Wednesday, 29 August 2007

born and bred (dir Pablo Trapero)

Nacido Y Criado is a simple story. A husband is involved in a car crash in which his wife and daughter are killed. He believes this to be his fault and takes off to a remote part of the country. He gets a job on a remote Patagonian airstrip, makes a couple of friends, doesn't really deal with his grief, doesn't kill himself, and finally reveals the truth to his housemate, an action which precipitates his return to the city.

Pablo Trapero's film does various things extremely effectively. Perhaps most notably in his use of the long take. This isn't a static Hanecke long take. Trapero's camera weaves in and out of the action, watching for a while, then getting involved, then withdrawing. The willingness to leave the camera running, as Hanecke illustrated so effectively in Hidden, creates tension, notably in the scene leading up to the crash. The longer the shot goes on the more we know that something will have to break it, but we don't know what or when that break is coming. However it's also used to establish the quirks of character: the initial breakfast sequence establishes the complete family dynamic in one swooping hand-held portrait, the husband's ability to organise, the child's to chivvy, the mother to complement. Santiago's descent into depression following the crash is often traced with almost painfully slow shots that mirror the pain he is suffering.

Once again, a filmmaker perpared to work against the drift of a fast-edit MTV culture, shows that relentlessness is not an essential ingredient of drama. It's unclear precisely how long Santiago is away in the bleakness of Patagonia. It might be anything from a couple of months to a year. In grief, the film suggests, time is of little consequence. Santiago finds himself trapped in an eternal present. In contrast to his city life, with its design deadlines, all he needs to do in Patagonia is wake up, go to work, drink himself into a stupor occasionally, and stare out of the window which his friend swears at him for leaving open. Only birth and death puncture the remorseless of this present, that and the changing price of rabbit skins offered by the only trader around.

Pablo Trapero's film immerses itself in the snowy bleakness of Patagonia, just as effectively as it immerses us in Santiago's grief. Guillermo Pfenning's performance remains restrained, the director's camera keeping an objective eye on his breakdown, rarely letting it get carried away. In the end, Born and Bred becomes a buddy story, with Santiago's friendships with Roberto and Cacique establishing the conditions for his recovery. Their flaws help him to understand and come to terms with his own, more terrible flaw.

It may be that Trapero's film is probing at the values of his country, contrasting the affluence of the city with the integrity of rural poverty. His cinematography, constrained to interiors in the city, comes alive in the bleak Southern wilderness. But this is a subtle, meditative film, and it seems unwise to draw too many hard and fast conclusions from it's narrative. This point is heightened by the film's ambivalent, understated conclusion, which seems to hover between a future hope and the past's despair.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

inland empire (dir lynch)

In Lost Highway there's a corridor in the saxophophist's flat. It's no ordinary corridor. It pulses. It could swallow you up. You watch it like a child, scared of the dark, suspecting that if you go down this corridor and through whatever door lies on the other side, you're in for all kinds of trouble.

In Inland Empire, Lynch hasn't even bothered to show us the corridor. He's gone straight down it and from the moment the film starts, we're there, on the other side.

The film opens with grainy footage from what appears to be a hotel room. A man and a woman with their heads pixillated into a blur. It cuts to a room which looks like a stage set, where three people wearing rabbit heads iron, sit, talk. Canned laughter interrupts them. Back in the room, the woman begins to undress. She says she's scared. Laura Dern's neighbour rings on her doorbell. Welcome to Lynch world.

Which, the film is very clear in stating (in a film that is very clear about little) is also Hollywood. The Hollywood sign makes a guest appearance. Much of the action occurs on a studio sound stage. Dern's death scene, or one of her character's death scenes, occurs on Hollywood Boulevard itself, next to the faded glory of a star's sign on the pavement.

Watching this film is a hunt for clues. One of the clues is that this is a movie about/ within Hollywood, and the reality distortions that place conduces. When you're in a movie you inhabit unreality, which is the stuff of dreams, which is what this film undoubtably is. As Dern leapfrogs from scene to scene, sometimes a movie star, sometimes a character, sometimes a doomed drifter, she often appears to be looking at the action rather than participating in it. Her eyes are the eyes of the dreamer, and Lynch invites us to wander through the rooms of the dreamer's mind.

Which dreamer? Is another question. Who is the Polish girl? What are the Polish characters doing at all? The filmmaker who watched Inland Empire with me speculated that this was the aborted film within the film which the film within the film (which Laura Dern stars in and Jeremy Irons directs) adapts. He might be right, he might be wrong. These potshots at the film's 'meaning' are all we can take, unless we were PhD students doing a full and proper exegisis, as one kind of hopes there one day will be.

Watching Inland Empire hoping to find its 'meaning' feels like a foolish endeavour. Lynch, as in all his work, is smart enough to know that an audience can't help but bring their instinct for plot-resolution with them. Normally he throws them enough bones to make them think they've got a chance of digesting some kind of sense. You don't know what's going on but you can at least hazard an informed guess. Here, the wise course of action is to give up before you die trying. His tongue-in-cheek credits sequence teases the viewer. Inland Empire is self-consciously opaque; non-sense, if you like, tied together by the fact that every frame constitutes a connection with the other frames contained within the material of the film.

No other filmmaker in Hollywood could get away with this sort of gibberish. The very fact that Lynch can throws a fly in the Hollywood soup. Film is not about neat story lines and coherent story telling. It is about an amalgamation of images, knitted together to produce something that looks like a whole, but is as full of gaps as any dream. Only Lynch brings you the gaps. Which makes it more representative of a dream. Which might mean it's more truthful. Or might mean we're but children of the filmic age, and in a hundred years time they'll complain that Lynch was good, if a little obvious at times.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

transylvania (dir tony gatlif)

How hard is to make a movie these days? In my mind, the dream film-making technique was Eric Rohmer's, who allegedly had a crew of about half a dozen for some of his precise fables. Cinema, the technologic medium, stripped down to its barest minimum; the bride stripped bare by her bachelors.

The cost of film always mitigated against cinema becoming as open a medium as say, music, poetry or art. But now the advent of HD is supposed to liberate the filmmaker. The expense of celluloid and making prints can be done away with, and with the latest hard disk technology, there aren't even any tapes. A film can, in theory, go straight from camera to edit suite.


I don't know what Transylvania was shot on. But the screening was advertised as a digital screening, and the cinematography had the abrasive beauty of digital, rather than the subtler tones of celluloid.

Transylvania wears its rough and readiness on its sleeve, from the opening shots of a blurred car journey punctuated by quick fire stills of local peasants. It is in keeping with a digital ethos whereby all you need to do is ward off the evil eye, cast a beautiful woman or two, add more than a dash of local colour, and lay them on to the bare bones of a story. Done well enough and you have a movie.

This slightly cynical perspective crossed my mind as Asia Argento, playing the exotically named Zingarina, began her journey through Transylvania. The script felt half hearted, no more so than in her showdown with her no-good musical boyfriend, Milan. The director seemed more interested in capturing colour, as depicted in a visually impressive but narratively insignificant gypsy procession, than telling a story of any subtlelty. The impression that Zingarina and her friend were just spoilt Western show ponies lingered, and when Ms Argento claimed to have done 'everything' I was strongly inclined to disbelieve her. It seemed unlikely she'd ever made beans on toast, taught in a primary school, or sat around feeling shy at a party waiting for someone to talk to her. Although she had clearly smashed a lot of plates and presumably broken a few hearts.

It's only when the non-story line of her quest for the lost Romany ends, that the film begins to breathe. Nothing much happens. Zingarina hooks up with Tchangalo, the scraggy-haired modern day peddlar. They wander round Transylvania, getting into scrapes, being menaced by a bear, meeting old folk and not really going anywhere.

Transylvania, thankfully, turns into a shambling road movie. And in doing so, it reveals its origins. What Gatlif does, and clearly what he's seeking to do, is capture a world. This place called Transylvania. Which swallows Zingarina up (she becomes a gypsy) and the viewer with her.

And in the darkness of the communal space which exists between viewer and screen, I mused on a culture which seems as related to the Marsh Arabs as it does to Western Europe. Not a Kustarican fairy land, just a harsh, vibrant beauty which has been preserved as though in aspic by communist isolation and poverty. A land with much music, little advertising, its own codes, plenty of beer, wooden cellos, dodgy priests and the burning of coals.

These things have all been captured by Gatlif in Transylvania. If he'd had a big crew and a potage of trailers, it seems unlikely he'd have been able to preserve the aroma of authenticity which his camera somehow does. If his narrative had been more sophisticated and his points more precise, he might not have captured it either.

As it was I felt like I, along with Zingarina, had been taken to this place I'd never known before. And I envied Zingarina her escape from the confines of the spoilt Western world. And this envy is connected to the wish-fufilment of cinema, because, after all, it is but a fiction. Dreams made out of machines, made out of dreams.

Friday, 10 August 2007

tell no one (dir canet)

Every year, it seems, a foreign language film 'crosses over' and against the odds grabs a sizeable chunk of UK film revenue. Examples that come to mind include Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Cinema Paradiso, In The Mood for Love, Amelie, and most surprisingly, Hidden. British cinematic culture tends not to be too forgiving of other languages (of various forms), and the films that manage to have an impact in the UK market are by and large too good to ignore.

Ne Le Dis A Personne has stuck around. I watched it in a half-full Renoir, several weeks after it's release. It's had good press and the distributors must be pleased. Is it worthy of its success? What marks it out from the other myriad French releases which aren't doing such good box office at the moment?

Guillaume Canet seems like a canny operator. He adapted the script from an American crime novel, and directs with ambition. There's various crowd-pleasing sequences, including an all-action getaway scene, and a team of killers featuring a sadistic female who can assassinate by touch alone. The hook is effective - a man receives an email from his eight-year murdered wife. Is this real, or is he being set up? We want to find out and so does he.

Canet also wittily references recent french political history: the police chasing our hero Docteur Beck are thwarted by a gang of disillusioned multi-racial youths on a housing estate, walk-ons from La Haine, who create a mini riot to divert attention. The villainous, patriarchal Gilberte Neuville, aloof in his corruption, reminds one of the autocratic tendencies and absolute power of seemingly all French Presidents.

These factors are welded onto a complex, well-written plot, of the kind they used to make, with hints of Hawks and Hitchcock. There are genuine surprises, and it builds towards a satisfying conclusion, even if the revelatory scene feels unnecessarily stagey within a film that opens with cinematic verve.

Perhaps this is a clue as to why Tell No One ends up feeling like less than the sum of its parts. It ticks so many solid boxes, covers so many bases, that it ends up seeming as though this was the director's main ambition. A strategy that may be commercially effective, but ends up feeling like cinema by focus group, slightly americanised, lacking the auteur's willingness to fail.

Which does not mean there isn't much to enjoy. The director's attention to detail produces unexpected benefits which rub off on his scenes. Francois Cluzet, playing the good Docteur, seems most at home within his hospital scenes. When he is on the point of being arrested, and receives a phone call from his lawyer, he's treating a young colour-blind African child, with the child's mother in the background. We observe the scene through the mother's eyes, which lends it a slice of humour lifting his escape out of the ordinary. Similarly, the Detective chasing him is revealed in one scene to be a keen environmentalist, telling his assistant off for not placing something in the recycling bin. For no clear reason save that it gives a sideways insight into the detective's life, this scene is set in his elderly mother's home, and suddenly a whole sub-structure, lurking beneath the safe conventions of the thriller, shows its face.