Tuesday, 30 September 2008

i've loved you so long (w&d phillipe claudel)

There's an intriguing sub-culture of British actresses or performers who cross over to achieve prominence in France. Truffaut used Christie in Farenheit 451. Jane Birkin is far more of a national treasure to the French than the English, as one suspects, is Charlotte Rampling. Birkin's daughter, Charlotte is carving out a niche in the Anglo-Gallic crossover culture. There will be others, sans doubt. To this list we can add Kirsten Scott Thomas, the cut-glass Cheltenham Ladies girl who shows in I've Loved You So Long she's capable of holding the lead in a French language film. The English have always found the French sexy, representing the nearest thing to exotic we had for a thousand years or more (even when the English were French or vice versa); being English one always suspects the French wouldn't find their Anglo-Saxon cousins to have the same allure (the French border Spain and Italy, so have no shortage of exotic neighbours, as Breillat's film illustrates), but their cinematic fascination with a certain breed of English women would suggest otherwise. It's perhaps foolish to speculate about what all the above have in common, but I'd suggest perhaps a certain knowingness, a cerebral sophistication.

Claudel, who apparently wrote the part of Juliette Fontaine for Scott Thomas, certainly seems to view her in this light. Playing a woman who's just been released from 15 years in prison, Scott Thomas's beauty is played down. She wears shapeless clothes, rarely has any make-up, and acts her age not her shoe-size. Nevertheless, she remains deeply attractive to the local men. Her parole officer meets her in cafes and talks to her about his Orinoco dreams; a friend of her sister's devotes a whole speech at a dinner party to her mysterious allure; and her sister's fellow teacher falls for her. Here is the film's tension, both in terms of performance and drama: to what extent can the piece hold on to Juliette's dowdiness and her alienated history; when should it let go and allow her to move on and Scott Thomas's beauty to shine through.

Suffice it to say, without revealing all, the film doesn't do a bad job, even if it opts for the ending that the market researchers would doubtless have found the public canvassing for. By clinging to the hard-edged, taciturn woman that Juliette is presented as at the film's beginning for as long as possible, it gives Scott Thomas a long way to go before she can become the woman we all know she really is. (Kind and loving and innately sexy). The scene where she almost savagely tells her sister's adopted child she won't read her diary is impressive, although it doesn't really suggest that she has the heart of a killer who deserved to do fifteen years. Claudel's film rides over the slightly rocky ground that it finds itself on when her sister's family try to come to terms with her crime before landing on the safer, affirmative sands of her subsequent acceptance. The fact she's not the woman the criminal authorities branded her as only confirms the goodness of her sister's entourage.

I've Loved You So Long displays many of the hallmarks of skillful French film-making: keeping the audience guessing for as long as possible (it's not for nothing that another British export the French cineastes admire is Hitchcock); seeking a psychological truthfulness which in itself suggests a quest for narrative truths, (truths that too much Anglo-Saxon cinema wouldn't recognise, let alone know where to begin looking for them); and underplaying the emotion with skillful editing, which in the end, only helps to heighten the film's emotional reach. Having said all of which, I've Loved You So Long seemed, like much recent French cinema, to be treading water: it does what their cinema does well, but it doesn't seem to be seeking to do much more. The self-consciousness of the literary references (including a discussion of Raskalnikov) felt heavy-handed, although to be fair, the Rohmer dinner party conversation alluded to French cinema's cleft stick - when so much works so well, what's the point in altering it, and if you do, what should you change? All this is a far cry from Godard; perhaps they need less cerebral English actresses, (Barbara Winsdor? Roland Barthes was a keen admirer of the Carry On films), who knows, maybe one day a French director might even cast an English actor, to follow in Geilgud's noble footsteps, if one could be found who speaks French.

Monday, 29 September 2008

money to burn [ricardo piglia]

Money To Burn is a brief, curious crime novel. Published in 1997, it describes a real 1965 bank robbery that took place in Buenos Aires. In the aftermath, the gang escape to Montevideo, where three of them become involved in the mother of all shout-outs, after finding themselves holed up in a police trap. In his epilogue, Piglia explains that he compiled most of his notes for the book in the sixties, then left them in a drawer for nearly thirty years before rediscovering the material and turning it into Money To Burn.

There are similarities in his approach to Capote's In Cold Blood, a book that some adore, and I have found on the various occasions I've grappled with it to be unreadable. Piglia's style occupies a similar middle ground to Capote's. Part reconstruction, part psychological exploration of a collection of delinquent criminals. The book opens describing Kid Brignone and Gaucho Dorda, two of the three who took part in the shoot-out, as being like twins. The pair met in a psychiatric prison, were occasional lovers, drug addicts and fearlessly psychopathic. Piglia's narrative occasionally darts away from its description of events to offer an imagined insight into their thinking, articulating their dreams and confused desires. However, having dipped into their minds, the book flips back into the wider narrative in an instant, thereby developing a strangely uncohesive narrative that sometimes feels like neither fish nor foul.

Piglia, who prefaces the book with a quotation from Brecht, resists any temptation to editorialise, attempting to stick as far as possible to accurate sources. So the fate of the gang's leader, who managed to avoid getting trapped in the safe house, remains unknown, something the author notes in his epilogue. He also recounts a meeting he himself had, on a train to Bolivia, with a woman who claimed to be the girlfriend of Mereles, the third gangster in the shoot-out. This moment, thrown away at the end, opens up another vista, which is why this story should have resonated so strongly in the author's mind that he felt a desire to revisit it thirty years after the event. In a sense, one suspects, he is also revisiting his own past, a lost world of Studebakers and stool pigeons. In spite of the effectiveness of the drama of the shoot-out, captured in subtle detail over three chapters at the book's conclusion, the author's insistence in absenting himself from the text frustrated me, all the more so when his brief appearance in the epilogue cast so much light on this lost fable from another time.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

linha de passe (d. walter salles & daniela thomas; w. thomas & george moura)

What no flip flops? Salles' latest, co-directed film stakes out its intentions to buck the Brazil cliches by setting itself firstly in Sao Paulo, and secondly, in the Winter. The film is composed of four chapters, straightforwardly named after the months June to September, when, in the lower latitudes of Brazil, it gets cold. The film itself appears to have been graded with a muted wash, permeated with whites and greys, deliberately creating an antidote to notions of Brazil as a colour-filled, sun splashed playground. The dourness extends to the casting: the mother of the four boys whose story the film tells, Cleuza, played with fag-smoking chutzpah by Sandra Corveloni, has a hard, masculine face and wears plain clothes. The only real colour in the piece appears to be the bright orange football boots that are given to her eldest son by her employer's kid in exchange for him appearing as a ringer in the rich boys' team.

The films of Salles' I've seen, including Central Station and The Motorcycle Diaries, tend to flavour their portrayals of poverty with a dash of sentimentalism. Personally, I could have lived without Ernesto making his heroic swim across the river at the end of Motorcycle Diaries, and the outrageous beauty of that film's cinematography sometimes seemed to be at odds with the issues it claimed to be addressing. In the end, Salles' Guevara seemed more than suitable for Western consumption, too close to the image that sells everything from bars to T-shirts for comfort. There was an anodyne purity in the portrayal, a far cry from the asthmatic terrorist he was perceived as when alive.

With Linha de Passe it feels as though Salles is doing everything he can to rein his sentimentalism in, (perhaps aided by the input of Thomas?). In a simple but effective piece of storytelling, the narrative follows the fortunes of Cleuza's four sons over the Winter. Without laying on the drama, it tries to show how people living in Sao Paulo's sprawling favelas survive. When Dario goes to register for his football trial and says where he's from, he's asked where that is, to which he replies 'Sao Paulo'. It as though the film is seeking to chart the invisible towns that lurk within the megalopolis. Of the four stories, one ends optimistically, two in crime, and the last with the youngest son driving into an undetermined future. If the narrative is somewhat schematic, with the brothers' fates never overlapping, the film succeeds in immersing itself so thoroughly in their respective stories that it's never in danger of being predictable. The only certainty in the brothers' lives is that, at the end of the night, they will find their way back to the home their mother singlehandly maintains.

Sao Paulo is famous for not being beautiful. Salles and Thomas extract every ounce of this lack of beauty. When Dinho goes to the river to participate in the baptism, it feels like its the first time we've seen a tree in the whole film. The series of random bus fires which fascinate Reginaldo, the youngest brother, contribute to the sense of a perilous man-made environment which the brothers have been born to inhabit. Linha de Passe succeeds in illustrating how people survive in this world, and how they break in it too. It's a doggedly anti-glamorous piece of film-making, and all the more effective for it.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

unrelated (w&d joanna hogg)

Whilst a glowing review from The Guardian might have been expected for Hogg's lucid tale of a middle aged woman attempting to re-discover herself on a Tuscan family (not her own) holiday, it was slightly more surprising to flick through a copy of The Sun on the tube to Finchley and see that paper give it five thumbs-up as well. Less of a surprise was seeing Alan Rickman, doyen of UK crossover, in the loos at the Apollo afterwards, his Habitat shopping (a couple of tasteful pillows for those who might be interested) left outside. All these little signs suggest a film that has astutely located a previously unoccupied niche within the British cinematic culture.

Although set in Italy, Hogg's film is a succinct portrayal of Blair/Cameroon Britishness. The Italians in the cast, credited as playing themselves, drift around the edge of the picture, appearing primarily to lay tables or make breakfast or lend their cars to the holidaying Brits. The tourists' involvement with the local environment is marginal: they attend the Palio in Siena, but largely see it as an excuse to get wasted; they visit a church where Anna develops her flirtation with Oakley; and finally the two families and Anna walk to the home of a neighbour, where the English husband of an Italian woman explains how the sofa he's sitting on used to belong to Mussolini, and was presumably used by the dictator for his serial shagging. A literal encapsulation of the the film's implication that the passions which the Latin climate causes to bubble in the British breast lie just beneath the surface.

Aside from Oakley's attraction to the daughter of the Italian neighbour, something which is never developed, these English lead a solipsistic existence, entirely wrapped up in their own drama. Which suits the lost Anna, getting away from her husband, Alex, frustrated with her childless marriage. Her crush on Oakley seems as much maternal as sexual; when she breaks down and tells Vee, her friend, about her spectral pregnancy, she observes that Vee will always be at the centre of her world, which is her family, whereas she, Anna, will always be on the margin of other people's worlds. Unrelated's examination of Anna's menopausal crisis is effective; her aimlessness gradually starts to make sense, as does her subsequent recovery, as she goes through the lowest ebb and emerges, more alive, on the other side.

This portrayal is aided by the care shown in the film's composition and its unhurried takes. The camera frequently rests on Anna's face as the world bustles around her. In contrast to the way she feels about herself, she is at the very heart of the drama, her ever-changing thoughts traced with precision. Hogg is never afraid to let the camera rest on a scene to extract every ounce of significance from her compositions. In the first hour of the film, this contributes to a brooding tension, as Anna puts herself at risk by stepping out and entering the teenage world; a tension which dissipates as the film draws to a close, with the piece slipping towards a warmer, less dramatic denouement.

In a sense, there seem to be two films lurking within Unrelated: the story of Anna's reconciliation to her fate; and the story of what happens to the transgressor, the individual who finds themselves driven by circumstances to step outside the security of their social nexus. The former narrative wins through, although it is in the development of the foregone latter that Hogg perhaps reveals how powerful a film maker she might become. To my eyes, it felt as though, the impressive shouting scene notwithstanding, the characters in Unrelated were let off the hook, though this of course is in part a reflection of my own reaction to the well-observed social milieu the film captures so effectively. However, in its telling of Anna's narrative, (assisted by a beautiful performance from Kathryn Worth), Hogg demonstrates an eye for nuance and subtlety, both cinematic and psychological, rarely witnessed in a British film.

Monday, 8 September 2008

kensington gardens [w. rodrigo fresán]

Sometimes at this point, the critic stares at his screen knowing there's a whole torrent of words waiting to reveal themselves, but he or she doesn't know how to access them. Every review is a little ballet of its own, a dance between the creator(s) of the piece reviewed and the reviewer. It's often when the piece is most affecting that the reviewer most wants to remain as a mere consumer, least wants to get on stage themselves. He or she needs kicking, they can't find the motivation, they're like a sulky child going, do I have to?

Children is as good a link as any. Fresán, an Argentinian, (this will be significant for reasons you would least expect) has written a book, called Kensington Gardens, which is about two childrens' writers. One is J.M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan, inhabitant of West London, a late Victorian and a real person. The other is Peter Hook, creator of Jim Yang, a boy who possesses a chronocycle which allows him to move backwards and forwards through time. Peter Hook is also a resident of West London, a child of the sixties, but Peter Hook is a fictional character. Both authors make a fortune by inventing stories about a boy who will never grow old. Both lost a brother in their youth, and both feel that they were most at home in childhood, and spend their adulthood trying to return to that state through the act of writing.

I am conscious of the fact I am only scratching the surface. I may be on stage but I'm not exactly singing my heart out. Or whatever you do in a ballet. That's because I want to say.... and I'm not too sure how to get there.

Kensington Gardens is a book about childhood. It's also a book about writing. It's also a book about London. It's a book about fact and fiction. It's such a surprising book that in many ways it feels like the best way to describe its properties is just to list them. It tells the story of Barrie's life, in rapidfire, detailed, urgent prose, narrated by the book's other author, Peter Hook. Of course, one of the ways to make a book compelling is to find a compelling story to tell, and in Barrie's curious life, Fresán finds just that. At times the novel seems like a biography, a work of non-fiction, as it takes the reader from point to point in Barrie's career, and the way his doomed attempt to escape adulthood impacted on the lives of the five brothers he used as inspiration for his most famous creation. However, Fresán recognises that there are things that only fiction can reveal. He hunts down Barrie's touching yet ludicrous project, pursuing it to its bitter end, getting under the skin of a man who never adjusted to being a man. Though I should note that I only know Fresán's Barrie - and I'm sure Fresán would caution me not to believe everything he writes. The point, consolidated by the secondary fictional narrative of Peter Hook and Jim Yang is that Fresán isn't really writing about Barrie. He's writing about what it means to be a child; to cease to be a child; to grow older; to see our childhood dreams fade; to live with the meaning of that; unto the end.

The secondary story reaffirms this. Peter Hook (a pseudonym) is the son of a more-or-less forgotten sixties English rock star and his cut-glass wife, who died in a plane crash shortly after the death of their younger son, Baco. They are participants in that nostalgically venerated time, the swinging sixties, associates of Dylan and the Beatles and Julie Christie and Robert Fraser and everyone else you could care to mention who contributed to making London the kind of Neverland it briefly was. Fresán writes, in his notes, that he is a child of the sixties. In writing about that time, he's writing about the dreams that seeped across the Atlantic, found some underground stream to propagate themselves, conjuring a world which was always both real and fictional at the same time.

This is the stuff of Fresán's childhood dreams, or at least a part of them. In writing the story of Peter Hook and his bohemian parents, Fresán gives life to those dreams, just as Barrie, an extremist childhoodian, invented Peter Pan in order to give life to childhood dreams which otherwise, of biological neccessity, would wither on the vine.

Kensington Gardens is one of those books that takes a while to get into, but when you do it seizes you, refusing to let you put it down. In part this is down to the simple effectiveness of Fresán's storytelling, much of it in the present tense. In part it's because he conjures Barrie's world so effectively; and indeed London as a whole. It's a sweeping, convincing depiction of a city and its society. Remarkably, in the postscript notes, Fresán reveals that he's only once been to London. When he stayed for a few days in a cheap hotel on the edge of town. He knows London best as an airport (the airport where Hook is snatched as a child) he passes through. His meticulous depiction of my city is, in fact, a description of an imaginary city; the whole of London becomes his Neverland, and of course, it is all the more convincing as a result. We don't read books to see the world we can see with our own eyes, we read them to see what it looks like through someone else's imagination.

Fresán's notes at the end of the book mention his friend Alan Pauls, as well as Roberto Bolano, "with us forever". Kensington Gardens is not his first novel, but is the first to be translated (with supreme fluency by Natasha Wimmer) into English. It feels odd that he writes with such brilliance about the past, describing for example the way that Barrie (and Hook) always sat facing backwards in trains, as their fascination was in what lay behind them, not ahead. Reading Fresán, as well as his noted companions, I feel a little as though I'm reading the future. Or rather, to be more precise, I'm reading the books that shall be read in the future, that the future is waiting to catch up with. Perhaps it will happen sooner that I anticipate. There's a quotation on the back of Kensington Gardens written by Jonathan Lethem (who I've never read) praising the book and saying at last 'we pathetic English-only readers' can get a taste of Fresán's genius. I am glad it's him saying that, and not me. It feels odd that London, and Britishness (Barrie was after all a Scot) should be captured so much more vividly by an Argentinian than I've seen it captured by most of our own writers, an Argentine who's barely visited these shores. And then again, of course, it isn't odd, because what's required to capture these things (if capture is the right word) is not local knowledge, but a sense of vision, which is also known as imagination. A commodity which Fresán, Pauls, Bolano and co possess in frightening abundance.

There, I'll step back. The dance is over and I've finished my singing for now. Until the next time. I've succeeded in not mentioning Harry Potter (which I haven't read). I've also not explained, Patricia, why this book is also about you, and then, and all the rest. The only thing I'm left wondering is when we here shall start to assemble our childhood dreams, or at least a part of them, from over there. (Rather than over there.)

Sunday, 7 September 2008

le beau serge (chabrol) & les mistons (truffaut)

The NFT notes inform that Chabrol mostly financed the making of his first film himself, and that it did not get an immediate release. They don't say whether he felt this was a disaster or not, but note that he immediately got on with the making the next.

Chabrol's film showed at Cannes with Trauffaut's 20 minute short Les Mistons two years after they were both made. You can see why distributors and the like would have been wary. Le Beau Serge is psychologically hard hitting. The eponymous anti-hero is an alcoholic waster, treated with an even-handed sympathy. The narrative describes what happens when his childhood friend, Francois, returns to the village they grew up in. Francois is a well-dressed young man, who's been to university, whereas Serge is a scruffy drunk who never got close to realising his dream of becoming an architect. Francois' ostensible reason for returning to the village is to recuperate following a TB attack, but it becomes increasingly clear that he wants to save his old friend, something Serge, of course, resents.

In a sense, this is the kind of narrative that might have been groundbreaking at the time, but now has become commonplace, the stuff of TV mini-series set in rural backwaters. (In the UK McGovern's The Lakes comes to mind.) But it's not hard to grasp how, at the time, the superficially unsympathetic characterisation and harsh psychological realism would have seemed like a hard sell to distributors. Furthermore, there's no gloss on Chabrol's shire horse. In grimy black and white he captures the mud and rain and dourness of the rural environment. In the final sequence, as snow falls, he succeeds in convincing that this isn't pretty - it's cold and threatening. He pulls this off in part through the minimal, powerful lighting. The outdoor scenes where Francois goes searching for Serge are lit by nothing more than a flashlight, throwing stark, disorientating images onto the screen; conveying the genuine chaos of the night.

The comparison with Truffaut's twenty minute short is intriguing. Les Mistons is all bright Summer memories of youth, as a pack of brats pursue the beautiful Bernadette, who's awakened their adolescent curiosity and fear. This is a gentle, elegiac film, with a clear crowd-pleasing premise. On the surface it would be seem to be the complete opposite to Chabrol's harsh examination of rural life. What knits them together is something which could only be described as 'style'. Which is to say, the straightforward camerawork, the lack of any great emphasis on design, and the use of natural lighting as far as possible. Both films have a freshness to their approach, the sense of cobwebs being brushed away as a result of a wilful lack of artifice.

Cinema is always exploring the duality that exists between its desire to explore technological frontiers, and a corresponding desire to strip the technology back and let the stories speak for themselves. Hollywood, a cultural-technological adjunct of the world's most powerful economy, makes 'em bigger and brasher than anyone else, because technology has always driven cinematic expression. However, whenever a group of directors come together and step back from technology's tyranny, like the Neo-Realists or the Danish Dogmatics or the Nouvelle Vague, the audience feels as though it's learning to see what's in front of its eyes all over again. Like 19th century audiences who stared at the very first screenings of people walking through city streets, or horses running, we're reminded of the most simple cinematic miracle of all: the ability to capture life, once, and play it back again forever.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

man on wire (d. james marsh)

This is another film that I hadn't really wanted to see. But Tuesday afternoons at the Coronet cost a princely £3.50, so I made the effort and crossed the tracks. So many people had recommended the film that I was wary of it, fearing my perverse streak would mean I therefore wouldn't like it.

It's good to be proved wrong. Marsh's film is a minor masterpiece. It's a strangely moving documentary, based on a quite remarkable story. Not for the first time this year I sat in the Coronet and wiped the odd tear out of my eye.

The film is an account of Phillipe Petit's quixotic mission to walk on a tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. Straightaway, this gives it a poignancy, and the detailed account of how Petit and his team planned and executed the stunt has strange echoes of both terrorist attacks on the building, as though it was made to be the object of subversive attack. Petit's relationship with the building is almost mystical - from the way he describes it, it was the building itself which prompted him to take up his eccentric vocation. In a way his tightrope walking stunts are reminiscent of the Situationists, or even the work of an artist like Christo. Because, what is clear from the account of the three missions he accomplished, these events were works of art, and Petit was an artist, who used the wire as his canvas. (There's remarkable footage of the NY cop who apprehended Petit, saying that he was 'a tightrope dancer, you couldn't call him a walker'.)

The absurd uselessness of Petit's stunts, and the dedication with which his team helped him to accomplish them, feels like an exploration of man's potential. The image of a man, walking a tightrope in the clouds, is angelic, reminiscent of Hamlet's lines about form and infinite faculty. Another contrasting image, from a similar time, would be Armstrong walking on the moon, and Petit's achievement seems no less remarkable than NASA's. However, unlike NASA, the Frenchman had the back-up of a comical bunch of amateurs to facilitate his mission, something that makes it all the more poignant: it is possible to achieve your dreams, with next to nothing, if you are only willing to believe.

Marsh's film knits the narrative together beautifully. The interviews with Petit and his former companions, guardians of the secret of their achievement, help to keep the narrative flowing, and ground the astral story in its human context. When Petit's friend and the project manager, Albert, breaks down on camera, it's a moment which reveals the immensity of what they achieved, as well as the tragedy of this then placing everything that will follow in its shadow.

Marsh is blessed by some remarkable archive footage of Petit, his girlfriend Annie, and his accomplices, suggesting that Petit knew full well he was readying himself for some kind of immortality. Yet it's fascinating to see that when the walk between the towers takes place, there's no video of it, only stills of a man in his flared black trousers, carrying the white balancing stick, framed against the clouds. It feels better this way. Film could never have done justice to the wonder of the moment; for this was an event that is, and of course now always shall be, unreproducible.