NYFF51: The Meta and Layers in “Walter Mitty,” “Bucharest” and “Providence”


Corneliu Porumboiu’s When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism

NYFF Critics Academy member Diana Drumm takes a look at the confluence of meta, narration and deciphering truth through three NYFF titles: The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, When Evening Falls on Bucharest Or Metabolism and Providence.

"What do you think of his mastication?" asks the cuckolded husband to his wife about her lover. The cheating wife quips, "I’m more concerned with his fornication." This quick, witty turn of phrase is one of many instances in Alain Resnais' Providence where the novelist narrator (John Gielgud) and his upper-brow writing style leaks into the film’s scenes. For most of Providence, the narration appears to be coming from an elderly man constructing a novel vaguely based on his family (son Dirk Bogarde, daughter-in-law Ellen Burstyn, David Warner as her lover, and Elaine Stritch as his son’s mistress).

The film features more than a few "novel" moments, which are usually marked by the author’s voiceover but some just stand out through their style, like the moment mentioned above. (To read more on the NYFF Revival film, check out fellow Critics Academy member Gus Reed's recent article.) As such, the audience is left to decipher the truth from the unreliable author’s fact and fiction until the ending, which reveals that all is not as the narrator said and is actually more-or-less a reflection of the old man’s bitterness. This questionable narrative not only supplements the audience’s appreciation (or dislike) of the film’s style, but also makes them more engaged in the general medium through these "meta" moments, adding another level of consciousness to watching the film.

The experience of film-watching is something akin to hypnosis or meditation—you’re in a dark room, focusing on a rectangle with moving images and suspending disbelief for roughly 90-180 minutes. In this state of mind, a narration sprinkled with meta moments can jolt a viewer, sometimes completely out of the film or sometimes deeper into it. Whether they heightened or nullified your film-watching experience, this year’s NYFF Official Selection slate features many films involving metaphysical moments and narration, but two stand out in particular—Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Corneliu Porumboiu’s When Evening Falls On Bucharest Or Metabolism.


Ben Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (the latest adaptation of the 1939 James Thurber story) is primarily set in current-day Manhattan and the titular Walter is a LIFE photo archivist who daydreams frequently. The film brings the audience into these daydreams with Walter and they witness not only his imagination, but also his core hopes and aspirations. Even in blatantly unrealistic (sometimes comically so) situations, Walter remains the same character. Whether he’s saving a three-legged dog from an exploding building or aging into an old baby-man with Kristen Wiig, he is still Walter. Instead of acting as modes of escape (the 1947 version) or to rewrite elements of his life (Providence), these sequences are utilized to solidify Walter, or as Stiller said at Saturday’s press conference, “each fantasy leads him to who he is, ultimately being able to let him realize his whole self."

The director (who also stars as Walter) went on to explain that while making the film, they focused on "finding that balance of how we keep the momentum of the story going, but also having enough of the fantasies in there to give you a sense of what was going on inside Walter." Whereas Providence used the various realities (real and imagined) to spread the film’s narrative out and come to one big twist of a conclusion, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty uses meta moments to bring forth a fuller portrait of its protagonist. The two narratives (in and outside of Walter’s mind) bring out a new and improved Walter, ending with a reality in which he achieves all of his goals (globe-trotting, meeting his hero, getting the office dreamgirl).  

Also dealing with varying realities at odds with each other, Porumboiu’s When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism is a stark portrait of modern filmmaking through the perspective of a director. With the director (Bogdan Dumitrache) driving and actress (Diana Avramut) in the passenger seat, the opening scene is shot in a one minute-long take and with a natural look, turning the audience into an eavesdropping third party on their conversation in the car’s backseat. With a nearly translucent fourth wall, Paul talks to Alina about a possible upcoming nude scene for the film they’re working on. As Paul presses the matter, he extols the virtues of a nude scene on a personal level, saying that she should like to have a copy of her currently lithe form for when she’s old and gray.


Alain Resnais' Providence

Thinking of the future, the discussion then turns onto the topic of where films will be in 50 years, Paul saying that movies as we know them won’t be around, and onto the merits of the long take. Within moments, Porumboiu has eased the viewer into a familiar conversation (lusty director, reluctant actress) and then plasters a statement on the future of film and then goes on to reflect on the style in which he did that. (A cinematic metaphysical hat trick, if you will.) These elements become even more involved as the film progresses. Later on, Paul and Alina rehearse the discussed nude scene a few times in a very long single take (one of the film’s reported 17 takes, long or otherwise). Eventually, a similar situation plays out in the characters’ real lives later on, adding yet another narrative layer to an already mind-bending level of realities surrounding a film-within-a-film that we never get to see. When Evening Fall on Bucharest or Metabolism manages to transcend reality and filmmaking into a whole other realm of metaphysical cinema.

Each of these films deal with the metaphysics of fact, fiction and varying realities, but with very different outlooks: Providence being the most pessimistic, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty most optimistic and When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism most nihilistic.

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