May 13, 2006
The Mask, 1989
Set against the bicentennial commemoration of the French Revolution and the drafting of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, Johan van der Keuken's The Mask is a relevant, provocative, and bracing exposition on the contemporary social representation of the ideals of the 1789 revolution - liberty, equality, and fraternity - at a particularly transformative time in globalism and international politics when Eastern Europe was gradually emerging from the crumbling economy of a disintegrating Soviet bloc, and thus liberating itself from a state of "equality without freedom", and the nascent steps towards the formation of a European economic union were being vigorously debated through the media by political leaders (most notably, right-wing ultranationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen's racially inflammatory comments) seeking to sway public sentiment towards their cause on such confrontational issues as immigration and national identity, financial independence and common market leverage. The film opens to an image of understated, but trenchant irony as a pair of street musicians from Madagascar attempts to engage the captive (and largely disinterested) commuters into their guitar and saxophone performance by equating the sentiment expressed in their native folk song with the hopeful ideals of the revolution. The estranged image of these marginalized, panhandling immigrants searching for a receptive audience as they vainly chase their illusory dreams of a better life in the transitory platforms of an adoptive promised land is brought closer to the consciousness of the common man - in this case, the native Frenchman - through an equally incisive isolated shot of van der Keuken's seemingly atypical subject, a genial and unassuming 23 year old part-time waiter named Philippe, traveling in the opposite direction of a crowd on a set of escalators at a train station.
Comely, free from substance abuse, articulate, and presentably dressed in a dark, neutral colored suit, Philippe defies the stereotype of a vagrant. Uprooted from a fairly stable home life by the untimely death of his long ailing mother, as well as an unfortunate series of self-admitted youthful indiscretions (which included such rash, but seemingly innocuous decisions as resigning from a job without immediate prospects for a new one on hand), Philippe now walks aimlessly throughout the city to pass the long, empty hours on an all-too familiar routine (an evicted immigrant couple at a social services office similarly articulate this round the clock ambulatory ritual as a means of passing time) that includes stowing away in the waiting areas of train stations while dodging patrol officers making their rounds on the nights when he is unable to secure a bed space at the overfilled Salvation Army. His ambition, he muses, is to have a wardrobe of finely tailored suits with which he could present himself during job interviews and professional meetings that would serve as a mask of trustworthiness and dependability and conceal his instability.
As celebrations for the bicentennial reach a crescendo, Philippe, too, gets caught up in the politics of the moment, spending time with a pair of homeless, alcoholic military veterans who bristle at François Mitterand's public gesture of extolling the virtues of a national open immigration policy (arguing instead that such liberal immigration embraced by Mitterand robs the native French citizens from opportunities and social services), even as they equate Le Pen's heavy-handedness with the brutality of World War II death squads. However, van der Keuken preempts their alcohol-fueled specious argument (a generalization subsequently echoed by Philippe) with earlier scenes of struggling musicians and evicted immigrant families to create a pervasive atmosphere, not of the insidious nature of racism, but of the intrinsic psychology of disenfranchisement and marginalization, where fears of personal failure and human frailty are perverted into scapegoat absolutions of xenophobia and sense of unmerited, entitled privilege that inevitably lead to inertia and complacency. It is within these underlying paradoxes of homelessness and freedom, social status and equality, racism and fraternity that van der Keuken presents, not only an incisive portrait of the untenability of revolutionary ideals, but also a pensive, everyman cautionary tale on the alienating, self-defeating cycle of poverty, dependence, and social entrapment.