Saturday, September 01, 2007

Recent Films

There is something uncomfortable, as a thirtysomething male, about going to see a film about the sexual awakening of pubescent girls, but there are times when the subject matter is handled in a way to rid oneself of any feeling of loucheness, such as Lukas Moodysson's Fucking Åmal, Catherine Hardwicke's Thirteen, and now, Naissance des pieuvres, the debut film by the 28-year-old filmmaker Céline Sciamma. The film treats of the infatuation of one shy teenage girl with her much more confident and sexually-precocious friend, who is the star of the local synchronised-swimming team, and also the pained efforts of another friend to sleep with a boy who appears to be toying with her affections. The subject-matter is banal enough but the treatment of it and the impressive formal compositions make Sciamma a filmmaker to look out for. Hopefully she will tackle bigger stories as she progresses as one of the biggest flaws of French cinema these days is its lack of ambition. Naissance des pieuvres (the title literally translates as 'Birth of the octopuses' but its meaning is more figurative, 'pieuvre' being also the French expression for being 'clingy') is a good film but limited by its scope, which is perfectly acceptable for a first-time director. What is particularly interesting about the film is the cinematic update it provides for the Parisian suburb of Cergy-Pontoise, a new town built in the the 1970s and which featured in Éric Rohmer's L'ami de mon amie, back in 1987.

From Bosnia comes a beautiful gem of a film called Armin, which tells the tale of a provincial Bosnian teenager who travels to Zagreb with his father to audition for a German film about the Bosnian war. He is initially told that he is too old for the part but his father persists in badgering the filmmakers into giving him a go for another role. The film is a heartbreaking observation of both parental pride and the familiar adolescent embarrassment at one's progenitors. Overall the film is remarkable for its choice of a low-key visual register and for the strength of the acting; best of all is the father, played by Emir Hadzihafisbegovic, who is a Slavic cross between Homer Simpson and Saul Bellow's Herzog, his solicitousness both pathetic and moving. The final ten minutes provides a surprisingly defiant stance against the cinema of humanitarian exploitation. Armin is a modest film but a fine one that deserves an audience.

I also saw two films by established French film directors with patchy track records. La fille coupée en deux, the latest film by Claude Chabrol has a great title but, apart from a sprightly sense of irony, failed to interest me too much in its tale of a tug-of-love over weathergirl Ludivine Sagnier between celebrated novelist François Berléand and indsustrial heir . Benoît Magimel. As ever Chabrol's examination of the French bourgeoisie is grimly funny but the story is much too banal to set it apart from the bulk of his less interesting work. Much worse was Boarding Gate, the third film in English by former Cahiers du cinéma hack Olivier Assayas. Assayas has turned out a number of interesting films over the past twenty years even if he does have an annoying tendency to emotional shorthand and a recently-acquired taste for irritatingly-kinetic editing. His better films are all in French however, and his latest is his third in a row in English, after Demonlover and Clean, and it forms, with them, a trilogy of supreme silliness, in which Assayas grossly misjudges international social phenomena such as porn, people-trafficking, rock music and, now, the domain of shady business deals. Michael Madsen is an international financier who has recently split up with Asia Argento (a woman who specialises in bad films these days), who has 'femme fatale' all but tattooed in block capitals across her forehead. The film proceeds at a snail's pace despite Assayas' sophomore peppering of the script with risqué drug and sex references and he also seems unaware of one of the elementary rules of story-telling: don't use dialogue to explicate what both characters already know. After two lengthy scenes of Madsen and Argento filling in backstory in a clunky way for the audience I got up from my seat and left. French critics - most of whom are friends of Assayas see his latest films as masterpieces - while English-language critics (who have a greater understanding of the language of those films) think otherwise. This ought to be sufficient encouragement to him to confine his future film activity to French.

Another director who turns out mostly turkeys these days is Wim Wenders. Over the last ten years or so the horrors bearing his imprint have included such dunderheaded films as Until the End of the World, The End of Violence and The Million-Dollar Hotel, the last of which prompted me to apply my 'Bono-as-cultural-virus-theory' to Wenders, as his association with God's Man on Earth has had a similarly baleful effect to the experiences of Salman Rushdie and Louis Lebrocquy. There was a time however when Wenders was making only good films; that time was the 1970s and the early 1980s. Seven of those films have been rereleased in Paris recently and I chose to watch once again what is probably his greatest ever film, the 1975 road movie Kings of the Road. Its English title is less evocative than the German one Im Lauf der Zeit, which is 'As Time Goes By', taken straight out of Casablanca. Nothing happens in the film, as it follows an itinerant projector-repairman, played by Rudiger Vögler around the border between West and East Germany, along with the straggler he picks up, a recently-divorced Hanns Zischler. The film is beautifully shot in black and white by Robby Muller and its observations are disarmingly candid, we see the actors piss, masturbate and, at one time, Vögler takes a graphically-real shit. It is a sober and moving meditation on loneliness and longing, which probably meant that it was not the best film to watch while experiencing a lonesome hangover harvested over four days' partying. But it was, once again a pleasure to watch, and the information given in the opening sequence that the film was filmed in July and August 1975 had an extra resonance - just when Sligo were winning what was to be their last Connacht title for 32 years and shortly before I was born. Go watch this film and everything Wenders did until Wings of Desire.