Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Attack – Ziad Doueiri

The Attack (Ziad Doueiri – Lebanon/Qatar/France/Belgium) 102 minutes

The Attack, the third film by Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri, is a rare examination of Israeli society by an Arab filmmaker. Filmed in Tel Aviv and Nablus on the West Bank, it was banned in Doueiri’s native land, as well as in all other Arab League countries, for violating laws forbidding the normalisation of relations with Israel. It was an obtuse sanction, though entirely predictable and surely one Doueiri himself would have foreseen. Israel does not come out of the film, based on renegade Algerian army officer Yasmina Khadra’s novel, terribly well, but Doueiri’s film is not especially partisan either.

Palestino-Israeli actor Ali Suliman plays Dr Amin Jaafari, a West Bank Palestinian, who has risen, in the face of prejudice and suspicion, to become one of Israel’s most brilliant surgeons. The film begins with him receiving the country’s highest distinction for his profession. He speaks of tolerance and understanding, noting that all Arabs are a bit Jewish and all Jews have a bit of Arab in them. The next day however, a suicide attack in Tel Aviv kills 17 people in a restaurant in the middle of a children’s birthday party. Jaafari treats the victims, one of whom refuses to be operated on by an Arab doctor. After returning home later that evening, he is summoned back in, to be told that his Christian Arab wife (Reymond Amsalem) – whom he believed was visiting her family in Nazareth – was killed in the attack and is suspected by police to have been the bomber.

Dr Jaafari is incredulous that his wife could have been guilty yet he is taken in for questioning and subjected to borderline torture by the police. He is eventually released but his position at the hospital is then in jeopardy and there is even talk of stripping him of his Israeli citizenship. His house is vandalised and he decides to visit his family in Nablus for what appears to be the first time in decades. This is where the film falters badly. There are too many questions to be asked of the back story. Would a Palestinian from the occupied territories seriously neglect his family for so long, no matter how embedded he becomes in Israeli society? And even if that is possible, why does he remain in regular contact with his nephew Adel (Karim Saleh) when the latter is up to his eyeballs in paramilitary activity?

For all Suliman, previously seen in films such as Paradise Now, Lemon Tree and Body of Lies, tries to invest his character with real emotion, he is hampered by a script that ordains Jaafari be little more than a binary value, to be switched back and forth according to the plot’s meanderings. He is either the ‘Good Arab’ of Israeli social taxonomy, or he is an Uncle Tom for the Palestinians. Doueiri, who started off as a camera operator on Quentin Tarantino’s early films before making his debut with the fine Lebanese Civil War drama West Beirut, produces a slick, tense film that is very much in the style of contemporary Hollywood thrillers. But it is a bit too talky to really pass muster as one; the film’s efforts to resolve in the final ten minutes the lingering tension between inter-racial tolerance and national resistance are also too easily won. The Attack has much about it that is admirable and it is for the most part an intelligent film but its overly-schematic nature and narrative short-cuts make it ultimately disappointing.

The Last Time I Saw Macao – João Pedro Rodrigues & João Rui Guerra da Mata

The Last Time I Saw Macao (A Última Vez Que Vi Macau) (João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata – Portugal/France/Macao) 85 minutes

The Last Time I Saw Macao is one of those films that feature as in-between projects in directors’ filmographies – casually constructed works that have the initial appearance of being a placeholder but which reveal unexpected depths in a conception and execution liberated from commercial and creative exigencies. João Pedro Rodrigues, director of some excellent films in the expressive style currently prevalent in Portuguese art-house cinema, heads to Macao to co-direct a film with his regular art director João Rui Guerra da Mata, who grew up in the former Portuguese colony off the coast of southern China.

Macao was the last colony Portugal relinquished, surrendering it up to China in 1999, after a leasehold agreement similar to the British arrangement in Hong Kong. It has, over the past three or four decades, become the gambling (and prostitution) capital of China. In Rodrigues and da Mata’s Markerian travelogue, it is a hellish locus of vice and danger. The narrator, who goes by the name da Mata, returns to Macao, after three decades away, answering an anguished call from a friend, Candy, who seems to be in trouble. Once there, his search for his friend is related entirely via wild footage and the odd point-of-view shot, with all the dialogue off-camera.

Whereas Portugal’s former African colonies in Miguel Gomes’ Tabu are viewed as a paradise irrevocably lost, Macao in this film is a place that is now impossibly alien, even for someone who grew up there. This fits in with the reality of Macao, one of those post-colonial territories, like the Philippines and Vietnam, to have unsentimentally shed the influence of the former colonial power. English, just over a decade on from the handover, has largely supplanted the still-official Portuguese as a second language, something that is often apparent in the film’s many static shots of walls and signposts. That decline may be stemmed somewhat by a new influx of Portuguese fleeing the homeland’s economic crisis, but the Macao of the film is a colonial anomaly fading into history, the old Portuguese architecture and the distinctive black and white calçada portuguesa paving being the only legacies of the past likely to last.

A major reference in the film is Nicholas Ray and Josef von Sternberg’s 1952 adventure flick Macao, starring Jane Russell and Robert Mitchum. The fact that this is all a Portuguese film can dredge up about a former colony is a bit desolate but Rodrigues and da Mata’s film plays on the exoticism of that half-forgotten half-classic in a clever way. It’s not unlike the references to Vertigo in Marker’s Sans soleil, and the use of improbably bleachy low-resolution video in The Last Time I Saw Macao is also reminiscent of the great French film essayist. The Last Time I Saw Macao may not give you the greatest sense of place, and it is unfailingly orientalist in its portrayal of the Chinese natives, but as far as onscreen memoirs go, the film is enticing and is a fresh take on a hoary old adventure trope.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Ain't Misbehavin' - Marcel Ophuls

Ain't Misbehavin' (Un voyageur) (Marcel Ophuls - France/Switzerland) 106 minutes

Marcel Ophuls’ first film in 19 years could well be his last and it may only owe its existence to the veteran documentary maker’s difficulties writing. Having promised François Truffaut many decades ago that he would write his memoirs at the end of his career, Ophuls admitted to clamming up in front of a blank page and instead decided to make a film of it. The result is a confessional documentary similar to Raymond Depardon’s Carnets de France from last year and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Dance of Reality, which also screened during Director’s Fortnight at Cannes this year.

Despite being a great filmmaker in his own right, Ophuls has always lived in the shadow of his father Max, director of La Ronde, Lola Montès and Letter from an Unknown Woman, among other classics of the cinema. It is something he has always been able to accept but it has caused some self-doubt – at one point in the film he wonders if his early positive reviews were because he was his father’s son, and his father was someone who could do no wrong with the critics. The younger Ophuls (his family changed his name from Oppenheimer) had a strained relationship with his father, who was stern and neurotic and also an incorrigible womaniser (not doing too bad for a short, balding middle-aged man with a thick German accent). Marcel was also closer to his mother, presumably out of solidarity with her long-suffering married existence.

The family moved  from Berlin on the coming to power of the Nazis when Marcel was just five years old and then set up shop in Paris, where Max Ophuls directed a number of features to pay the bills. When war broke out, they went to Switzerland but promptly returned to France when Max, fearful of being thought of as a deserter, enlisted in the French Army. In 1940 however, the Ophuls’ had to once again flee the Nazis, making it to Hollywood. Max was a bit too late to the game though with most of the big directorial jobs being taken by fellow Jewish émigrés such as Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Michael Curtiz and Robert Siodmark, who had all moved over several years earlier. He ended up having to hustle for whatever work he could get, yet still managing to produce a clutch of masterpieces such as Letter from an Unknown Woman and Caught.

This peripatetic childhood made Marcel equally fluent in German, French and English, and it also exposed him to some legendary figures from a young age. We hear of Bertolt Brecht advising him that ‘there is no such thing as plagiarism’, Preston Sturges inviting the family over for an umpteenth screening of The Great McGinty and Marlene Dietrich dragging him out to a lesbian night club in Paris. Despite his father’s connections, it was François Truffaut who would open the door to filmmaking for Marcel. After a couple of minor fiction films on the margins of the New Wave, he switched to documentaries, making The Sorrow and the Pity, a monumental four-and-a-half-hour documentary on wartime collaboration and resistance in the French city of Clermont-Ferrand. The film set the tone for the rest of Ophuls’ career, a masterly probing interrogation, skewering the ad hoc moralisms of  post-war France. It was a huge success and was banned from French television until 1981. Woody Allen referenced it in Annie Hall – Ophuls shows us the letter of thanks he gets from Woody. It is an example of the self-indulgence we often see on screen in Ain’t Misbehavin’ but given Ophuls’ general conviviality, not to mention the splendour of his work, it is forgivable.

The film is as much an essay as it is a memoir, with some enjoyable riffs on memory and preferences for remembering in a certain way. Ophuls also treats his failures as readily as he does his successes. Often they were indistinguishable – where he had a torrid time working on the Nuremberg trials film Memory of Justice and which he walked away from, it was equally popular with the critics as his Klaus Barbie documentary Hotel Terminus, which won him an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1989. He also revisits many of the places from his past (the French title of the film is Un voyageur) which gives an extra dimension to something that might have otherwise remained a flat documentary. Peppered throughout are extracts from Ophuls’ true love, the Hollywood films of his youth and contemporary jazz greats, such as the Fats Waller tune of the title. It is a film that Ophuls could easily have made in his sleep but, for all its lightness, it puts to shame the dull eulogistic documentaries that do so well at the box office these days. One of the most enjoyable films of the year.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Ilo Ilo – Anthony Chen

Ilo Ilo (Ba Ma Bu Zai Jia) (Anthony Chen – Singapore) 99 minutes

Anthony Chen’s debut feature won the Caméra d’Or – awarded for the best first film screened at Cannes – the first Singaporean film to win a prize at the festival. It is an assured, if modest, film (Chen is still only 29) and announces the arrival of a talent for the future. Ilo Ilo (named, one presumes, for the Philippine city) takes place against the backdrop of the Asian financial crisis of early 1998. The Lim family takes on a Filipino maid, Teresa (Angeli Bayani) to care for their ten-year-old son Jiale (Koh Jia Ler), who is quite a handful. Father Teck (Tian Wen Chen) soon loses his job as the economy begins to bite, his notice having been filed by his own wife Hwee Leng (Yann Yann Yeo), who is a clerk in the same shipping company. There is no explicit questioning of the financial system that caused the crash – though there were plenty such crises in the 1990s, in Asia, Russia and South America, neoliberal orthodoxy was still absolute in those days. The pressures of finding a job, and in the case of Hwee Leng, holding onto hers while expecting a second child, do however work on the family, whose troubles are not helped by Jiale’s continuous disciplinary problems at school.

The family are initially wary of Teresa; Hwee Ling confiscates her passport (which Teresa surrenders without protest) for fear that she might abscond suddenly. But the Lims do not subject her to the horrendous cruelty that befalls many immigrant maids from South-East Asia; if anything, they are relatively sympathetic towards her. Hwee Leng gradually becomes slightly jealous as Teresa’s bond with Jiale inevitably strengthens while Teck is friendlier, in his own gauche manner. Chen has an unobtrusive filming style and is particularly good with actors. Bayani is excellent as Teresa, who has left her own infant child with her uncaring sister to come work in Singapore; early on she displays a surprising toughness when she reprimands Jiale after he plays a prank on her that results in her being detained by security guards in a supermarket. This ultimately wins the young brat over.

If there is one flaw with the Ilo Ilo, it is it’s all a bit predictable. The odd-couple-coming-together trope is well worn and was treated more interestingly in Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Thai film Mundane History (2009, but released in Europe this year). There is no real mystery in how the film is going to pan out. That said, it is a well-made first film and Chen, if given meatier subject matter, is likely to produce something very good indeed.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Stranger by the Lake – Alain Guiraudie

Stranger by the Lake (L’inconnu du lac) (Alain Guiraudie – France) 97 minutes

Alain Guiraudie’s fourth film was a critical hit at Cannes this year and will probably mark his international breakthrough. Stranger by the Lake is a simple but devilishly smart drama in which the identity of the titular stranger shifts as the film progresses. Initially, it might be Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), an interloper on the libertine gay lakeside shingle. Recently separated from a girlfriend, he sits alone on the beach, explaining to Franck (Pierre de Ladonchamps), the only one of the beach regulars to befriend him, that he chooses the gay shore rather than the straight one opposite because people would think him weird if he spoke to people over there. Henri sticks out like a sore thumb, overweight and middle-aged amid the young perfectly-sculpted bodies, but he is also a bristling counterpoint to the lake’s prevailing homosexual discourse, and acts like a sage chorus to the film’s drama, which takes a sinister turn when one of the regulars is murdered.

The murderer is Michel, a rakish mustachioed hunk with the build of a pro swimmer. He kills off his lover, capriciously and almost playfully, by holding his head under the water at dusk after everyone has left for the evening. Everyone, that is, except for Franck, who has stayed behind to observe Michel, with whom he is infatuated. You might expect Franck to report the murder to the police and steer well clear of a dangerous killer but instead he allows him to be seduced by him and even covers up for him when the police come around asking questions. All the while, he becomes increasingly upset with Michel, who refuses to spend the night with him and does not want a sentimental attachment to develop between them.

Franck’s behaviour, insane as it appears, is an obvious metaphor for the knowing risks gay men run by barebacking, of which there is a lot in the film. When the pair first have sex, Franck asks Michel if he minds doing it without a condom, to which the latter responds, with a Mephistophelean smile, ‘oh, noooooo’. Another floating (or rather swimming) signifier comes in the form of the sirulid, a vicious catfish, supposedly up to fifteen-feet long that preys on unsuspecting swimmers. Henri warns Franck of the dangers of it but Franck laughs off his concerns as fanciful.

A further interloper is the detective investigating the murder (Jérôme Chappatte), who circles in on Franck, who he knows has more to tell about what he saw than he lets on. He too is a chorus of sorts, passing judgement on the community’s mores, remarking that they sleep with people whose names they don’t even know, and notice nothing when the dead man’s car and beach towel remain for days unattended. Michel similarly begins to suspect that Franck was a witness (he noticed his car still parked in the car park when he left on that evening) and you wonder how our hero is going to extricate himself from that situation. And Henri, who still lurks silently on his solitary perch, also confronts Michel about what he knows.

Stranger by the Lake is a sparse drama, with every single scene taking place either on the lakeside shingle or in the woods up above, where couples pair off to fuck. It is also a finely calibrated study of the morality or amorality of a libertine lifestyle. The explicit gay sex scenes will probably put off most casual viewers but Guiraudie has produced one of the most original and ingenious films of the year, which deserves to be seen by more than a niche audience.

L'INCONNU DU LAC / STRANGER BY THE LAKE (Trailer ST EN) from Les Films Du Losange on Vimeo.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Je suis supporter du Standard – Riton Liebman

Je suis supporter du Standard (Riton Liebman – France/Belgium) 90 minutes

Standard Liege (or, to give the club its full title, FC Royal Standard de Liège) is not Belgian football’s most successful club, its ten titles paling in comparison to Anderlecht’s 32, Club Brugge’s 13 or even now-lowly Saint-Gilloise’s 11. Standard are, however, a sentimental favourite among Belgians, with their appeal, like few other things in the country, straddling its linguistic divide. Riton Liebman, who first came to attention as a teenager in Bertrand Blier’s 1978 comedy Préparez vos mouchoirs, directs his first features and stars as Milou, who, like Liebman, is a Bruxellois who fell in love with Standard as a child (no doubt because the 1960s and 1970s were the club’s glory years). Je suis supporter du Standard is a Belgian Fever Pitch of sorts though it bears better comparison with David Evans’ so-so 1997 film than Nick Hornby’s fine book, published five years earlier.

Milou is a forty-year-old n’er-do-well, a man-child living alone among his Standard memorabilia and his Panini stickers, who never leaves the house without one of his dozens of replica shirts and owes his job as a driving instructor to the fact his uncle owns the driving school; he reminds you of those football fans who pop up from time to time in the side columns of tabloid newspapers having named their first-born after the entire squad. This ought to make him prime material for a good comedy, all the more given his mother is a psychoanalyst and he, like Liebman, is Jewish. The script makes some play with the psychoanalysis and the humour of Jewish neuroticism but it is soon cast aside in favour of rather less lofty laughs. Milou, when he messes up on a promising date (Léa Drucker), belatedly realises he has an addiction and tries to get it under control – the title refers to the standard Alcoholics Anonymous introduction, and Milou unsuccessfully tries to get AA to let him in as a ‘footballic’.

The jokes in the film are predictable and lame, mainly because they are mined from situations that just don’t happen in real life. Among these are when a friend of Milou, on an away trip to Gent, leaves a ticket for the late-arriving Milou, on the gate with a match steward who doesn’t speak French. Milou subsequently watches the match in a Gent supporters bar in the shadow of the stadium (surely these fans would all be at the match?) and gets found out when he celebrates a Standard goal and is tossed in the nearby canal. Such creaky mechanics are an all-too-common feature of the plot and the football-supporting-as-addiction trope is not terribly convincing, especially given Liebman, in real life, battled heroin addiction for a long time. Neither is Liebman much of a director – his visual palette hardly stretches beyond the functionality of television. A film whose appeal to football fans (its obvious target) will be dented by a rather facile critique of their passion, its hard to see who will be interested by Je suis supporter du Standard.