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« Number 13 | Main | Montaigne, "Des menteurs" »

Blue Car

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.

                                                                                                                   Yeats, "The Stolen Child"

Were there ever a French version of this film, the first change imposed, I would imagine, would be the elimination of its non-diegetic music (unless a soundtrack features Bach or something of comparable solemnity, it is best to let the viewer contemplate only nature's din). Thankfully, these treacly insertions will compose the work's only flaw. The acting is absolutely first-rate – at times breathtaking – the vignettes maintain impeccable pacing, and the one truly preposterous event is rendered somewhat plausible by its occurrence early enough in the film so as not to serve as a distraction. That Blue Car is also a directorial debut filmed for a pittance makes it all the more impressive.

Our protagonist is fifteen-year-old Meg Denning (an astonishing Agnes Bruckner), who opens our story by reading a wretched poem of which the less said the better. Wretched not only because of its unavoidable puerility ("I am the disease that rots the bark of trees/ I am rust and gravity"), but also because, well, Meg is truly miserable. Her single mother (Margaret Colin) divides her futurelessness between an unwanted job and a time-heavy night school curriculum, her younger sister Lily has resorted to self-mutilation and a hunger strike, and Meg's father departed many years ago in the titular vehicle, never to return. Her one escape is the Advanced Placement English class of a dashing fellow by the name of Tony Auster (David Strathairn). Auster seems very much the educated gentleman, except for a noticeably crooked smile, and if we know anything about smiles, we know that good people do not bare their teeth like wolves. In fact, we may not realize it at the time, but with his first spoken words Auster provides us everything we need to know about his character. When Meg has concluded her reading of "Blue Car" – a poem that will go through several variants in the course of the film – a classmate breaks out in fake sobs, to which Auster replies: "Mr. Clark, this is AP English. If you can't extend a modicum of respect to your classmates, you are free to go right on down to auto shop." Comic effect aside, since when has auto shop been less admirable a course than AP English? Are both skills not necessary for the advancement, literally and figuratively, of humankind? Therein lies the problem with dear Mr. Auster, who possesses all the snobbery of a literary genius without any of the talent. That is to say, a literary genius will tell you, and firmly believe, that auto shop or cooking or dance class while charming in their way all invariably detract from a poet's lifelong quest for inner perfection. He will be right, because he can contribute to the world by means of a much rarer gift – but let us return to Mr. Auster and, as he calls her with simpering deference, Ms. Denning.  

One melancholy afternoon after Ms. Denning has missed a bus home (Ms. Denning's afternoons are consumed by the surveillance of Lily, who cannot be left alone for more than a few seconds), Mr. Auster finds her walking by the side of the road and pulls over. We are pleased to report that Mr. Auster's car is a grey not a blue Saab. But Mr. Auster, who affects a pleasing Midwestern accent occasionally reserved for serial killers, is far too interested in the life of his young student. There is a poetry contest whose state finals Mr. Auster presides over and whose national finals will take place in Florida (we are, importantly, beneath the linden trees of Dayton, Ohio). Wouldn't Ms. Denning like to participate in the statewide contest? We stand corrected: wouldn't Ms. Denning like to win the contest and go to Florida with, among other people, that dashing Mr. Auster? What eventually takes place between these two characters is so inevitable and yet drawn with such attention to detail that it feels at once perfectly awkward and perfectly correct, and a few scattered thoughts occur to us. How many times before has Mr. Auster taken on a pretty prodigy and lured her – I mean, encouraged her to go – to a much-ballyhooed competition far outside her parents' purview? Why does Mr. Auster so enjoy quoting this famous work? Maybe for the same reason that he also quotes Yeats and Wallace Stevens, because that is what a decorous student of twentieth-century literature is supposed to do. He won, it is said, a writing competition nine years ago, which explains his large house; there is also the matter of what he carries around in that leather bag of his, but that revelation awaits the viewer alone.

A few other characters add some color and, more importantly, delay our main event. A drug-dealing brother of one of Meg's friends shows her how kids don't need parents to destroy families, since they can do it all by themselves (Meg's criminal exploits exhibit, alas, the ease of habit). Having evinced a pathological disregard for her own well-being from her first words on-screen about a Mexican self-mutilator, Lily charts and completes her own Calvary. She starves herself into hospital care, raves about angels, collapses on a church altar, ends up in the psychiatric ward, and then mysteriously falls out an open window. This whole sideshow, which culminates before the film's halfway point, allows the script to erase the blue car's basic premise: Lily, after all, was the spitting image of her father, and with her death he is no longer allowed to see his surviving daughter. Interestingly, Auster also endured a family tragedy, although we don't believe it when he first casually broaches the subject because we know he is capable of saying anything that a magic moment requires. When we later meet his wife Delia (a scene-stealing Frances Fisher), however, we know that something awful has indeed happened to his family. Delia's happy-go-lucky act, including one of movie history's most tantalizing sips of a gin and tonic, cloaks her obvious pain, although she is not numb to Auster's lusty looks at his prize pupil. Her appraisal and tacit acceptance of Meg, one that she seems to reconsider in a later scene, is stunning in how clearly yet subtly all the information is conveyed, a much more common conceit in a French film that relies far more heavily on gestures and silence than Hollywood's tirade-laced melodramas.

Why do I keep thinking of a French version of Blue Car? Perhaps because it so intentionally differs from this infamous novel, which at times is nothing more than a very French romance gone very wrong. The romance in our film resides in what we may loosely term poetic development and more properly term the growth of the human soul. Meg has some artistic qualities, surely; but her willingness to lie, cheat, and steal suggests that her most dominant trait must remain her callow age (term papers can be written about the film's motif of the necktie). Her path is marred by her ambition, an obstacle for all poets, but not in the sense that she encounters. If she really believes Tony Auster to be an artist trapped in the guise of a high school English teacher – he lacks only the pipe and plaid-patched blazer – then she may also believe many other things that will ultimately betray her. But betrayal is the first step to cognizance and redemption, and teenagers scarcely know the devastating range of life's wicked twists. Even if they will always remember that first, eviscerating dagger.

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