Beauty (2011)

18 Aug

skoonheidSouth Africa

3.5*
Director:
Oliver Hermanus

Screenwriter:
Oliver Hermanus

Director of Photography:
Jamie Ramsay

Running time: 95 minutes

Original title: Skoonheid

There is no question that the man at the centre of Oliver Hermanus’s Afrikaans-language Beauty is deserving of the title every bit as much as the director’s previous, début feature, the stunningly executed Shirley Adamswas about its title character. His name is Christian Roodt, and he is a charming law student whose enigmatic aura intensifies as we realise he has a calmness about him that belies his age and his boyish good looks. It is a persona that sets others at ease and unfortunately allows some people to take advantage of his affability.

One man who sees Christian and cannot get him out of his head is François van Heerden, a friend of Roodt’s parents, who first sets eyes on the young man at his own daughter’s wedding. But even though the title refers to Christian, Hermanus gently nudges us, from the very first moment, to take position next to François, whose gaze the camera shares with us in the opening take.

This particular take – long and produced via a slow zoom in – is a master stroke, as it not only sets up the extended takes that mottle the film’s visual landscape but also gorgeously encapsulates both the distance and the longing of the main character that will inform our understanding of the rest of the story. Unfortunately, the editing spells out whom this perspective belongs to before delivering the gut punch of having the object of affection unexpectedly look straight into the camera and thus catching François (and us, already) in flagrante delicto.

The film creates some of its tension by deploying moments of lingering silence, and lead actor Deon Lotz is excellent at conveying the frustration and the inhibition of a middle-aged, homophobic man who is married to a woman but engages in sex with other men on what we assume is a regular basis (the farm orgies in which he participates is depicted as emotionless and decidedly ugly). This father of two daughters, who lives in the South African heartland capital of Bloemfontein, likes to drink beer and watch rugby, represses his secret until there is no more space and it ruptures his bubble of existence.

But exactly when there ought to be tension, there is none, as happens in the third act when an inebriated François, sitting opposite Christian at an empty diner, cannot stop babbling. We learn nothing, we feel little for him, and we end up feeling sorry for the expressionless, passive Christian for having to listen to this man. And yet, this scene immediately follows a tour de force tracking shot inside a night club that shows us how ill at ease François is with the world of gay men who have accepted their own sexual orientations.

Visually, Beauty is unimpeachable (although the shots themselves may be questionable, as I explain below), and director of photography Jamie Ramsay deserves much acclaim for his stunning, crisp compositions. The intention behind the film is equally noteworthy, as the story of a man whose secret of homosexual attraction ultimately almost destroys him is one that is absolutely necessary for a generation growing up on a staple of mostly uncritically positive depictions of gay characters and lives.

It is not an easy film to watch, as Hermanus’s view of humanity (and particularly of his main character) is unflinchingly pessimistic, and François does not get a moment to relax and be happy. He is always either delusional or suffering because of his desire to get closer to Christian. He doesn’t know what he wants exactly, but he finds himself drawn like a moth to a flame. A comparison to Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, or The Searchers’s Ethan Edwards, would not be entirely inappropriate, as the obsession of saving someone who does not wish or need to be saved is central to understanding the character here.

Another reason why Beauty is a difficult experience is because of its contemplative pace, which is not always useful. While the few long takes that project François’s point of view have a clear purpose, others are used less sparingly and are more taxing for the viewer. For example, why do we have to be subjected to a static shot of more than 15 seconds of a dim kitchen, shown in the early morning hours, before a character arrives to do something as captivating as… buttoning his shirt?

Hermanus’s plan to have the viewer slide in and out of François’s position is executed a bit ham-handedly, as Christian sometimes looks straight into the camera (which happens briefly in the opening scene, and at least once more later in the film), but he also looks just past the frame, and at the end he is replaced by another character who looks straight at us/François. This mishmash signals confusion on the part of the director, who nonetheless handles his material very assuredly, like an illusionist whose tricks barely engage but still intrigue us because we cannot discern exactly how he performs them so seamlessly, fooling us every time.

In this tragic tale of a man whose unrequited lust leads him to revert to the most primitive of behaviors – fitting the stereotype of the macho guy taking, nay violently grabbing, what he wants with utter disregard for the other party – we are urged to share his point of view but there is little for us to empathize with. The mood is sombre throughout, and Hermanus’s pitch-black vision of his protagonist’s existence never draws us in through the participatory experiences that small moments of happiness would have brought.

Not a thriller and not really a character study, Beauty’s redeeming characteristic is its director’s firm hand, but a collection of technically flawless pieces does not a great film make. Slow cinema, which this film at times intends to emulate, is the domain of poets whose messages are related as visionary dreams. Beauty, by contrast, tells a story that ought to be told in the most immediate manner possible, because there is so little to chew on here.

This is a beautiful film that sometimes carefully considers and depicts the life of a man whose secret is slowly devouring him, but the story’s loose ends and the director’s persistent refusal to obfuscate instead of answering our questions cannot hide the fact that there is less going on here than there ought to be.

Irrational Man (2015)

9 Aug

irrational manUSA

3*
Director:
Woody Allen

Screenwriter:
Woody Allen

Director of Photography:
Darius Khondji

Running time: 95 minutes

Woody Allen likes to play it safe in all of his recent films. This safety, while often peppered with hilarious dialogue or neurotic characters teetering on the brink of hysteria, also makes many of his works, at least those of the past 20 years, mediocre and forgettable. There have been demonstrable exceptions, particularly when his actresses are given free rein to express themselves, or when he takes greater pains to construct a story with both a beating heart and a strong head.

For the former, the examples that come to mind are the hot-blooded whirlwind performance of Penélope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Cate Blanchett’s stunning portrayal of a narcissistic, delusional, alcoholic divorcée in Blue Jasmine; the latter include Mighty Aphrodite, which borrows from both George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and ancient Greek plays, as well as his magnificent Crime and Punishment-inspired Match Point.

Irrational Man is not a comedy and does not elicit a single laugh from the audience. In theme it is closest to Match Point, replete with Dostoyevsky references (a copy of The Idiot lies next to his bed, he scribbles in a copy of Crime and Punishment, and the Russian novelist’s name is explicitly cited in a discussion with a student), but unlike his 2005 film, there is no thrill and no tension. Even the film’s most dramatic moment – a murder – is devoid of anxiety, and while the homicidal act takes place onscreen, the death occurs off-screen.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Abe Lucas, an alcoholic philosophy professor who has just joined the faculty at Braylin College in the sleepy town of Newport, Rhode Island. He is a nihilist who believes philosophy can do little more but talk about life’s problems. Nonetheless, Allen gives us a CliffsNotes introduction to existentialist philosophers in Lucas’s classes, and then proceeds to the much more dramatically satisfying situation that serves as the plot’s turning point: Lucas decides that he can give meaning to his life by helping someone in need, even if this means he would have to commit murder.

One day in a coffee shop, he overhears a woman complaining of a judge who will very likely take custody of her children away from her and give it to her ex-husband, who is friendly with the judge. Lucas, without knowing much more than what he discovers from this one-sided account, makes up his mind to kill the judge.

The other track on which the story advances involves one of Lucas’s students, Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), who has fallen in love with him despite her having a long-term, caring boyfriend. Jill is a terribly disappointing character, as much for Allen as for Stone, who has played much stronger women in the past (her attention-grabbing turn in Easy A immediately comes to mind). In Irrational Man, she starts off as a smart philosophy major who takes on her professor’s worldview head-on but very quickly becomes doe-eyed and infatuated with him, and she tries her best to lull him out of his rudderless existence. When she fails, she flings her body at him.

This is a terrible debasement and does not endear her character to the audience at all, particularly because we feel she has given up control of her life to a man who is tossing and turning in a wasteland of despair.

The mentions of the philosophers are little more than padding and serve little purpose other than to remind us Lucas is philosophically minded. The look of the film, as is usual in an Allen production, is competent without drawing any attention to itself. The single exception, however, is absolutely stunning, and underscores the skills of master cinematographer Darius Khondji, for whom this film marks his fifth collaboration with Allen.

Towards the end of the film, when Jill is starting to suspect Lucas has had a hand in the death of the judge, she watches him alone out on a jetty, a silhouette against the radiant sunlight reflecting off the still water. But there is something unusual: Lucas’s silhouette seems to vibrate, even melt, around the edges where it meets the bright luminosity behind it. The shot is breathtaking and catapults the film’s visual language into the stratosphere, albeit momentarily.

This Woody Allen film is about as unfunny a movie as he has ever made. But unlike some of his other films, which at least worked still played with our emotions, this one lacks the vocabulary to get us roaring with laughter or our adrenaline pumping. Despite the intriguing premise of ending a life to infuse your own with meaning and intensity, this work is mostly forgettable, and the weak character portrayed by Emma Stone is very unfortunate.

Dogtooth (2010)

28 Jun

dogtoothGreece

4*
Director:

Yorgos Lanthimos
Screenwriters:
Yorgos Lanthimos

Efthymis Filippou
Director of Photography:

Thimios Bakatatakis
Running time: 95 minutes

Original title:
Κυνόδοντας
Transliterated title:
Kynodontas

They play a tape recorder and listen to the week’s lesson. Words from outside the home, like “sea” and “highway” and “excursion”, are redefined as elements inside the home, and the obvious take-away is that these people will never get to experience real seas, or highways, or even excursions.

The five people in question constitute a family, although the connections between them is so tenuous that we cannot say with certainty that they are related, because they do not interact with each other the way family members tend to do. In fact, they do not act the way anyone does and none of them is called by a name. Although they do not live far from the Greek capital of Athens (the one car they have, which only the domineering father is allowed to take to venture outside the house, has the number plate “YY”, for the East Attica regional unit), their house is located on a restricted access road, and no one ever drops by to say hello.

For all intents and purposes, the two parental figures and their three teenage children (one or two of whom might even be in their 20s already) live in a bubble that is highly manipulated by the father, and to some extent by the mother, who introduces new words in a way that distorts the reality outside the home. The lack of natural social interaction has also led the children to speak in a detached manner that makes them sound a little like lifeless robots.

The father, cognisant of his son’s burgeoning needs to express his sexuality, brings home a female security guard from the large firm where he works to have sex with his son. The act itself has no chemistry whatsoever, perhaps because the son’s lack of stimulation has turned him into a mechanical puppet. The son soon learns that his favourite position is doggy style, and many a viewer will speculate whether any allowance has been made for the son to be homosexual. If the term does not exist in the son’s vocabulary, what would he do with such feelings?

The family has a television set, but the outside world does not intrude. They only watch their own home videos, and between the videos, the cassettes and the 1983 Mercedes-Benz (according to online posts) that the father drives, one could easily assume this story takes place in the 1980s — that is, until we see the mother phoning her husband at work and him picking up his small mobile phone. It is also easy to think that the parents are conservative individuals who are scared that their children would be exposed to salacious influences, but they watch porn together in the living room when their offspring are asleep.

Director Yorgos Lanthimos presents his material with sharply lit images and very often shows his characters with their heads cut off by the frame to convey the idea of an idyllic atmosphere that leads to mindlessness. The robotic voices and the simple white clothes that the children wear also suggest a complete lack of creativity and a bond of unity and uniformity that is hard to miss. The father, who is the only one ever to leave to house, even goes as far as to remove the labels from the food and water he buys, lest they indicate life beyond the walls of his property.

And yet, there are subtle hints that things are not as peachy as the father would like to believe. The middle child (the elder daughter) bears a scar of unknown provenance on her shoulder, and all the children sometimes speak to the fence or throw slice of cake to the other side. We later learn that they used to have a brother, who has escaped to the other side, but his existence only comes up in a single scene whose focus is very much elsewhere.

This film is clearly about control, and about the abuse that parents sometimes inflict on their children in order to “protect” them from undue influence. It is a fascist approach, to be sure, and the film ends on a very tragic note that should not come as a surprise to anyone who recognises that anyone who has tasted freedom will demand more of it. Throughout the story, the family dog is being trained to listen to his master’s orders, but the dog appears to be just one yelp shy of Labrador kindness, and the question hangs in the air whether control and training would ever be able to supersede innate behavior.

Dogtooth is a powerful indictment of parents who impose their own vision of the world on their children and subsequently distort reality so that they may feel like they are in control. Lanthimos’s approach is both shocking and slightly comical, and we cannot look away.

(The title refers to the father’s statement that only when the children’s dogteeth, or eyeteeth, have come out will their bodies be ready to “face the dangers that lurk outside”.)

If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle (2010)

27 Jun

if-i-want-to-whistleRomania

4*
Director:

Florin Șerban
Screenwriters:
Florin Șerban

Cătălin Mitulescu
Director of Photography:

Marius Panduru

Running time: 90 minutes

Original title: Eu când vreau să fluier, fluier

Don’t think for a moment the soft-spoken boy from a broken home who has spent the past four years in a juvenile detention centre has not been affected by his immediate surroundings. He seems to be in complete control of himself, resisting the provocations of many of his fellow inmates and even seemingly ignoring the sexual assault that takes place from time to time. The director calls him a “good boy”, one who has not made any trouble and is even allowed a second chance.

But just nine days before his release, the 18-year-old Silviu Chişcan, originally from the east Romanian town of Brăila, gets a visit from his younger brother, Marius, who tells him their mother has found a job in Italy and will take him with her within a few days, perhaps even before he is released. This visit nearly coincides with the appearance on the scene of a young social worker, Ana, whom Silviu fantasises about (as do nearly all the other young men who rarely get to see a woman) and expects to go on a date with once he returns to a free society.

When I Whistle, I Whistle is a film that is all about control and eventually about the loss of control. Its main character avoids lashing out at anyone and keeps his emotions bottled up inside until the very end, because he does not want to spend the rest of his life in this place. But others around him throw obstacles in his way, and so does his mother when she hits him repeatedly upon visiting him on one of his final days behind bars. And yet, he does not react.

As should be expected, all of his pent-up anger eventually comes to a boil, at a time and in a way that is unfortunate at first, and ultimately even tragic. Fortunately, the story’s development is far from morose, and actor George Pistereanu with his big black eyes is absolutely mesmerising in the lead. The explosion of fury that kicks off the third act does not arrive out of the blue but is brilliantly and powerfully foreshadowed by the film’s most impressive scene: the day Silviu’s estranged mother pays him a visit, and he lets loose a torrent of contempt for the way she treated him and her role in sending his life down the tubes. The scene is tense to the point of being hypnotising and despite Silviu not reacting in the way we expect him to, there is something cathartic about his performance.

Marius Panduru’s camera yields images that while obtained by hand-held cameras are restrained in their shakiness — an apt visual reflection of the tension between the central character’s external appearance and internal well of emotions. Director Florin Șerban focuses our attention with short bursts of information through editing that allows us to glimpse a potential threat that immediately captures out even though it often lasts for a very brief moment.

At other points, however, the film has no problem letting us wait for the Silviu to gather his thoughts. The camera stays on him while he is thinking, considering whether or not (and how) to react to harassment or what he perceives to be injustice. It is a fascinating look at people whose lives do not unfold according to the rules of a screenwriting manual but are immensely interesting because of the way the filmmaker here presents them to his audience. The actors are equally important in this regard, and one particular scene late at night, during which Silviu insistently whispers in the ear of a friend so that he can borrow his phone, is riveting, because we know there is always the potential for violence to erupt at the drop of a hat.

While short of plot, this 90-minute film is deep on emotion and back story, and although we often wait for Silviu to show his fighting spirit, he should not be underestimated. This is a man who has spent the past four years in an atmosphere that is far from gentle, and context certainly informs character. Those who miscalculate the effect on a young man who would hold onto whatever stability he can find at any cost do so at their peril.

Diarchy (2010)

26 Jun

diarchiaItaly

4*
Director:
Ferdinando Cito Filomarino

Screenwriter:
Ferdinando Cito Filomarino

Director of Photography:
Daria D’Antonio

Running time: 20 minutes

Original title: Diarchia

Rich half-siblings (one of whom is played by Louis Garrel) and the consequential visit of a stranger immediately bring to mind the provocative 2003 film by Bernando Bertolucci, The Dreamers, but the short film Diarchia, by Ferdinando Cito Filomarino (another Italian), is something quite different.

For one thing, whereas The Dreamers animated in large part by the garrulous discussions about philosophy and the cinema, with no small focus on sexual intimacy, Filomarino strives here for one thing only: tension. Having arrived at the grandiose summer villa of his friend Luc, the Italian Giano, clearly an outsider to this world of opulence, albeit faded opulence, does not want to fight back when Luc starts landing punches on him. But eventually, of course, he lashes out as way of standing up for himself and when he hits Luc, the Frenchman tumbles into the stairwell and breaks his neck.

Now, Giano has to clean up the mess by dragging the limp body from one room to the next so that Luc’s anonymous half-sister (whose line of work is unknown, even to Luc) does not catch him in flagrante delicto. These scenes are tense but not without some gallows humour that could have made Hitchcock proud, especially when Giano drives away from the villa with the cold body of Luc in the passenger seat, his eyes wide open and a big smile on his face. What happens next is unexpected and requires some analysis: Luc’s smile suddenly grows bigger, and he turns his head to look out of window, before a cut to black.

Having spent the previous 10-15 minutes in the company of Giano, who is concerned but in total control and shows very little if any anxiety at the prospect of being found out, this final moment initially seems like a condescending spit in our collective face, like those “it was all just a dream” epiphanies. But dig a little deeper, and the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, even though together they form a picture that may be abstract at best.

Let’s look at what the film is actually about. On the surface, which is certainly the area that ought to interest and engage the viewer the most, it is about a visit gone wrong, an unhappy coincidence, a death, a cover-up and an escape. The first half is playful but with at least one character a bit out of his depth, we also feel slightly awkward, especially when Luc starts punching Giano — softly at first, then harder and harder, almost like a bully. The second half is stressful but not exactly thrilling stuff, as Giano never breaks a sweat and even makes a point of staring at the half-sister moments after he accidentally killed Luc. There is a slight desire, but it is likely for the position she occupies and the life she lives rather than her looks.

When Giano is on the verge of leaving, the half-sister asks him whether he would like to join them for a ski trip, and there is a moment when, despite the obvious insanity of accepting, he seems to be considering the proposition. And although the title is never mentioned in the film, one has to take its connotations of tradition, and of the ruler as one of two equals, into account. “Diarchy” refers to the system of government that has two rulers instead of one. The small nations of Andorra and San Marino are two of the best-known examples.

Although the film is not very generous with its facts, we can surmise that Giano is not from the same social class as Luc and his half-sister, although it is unclear how he got to meet Luc and why he was invited along to their private residence, especially as we gradually realize that Luc and Giano do not know each other very well. This issue of class does not get much attention, but it might offer one of the best points of entry into an interpretation of the film; after all, the very first shot of the film is taken from the front of Luc’s car, decked out with the immediately recognizable logo of Mercedes-Benz.

The film is bookended by two scenes in Luc’s car. In the first scene, he is driving, and in the last scene, Giano is driving, although he only gets to drive because he has, by the looks of it, fatally punched his way into Luc’s position. And yet, when director Ferdinando Cito Filomarino suddenly reveals that this may just be a fantasy, he also brilliantly undercuts the possibility of Giano ever driving a Mercedes-Benz anywhere besides his own daydreams.

The camera moves around effortlessly inside the villa, and the technical credits are impeccable. These 20 minutes offer the viewer a great deal to ponder, especially after the first viewing, and except for a strange encounter with a fox, the second viewing will confirm that this is not a one-trick pony.

Move (2012)

9 Jun

drei zimmer kueche badGermany

3.5*
Director:

Dietrich Brüggemann
Screenwriters:
Anna Brüggemann
Dietrich Brüggemann
Director of Photography:
Alexander Sass

Running time: 110 minutes

Original title: Drei Zimmer/Küche/Bad

Almost as if he is baiting the critics and the nay-sayers to respond the way he expects them to, director Dietrich Brüggemann repeats one key phrase, or value assessment, or judgment, in the very last scene of his third feature film, Move: “It tries to overwhelm, but it doesn’t transcend.” It is almost too easy to apply this criticism to the 110 minutes that precede it, as a group of 20-something friends learn to deal with growing up, mostly without any abiding success. Their inability to look beyond their common bubble means that their interactions are solipsistic, a cesspool of relationships that develop out of convenience, and the only saving grace — the reason why this film is worth your time — is its comedy, which at times literally had me rolling around with laughter.

Despite the “three” in the original title, which refers to the layout of an apartment as one would find it in the classified section of the newspaper, the film is actually divided into four parts (and a loose fifth) that mirror the seasons and thus allow us a yearlong overview of the eight central characters’ actions and the reactions they produce.

Philipp and Dina have been best friends since forever. Philipp is dating the wildly moody Maria, who is moving to Berlin to be with him. Meanwhile, Philipp’s one sister, the timid Wiedke, is moving in with the popular Dina, while his other sister, Swantje, writes down every conversation at their parents’ home and is dating a Goth. Philipp is also good friends with the expressionless, emotionless Thomas, who has been dating Anna for a while, but the relationship is clearly going nowhere. And then, the handsome Michael arrives on the scene, and most of the girls fall for him, even though he is dealing with issues from childhood. Oh, and then Philipp’s parents non-chalantly break some shocking news over Christmas dinner.

This is just part of the round robin of relationships and relationship issues that the film offers its viewers, but Brüggemann, who co-wrote the screenplay with his sister Anna (playing the role of Dina, arguably the main female character), is stunningly adept at steering our attention where he wants it to be, without ever seeming heavy-handed. He crams an enormous amount of plot into his film, perhaps too much, by cutting the material very tightly, and it is often at the end of his scenes that one recognises how other films would have lingered or over-explained. Brüggemann’s actors and his editor together create snappy moments whose meaning is immediately obvious, and yet they are as brief as they likely would have been in real life. His use of jump cuts is always well-timed and underscores the subtly comical nature of many of his more dramatic scenes.

Brüggemann’s sense of humour is equally refreshing, from hiding the identity of a peripheral character by only revealing one part of him (and then being open about the approach by having Philipp say he can never remember the guy’s face) to creating dramatically ironic comedy that only the viewers can appreciate because they see both sides of the moment to very judiciously having the same Christian missionaries knock on people’s doors at the worst possible times in their lives.

But despite the director’s masterful combination of sights and sounds (the indie band Guillemots and its front man Fyfe Dangerfield provide the background music to the film’s most emotionally resonant sequences) and narrative sprints, as well as his playful approach to storytelling (he even goes “meta” by starring as a photographer named Alexander Sass, the name of the actual film’s director of photography), his film reaches a point where the norm is the unexpected, and there is no firm sense of where all of this is headed, or what would bring closure.

The final few seconds are a case in point, as Brüggemann suggests that, despite everything these characters have been through, they are likely to go through it all again, because you never stop growing up and you never stop learning. You keep on falling, like the pots and the pans in the very first scene, or Philipp, whose skills as a cyclist leave much to be desired, but you keep getting back up. Things may be precarious, but they are not entirely hopeless, and that is why we stay tuned.

It’s not easy growing up, but watching other people doing (or trying to do) it can be hilarious. The performances of the cast members all gel together very well, and the casting of Herbert Knaup (whose turn as Lola’s father in the cult film Run Lola Run is unforgettable) as Dina’s slightly hysterical father is a master stroke. The only minor problem with casting was that Swantje (Philipp’s younger sister) and Maria (Philipp’s girlfriend) look so similar they are difficult to tell apart at first.

Move is a fast-paced look at the angst of becoming an adult and the mistakes that people make again and again as they try to find the balance between pleasure and stability. The Brüggemann brother-and-sister duo is very perceptive about the good and the bad of this period in people’s lives, and their depiction of the turmoil is genuinely engaging, even though they almost exclusively prefer to prioritise the funny sides of their episodes. The story does start to become slightly absurd towards the end, as coincidences seem to spawn more coincidences, but all in all this is a creative, masterly controlled film about a key point in the characters’ lives, and one that most audiences will be enthusiastic about.

Manglehorn (2014)

15 Apr

manglehornUSA

4*
Director:
David Gordon Green

Screenwriter:
Paul Logan

Director of Photography:
Tim Orr

Running time: 95 minutes

Angelo J. Manglehorn is a locksmith and a miserable wretch of a man. He lives alone, but not quite. His own real connection to another living, breathing creature is his relationship with his cat, Fanny. But even Fanny seems to have given up on this life, as she refuses to eat and seemingly prepares to shuffle off her mortal coil. Manglehorn himself is not much better, although an early interaction with a woman who accidentally locked her baby in the car makes us realise he is capable of caring, even though his social skills leave much to be desired.

But then come the voice-overs, and the first voice-over is so beautiful I was literally on the verge of tears.

There are few directors in this world whom I want to give a hug to just because I feel so elated that they are contributing to the cinematic art form, but David Gordon Green is certainly one of those. Green’s first two features, George Washington and All the Real Girls, which he made in his 20s, received near-universal critical acclaim. But it was his third film, Undertow, that moved me viscerally through its action yet spoke to me through its unconventionally poetical approach to its story. That film also had some of the most amazing bits of voice-over I had ever heard, and while the comparison to Terrence Malick is easy to make, Green is usually far less sentimental.

Manglehorn is certainly not for everyone. Little of note ever happens, and when it does, we are left puzzled by the meaning of what we just saw. Two scenes everyone will be bound to discuss are the graphical presentation of the operation on Fanny, which easily could have come from an episode of Nip/Tuck, and the multi-car pile-up in which we see not blood but smashed watermelons on the steaming wreckage, which we see Manglehorn pass thanks to the smooth Godard-inspired lateral shot. What do they mean? Nothing obvious, and they don’t look like anything else in the film. And yet, thanks to Green’s capacity to both present naturalistic events in a way that is entirely unrushed and simultaneously astound us with their simple humanity, even these moments don’t feel out of place.

The surprising thing is that Manglehorn is played by Al Pacino, the king of loud-mouth recklessness, and his performance here is utterly compelling despite his character’s absolutely cringeworthy behaviour towards those who might be his friends if he gave them half a chance, or half a sincere smile.

He has the rarest of interaction with his son, a wealthy commodities trader living the high life, but also doing so alone, and much of the second half of the film is devoted to the budding relationship with Dawn (Holly Hunter), the bank teller he sees once a week and whom he has decided to ask for what she presumes is a date. She is also lonely, but they are not on the same wavelength, and the romantic idea of love they witness at the bank, when a man comes in to serenade a woman, is as beautiful as it is the exact opposite of what she is in for with Manglehorn.

The story with his son, competently played, though without a great deal of texture, by Chris Messina, is short but turbulent, and while there is no clear-cut resolution or happy ending, the development is absolutely satisfying from the points of view of both drama and realism.

And finally, there is the infuriatingly garrulous Gary who for all the money in the world would not stop talking. Harmony Korine shows redoubtable virtuosity in his portrayal of this simple man who thinks he has made it big by opening a massage parlour (read, “brothel”) in town, but whose bullying of Manglehorn’s son immediately defines him as a loser.

The metaphor of the locksmith and the big secret he keeps is obvious, but the presentation of the material makes even the mundane rise to the level of the extraordinary. There is a scene with a mime that is comparable to the end of Antonioni’s Blow-Up, and this kind of comparison firmly underlines the magnificent talent of David Gordon Green. The voice-overs do become burdensome, but the film never becomes predictable, and the score by David Wingo and Explosions in the Sky, who also worked on Green’s winning Prince Avalanche, is wholly infectious.

Manglehorn is a challenge, but it is one that is worth taking on, as the experience provides a glimpse of humanity and conveys the feelings of some unusual people, even when they themselves are not even sure what they are.

Class Enemy (2013)

20 Feb

class enemySlovenia

4*
Director:
Rok Biček

Screenwriters:
Nejc Gazvoda

Rok Biček
Janez Lapajne
Director of Photography:
Fabio Stoll

Running time: 110 minutes

Original title: Razredni sovražnik

Although inviting comparisons with the French The Class (Entre les murs) because of filmmaker Rok Biček’s decision to shoot the entire film inside a single school building (the camera never even ventures outside, not even onto the playground), the Slovenian Class Enemy, which uses first-time actors for the student roles, is a more stylised representation of the tension created by a teacher whose straight talk is the spark that ignites an outwardly calm but already combustible situation.

The film is based on real events the director himself was witness to during his first year of high school, although he significantly altered the focus by having a single teacher (instead of what was historically a larger group of individuals) bear the brunt of the students’ attacks. The character is called Robert Zupan (Igor Samobor), a cold and distant educator who has only one desire: To see the children make something of themselves and achieve their best by doing their best, which he judges not to be the case at all when he replaces their beloved German teacher, Nuša (Maša Derganc), who is also the class teacher.

But the very first scene, which is set before Zupan’s arrival, should make it clear to those paying attention that all is not well. A dreadful silence hangs in the air, and we soon learn that one of the boys, Luka (Voranc Boh), has lost his mother. This being a high school, with dozens of children who are all very different, many things are said that can have an impact on others, and one ill-conceived comment by another boy in class, Tadej (Jan Zupančič), about how unnatural it is for someone to grow up with two fathers (because he says a child cannot grow up well if it doesn’t have both a mother and a father), seems entirely inappropriate in light of Luka’s recent loss.

Throughout the first act, an introverted girl named Sabina (Daša Cupevski) seems to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and the only thing holding her back from the precipice is her ability to play one of Chopin’s piano preludes. Zupan seems impressed and is even mesmerised by her performance, but before long he has a direct talk with her about her plans for the future, and when these appear to be nonexistent, he tells her she may become just another “loser”, and perhaps her parents are to blame.

She flees the class room in tears and literally into the white light outside that floods the screen, before we learn she has committed suicide. The students soon revolt against what they deem to be oppression, or even totalitarian rule by their German teacher the “Nazi”, and the consequences are grave.

Biček’s director of photography, Fabio Stoll, bathes the entire film, with the exception of a final scene that takes place outside, in a cold blue hue, and costume designer Bistra Borak also clothed most of the actors with navy blue material or jean jackets. The effect on the audience, remarkably, is not alienation but a thorough immersion in the frigidity these characters all have to deal with, because they all deal equally awkwardly with the life-changing event of a student’s suicide, for which there is no definite reason.

The director is no stranger to the depiction of existential anguish, as his student short Duck Hunting presented the case of two young men who take revenge on their father for an act he committed that is clear but never shown. Biček is a formidable director, completely in control of his subject, and his script, tightly focused on the mass heart ache and the easy transition to a mob mentality, has a palpable feeling of mystery and sadness at its core.

There is never a dull moment, and the shift in our understanding of the teacher’s motivations, from fear to potential empathy, is handled adroitly by the director, who also edited the film along with co-screenwriter Lapajne. This may be one of the best feature films débuts in a very long time. Despite the limitations the director imposed on himself, which prevent us from seeing these people interact outside the confines of the school, their bubble of existence inside the building does provide us with a sense of cohesion — a bubble of existence that is self-sufficient and whose energy can exert great force on those it comes into contact with. The events hurtle towards a well-conceived conclusion that makes a great deal of sense and provides us with an ending that is both logical and emotionally satisfying.

Butterfly (2015)

11 Feb

MariposaArgentina

3.5*
Director:
Marco Berger

Screenwriter:
Marco Berger

Director of Photography:
Tomás Perez Silva

Running time: 103 minutes

Original title: Mariposa

The worlds of Marco Berger’s films are almost always happy (though never uncomplicated) places. Going against the tradition of using (anguish about) sexuality as a way to amplify the drama, this Argentine director has consistently — with a single exception, Ausente — presented his viewers with stories where small steps lead the way to happiness. His films have no villains, although a case can certainly be made that the teenager in Ausente is the most (and only) unpleasant character in his œuvre. Instead, he focuses on the gentle tension that exists when people like each other, and this tension is resolved either through satisfaction or through the departure of one of the parties. His bright, optimistic world view is reflected in the atmosphere of his films, filled with sunshine and greenery.

While Berger almost exclusively examined same-sex attraction in his previous films, his fourth and latest feature, Butterfly (Mariposa), which premiered in the Panorama section at the 2015 Berlinale, places heterosexual attraction in the foreground. However, his affinity for one of the central tenets of gay rights is unmistakable: The major theme of the film is that no matter our circumstances, we will fall in love with the person with whom we were meant to fall in love. In the end, it’s always nature, not nurture.

In the very first scene, a butterfly sits perfectly still, and a young mother leaves her infant daughter by the side of the road. A few moments later, we see the mother with her daughter again, just as moments earlier, but she notices the butterfly gently flapping its wings and makes the decision to hang on to her child. The consequences of this single moment will be evident throughout the rest of the film, as we see the effects of her two decisions.

The idea of parallel worlds has been done before on film, with examples ranging from Sliding Doors to Run Lola Run (Lola rennt), but Butterfly, shot in Buenos Aires and in and around Tandil, is much more subtle and much less pure spectacle than those two films were. It is to Berger’s credit that the sexual tension at the heart of his story — between a boy, Germán (Javier de Pietro), and his adopted sister, Romina (Ailín Salas) — is handled with tenderness, understanding, and absolutely no sentimentality or exploitation, and his overarching message is a powerful one. At times, the symbolism of the butterfly does become needlessly belaboured, as the main character inexplicably buys a kind of butterfly snow globe for no apparent reason other than to suggest to us that he is being moved by some force he does not understand: his universal self across all worlds.

In the one story, the bearded, curly-haired Germán, an only child, falls in love with Romina, the girl with the dyed blond hair and the dark roots whom he meets when his parents crash into her in the woods. In the other, the clean-shaven, bespectacled Germán grows closer and closer to his adopted sister, Romina the brunette, whom his parents had found in the woods as a baby, until they both realise they can no longer resist the temptation to be with each other. In the meantime, their relationship to each other in both worlds affect those around them, but only temporarily, as everyone eventually gravitates towards the same people in either story.

One of these people is the handsome Bruno (Julian Infantino), Germán’s friend in the one world and Romina’s boyfriend in the other, who physically and awkwardly gravitates towards Germán. It is obvious Bruno is not particularly attracted to Germán, but there is a conspicuous yearning that — as Berger has done in nearly all of his films, including his first short film, The Watch, by letting shots of underwear speak volumes — manifests itself as a hilarious, throbbing erection.

Despite Bruno being more or less closeted in not one but two worlds, we always sense that happiness is just around the corner, and when the moment arrived, I started smiling like a giddy teenager. Berger makes us fall in love with his characters, because they are thoroughly likable and their world is one that we want to be a part of. This world seems entirely credible, and while the characters may stumble here and there, most of their desires are ultimately fulfilled.

Berger has stated that the origin of Butterfly was partly personal, as it relates to the time after he was rejected by two film schools in Norway, and he had to choose between giving up on his dream and following his heart. Whether he would have ended up making films regardless is of course an open question, but audiences around the world will be enthusiastically applauding his decision to make movies that inspire them by creating wholly plausible worlds we want to believe can be ours, too.

He says he also drew inspiration from the 1998 film Lovers of the Arctic Circle (Los amantes del círculo polar), about two step-siblings falling in love in a world that is so elusive it slips through our fingers at the end.

The separation between the worlds of Butterfly is at once very clear and not always obvious. The characters differ with regard to the colour and the length of their hair or their facial hair, and Berger also uses red and blue in various ways to distinguish the worlds from each other. However, the scenes are often cut in such a way that they start in one world and abruptly change to another when there is a sudden cut. This strategy is mostly successful but sometimes seems unnecessarily overused. The continuous back-and-forth between the two worlds and their stories does require the viewer to pay attention throughout, but this intense scrutiny and comparison pay off handsomely, because we recognise that, despite all the obstacles, our characters are slowly moving in the direction that will make them the most happy.

With Butterfly, Berger has affirmed his view of the world as a place we should be optimistic about. The screenplay, built on small moments rather than big ideas, is intelligent but never seeks to outsmart the viewer. Unfortunately, the fast-paced alternation between the two worlds and the focus on two couples instead of one do slightly hinder the depth to which the characters are revealed (Hawaii and Plan B were much more effective in this regard), but even within these constraints Berger does elicit a great deal of feeling from his situations. His characters have their reasons for acting the way they do, and while some will point to the broken heart of at least one girl in one world, and of another in the other, as evidence that people sometimes do get hurt, the film leaves us with the message that going for what we want often leads to the best possible world. After all, without those two broken hearts, the future may have had exponentially greater heartache in store.

Lake Tahoe (2008)

25 Jan

lake-tahoeMexico

4*
Director:
Fernando Eimbcke

Screenwriters:
Fernando Eimbcke

Paula Markovitch
Director of Photography:
Alexis Zabé

Running time: 86 minutes

Lake Tahoe is an acquired taste. This small film by director Fernando Eimbcke consists mostly of static shots and has very little dialogue. It is set in a town so sleepy that the main character’s first act, inexplicably crashing his family’s red Nissan Tsuru on a wide road devoid of any turns, is the most action we’ll hear (we don’t even see the accident) the entire film. The boy’s name is Juan Cardozo, and through seemingly random incidents in which very little happens, we learn something about him in a way that is ultimately very satisfying for those who can stand the wait.

Eimbcke already showed in his début film, the narratively cosy and visually exciting Duck Season (Temporada de patos), that he is interested in characters rather than events. Both films also take place in a very short time frame: Duck Season over a Sunday afternoon, Lake Tahoe presumably on a Saturday morning and into Sunday morning. Both films star Diego Cataño as a taciturn, kind-hearted teenager who has some stuff to deal with. His presence is a big reason why these two films work so well. We can see him thinking behind his big eyes, even though we only have the faintest idea what might be going on in his head, and this mystery, which is never entirely opaque, is effective at keeping the viewer’s attention.

During two-thirds of the film, we get multiple shots of Juan walking around, often in frames that repeat again and again, trying to find someone who can help him fix the car. On his way around the town in which he often seems to be the only one who is (barely) awake, he meets an assortment of oddball characters, from a young mechanic who is a kung fu fanatic to an elderly mechanic who shares breakfast with his boxer dog, Sica, in a scene that becomes ever more touching as the film wears on.

Countless black screens interrupt what little action there is, although the soundtrack is ever-present, making us focus on the small details in the wind that are here one second and have disappeared the next. Most of the shots suggest the same idea, as the frame is empty for significant stretches of time at the beginning at the end of the take, with Juan traversing the screen in the middle. It is like a deadly quiet lake with a ripple of movement that breaks the stasis before it returns to tranquillity once more. 

The theme of loss becomes central to the film towards the third act, as we realise what is gnawing at Juan. But there is a long wait before Eimbcke gives us the information we need, and even his presentation of Juan is an exercise in patience, as we never get a close-up of his face and have to wait a very long time just to see him from closer than in a long shot. Eimbcke’s director of photography, Alexis Zabé, who has worked with Carlos Reygadas and also lensed Eimbcke’s Duck Season, departs from the static shots on at least two occasions. The first time, it works, as Juan escapes from an uncomfortable situation and we suddenly get two short dolly shots. But the second time, when Juan sees his mother crying in the bathroom, there is a slight push-in that is out of sync with the rest of the film.

While the latter shot attempts to elicit some feeling from us, there are a few scenes that are surprisingly effective at addressing our emotions. One involves the old mechanic making an important, albeit spur-of-the-moment, decision that ties in Juan’s own situation, a second is another unexpected scene late at night between Juan and the receptionist from an auto shop, and a third comes in the final scenes between Juan and his brother. Eimbcke, who had already worked so beautifully with children in Duck Season, continues his impressive understanding of their emotions here and gets another impressive performance from the young Cataño whose combination of white and black clothing suggests some inner struggle in the character. 

Lake Tahoe trips up only once, and that is by having a cutaway too soon, during one of the most powerful emotional moments for Juan. But in most other respects, this is a beautiful experience of spending time with a character that very slowly lets his guard down, accepts the gaping hole a loss has left in his life and assumes his new role with as much courage as he can muster. The film is absolutely beautiful, and thanks to Eimbcke and Cataño also eminently watchable.

Duck Hunting (2009)

12 Dec

Lov na raceSlovenia

4*
Director:
Rok Biček

Screenwriter:
Rok Biček

Director of Photography:
Simon Tanšek

Running time: 23 minutes

Original title: Lov na race

One shot early in Rok Biček’s 23-minute Duck Hunting puts our mind at ease even while we feel the narrative tension building. It is a shot around the dinner table, and we have already been introduced to the three main characters in the present. In this particular scene, the story has skipped backwards into the past. The father is seated on our left and one of his sons, Matej, is on the right. Right in front of us, with his back turned towards the camera, is the younger brother, Robi, who is barely moving. For the first few moments of the scene, we see only these three, before the mother’s head suddenly appears from directly behind, or in front of, Robi.

All the while, there is a faint whistling sound, which had already started in the previous scene, many hours earlier out in the woods where the father took his sons duck hunting, and this sound disappears the moment Robi leaves the table halfway through the meal. At that point, about one-third into the film, we still have no idea what is going on, but when the director drops a hint a few minutes later, our mind goes back to this scene of the three men and the almost invisible mother.

Biček, who at the time of production was attending the University of Ljubljana’s Academy of Theatre, Radio, Film and Television, includes very little dialogue in this short film and instead opts for long takes, whose apparent stasis is subverted because they were recorded on a handheld camera.

There is another scene at the dinner table, right at the end of the film, that is even more crushing, as the characters arrive at a kind of catharsis that is far from tidy but fits perfectly with the volatile twists and turns of the taciturn characters.

What makes Duck Hunting such a praiseworthy film (Biček’s second fiction short) is his consistency of form and his skill in straddling the line between giving and withholding information, which results in a work whose meaning we can deduce but which is nonetheless never transparent. “Why did you do it?” Robi screams at his father in the present. Unlike the main character in Biček’s stunning 2013 début feature, Class Enemy (Razredni sovražnik), the father here does not have a chance or is not eloquent enough to defend his actions, but for a long time we don’t even know what those actions are, and we never know with certainty.

Sliding effortlessly between past and present, the film further underscores the connection between the two by repeating one or two scenes in the same spaces in different time periods.

Another bold move was the decision to have no music in the film, which emphasises the silences. Along with the very grainy texture of the images obtained with a 16mm camera, this film’s audiovisuals splendidly complement and reflect the brutality of (what we gather is) the central situation. Although the opening scene drags on a little too long, and the acting in that scene is not particularly great, the rest of the film keeps us absolutely spellbound as it moves between times and from subtle gesture to sudden violence, and it is to Biček’s credit that his 23 minutes contain more ambiguity than most films and fewer words than most scenes.

Fury (1936)

29 Oct

FuryUSA

3.5*
Director:
Fritz Lang

Screenwriters:
Bartlett Cormack

Fritz Lang
Director of Photography:
Joseph Ruttenberg

Running time: 95 minutes

The first English-language film of the acclaimed German director of M, Fritz Lang, has an electrifying idea that doesn’t just provide us with a courtroom drama, but an indictment of mob rule and of the primative climate of revenge that many in the American South clung to at the time the film was made. This could have been a sweeping, powerful production if only Lang had been able to gauge how poor the acting of many in the cast was, and if the screenplay had relied a bit more on logic than emotion.

The story, which shows striking similarities to the case of the Scottsboro boys, is about the mindless violence that can result when emotions get the better of people’s minds and the principle of “innocent until proven guilt” goes out the window in the name of expeditious revenge. During the Great Depression, a very upstanding young man named Joe is working hard to earn enough money to marry his sweetheart and settle down.

Joe, played by Spencer Tracy, has even convinced his two brothers, equally desperate in the terrible economic climate, to give up their involvement in the underground business of racketeering, and everything seems to be going swell. That is, until he is pulled over by a policeman on the day he is supposed to meet up with his dear Katherine (Sylvia Sidney) again. He has a single banknote with him, whose serial number matches one given to a kidnapper as ransom. The kidnapper is still on the loose, and because the police is anxious and the public is breathing down their necks, Joe is put behind bars as a precautionary measure.

However, this precaution quickly gets the town talking, spurred on by those who have an axe to grind with the authorities, and in a dazzling sequence, we see how gossip spreads like wild fire, the stories becoming more and more embellished and the townsfolk whipping themselves into a frenzy. It doesn’t take long before a crowd gathers outside the police station demanding the delivery of the body so they can lynch the as yet uncharged man whose innocence is indisputable.

Fritz Lang, whose already had traces of this kind of mob rule and the devastating consequences it can have on someone who is innocent, is clearly passionate about his defence of the innocents, and with the meteoric rise of Hitler’s National Socialists in Germany, he had good reason to point out the dangers this kind of mind set could lead to.

Besides the abovementioned sequence of chattering people in the small town, the one more animated about the kidnapper having been captured than the previous, which ends with a hilarious shot of hens in a pen to signify the gossipmongers, there are many other memorable moments. During the scene with the crowd outside the police station, there is a quick succession of close-ups on the people’s starkly lit faces, giving an air of expressionism to the realism.

And at two points, Joe and Katherine individually break the fourth wall, although the reason for this is unclear. Joe, having survived a life-threatening fire, wishes to take revenge on the mob by pretending to have perished in the flames, and he delivers a rousing speech to the camera: “I’ll give them a chance that they didn’t give me. They will get a legal trial in a legal courtroom. They will have a legal judge and a legal defense. They will get a legal sentence and a legal death.”

In another scene with the two brothers, Katherine looks at us and calmly exclaims, “I saw him, behind those flames, in that burning jail, his face …” before grabbing her head and dissolving in tears.

But the court case itself seems to be more wishful thinking than sound legal argumentation, as there is no corpse that would justify finding the horde guilty of murder, no matter how much we or Joe would like that to be the case. Even in rural America, the doctrine of “corpus delicti” applies in murder cases, and it is plain ridiculous to assume Joe’s case is strong when no effort is made to produce his corpse. 

However, the film’s main point of interest to those who watch films for reasons beyond pure entertainment is its use of the medium to emphasise its ability to convey truth. Of course, the plot bears resemblance to other cases of lynching or attempted lynching of innocent men in the United States, but on a more tangible level, it uses newsreel footage to allegedly prove the identity of those who participated in the events. Such footage is presented as evidence in court, and lays to rest the claims by the defendants and their witnesses that they had nothing to do with the calamity at the police station. It is a shame, however, that the footage we are shown is so patently fake, as the camera seems to have been purposefully installed in certain positions right in front of the worst culprits at the very moment they decided to do something illicit. The sequence is utterly ridiculous and almost completely undermines the point Lang is trying to make.

By the time the final scenes roll along, Lang makes his most scathing indictment of the justice system that permitted lynchings, to some extent, until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, and even allowed the spectacle of public executions until shortly after the film’s release (the release date was May 29, 1936, and the last public execution, of Rainey Bethea, took place Aug. 14 of the same year). A lawyer observes that on average a lynching takes place in the United States every three days. All of this while the people in the small town talk about the Sunday services they routinely attend.

Fury has a powerful message and delivers it forcefully, even though the elocution of many of the actors (Joe’s brothers, in particular, and also the district attorney) makes them sound like they are onstage and we are sitting in the front row of a theatre. The screenplay doesn’t do Lang many favours, but his use of multiple incidents scattered throughout the film that all fit together in the end makes us feel confident in the storyteller, and it pays off in the end.

Fruitvale Station (2013)

18 Oct

Fruitvale StationUSA

5*
Director:
Ryan Coogler

Screenwriter:
Ryan Coogler

Director of Photography:
Rachel Morrison

Running time: 85 minutes

Fruitvale Station is not a film about race and immediately accessible to a very wide audience. The story is about the beauty, the frustration, the dreams, the indecision, the memories and the love embedded in one man’s last day on earth. With mesmerising performances, an intimacy that is utterly compelling and a main character that is far from perfect but does his best until his past catches up with him in the most tragic way imaginable, this is one of the best débuts I have ever seen.

The director is Ryan Coogler, who shot the film in 20 days only a few weeks after his 26th birthday. His story is small enough to focus on the details of Oscar Grant’s last day, based on the real events that took place New Year’s Eve 2008 and early on New Year’s Day 2009 at the Bay Area Rapid Transit station of Fruitvale in Oakland, San Francisco. Its more ambitious moments, namely a handful of unbroken takes, don’t draw attention in a way one would have expected from an inexperienced filmmaker. They never stand out from the rest of the production, and perhaps the reason is the dynamite performance of the actor who plays Oscar, Michael B. Jordan.

The film is bookended by the events of New Year’s Day, and the opening scene is clearly shot with a cellphone camera or some other handheld device with low-quality images. The reason for this is only explained at the end, although the documentary quality accurately indicates the origins of the story with actual events. What we get during the film, then, is New Year’s Eve, which not only builds towards the evening’s midnight celebrations in San Francisco but also the birthday dinner of Oscar’s mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer).

Over time, we learn a great deal about Oscar’s life through his interactions with those closest to him: his girlfriend, his daughter, his mother and his tight-knit group of friends. One of them is Cato, played by Coogler’s brother, Keenan. Cato works at the Farmer Joe’s Marketplace supermarket in Oakland, where Oscar was recently fired for turning up late to work once too often. The two are friends, but when Oscar’s attempts to get rehired by the otherwise affable manager are unsuccessful, he fails to mention this to Cato, instead telling him he will start again the following week. Oscar, whose tattoo spells out “Palma Ceia” (one of the gangs in the neighbourhood of Hayward) and who was recently caught cheating on his girlfriend, is actually a very vulnerable individual, and Coogler reveals his character with details that are surprising short but impressive.

Such moments include a flashback to a year earlier when his mother had visited him in prison, and another very intelligent add-on when he sees an ownerless dog, strokes it, before seconds later hearing a yelp from the highway, where he picks up the dog and carries its bloodied body back to the side of the road. Of course, this anticipates the events at the end of the film by showing us how quickly a creature can go from smiling and energetic to still and lifeless. But it is nonetheless (perhaps therefore) intensely poignant and may even move us to tears.

The seemingly mundane, within the context of a single day and given our knowledge that all of this is leading up to something terrible, takes on extraordinary meaning, and Coogler should be given all credit for imbuing his story with both energy and affection that always come across as entirely believable. Even Oscar’s daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal), is a natural in front of the camera and cannot be faulted for a single false move or response.

Fruitvale Station shows us the story of one man who has his faults but is totally likeable throughout and whose life is filled with some of the experiences and feelings we all share, conveyed with the utmost sincerity. His beautiful smile, his love for his daughter, his aggression in the face of injustice and desire to change his life for the better are all attributes we admire. This is not the story of someone up against the system, but rather about someone up against himself and especially his past.

It is difficult to believe this was Coogler’s first feature film. Especially the slightly risky move of presenting one of the final scenes without showing us the face of its central or focal character is jaw-droppingly astounding, bringing with it the necessary uncertainty that the scene calls for. I for one cannot wait to see what Coogler does next.

Cupcakes (2013)

3 Aug

CupcakesIsrael

1.5*
Director:
Eytan Fox

Screenwriter:
Eli Bijaoui

Eytan Fox
Director of Photography:
Daniel Schneor

Running time: 90 minutes

One would think the world has moved on past the point where putting a man in a dress is a central source of comedy for a film, especially one directed by Israeli filmmaker Eytan Fox, whose 2002 film Yossi & Jagger established him as the most important director of gay films in the region.

But in Cupcakes, which features “five girls and a homo” as an act taking part in the UniverSong contest (read, “Eurovision,” but even trashier, if that is possible), a flaming queen named Ofer (Ofer Schechter) skirts the surface of transvestism to pop up in every second scene with a song-and-dance number, or just another wig-and-dress combination, to remind us he is as gay as the day is long.

All of this is supposedly in the name of gay liberation, and of “being yourself”, but the message is drowned out completely by the absolutely ridiculous behavior of the only out gay character. By the way, his boyfriend, Asi (Alon Levi), is famous and closeted, despite his wealthy family’s firm trading on the slogan of authenticity while covering up the sexuality of their handsome heir.  Viewers who know very few gay people may come to the disturbing conclusion Asi is better off staying in the closet.

Of course, we want the boyfriend to be out, but why is there all of this anguish? Does Fox really want us to believe that coming out is such a big deal, when he has a major Jewish character (the country’s bombastic culture minister) openly asking for pork while on a business trip to Paris?

This particular scene in the City of Light has one of the biggest laugh lines of the film, but most of the production reeks with desperately low-budget sets that may or may not be intentionally comical. Even if the director wanted us to revel in a kind of lo-fi musical, the characters are terribly one-dimensional, and the development is exclusively — and predictably — romantic in nature.

But the viewer’s enjoyment of (or repulsion at) the film is rooted almost entirely in the character of Ofer, who all but walks around with a giant spotlight trained on him while he rides a unicorn and has rainbows shooting out of his fingertips. It’s not that his outfits are bad (the only inspired moment is an elegant tuxedo-tutu combination toward the end that shows off his legs), but that there are so many of them we struggle to understand whether this is who he is or whether it is all just a show.

There is something admirable about the message to “be yourself”, but for the purpose of the film, the director has chosen characters who, even if they are being themselves, are only there to make us laugh at their bizarre behavior. For those on the periphery, like the culture minister in Paris, that is fine, but when characters central to the story are vapid and hollow, the thinking viewer should take offense.

Cupcakes may have a musical’s fluffy intentions of pure entertainment, and if that was all it wanted to be, perhaps it could have been mildly interesting. If we know it is a musical, we are willing to suspend our disbelief when characters start belting out an improvised song without hesitation and in perfect unison. But the film has too few songs, and when the genre is less clear, and the production value is this bad, the product is unbelievable and truly dreadful.

One would like to believe a film cannot be this camp unless it is done on purpose. Many of Pedro Almodóvar’s films have outrageously camp moments or characters, but Almodóvar doesn’t expect us to laugh every time they open their mouths or prance around in drag. He feels for them, and he makes us feel for them, too. Fox has no such desire, and his film is a slap in the face of efforts to present complete homosexual characters that don’t simply conform to limp-wristed stereotypes or angst-ridden closet cases.

Not only LGBT cinema but the world at large deserves much better than this silly little film.

Tom at the Farm (2013)

3 Aug

Tom at the FarmCanada/France

3*
Director:

Xavier Dolan
Screenwriter:
Xavier Dolan

Michel Marc Bouchard
Director of Photography:
André Turpin

Running time: 95 minutes

Original title: Tom à la ferme

Xavier Dolan is an immensely gifted filmmaker. His début, I Killed My Mother (J’ai tué ma mère), was experimental, visually stunning and inventive, and it had a grasp of rhythm that belied his age — he was 20 years old when it screened in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2009. Most importantly, it suggested a voice all its own with little recourse to the works of other filmmakers, even if one of the best sequences in the film was very similar to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Mystery of Picasso (le Mystère de Picasso).

But his follow-up, Heartbeats, was infused with slow-motion and repetitive music immediately recognisable as being inspired by Wong Kar-Wai. And his third film, Laurence Anyways, about a man who wishes to transition to a female body, had images that brought to mind the perfectly framed visuals of Stanley Kubrick.

Now comes the Hitchcockian Tom at the Farm, in which a young man is virtually held hostage on a farm by the older, homophobic brother of his late boyfriend. But things are not quite as they seem, and the significance of all of Dolan’s personal touches to the narrative are outweighed by the heavy-handed use of Gabriel Yared’s bombastic music that liberally borrows from Bernard Herrmann’s scores for Vertigo and Psycho, in other words: Be prepared to hear a lot of strings played very loudly.

It is a real shame, because Dolan’s story has a lot to work with at the outset. Main character Tom (Dolan) drives to a farm deep in rural Quebec that he clearly has never visited before. He is anxious and upset, and when he arrives at the lonely farmhouse, covered in fog, no one is home. He finds a key on the front porch and enters, but not before we notice the passenger door on his black Volvo is a different color, obviously recently replaced.

Inside, Tom falls asleep on the kitchen table and is awoken by the elderly woman of the house, Agathe (Lise Roy), asking him what he is doing in her house. Tom was the boyfriend of her late son, Guillaume, whose funeral is the next day. But Tom dare not say anything to her, especially when her eldest son (whom Guillaume, bizarrely, had never mentioned) grabs him during the night and tells him how he will behave if he cares about his own survival, or something like that.

This scene with the brother, whose face is obscured at first and then revealed in a loving close-up as the handsome, bearded Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), is unmistakably homoerotic. But what Dolan wishes to accomplish is far from obvious. The audience will almost certainly expect, because of this confrontation in the dark and many other ambiguous moments, that Tom and Francis will end up together. That is not exactly the case, although because of his physical resemblance to his later brother, Tom forms an attachment to him, and because of Tom’s presence on the otherwise deserted farm, Francis grows closer to him, too. All the while, he continues to bully Tom into fabricating stories about Guillaume’s supposed girlfriend back home in Montreal, which will engender enormous frustration in anyone who values equality and rejects discrimination.

We are taken on wild goose chases, as Dolan seems to suggest Francis is on the verge of revealing some big secret to him, before the moment evaporates and we are left with nothing but our imagination. In one bizarre scene, Francis snorts some cocaine and decides to start dancing with Tom in the shed. This is one of the most sexual scenes in the film, but as with all the others, it seems to come out of nowhere and ultimately confuses us more than it answers any questions. Tom’s reluctance to ask some of these basic questions, including the reason for the entire town being openly hostile to Francis, also leaves us shaking our heads.

The worst, however, is a chance encounter right at the end that is almost too ridiculous to stomach and has us wondering how on earth Dolan thought he could get away with having a scene that is so implausible because it neatly ties up a story from an earlier monologue.

Tom at the Farm has some beautiful scenes, and Dolan’s face keeps our interest even when the shots tend to drag on for a very long time, but the film lacks the humor of Hitchcock and the claustrophobia of Polanski to turn his material into gold.

Buried (2010)

27 Jul

Buried [2010]USA/Spain

2.5*
Director:
Rodrigo Cortés
Screenwriter:
Chris Sparling
Director of Photography:

Eduard Grau

Running time: 95 minutes

A high-concept like almost no other, Buried has an immensely ambitious premise that will draw throngs of viewers interested in seeing whether the film could possible find a way to deal with the restrictions it imposes on itself. It is a restriction of place, as the entire film takes place in a very small space: a coffin underground, inside which the main character wakes up during the black screen that opens the film.

While Quentin Tarantino played with the same idea in Kill Bill: Vol. 2, the audience will be right to wonder whether an entire film following the same approach could be as entertaining. But the actor playing the role also has to be up to the task, as he has to carry the entire film on his shoulders, and has to keep our attention for the full 95 minutes of the running time. The film therefore makes us ask two very important questions: Does the film overcome its self-imposed hurdles, and does the actor hold our attention?

The answer to both, unfortunately, is ‘not really’. However, the film does immediately grab our attention, as we wonder whether the man we find in close-up, Paul Conroy, will escape from his coffin, and how he will manage to do that. That opening black screen, during which we share the actor’s disorientation and fear, is also a wonderful way to start, but what the film fails to do is stick to this approach. Instead, perhaps as a way to make us forget about the tiny space, director Rodrigo Cortés and his director of photography, A Single Man lenser Eduard Grau, employs very fluid tracking shots that circle Conroy’s body, trapped in a tight space we lose track of because of the ease with which the camera moves about.

The actor is Ryan Reynolds, not exactly known for serious roles. This was obviously meant to be Reynolds’s big break from his comedy and superhero work, with many a close-up letting us understand his frustration and despair when a single tear streaks down his cheek. But even though his situation would seem to be easy to empathize with, Conroy is not exactly a likeable character, as anyone offering him assistance on the other side of the line gets a response that doesn’t seek to convey anything other than hysteria at his own situation and the expectation that he will snap his fingers and others will locate and save him. On the other hand, his interlocutors, for the most part, are equally annoying, as they keep on asking him how he ended up in a coffin and how he phone them if he is so far underground. These conversations lead nowhere and become repetitive very quickly, suggesting the dialogue was mostly made up on the spot.

Conroy doesn’t seem to be very clever, either, as he continues to use his lighter to illuminate his surroundings, even when there is no particular need to do so, except to keep an audience used to seeing images at the cinema satisfied. Of course, the lighter won’t last forever, and while this may create some tension with the viewer (who knows there will come a point at which the lighter will fail, perhaps to the utter surprise of Conroy), it also speaks volumes about how stupid Conroy is. Except for humanitarian reasons, there is no reason why we would like to see Conroy survive this ordeal. At best, we expect to see how far underground he is, or where he finds himself.

Buried was obviously made on a very tight budget, although oddly there are a few stylised shots, including one that features a cutaway of the coffin, that seem to want to release us from the feeling of claustrophobia the film obviously elicits. This approach is difficult to understand, as the director undermines the very basic idea that Conroy must be saved within a small amount of time because he will run out of air, and so might the audience. Instead, Cortés lets his camera dance all over the place, including capturing panoramic 360-degree shots inside the confined space that ought to give us an impression of suffocation, not liberation.

There are a few uncomfortable silence and utter darkness, but these are too sporadic to have any real effect on the film, as they seem to be added almost as an afterthought. The heavy breathing, coughing and shuffling in the darkness with which the film opens set the tone, but that tone is crushed when the camera reveals a man stuck in a coffin but having a camera (the audience’s point of view) that can easily move around inside the space.

Buried could have been a very impressive effort to involve an audience ready to sympathize with a man stuck in a tight space, but we cannot, because the character is so bad and we simply don’t have the same experience of fear that he is supposed to feel. Also, since when does alcohol burn the way methanol burns? Or is our hero drinking methanol? There are many questions here that indicate a film badly conceived around a rock-solid central premise. This was not Ryan Reynolds’s big break, and unfortunately the stylistic excess would be repeated in the Cortés-produced Grand Piano.

Grand Piano (2013)

23 Jul

grand-piano-2013USA/Spain

2.5*
Director:

Eugenio Mira
Screenwriter:
Damien Chazelle
Director of Photography:
Unax Mendía

Running time: 90 minutes

Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano has a central conceit that has been incredibly effective in other thrillers, most notably Speed, Nick of Time and Phone Booth, but it squanders the potential of its idea by drowning it in style and spectacle without eliciting any fear or thrill in the viewer (not unlike the disappointing single-setting but visually extravagant Buried, which producer Rodrigo Cortés directed). In fact, one character’s actions during the climax are so wildly melodramatic, we cannot help but laugh at the utter absurdity of the staging and the lack of credibility.

The plot sees prodigious piano player Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood), who has not performed in five years after having had a breakdown during his last show, coming back to the stage to play the piano his late maestro, Patrick Godureaux, so cherished. He is expected to play a piece titled “La Cinquette,” which will require him to do strenuous finger movements at a superhuman pace right at the end of the piece, and he is understandably stressed out.

In an effort to calm him down, his conductor tells him that no one expects him to play perfectly, and that the audience never notices tiny screw-ups in a piano performance anyway. However, Tom is about to get the fright of his life when he takes to the stage and opens his sheet music. There, in bright red ink, are little scribbles that tell him to play every single note perfectly lest his actress wife, Emma (Kerry Bishé), beaming with pride from her seat in one of the boxes, gets shot to pieces by a state-of-the-art laser-equipped rifle.

Tom suspects this is a joke, but when he notices a little dot of red light dancing around the piano, and then on his wife’s face, he breaks out in cold sweat. In one of many moments that repeat throughout the film, he runs offstage to audible gasps from the audience, while the orchestra continues playing, to his dressing room, where he finds more evidence that his life is in danger, as well as an earpiece to follow the instructions of his would-be assassin, voiced by John Cusack.

For the rest of the film, Tom will be sitting in the spotlight, from the looks of things speaking to himself but actually communication with the man he cannot see and whose intentions he knows nothing about, except that they may lead to his own assassination. But both this mysterious man and Tom are very talkative, and it would seem little concentration is required to play all the right notes, or perhaps this pianist is just unusually gifted, as there is a continuous back and forth between the two with no sign of Tom, whom the voice in his ear provocatively, playfully and punnily refers to as “a man of note,” missing a beat, or more importantly, a note.

But what starts out as a very strong premise for tension is properly drenched in style, as Mira’s camera flies across the stage with wild crane shots, again and again surging over the orchestra towards Tom, and whooshily swirls around his one-in-a-million piano that contains the key (another pun the film plays with a bit too often) to his survival.

Elijah Wood’s big eyes are perfectly suited to the material, as the obvious curiosity he exudes fits with the enigma his character is trying to get a grip on. However, the character of his wife, Emma, is a big joke, and in a last-ditch attempt at tension during the climax, she is central to one of the most bizarre moments in the entire film, as she seems to pleasure herself with a song, performed impromptu for an adoring public, while her husband is running around trying to save them from looming execution. This detour into insanity will either have the viewer in stitches or make her cringe with embarrassment, as we simply cannot fathom how a story with such a serious premise could plumb such depths of farce.

Grand Piano has spectacle but no tension. We do not share the point of view of the audience but rather of the pianist, who on top of playing the most difficult piece of his life, seems to cope very well indeed with having his and his wife’s lives threatened by a lunatic who seems to be very handy with a gun. But wait until you hear what the assassin actually does for a living — one can hardly things could get much more preposterous! If Mira had defined his film more clearly as comedy, perhaps it would have been more enjoyable, but the strange combination of a life in danger and hilarious comedy in the final act make for an uneven viewing experience that few members of the audience will find satisfying. 

Joe (2013)

21 Jul

joe-2013USA

3*
Director:
David Gordon Green

Screenwriter:
David Gordon Green

Director of Photography:
Tim Orr

Running time: 115 minutes

David Gordon Green is one of the most talented filmmakers of his generation. Sure, he made the slapstick comedies Your Highness and The Sitter and gone to the well of stoner comedy once too often, but he also made the poetic Prince Avalanche, which enveloped Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch in an ambiance reminiscent of both his earlier work and of Hayao Miyazaki’s gorgeous animations. His meditative Undertow, starring Dermot Mulroney and Jamie Bell and produced by Terrence Malick, is easily one of the best films of the 2000s.

In Joe, he returns to the Southern Gothic atmosphere many have labeled his early work with, and as with Undertow much of the action takes place deep in a forest. But Green’s latest film just proves how fine the line is between his magic and his mediocrity, especially when the casting process leads to a collaboration, or rather a tribulation, with Nicholas Cage.

Cage did some good work when he was younger, and his Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas is well deserved. But that is where his talent ended, because his grimaces ever since and his expressions of pain just don’t take us anywhere. In Joe, the reason his emotional outbursts are painful is because they are so embarrassing to watch.

But luckily the casting also yielded the young Tye Sheridan, who made such an impression with his performance in Mud, another film set in the rural South about a flawed man who redeems himself ever so slightly by the end. In both films, Sheridan hits a range of notes that are all wholly credible and keep us rapt. But whereas Mud had Matthew McConaughey to reinforce Sheridan’s character, Joe only has Cage, who as usual can’t act his way out of a paper bag.

Cage stars as the titular Joe, a loner who spends his time at home lying on the couch, clearly dealing with some past torment or afflicted by a demon, at a brothel, and in the woods, where he runs a business poisoning trees so that the owners would have the right to burn them down and develop the area. As one should expect from Green, the metaphor of poisoning trees (or life) is at once straightforward and opaque.

Joe doesn’t have much in the way of family that we know of (in a throwaway comment toward the end, we find out he has a grandchild he has never seen), but then, we know very little about him. The most obvious part of the film is that Joe is positioned as the father figure to a teenage boy, Gary (Sheridan), whose own father is a worthless drunk who takes his money and beats him senseless whenever he gets the chance. One day, Gary comes upon Joe’s business in the forest and proves himself to be a quick learner and a very capable worker. We like him almost immediately, even when he lets himself get beaten up by his ever-intoxicated biological father.

This part of the film is the most frustrating, as we learn very early on that the deceptively scrawny Gary can stand up for himself, that he is a push-over for no one, except his father, whom he can evidently take down if he wanted to. There is some halfhearted explanation that seeks to justify Gary’s passivity, but it is tough to side with him, when all we want is for him to stand up for himself against this unnecessary violence.

Joe doesn’t have the same kind of insight as a film like Evil (Ondskan), in which a young man who easily knocks out his school mates is beaten time after time by his father because he is not living up to his expectations. Evil made us ask “Why?” before ultimately delivering a stunning blow that was both physically and intellectually satisfying and put all that came before in a context that may have been carved out for dramatic purposes but made sense and had a powerful impact on the viewer. By contrast, Joe only posits a situation on repeat that never improves and which we can’t quite line up with the immanently likeable Gary. We feel like we are slowly drowning in a presentation, albeit gritty and very likely true to life (Gary’s father, Wade, was played by a real-life homeless man called Gary Poulter), that simply doesn’t give us the answers we are looking for, despite building to what we would expect to be a climactic event.

It should be obvious to everyone by now that Sheridan will be a big star, and one can only hope that he continues to choose his projects as wisely as he has until now, as the characters have suited his abilities perfectly, even when the films themselves have not been consistently good. Joe could have done with a few more female characters, although a comparison with the nearly woman-free Undertow shows just what he can accomplish when he puts his mind to a project and focus on the interesting characters (usually, the children) instead of the supposedly more complex adults, who in the case of Joe are dull as dishwater.

I sincerely hope Green returns to the heights of Undertow, because while Joe is far from bad, his films have always benefited from his eye for the beauty in the ordinary and his ability to add a dash of magic to the everyday.

Margin Call (2011)

16 Mar

01E_MGC_DOM_1Sht.inddUSA

4*
Director:

J.C. Chandor
Screenwriter:
J.C. Chandor

Director of Photography:
Frank DeMarco

Running time: 107 minutes

J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call opens with force, and its opening scenes sustain the energy of this film, which is mostly set in a single location throughout most of its running time, encompassing a diegetic time frame of roughly 36 hours.

There is no conventional setup; instead, the surprise is the setup. We meet the characters and the sudden turmoil in medias res, as employees at an investment bank see their colleagues being let go. The impact of this storm is all the more powerful because the axing takes place in full view of the entire staff, as the fateful meetings are scheduled in a conference room with a glass wall facing the rest of the office.

Margin Call gives us a rush of adrenaline already, and we don’t even know what the film is about, yet. But then we see Eric Dale getting fired. Dale is played by Stanley Tucci, and obviously, if Tucci is playing him, he has to be consequential. Indeed, although he may only appear in three scenes, his character is pivotal to the development of the film. To remind us of his significance, he is mentioned every few scenes, and we get the very real sense there would have been no Margin Call had it not been for the delicate project and catastrophic projections Dale had been working on.

Not that the film lacks big names. Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Simon Baker, Paul Bettany and Zachary Quinto all feature in this cast of professionals. One has to admire the confidence of first-time filmmaker J.C. Chandor, whose follow-up would be the exceptional All is Lost with Robert Redford as a cast unto himself in 2013. This film required an ensemble that works together in unison with characters only rising above the rest at very critical moments, and Chandor’s direction is flawless.

We eventually do find out that the film is set in 2008, and while this is not Lehman Brothers, it is a very similar outfit, with some of the same problems. Quinto’s character, Peter Sullivan, is entrusted with some deeply troubling data by the outgoing Dale, which basically show that the company is about to tank, as over the previous two weeks its volatility has started to exceed historical levels.

Luckily, one does not need to understand the terminology used to describe the systemic failures behind the action in order to grasp the seriousness of the situation here. The language is generally transparent and easy to comprehend, and is helped by some of the major players here just being good salesmen and not necessarily all that into linguistic gymnastics with financial lingo – some of the most highly paid individuals here cannot even read a chart.

In the middle of the film, there is a wonderful scene around a conference table when the self-admitted earner of “the big bucks”, the company’s CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), asks Sullivan to explain the situation to him and to those around the table, “as you might to a young child, or a Golden Retriever.” What Sullivan reveals to them, and to us, is that the firm is at a point where it either throws all sense of morality out the window and keeps on to a fraction of its cash, and likely making many on staff instant millionaires because of the way these things work out, or own up to its makes and loses all its money.

Of course, the firm chooses the former option, but while there is nothing wrong with the overarching narrative, the film falters in its final act by not letting us experience the exhilarating moral dilemma the characters face on the big day. Too little of the final day is shown, and most of the action seems tired and simply added on to the whirlwind of revelations and decisions of the night before, all of which we were witness to, including one of the most important meetings ever held at the company, taking place at 2:15 a.m.

The opening shot of the film – a time-lapse showing the Manhattan skyline – is also disappointing, as it establishes place but doesn’t convey the feeling of an adrenaline rush we would have got if we had immediately been shown the inside of the office. In fact, the film is rather unimpressive when it comes to its visuals, although the director does use green lighting effectively to convey the feeling of money everywhere.

Peter Sullivan is a wonderful character, and not only because of Quinto’s expressive face, but mostly because he seems genuinely nice. In one of the first scenes, he thanks his mentor shortly after he was fired, to thank him for taking a chance on him. Sullivan’s colleague, Seth, is played by the curious-eyed Penn Badgley, who is an equally charming character: slightly awkward and more sensitive to the highs and lows on the timeline, we also briefly see he wears white socks, subtly hinting that he doesn’t really belong in this rough and tumble world.

In the final scene, the focus abruptly shifts to the character of floor head Sam Rogers (played by Kevin Spacey), who we have learned cares very little about life outside the office. His dog, Ella, has died, although we don’t know whether it was a natural death or if he had finally decided to relieve the animal of its suffering. The film seems to imply his grief is noteworthy, because we get a few sounds over the black screen of the closing credits, but this entire scene is presented in a way that seems disproportionately overblown compared with the rest of the story.

Margin Call has some terrific bits and for much of its running time it is riveting. It is too bad the final few sequences are so rushed and don’t give us the kind of insight into the characters that were just starting to grow on us, as we really want to know how the actions they take affect them in the moment and beyond.

Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013)

23 Nov

la-vie-d-adeleFrance

3*
Director:
Abdellatif Kechiche

Screenwriter:
Ghalia Lacroix

Director of Photography:
Sofian El Fani

Running time: 175 minutes

Original title: La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2

There is nothing subtle about Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour. The main character, Adèle, spends most of the film in tears, always desperately clinging to an ideal that is based on very little except naïve lust, and even though at first she is successful, her constant bouts of waterworks never endear her to the audience, who in a three-hour film certainly need more to hold on to.

This winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or, centred on the relationship between a high-school girl, Adèle, and a slightly older student at the Academy of Fine Arts with blue hair, Emma, may have been pushing the envelope in France at a time when the issue of same-sex marriage was at its most polarising. But even if you didn’t know the film was directed by a man, it is very obvious from the presentation of the material that he finds the world of lesbians (and women, in general) rather peculiar, and it is a terrible shame that the mere instance of women kissing becomes something of a focal point for the camera, pretending that it is somehow unusual.

The clearest example of this approach is the eventful evening when Adèle meets Emma, as she first goes with her best friend to a gay bar — and in another moment of “revelation” we see him kissing another man, indicating that (yes!) he is gay — and then strolls around the corner to a lesbian bar, where every second couple is making out in a seemingly orgiastic atmosphere that leaves little to the imagination and suggests that any man or woman hanging out in a gay bar will likely spend most of their time making out with random strangers. This is an incredibly simplistic depiction and may very well support may people’s view that homosexuality is the “other,” as these bars seem to have very little in common with your average “straight” bar. It is not just the background that is teeming with loose-lipped lesbians, but the camera makes a concerted effort to swing around from one couple to the other, its breath taken away by every new make-out session it notices.

This meeting between the two girls is like the realisation of a fantasy: Kechiche, who will eventually present a sex scene in almost its full duration, making sure to show close-ups of genitals being licked and sphincters being penetrated, and later on show Adèle taking a shower for no narrative reason whatsoever, visibly enjoys having all these women make out onscreen. There is little tension, unlike what Adèle must be feeling (this is her first time hooking up with someone who is a complete stranger), and therefore we don’t experience the event through her eyes, which is another shame. But this meeting is also the realisation of Adèle’s fantasy, who had actually noticed Emma on the street once and masturbated very loudly thinking of her one night at home.

“Chapters 1 & 2” in the title can refer to any number of things, as the film covers a lot of time in an unconventional way. There are no fade-outs or dissolves, only cuts, and therefore our usual expectation that time changes are signalled more visibly is not met by Kechiche. The most likely conclusion we can draw is that there was life before and life after Emma. From the outset, we can see that Adèle is not exactly confused about her sexuality. She keeps it a secret, she makes up convoluted excuses when confronted by her circle of friends, and she doesn’t even tell her best friend, Valentin, who is gay, that she likes girls, but she openly stares at Emma when she sees her on the street for the first time. But when Adèle kisses another girl from her class, she becomes so hysterically happy and needy, it’s embarrassing to watch, and we fear the same would eventually be true if she ever met Emma — and it happens exactly as we expect.

Kechiche has to be given credit from the scenes in high school, however. As he showed in his marvellous Games of Love and Chance (L’Esquive), he likes the French author Pierre de Marivaux (also discussed here at length) and he knows how to direct teenagers to come across as passionate and extremely engaging. The first hour of Blue is the Warmest Colour has some of the best scenes, including the expected outrage from Adèle’s friends who confront her about her spending time with such the blue-haired Emma who they say looks like a boy. Verbal combat in Kechiche’s films is one of his finest skills as a director.

But the constant skips in time, sometimes a few months, sometimes a few years, does great damage to the development of Adèle’s character, not only because she seems to develop very little, but also because scenes that are required have simply been omitted. The scene of Emma at Adèle’s parents’ house underscores Adèle’s secrecy about her sexuality towards her own parents (in contrast with an earlier scene at the house of Emma’s very accepting parents), and yet Adèle has no “coming out”, which is truly regrettable and makes us wonder whether she ever tells them. As their only child, this silence and lack of communication leaves a very bad taste in the mouth.

The English title, which actually comes from the French title of the graphic novel by Julie Maroh that the film is based on, Le Bleu est une couleur chaude, is made visible in most of the scenes in the film, as they usually contain a blue object, more often than not a piece of clothing. In the French flag, blue is the colour of freedom, but whether or not Adèle ever finds the same kind of freedom Emma clearly has is an open question that the film refuses to answer. As far as we can tell, Adèle remains a desperate, lachrymose mess up until the end.

Not worthy of the hype it has received as a result of its award at Cannes and the much talked-about graphic scenes between actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, Blue is the Warmest Colour is flawed because it is made by someone who is more interested in titillating the audience and himself than in telling the compelling story of a woman on the verge, pushed there by her own needs and a refusal to share her life with anyone except Emma, someone who, most significantly, is comfortable in her skin. Were it not for the all-too-rare instance of verbal warfare, handled with aplomb by Kechiche, this may very well have been a completely forgettable film.