Reviewed: The Place Beyond the Pines

A good gander at Gosling.

The Place Beyond the Pines (15)
dir: Derek Cianfrance

The phrase “Always leave ’em wanting more” was probably not foremost in the mind of the director Derek Cianfrance when he elected to open his latest film with a close-up of the bare torso of his star, Ryan Gosling. (For some viewers, this will be like receiving dessert before dinner.)

Even in the internet age, where it can seem that every bit-part actor is an icon, there is a frisson surrounding Gosling, the like of which has not been seen since those photos of Keanu Reeves looking sad while eating a sandwich. Gosling fills our need for an actor who is simultaneously pretty, intelligent and sorrowful but who has yet to throw in his lot with the blockbuster: a grass-roots idol. He is rather indulged in The Place Beyond the Pines by a director with whom he has become transparently comfortable. (They worked together on Cianfrance’s last film, Blue Valentine, a gruelling story of marital breakdown.) Gosling’s performance is characterised by feigned inarticulacy and mumbling method madness. His co-star Bradley Cooper, who has not previously shown an aptitude for the subtle or the intense, has the comfortable monopoly here on great acting.

Gosling plays Luke, a fairground stunt rider who is first shown in an unbroken tracking shot striding from his trailer to the marquee where he will join two other motorcyclists zooming around inside a giant steel globe. His natural habitat is the open road: in sympathy with him, the film’s recurring motif is a driving shot that floats a metre or two higher than the vehicle it’s following, suggesting surveillance but also transcendence. Luke walks out of his car­nival job and pitches up unannounced at the home of his old flame, Romina (Eva Mendes). Her mother answers the door with a tot in her arms. “Who’s this guy?” sniffs Luke. Not being the sort to beat around the bush, the woman blurts out: “He’s yours.” More than two hours later, most of us will wish she had been placed in charge of the editing.

Romina is understandably reluctant to let Luke back in her life. He is unemployed, has a trashy dye-job and displays his personality in his tattoos. Perhaps it’s wrong to judge a man by his bodily ink: the grenade on Luke’s arm and the knife dripping blood beneath his right eye could very well conceal a talent for macramé, or an abiding love for the films of Joyce Grenfell.

It just happens that he has a nasty temper and a shaky moral compass. He puts out a rival’s eye and turns energetically to crime to support his son. Luke is essentially a brute but there’s rather too much editorialising about him in the script. A scene in which he poses for a photograph with Romina and the baby, telling the waitress who is snapping them to “just capture the mood”, is amusing but out of character; it’s funny without feeling remotely true. It’s as though everyone involved, including Gosling, were worried Luke would come across as a dumb lug. There are actors who can play the dope without tipping a wink to the audience, but Gosling isn’t one of them. There is too much self-awareness in his eyes: the lights are off but there’s still somebody home.

One of the more interesting elements of Blue Valentine was its non-chronological narrative, and Cianfrance has again approached structure in a novel fashion. To say more would spoil some of the film’s disorienting surprises. But as other plotlines impinge on Luke’s story – including a rookie cop, Avery Cross (Cooper), who contemplates blowing the whistle on police corruption – the film grows in stature, assuming tragic dimensions. Cooper’s scenes bring dramatic freshness to a fairly standard cop-movie dilemma. With his soft, square head and hounded eyes, he exhibits levels of fragility that make Montgomery Clift seem like an uncouth longshoreman.

The Place Beyond the Pines has so much ambition that it’s disappointing its sweeping vision of a world governed by guilt and revenge doesn’t extend to women – parti­cularly when you recall the banquet of a part that Cianfrance wrote for Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine. While the men in the film run around injuring one another and gnashing their teeth, female characters such as Romina or Avery’s wife, Jennifer (Rose Byrne), are shunted off screen; presumably they are knitting or skipping through copses until the next time they are required to keep a vigil at the bedside of a male relative. The mythically tinged final scene brings events full circle in a way that is superficially satisfying while also conceding that the movie’s chief concern is men and the art of motorcycle maintenance.

 

Ryan Gosling at the New York premiere party. (Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism