Monday, March 24, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive

It is apparently of little concern to Jim Jarmusch, the common journlistic shorthand that labels him as some "high priest of hip". He seems actively to be courting the title in fact, with Only Lovers Left Alive, the most languorously cool movie of his career (amidst stiff competition). It is a love story, intrinsic to which is the fact that Adam and Eve (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton) are vampires (their third wedding was 1868) whose relationship has strengthened and deepened to a near-mystical level over the years; as has their knowledge and appreciation of science, nature, and cultural figures and artifacts, allowing for the fetishisation of all kinds of musical instruments and equipment, books and literary figures: an impossible level of hipness attainable only via several times a normal human lifespan. And of course they dress to kill, and wear sunglasses at night.

As the opening sequence demonstrates, to the accompaniment of a needle dropping on a scratchy (and of course deliciously rare) soul 45, their existence is zonked-out placid, she in unmatched boho-chic in Tangiers, he in a shadowy, crumbling, dark-wood mansion in an abandoned part of Detroit, recording his music amidst towers of vintage audio gear. Eve is several thousand years old, Adam more like 500, but by this time both are above the old-fashioned traditions of beastly behaviour, instead sourcing uncontaminated blood from doctors and labs, and in the case of Adam, shunning almost all contact with the human world ("fucking zombies" he likes to spit).

Although living half a world apart at the start - proportionate to their hundreds of years together, something like a weekend break - Eve travels to Adam to console his world-weariness. They may both be vampires, strongly and believably in love, but they deliberately positioned as yin and yang. To help us get the idea, she dresses most frequently in white, he almost exclusively in black. She upbraids him gently for his self-obsession, as a waste of time which could be spent living, enjoying the world, nature, dancing. He, on the other hand, is like "Hamlet played by Syd Barrett" (Jarmusch's first direction to Hiddlestone). It is hardly the latter's fault, therefore, if his character feels both like a box-checking archetype of hipsterism, and a little second-hand (right down to his photo wall of heroes, from Poe and Kafka, to Buster Keaton and Joe Strummer, to the slightly dubious - pace Jarmusch's filmography - inclusion of Neil Young).

Hiddleston plays well with Swinton (although certain Americanisms in the script sit ill on his English tongue). They do make a beautiful couple, believably at ease with one another, and actually conversing as a long-term couple might, but the onus of bringing warmth and beauty to the love relationship thankfully falls to Swinton, and the movie would be a far less attractive proposition without her. It is all too easy to forget that beneath the Bowie-alien alabaster appearance she can command a beautiful sense of openness and wonder, enthusiasm and love, conjuring a real deep-rooted bond with her dear friend Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), speed-reading her beloved books with her fingertips in almost ecstatic excitement, and rendering believable the central, enduring relationship.

Adam denies his heroes: the insecure egotism of the artist. Eve never would, for she is ready to appreciate all. Thus when he drives her past Jack White's childhood home, her happy reaction is one of affection rather than the reverence of Adam's photo wall. Her outlook is largely one of wonder; his one of cynicism, and disgust at those who lack his refined taste (and at those who thwarted his scientific heroes from Gallileo to Tesla).

There is of course a third approach to these relationships with culture and beauty, and that's not to give two hoots. This is embodied by Eve's sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) who turns up halfway through to cause a bit of chaos. She is much younger, and wilder, and hails from LA ("zombie central", as Adam describes it). Wasikowska is delightfully willful and bratty (although like Adam, to quite a degree predictable - why on earth would the elder couple leave her alone with an obvious victim they'd prefer to keep around?) and departs calling Adam and Eve a pair of "condescending snobs".

What she refers to is their seclusion from the human world, with the appearance of being above such things, rather than doing so for their own self-preservation - something Ava too might learn with age - but it holds also for the esoteric rarefication of their existence, which Jarmusch packs to overflowing with empty cultural references. Even those already listed amount to an excess, and that's barely the half of it, denied individual significance in and of themselves in the context of the film, and rarely with any specific relevance: the fact that they travel with passports in the names of Stephen Daedalus and Daisy Buchanan, for example, provides no additional subtext - it's a throwaway gag.

The most egregious example of this is the character of Marlowe who as a cultural figure, beyond just being a dear friend of Eve's, adds nothing to the film except a chance for Jarmusch to state bluntly his anti-Stratfordian views, with no need for supporting argument, and the lightly touched-upon issue of getting one's work out there without the need for personal recognition. This more or less represents the film's superficial hipness to a tee, references as badges of cool, of rebelliousness, of knowledge, without emotional import, significance, or even appreciation as endless nods are made. By this time, one expects little profundity from Jarmusch, particularly after the damp squibs of his last two pictures (Broken Flowers and Limits of Control). Beyond the hang-out cool atmosphere of his movies, their saving grace is usually the deadpan humour, on display in only fits and starts here: following a startlingly swift acid bath Eve blinks out "Well that certainly was visual".

This is a decent summation of the film. It looks fantastic, from her yak-hair wig to his glorious lute, and the vampire's leather gloves that the film-makers include to invent their own bit of vampire mythology (unexplained, but basically as some form of protection when they are outside their home turf). One cannot fault its cool, and it looks and sounds terrific. DP Yorick Le Saux (veteran of several Ozon films) shoots a lovely shadowy night-time world; production and costume designers Marco Bittner Rosser (V for Vendetta, Hellboy, Inglorious Bastards) and Bina Daigelier (Che, The Limits of Control) have really gone to town, from the (slightly too-precious) goblets from which the vampires drink their blood, to Hurt's (500-year-old!) waistcoat; and Jarmusch's band SQÜRL with lutist Jozef Van Wissen provide the perfect, narcotic score, drenched in feedback.

But in the service of what? The film raises all sorts of intriguing questions and trains of thought - how the human race has degraded itself and the planet; vampirism as drug addition; how one could possibly keep oneself sane living for thousands of years, or remain engaged as a couple for that long; the significance of authorship; even artistic endeavour as as a kind of vampirism on one's predecessors - yet never worries at them. Adam and Eve's frequent talk of Einstein's spooky-at-a-distance theory, as though they are the separated particles operating on one another, feels like an easy and not-quite-justified shorthand; and even the title is poetically opaque to the point of meaninglessness. Other commentators have described the vampire state on display here as a metaphor for hipsterism, an eternal seen-it-all-before / I-have-a-better-record-collection-than-you ennui, and in Adam's case this certainly holds. I realised as I watched that as a 15-year-old, say, I'd have found it just about the coolest thing ever. At some years' distance, however, the relentless and superficial litany of reference palls, however sincere and celebratory; surface dominates at the expense of substance. The gloves were added not least because they look cool, "a very important criteria [sic]" Jarmusch admits. At some point the urge to be cool begins to undermine its very self.

d/sc Jim Jarmusch p Jeremy Thomas, Reinhard Brundig ph Yorick Le Saux ed Affonso Gonçalves pd Marco Bittner Rosser m Jozaef van Wissem cast Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt, Anton Yelchin, Jeffrey Wright, Slimane Dazi
(2013, UK/Ger/Fr/Cyp/USA, 113m) 
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Sunday, January 5, 2014

Vic + Flo ont vu un ours (Vic + Flo Saw A Bear)

This is something like an expansion on Côté's last, the strictly observational non-documentary Bestiaire (2012), although that in turn was a distillation of his favoured practice of looking at slightly odd characters shut away from the world. In Curling (2010) and Carcasses (2009), for example, it was by their own volition, as distinct from the animals of Bestiaire, and in Vic +Flo the same is true, although that volition is rather weighted since both women are not-long released from prison.

Vic goes to stay with her invalid uncle in some Quebec backwoods. As incarnated by Pierrette Robitaille she is magnificent, stern, sardonic, and beautiful at 63, with a funny loose-limbed, wide-legged stance, and a well-guarded streak of vulnerability. Her lover Flo soon joins her (Romane Bohringer),, if anything more feisty. These are women used to standing up for themselves, although as a pointedly wordless flashback makes clear, they are used also to the chat and camaraderie of the yard, whereas now there's just the pair of them to sit in the glade outside their house. Exchanging one prison for another is eating at Flo a little, so no wonder Vic worries she may lose her, herself unprepared to move to a city since "I'm old enough to know I hate people."

She doesn't entirely, however, almost too willing to make friends, not that you'd notice. Unfortunate since, in the way of these things, the past is about to catch up with the ex-cons. The air of not a lot happening is perfectly off-set by this slow burn, and when it comes, it hits hard. The point of the film is more to observe these outside people, people who've fallen through the cracks, making what they can of their lives, forming small alliances, connections, and joshing friendships (particularly with the decent parole officer). The thriller elements intrude in a realistically brutal way, without unnecessary explanation, and serve to influence and illuminate Vic and Flo's relationship more than to thrill (that said, the baddie is terrific).

Shot with ugly-beautiful high contrast and woven with humour both bitter and sweet, this shows Côté becoming perhaps more cinematic-romantic with an ending that is both tragic and touchingly, impossibly happy. It is capped by a final shot, however, which cannot be described in detail without spoiling (ditto the title), but comes off as a weak and irrelevant joke. A shame, since up to this point it is a film of fine, affecting performances and perfectly restrained direction, that otherwise does not put a foot wrong.

d/sc Denis Côté p Sylvain Corbeil, Stéphanie Morissette ph Ian Lagarde ed Nicolas Roy ad Colombe Raby cast Pierrette Robitaille, Romane Bohringer, Marc-André Grondin, Marie Brassard,  Georges Molnar, Olivier Aubin, Pier-Luc Funk
(2013, Can, 95m)

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L'inconnu du lac (Stranger at the Lake)

It’s understandable that Guiraudie won the best director of Un certain regard at Cannes this year, since for the most part L’inconnu du lac is a very tight piece of work, effectively exploring the time and place of a single location and milieu and unobtrusively depicting the mores of a gay lakeside cruising ground, as well as charting the uncertainties that blossom as a new relationship deepens, and building with a skillful slow-burn to a long final shot of exquisite tension.

Since it occurs at the end of the film’s second day, it’s giving little away to reveal that handsome young Franck observes a murder at dusk (in another remarkably long, tense shot). Much of the rest of the film is a dance of avoidance, denial, and animal attraction between Franck and his new lover, playing out as it might between any new couple, slightly wary of giving too much away, except here the stakes are much higher.

The other part of the film’s project is a depiction of this very particular place. We arrive each day in turn with Franck (and the film confines itself exclusively to the lake and its environs) and gradually get to know a few of the regular habits of the cruising ground, along with some of the regulars (the most prominent being the harmless podgy man who wanks in the woods – his function is nothing more than comic relief but he’s more than funny enough to justify his presence). Most effectively, the banality of the opening shot – cars parked haphazardly at the edge of the woods – becomes an important signifier through repetition, depending on which cars are, or are not, there.

Guiraudie’s camera (under DP Claire Mathon) repeatedly turns itself skyward, to the treetops, the lowering sun, and ominous clouds, or descends to catch the noonday or evening light on the waves in rather lovely abstract compositions. Like the repeated view off the parking area, these apparently empty shots gain power through accretion, transitions of afternoon to evening clearly and beautifully delineated to capture the sameness of those lazy, identical summer vacation days. The blazing sunlight and lush greenery, however, give way come nightfall to the startling beams of headlights and the sinister blackness of the woods.

One may as well mention too that Guiraudie does not shirk on the main point of the place. Most of the cast and extras are naked most of the time, and there’s a healthy amount of love-making, occasionally explicit though never solely for titillation. A lengthy coupling between the main pair is shot and cut to rank with the best sex scenes in cinema in terms of presenting both physicality and feeling, and they also get a couple of nice romantic moments in crepuscular silhouette on the beach.

All this is excellent, but the two main supporting characters are a little problematic. The spidery police inspector (a perfect Jérôme Chappatte), who pops up with amusing unexpectedness, seems to have a bugbear about the apparent callousness of these people; his comments and disbelief at the lake’s habitués’ easy return to routine mere days after the death of “one of your own” is meant presumably to demonstrate how even an astute and observant outsider may not fully understand the workings of this community, but comes off at best as stating the obvious, at worst as uncountered moralizing which therefore takes on a tinge of directorial comment (the question is: is it ok to take the stand that one dude’s as good as another and some dude got killed, so what?)

The other significant character is the lonesome, fat-bellied Henri (Patrick d'Assumçao), sitting a little removed from the main cruising ground each day. Franck swims up to him on the first day and a rather sweet friendship develops. Henri too is an outsider, with no interest in picking up men, and although he does not judge, his sincere assumption that most of those here have wives or girlfriends at home, and are just homo on the side, from time to time, is an almost unbelievable anachronism. The real problem, however, is that the finale reveals his presence to be most useful as a device to facilitate the film’s denouement, in a display of character motivation that feels far more familiar from fiction than from real life.

A couple of other instances of motivation require a pinch of salt also: this is an astonishingly foolhardy place to commit a murder, a place full of heads ever-ready to turn and look, and where searching eyes prowl the woods. The act can be read as a spur-of-the-moment decision, but the lack of character development in the perpetrator (quite the opposite, in fact, in the final scene as what few implied shadings are stripped away to reveal a basic bogeyman) gives no clue; likewise Franck’s willingness to put himself in danger, at first in general, and later in a specific replay of what he witnessed.

That said, Pierre Deladonchamps’ performance is spot-on, proverbially young, dumb and full of cum, with active, often wounded eyes that convey the thought processes, but suggest that these are nonetheless none too profound. And as the object of his lust, dashingly mustachioed Christophe Paou is a convincing-enough hunk of meat to make the blind attraction wholly believable. The flaws are minor: these attractive performances, presented with an impressive control of pacing, time and place, and the no-nonsense handling of the whole cruising scene, are more than enough to paper over a few cracks.

d/sc Alain Guiraudie p Sylvia Pialat ph Claire Mathon ed Jean-Christophe Hym ad Roy Genty, François-Renaud Labarthe, Laurentt Lunetta cast Pierre Deladonchamps, Christophe Paou, Patrick d'Assumçao, Jérôme Chappatte, Mathieu Vervisch, Gilbert Traina, Emmanuel Daumas, Alain Giraudie
(2013, Fr, 100m)
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Tom à la ferme (Tom at the Farm)

Wunderkind Xavier Dolan never seems to make it to the AFI festival because he's always off shooting his next movie (four movies by the age of 24 and Cannes prizes galore). He was in production on this one when last year's Laurence Anyways screened, a continuation and expansion of the high-pitched emotional drama of his first two films. Whether these were conceived as a triptych or not, Dolan switches tack for his fourth, adapting a play by Michel Marc Bouchard, and serving up a psychological thriller that borders on grand guignol.

Dolan himself plays Tom, with a mop of sloppy dyed blond hair, a dusting of stubble, and a chunky biker jacket. He is marked out as an urban creature, arriving at a remote farm, where the script will convey with neat economy that he is there for the funeral of his dead lover, whose mother did not know her son was gay, and whose brother is a (suspiciously) vehement homophobe.

Less elegant than the exposition, however, is the insistently ominous music that accompanies Tom's arrival, wandering around the empty (but otherwise entirely unsinister) farm buildings. Gabriel Yared does a good Bernard Herrmann pastiche, later explicitly evoking themes from Psycho and Vertigo amongst others, and this is not the only hint of Hitchcock (there's even a cornfield chase). The jolt of incongruity when this music first strikes up, however, is symptomatic of the tone - or rather, lack of even tone - that Dolan pursues.

It all plays out in a perfectly entertaining way, and Tom's first reversal is in fact prepared in a careful and fairly believable way. We come to realise that we know nothing about this young man except that he is articulate and well-spoken and grieving to the point of self-hatred, and that there is no reason to suppose he is the healthy and well-balanced protagonist we might hope for. Yet one has to swallow not one but two complete motivational volte-faces on Tom's part, and an almost comic-book bogeyman in the form of brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), his face conspicuously obscured until a shock reveal (given the shadow of Hitchcock, guess where). And simply given the isolated rural setting, there has to be some ghastly secret connected to the family: when revealed it's both more banal in its cause and more grotesque in execution than one could have imagined.

Dolan is so good at orchestrating scenes of intense emotion, however, that the several of these scattered throughout make the rest of the film's more extreme psychological elements look a little silly: in particular, Tom's account to the mother of his phone conversation with the (fictional) girlfriend, putting his own heart-rending words into her mouth; and an astonishing scene in extreme shallow focus as the mother goes through her son's box of schoolboy mementos.

This imbalance is partly tied to some half-hearted business to do with what is real or not - nothing is obviously "unreal", but Tom deludes himself that life on the farm is "real" in the sense of authentic, and the dark secret is finally revealed in a bar beneath a prominent neon sign reading "The Real Deal". The emotions here are real, certainly, but the characters never quite ring true, with the psychology ramped up to such a feverish pitch. One could hope for a more interesting brother given the hints - learning to dance with his gay sibling, and the odd bond that develops so easily between him and Tom - and at one point this looks as though it could be another story about an intense mother-son relationship, as the mother lashes out unexpectedly and a sly look from Tom reveals how easily he could slip into the role of favourite son.

This disjunct of psychology and emotion makes for a shaky ride. The genuinely moving moments make of these characters at times something more than mere components of an entertainment (à la most of Hitchcock), but the more extreme psychological elements result less from character than from the requirements of the thriller mode. Dolan is a good enough film-maker however, with as usual a few flashy touches, to serve up a perfectly enjoyable entertainment, ultimately lightweight but spikey enough to intrigue, even if it does not quite play to his strengths.

d/sc/ed Xavier Dolan p Xavier Dolan, Charles Gilibert, Nathanaël Karmitz ph André Turpin ad Colombe Raby m Gabriel Yared cast Xavier Dolan, Pierre-Yves Cardinal, Lise Roy, Evelyn Brochu, Manuel Tadros
(2013, Can/Fr, 105m)
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Varda has cited this as her favourite of her own films, presumably because even more than Les plages d’Agnès (2008), it is her most personal and most emotional. She was apart from Demy on her second trip to Los Angeles, at the start of the ‘80s, to develop a script (turned down), deciding instead to make her documentary Mur Murs (1981) about the city's mural art. During this time she was inspired both by her own sadness of separation and by the sense of disenchantment and exile she found in Venice, to make a film that fully justifies its subtitle of an “emotion picture”.

That emotion is pain. Emilie (Sabine Mamou, editor of both the LA films), is recently split from her husband, left looking for a home with her young son (played by Varda’s own, Mathieu Demy), typing a script for an absent film-maker, and observing the slightly forlorn figures who fish off the Venice pier or glean the trash for who-knows-what, accompanied by bursts of Georges Delerue’s exquisitely melancholy solo piano pieces (performed by Michel Colombier).

The pain of separation is compounded by a sense of dislocation, as the frequent and lengthy voiceover revels in French words that are of little use to Emilie where she is, to the extent that they start to lose their meaning: a litany of lists, synonyms, and alliterative associations as though she is trying to keep the words and the language alive for herself. One of the first things she says (though it’s actually the dulcet tones of Delphine Seyrig) is that “faces are more real than words” and the film’s very title (menteur = liar) indicates the mixture of fiction and observation that Varda is after. The murals make an appearance – starting, appropriately enough, with the edge-of-the-world “Isle of California” (nowhere left to go) – and the film is as much a document of Venice in 1981 as anything else.

Yet even this observational viewpoint is does not pretend to objectivity. Varda has spoken of the sad air of the place, as far west as one can go in search of one’s dreams, and thus for those who do not find it, a sort of graveyard. So to capture this air of disenchantment she avoids the sunshine, filming instead the grey atmosphere of the marine layer, rain-slicked streets and overcast skies, avoiding the boulevards and the boardwalk in favour of narrow alleyways, a late-night laundromat, or the dismal grey concrete of the pier. Even Emilie’s ocean view from her beachfront work desk feels more like a desolate boundary than a destination for pleasure-seekers.

The sad air that Varda is after, the palpable emotion, is undercut however, by a marked dislocation of the audio track, none of which appears to have been recorded direct, and none of which matches the movements of the mouths we see. Deliberate or not, the effect is off-putting, even alienating, in a way that is hard to ignore even for aficionados of, say, Welles’ independent films. It does at least add, however, to the sense of Emilie’s dislocation and isolation, both from her surroundings and from her language.

This sense of isolation is not quite complete, for Mathieu is Emilie’s almost constant companion. Yet she must try to teach him to be alone also, repeatedly refusing his pleas to come and sleep in her bedroom (pointedly without reverse cuts to her half of the conversations) and when they are apart, it is he who looks inquisitively out of the window and around the neighbourhood, whilst she retreats into herself, contemplating her naked self before a mirror.

It may sound like it, but the film is not in fact all doom and gloom. Mamou is an attractive presence who does not wallow in self-pity but is simply overwhelmed to the point of numbness; still, her bright eyes show that she has not been entirely beaten. And although the change of location is not signposted, the film ends on a note if not of optimism, then at least of happiness, as we move inland to the bustling community of Olvera Street, with a mariachi band on the playing from the balcony. To Mathieu’s pleasure, when one is sad, one can always go outside and dance a polka.

d/p/sc Agnès Varda ph Nurith Aviv, Affonso Beato, Bob Carr ed Bob Gould, Sabine Mamou cast Sabine Mamou, Mathieu Demy, Lisa Blok-Linson, Tina Odom, Gary Feldman, Charles Southwood, Chris Leplus
(1981, US/Fr, 65m)
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Saturday, January 4, 2014

Pardé (Closed Curtain)

Jafar Panahi continues to defy the 20-year ban on film-making imposed on him by the Iranian government with a new feature, co-directed and starring his colleague and frequent collaborator Kambozia Partovi, and it is an intriguing magnification of his last illicit achievement, This Is Not A Film (2011). That title was wittily, bitterly disingenuous, whereas Closed Curtain specifically evokes the shut-in existence both of the writer-protagonist of the film’s first half, and that of the film-maker himself. There is an opposite sense as well, however, since more even than the previous experiment, this film both opens itself to what kind of cinema can be made under such straitened circumstances, and opens the consciousness of its writer-director; and, despite his palpable anguish, the curtain of possibility remains open at the end.

Confined once again to a single interior location – this time Panahi’s remote seaside villa (which the camera pointedly never leaves for almost the entirety of the film), the film begins with a very long shot through barred windows. This and the initial story are all that is needed to emphasise the notion of imprisonment. A man (Partovi) arrives with a dog in his hold-all. Dog-ownership, horribly emphasised in a TV snippet, is banned in Iran so this man, a writer, is in hiding.

The first surprise is a pair of fugitive visitors whose circumstances are obfuscated, their pursuers shadowy (a beach party with alcohol, it seems, was broken up by police). The second surprise is that around the halfway mark the ‘reality’ of the film is turned on its head as Panahi makes a stunningly unexpected and understated entrance, stepping across a distinctive threshold as though through a mirror (an act photographed through the until-then tantalisingly under-used giant mirror of the villa’s second-storey living room no less.)

This is a point much like that in This Is Not A Film when Panahi abruptly gives up his enactment of the script he was going to make next, for what is the point of telling a story with no actors or sets but only tape on the floor? It is as though he loses his faith in fiction itself and that perhaps the experience of making This Is Not A Film revealed that the most fruitful exploration he can make is of himself.

So what we are now to make of the writer and the young woman who arrived in the night is not simple. They start to occupy shifting (but not necessarily contradictory) allegorical roles, as detached fictional characters, and as projections of Panahi’s psyche, elements to be gotten rid of or embraced, as is suggested in their increasingly ghostly voiceovers. They are elements with which the film-maker is reluctant to part, particularly Maryam Moqadam’s Melika, with her wide eyes pleading to be noticed as Panahi makes his resolution at the end.

Until these final moments it is with her and her walk into the sea that he has been most fascinated, the bleak, suicidal melancholy she projects, so tempting and difficult to overcome, but they have no direct contact. She in turn is given to intriguing pronouncements (to the writer) such as "Why am I even talking to you? I should use a different language" and "one of us must leave so he knows what to do." They represent unspecified, conflicting elements of Panahi's creative life (for he tells his neighbour that things outside of work mean nothing to him) and it is this struggle, literally fatal at one point, although that reveals itself to be a fiction, that illuminates Panahi's glumness and lends the film a tragic, moving power.

Not that this is a sob-story of special pleading, despite Panahi’s admitted depression during the shoot. Specific reference to his situation is played almost for a laugh when a glazier declines to have his picture taken with the director because for him, it is “too risky”. The film’s most powerful direct comment on all this comes near the beginning in a rather stunning shot of the writer and his dog sitting before their large, blacked-out window that just happens to be the shape of a ‘scope frame: the logical final consequence of a mindset that can ban film-making: a black screen, the end of cinema.

The tricky play of various and possible realities, their obscure meanings, and the feeling that they vaguely have no final “truth”, is correlative with Panahi’s clearly conflicted feelings, and if he turns his back on bleakness at the end, what he accepts instead he seems to know is still a necessary compromise. Under such circumstances, however, it is still some kind of victory. Even leaving aside the real-life situation, it is this which makes such a complex, confused and confusing film of highly restricted production circumstances an achievement more moving and personal, troubled and intriguing, even than his last.

d Jafar Panahi, Kambuzia Partovi p/sc/ed Jafar Panahi ph Mohammad Reza, Jahanpanah cast Kambuzia Partov, Maryam Moqadam, Jafar Panahi, Hafi Saeedi
(2013, Iran, 106m)
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Friday, January 3, 2014

A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness

One wouldn’t necessarily guess it, but this a collaborative effort by two of the leading lights of international experimental film Ben Rivers (UK) and Ben Russell (US), is an enquiry as to where utopia(s) may exist (as noted in interviews and screening introductions). Possible locations, it is suggested, are in the present and in cinema (an art-form, the film-makers posit, which is permanently and exclusively located in the present). The film itself is nothing like as explicit.

The project draws on preoccupations dear to both film-makers – community and solitude; landscape and the individual’s place in it; and Russell’s particular fascination with trance states, most pointedly in the final section, under the influence of loud, violent music – but the result betrays no division of influence, playing as a truly collaborative vision.

It could be described as an experimental, tripartite, non-narrative documentary. The long opening shot goes some way to preparing (or warning) us for the film’s contemplative mode. The camera pans slowly back and forth along the far shoreline of a lake in dim pre-dawn light. The thick rows of trees and their reflections in the water gradually devolve into semi-abstraction, coming to look rather charmingly like the huddled peaks of a digital waveform. This impression, and the incitation to a trance state, is reinforced when finally a gentle, looping, non-verbal a capella piece grows on the soundtrack – an opening that suggests that something like utopia can be found in a blissful surrender to sensation, under the influence of what is basically a very simple, but elegant combination of sound and image in the cinema.

The main body of the film is divided into three distinct sections. We begin with handheld observations of an Estonian commune, all beards and girls with no bras, varieties of accent, children running free, woven hippie jackets, and a high-spirited sauna. We see a man deciding to nap with his baby instead of attending to the lunch he is expected to prepare – someone else will make it – and shortly after this a young woman observes that the abdication of responsibility is one of the temptations of communal living. Nonetheless, the group seems perfectly harmonious, building a geodome, face-painting, or simply passing the time as smoke floats beautifully in the sunrays piercing the forest, but the closest this section comes to finding a utopia is in an amusing story told of another commune, at another time, where the participants achieve something like the ultimate in ease with each other and each other’s assholes.

Amongst this group there is a man with a soft openness and self-possession to his face like Eric Dolphy if he’d let his beard grow wild, who strums an acoustic guitar and wanders into the now-completed dome for a smoke, whence we hop to a beautifully-forested Finnish lake. This kind of utopia is solitude in nature, comprising plenty of nice but never transcendent shots of our man hiking through the forest, rowing, or reading in soft sunlight, interspersed with close-ups of the muted colours of Finnish teen magazine covers and patterned home-furnishing fabrics, along with plenty of semi-abstract inserts of lichen, moss, water under ice and so on. The effect is underwhelming until the two previous campfires of the film are magnified in a rather striking, if inexplicable conflagration that marks the transition from peace and quiet to the onslaught of the film’s final section.

The locations are not indicated in the film until the closing credits, and nor is the viewer aware that this man is artist and musician Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe. The final section is a little more specific, however, as the film-makers put him in the distinctive face-paint and context of a Norwegian Black Metal performance. This kind of utopia – if a trance-state can be equated with utopia – is familiar from Russell’s records of the transformative power of hardcore music, audiences sweating and carried away by the incessant power of the sound. Here it is primarily the band captured in their reverie (though the drummer looks a bit bored), by a roaming close-up camera of varying focus, in what plays like a single half-hour shot. In fact it contains two near-invisible cuts, one of which facilitates a pan across the dim audience, their faces stonily impassive until the current song ends and electronic drone waves take over, and heads start to nod. It seems to be a deliberately concealed disjunct of audio and video to give the impression that the audience is so transported that they no longer need the thudding rhythm of the music; a valid point about possibility, but ringing unavoidably false.

The overwhelming nature of this near-relentless noise is undeniable, but the power of the sequence is undermined if one finds such music simplistic and emptily bombastic. Also undeniable is the commitment of the band, in particular Lowe, views of whom are withheld until near the end, by which time he is screaming full-throatedly the sole word repeated over and over throughout the set (“Lie”? “Why”?, “Die”?) As he walks quietly off-stage, apparently returned to his former state of serenity, the camera follows close on his shoulder (as it has done several times already), as he walks out into the night. The well-worn shot-choice is given a nice spin, however, as towards the end of another lengthy take, Lowe dissolves gradually into the darkness accompanied by a breathy electronic delay loop and escalating red noise. It conjures a pair to the seductive trance-state of the film’s start and suggests that, for the duration, the spell has indeed worked, but outside of thee cinema, darkness prevails once more.

d/sc/ph/ed Ben Rivers, Ben Russell p Julia Gayet, Indrek Kasela, Nadia Turincev cast Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe
(2013, Fr/Ger/Est, 95m)
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Tuesday, December 31, 2013


The title R100 is a joke on the ratings system because director Matsumoto Hitoshi (Big Man Japan, 1997) claims that no-one who has not lived a century will understand this film. Such a pronouncement is in keeping with the striving absurdity of the movie, frequently funny, but ultimately a somewhat laboured litany of craziness.

A docile furniture salesman signs up with a mysterious, private, and philosophical SM club, accepting that for one year shiny leather-clad dominatrices may show up at any time to beat, whip or even spit him into blissful submission. These unexpected encounters are mostly as amusing as one might hope. He's not allowed to cancel his contract, however, so of course that's what he finds he wants to do, once they start involving his child and his coma-ridden wife. Thereafter the confrontations escalate. But there's no humanity here at all – kid can be gagged and hoisted on ropes for laughs - and the pathos of grandpa weeping at his daughter's beside is wasted, particularly given the absurdity of their eventual fates - no more than a sarcastic joke, as it turns out therefore, and so not all that funny.

A more interesting movie threatens to emerge when the title card appears halfway through and we cut to a trio of casual suits (censors? Distributors?), the first of several interludes where they dim-wittedly question a pair of young representatives for the film's 100-year-old director, the group having just watched the section we have just watched. But it's all just another gag, of a piece with the interviews with dominatrices around the "Water Lounge" pool, amusing enough, but with no real metafictional power.

The notion of joy obtained through extreme submission is nicely, if uglily, realised through a simple rippling CGI effect and bulging cheeks (the leached-out color throughout is also strikingly unattractive), and the film's best gag combines those throbbing concentric rings with Beethoven’s recurrent “Ode to Joy” and the stave-like slats of the wooden shed where our hero gets his ultimate kick at the hands of an impressive giantess. The approach to S&M seems to be fearful and sneering, however, rather than approached with fond mockery, which leaves one with a slightly sour taste. A frippery, entertaining enough, but unable to live up to its extravagant claims, which is also an unsatisfactorily self-justifying part of the joke.

d Matsumoto Hiroshi p Keisuke Konishi, Natsue Takemoto sc Hiroshi Matsumoto ph Kaziinari Tanaka ed Yoshitaka Honda pd Etsuko Aikô m Shûichi Sakamoto cast Omori Nao, Suzuki Matsuo, Tominaga Ai, Daichi Mao, Katagiri Hairi, Terajima Shinobu, Katagiri Hairi, Sato Eriko, Watanabe Naomi, Lindsay Kay Hayward
(2013, Jap, 100m)

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Monday, December 30, 2013

Le passé (The Past)

Like Farhadi's previous film, A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin, 2011), this is a superb feat of narrative construction and mise en scène, keeping three to four characters at the centre of attention, and balancing their motives and desires with careful equanimity. The problem is that there's little more to recommend the film than this cleverness, since none of the characters is especially interesting or likable, and the third act develops into a twist-too-far detective story, before ending on a note that, albeit presumably not deliberate, is a thudding sequel set-up, and for a film of far more lively desperation to boot.

Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) has come back to France to sign divorce papers for Marie (Bérénice Bejo) who, to his surprise, is about to get married to Samir (Tahar Rahim). The film's first two thirds are a negotiation of this territory and the frictions it creates with Marie's two daughters and Samir's young son (Elys Aguis, giving the film's best performance). Ahmad proves himself too good to be true, taking on the chin Marie's thoughtlessness, withholding, and perpetual irritability, calming the children, fixing a bicycle, dispensing wisdom all round, and even getting on civilly with Samir. Meanwhile, Marie is insufferably selfish, bratty, and generally unpleasant to be around, and Samir displays little more character than his over-the-top teary eyes brought on by a paint allergy.

This is a dinner party movie par excellence for those who go to the cinema maybe every couple of months, ready to be prompted to incapable discussions of ethics, motivation, and inferred emotion, and gasp excitedly "wasn't it a shock when.." etc. (and this is not a film for those allergic to exclusively first-world problems). It is all about guilty consciences being assuaged; there is nothing here of substance. Hints that feelings from the marriage may still exist are not exploited; the new relationship has no depth at all; the youngest daughter may as well not be in the film for all the relevance she has; and one cannot fathom why anyone puts up with Marie (to be fair we are told she has a history of men leaving her).

The elder daughter Lucie (Pauline Burlet) is the most interesting character not in a coma, and does the most interesting thing in the film (before it starts, in fact) but even she is a standard-issue sulky teen. This is a film where nothing is at stake save the characters’ comfort, and for the audience it is hard to care. The final act question of who is to blame for a terrible act (again, prior to the film's timeframe) is vaguely answered as "everyone" by the multiple revelations. All except goody-two-shoes Ahmad, who's going to have to come back for the sequel and sort everything out again.

d Asghar Farhadi p Alexandre Mallet-Guy sc Asghar Farhadi, Masssoumeh Lahidji ph Mahmoud Kalari ed Juliette Welfling pd Claude Lenoir m Evgueni Galperine, Youli Galperine cast Bérénice Bejo, Ali Mosaffa, Tahar Rahim, Pauline Burlet, Elyes Aguis, Jeanne Jestin, Sabbrina Ouazani, Babak Karimi, Valeria Cavalli
(2013, Fr/It, 130m)
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Când se lasa seara peste Bucuresti sau metabolism (When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism)

Porumboiu ups the formal rigour of his last, Police, Adjective (2009), with a film composed of 17 shots, most capturing conversations for a full reel's 11 minutes, and filmed with an almost entirely static camera. His subjects are film director Paul and his actor and new bedmate Alina, rehearsing, eating, discussing the restraints (those 11-minute reels) of film versus digital, or how national cuisines developed according to the utensils used, with a subplot about Paul’s ulcer and his producer’s concerns. Paul and Alina contrast in his shlubby demeanour and her careful, dancer-like movements; they misunderstand one another over dinner; and he wearily humours her working over the fine details of a scene, in order to achieve his aim of getting her naked onscreen.

One gets the impression that Porumboiu has orchestrated everything down to the tiniest detail of hands moving a cigarette packet, for example, but to what end is unclear - the rhythms of the downtime evening after a long day's work; the lack of effective communication between people; the sly schemes of a film director to get what he wants, perhaps. Reviewing Paul's (faked) endoscopy the doctor says that something is missing (some identifying text on the screen) and that in film-making one puts what interests one at the centre of the frame, not in the margins. But what does he know? He's only a doctor. What seems to interest Porumboiu here is not the power of language, as in his previous film, but how language and behaviour can become banal at the end of the working day; the small, apparently insignificant occurrences, interactions and reactions which allow life to continue (that's metabolism, folks); and, explicitly, how form dictates content, pinning down the actors in long takes, realistic in their lack of ready-made climaxes and consequences - like Paul's gastritis, it's nothing dramatic, and as impressively-controlled as the direction may be, the film's take on what happens in the hours between shooting is, by its implied admission, less interesting than the process itself.

d/sc Christian Porumboiu p Sylvia Pialat ph Tudor Mircea ed Dana Bunescu pd Mihaela Poenaru cast Bogdan Dumitrache, Diana Avramut, Mihaela Sirbu, Alexandru Papadopol
(2013, Rom/Fr, 89m)
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A title at the end reveals that Joanna Hogg's third feature is dedicated to the recently-deceased architect James Melvin, which should come as no surprise since the film is as much a portrait of the sleek, modernist Kensington townhouse in which it is almost exclusively set, as of the mildly disfunctional marriage that resides therein.

Hogg employs a shooting style as self-consciously spare and striking as the house itself, all clean lines, barely-there reflections in the windows, with figures sliced through by venetian blinds or obscured by exterior foliage in suggestive fashion (suggestive of nothing too specific however), and short snippets of scenes that give little away (or do they speak volumes in their reticence? Not so much) intended to accrue into something like a portrait of the protagonists' relationship.

Both are artists. D (ex-Slit Viv Albertine) seems to draw (not a lot) and dabble in performance, though most of the time is withdrawn, unable to get down to work, and sexually withholding. H (conceptual artist Liam Gillick) is apparently successful at fiddling with architectural figures on his Mac, but is hurt that she wants him more for his companionship than his cleverness. They communicate a great deal by intercom (in different offices on different floors), but can share an intimate moment reading in bed (he aloud to her, a description the complete opposite of her character, from Steppenwolf - literary bona fides are further confirmed by Cocteau on his nightstand and Rimbaud on hers). Love and closeness remain - this is not a fundamentally ruined union - but H seems unable to draw D out of her shell, and D seems in a permanent state of fearful malaise, retreating from both work and husband into a masturbatory world of her own, or creating her own exhibition in the large picture window of her study, unblinded, she wrapped in duct tape like some punk nun, at which sight, on his way home, H can only gaze from outside with bewilderment and a little sadness.

Both (debutant) leads do a decent job, Gillick in particular avoiding the pitfalls of pretension and patronage. Although it is essentially her film, Albertine has a harder time with a script that gives little clue to her inner life and troubles, closing us off from her as she closes herself off from all around her. How or indeed whether she will step up to the exhibition opportunity offered to her at the film's close is anyone's guess. Her notion of making it up as she goes along, welcoming all to see her mistakes, is appealing but not promising. Perhaps her sadness is caused solely by the imminent sale of the house, their home for 17 years, put on the market per H's deliberately pat and evasive explanation: "because it's time". D seems to have little to say on the subject beyond a comment that the previous occupants' long marriage is "in the walls", and the film's only really moving moment is late on when she lays around mutely hugging walls and tables. But whether her apparent reluctance is due to emotion or habit is unclear.

It's easy to describe both the house and the film as frigid and soulless, which was presumably the intention of neither architect. Hogg's approach, however, leaches the life out of her characters and their story - another potentially moving moment, when the couple clasp hands at the sounds off of the slick estate agent (Tom Hiddlestone) dealing with an attentive surveyor, is merely mechanical. This is the sort of film where one hopes mischievously for a violent home invasion at the end to liven things up. As well-controlled as it all is, it's hard to give a fig about form or content.

d/sc Joanna Hogg p Gayle Griffiths ph Ed Rutherford ed Helle le Fevre pd Stéphane Collonge cast Viv Albertine, Liam Gillick, Mary Roscoe, Carol McFadden, Tom Hiddlestone
(2013, UK, 104m)
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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D

As the years go by it seems ever more likely that Dario Argento will never rescale the inspired heights of his '70s output, with the hysterical horror and steely set-pieces that more than make up for wooden acting, distracting dubbing, and leaden exposition. Mother of Tears had its moments and gave one cautious hope in 2007; Giallo (2009) was familiar enough to be comforting even if the self-parody seemed painfully unconscious; and now, while Dracula 3D feels reassuringly like an Argento film on plenty of occasions, it fails to play to his strengths, hamstrung by half-hearted literary faithfulness, strangely perfunctory in its murders, and unbalanced by far too much downtime.

In presenting a well-known story (without much mystery in it to begin with) Argento deprives himself of one of his greatest assets: at his most successful, he manages to transform the menace of the unknown, the mysterious, stalking killer of supernatural threat, into something thrillingly abstract and semi-surreal. More disappointing, however, is that his flair for ingenious set-pieces is also little in evidence: an opening moonlit owl attack tops a passably tense sequence of unease in the woods but thereafter, as much as the body-count is respectably high, most of the deaths happen with remarkably little preamble. This only works to exciting effect for Dracula's thrillingly swift dispatch of four cowardly cohorts in a flash of inventive blood-letting. As usual, however, the acting and narrative fails to sustain interest in between the nominal excitement.

That said, Thomas Kretschmann comports himself well as the Count, a cold, poised, reptilian presence much of the time, but saddled with an intrusive melancholy for the final act and denied a fittingly spectacular end. His demise is adequate, as are most of the digital effects, in the death scenes and elsewhere, with various animal transformations (nice cloud of flies), but they are never more than serviceable and rarely invisible (distractingly quivering flagstones at a climactic point), and in one instance brazenly bizarre (shame that Argento misses a trick by diverging from the praying mantis' habitual method of killing).

Rutger Hauer makes less of an impression than one would hope, overly-subdued in his late-entrance turn as Van Helsing, and Asia Argento's Lucy is dispatched far too quickly. Both characters are variants on Stoker’s originals, and throughout Argento never seems quite sure whether to stick to the book or make the story his own (he could have done with losing a lot more of the original to free himself from all that dialogue). Miraim Giovanelli is a comely addition, just right as all boobs and high bangs and needing to be no more; Marta Gastini gives a little backbone to the traditionally drippy role of Mina, while Unax Ugalde rivals Keanu Reeves for woodenest Harker. There's also a gallery of more or less amusing gallery of peasant-types (and a priest channeling Wallace Shawn), but it's not as fun as that sounds.

For one thing, the action is confined to Transylvania, bypassing all the intriguing Old World/New World undercurrents and the plague or disease-like implications of vampirism. Carfax is now a half-hearted flashback lunatic asylum where Van Helsing first encounters the Count. Those multiple animal transformations are a nice touch, as is the hint of a rural community closely guarding its secrets (not that this element is exploited at all) but the most woeful deviation from the source is the Coppola-derived love-across-the-centuries nonsense which involves a lot of tiring last-minute explanation.

The most enjoyment in fact comes from Argento's whole-hearted use of the third dimension, from multiple frames within frames and long, deep rooms, to a silly fly buzzing in our faces, and a nice thrown sword at the camera. The perpetual objects in the foreground play attractively for a while but eventually wear out their welcome, and the opening credits are foregrounded so aggressively from the camera's swooping path through the (surprisingly regular) alleyways of the village as to be almost painful. Overall this is a bad film, but not so bad it's good. One expects a certain amount of shoddiness from Argento and hopes for the flashes of inspiration and lunacy that will justify all. Here they do not.

d Dario Argento p Enrique Cerezo, Roberto Di Girolamo, Sergio Gobbi, Franco Paulucci, Giovanni Paulucci sc Dario Argento, Enrique Cerezo, Stefano Piani, Antonio Tentori ph Luciano Tovoli ed Daniele Campelli, Marshall Harvey pd Claudio Cosentino m Claudio Simonetti cast Thomas Kretschmann, Marta Gastini, Rutger Hauer, Miriam Giovanelli, Unax Ugalde, Asia Argento, Maria Christina Heller, Augusto Zucchi
(2012, It/Fr/Sp, 106m)
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Friday, June 28, 2013

Book review: Jacques Rivette by Mary M. Wiles

Click to enlarge:

From Film International, Vol.11, No.1, (2013)

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013


This is one of the harder sorts of films to write about, being handsomely mounted, with appealing leads and an interesting story, a minimum of pandering or condescension towards the audience, and fully aware of the ramifications of its subject matter. The problem is, it’s just not very interesting.

Augustine was a patient of eminent proto-neurologist Dr Charcot (a tutor of Freud’s), in 1870s France. Charcot pioneered investigation of the psychological causes of physical symptoms, specializing in hysteria in women. Augustine was a serving girl, and the film opens with her having a sudden fit whilst serving dinner. The rich folks look on impassively as she convulses suggestively on the floor. Later on, the medical men will gaze at with slightly more enthusiasm as Charcot exhibits her condition.

Charcot also draws dispassionately on her naked body during his examinations, visually reprised in the marks left by his wife’s corset on her more refined torso. In this era, women of all ranks are constrained, suppressed, ignored, and meant only for spectacle, a separate, inferior species. But we knew that already, even without the chained female monkey in Charcot’s office (or the writhing, headless chicken). The ways this comes about, the methods, the exertions of control and power that bring this about, are left unexamined.

Of more interest in any case, perhaps, might be the relationship between Augustine and Charcot – is she patient or protégé? She has the best fits, and so becomes an unwitting star in Charcot’s demonstrations. He can calmly apply a nasty-sounding compression apparatus to her ovaries, yet they also talk at times like lovers: “You never listen” – “I hate you”. Despite Charcot’s best efforts, a simple fall down the stairs fixes Augustine’s paralyzed hand, and seemingly restores her free will; an act of gratitude is followed by a spontaneous coupling, predictable more as a device than as a development of character. These late episodes suggest a relationship of greater substance and complexity than the rest of the film can manage to suggest.

Soko as Augustine has an appealing, surly presence, frequently seeming to hover on the verge of tears, but the script makes of her almost as much of an object as the medical observers do, limited to such expressions of character as “Why don’t I feel anything?” A relative newcomer to acting, after a YouTube singing break and French stardom, Soko is rather denied the chance to create a satisfactorily three-dimensional character, of which she seems perfectly capable.

Vincent Lindon as Charcot is similarly ill-served. The practical rather than theoretical side of his medical work is emphasized, and his marriage to a tokenistically “strong” woman (Chiara Mastroianni – wasted) is treated cursorily – despite the appearance of communication he is absent. Charcot is an isolated figure, behind the increasingly granite-like visage of Lindon – with such little dynamism in script and direction, he relies on his kindly, concerned, sometimes sad eyes. Although we can tell he cares passionately about his work, there’s little given away as to how he feels about Augustine, or even how true he is being to himself when he speaks with his wife.

The coupling at the end feels all the more perfunctory, therefore, and borderline distasteful. There is no sense that Charcot was holding off until Augustine was cured, although perhaps only now does he see her for the first time as a woman. Neither rings true. It is more like an attempt at a passionate emotional climax to a film theretofore deliberately drained of passion. The episode serves only to objectify Augustine further, and undercuts Charcot’s nobility (foreshadowed by a surprisingly gratuitous shot of his finely-sculpted buttocks at the washstand). This last notion is teased at elsewhere, but one gets the impression that he is meant to be an all-round good guy.

This is not quite a thoughtless heritage production, although it is bolstered by fine design work in sets and costumes, and beautiful photography by Georges Lechaptois, with hazy shafts of natural(istic) window light, in the golden autumnal grounds of the Pitié-Saltpêtrière hospital, or through magical November mist. But it is a film that signally fails to capitalize on or investigate the fertility and implications of its subject matter, paying them mere lip service. Ambiguity is banished, and sluggishness reigns under debutante Alice Winocour’s direction, with only the commitment and quiet charisma of the stars to hold the interest, and brief but intriguing interludes of real female patients recounting their own stories to engage the emotions.

d/sc Alice Winocour p Isabelle Madelaine, Emilie Tisné ph Georges Lechaptois ed Julien Lacheray pd Arnaud de Moleron m Jocelyn Pook cast Vincent Lindon, Soko, Chiara Mastroianni, Olivier Rabourdin, Lise Lamétrie, Roxane Duran
(2012, Fr, 101m)
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Try And Get Me (aka The Sound of Fury)

Lang’s Fury (1936) is based on the same small-town California news story, but this is the real deal. Instead of an innocent man threatened by a lynch mob, Try and Get Me has returning GI (never saw combat) Howard Tyler (Frank Lovejoy) struggling to make ends meet for his wife and child, falling in with startling sociopath Jerry Slocum (Lloyd Bridges), and their going to jail for the callous murder of a local rich boy. The lynch mob gathers, more frightening even than Lang’s, storming the jail in an unstoppable onslaught, rather than burning it down, captured with occasionally shocking immediacy by Guy Roe's verité camerawork.

Director Cy Endfield is frequently thought of as British, but like Losey and Dassin (not French), decamped to London to escape the blacklist. His credits in America are more extensive although less distinguished – Zulu (1964) is the film for which he is best known, although Hell Drivers (1957) is easily his best, a remarkable high-point of tough, socialistically-minded noir in British cinema, or anywhere. Try and Get Me has an even more insistent moral conscience, but is also a terrific, early example of those slightly wonky, earnest, mid-century independents like Blast of Silence (1961) or Crime and Punishment USA (1959), and it has its rough edges in both conception and execution. There is an obtrusively Italian math professor, Dr Simone, who at regular intervals clearly defines the social problems being played out, staying as house guest with the improbably tony local columnist (syndicated over 200 times!) whose righteous condemnation in print of the as-yet-untried pair is responsible for whipping the town into a frenzy. Later, he feels really bad about it.

The message is made thuddingly obvious, but its power is not dimmed. The hysteria of the mass is frightful, as is its cause – Endfield had gone to town on the corrupt power of the press in his previous feature, The Underworld Story (1950). No less frightful are the pivotal murder, in a nightmarish, abandoned quarry; Tyler’s pitiless self-condemnation; and even several surprisingly harsh domestic scenes: Tyler and his wife arguing almost as soon as he gets home, over giving little Jimmy 50¢ to go see the ball game; Tyler and his desperately, heart-breakingly optimistic double-date wallflower, in the morning hours of an all-nighter; or his wife’s trance-like visit to say her quiet piece to the journalist.

Best of all, however, is Bridges, so popping off the screen as to be almost a distraction, and rather missed in the po-facedness of the film’s second half. He is loose-limbed, dandyish, and easy with a grin, but his mood spins on a dime (it'd be a shiny new one), and he is quite evidently psychotic. Endfield and writer Joe Pagano are less interested in this quasi-cartoonish nastiness, however, than in the question posed by a street-corner preacher at the film’s start: “Why do you do the things you do?” Bridge’s Jerry is a lunatic and thus beyond rational analysis; the film is more concerned with the dead-end problems of the individual, before broadening its scope to take in the problems of society as a whole: as Simone helpfully puts it (twice!), “violence is a disease caused by moral and social breakdown, cured by reason and understanding, not emotion and hate”. The power of the message comes not so much from such sermonizing, however, as from the inexorable downfall of its protagonist through a night-time noir-ish world of gas station hold-ups, to a booze-sodden nightclub of the soul, all frightful canted angles; from the righteous passion of the film-makers’ objectives; and from the sheer unconscionable, physical power of the lynch mob.

d Cy Enfield p Robert Stillman sc Joe Pagano ph Guy Roe ed George Amy pd Perry Ferguson m Hugo Friedhofer cast Frank Lovejoy, Lloyd Bridges, Kathleen Ryan, Richard Carlson, Katherine Locke, Renzo Cesana, Art Smith, Adele Jergens
(1950, USA, 85m, b/w)
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Monday, June 3, 2013


This would have been a very different film had it starred, as originally intended, Bill Cosby and Jack Lemmon; as it is, up-and-coming Al Pacino and Gene Hackman give performances that are amongst the best of their careers, and it remains a mystery why the film has remained so long under the radar. The answer is largely because, despite winning the Palme d’Or, it was cold-shouldered by Warner’s a week into its theatrical release, in favor of The Exorcist publicity. Perhaps too, because it is about a pair of bums, with no real story aside from the picaresque of meanderings and passing encounters; but it also charts the growth of a male friendship, in a beguilingly low-key fashion, and genuinely moving.

The opening scene is terrific, as grandpa-dressed Max (Hackman), stomps across a field, observed by kiddish Lion (Pacino), like a faun in the crook of a tree. Max glares at Lion as they wait on either side of the road, passed mostly only by tumbleweed, gingerly joshing one another, before an olive branch is extended, and silently accepted, as the sun goes gently down. A beautifully naturalistic scene at a diner counter has them get out just enough back story, and from then on they’re together, headed to Pittsburgh to start Max’s carwash, via a stop for Lion to see his son, who was born since he went to sea six years prior.

They are set up as an odd couple, in physical stature most obviously – Hackman, in his flat cap, steel-rimmed specs, and layers upon layers of clothes, towers over little Pacino, who’s all tousled hair, sneakers, and expressions of innocent friendliness. Lion is a joker, and Max is an ornery bastard, jailed for fighting, but unrepentent. By the end of the film, when he decides to handle things like Lion, diffusing a fight in a bar, and loving it, we feel for him; but we feel too for Lion and his ambiguous, downcast expression, perhaps now uncertain of himself as not the only scarecrow (his theory is that the crows are not frightened, but laughing). In fact, as Max seems to come back to life under the companionship of Lion, the latter’s lifeforce slowly, and almost literally, is sapped, and it would be heart-breaking bleak, if Max weren’t there for him, getting by for the both of them with brutish luck.

The film was shot more or less in sequence, crossing the country, and director Jerry Schatzberg several times stages scenes in bars, with non-professional background and bit parts. The authenticity is palpable, as is the downhome atmosphere and repartee as they stop over with an old flame in Denver (Schatzberg allowed his actors a certain amount of latitude with improvisation, and Hackman and Pacino tramped around California for a month before production). There was undisguised tension on Hackman's part, over the relationship formed between Pacino and Schatzberg on Panic In Needle Park (1971), photographer Schatzberg's directorial debut (in between the two films, Pacino shot The Godfather). Schatzberg also clashed with DP Vilmos Zsigmond, but between them they conjure a beautifully photographed string of mid-west wastelands.

This is a world with no hint of hippies or Vietnam. It is the world of little people, regular folk, an unhip point of view, where going to jail for a month is not much of a surprise or a hardship; they are too bogged down in struggling to get their own lives up and running to worry about the world at large. It seems like a small, unshowy, and inconsequential film, but the close attention in performance and direction to the dynamic between the two men, the shifting levels of need and love, and the space allowed for small, natural details to emerge, act like a gradually magnifying glass, until the ambiguity of the ending makes one realize how very much we want these two to succeed.

d Jerry Schatzberg p Robert M. Sherman sc Garry Michael White ph Vilmos Zsigmond ed Evan A. Lottman pd Albert Brenner m Fred Myrow cast Gene Hackman, Al Pacino, Dorothy Tristan, Ann Wedgeworth, Richard Lynch, Eileen Brennan, Penelope Allen, Richard Hackman
(1973, USA, 112m)
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Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Swimmer

The films of husband-and-wife team Frank and Eleanor Perry are amongst the most undervalued of the American semi-independent wave of the 70s. In titles like Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) and Play It As It Lays (1972) they tackled a specifically contemporary sense of malaise and neurosis, on both coasts, in a way comparable really only to some of Woody Allen, with a slightly gauche self-seriousness in place of the comedy – just check that tagline.

Their best-known picture is The Swimmer, partly thanks to a fine performance from Burt Lancaster in nothing but a pair of swimming trunks throughout, and partly because it’s really rather odd. From the idyllic Connecticut woodland emerges a mysterious, near-naked figure, making his way to the poolside of a wealthy residence. He is Ned Merrill, an old pal of the couple at the pool, somehow a part of their complacent, martinis-at-lunchtime world, but somehow definitely not. All is cheerful and chummy, but something is wrong, a hint of parody in the banal dialogue, and gradually we will learn that Lancaster’s bright blue eyes twinkle less with optimism and idealism, than with something like desperate insanity.

Merrill gazes over the wooded valley and declares he will swim home, via the pools of his friends, stretched out between him and his home on the hill. Along the way, he urges various women to come with him, but he always ends up alone and shivering. Friendliness soon gives way to hostility as he is increasingly mistrust, ordered off property, and spurned at a grotesque, plastic pool party (at which no-one is swimming). We never learn where he has come from, quite how long he has been away, or what went wrong, but Merrill is revealed to be a very broken man, even before the bleak ending (a tad over-directed, but effectively chilling).

The film’s strangeness also stems from its being a remarkably bold and singular experiment in allegory, occasionally over-emphatic (particularly Marv Hamlisch’s overbearing score), but open-ended enough to get under the skin. Merrill begins as a force of nature – he relishes the pools in which his friends won’t set foot; “Live a little” he says, but they won’t. He runs with horses, and joyfully takes their jumps; but he limps through the second half of the film after a bum landing, and when he urges a little boy to be “captain of your soul”, we very shortly are reminded that delusions can be dangerous.
Merrill’s state of idealism is detached from reality; his madness is that he prefers it that way. His last stop is at a public pool, a horrible, writhing mass of flesh in water, all too real, where he’s forced to show his feet for inspection like in jail, and the truths of his own home are finally aired. They don’t sink in, however – his escape from the prison of reality is total, until he finally reaches home – the real world is ghastly, but cannot in the end be denied. If Merrill’s journey along the river of pools is something like the journey of life, we may be accompanied along some of the way, but will always end alone. The tragedy is in the broken beauty of Merrill’s inchoate ideal, versus the only visible alternative, of shallow complacence: self-deception as the only way to cope.

As a footnote, there was a background of tension during the production, particularly between Frank Perry and Lancaster. Perry left , and much of the film was not in fact directed by him. Even with Perry still on board, Lancaster directed Joan Rivers closely in her film debut as girl-at-party, and her report that Lancaster was determined to be the good guy, in opposition to Perry's conception, suggests that the frightful air of self-delusion was less planned, than a product of these conflicting views. Later on, Sidney Pollack was brought in, directing the scene with Janice Rule, as an ex-lover, which has a noticeable air of ease and naturalness that the rest of Perry's work (here and elsewhere) largely lacks (not necessarily to its detriment). Perry had shot it with original actress Barbara Loden, auteur-star of the magnificent Wanda (1970), but her performance was deemed too far to overshadow Lancaster's, so she got the chop. This would be precious footage to see.

d Frank Perry p Roger Lewis, Frank Perry sc Eleanor Perry ph David L. Quaid ed Sidney Katz, Carl Lerner, Pat Somerset ad Peter Dohanos m Marvin Hamlisch cast Burt Lancaster, Janet Landgard, Janice Rule, Tony Bickley, Marge Champion, Bill Fiore, John Garfield Jr., Kim Hunter, Diane Muldaur
(1966, rel.1968, USA, 95m)

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La traversée de Paris

Beloved in France but little known elsewhere, La traversée de Paris holds the distinction of being the one film by Claude Autant-Lara deemed acceptable by young François Truffaut, in his campaign against the prevailing cinèma du qualité of 1950s France.

One reason for the exception is that it has a charming, easy humanism. Known also as Four Bags Full, and A Pig Across Paris, there’s little actual plot, but some great noirish night-time street scenes, and much comedy of frustration. It is also fantastically French, full of funny-looking older men, talking fast and gutturally, gesticulating, and exhibiting the fondly characteristic venality of the French working classes: the squealing of the slaughtered pig is covered by accordion music and, the deed done, glasses of calvo are naturally handed round.

We are in occupied Paris, and that pig is worth a lot. Amateur black-marketeer Marcel Martin must carry it in four suitcases across the night-shrouded city. His partner is a no-show, so he enlists flaneur Jean Gabin, primarily to prevent a suspected liaison with his own wife. Bourvil won best actor at Cannes, partly for his finely-pitched performance of a little man trying to convince even himself he is a big one, whilst also trying to maintain a self-respectable measure of integrity; and partly for standing up to Gabin, who is on terrific, unchained form. More frequently the embodiment of ultimate masculine stoicism and world-weariness, he plays here a more free and anarchic figure. It turns out his Grandgil is an artist (not a frightfully good one, it must be said, but gaining some renown), out on the hunt for experience and amusement, observing (along with Autant-Lara) the variety of ways in which his compatriots react to and deal with the privations and moral compromises of the Occupation. He himself represents the spirit of free will that can never be quashed.

He is also lucky enough to be able to sweet-talk his way out of imprisonment, since the German officer admires his work. The German presence is felt in the film only at the end; the focus is more on how these people react to adverse circumstances, and rub along together, rather than on the specificity of those circumstances. Much of the film is content to meander along with the stream of dialogue and bickering between Gabin and Bourvil, as they make their way across town, but it does find room for such grandstanding scenes as Gabin’s escalation of his extortionate terms to the increasingly cringing butcher (breakout role for Louis de Funès); or the strikingly photographed conclusion to their journey. Mostly, however, it is a film which encourages us to enjoy the company of these flawed, rascally, or irascible people, and gently reminds us that we’re all in this together.

d Claude Autant-Lara p Henri Deutschmeister sc Jean Aurenche, Pierre Bost ph Jacques Natteau ed Madeleine Gug pd Max Douy m René Cloërec cast Jean Gabin, Bourvil, Jeanette Batti, Georgette Anys, Robert Arnoux, Jean Dunot, Louis de Funès
(1956, Fr, 80m, b/w)
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The Narrow Margin

Cheap, tough, and drenched in shadows, this was the sort of thing that the RKO technicians could knock out in a couple of weeks with no trouble at all, but is raised by particularly tight direction from Richard Fleischer, including terrific use of confined spaces, windows, and yes, lots of shadows (but also, some nice harsh sunlight); and by lived-in performances from never-quite-made-it players, Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor.

Both tough as nails, but in a bitter, seen-it-all, disappointed way, they spit out the crackerjack dialogue (by Earl Felton, fresh off the double whammy of Jane Russell vehicles, The Las Vegas Story and His Kind of Woman), less with knowing relish than a weary sardonicism. He’s a cop and she’s a broad, widow of a mobster, being escorted cross-country to the DA in LA. There’s no love lost between them, but McGraw’s got other things on his mind, between the recent demise of his partner, the lurking gunman and his oily compadre also aboard the train, and the temptation to throw it all in. There’s also the demure young mother whom he meets repeatedly in the dining car, who may or may not be a welcome decoy.

This is not one of those noirs with strong echoes of the post-war malaise, the human condition, or the blurred lines between law and crime, although the second is implied and the third flirted with. There is some play with people not appearing what they seem, though more in the service of suspense than philosophy. Instead, it is a taut exercise in wringing as much tension and excitement out of a simple set-up, the cramped carriages, and the miniscule budget as possible. As such, it is wholly successful, pitting the lone protector against the syndicate, backed up by a colorful supporting cast. Incorporating a couple of effective twists, it is also snappy, atmospheric, and full of exchanges like. “You make me sick to my stomach.” “Well use your own sink.”

d Richard Fleischer p Stanley Rubin sc Earl Felton ph George E. Diskant ed Robert Swink ad Albert S. d'Agostino, Jack Okey cast Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, Jacqueline White, Godon Gebart, Queenie Leonard, David Clarke, Peter Virgo, Don Beddoe, Paul Maxey, Harry Harvey
(1952, USA, 71m, b/w)
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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Love Crime

Ludivine Sagnier was at the LA Film Festival last year to introduce this, which was rather a glamorous surprise in the Regal 6. Crime d’amour was the final film from veteran director Alain Corneau, co-starring Kristin Scott-Thomas with Sagnier in a tale of corporate back-biting, unruly passions, ambition, and obsession/compulsion.

The opening scene is almost the best thing about the film, as Sagnier’s Isabelle sits with her boss Christine, in the latter’s luxe-to-a-tee living room. They are working casually after hours, drinking wine, getting to know one another a little more. Unexpected sexual nuances and surprising gestures deliciously spice the action. But it begins with the punchline of a story, as if warning the viewer that the film’s satisfactions will not necessarily come with much back-up.

The plot’s the thing, and to reveal too much would be pointless. It plays out neatly enough, setting up an antagonism, allowing the viewer to see that something is afoot in the preparation of a crime, and then dissecting the aftermath as the police work to accuse, and then clear the perpetrator. We are half let into a secret whose revelation becomes increasingly superfluous, but it is all put together with high efficiency – the equivalent of that living room, or perhaps the shiny offices of the unspecified company where the two women run the show. Their sequestered, tunnel-vision world is well evoked, in the skyscraper cockpit offices and tactically-timed meetings. But all they are doing is working on “projects” and other vague jargon; the English dialogue of their American colleagues is semi-parodic.

Scott Thomas is thorny, malevolent, and superb, but possessed, perhaps, of a desperate vulnerability. Sagnier runs a gamut of personalities and fully suggests the slippery, driven identity beneath, without ever really revealing it (rightly), and so gets away with a very actress-y job. Given everyone’s duplicitousness, it’s hard to know how far to trust the lesbian subtext, but it’s not even that important. In a sense, Corneau has made an archetype of a film, a classy French thriller with psychological mechanisms and a bitter ending. It is handsomely-mounted, but its complexity gradually drifts further and further away from ingenious, albeit to the strains of a very nice Pharaoh Sanders score.

d Alain Corneau p Saïd Ben Saïd, Alexander Emmert sc Alain Corneau, Natalie Carter ph Yves Angelo ed Thierry Derocles pd Katia Wyszkop m Pharaoh Sanders cast Ludivine Sagnier, Kristen Scott-Thomas, Patrick Mille, Guillaume Marquet, Gérald Laroche, Julien Rochefort, Olivier Rabourdin, Marie Guillard
(2010, Fr, 106m)
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