Wednesday, February 11, 2009
James Toback’s 1983 film Exposed is, in its first hour at least, one of the great English language films of the eighties. It is so close to being a major masterpiece that its second half failures are still particularly stinging. Final act flaws aside, Exposed is an incredibly inventive film by one of America's most complicated directors, and it features one of the great performances of Nastassja Kinski's career.
Writer and director James Toback is an interesting guy. He has hardly been prolific, shooting less than ten features in a thirty plus year period, but he is one of the few American filmmakers who can claim to have at least one truly great film in the seventies (1978's Fingers), the eighties (Exposed), the nineties (1997's Two Girls and a Guy) and finally this decade (2004's When Will I Be Loved). Toback's films are demanding, frustrating and finally rewarding, but it is ultimately the performances he manages to bring out of his actors that is perhaps the most noteworthy thing about him.
Exposed opens up with a startling tracking shot of Paris set to to the haunting strains of Georges Delerue's unforgettable score. This languid shot quickly closes into none other than New Wave icon Pierre Clementi mysteriously walking through the streets of Paris. Toback then switches his camera's obsessive eye to a pretty blonde entering a restaurant, planting a bomb and quickly leaving just before the building explodes. It's a shot people in 1983 would remember from the then recent Nighthawks (1981), but more in tune viewers would have also thought of Gillo Pontecorvo's astonishing 1966 feature, Battle of Algiers. Indeed Toback's decision to switch slowly from a vivid color scheme to black and white over the destroyed restaurant seems to be a very deliberate nod to not only his idol Jean-Luc Godard, but also the heated political films of directors like Pontecorvo and Bellochio.
After this very mysterious and indeed explosive opening we are then taken to a Midwestern American college where Toback himself is teaching a class. He is speaking of Goethe and lamenting on how the "Western world is falling apart." It is here that we get our first look at the troubled and lonely Elizabeth Carlson listening intently, even while looking completely disconnected.
Kinski's first full scene as Elizabeth is a real stunner. We find her packing in her room listening to fifties rock music (which recalls Harvey Keitel's lost and angry soul in Fingers) and arguing with Toback's brutish, pig like professor. Surrounded by photographs and posters (including Garbo in Camille) this is a Nastassja Kinski we hadn't seen on screen before. She oozes tension and frustration and at one point screams "I feel like a caged animal" (the first of many moments when the film seems as much about Kinski's professional and personal life as anything else). Kinski is incredible in this very natural and raw scene and its improvised nature sets the tone for the startling first half of Exposed.
Exposed is very much a film about escape and throughout the first half we watch as Kinski escapes from one level of heartbreak to another. From school she escapes to her parents house (Where we hear Kinski chillingly speak of her destructive father and how she inherited her "restlessness from him.") and from there she escapes to New York. It is interesting to note that almost all of Kinski's escapes in the film are from men. First from the cruel leanings of her professor, then from her judgemental father, to finally from the gaze of millions of men staring longingly at her photograph. If the film's final heartbreaking shot does have one positive aspect it is that she is no longer a woman escaping from a man, but simply from herself.
Continuing our journey with Elizabeth, she is immediately mugged upon arriving in New York and she loses all of her money. It is another scene that feels remarkably unscripted and natural, and Toback's vision of New York is an incredibly vivid snap shot of the town. The city is indeed one of the films biggest assets and it is one of the major characters of the film. After applying at a record store where another fight breaks out (violence never seems far away in any of Toback's films) she finally breaks down and gets a job as a waitress.
It isn't long before she escapes from her waitress job into the world of high fashion. If it was anyone other than Kinski playing Elizabeth then her getting discovered so quickly and out of the blue by a fashion photographer would seem ridiculous, but because it is Nastassja it seems completely believable. The photographer promises her "Different clothes, different looks and different selves", and for the first time in her life, Kinski's tragic character feels at home in her new role of inhabiting different persona's.
I typically don't like to do plot synopsis but it is very important to understand that Exposed, more that any other film she ever made, seems to be about Nastassja Kinski. The first hour of the film is a remarkable character study and portrait of a woman very much separated from her own identity, her own persona if you will. One person even says directly to Kinski at one point, "You have the mystery of Garbo, the wit of Lombard and eroticism of Monroe." What is striking about this isn't Toback's mirroring of the critical reaction Kinski always received, but the near disgusted and exhausted look on her face hearing it. Only Nastassja Kinski knows just how close Exposed was to her own self, but I am willing to bet their are few portrayals she gave that were more personal and close to her.
Nastassja has not spoken much on Exposed since its release, but her few comments have been telling. She would recall that, "I guess I've been a creature of the directors imagination. You see, I want to get a glimpse of his eyes searching out things inside of me. I want to go to hell and heaven for him. I want to make his dreams come true." She would speak more specifically on the film during the making of it with, "This movie is why we're alive. It is why you were born and I was born. If we die when this movie is finished it won't matter, because this is it." Exposed would stick with Nastassja Kinski and she would later recall to an interviewer that despite some difficulties making the film that, "I quite like Exposed and didn't think I would...I foresaw something bad...Exposed may not be perfect all over, but I liked it."
Unfortunately, the brilliance of the first hour of the film begins to disappear around the time Rudolf Nureyev is introduced into the plot, even though at first his addition is very successful. Nureyev might not be the worlds greatest actor but he has an undeniable quality about him and he plays well off Kinski in their first few scenes together. Kinski loved the experience and remembered that, "Meeting Rudy was like a legend, like a ghost. Just to meet him, to watch him, to listen to him was great! He has grace and strength, a joy and music within. And he has also the most tremendous beauty and charm. We got along very well in a short time and had so much in common. It was strange. I can't put it into words. Think of a situation where you look at each other and don't even have to say anything or where there is meaning between the words. The music that happens between two people can be just unbelievable."
Unfortunately Toback begins rolling some unnecessary plot mechanics in order to explain Nureyev's character when he should have been left mysterious. All of the power and majesty of the first hour of Exposed quickly gives way to the films disappointing final 40 minutes. Why Toback decided to introduce a bizarre plot twist involving terrorists in Paris has always been baffling. While it does all connect back to the unforgettable opening scene, Toback would have been much better off just having the terrorists as another example of the world surrounding Kinski collapsing. Instead he takes us into weird and convoluted section of the film that focuses on a fringe terrorist, played by a menacing Harvey Keitel, and his group of mostly female soldiers.
The film's final section does seem nearly totally disconnected from the first half, with only Kinski's fearless performance keeping the work grounded. Despite the problems of the film's final act, Exposed still manages to be completely arresting and its final shot, featuring a stunning black and white close up of Kinski's face, is just about the most unforgettable shot Toback or Kinski ever put on film. It very much recalls Keitel at the end of Fingers but it is even more effective here as we are given a woman who has found something in herself that she wasn't prepared for, something else she is going to have to escape from after the credits role and the audience has left the theater.
Technically the film is superb. Toback's direction is sublime in its execution and even when the plot mechanics fail towards the end, his expert framing and intelligent camera moves show a director well schooled in the great European masters of the post-war era. The film is shot by none other than legendary New Wave cinematographer Henri Decae. Henri photographed some of the most beautiful faces in screen history, so it is fitting that one of his last assignments was shooting Kinski in possibly her loveliest period. With Exposed she joined the likes of Brigitte Bardot, Alain Delon, Jane Fonda and Al Pacino as being memorably captured by Decae's lens. Exposed is not remember as being one of the most memorably shot of Henri's career but there is much to admire in it, especially in the cold and wintry New York scenes and of course the two startling black and white fades that bookend the film. Exposed would be the last major work for the master photographer with just a handful of minor productions following.
While Exposed is certainly a tribute to Nastassja Kinski more than anything else, it can also accurately be described as a love letter to the French New Wave films of the fifties, sixties and seventies that Toback owes such a debt to.
The New Wave connection comes up at almost every turn, from the casting of people like Pierre Clementi to the photography of Decae. One of the most obvious and pronounced connections Toback's film had with the films of his youth is the stirring score by New Wave icon Georges Delerue.
The French born Delerue had a remarkable and prolific career that spanned over fifty years and included well over three hundred scores. While he worked in nearly every conceivable genre with directors all over the world, his name will always be synonymous with the French New Wave and one director in particular. Much like Bernard Hermann's name with always be matched with Alfred Hitchcock, and Pino Donnagio will forever be linked with Brian De Palma, the names Georges Delerue and Francois Truffaut will always be linked together in a very strong and noteworthy way. While his work with Truffaut is among his most talked about, probably the finest score he ever delivered was his haunting themes for Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt in 1963. It is perhaps no coincidence that the theme for Exposed shares some similarities with his heartbreaking and beautiful Godard score from twenty years before. Exposed isn't one of Delerue's great scores and at times it is a bit underused, but the main theme is lovely and his music does match the film's darkly romantic European leanings very well.
Exposed opened up in the United States in the spring of 1983 to very poor box office returns. Critics were divided on the film, with some, like Roger Ebert and Tom Milne, hailing it as a major work and others damning it and Kinski. Ebert was particularly passionate about Kinski in the film, a fact one can see from these portions of his review:
"This movie contains moments so exhilarating they reawakened me to the infinite possibilities of movies...Exposed contains the most exciting evidence yet that Nastassja Kinski is the next great female superstar. I do not say she is a great actress, not yet, and perhaps not ever. I do not compare her with Meryl Streep or Kate Nelligan, Jill Clayburgh or Jessica Lange. I am not talking in those terms of professional accomplishment. I am talking about the mysterious, innate quality that some performers have to cast a special spell, to develop a relationship with the camera that you can call stardom or voodoo or magic, because its name doesn't really matter.
Kinski has it. There are moments in this film (two virtuoso scenes, in particular, and then many other small moments and parts of scenes) when she affects me in the same way that Marilyn Monroe must have affected viewers, in movies like The Asphault Jungle or All About Eve. She was not yet a star and audiences did not even know her name, but there was a quality about her that could not be dismissed. Kinski has that quality. She has exhibited it before in better films, such as Tess, and in ambitious, imperfect films such as Cat People and One From the Heart. Now here is Exposed...The sheer quality of Kinski's abandon in these two scenes (the solo dance and violin seduction) made me realize how many barriers can sometimes exist between a performer and an audience: Here there are none...
If a movie can electrify me the way this one did, not once but twice and then some, I'm prepared to forgive it almost anything."
It would do a bit better in Europe but Exposed never really found its audience back in 1983. It fared better on VHS throughout the eighties, but it has still never been released on Region One DVD and remains out of print in the states. These screen shots are from an Italian DVD that a kind reader sent to me. Perhaps a Region 1 DVD is looming though as the film recently had a succesful screening at The New Beverly Theater and featured Quentin Tarantino doing an onstage interview with Toback. The most surprising and welcome portion of the evening though came when it became clear that Kinski herself was in the audience, and she got a huge ovation when Toback and Tarantino introduced her from the stage.
Despite some last act flaws, Exposed remains one of the most eerie and well conceived films of the eighties, and among the best films Nastassja Kinski has ever appeared in. Less a film about plot and more a film of personality, Exposed would find James Toback very boldly making a film not only for his leading lady but ultimately about her.