Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Les apaches & Grand Central

Les apaches (Thierry de Peretti – France) 82 minutes

Grand Central (Rebecca Zlotowski – France/Austria) 95 minutes

Thierry de Peretti’s Les apaches, set in Corsica, using many non-professional local actors, has been praised in France for venturing beyond the usual tourist clichés about the island. That’s as may be though it is strange few of these people have pointed out that another cliché about Corsica that is every bit as potent is crime. And Les apaches is a film that, while it may only stumble into the crime genre, shows a society which is, well, imbued with dodginess. That is neither a fault, nor a disobliging observation – de Peretti, a native Corsican, knows his native island well, and one of the strengths of his debut film is the way it builds a tense, taut thriller from something unassuming.

The film begins, with a vague echo of Sophia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, as a quintet of teenagers party in the vacant Porto Vecchio holiday home of some rich Parisians, a home that is taken care of by the father of one of them, Aziz (Aziz El Hadachi). In a brilliantly filmed scene, the youngsters help themselves to the drinks cabinet, swim in the pool and then run off with a load of booty from the luxury home. The following day Aziz has a touch of remorse and decides to return the stuff, but he finds the Parisians have arrived. His father’s job is at risk so he comes clean and delivers the goods back to their owners. Missing though is a vintage rifle, which one of his friends, François-Jo (François-Joseph Cullioli) has secreted and intends to sell. He, in turn, is worried that Aziz might dob him off under pressure from his father’s boss (this being Corsica, the police are not invited to help). He gathers two of the others, Hamza (Hamza Mezziani) and Jo (Joseph Ebrard), to try and lean on Aziz, but their teenage inexperience shows and things take a messy turn.

Les apaches is a rare crime film that casts its drama in a behaviourist light – we see how unplanned, disorganised crime germinates from the littlest things and soon takes on a life of its own. Though slickly filmed as you might expect a thriller to be, there is this ‘inner compartment’ of a gauche teen comedy that renders the film all the more maddeningly horrific. All that unfolds need not happen and you feel like grabbing its young protagonists and giving them a good shake. But that in itself might be foolhardy. With very little means and a rather mundane premise, de Peretti has crafted one of the best French films of the year.

Grand Central has nothing to do with the New York railway station (‘central’ is the French for power station – film is set in a nuclear installation) but the allusion is deliberate. Rebecca Zlotowski’s second feature is brimming with references to American cinema and culture, some of which sit oddly within the narrative, rather like the global English, with words lifted from multiple registers, that is spoken by many French people. There is a trailer park, a rodeo bar and an air of 1970s blue collar Hollywood cinema, such as The Deerhunter, Norma Rae and, naturally, Blue Collar. While Zlotowski has a tendency to the overwrought (particularly her habit of punctuating the action with long sequences set to music that seems culled from different films) Grand Central is a decent effort at portraying the world of work, particularly in an environment (nuclear) one seldom sees onscreen.

Tahar Rahim plays Gary Manda, a young unskilled drifter, who comes to a nuclear power station to take up contract waste disposal work. He is taken under the wing of an existentialist foreman (Olivier Gourmet, who warns him ‘it’s a constant battle that you never shake off’) and a gregarious but menacing hard man, Toni (Dénis Ménochet – the French farmer who serves the glass of milk to Christophe Waltz in Inglourious Basterds). The work is well paid by industrial standards but is hazardous in the extreme, with the workers not afforded any of the security or benefits of permanent staff, and they are even forced to monitor their own radiation exposure levels, on pain of not being rehired.

Gary gets involved in a none-too-secret affair with Toni’s fiancée, Karole (Léa Seydoux, once again surprisingly convincing as a proletarian after Ursula Meier’s Sister), which risks causing some trouble within the plant, which already has an alarmingly high rate of industrial accidents. Though both Rahim and Seydoux are excellent, as ever, their relationship is one of the least convincing things about the film, seemingly tagged on to give the film wider audience appeal. Where Grand Central does excel is in the scenes set in the power plant, each of which are tinged with impending doom. Though the film is by no means predictable, it is still rather low on surprises. Nonetheless, Grand Central is worth a watch, especially for those who rarely get a glimpse of the less bourgeois end of French cinema.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Michael Kohlhaas - Arnaud des Pallières

Michael Kohlhaas (Arnaud des Pallières – France/Germany)  122 minutes

Arnaud des Pallières’ adaptation of Heinrich von Kleist’s 1811 novella is one of the most surprisingly entertaining films of the year. A muscular literary adaptation, it breathes new life into the period film, ably helped by the presence of Mads Mikkelsen in the title role (you imagine that Mikkelsen caught des Pallières’ eye in fustian in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising). Kleist’s text was itself based on the true story of the 16th-century merchant Hans Kohlhase, who went on a vengeful rampage throughout Saxony when he failed to get justice for the impounding of his horses.

 Des Pallières’ film switches the location to France and largely Protestant Cévennes region in the same era but the film retains a heavily Germanic air. Mikkelsen’s French, which he learned for the role, has a cross-Rhine stiffness to it (and he does at one point speak German too) and among the cast are regulars of German and Swiss cinema, David Bennent and Bruno Ganz (both regulars in the movies of Volker Schlöndorff, who himself directed a previous version of the novel in 1969, with David Warner in the title role). The action is otherwise unchanged though, with Kohlhaas victim of an arbitrary seizure of his horses by the servants of a powerful nobleman. He is promised satisfaction but the promise is broken and then his wife, who intercedes with the nobleman’s wife, is sent back to Kohlhaas half-dead.

Kohlhaas’ revolt is an early exercise in existentialism, as he takes the law into his own hands, becoming the avatar of a post-feudal bourgeois society. Though the righteousness of his cause is acknowledged by all his methods are condemned  – one great scene sees Denis Lavant as a peripatetic clergyman who tries to get Kohlhaas to turn himself in, a character based on Martin Luther, who intervened in a similar fashion with Hans Kohlhase. Though Kohlhaas is right and must get justice, he must also have justice dispensed unto him – it is no surprise to learn that Kafka was a great admirer of Kleist’s book.
Michael Kohlhaas is a bracing, wintry tale that is quick with the texture and sensations of the late Middle Ages. Des Pallières directs at a brisk pace and, unusually in this day and age, it is a film two hours long that does not seem longer. Once again, Mikkelsen is fantastic, a cerebral presence in an action role. And, most remarkably for a literary adaptation, it is a persuasive examination of a historical epoch without being overbearing and pretentious.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Young and Beautiful - François Ozon

Young and Beautiful (Jeune et jolie) (François Ozon – France) 93 minutes

The prolific François Ozon’s fourteenth feature is a companion piece` to his popular hit from last year, In the House, in which a schoolteacher discovers the sensual writing talent of one of his pupils. Young and Beautiful (its English title is far more ungainly than the original) treats in a similar way nascent sexuality and literary awakening, which, once again, go hand in hand. 16-year-old Isabelle (Marine Vacth), takes to prostitution soon after losing her virginity through a holiday fling, but the film is also punctuated with the familiar texts of a French teenage literary education: Les liaisons dangereuses, Madame Bovary and Rimbaud’s poem ‘Roman’, with its famous opening line ‘you’re not serious when you’re just seventeen’. All three are reflected in the film’s action, where Isabelle, for reasons unexplained, decides to venture into the dangerous world of online prostitution, for vast sums that she doesn’t even seem to need.

From a well-off family, and a student at the elite Lycée Henri-IV, about as prestigious as French public education can get, Isabelle is a quiet but not visibly troubled young girl. Her drift into prostitution appears to be motivated more by curiosity or a sense of adventure than necessity, unlike in other recent films about student prostitution, Damjan Kozole’s Slovenian Girl and Małgorzata Szumowska’s Elles. Ozon’s portrait is clinical and distanced and introduces no judgement, though to his credit, he doesn’t shy away from the dangers and the exploitation inherent in prostitution. He also surprisingly shifts the film’s focus relatively early on, which gives it a different dynamic to what you were initially expecting.

Young and Beautiful is a well mounted, intelligent film and is occasionally very funny, like when Isabelle visits a shrink with her mother and when she is quoted his hourly rate, asks ‘is that all?’ Vacth has been highly praised in France for her performance, a little overpraised, if you ask me – when you are selected and lovingly filmed by François Ozon, a director who has already made Natacha Regnier, Ludivine Sagnier and more recently Ernst Umhauer in In the House, you’re looking at an open goal, it’s pretty hard to fuck up. Still, she is impressive, there’s no denying that. If there is a problem with the film though, it is a recurring one with Ozon’s work, and one that means he will always be a second-rank director. His films always start off with a greater sense of purpose and intent than they end. It is not even a case of them having internal structural contradictions that cause them to fail but their metaphysical scope shrinks inexorably. In a way they are like the lives their teenage characters are destined to lead – brilliant studies, followed by a well-paid job and a retreat into comfortable suburban obscurity. Young and Beautiful starts off intriguing but by its rather abrupt conclusion, it has drastically diminished in scale and scope, like a distant Eiffel Tower wedged between the fingertips of tourists in those goofy holiday photos.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Two Experimental Films

An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (Terence Nance – USA) 93 minutes

Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel – USA) 87 minutes

New York filmmaker Terence Nance offers a protean, hard-to-classify feature, which is at times film essay, at others video diary. Nance cannibalises his own 2010 film, How Would You Feel? to use as the basis of a film about his love for, infatuation with and failed relationship with a young woman. As the title suggests, the love affair is pored over in microscopic detail, sometimes to the point of ennui, but Nance is refreshingly unbridled by anything resembling formal concerns. He flits between the earlier film – which, intriguingly, he says he screened at a film festival without telling the audience that the woman at the centre of it did much of the filming – and his own framing narrative, marking the shift with a retro cassette-pause effect.

Much of An Oversimplification of Her Beauty has a retro air to it; the mannered, faux-Panglossian narration reminds you of short films from the 1960s such as Martin Scorsese’s It’s Not Just You, Murray! or Jorgen Leth’s The Perfect Human and if there are any gimmicks at play, they are certainly not the gimmicks familiar from contemporary art cinema. This old-school texture gives it a surprising freshness, which is further invigorated by some delightful animation sequences that enrich and inform the live-action ones in a way that Ari Folman’s The Congress failed utterly to do.

If there is a criticism to be levelled at the film though, it is that it is at time too interrogating, too inquisitive and too circling. Nance’s decision to nestle his tale of his unrealised love within others, both successful and failed, also makes it at times hard to follow. You suspect the idea is to scramble the memory in a way that corresponds to the mémoire fleuve of its narrator but it can be hard to find one’s bearings. Likewise, though Nance’s formal experimentation is admirable, convention can be a cruel mistress. The voice-over at times sounds annoyingly arch and the joins, though clearly exposed by Nance, are also a little weak – you feel you are not watching a short film within a longer one but a sequence of several tenuously connected shorts. Like most experimental filmmakers, Nance would surely have factored such risks into his undertaking, but it is none the less frustrating for that. All in all, though, it is a film that is well worth a look and Nance is likely to make some fine films in the years to come.

Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s 2009 documentary, Sweetgrass, (co-directed with his wife Ilisa Barbash) was as gentle as its title suggested, a languorous, non-narrative observational documentary about a Montana sheep station that was nearing its closure after a century of activity. There is a similar nominative determinism in his latest film Leviathan, an impressionistic portrait of life aboard a fishing trawler, off the coast of New Bedford, Massachusetts, the very same locale Captain Ahab sets sail from in Moby Dick. The leviathan of the title though is an untangible, if nonetheless powerful, presence – the sea elements. The film is entirely shot at night, as the fishermen haul in their catch and grapple with the dark, the cold, the wet and the thundering redound of wind, boat and winch. There is no dialogue in Leviathan, and only snatches of speech are heard amid the wild sound (and wild it certainly is) but it is quite possibly the loudest silent film ever made.

Castaing-Taylor, a British-born Harvard anthropologist, runs the Sensory Ethnography Lab at the university, which specialises in producing aesthetically-inclined media work like Sweetgrass and Leviathan. It is a bit surprising there is so little context in his films – something that in the case of this film can be disconcerting as it is never terribly clear to the casual viewer if the boat is involved in sustainable fishing practices – but perhaps Castaing-Taylor feels he is already sufficiently steeped in the studies, the field work and the statistics. Still, his co-director on this film Véréna Paravel herself has a background in more conventional documentary, having made the 2010 film Foreign Parts, which documented the final days of junkyards in Queens in the shadow of the new New York Mets stadium. Though shot in a tangible working environment, Leviathan often takes on the guise of a visceral abstract painting.

The filmmakers use dozens of miniscule waterproof cameras which bob about in water catching images of flailing fish floating past them – the movements are aleatory and jerking, and the sequences resemble the point-of-view experience of trying to negotiate a large crowd at a rock festival while drunken or panicked. There is also gore aplenty, as the fishermen fillet the fish on the go; nervous ‘pescatarians’ might find their convictions challenged as they see machetes chop through the flesh of the doomed catch. I have to say I was even a bit surprised to see so much of the ray that is hauled in is discarded once the commercially desirable wings are lopped off. The heads, bodies and tails of the fish are tossed aside and swept overboard through open gullies, to be picked up by seagulls that loom in screeching masses alongside the boat.
The film’s nocturnal palette, its shadowy forms bathed in the trawler’s green, red and white lights, is a shifting, swirling delight, at turns claustrophobic and dizzying. It reminds me of the paint-on-film camera-less animation of Norman McLaren, Len Lye and Caroline Leaf. You don’t know where the film’s field is going next, what shape it will morph into. The only times I got impatient were when Castaing-Taylor and Paravel allow the camera to linger statically on the fishermen in quiet moments back in the cabin. It is a little hackneyed and arty, something culled from dozens of other observational documentaries, and it doesn’t really belong in this film. It’s a minor quibble though with an astoundingly original and sensuous film such as Leviathan is.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Girl Most Likely & The Purge

Girl Most Likely (Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini – USA) 103 minutes
The Purge (James DeMonaco – USA) 85 minutes

Two years on from Bridesmaids, Kristin Wiig returns in a vaguely similar scenario. Wiig plays Imogene, a failed (or rather never-made-it) playwright who gets dumped by her boyfriend (Brian Petsos) and loses her magazine job on the same day. Having faked a suicide attempt to try to win him back, she is abandoned by her Manhattan society friends and forced into the care of her long-estranged mother (Annette Bening) back in the Jersey Shore town she grew up in. Living with permatanned slot-machine-addict Zelda is Imogene’s apparently autistic crab-obsessed brother Ralph (Christopher Fitzgerald), Zelda’s younger shadowy lover (a very funny Matt Dillon on auto-pilot), and a lodger (Darren Criss, from Glee) who performs in a Backstreet Boys tribute band in Atlantic City. Imogene has not so much moved locale as shifted from one TV show to another – Sex and the City in the morning, generic sitcom in the evening.

Imogene is determined to get back to Manhattan but finds obstacles in her way, not least being without a car or money. She also learns that, contrary to what Zelda always told her, her father did not die during an operation when she was a child but left the family in a mutually-agreed divorce. This gives her two goals to accomplish before the end of the film but it doesn’t really give Girl Most Likely any more direction. Wiig is excellent as ever, as are Dillon (who claims to be a CIA agent) and Bening, a revelation as a brash blue-collar mom, and there are some hilarious scenes, such as when Imogene, on a whim decides to steal a book from the local library and then when, after a traffic accident, she encounters a cop who turns out to be someone whose invitation to the prom she once spurned.

The promise though is quickly squandered in favour of a despairingly conservative cleaving to formula. The film offers up a crude dichotomy between the classy but cultured New York high life Imogene has enjoyed and the trashy provincialism of her home town. It is a Manicheanism that you know is going to get flipped on its head, allowing the film to both sneer and laud the New Jersey rubes. There is a similar liberty taken with Ralph, Imogene’s asocial brother; it’s a bit of a condescending cliché, at this stage, for comedy screenwriters to use people with mild disabilities for quirkiness, and it quickly becomes clear that Ralph’s main use for screenwriter Michelle Morgan is the human carapace he has built which will serve mechanically as a plot device later in the film. Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who made a creditable adaptation of Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, are as far from their documentary roots as possible here. It’s a shame, as you would not have to change much in Girl Most Likely to make it a good film, nor would you risk alienating its intended audience. As it stands though, it lacks the underlying toughness that made Bridesmaids one of the best comedies of recent years. A comic performer as able as Wiig deserves better.

Ten years in the future, after a calamitous second economic crash and social upheaval, the United States government, under the guidance of its ‘new founding fathers’, has got the situation under control. The main tool of social regulation is an annual event called ‘The Purge’ where one night, for twelve hours, all crime, including rape and murder, is legal. Of course, the main object of this state-sanctioned crimewave is the underclass, whose troublesome presence is weeded out by their better-armed and better-protected betters.

‘The Purge’ is staged as part hurricane to be leisurely ‘ridden out’, part Superbowl party; the film centres on one family, the Sandins who are staying in this year, celebrating father James (Ethan Hawke) topping his company’s sales figures. The product he sells is the very hi-tech home security system that he activates to protect the home for the evening. The family sit down to dinner, prepared by mother Mary (Lena Headey), who proudly declares there to be ‘no carbs’ in it; it’s a foreshadowing of the sterilised, unblemished society The Purge intends to facilitate. Unfortunately, the film’s social commentary, which itself carries an echo of JG Ballard’s Super-Cannes (in which the wealthy cadres of a gated business park are prescribed recreational violence as part of their therapy), is rarely so succinct. The radio and TV voiceovers labour the point of class-refracted violence being the fuel that feeds social ‘cohesion’ and when a group of ghoulish youngsters appear at the Sandins’ front door, looking for a working-class black passer-by whom James’ son has let in, their villainy is emphasised by their leader wearing a preppy school blazer.

But ultimately what sinks The Purge is the film’s formal and technical ineptitude. This is strange given DeMonaco wrote the screenplay to Jean-François Richet’s effective remake of Assault on Precinct 13 and the film is produced by the stable that made the Paranormal Activity films. This ought to provide fertile conditions for a house-under-siege film but the action is quickly smothered in a medley of wearisomely predictable sequences that are all resolved by deis ex machina that are so mechanical their clunking machinery can be heard a mile away. Likewise, too little is made, too late, of the possibility of settling of scores, of the likelihood that the purge might operate within social classes as well as across then. The Purge has an interesting premise but it rarely explores the manifold ramifications of its central idea and ideas, being too happy to settle for cheap thrills.