Punch Drunk Love

NB: bits of this could be considered to be spoilers, although that’s somewhat irrelevent to this film

P.T. Anderson’s previous films all included small themes of finding that spark of love in the oddest places, in unusual fashions, with very diverse people. In ‘Hard Eight’, a pair of young, sad Vegas-ites find love and must fight their way through to keep it. In ‘Boogie Nights’, a suprisingly close-knit family emerges from the excess of the 70’s porn-scene. In ‘Magnolia’, a cop and a messed-up druggie find each other, while a son & a father reconnect. In each of these strange films, quirky love is a theme. ‘

Punch Drunk Love is in many ways simply the logical extension of those previous explorations. Barry, a profoundly disturbed and repressed man is the object of affection of an odd, but seemingly emotionally stable woman, Lena. He is incredibly needing of love, but with the emotional maturity of an eight-year-old, not at all ready for it. His tantrums and inability to express himself are really quite frightening. They are played for laughs, but I think more in the sense of humiliation rather than sympathy. I found this a marked shift in P.T. Anderson’s treatment of his characters. Previously, he has been universally sympathetic for his lead characters. Sympathy certainly remains, but it seemed more for the blossoming of love than for the actions of the characters.

Like his other films, the direction in this film is precise and incredibly controlled. Like Altman, Anderson seems comfortable in sprawling pictures, but while Altman’s films always feel somewhat of a mess, held only together through force of will, Anderson’s films always feel tightly controlled and measures to me. The cinematography is beautiful, lush, saturated with color and lights, blurred out to hint and the transition watercolor effects even during the scenes. The sound, however, is what really makes the film. Like no other working director I can think of, P.T. Anderson makes silence work so well. The scoring was used sparingly, but always in tune with Barry’s emotional state. While he was calm, it was silent. As he got more and more anxious, the music became more and more chaotic. At points where he lost it, the music was loud and bombastic, disapearing once he had calmed down again. Lena’s theme, all soft, cautious and calming let us know immediately what to expect from her, and when mixed in with the cacaphony that made up Barry’s emotions, let us understand musically why they were destined to be.

Normally, I hate to feel manipulated in films. It’s why I like the Dogma approach so much (although that in itself is of course a manipulative conceit). P.T. Anderson is, however, perhaps my favourite director currently, as well as being a very manipulative director. The difference, I think, is that where your average Hollywood film has essentially 2 devices to tell you how to react: scoring & focus, P.T. Anderson uses a much larger range of materials to point you in the right direction. And tellingly, I do feel that he is pointing you towards a particular reaction, while still allowing you to feel what you would naturally (for instance, in this film, there is comedy, but you can also be disturbed by it).

So indeed, ‘Punch Drunk Love’ is a wonderful, smart film; Adam Sandler is an excellent leading man & and the sad chemistry between he and Emily Watson works beatifully. But I don’t think it’s a romantic comedy. Perhaps a romantic tragedy would be more apt (though not in the Greek sense).

2 Replies to “Punch Drunk Love”

  1. I thought this was one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Seriously.

    I despised Boogie Nights and tolerated Hard Eight (haven’t seen Magnolia), but this is amazing.

    Some random comments, related to Steve’s review (and I also give some things away so watch the movie first):

    – The only other director that has used sound – and silence – better is David Lynch, probably Mulholland Drive being the best example

    – Fuck Dogma – I can’t stand any theory that argues from a point of supposed purity. I love artifice. I love a good mess. P.T. Anderson does a great job of using “visible” devices at the service of telling the story. Manipulative? Sure. And I’m glad for it. Didactic? Not in my opinion.

    – I thought the “love” stuff was fantastic (then again, I think that the romance between Morticia and Gomez in “The Addams Family” is a big deal). The resolution of violence through love could have been a big disappointment, but I thought worked really well. I think we expect from “edgy independent” filmmakers that violence will overcome love and that the characters are redeemed through sadness (or not). I.e. that the hero will find himself through love but the villan destroys the love anyway bla bla bla. The movie walks an incredibly fine line between Tarrintino-like wit-through-violence and Hollywood romance without falling into the pitfalls of either. And, to be certain, this isn’t a strings-swelling, fate-be-damned, esctatic love – it’s a messy thing, and you don’t even know if it’s a good idea for these people to be with each other (or anyone) at all.

    – Romantic Comedy/Tragedy? For once, I think the trailers have it right – It’s a “dangerous romance”

    – Acting. Great. Even Luis Guzman as the barely-existing assistant manager was just right.

    – You know, and bear with me here, the unfolding of the plot reminded me of the elegance to some mathematical proofs. You start by assuming some things – you populate your stage with some characters and define the rules by which your little world works – no matter how strange. Then you set it in motion. Right away, things will start to get messy, but you can still sense an inherent consistency at play. Confusion and tension builds, but you start to notice some small things that click, some moments that make sense, that you recognize as feeling “true”. You press on, and your brain starts to process in two directions, forward to the grand resolution and backwards to re-interpret the earlier confusion. By the end, there is a beautiful symmetry that stretches from beginning to end, and if you can hold the thing in your head all at once there is a fantastic emotional quality when you feel that you’ve at least temporarily captured a big messy thing in a small tidy thing. (If you’ve read this far, I might offer as an example the Binomial Theorem – I won’t explain that unless somebody asks me) This movie felt this way to me. I.e. that the audience is given a strange, but internally consistent set of things to work with that interact complexly and builds into a big, fun mess. Through no device other than it’s own internal logic, the story clears up into something that feels like a good ending. I never felt like there was a deus ex machina at work – some will that forced the movie to come to a resolution – no sudden twist of fate, no leap of faith, no lucky break – the workings of the narrative stepped forward, climaxed and ended all on its own. It felt elegant – efficient, graceful, concise. Not any more complex than it had to be without being too simple to be interesting. And even though it had this algorithmic quality, it felt like a very human story.

  2. I thought this was one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Seriously.

    I despised Boogie Nights and tolerated Hard Eight (haven’t seen Magnolia), but this is amazing.

    Some random comments, related to Steve’s review (and I also give some things away so watch the movie first):

    – The only other director that has used sound – and silence – better is David Lynch, probably Mulholland Drive being the best example

    – Fuck Dogma – I can’t stand any theory that argues from a point of supposed purity. I love artifice. I love a good mess. P.T. Anderson does a great job of using “visible” devices at the service of telling the story. Manipulative? Sure. And I’m glad for it. Didactic? Not in my opinion.

    – I thought the “love” stuff was fantastic (then again, I think that the romance between Morticia and Gomez in “The Addams Family” is a big deal). The resolution of violence through love could have been a big disappointment, but I thought worked really well. I think we expect from “edgy independent” filmmakers that violence will overcome love and that the characters are redeemed through sadness (or not). I.e. that the hero will find himself through love but the villan destroys the love anyway bla bla bla. The movie walks an incredibly fine line between Tarrintino-like wit-through-violence and Hollywood romance without falling into the pitfalls of either. And, to be certain, this isn’t a strings-swelling, fate-be-damned, esctatic love – it’s a messy thing, and you don’t even know if it’s a good idea for these people to be with each other (or anyone) at all.

    – Romantic Comedy/Tragedy? For once, I think the trailers have it right – It’s a “dangerous romance”

    – Acting. Great. Even Luis Guzman as the barely-existing assistant manager was just right.

    – You know, and bear with me here, the unfolding of the plot reminded me of the elegance to some mathematical proofs. You start by assuming some things – you populate your stage with some characters and define the rules by which your little world works – no matter how strange. Then you set it in motion. Right away, things will start to get messy, but you can still sense an inherent consistency at play. Confusion and tension builds, but you start to notice some small things that click, some moments that make sense, that you recognize as feeling “true”. You press on, and your brain starts to process in two directions, forward to the grand resolution and backwards to re-interpret the earlier confusion. By the end, there is a beautiful symmetry that stretches from beginning to end, and if you can hold the thing in your head all at once there is a fantastic emotional quality when you feel that you’ve at least temporarily captured a big messy thing in a small tidy thing. (If you’ve read this far, I might offer as an example the Binomial Theorem – I won’t explain that unless somebody asks me) This movie felt this way to me. I.e. that the audience is given a strange, but internally consistent set of things to work with that interact complexly and builds into a big, fun mess. Through no device other than it’s own internal logic, the story clears up into something that feels like a good ending. I never felt like there was a deus ex machina at work – some will that forced the movie to come to a resolution – no sudden twist of fate, no leap of faith, no lucky break – the workings of the narrative stepped forward, climaxed and ended all on its own. It felt elegant – efficient, graceful, concise. Not any more complex than it had to be without being too simple to be interesting. And even though it had this algorithmic quality, it felt like a very human story.

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