Sunday, 31 March 2013

mobile home (d francois pirot, w. pirot, marteen loix, jean-benoit ugeux)

This pliant comedy is my second Belgian film in a month. Like Meisjes it is a bittersweet comedy. Two friends, Simon and Julien decide to buy a mobile home and go travelling in order to escape their small town lives. But the mobile home breaks down before they can get away. Trapped, having invested all their savings in the vehicle, they are forced to work in order to raise funds to fix it. But the longer they stay the harder it becomes to leave.

The film is leavened by the acting of the two leads, Arthur Dupont and Guillaume Gouix. The journey they go on in the film is not the intended one. Unable to flee their flaws, they discover things about themselves they hadn’t expected or wanted to. It’s a neat narrative device and the film works well on its own terms. It manages to change gears and unearth some real pathos as Julien realises the importance of his relationship with his father. There’s nothing groundbreaking about Mobile Home, but there’s an assurance to the direction and it does what it says on the tin. 

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

brideshead revisted (evelyn waugh)

Reading this book is a journey through the wardrobe. A journey back in time. To being a teenager. To belonging to one of the most privileged, renowned schools in the world. A place marked by medieval craftsmen, Christopher Wren, Gibbons, Mallory, Victorian gothic, the first world war, the second, the wars to come. A place steeped in the history and nature of England and being British. A place I turned my back on, rejecting the roots I had been assigned, seeking to retain only the most catholic aspects of an education that offered existentialism, Colin Wilson, drugs, deviance, depression, repression and, for some, the birthright of privilege.

In the midst of the years I spent there, Waugh’s panegyric appeared as a luscious television series. Touched by old and new generations of British acting aristocracy. Geilgud, Olivier, Irons and more. Someone somewhere screened the episodes for us, and no matter how large the distance which might have been supposed to exist between the twenties and the eighties, the television in fact reflected our lives. The fey Sebastian and the louche Anthony Blanche were characters we knew well, fossils that had survived. And along with their feyness we also recognised their romanticism. A doomed hedonism, gilded with a hint of religious transcendence. The curse of entitlement. The mysteries of the elite.

I went away and sought to leave it all behind. Cut my ties and sought to enter into something more akin to the “real” world, as subsequent friends and partners might have put it. And these characters, both the fictional ones and the ones who echoed their fictional forefathers, came to seem egoistical, blinkered, narrow-minded. Crass. Indeed, some of their likes can now be found flitting around the current government, my contemporaries, shallow souls whose lives have been lead within this insulated bubble of privilege.

I left Waugh’s world behind and I never read the book. Indeed, I struggled with British literature per se, especially from the 20th C. So much of it filtered through the sieve of inured Oxbridge privilege, so far from the pulse of the world. But now, in Montevideo, I felt a yearning, a good Waughian word, to reconnect. Because, I suppose, there’s a danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There are aspects of England, Britain, the England of which Winchester, with all its mordant beauty, was a part, which will always have a hold. With the sense or ironic detachment which accompanies knowing the value and the absence-of-value attached to this culture, so apparently ancient, beseeching so much respect.

Waugh’s Ryder, the book’s narrator, ends up becoming a cynic, cursed by his association with Brideshead. He cannot bring himself to love his own family, even his children, The very notion of love is so lost in the Arcadian fields of Sebastian’s youth that he never recovers it. His relationship with Sebastian’s sister is a pale imitation, sacrificed on the altar of this agnostic cynicism. Conventional values and desires pass him by. He yearns for the transcendent, to live in a Poussin pastoral, the world kept at bay by beauty. Realising this is something he cannot have (and those who do have it don’t want it) reduces him, stymies his ambition, leaves him in middle age as nothing more than the husk of his youth.

Ryder is a model for many who have the fortune to attend the Winchesters of the world, which keep on trucking, Oxbridge and its ilk. Real life is a disappointment in the wake of the romanticism of youth. The drive to do things, to make the world in your image rather than pursue a forlorn image of Englishness, is missing. They find a way to make society accommodate them, carving out their anointed niches, but everything is hollow. Life becomes a perpetual hangover. It’s no surprise that Blanche declaims TS Eliot through a megaphone. This is the danger of history: it consumes the muscles from within, a silent malevolent host.

All of which helps to explain why I should turn to this book now. On the one hand, it is a symptom of homesickness, or nostalgia (albeit a nostalgia for a life which has nothing to do with the one I lead when in London). And on the other, if I read this book in the UK, it would quite possibly make me ill. 

Friday, 15 March 2013

meisjes (d. geoffrey enthoven, w. chris craps, jean-claude van rijckeghem)

This is the kind of film which they make in the UK starring Bill Nighy, Judi Dench or Geraldine McEwan. An unabashed, formulaic crowd pleaser. It's set in an obscure Belgian town and tells the story of three elderly women who reform the trio they used to have forty years ago. This is part of Claire’s mission to reconnect with her wayward son, Sid, who used to be something in music but is now going nowhere. Sid’s music is not the kind of music which elderly women are supposed to like. Some tracks are a kind of grinding R&B, others more trip-hoppy, perhaps. But somehow he and the singers manage to find some kind of middle ground. The action builds towards the climactic concert where the film subverts itself neatly. Rather than a triumphant finale, Claire collapses and her incipient alzheimers emerges full-blown. The concert does take place, but it does so in her mind.

This twist saves the film from drifting into a sea of sentimentality. This isn’t a film I would ever have been likely to watch, were it not for the blind tasting of Cinemateca. How it arrived here I have no idea. The plotting is as obvious as a game of tic tac toe, and the act of creating a film based on the three glamorous grannies reeks of a calculated marketing technique. However, within the confines of its ambition, the film works, more or less. It’s effective, efficient and shows that the judicious application of the disciplines of cinema should be enough to create a functional 90 minutes of celluloid.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

amor idiota (w&d ventura pons)

Pons’ film opens in madcap, playful style. The camera crash-zooms, pans, runs around with its trousers at half mast. Amor Idiota tells the story of a self-confessed idiot, Pere-Luc who threatens to impale his penis with a fork at his birthday party. His mordant voiceover contrasts with the kamikaze edit style. Mr Pons appears to be throwing the kitchen sink at us and seeing if it will stick.

It does, more or less. Despite the reference to Dostoyevsky’s Idiot at some point, this is more rom-com than deep psychological study. Pere-Luc finds the woman of his dreams and pursues her in a suitably idiotic fashion, stalking her at her house, refusing to take no for an answer, perusing her with a manic intensity. There’s one brilliant scene where the lovers kiss for the first time in a restaurant in front of a group of gawping cyclists. However, whilst the film seems to work best when it captures this comic energy, it also succeeds in inveigling the audience into an understanding of the lunacy of love, the way it is capable of tearing down the boundaries of standard social practice. There’s something akin to the craziness of Shakespeare’s lovers, lost in the forest of Arden or a midsummer night’s dream in the way Pere-Luc whizzes around his hometown on his desperate quest. Or like Rohmer drunk on Cava.

NB: I assumed this film, showing in rep at Cinemateca 18 was recent. In the process of watching it I gradually became aware of the absence of the accoutrements of modern urban life/ love. No mobile phones. No email. No Skype. Only later did I twig that the film was from 2004. Was life really simpler a decade ago? Or is it that just a trick of the light which Pons pulls off. 

Saturday, 2 March 2013

hors satan (w&d dumont)

Hors Satan was the final instalment of my month's subscription to Cinemateca. Life here is somewhat roller coaster. Periods of not-a-lot followed by periods of extreme activity. At least the process of going to the cinema got a look-in. Where it's a staple part of life in London, in Montevideo it is less so. People I know tend to go to the theatre more. The theatre is a place to meet and catch up. The fact I'm working in the theatre here probably influences this. But the London habit of catching an early afternoon matinee doesn't exist. Subtract that and social outings and its clear that there's going to be less cinema in your life.

In Jan/ Feb, however, when I was still relatively idle, I took out a monthly subscription to Cinemateca, the four screen film club. The screens themselves are not of the greatest quality, but the range of films is catholic. Hors Satan cropped up in rep, after Marley. It's the second film of Dumont's I've seen. Apparently his latest is less low-fi. This is a film with a seemingly minimal budget, dependent on a high concept and some intense acting. A young man arrives in town, the northern French coast which always reminds me of Sartre's Nausea. (A book whose cult reputation seems to have ebbed in my lifetime.) People lead sparse, spiritually impoverished lives. They take walks on the sand dunes and become possessed. The young man fucks the devil out of them. The women have an exorcism moment during sex and then they recover. Or is he actually the devil? It's not entirely clear.

The premise is schlocky and Catholic (capital C). However, Dumont's narrative style remains as sparse as the film's surroundings. The long takes and snail-like progress of the plot help to counteract the salaciousness. Dumont immerses us in the tedium of this world, where nothing happens and if something does happen it has to be extreme in order to break the surface of this ennui. Rape, murder, possession. There's an element of a conjurer's trick to the film (as is the case with almost all dramas which deal with the theme of Mephistopheles, from Marlowe to Potter). Is this a subtle treatise on good versus evil, or is it merely a pretentious, exploitative dirge? I tended towards the former, but then I've always enjoyed a bit of painstaking Gallic existentialism.