.
Lincoln, USA, rated M, 153 mins
Elles, France/Poland/Germany, rated R 18+, 96 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, February 9, 2013