Wednesday, 30 April 2008

the last mistress (d. catherine breillat)

There's something reassuringly old-fashioned about The Last Mistress. Whilst Breillat has established a reputation in previous films as a provocateur, this is a costume drama and love story. There's more rogueishness in an old lady's claim that she's from the 18th Century, not the 19th, and they did things differently back in the old days, than in any of the film's occasional sex scenes.

The film tells of the ten year love affair between Ryno de Marigny and Vellini, a sultry Malagan. There's is a tempestuous love-hate relationship. Despite the fact that Ryno marries the improbably beautiful Hermangarde, and they secrete themselves away in a castle on a rocky coast, the ghost of his former lover lurks in the wings. Ryno and Vellini's love story will never have a cheesy ending: if they seperate they would appear to be going against nature; if they are together it is in the face of society. Breillat's film has both a jaundiced and a celebratory take on love: it's a never ending chapter of accidents which inevitably leads to pain and suffering; but it's also the only thing which really makes life worth living. The apotheosis of love is sex, and whilst the sex scenes have no shock value at all, in contrast to the scenes which made the director's reputation in previous films, they reek of an overpowering intimacy which can only be achieved when minds, as well as bodies, meet.

Besides its take on love, The Last Mistress is also an old fashioned celebration of the beauty of its stars. Fu'ad Ait Aattou, as Ryno, is a man-boy, with ornate lips which the cinematography falls for in much the same way as his future grandmother does, as she listens, sprawled in her armchair, to the tale of his love affair with Vellini. Roxane Mesquida, as Hermangarde, has the kind of radiance which some thought had died on a cliff with Grace Kelly. And as Vellini, Asia Argento once again shows her star quality: a quality that comes about not so much as a result of the talent of the acting, but a force of personality that seems to travel out of the screen, borne on rays of transparent light.

Breillat's film luxuriates in all this, as do the three older characters who punctuate the story, leeching life vicariously from the travails of the young. The perfunctory ending seems to suggest that the narrative, whilst intruiging, is not of such great import. What counts is the ceaseless game of love. There's a hint of Swann and Odette, another great Parisian love story, in Ryno's passion for Vellini. The Last Mistress makes no pretensions to be avant garde and breaks no taboos. Rather, it draws its strength from what is timeless, capturing emotions from the past which are as powerful now as they were then, and will always be.

Monday, 28 April 2008

persepolis (d&w vincent paronnaud & marjane satrapi)

The following sounds like a fascinating premise for a movie: a teenage punk girl growing up in the Ayatollahs' Tehran. Featuring, in the english language version, the voice of Iggy Pop. Animated, so that the flights of her fancy can come to life.

If only Persepolis has stuck to this brief. The pictures, based on Satrapi's comic strip, are charming. Recent Iranian history is more than fit material for a major animated film. Everything's in place.

Unfortunately all the right ingredients don't make for a compelling film. Part of the problem is that Persepolis is actually the first chapter in Satrapi's autobiography. Autobiography is not the easist subject matter for a film. Good autobiography (eg Proust) rambles, follows blind alleys, has no great need to stick to narrative conventions. The most important moments in a life might have nothing to do with the most dramatic moments. A fascinating life can make for a tedious autobiography, and the dullest of lives might make for the most exciting. From what the film discloses, Satrapi has lead a reasonably interesting life, but except for the Iranian context (and her near run-ins with the revolutionary guard make for the richest material) there's nothing crying out to be documented.

In the manner of autobiography, the narrative does indeed potter around, from Tehran to Vienna and back again, via one or two failed loved affairs and the inevitable family ties. As a book this might not matter, but as a film it lacks structure. Perhaps this relates to the difference between reading and watching, I'm not sure, but no matter how pretty the pictures, if they appear to be telling us a story and then don't, they run the risk of becoming tedious. I also got the feeling that the animation didn't help to develop or sustain tension. It's hard to think of great animated drama, on celluloid at least. Animated action perhaps (Manga), comedy clearly (Disney), even philosophical treatise, (Waking Life). But when it comes to drama, it's hard to reproduce the tension of a face captured on film, with line and pen.

This seemed most evident to me in the scene where the Revolutionary Guard bust a party which Marjane attends, leading to a rooftop chase. In theory, and in the hands of someone like Mungiu, this scene should have been gripping, but in practice it just felt like another mundane episode, with little tension at all.

However, Mungiu would no doubt have edited this story down at script stage. As it stands Persepolis feels like a compendium of stories and history lessons that don't quite hang together, no matter how rich the ingredients.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

matar a todos (d. esteban shroeder, w. vierci, marino, henriquez)

In 1995 a Chilean man's body was found dead on a beach near Montevideo. His name was Berrios, and he had been a chemist working for the Pinochet regime in the development of lethal poisons. In 1993 he had fled Chile for Uruguay, where he had been, so the film indicates, under the 'protection' of the Uruguayan military police as the complex US run Operation Condor unravelled. This is the context of Shroeder's movie, which follows the investigations of Julia Gudari, an attorney, as she attempts to understand what happened when Berrios appeared briefly at a police station in 1993 before disappearing completely from view.

It's difficult to know exactly what to make of the movie, which never quite lives up to the fascinating premise. The film follows Julia as she moves from Montevideo to Buenos Aires to Santiago in pursuit of the truth, in the face of familial and professional opposition. However, it has to contend with the fact that in the end, Julia achieves little in spite of her gruelling efforts.

The fact that the film has three scriptwriters perhaps indicates a movie that isn't exactly sure of its focus. The director intercuts several aesthetically pleasing shots of Julia as she swims in a pool to relieve the tension she's enduring, but this nod towards a detailed psychological portrait of a woman confronting the still beating corpse of Latin American dictatorships is not carried much further. It almost feels as though, just by dealing with this contentious topic, the director feels he's doing his job, and assumes the significance of the story will lend a weight to the film which it never achieves.

The slight lack of focus is a pity, as the material is rich and the story feels like one that needs to be told. From my perspective it felt as though there was more drama inherent within Julia's story than the story revealed. However, within the context of a Latin America still getting to the grips with events of the not-so-recent past, it may be that the film is more telling. I watched it in Punta Carretas shopping, an affluent corner of Montevideo. The audience seemed engrossed and attentive. All save for one man who sat behind me, and shuffled restlessly the whole way through, as though he was itching to escape but didn't feel he could. In its quiet portrait of the ties between state and family, and the way in which the values of la patria possess the capacity to mess with the delicate equilibrium of the family unit, Matar A Todos puts a finger on an issue which remains a faultline within Uruguayan society.

distant star [w. bolaño]

If your themes are poetry; fascism and Chile it's hard to imagine coming up with a better conceit to wed the three than a sky writing poet from Pinochet's airforce. Carlos Wieder is as evil and complex an anti-hero as they come. His charisma shines through in spite of Bolaño's antipathy to his position. He comes across as an enigmatic genius. It is only when what he writes in the sky is revealed that the banality and lack of originality underpinning his mystique is revealed.

Bolaño's text is brief, corrosive, shines itself like the heavens above a cold Chilean night. Each page contains little gems that sparkle: the alt-German etymology of Wieder's name; or the performance art of Wieder's catastrophic 'exhibition'. As ever in Bolaño's work there's the pleasure taken from the pleasure taken by the author as he concocts his tales. Distant Star uses the format of The Savage Detectives - a detective story where two friends hunt down a lost poet. The blending of discursive fable, sharp characterisation and detective novel is as effective as ever, spun around the image of the fascist poet, lost in his isolation.

Distant Star is a minor masterpiece. It is the fourth novel of Bolaño's I've read this year, and I still await the translation of 2066. The slimmer volumes feel like prose poems. A narrator wends thoughts around his or her theme. The novels exist as much for their digressions as their narrative. The introduction claims this text is amplified from a short story in a previous volume, Nazi Literature in America, and, as with all Bolaño's smaller works, it feels as though this too could be amplified into something more extravagant. If it were not for The Savage Detectives and (I assume) 2066, the feeling might have persisted that Bolaño was almost as much of a dilettante as some of his anti-heroes: a great talent that never quite flowered. As it is, the longer novels did get written, and Distant Star shines as a highly enjoyable crystallisation of Bolaño's talent - a talent as transparent as Wieder's sky-writing, but coupled with depth and durability and a humanity the book's anti-hero so palpably lacks.

This text would be the best introduction to the writer's work I have so far read.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

vantage point (d. pete travis, w. barry levy)

I should confess to the state of my brain as I attempt to review this movie. I had 3 hours sleep on a transatlantic flight last night and I'm desperately trying to stay awake for the arrival of a plumber who's coming to fix the leak that sprung in my absence. It's 10.30 on a Saturday night, I need a bath which I cannot have and a bed which remains out of reach, and I've spent the vast majority of the past 24 hours staring out of windows at a world slipping by.

Which might be not the perfect state of mind for getting to grips with the memory of the film I saw a couple of weeks ago, or then again it might be the perfect state of mind. We shall see. If this piece should end with an explosion in twenty minutes, then repeat the event six times or so from different perspectives, then give up the ghost altogether and ramble incoherently towards a feelgood finale, it shall have been the ideal state of mind.

Vantage Point takes the same event - the assassination of a US president - and repeats that event from several different perspectives. Or vantage points. Immediately there's the shadow of the ticking clock of 24 rattling in the background. The event takes about 20 minutes to unfold. (We know this because the first vantage point is that of a TV news production team following the event 'live'). We see it from the good guy's perspective, the bad guy's perspective, the bystander's perspective, the president's perspective, the global perspective. The explosion retains an almost intimate decibel level, but every time it occurs its savagery is diminished, and it comes as no surprise to learn that it wasn't really President William Hurt up on that stage, but some poor sap, along with lots of other poor sap heads of state.

However, having revealed this final piece of perspective, the filmmakers clearly found themselves stuck. They needed to get beyond the twenty minutes, to reveal the President's fate and inevitable salvation. At which point, narrative discipline and structural ingenuity are just plain superfluous. William Hurt, at his most oleaginous, needs saving, structure comes second. The creators were no doubt hoping that with the discipline of all those taut twenty minutes sections they'd bought themselves a little slack. But a hammy ending is always going to be a hammy ending, and if it's super hammy and lasts for longer than twenty minutes and trashes all the work that's gone before, all its going to end up doing is reveal the paucity of the material in the first place.

The plumber's still not here and I feel as though I'm in danger of recreating the movie, so before my conclusion ambles towards a predictable, bland, neo-heroic, bathetic conclusion, I'll stop. Ending not with a bang! but a whimper.

sleepwalking land [w. mia couto]

Sleepwalking Land opens like the book MacCarthy might have stolen The Road from. A young man, Muidinga, walks down a highway, deserted, in the company of an elder man, who might be his father, and might not be. They arrive at a bus, which has been burnt out. Inside are dead bodies, which keep them company. Who knows what is on the road. It's safer with the dead. One of the dead men had a case. They prise open the case. Inside they find a journal of another young man, Kundzu, telling of his wanderings through the dreamland that Mozambique has become. The young man reads the journals to his elderly companion. They never travel away from the bus, but they travel across the country, as the reader does, in the company of Kundzu's notebooks.

Couto's novel, first published in 1992, seems to nod its head at magical realism, or maybe this is just African realism. In this particular catastrophic world, realism as it has been defined in 'the west' has no value. The world contains too much that is unspeakable to tell what has been done. The writer has to mediate reality through fable and digression. Kundzu's journey involves a stay on a wrecked liner with a Sirenesque woman, a search for her son, his own brother turning into a chicken, and other haphazard, near Chaplinesque escapades. Reading Kundzu's narrative offers Muidinga a way of filling in the gaps of the things he cannot remember, or has chosen not to.

The text is steeped in a tradition of oral history as well as post-modern playfulness. Cuoto seems to be exploring how to write about a world where nothing is reliable: rivers can turn to mud in an instant; ghosts can rise up at the drop of a hat. It may be that there are allegories within the text which passed me by. The reading of it was not always straightforward, but gradually the text's tendrils took hold. In a world which seems as much shaped by dystopias as utopias, Couto's Sleepwalking Land is a playful companion, hinting at what perhaps lies beyond the catastrophe MacCarthy describes, once the tragedy has become routine, and the western fantasies of order have been just about forgotten altogether.