Friday, April 20, 2007

Movie Chat: Triple Agent

Triple Agent

I guess I've just been in the mood for spy stories recently: Eric Rohmer's Triple Agent is a bit different though - like an Eric Ambler book turned inside-out or a le Carre novel where all the thriller stuff has been thrown out and you're left with just the ambiguous relationship drama. It shares one of le Carre's big preoccupations: how the business of spying - of lying for living - infects the spy's personal relationships.

I liked it quite a bit, although it's an extremely modest movie. It's set in the 1930s, and, at first, I couldn't help thinking the whole thing looked underpopulated and under-produced. Then I realized I only thought that because I've been conditioned to expect elaborate period recreations by big productions like Peter Jackson's King Kong. This was kind of funny, because I didn't even like the period stuff in Kong: I thought it was bloated, cliche-ridden, and unnecessary.*

I guess making a fetish out of huge production values has always been a part of the movies, but it's refreshing to see a world class director who can work happily and efficiently on a small scale production-wise, while still grappling with big issues.

The material - a fictionalized account of the Nikolai Skoblin affair - is pretty fascinating, too. There's a tendency in America to think about the Soviet espionage solely in terms of the Cold War, so, while I had a vague awareness (mostly from Eric Ambler novels) that there was lots of plotting and scheming by the Soviets, the Nazis, and other European governments going on in Europe during the 1930s, I was glad to get a more detailed and complex picture of this subject. (FWIW, I didn't have much difficulty following the movie "cold", but, after reading that Wikipedia entry my understanding of some of the plot points is definitely a lot clearer).

*I go back-and-forth on this, or, rather, I hold two contradictory ideas on this. I have nothing against big movies: in fact, one of the things I love about movies is that they can be so big. I'm not a huge Gone with the Wind fan, but I do find the famous crane shot in the Army hospital devastating. It gets at the tremendous human cost of war in a way that would, IMO, not be as effective if it were done on a smaller scale. This isn't to say that this is the only way to do it, but large-scale moments like this one have a different kind of impact from smaller-scale moments. But bigness can also get in the way and I wish it hadn't become the default for Hollywood movies. Taladega Nights is my whipping boy for this issue: I enjoyed the movie just fine, but the huge production doesn't seem to add too much to the movie. The people making it aren't great visual stylists (like, say, Buster Keaton) and the movie's gags aren't based on elaborately constructed sets (like, say, Play Time's). I'm really not sure the movie would have suffered from having, say, a lower-rent recreation of the NASCAR experience.

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