Friday, 15 March 2019

history of fear (w&d benjamín naishtat)

Naishtat’s early film is a stark, Haneke-esque dissection of a society teetering on the brink. How does the medium represent fear? The jagged edit and mash-up of naturalism with stylised moments make for an unsettling watch. The film follows various characters who either or live or work on a private housing estate on the edge of Buenos Aires. The lives of these characters are portrayed through short scenes, like vignettes, with no obvious narrative through line. An elderly home help who collapses as she vacuums. The alarm from one of the houses on the estate sounds for no reason, and the security guard goes to investigate. The alarm stops sounding, but the security guard doesn’t reappear. People are trapped in lifts, the electricity is erratic, strangers throw rubbish into people’s lush gardens, wild dogs roam free. The edge of darkness is menacingly close, so much so that at one point all the lights go out and the characters and audience are left in the dark. The film maintains a steady, grounded pace and tone, in contrast to the melodrama of the title. The narrative is a patchwork which slowly coalesces towards a finale that hints at terror. Argentinian cinema since the turn of the millennium has forged a rich, acerbic path, and Naishtat is a welcome addition to the canon. The duality between a society which recognises itself as both progressive and impoverished, European and American, ‘third world’ and ‘first’, generates tensions which create narratives unafraid of walking up to the cliff edge of the technological society which permits cinema to exist, and peering over the edge to see what it looks like on the other side. The closing frames of History of Fear, where the director has the actors assume faces representing states of emotion, including fear, perfectly expresses the boundaries of cinema’s capacity to capture these realities. 

Monday, 11 March 2019

chronicle of a death foretold [márquez, tr gregory rabassa]

Having read the book in a day, which is not hard to, and having then been trapped in a mosquito net of sleeplessness, I pondered what Márquez’s novel was really about. Pondered and decided it had to do with the random stupidity of violence and of codes of violence. Márquez writes with the voice of one who is investigating a crime which took place in the past, at least twenty years ago. The fate of Santiago Nasser is conveyed with a detached tone. One that renders the violence, as it is conveyed twice towards the end of the book, all the more shocking. Márquez first offers a surgical description of the autopsy, in all its gory detail, and then repeats the account of the knife thrusts themselves when describing the murder within the book’s narrative. Each time, the violence jars, renting asunder the placid tone of the novel, just as the supposed act rent asunder the placid tone of the small Caribbean town where the murder occurred. The description brought to mind Bolaño’s chapter on the Killings in 2666. 

There is, no doubt, something masterly in the author’s handling of his material. At the same time, it’s perhaps hard to read without a smidgeon of concern for the way it presents its world as something out of the old testament. An approach to the presentation of ‘world’ literature that can also be seen in the work of many authors whose work has become successful in those parts of the world which generate revenue streams. Perhaps it might be said that the author is helping to construct the mythical bedrock of a still youthful country. That this work will indeed become, one day, part of the old testament of his nation’s literature. 

An alternative POV: The novel, which by the middle of the twentieth century had become a hideout for the middle classes, the literary classes, or else for tales of remarkable endeavour, is returned by Márquez to the people. He drags it back to the world of Chaucer or Lazarillo de Tormes: a space to recount the extraordinary lives of ordinary people. And in so doing he helped to democratise an art form that had become beached on the shore of the literati. 

Friday, 8 March 2019

sueño florianópalis (w&d ana katz, w daniel katz)

Ana Katz’s slow burning family comedy-drama evolves into an affirmative tale about the protagonist, Lucrecia, played by Mercedes Morán. Lucrecia and Pedro (Gustavo Garzón) have gone to Florianópolis on a family holiday which is not all it seems. Lucrecia and Pedro, both psychoanalysts, are actually separated, using the holiday as a means to see if their relationship has any chance of rehabilitation. Something both seem to rapidly decide is unlikely, as they embark on romantic liaisons in the tropics, ironically with another separated husband and wife team, Marco and Larisa. The family holiday trope is rounded off by their daughter enjoying a fling with Marco’s son, Julian. 

The mood of the film, set on Brazil’s lush Atlantic coast, veers away from the melodramatic towards the meditative. Lucrecia’s journey through the film is one of gradual acceptance and reconciliation with her fate. It’s a measured, likeable performance, although from this viewer’s perspective the film was unbalanced by the fact that Pedro, her husband’s character, an ageing clown, remained underdeveloped, meaning that their relationship, and the pain of their separation, never felt completely convincing. Nevertheless, Sueno Florianópalis is a family holiday movie with a twist, that gives a limpid insight into the differences between Brazilian and Argentinean culture. The south’s wistful dreaming of tropical delights; a brief escapism which the Argentine family embraces before it has to return to the day-to-day realities of Buenos Aires. 

Sunday, 3 March 2019

hangover square [patrick hamilton]

On one level, Hangover Square could be viewed as a cruel, neo-misogynist text, trapped in a repetitive rut. The protagonist, Bone, a schizophrenic, is fatally attracted to Netta, a femme fatale whose only objective is to exploit Bone for anything he can offer. She leads him on, takes his money, ridicules and humiliates him and unsurprisingly his thoughts turn towards revenge. Netta is far from a sympathetic character, and never becomes any more than two dimensional; the reader is given little insight into why she is like she is, what has turned her into such a malevolent soul. Furthermore Bone’s masochistic pursuit makes for a weak protagonist, one whose refusal to learn from his errors becomes more and more frustrating. 

On the other hand…. Hangover Square is perhaps a novel which is less interested in psychological veracity and more interested in recounting the kind of fever dream of the build-up to war. The novel opens on the eve of 1939. and Bone’s calvary runs parallel to Britain’s descent towards war. Netta and her sidekick Peter are both staunch believers in Chamberlain and the Munich deal, something which Bone despises. Hamilton clearly posits Netta and Peter as quasi fascists, potential Hitler sympathisers. They represent something rotten in British society. (There are echoes of Maclaren Ross here.) Britain itself teeters on the verge of fascism, a country where people have nothing better to do than get drunk and ride the hangover and get drunk again. As such Netta and Peter represent an amoral core at the heart of British society, which can only be excised with violence. 

To categorise Hangover Square as cruel or misogynist, as I’ve just done in the opening paragraph, is perhaps to miss the point. Because the cruelty is representative of its time. A time gripped by a fever, on both sides of the channel, one that needed to be cauterised and expunged. Once again, a writer seems to suggest that if Britain hadn’t had to confront a foe across the water, it too might have drifted towards fascism. Far from nearly destroying Britain, the war came just in the nick of time to rescue it. 

Thursday, 28 February 2019

occident (w&d mungiu)

Mungiu’s first feature is a brilliant, flawed piece of filmmaking. Perhaps it’s easy to say in retrospect that there’s something callow about the film, given how it becomes clear in the director’s later career his capacity for conveying both emotion and tension. Nevertheless there’s a formal dexterity to Occident which wins the viewer over. The leap from Occident to 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days is fascinating. 4 Months possesses an intensity and tension which Occident barely hints at. Occident feels in many ways as though it belongs to a line of Eastern European filmmaking which celebrated the quirks of their respective societies, (think also of Kustirica’s early films and others such as Nemescu, Porumboiu or Menzel, even early Kieslowski.) The tone of much of this filmmaking is tongue-in-cheek, affectionate and ironic; also, clearly limited by what the censor permitted. 4 Months represented a step into a darker, more threatening world, with a level of psychological violence which grabbed the viewer by the throat. Having said which, Occident is a highly engaging piece of filmmaking in its own right. There’s a formal investigation of narrative, with three interwoven stories, reminiscent of its near contemporary Amores Perros. The fractured narrative is punctuated by freeze frames and the occasional crane shot, stylistic flourishes which the director dispensed with in his later films. The opening sequence runs the risk of becoming schmaltzy (notably through the use of music) but as the film builds layer upon layer, it lures the viewer in. In the end, Occident offers a diverse portrait of early C21st Bucharest, a city where Macdonalds and a ‘World Trade Centre’ commercial zone cohabit with rundown Ceausescu era apartment blocks. One where ordinary Romanians dream of escape to the West, whilst maintaining an affectionate, pre-atomised society which, his next film will go on to suggest, will soon be blown apart.

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

blame it on fidel (w&d julie gavras, w domitilla calamai, arnaud cathrine)

Gavras’s film is a delicately constructed coming of age story, featuring a grandstand performance from its youthful protagonist Nina Kervel-Bey as Anna de la Mesa. It takes the history of post-68, giving it a sly twist by presenting it through the eyes of a bourgeois child who is horrified at her parents’ slide into political radicalism. The premise allows for both humour and profundity. Anna’s home is taken over by bearded Chilean exiles. Her mother writes a book defending abortion, with her interviews taking place in their home. Her original nanny is an anti-communist Cubana (hence the title), but the last one is an exile from Vietnam. Her parents give up their fine home when her father gives up his job as a lawyer and the family moves into a small flat. Anna has to overcome peer pressure, and her own class prejudices in order to understand why her parents have done what they have done. The narrative is interwoven with the fate of Salvador Allende. His downfall at the end of the film, seen on a flickering black and white TV, is the moment that Anna recognises the import of her father’s struggle and makes her peace with him. The film succeeds in marrying politics and the personal with a rare assurance, anchored by a performance of beguiling maturity from its young star. 

Friday, 15 February 2019

the promise (jean-pierre dardenne & luc dardenne)

It might be that I owe an apology to Jérémie Renier. Not that he’d be interested. When I give my class on directing actors at the film school (and what do I know?) I use one of his performances as an example of an actor being poorly directed. I always stress that Renier is a fine actor, and it’s not his fault that in this particular film he’s off the pace, its down to the direction, but nonetheless, there’s a small generation of aspiring filmmakers in Montevideo who will forever associate him with this example of how not to do it. As I say, this is always stressing that this is an actor capable of great things, and indeed in a joint class given with Javier Olivera, we also showed him excelling in a Dardenne brothers movie to emphasise the contrast between an actor well directed and an actor poorly directed.

All of which meant, when I realised about ten minutes in that the child who is the protagonist of The Promise was none other than a very youthful Renier, with his foppish blond locks and impish charm, it made me smile. Because he displays an innate brilliance in this early film of the Dardenne brothers. The brothers at their best have a mastery of the simplest elements of drama: a sympathetic hero(ine) put in a place of moral compromise, who has to realise a quest to redeem themselves. The premise of The Promise is at once straightforward and mesmerising. Can Igor free himself from the tyrannical hold of his desperate father, Roger (also brilliantly played with a mixture of canniness, greed and stupidity by Olivier Gourmet). All of this set in a world of immigration which the film shows was just as pressing an issue twenty years ago as it is today. 

The film manages to combine great flair in its camerawork and edit, with something so down-to-earth that it really feels at times as though you’re there, in this Belgian backwater. The restless energy of the camera, allied to the energy of the performances (including that of Assita Ouedraogo as Assita) gives the film an urgency which entraps the viewer. People are always moving in this film, in a combi van across an urban landscape, in a go-kart, or striding the night streets. The restless forces of a globalised capitalism on the march, captured in the bewilderment and moral complexity of a young man’s growing understanding of the world he lives in.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

zama (w&d lucrecia martel)

The first two acts of Zama are dominated, in classic Martel fashion, by what we don’t see. The film, in spite of its lustrous period setting, tends towards the closed frame. Rarely have the details of costume seemed so important. The extravagant pattern of a jacket. The sunken bodice of a a dress. Zama has a craggy face, whose lines say more than the words he speaks. The narrative, like this world, is opaque. Zama hopes for a letter to the king, giving him license to go home. But the path to the letter is paved with obstacles. He’s trapped in a Kafkaesque new world. Sickness stalks the land. The indians live in a parallel universe. Everyone is strange: a melting pot of Indians, Africans and Europeans that never coalesces. The other is around every corner. The things we don’t see or half-see are more telling that what we do see. A gunshot; an affair; a rumour. The things that matter occur beyond the range of the camera’s eye.

In the last act, this closed perspective changes. The third act opens with a wide shot, a band of men making their way through a sodden, palm-struck field. The canvas is bigger. The world has come to Zama. Something which, for the protagonist, is not good news. The rhythm of the film changes. Things start to happen. Terrible things. A Latino variant on the heart of darkness. Martel lets the light in. What it shows is fragmentary, violent, terrifying. The next three hundred years of a continent laid out in miniature. The bewitching penultimate shot of a mutilated Zama being paddled in a boat through water lilies emphasises the confusion, the violent intervention, the accidental, incomprehensible beauty. 

Monday, 4 February 2019

me and you (w&d bertolucci, w. niccolò ammaniti, umberto contarello, francesca marciano)

Why are so many great directors’ final films such a disappointment? At what point does the artist lose touch with the zeitgeist? It’s a recurrent theme. Bertolucci’s film feels like an attempt to keep up with the ‘yout’. The thing is, when he made Before the Revolution, he was the ‘yout’. His final film feels like a desperate attempt to rediscover what it felt like to be young, knowing that the train has long gone. Perhaps, if the film acknowledged, this, if it came from a more transparent place, it wouldn’t have felt so off-centre. All the old tropes are there: a disillusioned youth, trying to find meaning in his life; a hint of incest; a flirtation with the darkness at the edge of society. But the fire has gone, and so too, the budget. This is a small scale film, most of it shot in a basement, with none of the visual flair one normally associates with the director. From IMDB, one learns it was made nearly a decade after his previous film, The Dreamers. Perhaps he accepted the idea of making the film on a reduced budget, just out of the sheer desire to return to a set, to get a taste of the action one last time. Sic transit gloria mundi. 

Saturday, 2 February 2019

the favourite (d. yorgos lanthimos; w. deborah davis, tony mcnamara)

Lanthimos may well clean up at the oscars. In a similar vein to Jenkins with Moonlight a few years ago: the indie world sneaking in to steal the crown. Moonlight and The Favourite are very different films, sin dudas, but they have this in common: a technical bravura, which says as much about the work of the DOP as the director. In the case of James Laxton, the bold use of colour; in the case of Robbie Ryan, the nerve to use innovative perspective in a period piece, notably the fish-eye lens shots which capture a wealth of detail in the frame, as well as offering a ‘modern’ eye on this antiquated world. The Favourite’s popularity is also down to offering three actresses the opportunity to strut their stuff. The performances of Coleman, Stone and Weisz possess a verve which complements this contemporary vision of a period piece. They feel like real people, battling out their bizarre menage a trois, people one can identify with, no matter how remote and distant the world of wigs and periwinkles might be. 

On the other hand, The Favourite, in keeping with The Lobster, is a film that entertains rather than engaging on an emotional level. The script creates a world of feckless characters whose primary motivation is to screw each other over. It’s interesting to note in this regard that Sarah Churchill, Weisz’s character, was a mother, as well as being a dashing bisexual. Children are written out of this world, which is a playground for childlike adults. The contrast with Dogtooth is intriguing: whilst Dogtooth also depicted a cold, harsh world, this was predicated on the interactions of a family, which gave the harshness a pathos which The Favourite never seems to aspire to. In that sense, despite the director being Greek and the final draft of the script being written by an Australian, it manages to feel like a very British film, where wit and a cold heart trump feeling every time.