Thursday, March 28, 2013

Three French films

Macaroni & Cheese (Les Coquillettes) (Sophie Letourneur — France) 75 minutes
Under the Rainbow (Au Bout du conte) (Agnès Jaoui — France) 112 minutes
Un p’tit gars de Ménilmontant (Alain Minier — France) 88 minutes

Faced with the prospect of wading through the booze-filled August nights at the Locarno film festival in 2011 when presenting her short film Le Marin masqué, Sophie Letourneur decided to shoot a film about wading through the booze-filled nights at the very same festival. The director and her friends and collaborators Camille Genaud and  Carole Le Page play versions of themselves, as do several other minor figures in the French film industry, who treat Locarno — a poor man’s Cannes — as a prime excuse to get their rocks off. It sounds like it ought to be terribly self-indulgent but Les coquillettes (the title comes from the French for elbow macaroni) is shot through with enough droll self-deprecation to interest the casual viewer. All three take on roles of varying humiliation — Letourneur is obsessed with French pretty-boy actor Louis Garrel and is more interested in tracking him down and hooking up with him than in showcasing her own film; Camille drunkenly pursues a stuffed-shirt of a hipster film critic, while Carole vocally bemoans her own not getting laid in over a year, and is determined to break her duck with a minor Italian actor.

The tale is recounted by the trio some time later, with inevitable differences, after helping Sophie move into a new flat, as they eat the eponymous coquillettes. It is a film that wears itself very lightly but it nonetheless never seems inconsequential; it is also sharply-scripted with some very funny gags, and has the good taste to be amiably brief. The female leads are all likeable — attractive in a girl-you-know-type way — especially Genaud, whose daffy social resilience is as charming as it is touching. The repartee among the three of them is as good as the dialogue in the second part of Quentin Tarantino’s Deathproof (a splendid piece of writing Tarantino himself did not get due credit for). It is impressive how Letourneur and all involved managed to put together a film amid all the brouhaha of a summer film festival. The organisers of Locarno were sufficiently impressed to invite them back to screen it in 2012. Let’s hope the ladies managed to let their hair down a little more this time.

Au bout du conte, Agnès Jaoui’s fourth film as director held a particular interest for me as my local café was commandeered last spring for one afternoon to double up as a little bistro during its filming. La Pétanque was renamed ‘La Licorne’ (‘The Unicorn’); the fictional title reflects the fairytale references that litter the film, and which is hinted at in its punning French title. Agathe Bonitzer plays Laura, the young daughter of a millionaire businessman who falls for an impoverished young music student, Sandro, a tryst supposedly predicted by a clairvoyant she has been seeing.  Sandro’s distant father Pierre (Jaoui’s regular co-writer and former partner Jean-Pierre Bacri), in the meantime, has just buried his own father, a death he admits has left him barely moved. However, a fortune teller at the funeral reminds him that the date of his death that she had predicted four decades earlier is fast approaching, sending this misanthropic driving instructor into an unlikely existential tizzy.

Laura’s aunt Marianne (Jaoui), an actor-cum-drama-teacher is just recovering from a failed marriage while her ten-year-old daughter takes refuge in the Bible (a joke that would be particularly outré for the film’s intended lefty secular audience). Meanwhile, her neighbour Maxim Wolf (Benjamin Biolay), a sinister-looking music impresario, is taking a healthy interest in Sandro’s first symphony and a rather less healthy one in Laura. Like Jaoui and Bacri’s previous films, Au bout du conte is light but well-crafted, overcoming the obligatory dramatic obstacles on the way before resolving itself in typically Shakespearean comedy fashion.

Jaoui and Bacri, who began collaborating on stage plays in the late 1980s, before graduating to writing screenplays for Alain Resnais and Cédric Klapisch, produce films that are unabashedly middle-brow but unpretentious, the sort of works that English-speakers tend to call ‘very French’ (it must be said though that what qualifies as middle-brow in France often occupies a place a few rungs higher when it travels to an Anglophone country). They are rarely very challenging but they are entertaining and the presence of Bacri alone is worth the price of admission. He plays more or less the same character in every role he is cast — in films by other writers and directors too — a neurotic, crabby, bilious middle-aged French petit-bourgeois. He can send ripples of laughter through a French audience with just the moaning advance of a complaint; half his on-screen dialogue consists of shrugs, sighs and perpetually incredulous rolling eyes. He is very much the sort of French man whom it is vastly more entertaining to observe at a distance than tolerate in social situations. And he provides a bracingly cranky counterpoint to films, like this one, that err a little too closely on the side of complaisance much of the time.

Also filmed in my neighbourhood is Un p'tit gars de Ménilmontant, a crime drama directed by local boy, Alain Minier, whose first feature it is. It is a strange sensation to see onscreen many of the locations you have walked past only moments earlier on the way to your local cinema, and even weirder to see the vacant lot behind your building appear during a scene in which someone gets offed.

There is plenty of local colour in this film, in which former bank-robber Jo (cop turned actor/director Olivier Marchal) returns to his neighbourhood, the titular Ménilmontant (an old working-class part of eastern Paris) after 15 years in prison, only to find it a changed place. Young thugs who were in nappies when he went inside now rule the roost and he discovers that his ex-partner and the 14-year-old son he has never met are now living in a comfortable upwardly-mobile set-up with a mild-mannered schoolteacher. The gentrification of the area is further embodied by his old partner-in-crime Makhlouf (Franco-Algerian comedian Smaïn), who has gone straight and now runs a neighbourhood bistro. Jo enlists his help to change a large sum of old francs he had stashed before going into prison into euros but a gang of gypsies whose cousins he has killed are out for revenge.

It is just as well I live in Ménilmontant because there is precious little in this film to interest anyone who doesn’t know the locale. The film never strays beyond the most tired of clichés — the taciturn recidivist, the hooker with a heart of gold, a son whose effeteness must perforce be hammered home by having him do ballet. It is also littered with some bizarre editing and some very annoying stylistic tics, such as a shot, repeated three times, of different characters turning to the camera and pointing a gun the moment they get their hands on one. Ménilmontant may not be quite the picturesque neighbourhood it was when photographed by Willy Ronis  — the old tenements were torn down in the 1960s to make way for high-rise social housing — but its hills, escarpments and dimly-lit staircases are still charmingly atmospheric. Minier does his best to capture them with his gently-lit Scope photography but he can never quite shake off his directing-for-TV sensibility. Ménilmontant’s streets are not quite so mean as they appear in Minier’s film but, to someone who walks down them on a daily basis, they could definitely be a lot more cinematic than this.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Camille Claudel 1915 - Bruno Dumont

Camille Claudel 1915 (Bruno Dumont - France) 95 minutes

A new departure for French director Bruno Dumont, whose austere, silence-filled films are the antithesis of mainstream cinema. Here, he casts an Oscar-winning actress, Juliette Binoche, in the lead role, the first time he has used professional actors in his seven films. It is also the first time Dumont has portrayed a historical figure — in this case Camille Claudel, the French sculptress, and former mistress of Rodin, who has become a feminist icon in the past 25 years as her lost reputation has been restored. A previous biopic, from 1989, exists, directed by Bruno Nuytten and starring Isabelle Adjani as Claudel and Gérard Depardieu as Rodin; that was a straightforward biopic, admirable in its own way but nothing out of the ordinary.

Camille Claudel 1915, as the title indicates, depicts a few months in the life of the artist (in, interestingly the same year in which Gilles Bourdos’s recent Renoir film is set). She is incarcerated in the Montdevergues mental asylum near Avignon, having been committed there two years previously by her family, following a series of troubling episodes. Dumont’s preference for non-professional actors is maintained here, with real institutionalised women playing the roles of the inmates. They are all, almost without exception, severely mentally disabled, well beyond the emotional disturbances that Camille has been subject to. This is the crux of what is, unusually for Dumont, quite a simple film: the injustice Camille Claudel faced in being kept in an environment which was clearly not suited to her. The doctors in the institution agree, but her younger brother, the poet and diplomat Paul Claudel, refuses to sign her release.

Dumont’s portrayal of the mentally ill in the film is sympathetic — and Camille herself is likewise caring towards her fellow wards with whom she cannot converse — but he has no time for the sort of cant that proclaims the invigorating nature of daily contact with them. Camille Claudel spent the last 29 years of her life unjustly locked up, and her artistic career — and her posthumous reputation — was ruined as a result. That is not to say that she did not suffer real mental illness — the film shows her as paranoid, so convinced somebody is trying to poison her that she persuades the asylum’s nurses to allow her cook her own meals. Why she was not accommodated in a more suitable institution is a mystery.

If the casting and the subject matter are novel for Dumont, his style and method are much the same. Camille Claudel 1915 is a slow, meditative film that will appeal to fans of his Bressonian rigour and his philosophically-underpinned drama. Those expecting a more conventional artistic biography will be disappointed. That said, Binoche is excellent, much better than she has been in recent years — she has never quite slipped effortlessly into middle-aged roles as Adjani, Isabelle Huppert or Natalie Baye before her — and it is ironic that she should thrive so under a director who doesn’t usually feel much of a use for trained actors. Her brother Paul, played by a relative unknown, Jean-Luc Vincent, comes across as a tower of uptight smugness (though that may be simply a very realistic portrayal of the bourgeoisie of the Third Republic). He is a man who having been an agnostic in his youth, returned to Catholicism, as much out of a proto-existentialist whim as conviction. He relates all this in a lengthy monologue delivered to a priest who puts him up for the night. You are never quite sure if this is intended to have a bearing on the treatment of his sister.

To be fair to Paul Claudel (a man best known in English via Auden’s words ‘History will also pardon Paul Claudel/Pardon him for writing well’), his treatment of his sister was not unremittingly cruel. He visited her regularly till the end of her life (he outlived her by twelve years, dying in 1955) and corresponded with her too. There is a sadness at the heart of Dumont’s film though that contrasts the troubled energy of the artist Camille with the calculated reason of her diplomat brother. Again, for Dumont it is an unusual step — his characters’ relationships usually don’t express themselves in quite so many words, not to mention emotions.  Camille Claudel 1915 is a quiet film but the injustice at the heart of it rings out clearly.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

This is 40 - Judd Apatow

This is 40 (Judd Apatow - USA) 135 minutes

I am beginning to learn the folly of expecting too much from a Judd Apatow film, much as one learns not to expect much of a centre-left party when it enters government. It is not unreasonable to have high hopes of him — he is a rare beast in Hollywood, a writer-producer-director making resolutely commercial films, unburdened of the wasteful need to chase Oscars every year. The films, like many of the others in the wider Apatow stable — by Greg Mottola, Paul Feig, Adam McKay and (who would have thunk it?) David Gordon Green — are intelligently scripted, competently made and amiably straddle the divide between solid studio material and a more surreal low-comedy sensibility. You can even, given the thematic and formal continuity in his films to date, make a strong case for him being an auteur.

That, I think, is where lies the problem with his films though. The personal edge to Apatow’s movies gives them a Generation X bildungsroman air and, for all their flaws, they resonate far more sharply with audiences than most mainstream contemporary comedies. With increasing success and creative autonomy though has come a greater tendency to self-indulgence. His last film as director, Funny People,was great for about two-thirds of its running time but it ran out of steam as its plot needlessly changed tack; the last half-hour was kept afloat only by Eric Bana’s stellar comic performance. This is 40 is similarly promising but drifts off into aimlessness even sooner amid a cluttered script and some gags that are woefully weak.

The film reunites a number of supporting characters from Apatow’s second film, Knocked Up, including the unnamed family that functions effectively as a famille Apatow à clef — his real-life wife Lesley Mann, their two daughters Maude and Iris, and Paul Rudd once again standing in for himself. Pete and Debbie are both approaching 40, and are each equally disillusioned with their marriage. Pete’s music label is going down the drain, leaving him with the prospect of having to sell the family home, none of which he tells Debbie about; she in her turn is having problems in her boutique with $12,000 missing from the accounts. A further drain on their finances — and their mutual goodwill — is Pete’s father, Larry (Albert Brooks) who bums money off him at every opportunity to pay for the three infants he has recently sired with his second wife. Debbie herself has a father with other children much younger than herself; he (John Lithgow, sadly wasted in an overly straight role) is a successful spinal surgeon but wounded by his negligence, Debbie refuses to chase him down for financial help.

The family’s financial troubles look like they might be the premise for a strong comedy, echoing the brilliant Apatow-produced Bridesmaids, which drew much of its comic tension from financial stress. Apatow, disappointingly, lets it slide about half-way through and the film then wanders. There is a lot in the mix here, some parts more justified than others. The parents’ conflicts with the children Sadie and Charlotte are deftly sketched (and, you imagine, are drawn from the Apatows’ own experiences) and the script briefly sparks into life whenever Apatow gets potty-mouthed — there are great cameos from Annie Mumolo as Debbie’s friend Barb and Melissa McCarthy as a shrewish school parent. For much of the time the comedy grates though and far too many gags are played out, such as the battles Pete wages with the rest of the family for control of the stereo or iPod to listen to his wretched white-boy rock. Pete also banks his record label’s future on a new Graham Parker album; the old pub rocker plays himself and is a disconcertingly regular presence in the film. The album, naturally, does not sell as well as expected but Apatow continues to milk the joke dry — it’s such a lame gambit that it is not so much a running joke as a limping one by the time the film reaches its end.

Another big problem is the film’s length, something that was already an issue in the far superior Funny People. This is 40’s conceit is far too mundane to drag it to two and a quarter hours without it flagging. The story arc is similar to Apatow’s three previous films, with a strong sense of déjà vu in the final act; there is nothing wrong with that — comedy thrives more often on formula than on formal innovation — but it all gets quite predictable. There is also a nasty element to some of the humour with Apatow revelling in cruel, unpleasant ribbing, such as when Pete mocks a doctor’s Indian accent or when the couple round on the mother (McCarthy) whose 13-year-old son Debbie has previously threatened. It hardly comes as a surprise — Katherine Heigl, star of Knocked Up, publicly criticised that film’s sexism — but it is none the less galling for that. I suppose a film advocating family solidity can only be expected to go in one direction. Apatow would be incapable of being evenly remotely subversive even if he wanted to be but he needn’t be quite so reactionary as he is.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

To the Wonder - Terrence Malick

To the Wonder (Terrence Malick — USA) 112 minutes

During Terrence Malick’s long absence from filmmaking, I longed for him to give the world just one more film. Now that he has made as many films in seven years as he did in the preceding 31, I wish he would go no further, lest he spoil irrevocably the memory of a once-great director. There will be many that disagree strongly with that; Malick still has his champions aplenty and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes two years ago for The Tree of Life, a film I found ridiculously overblown and fatuous. Despite all this acclaim (and the attendant absurd readings invested in his work) the fact remains that Malick’s films these days are pretty poor — his ambition wildly outstrips his execution, his vision is pretentious, his narrative tone lamentably jejune. Worst of all, his films, despite their undoubted handsomeness, are a chore to watch.

The problem with To the Wonder begins in the very opening sequence, which appears to be shot on an iPhone or some such low-resolution device. We see the two lovers Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck) frolic on a TGV on their way (to or from?) Mont St-Michel, and walking hand-in-hand in Paris, securing a lover’s lock to the Pont des arts (nice to see that Malick is not above integrating the phoniest of contemporary traditions into his work). Despite the breakneck pace of the film during this sequence — Malick’s five editors (five!) seem incapable of holding an image in place for more than a few seconds at a time — it lacks any freshness. In fact it seems really old — hoary, of a recent vintage. It looks like countless student shorts that have been put together since the advent of camcorders in the late 1980s.

After a brief prologue in France, the pair move to Oklahoma, where Neil appears to be working as a geologist, though we never really know what he’s doing, other than collecting the odd soil sample. He and Marina continue to fall in and out of love — she returns to Paris briefly with her daughter, while he embarks on an affair with Jane, a neighbouring rancher, played by Rachel McAdams. For a man who shuffles around like a sullen date at a wedding where he knows nobody, Neil sure is a hit with the ladies. Quite how he managed to land Marina and Jane we will never know — he is hardly ever heard speaking in the film. Affleck has already expressed his puzzlement at what Malick expected of him. He was left in the dark all along. The result on screen is catastrophic; this is not artistic eccentricity but wretched directing, not to mention an irresponsible squandering of expensive resources. And Affleck, or anybody else, is lucky he ended up in the film at all — Barry Pepper, Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, Amanda Peet and Michael Sheen all ended up on the cutting floor. Which raises the question, did Malick know what he was doing at all?

Marina returns from Paris to Oklahoma, for reasons best known to herself, and she continues to be filmed from behind in wide-open spaces — Malick is one of cinema’s great claustrophobes —  looking forlorn as Malick’s camera zooms and pans all over the place. I’m not sure which grates the most — the catatonic performances of the actors (who really can’t be blamed for it) or the cod-philosophical mumbo-jumbo voiceover that Malick swaddles his narrative in. Then there is Javier Bardem, who is laughably unconvincing as a priest. He too is pained and alone, as everyone in a Terrence Malick film these days must be, locked in the same deathly clutch of humourlessness as the protagonists of The New World and The Tree of Life. Whatever happened to the playfulness of Cissie Spacek and Martin Sheen in Badlands and Linda Manz’s beautifully wry narration in Days of Heaven?

Those who have defended To the Wonder say that it is wilfully abstract and a visual poem of sorts. That would be fine if any of it worked but there is just too much wrong with it — it is basically a bigger budget non-musical version of Once wrapped in the aesthetics of a Kenzo commercial. That is how slim its concept is. The fact that Malick translated Heidegger in his youth still gives his threadbare platitudes some philosophical clout among critics. There is a place for ideas in cinema but there are filmmakers that do all this far better — Bruno Dumont in France, Belá Tarr until his recent retirement and the Catalan Jaime Rosales, who can conjure up a more persuasive portrait of desolation in a minute of film than Malick can in a whole movie.

The ghost of Chris Marker also haunts this film, and not in a good way. There are echoes of Marker’s masterpiece Sans Soleil, but the late Frenchman knew the ontological value of an image and its placement in a sequence and he also respected language. In none of Marker’s films will you find the sort of obfuscatory nonsense that plagues Malick’s. Marker’s voiceovers propel his argument; Malick’s just attempt to hold together a very flimsy enterprise. Whereas Marker’s images are pregnant with mystery and nudge at interpretation and counter-interpretation, Malick’s are pretty but pretty vacant. It is, in Godard’s celebrated words, not a just image; it is just an image. So calamitously off are Malick’s films these days, so risible their execution, you wonder does he actually watch films at all by which to gauge how cliched he is. More to the point, does he have anyone around willing to take him aside and tell him what they think?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Spring Breakers - Harmony Korine

Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine — USA) 94 minutes

Spring Breakers opens with a five-minute montage of young, lithe-bodied men and women gyrating, as scantily clad as possible, on a beach, pouring liquor down one another’s throats, simulating all manner of improbable sex acts for a camera that makes these anonymous hot bodies stars for a moment. It is a bacchanalia of bum-wagging, captured in a gaudy, faux-faded filter. It is not, as the prim and the high-minded are wont to say of pornography, very ‘erotic’. But that is hardly the point.

There will be those who regard this opening sequence with absolute delight — be it innocent or lascivious — and others that will, against their own libidinal urges, view it with horror. In this respect, Spring Breakers might be said to be, in the fullest sense of the word, an ironic film. It means several things at once and it is never clear who the film is aimed at. It has the superficial patina of a teen movie but it rarely strikes you as being anything that will interest teenagers much beyond its passing infatuation with drink, drugs and sex. It is also savvy enough for older audiences to watch without feeling, well, so dirty.

Harmony Korine is back to where his career started, as the young screenwriter of Larry Clark’s kids, a film that was controversial upon its release in 1995, but in comparison with this latest film, seems like a work of the utmost sobriety. Now aged 40, Korine is probably old enough to pass muster as a dirty old man, even if Spring Breakers has enough youthful exuberance and sympathy with its characters to feel like the work of a generational insider. You also suspect that Korine had to arm-wrestle the project off his old collaborator Clark, something for which we might be thankful. Larry Clark is one of the most unpleasant filmmakers currently drawing breath, a man whose panglossian prurience masks a fundamental school-masterly disgust with the specimens under his microscope. Korine is a far more interesting director, more given to flights of poetic fancy, even if his films to date (with the exception of Gummo) have generally been more alluring in concept than execution.

The film follows four broke college freshmen girls, who clean out a diner and its patrons at gunpoint one night to make their way down to St Petersburg, Florida for the season that has, over the past two decades, become synonymous with the excesses of American youth. In a clever touch, Korine casts actresses with less sulphurous screen reputations — two former Disney child actors (Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez), a daytime soap star (Ashley Benson), as well as Korine’s own younger wife Rachel. The film is, in effect, asking its audience the filmic equivalent of ‘do you know where your children are?’ The four go through the hedonistic paces before being arrested for possession of drugs. They are bailed out by "Alien", a scary-looking low-level gangster, played by James Franco, who initiates them into a life of petty larceny, even Alien’s braggadoccio is underpinned by little more substantial than robbing hapless college students.

Spring Breakers is for much of its running time a bit of a mess — the characters and situations are cursorily sketched and the gobbledegook spouted in the voiceover by Gomez’s character Faith about spirituality and togetherness indicates Korine is making things up pretty much as he goes along. But if it is a mess, it is a hot one. Franco, in particular, is great, relishing yet another stab at oddness, and adding another rather facile string to his whimsical bow. Nobody appears to be taking the whole thing too seriously — just as well, as a spring break film played as a straight thriller would most likely be damn intolerable. Korine has clearly been playing attention to Greg Araki, who has long realised that the best way of filming gilded youth gone wild is to crank up the camp and not be afraid of letting it get ridiculous.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Elefante Blanco - Pablo Trapero

Elefante Blanco (Pablo Trapero — Argentina/Spain/France) 110 minutes

Pablo Trapero’s Elefante Blanco premiered at Cannes last May but it is on its French release, in the run-up to the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope, that it has acquired an uncanny prescience. The film, a tale of Argentine priests ministering in the massive shanty-town of Ciudad Oculta, actually features the Archbishop of Buenos Aires as a character, an office that was occupied by none other than Cardinal Bergoglio from 1998 until last week. It is not clear if the character is explicitly based on the man who is now pope, but the film’s subject matter and background are certainly reminiscent of the preoccupations of a man who has been outspoken throughout his office on the question of poverty.

The film is seen through the eyes of two Catholic priests ministering in the local parish — Father Nicolas (Jérémie Renier), a young Belgian, who is suffering from survival guilt after the massacre of the villagers he was lived among in the Peruvian Amazon, and Father Julián (the ever wonderful Ricardo Darín) who has been a selfless padre for the shantytown for 15 years but who is now diagnosed with cancer. Along with Luciana, a young social worker (the beautiful manga-eyed Martina Gusman), they are the resident’s only tie to officialdom and the bureaucracy that prefers to pretend the slum, 15,000-people strong, does not exist. This despite the fact is sprawls around the white elephant of the title, the massive shell of an unfinished Perón-era hospital.

The priests fight day-to-day battles with the social scourges of the slum, many of them drug-related; as is often the case, the only people in the neighbourhood with any money are the narco-traffickers. In one particularly impressive scene Father Nicolas braves a visit to a gangster’s headquarters to retrieve the body of a local youth they have executed, breaking, in doing so, one of Father Julián’s fundamental rules — no negotiating with the drug-lords. Thus begin the tensions among the three (the younger Father Nicolas has also embarked on a secret affair with Luciana); the film is permeated with an underlying guilt about the three who come from wealthier backgrounds, who can walk away at any time, something that was undoubtedly mirrored among Trapero and his crew, who shot the film in the very slum they depict.

Trapero specialises in gritty dramas that pick at the underbelly of Argentine society. They are also sufficiently influential to bring media and public spotlights on particular issues — his 2008 film Leonera/Lion’s Den led to improvements in women’s prisons in Argentina, while his more recent ambulance-chasing drama Carancho highlighted public-sector corruption. The ravages of poverty among Argentina’s urban poor — many of them of indigenous background — is not something that is unknown in wider Argentine society but Elefante Blanco is sure to niggle at the conscience all the more. It also includes, in a rather inconclusive subplot, a campaign to beatify Carlos Mugica, a left-leaning Jesuit priest murdered by a death squad under Isabel Perón’s government in 1974 (the film is also dedicated to him), an eery echo of the crimes the new pope has been accused of countenancing.

There is much good about the film — Trapero’s documentary eye for detail is excellent as usual, and his shoulder-hugging camera evokes the teeming nature of shanty-town life. The acting, by professional and non-professional alike, is excellent. The only problem though is the film doesn’t exactly know where to go with the story it sets up for itself (Father Julián’s cancer is revealed in the very first scene) and the structure of the final third is far too predictable. Elefante Blanco is in many respects a good film but it lacks a little extra that would elevate it above your average social drama, even if it does appear extra-interesting in the light of an Argentine pope.

Friday, March 15, 2013

No - Pablo Larraín

No (Pablo Larraín — Chile/USA/France) 118 minutes

Pablo Larraín’s second feature Tony Manero, about a middle-aged layabout’s obsession with Saturday Night Fever in Pinochet-era Chile, was one of the most ingenious political parables of recent years. It was ill-mannered, bitterly cynical and steadfastly disobliging in its refusal to cleave to any self-affirming narrative. Its moody brilliance is best summed up by the outrage it provoked in media types from the US, who were aghast their industry’s product might be reconfigured in such a scabrous manner. Larraín’s latest picture No has had a better reception Stateside, being nominated for the best foreign film Oscar. While it is more clearly an uplifting film than either Tony Manero or Larraín’s subsequent Post-Mortem: Santiago 73, the young Chilean director hasn’t mellowed, even if his anger is tempered as pragmatically as the advertising campaign that is at the centre of the film.

The campaign in question is the one advocating a no vote in the 1988 referendum asking the Chilean people if they would accept dictator Augusto Pinochet remaining in power for another seven years. Each side is being given a 15-minute broadcast per day. The No campaign, a coalition of Socialists, Communists and Christian Democrats entrust the campaign to René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), the son of a former leftist, recently returned from exile. Saavedra’s boss Lucho Guzmán (Larraín regular and star of Tony Manero, Alfredo Castro), a Pinochetista, is in charge of the Yes campaign, though each plays down their role to one of ‘advisor’.

Saavedra’s first task is to convince the No campaign that their existing emphasis, on the violence of the military dictatorship and justice for the disappeared, while laudable, is doomed to lose. Ordinary Chileans such as Saavedra’s maid, content with rising prosperity and isolated from the horrors of the regime’s repression, are perfectly happy with the General. (When Pinochet was under house arrest in London in 1999, his supporters told British reporters that he saved the country — you couldn’t buy blue jeans in Chile before he came to power.) Saddled with a loaded referendum question that requires him to accentuate the negative, Saavedra re-orients the broadcast towards something resembling a Coke ad. Many of the campaign’s members, the Communists in particular, are outraged, calling it a ‘campaign of silence’, but Saavedra is undeterred, even if, as the campaign builds momentum, and his crew are harrassed by government thugs, he allows notes of dissent to creep back in.

No completes what might be loosely termed Larraín’s Pinochet-era trilogy and it is a film that is as slippery as it is accessible. Larraín’s decision to shoot in Academy ratio using ¾-inch Sony U-matic magnetic tape gives it a soupy, low-definition feel, not unlike the early Dogma films, but it also makes it look like a real period document. Many of the protagonists from the time make an appearance, now a quarter of a century older, including Patricio Aylwin, the first post-Pinochet president, now 95, who gamely reprises his role as the head of the No campaign. In many ways the film resembles Lincoln in its depiction of unpalatable compromises made for long-term gain and the knowledge that the victory won is far from the end of the struggle.

There are some in Chile who have criticised whether a historical moment where marketing began to supplant principles in electoral discourse ought to be celebrated. It is a valid point but No is a sober film with a clear view of history and there is no complacency in its account of an undeniably momentous time in Chile’s recent past. It also resonates with the present day, where the old guard has regained power for the first time since the regime’s fall. Sebastián Piñero, a media mogul with a dubious past (and brother of Pinochet’s pensions minister), is now president. His biggest coup to date? Maximising the media appeal of the rescue of the trapped Atacama miners while rolling back the social advances of the last two decades. The rising momentum against his government suggests Chileans haven’t forgotten the virtues of saying no.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Syngué Sabour - Atiq Rahimi

The Patience Stone (Syngué Sabour - Pierre de patience) (Atiq Rahimi — Afghanistan/France/UK/Germany) 102 minutes

A familiar complaint by novelists — and their fans — about film adaptations of their books is how their vision is distorted and betrayed. It has always seemed to me to be a case of wanting to have one’s cake and eat it — or as the corresponding French expression says, to have the butter and the money to buy it. If you don’t like what happens to your book on the big screen, then perhaps it would be better to either not accept the money, or make the butter yourself.

These days, many French novelists are squaring the circle by making the butter themselves; in recent years, Emmanuel Carrère, Marjane Satrapi, Michel Houellebecq, Frédéric Beigbeder and Virginie Despentes, among others, have all directed adaptations of their own books for the screen. Directing films has long been a side job for French writers, with Georges Perec, Guy Debord, Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet and François Weyergans among those that have swapped pen for megaphone. More recently though, the novelists are more likely to be rehashing their own source material though. The latest of those is Afghan-born Atiq Rahimi, who for the second time, adapts one of his own novels, his 2009 Prix Goncourt-winning Syngué Sabour, with the help of veteran screenwriter and Buñuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière.

Syngué Sabour (or The Patience Stone, as it is known in English) tells the tale of a young Afghan woman (played by Iranian Golshifteh Farahani) who is tending to her comatose husband as war rages around them. It is Afghanistan in an undisclosed period (though the lack of either Soviet or American troops suggests it might be the 1990s), and the woman is forced to abandon the husband alone in the front room of their faded Kabul home and hide in the cellar with neighbours as shells fall. She then sends her children off to stay with her aunt, who works as a prostitute the other side of town. When her neighbours are massacred, she is left on her own with her vegetative spouse, and she proceeds to tell him her innermost secrets.

It’s a clever conceit that circumvents the restrictions on female agency in Afghan society and symbolises them at the same time. Rahimi does his best to make his book cinematic — his visual sense is strong for someone better known as a writer — and Farahani, now an exile from her career and life in Iran, is a fitting presence for the solitary protagonist. Ultimately though, the film suffers from the same problem as the book, only more so. Like the novel, it seems far too much like a play; unlike the book, it doesn’t have the facility for the monologue to be internalised, so Farahani has to carry a lot of dramatic weight, and, despite her best efforts, it is not always convincing. One can understand Rahimi’s desire to film the novel itself — it is a ‘return home’ of sorts and he was able to transpose the novel’s French to his native Farsi for the screenplay. It is a creditable effort but at no point do you feel it complements the novel in any vital way. The irony is, Rahimi, as competent a director as he is, doesn’t bring anything more to it than a different director might have. Overall, Syngué Sabour is a film that plays it just a little too safe.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Here and There - Antonio Méndez Esparza

Here and There (Aquí y Allá) (Antonio Méndez Esparza — USA/Mexico/Spain) 110 minutes

There are plenty of films about immigration but far fewer take emigration as their subject matter. Much of this has, of course, to do with the economic imbalance between countries of origin and destination (though there are net-emigration countries, such as Mexico and India, that have strong film industries). In richer English-speaking countries, ignorance of the phenomenon is such that the words ‘immigration’ and ‘emigration’ have become interchangeable in the minds of many. Ireland, which has recently seen a resurgence in large-scale emigration, is an exception, though it too has produced few films on the subject (though it does loom heavily in the greatest Irish stage play of the last 70 years, Philadelphia, Here I Come). Quite why there is relatively little cinematic interest in emigration is uncertain — you might say it is too depressing (as it is viewed in, say, Ireland and Portugal) but in many poorer countries it is seen as an opportunity, something people bankrupt themselves to accomplish. Perhaps people in those countries just see it as just too mundane, too ordinary a subject to merit wider interest.

 This is probably why it took a Spaniard — the first-time director Antonio Méndez Esparza — to direct this charming drama about a Mexican who returns to his village in the state of Guerrero after a second spell living in New York. The returned emigrant, Pedro (played by a real-life one, Pedro de los Santos) finds his two daughters approaching adolescence and grown distant from him in his absence; when he tries to sing songs on his guitar in front of them, he is surprisingly shy and they treat him as a likeable but goofy stranger. Pedro picks up casual work in the fields and on building sites but his main plan is to earn a living with a new band, called The Copa Kings, for hire for weddings, village fiestas and so on. Financial pressures soon begin to pinch though, as Pedro’s pregnant wife Helena is forced to give birth by a very complicated Caesarean. The medication for the mother and child eats up his savings and Pedro is left facing the possibility of another trip back north. In a subplot that is just about touched upon, a local teenager approaches Pedro for help in getting across the border, while attempting to convince his own girlfriend to make the crossing too.  

 Here and There is a subtle low-key drama in which the absence of the other life (the ‘there’) bears down inexorably on the characters. Pedro is a model of calm and patience, but also a man whose years away are beginning to wear on his relationship to both his family and his native village. The real-life Pedro was an immigrant whom Esparza befriended while the latter was studying film in New York; the Spaniard clearly saw something in Pedro’s back-story that might have been of little interest to a Mexican or American filmmaker, each of them focussed entirely on a US-anchored immigration. Esparza films with a clear eye and the little glimpses of life are gently but candidly observed.

Though the film is shot and edited in what might be known as the International Arthouse Style — a string of long, static takes; all the vital visual information shunting off-centre to the edge of the frame — it is his simple filming of the quiet interaction between the family (amateur actors all) where Esparza really sets his film apart from other first-time directors. He has been amply rewarded for his adventurousness and sensitivity, garnering a slew of international awards, including the Critics’ Week prize at Cannes last year, a just reward for a gentle, unassuming, little gem.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Passion - Brian de Palma

Passion (Brian de Palma - France/Germany) 100 minutes

You wonder what went through the minds of French critics when they learned that Brian de Palma — a man who can really do no wrong in their eyes — was remaking a film, Crime d’amour, by a French director they didn’t care too much for (Alain Corneau). There probably was no befuddlement in reality, as de Palma is the master-magpie of cinema, a man who can recycle and re-appropriate practically anything in the process of putting a film together (not to mention, a man who has a few remakes to his name). It also helped that Crime d’amour, which came out in 2010, shortly after Corneau’s death from cancer, is itself a reworking of Fritz Lang’s last American film Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.

So the intertextual refractions are given a further delicious twist. But if there is any reflexiveness going on here it is turned towards de Palma’s own work. If anything, Passion resembles nothing so much as a Brian de Palma film — his name runs though it as if it were a stick of seaside rock; its title has an air of déjà-vu about it, it is filmed and edited in such a way that it might be slipped in between Dressed to Kill and Body Double in the de Palma oeuvre and few casual viewers would be any the wiser. And the music — well, it is so indelibly de Palma, you are reminded that so many of his films, both good and bad, are bolstered, even held together, by the music.

The scenario is quintessentially de Palma too: Rachel McAdams plays Christine, a vampish power-dressing advertising executive who uses her creative underling, Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) to her advantage to land a juicy account and further her career. She also encourages Isabelle into a relationship with her lover Dirk (Paul Anderson — with a 1990s footballer’s haircut and facial hair the same shade as his face). Of course, this being a de Palma film, nothing is as it seems; Rapace initially looks like the perfect patsy but she is well able for Christine and returns fire with her own chicanery. Rapace is particularly good, her edgy, borderline-unhinged presence a seamless fit for a de Palma film. So much that you feel like she has been in one or two before (you also imagine that Mr de Palma was following Lisbeth Salander’s onscreen progress with great interest).

Passion is, in many of its details, a cheap piece of tat: the acting is as stilted as in most of the man’s films and the production values look like de Palma is either seriously slumming or spent all his budget on the two leading ladies. But it works very well, and the French die-hard auteurist cleaving to de Palma, even when he produces such rubbish as Mission to Mars and Redacted, makes sense when you consider that his own films often only make sense in the context of his career as a whole. There are glimmers of recognisable images and tropes strewn throughout the film and Passion has an eerily Hitchcockian air of a dream you have already had. De Palma’s detractors have always used his promiscuous appropriation of the Master of Suspense as a stick to beat him with. People who don’t like de Palma will find little to dissuade them here, but, even as the film veers perilously close to self-parody, it is wonderfully entertaining, and despite it being a remake of a remake, could only have been made by Brian de Palma.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty - Kathryn Bigelow

Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow - USA) 157 minutes

How wicked must a film be before its moral transgressions irrevocably outweigh its artistic merits? In film history there aren’t many clear examples. Leni Riefenstahl is still celebrated for the splendour of her compositions (while horror at the subject matter is forever emphasised); cinephiles manage to savour Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible without reminding themselves too much of the Stalinist echoes therein; Birth of a Nation is known to all film lovers as a despicable apologia (or rather, recruiting film) for the Klan but that has not, over the years, dented its critical reputation.  

Zero Dark Thirty’s sin is of a lesser magnitude than any of those but it is a sin it wears rather heavily, like the albatross around the Ancient Mariner’s neck. I will return to that sin later in this review, even if I imagine most readers are already familiar with it, regardless of whether they have seen it or not. In the meantime, I will say there is a lot that is objectively good about Zero Dark Thirty. Kathryn Bigelow has long been an underrated but persistent director within Hollywood and her recent success dramatising post-9/11 US military operations is not too surprising, even if her relish for the task might be questionable. Personally, I didn’t care much for The Hurt Locker — it was brooding and facile for the most part and you didn’t need to have combat experience in Iraq to see how improbable much of it was — but it was, as Andrew Sullivan put it, ‘the least bad Iraq war film’ (at least at the time of its release). Zero Dark Thirty is a far more accomplished film, however troubling it might be.

Jessica Chastain’s portrayal of the tenacious CIA operative Maya is a terrifyingly realistic study in lonesomeness — you might even say it is the best ever depiction of a writer on the big screen. Chastain — a brilliant actress who has built up a head of steam faster than most in her short career — captures the graduation from intelligence nobody to self-confident crack agent perfectly. It is, at the risk of labouring a point, a perfect artist’s progress. Bigelow’s direction is also superlative, be it for quiet contemplative scenes, scenery-chewable CIA meetings or big, fuck-off action sequences. Mark Boal’s screenplay has a spark to it that is rare for a Hollywood film and an aversion to pretentiousness that is even rarer. Then there is Alexandre Desplat’s minimalist score, which was ringing in my head as I left the cinema.

So that’s the good. Now, here’s the bad. Bigelow and Boal have chosen to tell us that intelligence gleaned from torture led to Osama bin Laden’s location and killing. This is in contradiction of the official US line on the case, and also contrary to the main plank of the argument against the use of torture by the CIA and US military. Bigelow and Boal have been excoriated by both human-rights activists and intelligence analysts for this assertion. Their defence has been none too convincing either, especially when they say their portrayal of torture does not indicate approval. That might be a bit easier to swallow if a good hour of the film were not devoted to hard talk on CIA black sites where there is little confusion as to who the good guys are.

David Sirota, in his book Back to Our Future, describes how making a film with realistic military hardware is impossible these days without striking a deal with the Pentagon, which reserves the right to final script approval. This leaves me confused: if the Pentagon (and, probably, the CIA) approved the script, is it tacitly accepting that intelligence gleaned from torture did help snare bin Laden? Or is it merely trying to propagate that misconception? That is something that Zero Dark Thirty is only too happy to do, which is worrying, given the supposed break with torture that the Obama administration has effected (there are also many that would say Zero Dark Thirty embodies the real Obama position down to a tee). There will be many that will come away from the film convinced that water-boarding is not such a bad thing after all, especially if there is a ticking bomb set to go off at some remote point in the next ten years.

Which brings us to how much this egregious fabrication depreciates the film as a ‘work of art’. If Bigelow and Boal felt it necessary to embellish the tale of the hunt for bin Laden with something that is generally accepted to not be true, you have to ask: why? Was it impossible to tell this tale without recourse to an hour of lovingly-rendered torture? Or was the torture a little bit of harmless artistic license as easily explicable as the anachronistic kilts worn in Braveheart? Zero Dark Thirty is a long enough film for these considerations to have been weighed at any number of stages in the production process. That the film needed torture more than the CIA did gravely diminishes it. Yes, you can watch Zero Dark Thirty and enjoy it, but it nigh impossible to do so without realising you are giving your assent to a normalisation of torture.

Wadjda - Haifaa Al-Mansour

Wadjda (Haifaa Al-Mansour - Saudi Arabia/Germany) 98 minutes

The plight of the women of Saudi Arabia looks to be hopeless, matched only by the hopelessness of those of us in the West concerned on their behalf. The tyrannical misogyny of the Saudi kingdom is the ne plus ultra in international jurisprudence; of that, few people, western, Arab or Muslim would be in doubt. That said, it is rare that we hear the opinion of Saudi women on these matters. It is even rarer that we hear — or see — the opinion of Saudi cinema on the matter, mainly because until now there has been no such thing.

Haifaa Al-Mansour’s film Wadjda is billed as the first ever Saudi film. That may or may not be entirely true but it’s a reasonable claim coming from a country that has outlawed actual picture houses, obviously to protect good Muslims from the social ravages of Stephen Daldry films, the sound of jaws mashing popcorn and people yapping like they were in church. Wadjda might look suspiciously slick for a country without cinema (and, pace Truffaut, we’re way beyond Britain here), but the country has a thriving soap-opera culture, which has provided ample competent acting talent for Al-Mansour’s debut feature. And a very good debut it is, all the better because it ties in quite subtly with one of the major Saudi human-rights protests of recent years: the right of women to drive. In this case it is the effort of the titular 10-year-old Wadjda to buy a bicycle that she sees get delivered one day to a neighbourhood shop. The shopkeeper laughs off her request to put it aside for her, and her male friend Abdullah advises her she’s living in cloud-cuckoo land to even think about trying to get herself a bike. Wadjda though is undeterred; she is, at best, an indifferent Koran student but still enters a Koranic recitation competition to pad her savings sufficiently to get that bike.

It all sounds very hackneyed, but cliches don’t really come into play in the virgin territory of Saudi cinema, especially not when it is a film that chafes so much at the social restrictions of the kingdom. Waad Abdullah is a revelation as Wadjda, who cops, at a very young age, that the patriarchal system that educates her is bullshit. She is ingenuous and savvy at the same time, as many children her age are before adolescence forces a temporary relearning of childhood innocence upon them. She laughs sardonically at her mother’s quip that, having been asked by her teacher to wear an abaya, she’ll soon be married. It’s not such a far-fetched idea though, as demonstrated by a scene where one of Wadjda’s classmates returns to school one Monday morning a married woman, with photos to prove it.

Wadjda’s mother (Reem Abdullah) appears at first, to Western eyes, like any single mom but her husband still lives nearby and makes little effort to get in touch and is on the look-out for a second wife. The mother, as much as Wadjda herself, is a heroic presence in the film — a brave, loving woman who hangs on as best she can to maintain her dignity in the face of the horrendous social system that knows what is best for her. Her despair is counterpointed to Wadjda’s hopefulness — one embodied by an infectious wit but sure to be, in its turn, soon crushed.  

Wadjda is a very good film that deserves plaudits well beyond the cursory ones that might be bestowed on a first Saudi film. It won’t do much to change your average Westerner’s perception of the country — Al-Mansour shows us a country where ten-year-old girls are sexually harassed in the street and married off at the earliest possible opportunity — but at least they get to see the humans underneath the veil, so to speak. And what of its potential audience in Saudi Arabia? I was surprised the filming was approved, to be honest, and whatever distribution networks open to Wadjda will undoubtedly be closed off. That ought not be a problem though; as a Malaysian filmmaker, whose films are regularly banned by his government, told me a couple of years back, censorship is ‘so 20th century’. I am sure pirate copies of Wadjda are already doing the rounds in Saudi Arabian towns and cities, and they probably see something they recognise too well. Here’s to another film by Haifaa Al-Mansour.


Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook - David O. Russell

Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell – USA) 122 minutes

It would be an exaggeration to call David O. Russell one of Hollywood’s major directors of our time but that is not to slight him entirely. Since his 1995 debut Spanking the Monkey he has carved out his own distinctive career, turning out oddball dramas and comedies that are as wildly different from one another as they are, in certain ways, strangely similar. Sometimes his films are very good indeed – Flirting with Disaster was a rare successful updating of the screwball comedy, among its accomplishments having a gay couple played for laughs without resorting to cliché or malice. It was also a very funny film.

After the success of The Fighter, which won Best Supporting Actor Academy Awards for Christian Bale and Melissa Leo, Russell is now an Oscar season insider. Silver Linings Playbook benefited from this largesse, sweeping eight nominations, including all four acting categories. Jennifer Lawrence picked up Best Actress at her second attempt. Though nobody in full possession of their wits should really bother their heads too much at the rationale of Academy voters, this fondness for Silver Linings Playbook leaves one perplexed. It is a film that takes the familiar elements of Russell’s work — a jaunty tone, neurotic lead characters and elaborate ensemble scenes — but gets only the worst out of them. It is a bad film, and a puzzlingly bad one.

The playbook of the title (pretty awful, if you ask me, which might have been given a better title outside the US) is the plan Pat Solitano Jr has to get back with his estranged wife after he emerges from eight months in a mental health facility. Having been committed initially for beating her lover – and mutual colleague – to a pulp, and suffering from bi-polar disorder, Pat is looking pretty damn hard for the silver lining. But Hollywood thrives on hope and Russell keeps our hero on track, even as he plagues his beleaguered parents with his erratic behaviour. He then encounters the widowed sister-in-law of a friend (Lawrence) who seems more interested in him than he is in her and who appears to have a greater handle on her own mental illness.

The opening hour of Silver Linings Playbook is one that leaves you a little uneasy, with a film about mental illness at times teetering into wacky comedy, not unlike a previous Russell effort, I Heart Huckabees. But you are willing to give it a chance, not least because the comedy is not particularly mean-spirited. The change of tack to the more formulaic terrain of romantic comedy is not in itself unforgivable; unfortunately though, the film is a mess. For a film that has gained so many plaudits for its performance, there is an awful lot of terrible acting on display here.

 Russell bears a lot of the responsibility for this: many of the ensemble scenes — something he is usually quite adept at filming — are poorly staged and the actors seemingly unsure of what is expected of them. The centrepiece of awfulness is a scene at a tailgate party before a Philadelphia Eagles game, soon followed by another cacophonous shouting match back at the Solitano home. Even Jennifer Lawrence, who is the best thing in the film — possibly the only good thing — is not immune to it; too many of her scenes are pitched to a sharply over-dramatic keel. You are left with the impression of negotiating peaks and troughs and much of the film looks like it has been edited like a trailer. Perhaps Russell’s films have been like that all along but the effect has never been quite so annoying hyperactive until now — Silver Linings Playbook has the air of a manic depressive My Little Sunshine about it. That is something some people might consider a selling point but it’s hard work sitting through it.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Aujourd'hui & Bestiaire

Aujourd’hui (Alain Gomis - Senegal/France) 86 minutes

French-Senegalese director Alain Gomis casts slam poet Saul Williams in what is a near-silent role and it's a bit hard to know what to make of it. Williams plays Satché, a man returning to his home-town of Dakar, greeted and fêted by friends and family. He is also, we are told early on, soon to die. It is never disclosed what exactly he is suffering from, whether he is is in fact ill or whether he is a more mythic figure invested with some overarching symbolic value.

Despite this lack of clarity, Aujourd’hui is an engaging film; Gomis films the streets and the life of the Senegalese capital with a deft touch and his vision of devoid of any flagrant exoticism. Williams is also a surprisingly good physical actor, even if at times his muteness in the face of the joyous welcome he gets from neighbours and childhood friends, does strain credibility. Williams doesn’t speak Wolof, or, a few rote-learned lines aside, French; one presumes his casting was as much a commercial as an artistic choice (even if he is hardly a box-office name), something also suggested by the presence of French-Senegalese actress Aïssa Maïga in a French-speaking cameo as his former mistress.

 Fans of Williams may be a bit disappointed then, especially those who first discovered him via Mark Levin’s 1998 film Slam, but Gomis’s gambit does pay off. Aujourd’hui (his third film) is languid and ultimately moving, a fresh reworking of the chronicle-of-a-death-foretold genre. It has also met with success on the continent on which it is set, taking the Yennenga Golden Stallion this week at Burkina Faso’s Fespaco, Africa’s foremost film festival.


Bestiaire (Denis Côté - Canada/France) 72 minutes

Quebecois director Denis Côté, who gave us the very impressive Curling three years ago, takes time out between projects to film this slice of nature documentary, which observes the animals and keepers at a zoo in Hemingford, Quebec over the course of a year. The animals range from the exotic - lions, elephants and Bactrian camels - to the more mundane - cattle and ponies - and are filmed in long, static takes, all strung together without recourse to commentary or any apparent narrative schema.

Calm filmic observations of this sort have become commonplace in recent years, with Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread and Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte notable examples. Bestiaire is similarly precise and patient but Côté’s overweening artiness soon begins to grate - do we really need to see antelopes represented by the mere bobbing of their antlers at the bottom of a judiciously framed shot? Sometimes you just want something simple. Our Daily Bread and Le Quattro Volte also benefited from having more humans in it. Bestiaire only really comes to life when the two-legged creatures make their appearance and the film’s aestheticised anthropomorphism recedes; irony of ironies, the apex of this marked improvement comes in a sequence that portrays the zoo’s taxidermists at work, which I, for one, found fascinating.

You can only admire a successful young director like Côté for having a go at something so commercially unlikely as this but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have made it a little more involving. Bestiaire, for all its handsomeness, drags at times and at others resembles a high-concept internet cat video. We all love our pets but it’s hard to devote more than a few minutes at a time to them before their core source of fascination dries up. Humans, for all our brutishness, vanity, cruelty and tendency to horrendous deeds, are ultimately more interesting.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Home for the Weekend - Hans-Christian Schmid

Home for the Weekend (Was bleibt) (Hans Christian Schmid - Germany) 85 minutes The weekend-in-the-country film is a staple of French arthouse cinema but one that is not so common across the Rhine. Hans-Christian Schmid’s recent films have not really indicated him to be that sort of director either; his 2006 film Requiem, about a notorious exorcism in 1970s Bavaria was a chillingly apposite examination of mental illness and the way it can be masked behind religious devotion; more recently, his English-language film Storm portrayed a Bosnian woman due to testify as a witness at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague who is being intimidated by her rapist’s associates.

Home for the Weekend is a lower-key film than either of those but also features a woman in distress. This time it is Gitte (Corinna Harfouch), the sexagenarian wife of a Bonn publisher who springs it on everyone ‘home for the weekend’ that she has decided to come off her medication after thirty years of treatment for depression. The focus of the film is Gitte’s son Marko (Lars Eidenger ), a first-time novelist who has come home from Berlin with his six-year-old son Zowie (yes, Marko is a Bowie fan) for the occasion. Like many troubled families, the Heidtmanns have a patina of contentedness - father Günter has been consistently loving and supportive to Gitte throughout her depression but has recently taken a mistress, and intends to enjoy his retirement after selling his share in the successful publishing house. Meanwhile, Marko’s younger brother Jakob’s dental practice is tanking despite the head start his parents’ investment has given him.

The drama fizzes in a minor key but Home for the Weekend rings far truer than most of its French counterparts. Neither is it heavy going; there is a wonderful scene where the Gitte and Günter perform, seemingly spontaneously, a version of Charles Aznavour’s ‘Tu l’laisses aller’, as Marko plays it on the piano, a song, you feel they have all sung together many times before. It’s a hugely moving scene, amplified by the strength of the acting; Schmid directs his actors so well a physically and aurally elaborate scene such as this one comes off so effortlessly, as if the cast have actually known each other all their lives.

The context and setting of Home for the Weekend do eventually begin to wear on the film; despite its reasonable length, the drama sags in the latter third and reminded me a bit of Long Day’s Journey into Night, and not in a terribly flattering way. Schmid, however, is sensitive enough to longueurs to throw a few ideas into the mix in the last twenty minutes. The coda, in particular, is a remarkable piece of narrative consolidation. Home for the Weekend is a foray into the sort of social cinema more commonly associated with Schmid’s contemporaries such as Henning Winckler, Andreas Dresen and Christoph Hochhäuser; it is an impressive effort by Schmid, a small film that projects itself as a big one. And it’s also a pleasure to see that troubled families on screen can be sympathetic ones too.