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November 2012

In Your Hands

cast: Kristin Scott Thomas, Pio Marmai, and Jean-Philippe Ecoffey

director: Lola Doillon

80 minutes (15) 2010
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Artificial Eye blu-ray region B
[released 26 November]

RATING: 3/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

In Your Hands

The history of post-World War II cinema is the story of a cold war between two very different approaches to cinematic storytelling: at one extreme, we have the totalitarian narratives of Hollywood blockbusters in which everything is spelled out in an effort to tell the audience precisely what to think and how to feel about every plot development and character. At the other extreme, we have the perverse ambiguities of the European art house tradition where filmmakers portray ambiguous events and then open up evocative cinematic spaces in which the audience are encouraged to draw their own conclusions about what they have just seen.

One difference between these two approaches is that the ambiguities of the European art house tradition tend to be far more forgiving of directors without very much to say. Indeed, if someone like Michael Bay builds a Hollywood blockbuster around charmless characters and an idiotic plot then the lack of ambiguity means that there is no escaping the fact that his story sucks. Conversely, if someone like Carlos Reygadas or Eugene Green makes an art house film so evasive that it never actually commits to making a statement, then the evocative cinematography combined with the slow pacing ensure that art house film fans will, most likely, concoct their own fictitious meaning and project it onto the hollow ambiguities on screen.

A key structural problem facing the European art house scene at the moment is that, while more and more people are going to film school and learning the cinematic techniques associated with art house film, the proportion of art house filmmakers with something to say is really no higher than that of articulate Hollywood directors. The difference is that while people are happy to watch idiotic Hollywood movies and infer that the director is a moron, people go to see idiotic art house films and convince themselves that they are watching something intelligent and thought provoking because it's hard to tell the difference between an ambiguous narrative and a narrative with nothing to say. Though not as idiotic as some recent European art house films, Lola Doillon's second feature-length film In Your Hands is precisely the type of film that tends to be let off easy by critics desperate to find something worth writing about.

The film begins with a woman waking up and making her way home. Clearly upset about something, the woman turns up at work and puts on a brave face only for her co-workers to ask where she had been and why she hadn't answered her phone. The woman, it turns out, is a surgeon named Anna Cooper (Kristin Scott Thomas) and she has escaped from her kidnapper (Pio Marmai).

The film's narrative is artfully non-linear; Doillon throws her audience into the deep-end in an effort to communicate Cooper's sense of traumatised alienation. The film informs us of Anna's story in much the same way as Anna comes to terms with it herself: events are explained, motivations explored and decisions are reached only once the dust begins to settle. We soon learn that the kidnapper is the husband of a woman who died on Cooper's operating table. Initially, the relationship between kidnapper and victim is angry to the point of outright hysteria: the kidnapper blames the surgeon for killing his wife while the surgeon refuses to acknowledge any form of wrongdoing. However, as time passes and the two people begin to get used to each other, we begin to see that they share some sort of connection.

The connection between the kidnapper and his victim is apparently born of the fact that both people seem to be utterly alone in life. For example, though a successful surgeon, Cooper appears to have absolutely no friends or people who might be worried by her sudden disappearance. In fact, when the surgeon eventually escapes and tries to process what it is that just happened, her failure to find anyone to talk to forces her to contact the police even though she clearly does not want to press charges. The kidnapper himself is similarly isolated as the death of his wife left him utterly alone and his unwillingness to move on from the death of his wife ensured that no new relationship could ever fill that void. When asked about his relationship with his surviving daughter, the kidnapper simply shrugs.

The problem with the film's central theme of alienation is that it is impossible to determine whether it is something that exists in the text of the film or whether it is something that I have made up out sheer boredom. Are we supposed to attend to the fact that neither of the characters have any friends or is their lack of social connection simply the product of weak characterisation and sloppy world building? Despite being only 80 minutes long, the film contains no context for the events surrounding the kidnapping, meaning that the characters begin and end the film as impenetrable cyphers. To make matters worse, having teased the audience with the idea that kidnapper and victim might have fallen for each other because that relationship was the only one they had, Doillon refuses to either acknowledge this interpretation of events or develop the insight in any meaningful way.

Technically proficient but entirely lacking in both humanity and insight, Doillon's In Your Hands is the product of an artistic scene where an ability to create something that resembles an intelligent film counts for far more than actual intelligence. The narrative techniques deployed in this film were developed as a result of the growing perception that traditional top-down narrative techniques could not capture the ambiguities of everyday life. The likes of Michelangelo Antonioni and Alain Resnais did not make slow and impenetrable films for the sake of making slow and impenetrable films; they made them because they genuinely believed that that was the only way of capturing the ambiguous nature of both the world and the human relationships it contains.

The problem with films like In Your Hands as well as Green's The Portuguese Nun, and Reygadas' Silent Light is that while modern life is no less ambiguous than it was in the days of Resnais and Antonioni, the truths these films are attempting to capture are in no way ambiguous. For example, there is absolutely nothing ambiguous about the suggestion that lonely people will latch onto any possible relationship no matter how perverse or unhealthy it may be! If the truth articulated by In Your Hands is not in and of itself ambiguous, then it follows that the film's lack of exposition must be seen as either a failure to write a proper script, or a pompous and intellectually dishonest affectation designed to artificially situate the film within a tradition of far more complex, intelligent and ambiguous works.

The truth is that if you approach In Your Hands expecting to find a film like Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff, then Doillon's evocative imagery and evasive storytelling will do absolutely nothing to prevent you from constructing just such a critical chimera. However, if you approach this film without assuming that making a film that looks like Michael Haneke's Hidden is the same thing as making a film like Michael Haneke's Hidden then you will find a dull, dishonest and intellectually vacuous piece of filmmaking rendered tolerable only by the presence of the ever-watchable Kristin Scott Thomas.

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