Friday, October 24, 2008

The Good Kind of Social Drama

The Noise in My Head plays Saturday at 3pm and Sunday at 5:45pm. Both screenings are at 600 North Michigan.

We’ve all met women like Laura, but rarely in the movies. Early thirties, single, smart but unimaginative, reticent but prone to explode in an argument, pretty enough to date but never married. She works at a big business in a small city (Geneva, in this case) but always in a low-ranking job; even she could not see herself in a position of authority. She shows traces of perfectionism and yet is fundamentally unsure of herself. In fact, she's often in danger of emotional collapse, but avoids it by holding fast to the safety of conformism. With the exception of a sympathetic ex-boyfriend boyfriend, Laura is without companionship. In fact, she doesn’t appear to have anyone in her life with whom she can speak openly. Her unarticulated thoughts have been suppressed for so long they’ve accumulated to a near-schizophrenic din. (They’re the source of this movie’s title, by the way.)

When a woman like her turns up in a fiction film, she’s typically someone’s ex or a family member avoided except for at gatherings. The Noise in My Head is notable for following Laura as her life teeters but doesn’t fall off completely. Given its lack of sensationalism—Laura isn’t out-and-out mentally ill (though she comes close)—the film is not a piece of radical humanism like Lodge Kerrigan’s Keane (2005). Also, the intimate, realistic approach precludes the grand catharsis of a fantasy like Punch-Drunk Love (2003). It resides the squarest of genres, the modest social drama, whose frequent manipulativeness have made it something of an anathema to serious moviegoers. But The Noise in My Head doesn’t want to manipulate its audience. It simply wants to remind us of something that is worth remembering: just how difficult life can be for most people.

The film enters into a plot when Laura lunges impulsively at happiness. She takes in an 18-year-old boy she meets hawking papers on the street. He’s neither violent nor on the make sexually—two clich├ęd developments the movie thankfully avoids—but a different kind of risk. We come to learn he’s a pathological liar and a bit of a thief, a behavior problem for so long that his parents finally kicked him out. His name is Simon, and we’ve met people like him, too, working at convenience stores and other menial jobs. He’s the sort of kid who wasn’t forward enough in school to be a bully, but he wasn’t smart enough to be recognized as a student, either.

Director Vincent Pluss charts their relationship carefully, finding value in their everyday activities. More characters enter the film and each is as three-dimensional as the leads, giving way to a grand pathology of passive despair. It’s worth noting that Pluss, a young Swiss director still finding his voice, borrows only the best elements of other filmmakers. Taking Mike Leigh’s practice of allowing the actors to help sculpt the dialogue, he creates a comparably deep sea of humanity. Also, his anxious, propulsive editing recalls two masters of modern French cinema, Olivier Assayas and Arnaud Desplechin. But Pluss displays a sympathy for his characters (and a curiosity about the world) that cannot be faked. And he knows how to end a film miraculously. The Noise in My Head stops on a narrative caesura so unexpected and yet so carefully calibrated it reminded me of Flannery O’Connor’s short fiction, another storyteller who inspired awe before life’s possibility.