James + Semaj is a column where James Franco talks to his reverse self, Semaj, about new films. Rather than a conventional review, it is place where James and Semaj can muse about ideas that the films provoke. James loves going to the movies and talking about them. But a one-sided take on a movie, in print, might be misconstrued as a review. As someone in the industry it could be detrimental to James’s career if he were to review his peers, because unlike the book industry—where writers review other writer’s books—the film industry is highly collaborative, and a bad review of a peer could create problems. So, assume that James (and Semaj) love all these films. What they’re interested in talking about is all the ways the films inspire them, and make them think. James is me, and Semaj is the other side of me.
This week’s column is focused on “Ne Me Quitte Pas” (“Don’t Leave Me”), which is currently screening at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York through Nov. 27.
James: This is a Dutch documentary that plays as a dark alcoholic bromance.
Semaj: Or a modern take on “Waiting for Godot.”
James: Without the Godot.
Semaj: Godot wasn’t even in his own play.
James: I know that. That’s the point.
Semaj: Yeah, but you said “without the Godot,” which implies that these two guys, Marcel and Bob, aren’t waiting for anything, and I think that they are.
James: Like what? Some meaning in their lives? I think they’re beyond that. They’re entering the final chapters of their lives, Bob is further on than Marcel, and they’re just trying to cope, to make the best of what’s there — but basically just get on until the end.
Semaj: See, I don’t know about that. First let’s be clear about the situation: the movie opens up on Marcel being dumped by his wife because she has met someone else. She says that she probably would have left him even if she hadn’t met someone. Marcel tries to talk her into having sex with him one more time, she says no many times, even if, as Marcel proposes, her new lover won’t find out; and then he says they could do it at 6 a.m. . . .
James: I know, I mean what the fuck is that? Why would she be more agreeable if they did it early in the morning?
Semaj: I don’t know. But an even bigger question is how the filmmakers got these subjects to allow such intimate access. Some of the scenes – this opening scene stands out as one of them – must have required the filmmakers getting very close with their cameras.
James: Yeah, and how would the filmmakers even think to follow these two guys, of all people? As if they were just sitting around thinking, “Hey, these two guys are messes, they drink a lot, and are a little suicidal; they are trying to escape their lives one way or another, either gradually, or in one deliberate gesture . . . um, yeah! Let’s make a movie about them!’”
Semaj: I have no idea how the idea, or the agreement came about, but what we have is are very intimate portraits of these two at the bottom of their cups.
James: On the other hand, Marcel and Bob are funny, in a Beckett kind of bleak, end- of-day-clown kind of way.
Semaj: Yeah, I mean, when I saw that this film was billed as a comedy I was a little confused because their lives are pretty bleak; but then again, I think Beckett’s poor saps in tattered suits waiting for the never showing Godot were based on Laurel and Hardy.
James: And Chaplin was “The Tramp,” a funny man in the guise of a down and out depression era bum. Maybe these are the modern equivalents?
Semaj: Yeah, possibly, except that this is a documentary, and these characters are real.
James: Yeah, there has to be something about watching fictional tramps navigate the cruel world through slapstick that enables us to laugh much easier than two obvious problem drinkers stumbling through the remainder of their days: passing out, vomiting, drunk driving cars and scooters (in the snow!), and talking themselves back off the wagon after painfully concerted attempts to get sober.
Semaj: Even still, there is something sadly humorous about these two that the camera’s attention carves out in relief so that we can, for the duration of the documentary, walk in their shoes and enjoy the sad smiles and eye twinkles of two people that we might normally just write off.
James: And, as far as the question we asked before, are they waiting for something? I think they are waiting, or maybe what it is, is that they’re searching. They’re searching for meaning. They’re trying – at least Marcel is trying, Bob’s actions show less of a desire to change – to live life so that there is some significance in what he does.
Semaj: Yeah, I see what you’re saying. Although Bob does write a poem about the fading brilliance of life, which isn’t too bad either.
James: They’re both working through existential crises.
Semaj: Yes, Bob chooses to stay as he is, drinking rum everyday (although he refuses to admit to himself how much he actually drinks) while Marcel struggles to be a good father to his three young children every other weekend, even though the house he lives in is squalid and he is destitute.
James: And more than that he tries to sober up by going to a clinic for a ten day cure.
Semaj: Yeah, boy, is that depressing.
James: Well, he tells dirty jokes to the nurses.
Semaj: Feels more like the band playing music on the deck of the Titanic.
James: Why? Because he’s trying to be humorous in a time of hopelessness?
Semaj: Yeah. Which sounds like our country over the past two weeks.
James: That’s for sure. And, to go back to that unfettered/unlimited access question, there is a scene where Marcel is wandering the halls of the clinic in the middle of the night, and the camera operator is there capturing it all! I mean what did they do, stay the night with him in the clinic in the case that he woke up like this and wandered the halls?
Semaj: I don’t know, maybe. You’re right, sometimes the filmmakers get such amazing, almost impossible moments, it feels as if it had to be staged.
James: But on the other hand, it also feels like the moments that we’re talking about are so pedestrian and sad — taking a face plant on the floor and passing out, pouring boiling water on Marcel to wake him, getting a rotten tooth pulled by the dentist (“there are two left” Bob says afterward), sniffing ammonia and puking outside, getting drunk and puking on the kitchen floor — that if the filmmakers were to stage anything, they would have gone for bigger Hollywood moments.
Semaj: My guess is they worked a bit like the reality show “The Hills”: if the guys had something to talk about or do (such as Bob giving Marcel the ammonia cure for sobering up – sniffing an ammonia suffused rag) they asked them to do it in a specific place so that they might be able to set up the camera in an optimal position.
James: So you think this movie is like “The Hills.”
Semaj: Only in the sense that they ‘re real characters in a human wasteland trying to create meaning through their earthbound actions.