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Director: Michael Mann
By Roderick Heath
New frontiers, vast and infinitesimal: Michael Mann commences Blackhat with a brief symphony of cinema comprising visions of systems micro and macro. The Earth is pictured from space, not as a zone of seas and continents, but rather as a glowing mass of connections, a wired-up world, before plunging into the tiniest components of a computing system, where the flow of electricity and energy sets in motion grand dramas. Microscopic grids flow with pulses of energy, tripping the gates of information flow that define the digital mechanism. Mann then pulls back to observe the interior of a nuclear power station, just as alien and geometric as the innards of a silicon chip, circuit boards and nuclear cooling rods as indistinguishable, symmetrical hunks of hardware. The streets of supercities unfold in the same geometric forms in a colonisation of the mind and the world by the precepts of the abstract and the mechanistic. Blackhat is at once a stripped-down, businesslike machine of a film, and one that bears the weight of summarising Mann’s career with covert elasticity. Blackhat is Mann going internationalist, finding the computer age is just as wide open and lawless, replete with shadow-enemies and doppelgangers, as Mann’s wilderness society in Last of the Mohicans (1992) and the mean streets of his neo-noir films, backdrops of burning sulphurous light and ashen, digital dark. Borders are disrespected to the point of invisibility in the new digital world, and the systems of the human world aren’t just failing to keep up, but lie immobilised, distraught at the collapse of familiar fiefdoms and settled dominions.
A “blackhat,” slang for malicious internet corsair, hacks into the mainframe controlling a nuclear power station in China, shutting down the water pumps for the reactor coolant, causing an explosion and threatening a meltdown. Shortly thereafter, the same insidious computer program is used to hack into the New York Stock Exchange and start a run on soy futures. The Chinese government reaches out to the U.S. through young, American-schooled, cybercrime expert Captain Dawai Chen (Leehom Wang) to instigate a joint task force to track down the all-but-ethereal criminals able to reach into the heart of nations. Dawai asks his sister, Lein (Tang Wei, the moon-faced tragedienne of Lust, Caution, 2006), to turn her computing expertise to the problem and come with him.
The Americans cautiously agree to help, with the taskforce’s team leader, FBI Agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis), under orders to move carefully and not risk any security exposures to the Chinese. Probing the fragments of the “RAT” (remote access tool) coding used in the hacks, Dawai is shocked to recognise it as something he wrote in college his roommate and pal Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth) as a show-off gag. Nick has since been imprisoned for a long stretch after using his prodigious hacking gifts to siphon millions from various financial institutions, but Dawai argues successfully that only the man most responsible for creating the code might be able to help unravel it. Nick is released, albeit with a tracker on his leg and U.S. Marshall Jessup (Holt McCallany) as watchdog until he comes up trumps or heads back to jail.
Nick soon proves his worth as he deduces how the stock exchange was hacked—it was by a criminal who got himself a job as a janitor inserting a USB stick with the malware into a mainframe computer. The team quickly tracks down the criminal and find him dead from an overdose, but his computer still offers a thin thread that leads them on through a web where the spider sits in a nest tugging on strings setting hardware—human agents—to facilitate and protect the real action, which takes place deep in the infinite sprawl of fibre optics and circuits. Hacking and cybercrime are pervasive facts of the modern world, but they have proven notoriously tricky, unpopular subjects for filmmakers (and given Blackhat’s box office, probably likely to remain so). Mann negotiates his way into this world with a key assumption that the world of virtual crime and real world crime are not really that separate or distinct.
Mann’s career has been built around probing and dismantling pop culture archetypes—cop, criminal, monster, hero, and perhaps most particular to American mythology, the lone man in the wilderness, be it primal or urban, doing battle alone and becoming one with his tools to survive. This is the kind of person colonial nations tend to mythologise, and yet work assiduously to snuff out in real life. They can be heroes in Mann’s work, but more often are rendered antiheroes because they can’t be assimilated. Nick is the latest in the long line of such figures, whose profoundest epitome is Hawkeye in Mohicans. Nick, once a soft, larkish college genius, has been hardened by two stretches in prison, the first a brief, but tough spell in “gladiator school” as punishment for a bar fight gone bad. His hopes for a great tech career foiled, he felt forced to turn his talents to nefarious ends, taking out his inferred rage at the world on banks and other institutions he considers corrupt, leading to his second, lengthy sentence. In our first glimpse of him, Nick is attempting to maintain a bubble of self-created reality, reading Foucault and listening to music on a headset. Guards to burst in and start tossing his cell, treating Nick to a face full of mace and carrying him out head first when he protests about someone standing on his book. The warden accuses him of using his iPod to hack bank accounts and give all of his fellow prisoners $900, but Nick retorts that he only used it to call up Santa Claus.
Mann refers right back to his debut with Thief (1981) and the epic diner gabfest of James Caan and Tuesday Weld, through to Heat’s (1995) famous coffee-break meeting of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, when Nick and Lien settle down for a toey one-on-one in a Korean restaurant, an Edward Hopper-esque zone of social neutrality and tenuous connections afloat in the night. Nick explains in assured, yet uneasy fashion his wilful dominance over his situation through exercise of the mind and body. Lien retorts that he still sounds like a man mouthing mantras to himself in jail, staving off the moment when he has to actually face the reality of living the rest of his life. Somehow, Mann manages to shoot Hemsworth in such a way that he seems composed of the same igneous material as some of his predecessors, from Scott Glenn in The Keep (1984) to Will Smith in Ali (2001), his usually bright surfer boy face recast as dour, sulky, grey with a prison tan even as he’s built himself into a hard machine of muscle as well as digital prowess (pace all the stupid hacker stereotypes Hemsworth doesn’t live up to).
Mann’s gift for pirouettes of imaging that dispenses with a need for underlining dialogue has already yielded a breathtaking vignette of Nick, released from prison and escorted to the airport, pausing for a moment in wonder and fear in contemplating open space, Lien’s fingers folding about his shoulder a momentary shock of empathic human contact more alien than the bruising, bloodying tussles behind and ahead of him. After Nick’s first grilling by the prison warden, he’s put in solitary, shut away from his music and books: most directors would have made this the moment when Nick’s stoic façade drops, but Mann instead shows Nick pull completely within himself and start doing power pushups, readying himself for a day of battle still to come.
Mann creates in Nick a character who is at once supremely modern, aware and gifted at penetrating the veils of contemporaneity, but also schooled in ancient arts, a man stripped back to the essentials of his nature. A similar schism fuels Blackhat, the very title of which suggests classic genre motifs, the black hat of the Western villain, turned digital avatar, and very old games played with the shiniest toys, but finally regressing from super-modern to street fight. Blackhat, underneath its thriller surface, is perhaps closer kin to scifi, one of those epic tales of a civilisation that devolves from atomic power to sharp chisels and knives in the course of a conflict, as if Mann is playing 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in reverse, or transposing “Genesis of the Daleks” (TV, 1975) onto the contemporary geopolitical frame. Indeed, so much of today’s geopolitical purview is a battle of disparities—holy warriors taking on drones, improvised explosives breaking armies’ hearts. In Public Enemies (2009), Mann noted the prototypical surveillance culture of modern law enforcement counterbalanced by the raw firepower suddenly available to criminals. Mann saw that age as rough draft for later decades of state power versus armed radicalism, rival organisms with internal factions both idealistic and evil, an idea he brings to the threshold of futurism here.
In the same way, Blackhat contemplates computer technology as both enforcer of hegemonies and device for assaulting them, and the moral imperatives that vibrate throughout the film question the viability of rapidly dating systemics (countries, law enforcement agencies) versus swiftly evolving ones (terrorist organisations, online crime), and the characters’ fluctuating status between the ramparts. Although violent action combusts several times in the course of the film, the crisis at the core of Blackhat’s narrative isn’t a shoot-out or a terrorist attack, but a squabble between different branches of law enforcement. Carol tries to get help from an NSA contact to use Black Widow, a hush-hush piece of software that can resurrect deleted data, but her request is turned down because of the faint possibility of the software being leaked to the Chinese—so whilst that same program was used to nail Nick for crimes against capital, looming assaults against populaces must be ignored. The elephantine nature of the modern state is an illusion of control; the white ants invade the substructures. Although Nick’s entry into the team of law enforcers initially sparks conflict between Dawai and Carol and place Nick in an adversarial position, his gifts in the dark arts of hacking, an incoherent sprawl of hieroglyphs for most eyes, prove a powerful weapon, as does his hard-won street smarts. The two don’t always mesh so well, as when Nick tries to scare his invisible enemy with prison yard threats, only to relearn they don’t work over the wires. But when real thugs fall upon him and Lien under the scrutiny of remote eyes, brawler tactics work wonders as Nick is reduced to slashing enemies with broken bottles and slamming tables over their heads.
The uneasy alliance of individuals and motives forced together in the pan-Pacific taskforce melds eventually into a unit of diverse yet harmonious talents. This is a familiar genre motif with specific echoes of Howard Hawks’ fascination with such teams, albeit one Mann sets up only to demolish with exact and startling force later on. Mann lets them have moments of glory in the meantime, as when Carol expertly bullies a resisting Wall Street honcho (Spencer Garrett) into handing over records from the soy run to get a lead on the siphoned money—a particular highpoint for Davis, in the way her character’s mix of wary intelligence and deeply sad weariness seems tattooed on her face, amidst a great sustained characterisation. The breadcrumb trail forces the team to relocate to Hong Kong and confront a gang of heavies run by Kassar (Ritchie Coster), a former soldier turned muscle for hire, and tease out the elaborate means by which the blackhat keeps his operatives at arm’s length. The chase demands venturing into the ruptured heart of the modern world, the nuclear power station balanced precariously on the edge of meltdown, to extract vital information that can lead to the blackhat. Effective communication, as ever in Mann’s films, is a laborious task, to the point where Dawai and Nick can only effectively converse about Nick’s burgeoning romance with Lien over headsets in a helicopter.
Dawai locates the money the blackhat made on their engineered futures run, and Nick zeroes in on a remote unit that allows the agents to contact their controller without entering any wider system, but brings ever closer the point where the virtual hunt collides with the very real firepower of Kassar and his men: finally, when the money begins to move, so, too, do the guns, and as the Americans join local cops in swooping upon the suspects, a thunderous shoot-out erupts as Kassar’s insurgency approach sees IEDs and machine guns meeting the lawmen. The way Mann shoots his Hong Kong sequences suggests he might have been watching some of Johnny To’s concrete wilderness dramas, just as To surely has watched Mann’s code-of-conduct melodramas, and Blackhat vibrates with a similar sense of exposure in the wilderness of the new that is the modern Chinese landscape. Mann sees something of the same milieu as the 1930s America he analysed in Public Enemies in contemporary China, a land of haphazard novelty and striving individuals.
Mann was long regarded as a savant of style whose early work on the Miami Vice TV series helped define a haute couture-like ideal of pop culture, in tweaking the noir landscape for a different age with a different palate. Yet Mann has often pushed his sensibility further than his audience has been willing to go, from the dreamlike elliptics of The Keep to the unique, tersely beautiful blend of digi-realist immediacy and sprawling pop-art vistas in his recent films, as if someone commissioned the team that shoots Cops to remake Touch of Evil (1958). Mann’s visual language in Blackhat has evolved into a toey, restless aesthetic alternating twitchy handheld camerawork and compositions that blend immediacy with elements of expressionism and abstraction. Mann is still somewhat unique in contemporary genre cinema in that he labours to convey his films’ thematic and emotional information visually. Here, his teeming, tidal, oblique camerawork captures everyone and everything in the zone between animation and objectification, rarely conceding to this world even the dreamy lustre he gave his film version of Miami Vice (2006), perhaps because the air of unseen oppression generated by a war with an invisible enemy and Nick’s sense of exposure in the world define this tale and its telling, rather than the druglike, ephemeral romanticism of the earlier film.
The fascination with humans subordinated to controlling structures evinced in Public Enemies likewise arises. The first Hong Kong shoot-out sees the curves of sewer systems, arrays of concrete blocks and cargo crates becoming geometric obstacles of a human pinball machine, echoing the similarly alien sense of the world glimpsed in the work of Fritz Lang and Orson Welles. So many of Mann’s recurring themes and obsessions recur throughout Blackhat that it becomes a virtual textbook of his cinema, a language that, like the hacker computer code, flows through the film, giving it a contiguity elusive to many eyes. Nick’s gift for blackhat programming turned to a righteous end reintroduces a theme Mann tackled in Manhunter (1986), albeit with a very different tone, with the outlaw aiding lawman in bringing another criminal to justice. Nick’s brotherly loyalty to Dawai stretching across ethnic and national lines nods to Hawkeye and Uncas in Mohicans. Nick and Lien’s quickly combusting, almost ethereally intense affair recalls many throughout Mann’s works. Perhaps most revealingly, here that coupling eventually fuses into a union of mutual aid and moral as well as emotional symmetry, a blessed state that notably eluded most of their predecessors.
Blackhat is the closest thing I’ve seen yet to a contemporary Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922), though Mann works from almost the opposite precept to Lang’s founding text of the paranoid thriller. Whereas Lang, working from Norbert Jacques’ novel, placed his infinitely malleable villain at the centre of the narrative and forced the audience to take the ride with him, Mann renders the blackhat himself a near-total void, a momentary personification of a force that has long since become free-floating, as indeed Lang rendered Mabuse’s legacy in his later films: anyone might do what the blackhat does if they have the tech and the will. Unsurprisingly for a filmmaker often obsessed with the noble impulses in criminals, Mann depicts Nick as a hero operating according to a private code rather than an imposed morality, and then reveals how everyone else operates the same way. Dawai uses his power to get a pal freed, and Carol and Jessup eventually make a conscious decision to work according to their private compasses, with Carol driven by immediate personal loss: her husband died in the 9/11 attack, and the spectre of further terrorist assaults drives her to agree to Nick’s most radical proposal—to hack into her NSA contact’s computer and use Black Widow to salvage the damaged information taken from the power station’s computers. This foray works and allows the team to track the blackhat’s operation to Jakarta, but the breach is quickly uncovered. Dawai is instantly ordered by his superiors to cut Nick loose, and Carol is told to bring him home in a storm of paranoia that Nick might sell Black Widow to the Chinese. Dawai, however, warns Nick, and he skips out just before Carol and Jessup can lower the boom.
Mann detonates his own film ostentatiously here, shattering his fusing team as each member is faced with a crisis of loyalty and purpose that drags them confusedly in different directions within and without. Mann then goes one further as a sudden attack by Kassar destroys the team more thoroughly: his bandit team, trailing Dawai, blow him up in his car with a rocket launcher, leaving Nick and Lien, who were just making their farewells as he was faced with a life on the run, stranded and cowering under a hail of bullets. Carol and Jessup, searching for Nick, race in to the rescue only to both be gunned down. Jessup manages to take several enemies with him in a display of professional bravura, but he still inevitably falls, caught in the open and outgunned. This sequence is stunning both in its abrupt, jarring narrative pivoting, and also as filmmaking. Mann’s signature slow-motion turns the explosion of Dawai’s car and the dance of death Jessup and his targets perform at a distance into arias of motion, before zeroing in on Carol’s face as she dies, gazing up at a tall Hong Kong building, a mocking echo of her motivation to save other people from her own personal hell before the big sleep, a fleeting flourish of woozy poetry as strong as anything Mann’s ever done. Mann has been stepping around the outskirts of tackling terrorism as an outright topic for a while now. Blackhat often feels like Mann’s companion piece-cum-riposte to the initially dark and probing, but ultimately victorious vision of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and its careful elisions of questions about the situations is depicted. Mann depicts the biggest obstacle to gaining justice in a post-9/11 world as the proliferation of self-interested bureaucracies supposedly erected to deal with the problem, but perhaps instead arranged to create greater insulation from responsibility, and cordoned, mistrustful states whose turning radius is so great they can’t possibly react in time to such dangers, the human agents of those states, no matter the nobility of their purview, as lost, endangered naïfs compared to the hardened natural citizens of a more warlike age.
Nick and Lien manage to flee and are forced, for the sake of both allegiance and revenge, to continue pursuing the blackhat as renegades. Nick realises that the blackhat’s real purpose, for which his initial attacks were only a test and a financing operation, respectively, is to flood a dammed valley in Malaysia, destroying a number of tin mines and sending the price of the metal skyrocketing—reversing his earlier programme to wreak havoc in the real world to affect another virtual realm, the stock market. Stripped of alliances and cover, Nick and Lien must improvise from moment to moment in their hunt, and the outlay of ruses and tactics lets Mann strip the film down to the raw elements of method: the abstract systemology of the virtual world gives way to physical operations that nonetheless run on similar precepts of disguise, retooling, and manipulation; they use low-tech devices, from knocking a van off a roof and taping magazines to Nick’s chest as improvised body armour to utilising some coffee carefully spilt on some papers as a gateway to hacking into a major financial institution.
When Sadak (Yorick van Wageningen), the blackhat himself, is finally revealed, he’s a terse, aggressive, stocky operative who might himself be only a front for other forces. He could easily be Nick himself if he hadn’t been caught, turned middle-aged, cynical, and utterly unscrupulous. Nick penetrates his icily dismissive shell by stealing all his money, forcing him and the remnants of his crew to face Nick’s wrath. The finale, staged in the midst of Nyepi Day celebrations, doubles as action climax and visual-thematic joke: the flow of humans engaged in solemn rituals mimics the grid of the computer innards, whilst Nick and his enemies bob and weave in free patterns within the system, climaxing the duel of wits, technologies, and instincts in a way that sees Nick victorious. This confrontation doesn’t reach the same level of operatic drama that Mann gained with the Iron Butterfly-scored shoot-out of Manhunter or Mohicans, but it does set a memorably nasty, intimate seal on a film that may one day find the acclaim it deserves.
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Director: Bill Condon
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I’ve been lately reading the works of Jonathan Swift and commentary thereon, a man whose self-written epitaph (“Here is laid the Body of Jonathan Swift … where fierce Indignation can no longer injure the Heart.”) proclaimed his vigorous engagement with human suffering. A Protestant minister and dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland, Swift’s works cannot be fully understood without an appreciation of his belief in the doctrine of original sin, which was weakened by the growing ascendancy of Protestant rationalism, and his attempt to restore through his writings a vision of human nature as corrupt, licentious, and irrational, and in need of religious instruction and redemption.
Now having viewed Mr. Holmes, I am tempted to think that Mitch Cullin, the writer of the novel on which it is based, may be a revivalist, though of a much milder temperament, in the Swiftian mold. He chose Sherlock Holmes, the proto-machine man representing the triumph of the just-completed Industrial Revolution and embellished upon thereafter to reach the near-android superman we see in many depictions today, to spin an emotional tale of human flaw, guilt, and redemption. Despite the current, apparent return of preindustrial religion, deities and their emissaries are decidedly out of fashion in pop culture as redeemers. Instead, it is women who die for men’s sins. So it is even for Sherlock Holmes, a man who needs women like a fish needs a bicycle.
Machines, even well-built, reliable ones, need maintenance and invariably break down after long years of service. Thus, the Mr. Holmes in this emotion-laden story set in 1947 must needs be old, indeed, 93 years old to malfunction in the manner required by the story. But before we can prepare ourselves for his diminished capacity, we must know that we really are dealing with Sherlock Holmes. We first meet him (Ian McKellen) on a train clutching a furoshiki-wrapped box from his recent trip to Japan. A lad is watching an insect buzzing near the window and is just about to rap on the glass when Holmes tells him not to. Like all those stunned by Holmes’ prescient abilities, the boy asks how Holmes knew he was going to do that. The boy’s mother interjects rather unhelpfully, “He loves bees.” Holmes replies scornfully, “It’s not a bee, it’s a wasp. Entirely different thing.”
As later Holmes scribe H.F. Heard envisioned, Holmes, no longer a sherlock, lives in quiet isolation near the White Cliffs of Dover, where he tends bees. He is tended to by the latest in a series of housekeepers, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), a war widow, and her 10-year-old son Roger (Milo Parker). He greets his bees, disturbed to note that some are dead, and tells Mrs. Munro that he wants her to put a tincture of prickly ash—the contents of his box—in his food. Having found royal jelly unable to restore his seriously faulty memory, he has brought the plant back from Japan in hopes that it will do the trick. Indeed, he has written a monograph on the two substances, which we see in flashback handed to him by his host in Japan, Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), for his autograph.
The more important flashback Holmes seeks is to his last case, the one that caused him to retire 30 years earlier. The now-dead Dr. Watson wrote it up as “The Lady in Grey,” but Holmes is convinced that John got it wrong. He decides to write his own account of the case to set the record straight and set his mind at ease, but that is easier said than done. In dreams and free associations, bits and pieces of the case come back to him, but large chunks remain utter blanks. Roger, his own memories of his father manufactured by photos of them together when he was a toddler, joins Holmes on his quest to save the bees and finish his story.
We are told again and again that the Sherlock Holmes of fame and fortune bears little resemblance to the real man; he never wore a deerstalker, avoids smoking a pipe because it would be unseemly for the real Holmes to seem to be “dressing up” as the fictional Holmes, and lived at another Baker St. address. Presumably, the image of him as an emotionless deducer of facts is incorrect as well, because McKellen’s Holmes is very grandfatherly toward Roger, a bright child Holmes begins instructing in the ways of bees and deductive reasoning, and feeling a vague guilt about his last case that he needs to resolve before he dies.
The only problem with recreating a fictional character, especially one as iconic as Sherlock Holmes, is that there is no real Holmes at all to provide with a “corrective.” It all becomes so meta—and Mr. Holmes takes this to the nth degree by showing Holmes attending a hokey movie version of “The Lady in Grey” and laughing at the movie Holmes, played by Nicholas Rowe, star of Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)—that our impulse is to reject this latest iteration, however more realistic it may be to the life of a very elderly, well-off man. Do any of us really want a touchy-feely Holmes?
Condon and his cadre of screenwriters, including Cullin, do what they can to offer us helpings of the investigative Holmes, but they aren’t very nourishing. We guess that Holmes suspects something is not right with Mr. Umezaki when Condon’s camera lingers on the monograph’s inside cover just a little too long. Dips into the past, as the last case slowly rises from the fog of memory, show Holmes merely following the lady in grey, Ann Kelmot (Hattie Morahan), around until he easily deduces from the information he obtained from his client, her husband Thomas (Patrick Kennedy), what she’s up to. At the same time, it should not have been hard for Holmes to figure out what was happening to the bees, and the fact that he doesn’t opens the door for a melodramatic crisis that would not have been out of place in the movie’s version of “The Lady in Grey,” giving McKellen’s Holmes a chance to get overwrought and Linney to scream “I’m his mother!” at the childless, wifeless old coot.
It was a nice touch to walk Holmes around postwar Japan, with its mix of G.I.s and women in Western and traditional garb alike. A visit to the charred remains of Hiroshima, where Umezaki found the prickly ash, is too conveniently and offensively set up as another marker of Holmes’ personal growth. Holmes’ harshness with Umezaki is much more in character and forms one of the more effective scenes in the film. In addition, charred Hiroshima, like the rest of the film, looks simply too calculatedly designed to attract rather than repel. The film is altogether too pretty, evoking a tasteful Masterpiece Theatre bauble for transfer to the small screen that one of its coproducers, BBC Films, no doubt intends.
Parker, as a pint-size sidekick, is pretty appealing as he absorbs everything this old genius has to offer and becomes a bit too full of himself in the process. McKellen produces an indelible portrait of a man on the brink of death, his infirmities etched in painful detail, aided by some exquisitely realistic age make-up, though I was distracted trying to decide if the liver spots on his scalp were real. Alas, Linney’s role is pallid, and even her considerable skills cannot make a silk purse out of it. Poor Frances de la Tour has to play the standard-issue gypsy role of Madame Schirmer, who teaches the exotically outdated glass harmonica. Only Morahan is able to infuse her Christlike character with some complexity, making it almost believable that Holmes would carry an odd mix of eros and moral culpability around with him for so long. Sadly, Mr. Holmes has taken a powerfully evocative character and neutered him in an attempt to show that men are people, too. Mr. Swift would not have approved.
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Directors/Screenwriters: Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In 2014, with the release of Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, a truly great family trilogy entered the cinematic canon. As heartbreaking as Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy and more violent in its own way than Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films, the Amsalem Trilogy spins an emotionally savage tale of human unhappiness as seen mainly through the character of Viviane Amsalem (Ronit Elkabetz), a Jewish wife and mother of four trapped in a miserable marriage to a man who refuses to give her a divorce.
This trilogy is something of a landmark in Israeli cinema. Formerly dominated by tales of the sabra/Ashkenazi Jewish experience, the country’s cinematic culture is starting to feel the influence of new waves of Jewish immigrants to Israel. The powerhouse sister/brother team of Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz conceived the trilogy to tell their story—the story of the Mizrahi Jews of North Africa and the Middle East forced by war to emigrate to Israel. The siblings also dared to do what no other filmmakers have done—expose the scandal of Israeli divorce.
The first film, To Take a Wife, opens on an extreme close-up of Viviane, who is being entreated in the wee hours of the morning by four of her seven brothers to make peace with her husband of 20 years, Eliyahu (Simon Abkarian). The brothers can’t understand how a pious man who makes a good living and never raises his hand to her could make Viviane so unhappy. She can’t explain how she feels and what exactly Eliyahu does that torments her. She simply chain-smokes and wears herself and everyone else out. Finally, she agrees to see Eliyahu, who has been sitting in their living room during the negotiations, and eventually gives him a peck on the cheek, signaling that everyone can go home until the next meltdown. Like the Elkabetzes’ parents, Viviane is a hairdresser and casually observant Jew, and Eliyahu is a postal worker and very active in the religious community. They moved to Kiryat Yam—the town where the Elkabetzes grew up—along with Viviane’s very large family, the Ohayons, from Morocco, and are just as likely to speak French as Hebrew.
The second film, Shiva, opens in a graveyard as the camera, shooting at ground level, records the Ohayons, led by matriarch Hanina (Sulika Kadosh), crying and wailing as dirt is shoveled into an open grave. One of Viviane’s brothers, Maurice, has died from a stroke, and the family sets up in his widow Ilana’s (Keren Mor) large house to observe shiva, the traditional seven days of mourning. Blood relatives may not leave the house once shiva has started, must receive all visitors paying their respects, and are to refrain from any activities but thinking about, talking about, and praying for the deceased. Creature comforts, like sitting in an easy chair or sleeping on a bed, are dispensed with as all of the mourners sit and sleep communally on the floor. Into this hothouse of raw emotion comes Eliyahu. He and Viviane have been separated for three years, and he uses the opportunity of paying his respects to try to talk to her.
The final film echoes the first by opening on an extreme close-up of Viviane as others talk about her and details of her marriage from offscreen. She is in rabbinical court struggling to get a gett, a religious divorce, from Eliyahu. Because there is no civil marriage or divorce in Israel, obtaining a gett is an absolute necessity if either party wishes to date without scandal or remarry. Unfortunately, unless the court can find grounds for divorce—and the grounds that would allow the court to compel the husband are very limited—it is strictly up to the husband whether to allow his wife to go free. It is not uncommon for an observant Jewish woman, no matter where in the world she lives, to be stuck in a marriage forever regardless of whether she is living with her husband because he refuses her a gett.
The Elkabetzes are unabashedly political and appropriately follow the second-wave feminist rallying cry that the personal is political by using this family saga to suggest the larger contexts in which these people operate, specifically, the Mizrahi immigrant experience and the suffocating religious dicta that offer little room for movement, especially to women. We see the seeds of Viviane’s discontent with her marriage in the rule-bound attitude of her husband. He and Viviane have different ideas about parenting and religious observance. In To Take a Wife, Viviane gives her young son Lior (Yam Eitan) some milk after he has eaten chicken to calm his stomach even though it breaks kosher dietary law and excuses her willful oldest son Eviatar (Kobi Regev) from accompanying Eliyahu to synagogue, a refusal that fills Eliyahu with shame. In Shiva, he polices the mourning, pronouncing what is and is not customary and correct, scolding the mourners for not focusing on Maurice, yet behaving hypocritically by using the occasion to try to persuade Viviane’s oldest brother Meir (Albert Iluz) to coerce her to return home.
The women we meet have little role other than as homemakers and mothers, with Viviane a glaring exception for running her own business. Families hold each other close—too close in many cases—and the shooting style of the trilogy exacerbates this closed familial and religious community by confining the action largely to single locations: the Amsalem apartment, the shiva house, and the rabbinical court. Indeed, the closed proceedings surrounding divorce are so secretive in Israel that Gett created a controversy on its debut for exposing the protracted, unfair process that gives all power to the judges and, ultimately, to the husband. Gett is an ordeal not only for Viviane, but also for the audiences who watch court sessions demarcated by title cards informing us how many months have passed as the court tries to force the marriage back together. After 5 years, the court negotiates a gett between the couple, only to have Eliyahu renege on his promise to go through with it. His stubborn refusal to give Viviane a divorce, though perhaps driven by a terror of losing her, represents his ultimate assertion of control, one that extends past the end of Gett.
Shiva concerns itself with family politics and nods at global politics as well. The Gulf War is raging, and all of the mourners carry gas masks wherever they go. The gallows humor of the Elkabetzes is on full display when an air raid siren sounds, and all the mourners at Maurice’s grave don their masks and continue to recite prayers at graveside. The war comes closer during the mourning period when a bomb falls close enough to the shiva house to nearly blow through a sheet of plastic covering an incomplete wall. The war has all but ruined the manufacturing business Haim Ohayon (Moshe Igvy) owns and runs, and the brothers who work there discuss their obligation or lack thereof to help Haim out. Haim’s rich wife Ita (Hana Laslo) represents the established generation of Ashkenazim. Her German uncle invested in Haim’s plant from Holocaust reparations he received from the German government, and she wields his family’s martyrdom as a weapon against the interests of her Mizrahi in-laws.
The films are not devoid of humor, particularly Shiva, which offers the widest cast of characters, displaying to one degree or another peculiar Jewish types. For example, a pair of old yentes watch as Meir frets about the quality of the posters he has ordered for his bid to become mayor of Kiryat Yam. One says his election will create a lot of financial opportunities for his family, perhaps unaware of how bad that sounds, while the other says it’s bad luck to talk about it. Offended that her friend has accused her of putting the evil eye on Meir and his family, she says, “OK, I’ll keep quiet,” a promise she’ll never be able to keep. In another scene, the mourners argue about whether they can eat the gizzard meat on their plates. Apparently, Iraqi Jews can, but Moroccan Jews can’t. Ever-correct Eliyahu wins the day, and one of the women removes the meat, one by one, from the mourners’ plates as Ilana reminisces about how much Maurice loved organ meat, naming each organ like the names of the Egyptian plagues recited at Passover.
Nonetheless, despite some liberal helpings of humor in both Shiva and Gett, all the films are most memorable for the frightening intensity of the animosity their characters show toward each other. In To Take a Wife, Viviane and Eliyahu have a fight that borders on madness. Viviane, warmed by her reminiscences of her romance with Albert (Gilbert Melki), the lover she had in Morocco before the move to Israel, can only spit venom at Eliyahu’s lack of affection toward her, his thoughtlessness and disregard for her as a woman. He, in turn, accuses her of being a drama queen and failing to appreciate how hard he works, even coming home every day to cook lunch for the family. Their fighting becomes so loud and vicious, we cringe in fear and sadness along with the children in their rooms at how two people who never should have gotten married can tear each other apart for their poor judgment. A similar explosion, which Viviane instigates among her brothers and sisters, occurs in Shiva. All the enforced closeness begun in good humor gives way to simmering resentments, jealousies, and physical confrontations. Saddest of all is watching Hanina cry miserably at the spectacle of her children pouring their disappointments, betrayals, and hates onto each other on the heels of the death of her son Maurice.
Elkabetz is an actress whose immersive approach to the roles she inhabits lays all of her emotions bare. I am still haunted by her unvarnished portrayal of a needy, careless prostitute in Or (2004), and with her decade-long portrayal of Viviane, she takes her all-in commitment as far as it can go. Viviane is passionate and emotional, almost incestuously affectionate with Eviatar, and catnip to the men who mewl around her: Albert, who comes to visit her and apologize for not leaving his wife when Viviane was ready to give everything up for him, only to be written off as untrustworthy and an insufficiently committed romantic for the volcanic Viviane; Ben Lulu (Gil Frank), an unmarried family friend who barely notices the awkward ministrations of spinster Evelyne (Evelin Hagoel) at the shiva house as he tries to sneak a moment alone with Viviane, stealing a kiss, but seemingly merely a placeholder for the lonely woman; and finally, Eliyahu, deeply in love with his wife but far too rigid in his religious orthodoxy and intimidated masculinity to allow her to be herself. Whether she is having a tooth-and-nail confrontation with Eliyahu or a mournful reunion with her lost love, Elkabetz simmers with love, hate, and love-hate that overwhelm with their force. When Viviane is all but gagged during the gett proceedings, one sees the masculine fear of female self-determination that leads to such repression and the kind of woman who elicits it most strongly.
Abkarian is an excellent match for Elkabetz, his charisma and masculine certitude offering a hint of why Viviane was drawn to him in the first place. He is certainly not without feeling for her, and his pain and bewilderment at the breakdown of his marriage are almost too excruciating to watch. In To Take a Wife, he is reciting a passage from the Torah at synagogue about a wife’s return and is overcome with emotion and unable to continue. Again, an overwhelming sadness floods the screen, a paean to human misery that culminates in the chain he clamps on Viviane in his vindictiveness and hurt pride.
Carrying a project like this through over the course of a decade allowed Abkarian and Elkabetz to age and reflect with veracity the long separations of Viviane and Eliyahu. Elkabetz is an extremely attractive woman, but in Gett, she looks rather haggard and faded. Eliyahu has gone gray, but not in a “distinguished” way. In the end, like the country in which they live, their war has been too long and too damaging to continue, but peace remains elusive.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Abel Ferrara
By Roderick Heath
Note: This review is of the 125-minute version.
Abel Ferrara has been one of American cinema’s lawless heroes since his feature debut in 1979 with the punk-slasher-art film The Driller Killer (1979). Born in the Bronx, Ferrara negotiated film school and the hard-knock college that was the arty bohemia of 1970s New York, complete with early ventures into porn, before his erstwhile breakthrough became a centrepiece of the “video nasty” debate in Britain and marked Ferrara in many minds as a sleaze merchant. His follow-up, Ms. 45 (1980), stirred polemical debate with its portrait of a young rape victim going on a misandrist killing spree, but also caught many film critics’ attention for its jarring and vigorous blend of raw immediacy and high style. Ferrara’s work superficially evoked Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma: he shared the former’s feel for New York, the latter’s sense of spectacle, and both men’s fascination for violence and contemporary degenerateness conflicting with flailing moral scruples. Ferrara, however, spurned the relieving dollops of playful cinephilia those directors usually offer, hewing closer to the scruffy Catholic-schooled atheist cinema of Pier Paolo Pasolini and pushing his themes to extremes that always seemed to have one foot planted in the old Times Square grindhouses and the other in a seminary library. After spending the ’80s directing punchy, wilfully grunged-up B-movies like Fear City (1984) and China Girl (1987), Ferrara dabbled with the mainstream for a time, directing episodes of “Miami Vice” and a studio remake of Jack Finney’s Body Snatchers (1991). But he also built up a head of auteurist steam that gained him acclaim as a wild talent with works like King of New York (1990) and Bad Lieutenant (1992). The acclaim of the latter film promised big things, but the mid-’90s instead saw Ferrara’s career go awry with increasingly demanding, uncommercial films like The Addiction (1995), and for the last decade or more, his work has generally landed straight on DVD.
With Welcome to New York, Ferrara’s gall proves still copious and potent, as he tries his hand at that old ploy of the professional muckraker, the fictionalised, torn-from-the-headlines, true-crime melodrama—in this case, the matter of Dominique Strauss-Khan, the French head of the World Bank whose stature and political intentions were toppled by accusations he molested an African immigrant working as a hotel maid in the Sofitel New York Hotel in 2011. The case was such a perfect triangulation of contemporary concerns, invoking a swathe of opine-fit topics, from rape culture to colonial fallout to one-percenter arrogance, that if a dramatist written them they might have been dismissed as a corny attempt at being edgy. Ferrara’s film has no pretence to being docudrama or reportage, and the pileup of issue-isms finds him largely uninterested: it’s easy to imagine one of his characters noting the essential feeling that innocent victims are boring. Welcome to New York is, rather, an attempt to digest the myth of the event and translate it back as purposefully rude art for the audience.
The attraction of the material lies in Ferrara’s lifelong fascination with transgression and sin, suffering and sensual greed, base impulse and transcendent yearning. The film’s title alone presents a flotilla of sarcasm, taken from the sign that hangs over JFK Airport’s exit: for Ferrara, who’s been exiled from his native stomping grounds for a time, it’s a homecoming just as much as it’s a romp in a foreign land for his Strauss-Khan avatar, Devereaux (Gerard Depardieu). Ferrara playing the impresario of forbidden delights and damnations has an ironic edge at first, considering this new New York he surveys could barely be more different to the place he filmed in the ’70s and ’80s. That place had its id on full display, and the underworld more visibly met the elite out on 42nd Street. Now, Ferrara kicks off with an interview that deliberately blurs the lines between the famously difficult, ornery actor and his character before leading in with a montage of money printing and shots of grandiose financial institutions around New York, promising that some cheesy Michael Moore or Oliver Stone-ish agitprop is on the way. But whilst the power of capital is certainly one of Ferrara’s targets here, there’s another joke in play, as he suggests the old traffic of New York, both fiscal and flesh, has simply shifted indoors and gone upmarket.
Consequently, much of the first half-hour or more of Welcome to New York is a depiction of the sustained orgy that is Devereaux’s life. Our introduction to this bacchanal comes when an advisor, Roullot (Ronald Guttman), visits his office to warn him about some of the problems about to beset him as a potential French presidential candidate whilst Devereaux’s collection of female employees-cum-concubines try to ply him with creature comforts and oral sex. Devereaux heads over to New York for a getaway and books into a swanky hotel, where he invites the attractive concierge (Ilinca Kiss) to join in his depravities, an offer she politely turns down. His pals and procurers, Pierre (Ferrara regular Paul Calderon) and Guy (Paul Hipp, who also sings the mournful version of “America the Brave” heard at the outset), bring hookers quite literally in shifts to keep the wealthy, perpetually horny plutocrat serviced, and they join him for a sex party where Pierre mixes up milkshakes and pours the froth over the women.
Pierre and Guy leave satiated, but before going, Guy brings in two more prostitutes, and Devereaux starts all over again into an extended threesome. When the two hookers leave, they pause to make out in the hallway before ducking out giggling after a family with kids stray into view, whilst Devereaux looks on from his room door. The spectacle of real desire between the two women but excluding him, their paying squire, seems to sit uneasily with him, stoking him to an even more bullish and intransigent state. In the morning, a maid (Pamela Afesi) comes into his room to clean up, and Devereaux grabs her and rubs her face in his crotch against her frightened protests until she bites him and flees. Devereaux dresses, packs, and heads to the airport. But the maid has reported the incident and two cops, Landano (Louis Zaneri) and Fitzgerald (James Heaphy), cook up a way of extricating him from the plane to arrest him. Devereaux soon begins a journey through the gullet of the New York justice system.
Much like Scorsese’s more overtly charismatic, but also more easefully entertaining The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Ferrara is starting with an obvious point—that one great spur to acquire riches is to indulge one’s various appetites to the extreme. He invites the audience to share both jealousy and disdain for this fat, aging, rich, white man as he uses other people, particularly women, as existing to gratify his tastes, and then walks the stereotype into contradictions. Ferrara has often played about with medieval concepts and ethics of clan, overlordship, gladiatorial strength, even vampirism, lurking within the modern body politic, and like the eponymous King of New York, Devereaux goes a step further, setting himself up as a barbarian ruler with a harem and pleasure garden within the anodyne gloss of the hermetic one-percenter life. Like the protagonist of Bad Lieutenant, Ferrara seems to feel for his protagonist even more keenly and become all the more determined to penetrate to the root of his soul the worse he acts. Both Scorsese’s take on Jordan Belfort and Ferrara’s take on Strauss-Khan confront characters whose drives spin out of control and become self-destructive in part because they can’t live by the petty hypocrisies and arbitrary boundaries others, including even most other rich people, honour or are seen appearing to honour. As Welcome to New York unfolds, it gradually becomes clear that Devereaux is actually on the run from something in his life and taking refuge in conspicuous consumption. His comeuppance, the subject of the film’s middle third as he’s hauled over the coals by system and family, could even have been invited, or is at least the logical fate Devereaux has charged at like a wounded bull even as he rants about how everyone who judges him can go fuck themselves.
Ferrara is one of the few directors standing who has passed through just about every level of American filmmaking save the blockbuster, having started off in the lowliest precincts of the industry imaginable. Part of the charge of his cinema lies in the way he’s never entirely shaken off the grindhouse ethic of raw effect and played at getting respectable even as he become an ever-more individual and fearless artist. Ferrara digs the pornographic fantasia Devereaux drapes himself in, and has no problem showing it or twisting it around on itself, as young, naked courtesans give way to old, naked Depardieu. Ferrara’s dead-eyed portrait of Devereaux as he’s swept up by the cops, charged, jammed into a holding cell, transferred to a prison to await a bail hearing, and submitted to all of the procedures and petty humiliations imposed on a detainee recalls Alfred Hitchcock’s similarly stringent interest in criminal procedure in The Wrong Man (1956). The motive is the same: both films track a man whose interests the justice system is designed to defend being submitted to its dehumanising indignities, except that where Hitchcock deliberately portrayed an innocent man and scratched at the edges of his sense of bewildered innocence, Ferrara allows no illusions about Devereaux’s status as a creep, but still insists on immersing the audience alongside him in his travails. “Do you know who I am?” Devereaux demands of the maid as he advances on him, and, as the line’s use as its poster tagline confirms, it’s the shibboleth to the whole affair, the slipstream of wealth, repute, and power Devereaux is used to easing his path.
The world Ferrara creates is entirely impersonal. The halls of JFK, the tasteful, deadening minimalism of the hotel, rolling surveys of lingerie-clad bottoms, the grey halls of justice, and the $60,000-a-month house Devereaux’s wife rents for him to wait out the subsequent legal proceedings are all filmed in the same tones and hues and with scarcely a skerrick of personality or individuality. Everything is commoditized in the bubble in which Devereaux lives, and it’s that bubble Ferrara is fascinated by and wants to explore. Whilst he never suggests apologia for Devereaux (or Strauss-Khan), Ferrara insists on travelling with Devereaux on his journey so that the weird logic in his actions is laid bare: in a drug-addled, sex-frenzied state in a world where everything’s offered up to him, he sees the latest woman to stray into his room as just another flower to be plucked. (Ferrara’s anger at the film’s edited and reshuffled U.S. cut is entirely understandable in this light: he wants us to ponder Devereaux with the ironic distance of people who know he’s guilty rather than excited by a preoccupation with the question.) Ferrara does not, in the end, try to pass Devereaux off as Strauss-Khan unalloyed, but as his idea of a man passing through similar situations. Devereaux contains evident aspects of both Depardieu—an idea Ferrara warns the audience about right at the outset with that interview—as well as Ferrara. The way Devereaux acts in his holding cell, pacing back and forth, snorting through his nose and bewildering his fellow prisoners, suggests it’s not the first time he’s experienced such a moment, and perhaps Ferrara means to suggest that like Depardieu and himself, Devereaux may be a long-coddled celebrity, but still carries the streets of his youth tattooed on his corpuscles. This becomes more possible as aspects of Devereaux’s character and history leak out, lending the film, however vivid and straightforward it is in most ways, a quality of performance-art provocation.
When Devereaux is arrested, the cops don’t quite know “who” they’re dealing with and take some quiet delight in degrading his type for a change, making jibes about his weight and leading up to a lengthy sequence where he’s submitted to a strip search, a vision unlikely to make it into the annals of popular internet nude scenes and yet Depardieu offers something majestic in his nakedness with his grandiose paunch and refusal to be cowered. Rescue, if temporary, comes in the form of his wife Simone (Jacqueline Bisset), on whom he uses his one phone call to fetch from the midst of a banquet (being given in her honour for her support for Israel, no less). Devereaux’s odd family life has already been suggested when, just before his arrest, he has lunch with his daughter Sophie (Marie Mouté) and her Canadian preppie boyfriend Josh (JD Taylor) and insists in shocking him, in a way with which Sophie seems familiar, by asking him with salubrious gusto how their sex life is. Simone, an heiress with a colossal family fortune at her back who wants to play kingmaker, is also very familiar with her husband’s proclivities. Her entrance into the film turns it into a study in marital perversity as Simone’s loyalty to her husband and readiness to bail him out is matched only by her fierce anger and frustration that he’s completely pissed away his shot at being president—an ambition she imposed on him, he says, to satisfy her own ego, but which she argues was his great chance to make good on his talents with her family fortune at her back. Devereaux finds the whole business, and that family fortune, an onerous thing. His intransigent wilfulness and reflexive ass-covering surge to the fore as Simone call him to account: “I didn’t do it!” he repeatedly bleats, meaning he didn’t rape the maid, before explaining with ferocious miming just what he did actually do.
Crucially, Devereaux debases himself in such moments as he debases others, as Welcome to New York is in part a document of the man who, stripped not just of illusion but also of pretence, attempts to be honest with himself and others, and is taught in the course of the exterior drama that there’s a terrible price to be paid for being honest when it collides with the laws of society. His need to defend himself demands he put a temporary damper on his rawness for Simone, the media, and the forces of the law, and this necessity infuriates him more than anything else as partly the appalling gall of a man who’s let his soul turn septic and is willing to blame others for it, and partly a spoilt child dedicated to its appetites and reflexes and chucking a tantrum when denied. But it’s also something subtler and less easily and comfortably assimilated by witnesses: a crisis of spirit that’s left his sense of common humanity in a yawning void. This has turned Devereaux into an existential shark, out of a wilful, almost philosophical choice dictated by his realisation there’s nothing else that means anything to him, and his own discomfort with playing roles vividly contrasts with the way he can make others play them. “I wish I could have helped you stop,” Sophie tells her father as they talk after his travails have destroyed her relationship with Josh. “I didn’t want to,” he replies, and then, after a moment’s contemplation, adds: “Correction— I don’t want to.” He wants to keep living large in a manner that seems like a 17-year-old boy’s dream of the high life. Just because he’s in trouble doesn’t mean he’s finished with a drama that started long before the film starts and won’t finish until long after.
To illustrate this, Ferrara stages two scenes late in the film in pointed contrast that almost seem intended specifically to bait the audience into blind alleys of understanding about Devereaux. First, attending a ritzy reception at an art gallery, he displays his beguiling side as he extemporises on a painting to the fascination of gathering ladies, including a beautiful young French-African woman named Marie (Nneoma Nkuku), a law student who wants to work for the International Criminal Court: the two slip into flirtation that segues into a night of easy lovemaking. Devereaux is debonair, romantic, still able to use his natural gifts rather than money to get laid, passionate and genuine with his lover. That Marie’s black and a young, spunky idealist seems to speak to something in Devereaux, because it’s the first time Devereaux is seen at his best. Perhaps it’s the last tiny fragment of his youth we’re seeing him use up here. Ferrara seems at his most casual, almost careless in framing this sequence at this point in the film, but in fact, his sly and ruthless wit is working most concertedly under the surface to subvert, if briefly, the rhetoric of race and history surrounding the Strauss-Khan case that buzzed on the airwaves and internet, giving us instead dashing leftist hero and lover. So, of course, Ferrara follows it with Devereaux at his worst: when he tries the moves on a young journalist who comes to the rented house to interview him, he offers compliments on her book as a down-payment for nooky. She turns him down, so he begins trying to strip her naked against her frantic protests, until she finally breaks free and dashes out without her blouse. Ferrara leans in like a romantic only to pour a vial of acid in our laps, reducing Devereaux to greedy, bratty, brutal lecher.
Devereaux’s duality, and beyond that, everyone’s duality, connects with one of Ferrara’s singular recurring themes of people dragged between extremes of transcendence and debasement. So, too, is the theme of the good person worn down by the world’s evil and embarking on a journey through their own underworld, a notion that connects most of his work, and here most particularly recalling Lili Taylor’s distraught humanist turned bloodsucking monster in The Addiction, whose idealistic impulses readily transform into corrosive nihilism and hungry exploitation. A similar process has beset Devereaux when the pricy defence team Simone hires sends him to be evaluated by a psychiatrist, a process he describes in contemptuous terms to Simone. But later, Devereaux wanders the streets at night, with his unleashed confession to the shrink heard as ethereal voiceover, a meditative description of his pathos. Declaring himself an atheist, but “When I die, I will kiss god’s ass forever,” he describes the process that took him from brave, young crusader who signed up to battle the world’s poverty, which slowly and insidiously overwhelmed him by its scale, to wanting to squeeze every last drop of sensual gratification from his own life as he runs from success, from fear of aging, and from his wife’s plans and political ambitions.
Simone’s labours work, naturally: the case against Devereaux collapses for unstated reasons, and there’s nothing left then but Devereaux’s smug smile and Simone frustration at his seeming belief that some sort of natural justice has won out. “The other side of love is not hate—it’s indifference,” Simone mournfully tells her husband even as she proposes they return to France determined to maintain their best face, whilst he turns to the household maid and asks what she thinks of him. She says he seems nice. Why seek blessing when you can buy it? Welcome to New York doesn’t quite have the ferocity of Ferrara’s best work, but it’s still a major film by a highly undervalued filmmaker, and Depardieu and Bisset offer performances amongst the finest of their careers.
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Director/Screenwriter: David Robert Mitchell
By Roderick Heath
David Robert Mitchell’s debut feature The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010) was a little gem of a film that revealed its creator as half in love with the classic canon of teenage rites-of-passage cinema and half sceptical, shambling, observational poet. Rejecting most of the usual overtones of such films, ranging from moral panic to slick fantasy, Mitchell instead adopted a dreamy, protean perspective that captured his young heroes on that most delicate of edge between childhood and adulthood and created a tone that was at once intimately realistic and like watching life unfold deep under water. It Follows, his second film, has gained plaudits and attention far wider than his debut, and like Mitchell’s first work, it represents dichotomous impulses, referencing with an amused smirk a swathe of bygone genre films of exactly the sort its young characters enjoy watching, and blending with his own, very specific cinematic sensibility. It Follows clearly belongs to a recent strand of lo-fi, stripped-down, spacy horror from Ti West and some other recent art house/genre crossbreeds; it also expands a growing body of work by up-and-coming filmmakers that patently reference and revere the genre cinema of the late ’70s and early ’80s, especially John Carpenter’s early oeuvre, whose throbbing, propulsive electronic scores and restrained, fluid camera style Mitchell quotes. Yet, It Follows feels unique, a contemporary horror film that feels even more connected with a type of haunting tale from the pages of musty Victoriana and the echoes of classical mythology, with a storyline that strongly recalls M. R. James’ “Casting the Runes,” which provided the basis of Jacques Tourneur’s classic Night of the Demon (1957).
One challenge Mitchell took on with It Follows and parlayed with elegance was to create as intense and unsettling experience as he could on a small budget and with limited technical means. The very opening is a single, extended shot that unfolds without camera move more sophisticated than simply pivoting on the spot: a young woman, Annie (Bailey Spry), emerges from her suburban home in Detroit in an agitated state, dashing around to the far side of the street and back, before fleeing in a car. Mitchell’s camera stands off but actually skewers his human subject like a butterfly collector’s pin, as it mimics the fixation of the strange, unseen force that pursues the desperate girl without resorting to that more familiar trick for suggesting malevolent presence—the handheld point-of-view shot. Annie drives to a remote patch of Lake Michigan shoreline and leaves a plaintive, heartfelt, frightened message in the event of her death for her parents with her cell phone. The film jumps to the next morning and a shot of her dead body torn and mangled into an obscene shape, but laid out for the camera like a diorama specimen.
The scene shifts to another, equally nondescript corner of Detroit, with Jay (Maika Monroe) as the focal point. Jay and her small gang of friends are eddying in that period between the end high school and the beginning of college or a job. Jay and her new boyfriend, Hugh (Jake Weary), go to a movie theatre to watch the portentously titled Charade (1963) and waste time before the show guessing who in the crowd each of them would trade places with. When Hugh suggests Jay has chosen a woman in a yellow dress hovering by the entrance, Jay looks for her, but can’t see her. Hugh becomes extremely agitated and demands they leave the theater, so they go to a diner instead. On a subsequent date, they have sex in Hugh’s car. As Jay reclines in postcoital distraction, Hugh sneaks up on her with a pad soaked in chloroform and cups it over her mouth until she falls unconscious. Jay awakens tied to a wheelchair in an abandoned, ruined office building, with Hugh trying to break through her panicky distraction to explain the strange and terrifying situation she’s now in. He claims that she’s going to be pursued by a demon that seems to be passed from person to person via sexual contact; it will kill its current target if it catches them and then resume pursuing whoever it followed immediately before. As an added sting, the demon constantly changes its appearance, often resembling former victims or taking on the forms of its prey’s loved ones. Clearly, Annie was Hugh’s last lover, and her death had set the demon back on his tail. Hugh keeps Jay captive long enough to see the demon and be confronted by its slow, remorseless progress, before cutting Jay loose and fleeing.
Jay reports the assault to the police, who determine only that Hugh was living under a pseudonym in an abandoned house in a decaying precinct of the city. After the entity tracks Jay through the corridors of her college, Jay’s sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and friends Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and Yara (Olivia Luccardi) flock to her house to comfort and protect her. During the night, stricken with sleeplessness, Jay goes downstairs and sits watching old movies with Paul, who has a mad crush on her but hasn’t gotten anywhere with her since early adolescence when he gave her her first kiss, but then dumped her for another girl. The sound of breaking glass in the kitchen sends Paul checking for an intruder. He sees nothing but a broken window, but when Jay enters the kitchen, she’s confronted by a tall and cadaverous-looking man. Jay retreats in frantic anguish to an upstairs room, pursued by the entity in various guises, all invisible to her companions, before climbing out the window and running for her life.
The notion of an otherworldly fiend that feeds on sexuality is an ancient one, speaking to a murky part of the human identity and its relationship with one of our most fundamental drives, and the horror film has long been regarded with suspicion from many quarters as a vehicle of conservative reaction, particularly when it comes to sexuality. Mitchell does seem to be encouraging his audience to approach his story as some sort of metaphor, for STDs or teen pregnancy or something else as PSA-worthy. Some sensed a similar cautioning in such AIDS-era films as the later Alien movies and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). Yet, by film’s end, it seems plainer that Mitchell is baiting the viewer in this regard to make us bring our own sexual baggage to his story. In Sleepover, one of his chief achievements was to resensitise his viewers to the reality of youth and its simultaneous beauty and frailness to contrast the usual run of teen flicks where twenty-something models are cast for pornographic fantasies. Mitchell cast young actors in Sleepover who actually look young, and here, though his characters are slightly older, a similar method is at play, as Mitchell emphasises the physical and emotional awkwardness of his characters. An early scene where Jay looks at herself in a mirror in her underwear sees her beholding a new body that’s still finding definition, and its uses as vehicle of life, pleasure, and taunting appeal to others are still perplexing. A ball bounces off the bathroom window as she looks at herself, one of the film’s many moments of jarring oddness, and she goes to the window see who threw it. At first, it seems like a possible manifestation of the threat beginning to dog her, but instead it proves to have been a ploy by Paul to draw her to the window. Paul, in a manner all too familiar to many teen boys, is stranded in a state of desirous distance and perpetually unsated horniness, whilst Jay finds experience with older boys in a pretty adult world of dating and sex, one that bitten her in the darkest, most unpleasant way.
Hugh’s actions in passing along the curse, although logical and, in a way, benevolent—he drugged and tied her to show her the demon and make sure she believed him—is also a potent and distressing act of assault and violation, albeit one that comes after sex rather than before. Mitchell works in a sly joke, one Paul would understand too well, as Hugh breathlessly tells Jay to just find someone to pass the demon on to: “You’re a girl, it’ll be easier for you!” Jay’s slacker neighbour Greg (Daniel Zovatto) joins Jay and her pals as they track her down to a park where she sits in solitary pathos after abandoning her house, and together they delve into the mystery by first attempting to track down Hugh. They go to the house the police found he was living in, and Paul, idly flipping through a pile of porn mags left behind, finds a photo of him with Annie in his high school uniform. This lets them track him to through the school and learn his real name is Jeff. Confronted by Jay’s pals, who think he’s laid some heavy bullshit on her, Jeff squirms fearfully as they interrogate him in a park, and asks eventually if they see a girl who’s been approaching steadily through the conversation; the others casually and confusedly state they see her, too. Mitchell’s narrative constantly walks such a fine edge between droll diminuendo and ratcheting alarm, as any figure glimpsed in the vague distance could prove to be the demon—or just a casual passer-by. The demon recalls all those jokes about the lumbering Frankenstein’s Monster or the Mummy or Romero’s zombies as creations only dumb white people could possibly fall prey to. The thing’s slowness, however, proves to be a deceptive trait. Invisible to everyone but the intended victim, it can approach unnoticed and then spring with a sudden and remorseless force.
The haunting builds to a head as the young band flee to Greg’s parents’ lake house: lounging on the shore, a playfully distracted mood overtakes the gang, only for a young woman to slouch out of the woods and approach Jay from behind. Suddenly, from the viewpoint of the others, Jay’s hair seems to levitate spontaneously, and then she’s gripped and held in mid-air by the force. Paul strikes at the entity, only to be swatted away like a shuttlecock. Jay shoots the entity with a gun belonging to Greg’s father, but even this doesn’t stop it, as it transforms into a child to slip through a hole gouged in the side of the shed the gang hide in. Finally, Jay runs off from her friends and flees in a car, only to crash off the road in a quick swerve to avoid another vehicle. She awakens in hospital with a broken arm.
One of Mitchell’s most original and admirable inspirations here was to have created a supernatural agent which, though ethereal in nature, is tethered to set rules of physical manifestation. This touch is, again, in great contrast to the opportunism of many contemporary horror filmmakers who use supernatural themes as an excuse to assault the audience from any direction that suits their game. Mitchell is still able to wring such a creation for phobic potency, indeed perhaps even more so, as the figuration of the dread being that stalks with utter relentlessness does have the pungent aspect of something ripped out of a million nightmares. It can be outrun but never beaten, hindered but not halted; on it keeps coming, sleepless and unswerving when you’ve stopped running until that deadly little moment when you’re off your guard. Jeff theorises to Jay that it takes on the guise of people close to its victims to give an especially cruel piquancy to its hounding, and as the demon gets close to its prey, it often takes on the shape of a parent: one character is confronted by the demon as his mother and Jay later sees it as her father, the rotten scent of incestuous intent permeates the proceedings as it becomes clear that the demon rapes its victims whilst wringing the life out of them in a travesty of familial roles.
In this regard, It Follows echoes back to Jaromil Jires’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), which likewise contemplated adolescent sexuality via a dream-state landscape inhabited by potential lovers and oppressive relatives who keep morphing disturbingly into one another, as if contemplating the shift of roles encountered in each life stage and also the troubling way those most intimate with us mould our characters and sexuality. But Mitchell’s chilly, anxious vision couldn’t be more different to Jires’ playful disassembly of such Freudian tropes. The leafy environs of banal suburban streets instantly call to mind Halloween (1978), whilst It Follows is one of a string of recent films, including Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) and Ryan Gosling’s Lost River (2014), to exploit Detroit as a surreal location, a part-ghost town where the decay and detritus of the industrial age echoes with a haunted sense of defeat, something usually associated with the old Gothic horror film’s castles and cemeteries. Mitchell’s essential conceptualism recalls that of Val Lewton’s famous series of horror films with their suggestive approach to horror, particularly the psychologised viewpoint of Cat People (1941) and even its odd sequel Curse of the Cat People (1944), which which use the mood of horror cinema to strike at subtler understandings of the psyche. The problem here, however, is that Mitchell actively avoids making the demon subject to ambiguity: Annie’s ugly fate and Jeff’s introduction of Jay to the demon quickly confirm the reality of the monster—which is fair enough. Mitchell states outright that he’s making a monster movie, however artful, perhaps understandably when just about every indie genre crossbreed these days specialises in some kind of reality game. Mitchell wants his demon and the danger it brings to be undeniable on a corporeal and immediate level, his concern not the mind, but the body.
Mitchell’s sinuous, distanced approach to shooting works in sympathy with his tale and also at a slight remove from it: whilst following his characters in the moment, he avoids the techniques of heightened immediacy so common in contemporary genre filmmaking, preferring to to read his characters and their actions from without in alien manner. Sleepover displayed the detachment of an ethnographer studying social ritual and a distracted poet noting oddball asides, and It Follows works with a similar quality. Throwaway flourishes of plot import, like noting the newspapers and comic books taped over the windows of Jeff’s abandoned house as part of an initially mysterious but soon all-too-clear purpose, merge with wistful asides like watching Jay place stripped blades of grass on her forearm or her habit of drifting in her backyard pool—idle habits of distraction that suggest Jay’s difficulty dealing with the moment and capturing that period of youth when reality isn’t quite real. After Jay’s hospitalisation, Mitchell’s camera drifts by the windows of the hospital noting individuals and pairs of people engaged in their own little worlds of cause and effect, from flirtation to dying, before settling on Jay’s room where Greg is making love to her. This proves to be both an act of selfless friendship to end her persecution that is also an artful way of Greg getting his end in, whilst Jay lolls in the confused act of sex that blends pragmatic dispassion and real attraction. I was reminded here of an epiphany found in Suzanne Collins’ original The Hunger Games novel (completely missed by the lacklustre film version) that depicted its heroes engaging in mock behaviour that shades into the real thing, with the understanding that much of teenage discovery occurs in a similar fashion, acts undertaken for their own sake under the guise of some assumed part.
Mitchell’s camerawork evinces a sinuous respect for space and physical context and a concision of effect that’s rare in contemporary filmmaking. This approach that pays off in his suspense sequences, as the drama depends entirely on understanding of where the demon is at any one time in relation to the characters, what form it’s taking, and, importantly, its invisibility to others. The battle at the beach house sees Mitchell shoot the crucial moment in a long shot, the blandest perspective available to the filmmaker, and turns it into a space in which utterly weird things occur, from Jay being gripped by the invisible entity to Paul striking at thin air only to be shunted away out of shot. Mitchell’s melding of his early art house vision and nuts-and-bolts genre suspense mongering through It Follows is generally successful, but cumulatively, the film adds up to less than it should have. Just why is hard to identify. The climactic scene in which Jay and her friends try to lure the demon into a swimming pool to electrocute it recalls the worm-turns moments in Wes Craven’s entries, as the young folk rise to the challenge of defeating the entity. The demon, now in the guise of Jay’s father, instead of venturing into the water after Jay, hurls the various electrical objects the gang have arranged around the pool over at her. Mitchell stages this sequence well, his calm filmmaking breaking into a harum-scarum mesh of coinciding and conflicting actions as Paul accidentally wings Taya as he tries to shoot the demon, whilst Jay tries to dodge all the blunt objects thrown at her. But this climax proves ungainly and anticlimactic, and doesn’t seem to have been that well thought through by either the characters or the writer-director. The pool is, of course, too large to be electrified by such small currents, whilst the demon itself proves hardly fazed by water, which begs the question of why it goes through such an oddly clumsy exercise of trying to kill Jay from afar.
In fact, that shot of Jay and Greg in the hospital feels like the actual climax to what concerns Mitchell, his fascination with human behaviour. The ultimate failure of It Follows, however, is wound frustratingly in with the most distinctive qualities in Mitchell’s approach to his material. Whereas the outside-looking-in approach of Sleepover suited his object there, here it leaves his protagonists lacking the ornery vividness that gives this kind of horror film peculiar kick—think back to gabby PJ Soles in Halloween or everyone in Scream (1995). Where Mitchell was so good with younger teens, these older subjects are a tad ill-defined and blowsy. It’s very hard to believe someone could actually write a film about teenagers stalked by a sex monster where the teens don’t ponder just what kind of sex draws the demon. Would it bother for a blow-job? Anal? Would it follow lesbians? If this had happened to me and my friends in our late teens we’d have all been killed by the demon whilst arguing such matters. For a film that takes on such a subject, It Follows is restrained and resists trashy impulses to a degree that’s passing excessive. Mitchell’s subject demands a crazier, messier sensibility, a sense of dark eroticism.
Mitchell’s deconstructive assault on a much less structured genre when he took on teen flicks worked because it suited an aimless, rambling mode of experience. Here he never quite lets his characters bloom as independent beings; we don’t really know much more about Jay by the end than at the beginning. It Follows is in part a fable about evolving character in which Jay develops into a woman who won’t pass on her problems to others, a lesson she learns the hard way as she witnesses the demon going after Greg, and Paul, who, unlike Greg, believes in the demon and steps up to the plate to shoulder her troubles, too. Both, although given chances—Jay encounters a bunch of partying frat boys on a boat, whilst Paul drives by prostitutes with an assessing eye—seem to retreat from these options. Instead the film follows the couple walking hand in hand up a street with a figure in the background possibly tracking them. The demon now in Greg’s form? Talk about relationship baggage.
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Director: Colin Trevorrow
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers…
I was just a little too old when the original Jurassic Park came out. My youthful obsession with dinosaurs had faded, and if it had been made a few years earlier when my fragile young mind was cramming itself with The Land That Time Forgot (1974) or Baby…Secret of the Lost Legend (1985) then I surely would have watched it until it became coded in my DNA. My just-teenaged, would-be sophisticate self watched it and felt that Steven Spielberg’s school of cinematic wonderment was running on fumes: his shift back to serious historical dramas seemed nascent in a film whose staging and shooting is often half-hearted from the man who made Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). It did have a handful of admittedly classic Spielbergian moments, like the first glimpse of the revived dinosaurs, and the terrific set-piece that is the Tyrannosaur’s first break-out. My opinion was rather irrelevant in the face of those kids who were precisely the right age for it, and the parents who went along with the ride, making it the biggest-grossing film ever for a time, and unlike too many of the FX-driven blockbusters that followed it, most of them have retained a deep affection for it. I preferred Spielberg’s follow-up, The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), an extended doodle from the great filmmaker that embraced the horror movie-like possibilities of the material to a surprisingly impish degree, whilst also invoking its own absurdity. Nonetheless I’ve come to like the series overall a lot more in recent years, and even Joe Johnston’s undercooked third instalment from 2000 has moments of pleasure. Spielberg’s commentary on his own unease as a successful showman, for one thing, emerges much more strongly in the original today. And of course, there was so much Jeff Goldblum: his two turns as wiseacre mathematician Ian Malcolm embodied that rarest of creatures, the intellectual action hero, a walking insta-commentary on the drama unfolding about him, and something like the arrival of geek culture in mainstream cinema.
Moreover, the essence of Jurassic Park as an idea spoke readily and clearly to anyone who’s ever dreamed of seeing a dinosaur in the flesh and indeed to anyone who’s ever pined for reality to be even stranger than it is. Whilst I think it’s still far from Spielberg’s best variation on the theme, Michael Crichton’s novel provided him with perhaps the purest metaphor for such yearning he was ever likely to find. Crichton’s novel was actually something of a rehash for that successful literary entrepreneur, having used basically the same idea in his semi-classic 1974 film Westworld, where, as with his later, even more successful brainchild, he combined the theme of fantasies unleashed by hubris with an old-fashioned but newly relevant cautionary paradigm about the dangers of playing about with the building blocks of life. Jurassic World bears a heavy weight of expectation in reviving this peculiar, beloved fantastic zone and the fascinatingly diverse reactions to it have struck me as so erratic and vehement that it makes me wonder whether or not this seemingly uncomplicated material has a deeper relationship with what we bring to it than I suspected. Part of the power of the material lies in the way it found a way to manifest something wonderful and dreadfully primal in an otherwise very ordinary contemporary world. There are no superheroes, no complex world-building, and the material’s rules must hew reasonably close to those of the everyday. The genre patterns evoke classic safari flicks like Hatari! (1963) more than Godzilla (1954). This is also a franchise built, like it or not, around the threat of people being eaten by vicious animals, and occasionally the fulfilment of that threat.
Director Colin Trevorrow made the minor but witty and enjoyable indie film Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) and found himself chosen for his blend of droll humanism with a sense of ardent fantasticality, to step into Spielberg’s shoes. That must have been a daunting moment. He’s not even the first. Johnston, who had once been a crew member on Raiders, made a career as the second-string Spielberg, but his entry was tellingly basic by comparison in constructing suspense sequences and glib, thin storyline and characters, thrusting this material back to its ‘50s B-movie roots. And big Hollywood cinema is currently crowded with directors nominating themselves as Spielberg’s natural heir apparent, including recent stabs by Christopher Nolan, J.J. Abrams, Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird and more. What does this little upstart have they haven’t? Jurassic World doesn’t exactly retcon the second two films out of existence – they took place on the “B site” island of Isla Sorna anyway, rather the original park location Isla Nublar – but it does ignore them, and only fleetingly references events in the original. Those events are essentially regarded as teething difficulties in getting John Hammond’s dream up and running, even part of its special mythos (the Tyrannosaur exhibit even references it as part of the show) rebranded as, yes Jurassic World. There have been upgrades aplenty, such as they are: where Richard Kiley narrated exhibits before, now it’s Jimmy Fallon. Live animal feedings to the Tyrannosaurus have become the subject of frenzied iPhone filmings. Bored, spotty youths listlessly man the park rides. Hammond’s death in the interim has seen ownership of the park pass on to another dreamer-entrepreneur, Simon Misrani (Irrfan Khan), an Indian Richard Branson-esque billionaire.
Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) runs the park day-to-day and digs up sponsors for the park’s new exhibits, which have to be unveiled every few years because of an unexpected problem with the park’s basic purview: dinosaurs have gone from staggering must-see to a still-privileged but familiar attraction, so they need to up the wow factor at regular intervals. The joke here isn’t belaboured, but still clear enough. The original Jurassic Park, amongst other things, was the starting gun for the CGI age, and the necessity of outdoing the last spectacle is a commonplace expectation of current tent-pole films. The park’s solution to this problem has been to get the wizards in the lab, led by Dr Wu (B.D. Wong, the only returning cast member of the original), to concoct a new dinosaur species. The resulting cross-breed is a big, mean, dextrous creature glimpsed hiding in the leafy foliage of its concrete bunker, given the focus group-friendly name Indominus Rex. Claire’s business-focused life faces a speed bump, as her two nephews Gray (Ty Simpkins) and Zach Mitchell (Nick Robinson) are visiting the park, with Claire charged to watch over them for a few days, by her sister Karen (Judy Greer) and her husband Scott (Andy Buckley). Gray is young and dinosaur-happy, whilst Zach is older and too preoccupied with girls to care much about anything else. Claire is too busy to spend time with the lads anyway, and gets her assistant, the glam but hapless Zara (former Merlin Morgana Katie McGrath), to shepherd them about the park instead. The boys quickly give her the slip and explore the park on their own. Meanwhile, in the pens of the Velociraptors, former Navy SEAL turned animal trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and his team including Barry (Omar Sy) have been carefully raising and educating these ingenious, ruthless killers to see if they can be tamed at all.
Both this operation and the creation of the Indominus Rex prove however to have been okayed by Hammond’s genetic engineering firm InGen, which only leases the products of its labours to Masrani’s operation: InGen operative Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), another former soldier, sniffs around Owen’s operation with interest, quickly making it clear he’s hoping to used tamed raptors for military purposes. Soon it emerges too that Indominus Rex, in spite of Wu’s insistence that it was created purely to satisfy Masrani’s showmanship needs, might also have been concocted with the same purpose in mind. But the animals have their own ideas. Called over to assess the Indominus Rex’s pen, Owen finds the creature has vanished, claw marks on the walls suggesting it might well have climbed out when no-one was looking. When Owen and other keepers venture into the pen, they realise something even worse is happening: the creature is hiding, having created a strategy to escape and lured them in. With a quick, terrifying charge, the monster squeezes through the closing gate, devours a couple of keepers, and Owen only avoids the same fate by dousing himself in petrol, hiding from the creature’s sense of smell. With Indominus out stalking the byways of the park, Claire and Misrani are forced to call in the crowds and send out the park security team to hunt the beast down. Soon however they find they’re up against a creature that’s more than a toothy critter, but an unholy chimera capable of far more than just stomping on folks, blessed with ruthless intelligence and chameleonic abilities. Meanwhile Zach, in a moment of teen bravado, decides to take himself and Gray in their bubble-like safari vehicle out through a hole mysteriously punched in a perimeter fence…
Jurassic World extends a ‘90s franchise, and repeatedly evokes the originals although it sidesteps much of their legacy. But it represents more of a mash-up of classic ‘80s Hollywood sci-fi and action flicks of which Jurassic Park was really a late entry, in a way that many of the creators of those films, including Spielberg himself, John Carpenter, James Cameron et al, would readily recognise. Much of their genre filmmaking was just as referential of favoured models as anything Quentin Tarantino has ever made, but opposing the post-modernist reflexes where the quotations are demarcated, but are instead carefully contoured in narratives. InGen has become a Weyland-Yutani-esque company, and some of the action scenes directly evoke Aliens (1986). Owen’s characterisation, as a scruff who may well prefer animals to people after being left more than a little alienated by his combat service, evokes many a cool rough-trade loner from the time (down to living in a trailer and working on his motorcycle), and even recalled to my mind John Heard’s character in Paul Schrader’s oddball remake of Cat People (1982). There’s even a dash of Chuck Russell’s The Blob (1988) in there, as the apparently random eruption of monstrosity proves to be engineered, with some of that film’s giddy, antisocial pulp energy, if not its outrageous gore. Trevorrow tips his hat jokily to Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), as a dead Great White is fed to the monstrous marine Mosasaurus that is one of the park’s main attractions. But perhaps Jurassic World owes most to Jaws 3-D (1983), the amusingly trashy sequel that was itself heavily reminiscent of authentic ‘50s B-movie Revenge of the Creature (1955) in exploiting the notion of captive monsters unleashed in fun parks. Jaws 3-D, which was directed by Joe Alves, production manager on the first two Jaws films, took the idea of carnival barking as a base aesthetic for the film. Trevorrow does a similar thing in the early scenes of Jurassic World, entering and beholding the park with the same breathless sense of discovery as Gray and Zach, surveying its expanses in swooping, shiny helicopter shots, filming kids and adults enjoying the attractions in a manner that does a far better job than Bird’s Tomorrowland managed at recreating the tony vibe of a great ad selling childhood fantasy in one grand package.
Jurassic World also highlights the original story’s recycling of Westworld by going the whole hog and giving us the fully working theme park that never got off the ground in the original. This demands some tweaks to the timeline, including that Hammond had decided by the end of the first film not to try any longer. Perhaps the almighty dollar demanded a change of mind. Masrani, like Hammond himself, is portrayed as a generally decent guy with blind spots, rather than a blunt corporate villain. He is prone to the over-confidence of success: he’s introduced learning to fly his own helicopter, a detail that’s both an important plot point and a commentary on his character, with his inability to completely master both the complex systems of genomes and flight, jobs that can’t be multitasked or mastered with people skills, ultimately conspiring to destroy him. Claire combines a couple of well-worn character traits from some of Spielberg’s films: like Peter in Hook (1991) she’s a workaholic, and like Alan Grant in the first Jurassic Park, she’s a dedicated professional awkward around kids, who bring the threat not of domesticity but of instability. For Spielberg those themes were rather more personal than they seemed at first, conveying his concern that his own love for filmmaking, not just directing but managing a whole, important infrastructure of production, might cause him to neglect his burgeoning family. For Trevorrow these are mere pop tropes to evoke. This is most awkward when Gray’s anxiety of their parents’ impending divorce is suddenly brought up, as he alerts Zach about what’s going on, only to then drop the theme: the theme of familial anxiety, so central to Spielberg and one of the rawest nerves he always touched in his heyday, is raised but only half-heartedly pursued. Trevorrow does work in one good touch: when informed that his folks might be divorcing, Zach pouts and worries for a moment, and then says most of his friend’s parents are split too, and you can see by his look the battle between nascent adult bravado and childish fear.
Mid-film the boys discover the ruins, lost in the jungle and half-buried, of the original Jurassic Park’s central post, littered with lost memorabilia and technology, down to the famous “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth” banner that set the seal on the original experience, quickly repurposed as fuel for a burning torch. Trevorrow here literalises the sensation so many reboot franchise episodes have of being built on the ruins of previous successes, replete with references left lying about like so much refuse, and give a metaphor for his own film that doubles as neat character business, as the two boys hurriedly patch together a working jeep and use it dash away to safety. Trevorrow’s scant filmography might well render moot what his own interests here are other than honouring old movies he loves, but there is a clear recurring motif from Safety Not Guaranteed, manifest in the screwball-flavoured romance of uptight office female and slightly asocial male, a jokey variation on the call-of-the-wild theme that the rest of the film purveys rather more urgently: Safety Not Guaranteed was far more free-wheeling riff on romantic comedies as it was on sci-fi, and whilst no-one would pretend Jurassic World is sophisticated as a character comedy, this reflex of the director is more than readily apparent throughout. Owen is as wobbly at human socialisation as he is accomplished at it with raptors, but then so is Claire, who wears her business suit like armour plate; so of course both are thrown in together in trying to extract Zach and Gray from the park, heading into a version of The African Queen (1951) with giant lizards. Claire, although sharing traits with Grant from the original, is closer in spirit to a gender-swap version of Gennaro, the lawyer who was unceremoniously eaten in Spielberg’s film but in Crichton’s book went through an enjoyable mouse-to-lion growth from corporate dweeb to dinosaur hunter. Probably the film’s funniest vignette comes when Claire, in silent retort to Owen’s scepticism over her being able to follow him on a jungle hunt in high heels, quickly gives herself an action chick makeover in the manner of dozens of plucky heroines only to be met by Owen’s bewildered stare.
Howard hasn’t thus far had the career she might have, considering both her pedigree and her talent: after catching eyes as the chief salvation of The Village (2004), her performance in Kenneth Branagh’s little-seen but marvellous As You Like It (2006) was a coup of the kind I don’t easily forget. She’s been hovering on the edge of stardom since, and she gives a mischievous performance as a square character: Howard’s Claire, slightly ridiculous, largely delicious, is very much the heart of the film, a not-quite-normal person forced to operate far beyond her experience and finds herself adept. Backwards and in heels, too. Pratt’s outright play for the kind of Harrison Ford–esque status many feel he could obtain after Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) comes very close to succeeding, although Owen lacks the kind of truly defining gesture to separate him from the pack, unless it’s his unexpected empathy for animals – or the douchey air-humping gesture he makes to Claire’s eye-rolling disdain, a moment that again recalls Trevorrow’s debut, showing there’s a bit of a naughty little boy in Owen. Which is perhaps why Zach and Gray, also naughty little boys, gravitate to him so quickly. Pratt’s large, emotionally communicative eyes undercut the potential macho pomposity in the role. When the first Jurassic Park came out much of this business about genetic science was just gaining credibility: now when D’Onofrio’s Hoskins speaks of the dinosaurs as specific property of InGen it’s clear the filmmakers are thinking about the efforts of corporations to patent their discoveries in genetics, with the implied riposte that no living system obeys legalese. Malcolm’s chaos theorising in the original made a similar point, but here it’s Owen who voices the same ideas in a more flesh-and-blood manner as he contemplates such questions in terms of animal behaviour patterns, warning that Indominus might lack socialisation to a point that will make it intolerantly violent (it ate the sibling the genetic engineers provided with, a dark rhyme to the alternate theme of the Mitchell brothers’ mutual reliance). The film’s emotional crux follows hard upon as the duo come upon a brachiosaur mauled by Indominus, a moment that echoes the scene with the Triceratops in the original except this time with the immediacy of an animal’s pain and death making it clear that the dinosaurs are indeed animals and not mere exhibits, in the gentlest variation on the elsewhere more urgently portrayed alternations of understanding and inimical attitude between life-forms.
The ins and outs of this plot, as Hopkins asserts authority over situation to further his own ends, including spiriting Wu away, are occasionally clunky (and obviously intended to set up further franchise expansion, in a not-so-salutary way), but then that’s true of most of the films Jurassic World sets out to honour. Hopkins’ crew of bullying heavies moves in to take over the park’s control room to ply their solution to the problem, but when it fails they pack up and depart again with equally efficient save-ass speed, leaving Claire’s chief tech nerds Lowery (Jake Johnson) and Vivian (Lauren Lapkus) to pick up the pieces. The story hinges on the question as to whether Owen can maintain the kind of control over the raptors Hopkins expects he can, and emotionally blackmails him into trying his plan of setting the raptors on Indominus. Except that the big bad proves to have raptor in her make-up, and swiftly turns the creatures on their masters in the dark forest for a frenzied repast. To be frank, I enjoyed this infinitely more than the year’s far more critically lauded retro-rocker, Mad Max: Fury Road, which struck me as two hours of fan service in exactly the wrong way, a reductio ad absurdum of action cinema to just running and shooting, for all the technical swagger. Jurassic World doesn’t skimp on fan service either, but its set pieces and cheer-along touches, like Owen riding off to battle on motorcycle with his gang of raptors, and the finale’s all-in monster brawl, have clear narrative purpose and spin off from the story with the sort of rolling semi-logic that Spielberg always made the guiding principle of his films, rather than simply and cynically reducing story to pretext. In fact, I enjoyed this more than any summer blockbuster-season film since Pacific Rim (2013). Perhaps that exposes my still-guttering love for behemoths smashing things up, but both films share a crucial feeling, as if they are the products of filmmakers trying to articulate real affection for the material.
Trevorrow has actually done what those other, more famous pretenders to the Amblin throne have failed to do, and recreate the tone, seemingly naïve and properly breathless, of the old-school blockbuster. His direction has pop energy that doesn’t strain to modish (little wobble-cam or incoherent editing). The film has characters, or at least caricatures who vibrate effectively in this setting. It has a structure, a set-up, complication, and a proper climax. It doesn’t trip over itself trying to be cleverer than the audience, try to paste over a lack of inspiration with glib humour like Pratt’s last hit vehicle Guardians of the Galaxy, or get bogged down with pseudo-intellectualisms (see the works of Nolan, Christopher). It is old-fashioned, generally in the best way. Trevorrow gives the film an edge that wasn’t uncommon in the kinds of ‘80s fare he’s honouring, as pterosaurs attack hapless funfair visitors in a sequence recalling The Birds (1963). Poor Zara finishes up becoming object of a tug-of-war between Pteranodon and Mosasaurus in a surprisingly intense moment of life-and-death struggle that ends grimly. This isn’t quite a horror moment in an otherwise juvenile-friendly epic – the only real bloodshed seen in the film comes when a more expected victim falls under the raptors – but it does signal a return of the edge this sort of fare used to have, to the sort of flourish Spielberg once served up easily in his early Indiana Jones films: the fantasy has a dark side, and the dark side has teeth. Although the mayhem here is more expansive than in Spielberg’s entries, moreover, Trevorrow is much fonder of his main characters and serves fewer of them up for lunch, even going so far as to actually, self-consciously avoid that most sadly common trope of this sort of thing, killing off the major black character.
Trevorrow tweaks this all-hell-breaking-lose aspect until it starts to recall The Simpsons episode “Itchy and Scratchyland”, that show’s scabrous lampoon-cum-celebration of Crichton’s tales. Of course, this never really becomes satiric, but offers rather a light sheen of sarcasm that reflects a readiness nonetheless to contemplate the “rollercoaster” ideal that initially defined the modern blockbuster as an actual theme park attraction, plied smartly but not smart-assed. More vitally, too, Trevorrow and fellow screenwriters ply a concept that Gareth Edwards tried to articulate but failed to properly dramatize in his take on Godzilla last year, that of its monsters as nobly self-sufficient, even heroic in their utterly natural way, in a manner that does not necessarily respect humankind. Although Owen’s bond with the raptors does ultimately snap back into effect, it becomes clear that even those fleet killing machines can’t handle Indominus alone, forcing Claire to go fetch a bigger set of teeth for a finale that’s gleeful in satisfying the audience with a grand display of dinosaur tag-team wrestling, the lawless ferocity of these creatures turned to good use. Jurassic World is definitely not perfect. Although I appreciate that the film has a first act, that act is not always that elegant in unspooling, and Hopkins’ subplot is just never that well-handled, even his regulation icky end. But goddamn it, I liked this film, down to its last line, a capper that could indeed have come of the kinds of Hawksian comedy-adventures that lies deep in this film’s DNA strand. Jurassic World has been an instantaneous, enormous hit, and for once that’s fairly deserved in my mind.
Only next time, if there must be more sequels, please bring plenty of Jeff Goldblum.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Brett Haley
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Media are very big on groups. Every generation has to have a name—the newest one is Generation Z (posing the question of what to do about alphabet names now that the end has been reached, and quickly). My generation, the Baby Boomers, has been moving into retirement for the past several years, and even though moviemakers have never gotten along that well with elderly subjects, because we are just about the last large group that attended movie theatres regularly, it makes sense that exhibitors would be interested in programming new films about our time of life. We’ve had everything from Alzheimer’s movies like Away from Her (2007) and Still Alice (2014) to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) and its sequel The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015). You’ll forgive me if I don’t jump for joy at these choices—vital women vanishing into a vast blankness and quirky Brits doddering about being cranky and precious. The few films of substance about old age, such as Time to Die (2007), A Simple Life (2011), and Amour (2012)—all foreign films—also seem to care more about our deaths (with dignity!) than our lives.
I’ll See You in My Dreams is that rare film that takes an interest in the lives of retired Baby Boomers, a new breed of youthful elderly, with a particular emphasis on one woman, Carol Petersen (Blythe Danner), and the fabric of her life lived outside the mainstream. Carol received a large life insurance payout when her lawyer husband died in a plane crash when she was about 50. Not enjoying her career teaching reading and “subjects no one else wanted,” she decided to opt out of the rat race. Now 70, she lives in comfort with her dog Hazel in an attractive, but relatively modest Southern California house with a pool, waking up to a 6 a.m. alarm, taking her morning pills, reading the paper edition of The New York Times with her coffee, and playing cards and golf with her friends Sally (Rhea Perlman), Rona (Mary Kay Place), and Georgina (June Squibb), who live in a retirement community. Throughout, she drinks a lot of very good chardonnay and never has more than a couple of items on the “to do” whiteboard in her kitchen.
Although Carol’s husband died long ago, the film reminds us that death is part of the soundtrack of even comfortable, active people after they have entered the red zone of the life cycle. Before we have a chance to get to know Hazel, Carol must have him euthanized. Only a small comment to him at the very beginning of the film—“Did you have a good night?”—lets on that he has been unwell, and then only in retrospect. The film spares us nothing of this sad duty, as Carol sits next to her companion while the vet (Aarti Mann) administers a sedative and then the drug that will “stop his heart.” Director Haley moves his camera outside the procedure room, observing Carol’s grief from a discreet distance through a window.
In the wake of this fresh loss, Carol’s life is primed for a change. A new employee of her pool service, Lloyd (Martin Starr), shows up to clean her pool, and after an awkward beginning, the two begin a tentative friendship. Lloyd tells Carol he lives with his mother after finding that the only use he has been able to find for his degree in poetry is writing lyrics for songs he likely will never record. He notices a photo of Carol singing in a group. She says she gave it up long ago when she got married and had a daughter. He wonders how she could give up something that has the ability to make everything fall away—having a peak experience, living in the moment, these are the things Lloyd hopes to achieve. Carol knows better—such moments are elusive, even illusory, and not worth throwing a life away to experience. It’s hard to know if Carol is truly bitter about giving up performing or whether she’s trying to slap some sense into a young man whose life could pass him by if he keeps running after something so insubstantial. In turn, his very interest in her—and it truly is exceptional that a 30-year-old would choose to spend time with a retiree, even one as attractive as Blythe Danner—awakens her to possibilities for her own life, including a romance with Bill (Sam Elliott), a handsome new resident of the retirement community.
In other hands, the above scenario would make for a light, possibly distasteful romcom about a cougar who finds happiness with an age-appropriate man and passes her younger man off to her daughter. Fortunately, this is not that movie. Blythe Danner is the glowing core of this expectation-defying film, and the mere casting of her in this knockout role comments on the fact that she had a career before she became “Gwyneth Paltrow’s mom.” Her every instinct seems sharper than ever—a tearful, but dignified farewell to her beloved pet, stammering incredulousness at the spectacle of speed dating, the sparkle at seeing Bill having lunch at a table across from hers and her matter-of-fact acquiescence to his very forward invitation to dinner. She’s a no-nonsense person, a bit cold for having put herself on autopilot for so many years, but clearly engaged with her friends and open to offering up details of her life if asked. When she accompanies Lloyd to a karaoke night and sings “Cry Me a River,” the audience on screen and off are astonished by her lovely voice and able interpretation. Who knew? Who indeed. Carol’s like a lot of older folks—we’re eager to share our lives and talents with others, but have a hard time finding people who are interested.
In this regard, Lloyd is a very refreshing creation played with open sincerity by Starr. He isn’t practical or driven. He knows he’s a little too old to believe in the endless possibilities most young people think will be open to them forever, but he can’t quite let go of his romantic ideals and so avoids getting a job with a future. He may be self-deprecating and a bit of a slacker, but he has a genuine humanity. In Carol, he recognizes what he thinks is a kindred spirit and someone who needs rescuing just as much as he does. She drinks, after all, and invites a pool boy into her house, though not into her bed—another cliché that never happens in this movie; indeed, the movie upends that cliché by having Lloyd appear at Carol’s door one morning, only to find Bill there having breakfast after a night of lovemaking. Lloyd appears disappointed, perhaps romantically, but more likely because he realizes Carol won’t have time for him.
Beyond the basics, we don’t really learn very much about anyone in this film other than Carol. This is a bit of a weakness considering the incredible cast at Haley’s disposal, but Place, Perlman, Squibb, and Elliott offer perfect sketches of their characters’ personalities and how they all fit together. The scenes in which the women are together playing cards, having lunch, getting high on medical marijuana, and deciding to go to Iceland because they can are very true to how long-term friends accept each other’s differences and hold each other up in the face of life’s travails. Sexy Bill is a character that would be dodgy if he and Carol were 20 or 30 years younger. I’d say Bill was giving her the bum’s rush, but they aren’t young, and time won’t wait for them to get to know each other properly before they decide that they are compatible and could be happy together. The conditioning of a lifetime kicks in very quickly, and they start thinking about a future together after only a couple of dates.
The final act of the film becomes a reckoning for Carol. Her daughter (Malin Akerman) comes to visit, and it is then that Carol acknowledges freely what was most important to her in her life. It wasn’t what Lloyd wanted for her or what her friends and Bill tried to push on her. It was her daughter and the love she had for her husband. Old age involves many diminishments, but it’s a time when we can finally be honest with others and ourselves. Danner, whose husband of 33 years, Bruce Paltrow, died in 2002 (family photos on the mantel of Carol’s home are shots of Danner and Paltrow), brings her understanding of love and loss in its many facets to this film. Her bravery and commitment provide an unforgettable portrait of a woman both older and wiser who surprises herself and us with the largeness of her heart.
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Director: George Miller
By Roderick Heath
Mad Max (1979) was a weird and unexpectedly popular film made by George Miller, a young doctor who turned to filmmaking in his spare time during his residency training. Miller had already revealed an antic talent and gory sense of humour with his short film Violence in the Cinema, Part 1 (1971). His first feature evidently aimed to transplant the ’70s craze for car chase movies into the Aussie landscape, a smart commercial move considering that adulation of the car was and is one of the nation’s major religious movements. Miller and his initial cowriter James McCausland went a step further than the usual run of car chase flicks pitting redneck cops against raffish criminals. Perhaps borrowing a little from A Clockwork Orange (1971), Damnation Alley (1976), and Peter Weir’s The Cars that Ate Paris (1974), Miller set the film in a hazily futuristic time of a decayed social order where the roads were battlegrounds for marauders. His cops were badass neo-knights battling rampaging scum, and his hero, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), was that popular figure of ’70s genre cinema, the good man pushed too far by lowlifes. The film was a hit both at home and overseas, albeit after a dub job for U.S. distribution. Miller expanded the series with Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), which pushed the concept into the realm of myth and depicted a properly post-apocalyptic landscape, and then Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985). Each film was exponentially more expensive and ambitious than the one before, and Gibson became an international star. Miller’s love of a bygone brand of big, sweeping, elemental cinema was laced with visual and thematic overtones borrowed from John Ford, Howard Hawks, David Lean, Akira Kurosawa, and especially Sergio Leone, whose offbeat, proto-punkish spaghetti westerns became a particular touchstone.
The Mad Max films have been remembered with rare fondness, particularly the middle episode, for their kinetic force, their exotic creativity, and specific, instantly influential roster of ideas and images: there is a serious case to be made for The Road Warrior as the best film ever made in the country. These films were quintessential artefacts of the early days of video, providing an easy bridging point between the drive-ins and home entertainment. Imitations exploded, at first in cheap Italian knock-offs and eventually in big-budget riffs like Waterworld (1995). In their native land, the Mad Max films were admired in themselves, and considered just about the only salvageable relics of Aussie cinema’s flirtation with genre filmmaking until the reawakened interest in Ozploitation in the 2000s. Beyond Thunderdome, an attempt to take the series upmarket and give it Spielbergian appeal, was a great-looking and thoughtful entry that nonetheless skimped terribly on action, and many felt Miller had pulled his creation’s teeth. Ever since Miller, a truly talented filmmaker, has, like George Lucas, wasted a lot of that talent trying to be a one-man film industry.
Miller had been mooting a fourth episode since the mid-1990s, and now, finally, it has arrived with rising star Tom Hardy slotted into the lead role. Fury Road has been greeted with an enthusiasm bordering on the orgiastic by critics and fans. That’s not so surprising. The appeal of the series was always based on the outlandish and the disreputable, and the new film, armed with a blockbuster budget, has the jagged, thumping appeal of a heavy-metal album in a sea of autotune pop. One unique quirk of the Mad Max series was that each episode, although linked by certain elements, represented a partial reboot rather than mere sequel to the previous one, remixing certain ideas and characterisations, thus lending itself rather neatly to recomposition 30 years down the track. Fury Road quickly reveals itself determined to a fault not to repeat the mistakes of Beyond Thunderdome.
Just how deeply Australian the Mad Max films were is necessary to communicate, most particularly their sense of the landscape as both a limitlessly boding expanse and a harsh and withholding thing where paucity dictates adaptation, and their vision of civilisation as a crude assemblage of spare parts left lying about by other cultures. Miller took the Oz-gothic vision of Ted Kotcheff’s seminal Wake in Fright (1971), which contemplated the ugly, unstable tone of devolved aggression that can be seen in some pockets of the continent, and gave it a purpose. He also quoted the wild, frenetic, purposefully crude inventiveness coming out of the nation’s pop cultural quarters in the late ’70s: in the weird panoply of grotesques that form the human world of Miller’s early vision lies the grubby energy welling out of grungy pub rock scenes, art schools, and the burgeoning gay and punk scenes. At the time this was cutting edge; now it’s all rather retro. The original Mad Max films were also, oddly, the closest local thing to the Star Wars series, as Miller went to town mimicking the sweeping widescreen visions and deliberately retro pulpy force in the music scoring associated with a brand of big movie-making that was fallow for most of the ‘70s: Miller made blockbusters on a budget. Mad Max: Fury Road, which cost $150 million, can’t argue such handmade pizzazz, and Miller had to work his fascination with creating weird little worlds and exploring their sensibilities in with a near-constant barrage of thrills and spills.
Hardy’s Max is glimpsed at the outset framed against the horizon, gazing into the distance, before stamping on a two-headed mutant lizard in an attempt to quell the semi-psychotic buzzing in his head—the voices of the people he tried and failed to save in the past, including his daughter. No time to stand around, however; Max quickly gets into his battered, old Interceptor and flees ahead of a squadron of hunter hotrods. They manage to wreck his vehicle, drag him out, and take him to the Citadel controlled by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a hulking aged warlord. Many citizens of the Citadel suffer from “half-life,” or a congenital anaemia usually accompanied by cancerous tumours that cause early death, and one half of Joe’s power rests on his ability to find strong donors to keep the others alive; the other half is control of an underground water supply. The culture of the Citadel includes his army of “War Boys,” young half-lifes kept functioning by blood donors, or “blood-bags” as they’re called, and controlled through promises of an afterlife in Valhalla if they die in combat for him. Joe also has a coterie of beautiful young woman kept as a concubines in a vault. Max is tethered, and his back is tattooed with his status as a universal donor. Before his captors can brand him, however, Max breaks free and nearly escapes, only to be recaptured. He’s given to one waning War Boy, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), as a blood-bag. Meanwhile Joe’s top “Imperator” Furiosa (Charlize Theron) leads men out on a supply run to the nearby cities that produce fuel oil and weapons Behind the wheel of her war-rig, an armed and armoured long-range fuel truck, Furiosa drives off the beaten path into the wastelands, stringing along her soldiers and plunging them into a battle with wasteland marauders. Joe soon realises what’s happened: Furiosa is helping the concubines escape.
Characterising Immortan Joe as a primitive tyrant with a taste for harem flesh might be seen as Miller having a sly dig at one of the basic appeals of his creation: the possibility that future civilisation decline would return humankind to barbarism and the unrestrained indulgence of primal appetites and discourteous sexuality, a notion exploited all too enthusiastically by the not-so-different Gor novels by John Norman. Some of the ugliest moments in Miller’s first two films in the series involved the pansexual rape habits of its villains, so Miller may be issuing a mea culpa as he takes on the theme of liberating sex slaves. The storyline mildly upbraids such a fantasy landscape’s appeal in repeatedly noting the stripping away of dignity and agency, something inflicted on Max as well as the young concubines, as he spends many scenes strapped to the front of Nux’s car as he gives chase, feeding him lifeblood. Easy enough, too, to read Joe as a caricature of just about any arbiter of social control, as he keeps his War Boys’ heads screwed with religion and his populace on a leash with carefully rationed water: he warns his populace as he pours water upon them not to become addicted to it, lest they resent its general absence.
Nux has the strongest, most interesting character arc in the film—point of fact, the only character arc. He charges into battle with fellow berserker Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones), mouth spray-painted with silvery gloss to evoke the chrome-plated bumper bar of Death, desperate to live up to his creed only to be jolted out of the death-hungry obsession by his own failures. He slowly changes loyalty to the ragged team of heroes whilst Erectus becomes his personal nemesis in the pursuing armada. Hoult, usually cast as cupid-lipped young romantics, has a blast playing such a loose-screw, physical character.
Meanwhile the coterie of pulchritudinous fugitives—heavily pregnant favourite The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), flame-locked Capable (Riley Keough), Toast the Knowing (Zoë Kravitz), The Dag (Abbey Lee), and Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eaton)—are characterised not as feyly naïve or absurdly tough, but as a pack of sarcastically articulate waifs out of their depth and yet committed to their Quixotic mission, tucked under Furiosa’s wing and doing their best to operate in the ferocity of the moment. I’m not quite sure if anything about their characterisations makes sense in context, though. They’re children of the post-apocalyptic world but say they don’t want their children to be warlords. What else are they going to be? Conceptual artists? Miller should have gone back to Kurosawa to remind himself of how characters set in worlds run by different rules should act.
Max’s first proper glimpse of this coterie of bounteous female forms has them arrayed against the desert sand and sky in diaphanous silks and chastity belts like some particularly collectable Sports Illustrated foldout. Furiosa herself likes to shave her head and rub engine grease on her forehead as war paint, and has a mechanical left arm. Theron proves again she’s a performer of sneaky craft as she finds depth in a swiftly sketched character with real art, moving supply and convincingly from steely war face to shows of pathos and personal longing and anguish. Her Monster (2003) Oscar notwithstanding, I can’t help but wonder if Theron hasn’t finally found her metier here as a rudely charismatic bruiser. That Furiosa is in many ways the real protagonist of the film is Fury Road’s open secret. Max is at first frantic to the point of, yes, madness—understandable considering the indignities he suffers in the film’s opening scenes. He finally breaks free when Nux crashes his vehicle chasing Furiosa’s war-rig into a sandstorm, and his initial meeting with the cabal of females is a tense and coercive standoff, as he’s initially obsessed only with survival. Standoff turns into a three-way punch-up, as Nux, still chained to his escaped blood-bag, leaps into the fray, and Max alternates between fighting off Furiosa and stopping Nux from killing her. Max at first tries to leave them all behind, but finds the war-rig won’t go because Furiosa’s kill switches have to be cleared in an order only she knows. Furiosa convinces him to take her and the other women aboard, and, of course, uneasy partnership soon becomes unshakeable alliance.
The basic story of Fury Road reminded me more than a little of Vladimir Motyl’s White Sun of the Desert (1970) with way more action, blended with a solid B-western like Charge at Feather River (1953). Miller sprinkles stirringly bizarre, funny-appalling flourishes throughout Fury Road, proving something of his old, wicked sense of humour remains. Joe has a battery farm of tubby ladies having their breast siphoned as foodstuff that Joe trades as a delicacy. The escaped concubines pause to rid themselves of their detested chastity belts, which have barbed spikes protecting them from penetration. A remote patch of bog is home to a tribe of weirdoes living on stilts. Joe’s armada comes equipped with one vehicle carrying multiple drummers and electric guitarist for mobile war music, a touch that represents Fury Road’s most inspired nod to the rock ’n roll spirit that lurked within the original series’ texture, as well as providing perhaps this entry’s keenest example of the series’ habit of melding ancient ideas with the new. If Fury Road was nothing but such moments, it might have added up to a gonzo classic of crazy-trashy inspiration. But there’s not nearly enough humour to the film, nor enough real inspiration to its running set-pieces.
Here we get into the greater problems with this entry. The price Miller has paid to make such an inflated reboot has been to do like a lot of modern action directors and essentially turn the last act—the climactic chases from the second two original Mad Max films—and inflate them into an entire movie. The first half-hour sets a hard-charging pace the film can’t sustain but damn well tries, what with Max’s attempted escape through the labyrinth of the Citadel whilst besieged by flash-cut memories of his past failures quickly segueing into Furiosa’s escape. I was near being put off the film right from get-go: Miller over-directs to an absurd degree as he sets the film racing, starting with that annoying CGI lizard and the tumult of psychic ghosts tormenting Max that reduce the necessary reintroduction of the character to a barrage of cheesy camera effects. The very opening suggests a dialogue of intense, meditative quiet and thunderous action might begin, but instead there’s only thunder.
Miller’s most inspired touches of world-building are steamrollered into the tar along with everything else. The illogic that’s often leaked out the edges of Miller’s world—the amount of petrol the villains wasted in The Road Warrior was about the same as what they were chasing—here returned in watching Immortan Joe piss water away on desert sands. Apparently none of his subject populace of human flotsam have thought to put in some kind of collecting basin or sink. Miller has his image of mock-beneficent tyrant’s egotism and human pathos, and goes no further in setting us up with either a social metaphor of real force or a villain of great stature. In spite of the film’s thematic evocations, it’s as simplistic on the level of metaphor as can be, and the raving about the film’s feminist angles in some quarters ignores the fact that the “hero saves evil king’s sex-slaves” plot is one of the oldest in pulp adventuring. Of course, we live in a time where crude and basic lip-service to political themes in movies is popular for painting our Rorschach sensibilities onto (see also The Hunger Games films), so Fury Road is quite on trend in that regard. For all the faults of Beyond Thunderdome and its big, shameless debts to Lord of the Flies and Riddley Walker, it had a depth and a wistful poetry that completely eludes Fury Road, in moments like the haunting scene where Max is treated to a creation-myth-cum-history via a relic Viewmaster where random images from a vanished civilisation have been patched together to illustrate it. There’s a hint of this in the recurring phrase asked by the concubines, “Who killed the world?”, indicting the warmongers of the future with the warmongers of the past, but without pausing to note the irony of trying to touch on pacifistic themes whilst dancing the audience giddily into a sea of carnage.
Once the action kicks into gear, the early battles and the finale are the strongest, but in the middle comes some well-staged but uninspired stuff, including an attempt to get the war-rig unstuck from the mud, whilst one of Joe’s allies, the Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter), randomly and stupidly fires off his guns into murk. It begs the question: how did any of these halfwits survive the apocalypse? Miller can think up a lot of things, but not a nonviolent action set-piece for his truckers that can hold a candle to the sequence in Ice Cold in Alex (1959) where the heroes have to hand-crank their vehicle up a hill, or the bridge crossing in Sorcerer (1977).
In spite of the film’s efforts to honour the force of the original trilogy’s realistic action sequences, here swathes of CGI still must paint the skies. Still, Miller’s respect for landscape and physical context emerges throughout. Production problems meant that Fury Road had to be shot in Namibia rather than the hallowed turf of the Aussie outback, but the vistas are just as powerfully barren and stunningly vast (if also heavily digitally tweaked), and many of the best, though relatively few, moments of the film come when Miller draws back to behold this grand arena for perpetual human foolishness. One touch that did tickle me was Miller basing some of the wasteland marauders’ vehicles on the famous spiky Volkswagen Beetle from The Cars that Ate Paris.
Dramatically speaking, Fury Road is a near-total bust however, often reducing the honourable creed of the junk action flick to moving wallpaper of bangs and booms and crashes. They’re damn well done bangs and booms and crashes, make no mistake: Fury Road is a magnificent movie production, one that clearly demanded inspiring levels of commitment to put together, and it doesn’t feel cynical in its technical grandiosity and enervated on the level of real creation like this year’s Jupiter Ascending or like the subtle, but definite defeat of an auteur by studio forces as Avengers: Age of Ultron did. But like last year’s John Wick, which also gained many plaudits from critics I’d expect to know better, Fury Road frustrated me with the presumption that an action flick can and should just be a series of Pavlovian set-pieces. Miller has a talent for fitting vignettes of humanity into the sprawl of excess, and the ones that come are interesting, like Furiosa admitting she wants “redemption” for aiding Joe for so long, and Nux connecting with Capable, the least cynical of the escapees; Keough gives a quietly luminous performance that stands out amongst her fellows, though that might be because she actually has a proper interaction with another character. But the character reflexes are astonishingly clipped and basic. Nux changes side with barely a blink, and Max and Furiosa shift from trying to kill each other to palsy-walsy in a couple of minutes.
The bad guys particularly suffer from this thinness. Part of the force of the first two Mad Max entries lay in the fact that Miller was willing to contemplate, horror-movielike, the dread of characters failing in their personal missions of protection and the loss of loved ones to the new barbarians, and his ability to think up cool avatars of evil. Here Miller reduces that element to backstory visualised in the worst way possible. Keays-Byrne’s velvet-voiced, charismatic, if often overripe, presence was one of the most entertaining in Aussie TV and film of the ’70s and ’80s, and it’s great to see him restored to his rightful place as overlord of villains. Yet he’s completely wasted as Immortan Joe, who’s just a weak retread of Lord Humungus, lacking his real physical menace, mixed with traits from Dune’s Baron Harkonnen, and he remains a mere action figure in place of a villain. Perhaps it’s admirable we don’t get scenes of the concubines being raped or mistreated, but the film lacks basic melodramatic spurs and thus the delight in seeing evil regime churned into scrap metal. Moreover, Joe’s actual comeuppance is so clumsy and helter-skelter that I almost wondered why Miller bothered.
Furiosa, finding her beloved childhood birthplace no longer exists and sinking to her knees to scream in fury to the desert, is supposed to register as an emotional highpoint, but doesn’t really cut it, considering the character’s had about 15 lines of dialogue and the hoped-for Eden has only ever registered before as a tossed-off McGuffin. Late in the film, Miller introduces a new set of protagonists to add to the band of heroes—the Vuvalini, a small remnant tribe of women ranging from young and dashing “Valkyrie” (Megan Gale) to aged matriarchs, including “Keeper of the Seeds” (the always wonderful Melissa Jaffer). Like so much else in the film, these ladies deserve and demand far more time to impress themselves upon us, and the notion of a pack of gun-wielding grannies on choppers is delightful, but they’re tossed into the drama moments before the big finish revs up. Thus, moments like the Valkyries’ eruption into battle don’t carry much weight: it’s just more stuff happening.
Frankly, although the final chase sequence represents a breathless piece of cinema construction and risky filming, I didn’t enjoy it half as much as the jungle chase of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), which emphasised fluid lines of camera motion to better read complex action using moving vehicles as mobile platforms in a running battle. Miller tries to do the same thing here, but changes camera positions and edits the stunt work too frenetically, with no sense of rhythm for the daring and the interplay of elements to register. But perhaps the biggest void in Fury Road is Max himself. Hardy seemed on paper like perfect casting as Max redux: he’s an actor of great sensitivity who has powerful star presence and also can look convincingly tough. His performances in Warrior (2011) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) elevated both: the mordant humour as well as threat he invested in Bane has proven over time to be one of the latter film’s coups. But here he proves startlingly weak. At first he makes a stab at an Aussie brogue, but his accent skids about like slick tyres on an oily road, and he sometimes barely seems present in the movie. Trapped behind the mask he wears for much of the film, Hardy looks vaguely like some downmarket Daniel Craig clone. This isn’t entirely his fault. If I didn’t know better I’d suspect the screenplay was, like the second two Die Hard movies, one of those blockbuster imitation spec scripts that someone thought might as well be repurposed as a sequel for the model, so disposable is Max’s presence throughout much of the film. Max has been robbed of all of his mythic stature and specific gravitas.
I have suspected one of the reasons the series lay fallow for so long was because by the end of Beyond Thunderdome , Max as a character had reached a point in stasis. For all the alarum and affray here, it’s still rather obvious that Miller is unwilling to nudge him even slightly past the pose of eternal wanderer. That’s not necessarily a problem—after all, Zatoichi clocked up 20-odd films in his rootless wanderings and remained entertaining—but Max here just never feels particularly important, vital, or distinctive. The man who “carries Mr. Death in his pocket” has become just another player in a busy landscape. What Fury Road does well is just about the only thing it does: stage fast-paced road action. Fury Road is a triumph of high-powered editing masquerading as awesome swashbuckling fun, but much of the soul of this creation has been left by the roadside like so many burnt-out spark plugs: it’s an almost complete dud on an emotional level—and this kind of filmmaking runs on emotion. Yes, it is a good action movie. But it could have, and should have, aimed higher.
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Director/Screenwriter: Joss Whedon
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
They’re back – Marvel’s all-star line-up, marshalled by nerd overlord Joss Whedon. It’s been a long three years since the last episode came out, and Marvel’s endless diversification of its fictional universe had, for me at least, begun to take rub of the shine from the brand even as it’s confirmed again and again its box office potency. The Avengers (Avengers Assemble in the UK, to pacify fans of John Steed and Emma Peel), uneven as it was, was a difficult act to follow, surpassing Kenneth Branagh’s grandiose Thor (2011) as the best Marvel movie in ebulliently bringing together a cast of epic-scaled characters and delighting in watching (and listening to) them cut loose. The standalone adventures since then, Iron Man Three, Thor: The Dark World (both 2013), Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the tangentially related Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), whilst all entertaining to various degrees, inflated their production elements for spectacle but grazed one of the major problems with bigger-is-better storytelling: they felt smaller. That, plus the fact that The Avengers, via Whedon’s pithy, zippy writing style, proved these characters, once introduced with origins explored, actually work best when pitched against other characters like them, forcing them again to jostle for the pre-eminence and respect lesser folk automatically cede to them, and treating the audience to super-friends camaraderie.
In spite of his stature as a major professional fabulist, Whedon is not a particularly original or deep inventor when it comes to the tropes of fantastic fiction. His specific gift rather has been an understanding that the fantasy in that fiction works best when inseparable from the dramatic and emotional impact it has on characters, and through them the audience. The great passage in his TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” that depicted the transformation of nice-girl witch Willow into a psychotic killer and sorcerer after the murder of her lover, or the “Gifted” storyline he wrote for the X-Men comics, that inspired X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), illustrate that understanding well. The Winter Soldier, which I admit to underrating last year, left the franchise in interesting disarray, with SHIELD broken and Hydra, the evil organisation of fascist futurists founded by Captain America’s old Nazi antagonist Red Skull, stripped of its cover.
Age of Ultron commences with the Avengers having stepped into the gap left by SHIELD’s demise, tracking down Hydra’s secret basis and destroying them. Whedon’s greatest coup in his first entry was a single “shot” that moved from Avenger to Avenger along the course of downtown New York, locating each one in the midst of a tussle that fulfilled both Whedon’s delight in connected cinema space that underlined the dramatic democracy of his sensibility, and brought the fluency of comic book illustration onto the screen. Here he offers the same stunt very early on as the Avengers fall upon a castle somewhere in the Mittel Europa enclave of Sokovia, the Avengers charging out of the snowy woods and raining thunder and wrath upon their enemies, in a more focused zone of action where the battle is like a colossal game of tag: Whedon resolves on a slow-motion sprawl with his cast flying en masse across the screen. The once-individualist warriors are now a weathered team: Steve ‘Captain America’ Rogers (Chris Evans) leading Tony ‘Iron Man’ Stark (Robert Downey Jnr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce ‘Hulk’ Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha ‘Black Widow’ Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), and Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Barton (Jeremy Renner). Former SHIELD agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulers), now officially working for Tony, provides support, and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) lurks in the wilderness, ready to help with the odd deus ex machina.
This Hydra base, administrated by improbably monocle-clad Baron Von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), holds secrets beyond the Avengers’ ken, including the fruits of a mysterious experiment in artificial intelligence, the sceptre of unbelievable power brought to Earth by Loki in the previous instalment and filched from the SHIELD vaults, and two siblings, Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his sister Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen). They are, of course, mutants (or “enhanced” as Whedon calls them, to avoid stepping on turf currently locked down by Fox): Pietro, better known as Quicksilver, provided the best scene in last year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, albeit with a different actor in the part. Pietro and Wanda in Whedon’s take are a pair of orphaned Russians with a gripe against Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) because some of his weaponry killed their parents. Now their talents have been honed to a dangerous edge by Hydra. Pietro attacks the Avengers and leaves Hawkeye injured, whilst Wanda unleashes her psychic power to give Tony a vision of what he fears is the future, where all his pals are dead and the Earth decimated. Disturbed by this vision, Tony, retrieving Hydra’s experiments, resolves to use the recovered tech to complete one of his brainwaves: Ultron, an AI system more advanced than Jarvis (Paul Bettany), Tony’s digital manservant, to control a system of weapons to defend against alien attacks and allow the Avengers to stand down.
Tony convinces Bruce to help get the system working with the sceptre as power source. Whilst their experiments seem at first to fail, Ultron (voiced by James Spader, whose mordant purr remains immensely entertaining) awakens whilst the Avengers are partying, and, swiftly parsing his mission as programmed by Tony. Quicker than you can say “Colossus: The Forbin Project”, Ultron almost immediately decides in light of Tony’s desire for “peace”, the only way to achieve it is to annihilate human kind in general. Ultron seems to attack and virtually “kill” Jarvis, takes over Tony’s robotic support team and builds himself a crude body. Although that form is quickly destroyed in the melee that follows, Ultron escapes via the internet to rebuild himself more impressively elsewhere. Ultron invites Pietro and Wanda to help him under the guise of payback against Tony and the Avengers, and begins building a doomsday device utilising Vibranium, the same rare element that Cap’s shield is made from. Ultron also hopes to construct himself a perfect form combining human and metallic elements and powered by the core of the sceptre. To do this he takes control of Dr. Helen Cho (Claudia Kim), a medical tech wizard who has built a machine that fashions flesh, already demonstrated in repairing Hawkeye’s injury. The Avengers track down black market arms dealer Ulysses Klaw (Andy Serkis), who’s stockpiled Vibranium, to prevent Ultron getting his hands on the metal, but the team is split and driven into frantic disarray by Wanda’s psychic powers, each member sent spiralling down the rabbit hole of their own inner turmoil – most disastrously, Bruce’s alter ego the Hulk goes rampaging through a city, demanding Tony stop him with his latest, Hulk-sized Iron Man suit.
Already this synopsis should make plain how busy Age of Ultron will get. That busyness may well disorientate and even infuriate a lot of viewers, particularly those not terribly well-versed in this fictional universe or who missed a couple of instalments out of the previous ten movies in Marvel’s unfolding project. Whedon assumes, perhaps fairly by this point, that all of these faces are familiar and so can simply be let out the starting gate at full gallop. Despite being nearly two-and-a-half hours long, a lot of that run-time is spent in breathless motion. Whedon’s versing in the density of the Marvel universe as it’s developed over the past 60 years on the page is plain, and Age of Ultron revels in that richness with authentic passion: this is, for better or worse, is one of the most authentically comic book-esque of comic book movies. The storytelling style achieves the perfervid power of grand pulp fiction, harking back to days of print when villains and heroes chase each-other from page to page with scarcely a concern for anything but the next consequence of their mutual efforts in endlessly metastasising circumstances.
This does mean however that Whedon’s conceptual interests are flattened nearly into irrelevance. He imbues Ultron with Frankensteinian anger at his flawed creator, and makes Ultron himself into something of a cracked mirror of Tony himself, assimilating his flip speech patterns and plaintive neediness for companionship under the guise of gruff egotism. He accidentally cuts off Klaw’s arm in a tantrum when Klaw notes the similarities. Like just about everything else in the film, this fount of a theme is tightly wound into a narrative that can’t do much more than state an idea, rather than explore it. But Whedon does manage to imbue even a relatively second-string villain like Ultron with a distinctiveness that makes him interesting when he’s around, unlike the flat and dutiful villainy provided by several recent Marvel antagonists.
The Maximoffs are one of the big new items on this ticket, with Wanda about to evolve into Scarlet Witch, one of the key Avengers and also one of the most fractious. It’s an old adage about genre fiction, and action cinema above all, that character should be revealed in action, and the intensely mutually reliant nature of the Maximoffs defines them repeatedly throughout the film without requiring much dialogue to underline – and also provides a tragic jolt late in the film. Taylor-Johnson and Olsen, who played husband and wife in the tepid Godzilla (2014), have more chance here to show off their charisma even in more limited roles. Olsen is particularly good, plummy Slavic accent and all, in handling the switchbacks of her character, bringing something new to this panoply of heroes, insofar as she suggests a vengeful, dead-eyed confidence in her powers and the lurking spur of neurotic pain (and indeed, given the character’s instability in the comic books, menacingly so). Wanda and Pietro change sides in the conflict according to an essential, bitterly imposed awareness of the brutality in the world and their own motivation to counter it.
Ultron’s insistence on giving himself a human-like form means giving up the pure sanctity and detachment of a merely digital existence, and allows Wanda to see into his mind, which proves not a pretty place to be. The Avengers swing into battle with Ultron for control of this new, potentially unstoppable cybernetic organism he’s prepared as a shell, and once the body is captured, Tony has the brainwave of installing Jarvis, found tattered but still extant in a pocket of cyberspace, into the body to keep Ultron out and potentially give the team extraordinarily strong new ally. When Wanda, who can see deeply enough into Tony’s mind to know exactly how he thinks, warns Cap and some of the other Avengers what he wants to do, they dash back to stop him, but Thor casts the deciding vote rather literally by powering the new being up with lightning. The being that emerges, Vision (Bettany again, finally gracing the franchise with his physical presence), proves neither human nor machine and can’t even assure the Avengers that he’s not a threat, but instead proves a new and independent life form, who declares himself on the side of life and thus against whoever’s threatening it.
Whedon tries to make his storyline as organically specific to this universe as possible. But regardless of whether Ultron uses Vibranium in his doomsday machine or not, it’s still a doomsday machine, and the actual plot is, again like Whedon’s first instalment, quite simple in spite of the multiplicity of moving parts. Whedon does cleverly suggest that Ultron’s unresolved filial issues drive his desire to reproduce a human form rather than simply disseminate himself into the fabric of the electronic universe: he strives to reproduce and then evolve the human form into something new, but confirms his divided psyche. Like Michael Mann’s Blackhat earlier this year, Whedon tries to depict the digital world as a microcosmic zone of cause and effect, a new frontier of existence. An important subplot here sees Thor, disturbed by the implications of the vision Wanda stirs in him, daring to enter a mystical pool to commune with “water spirits” (cue compulsory Hemsworth shirtless scene), and emerges with the knowledge that the sceptre, the Tasseract, and the Aether, are all kin to the Infinity Stone in Guardians of the Galaxy, part of a fabled set of powerful objects that can be combined to imbue godlike power. And, what’s more, someone has been manipulating all of the events that have beset the Avengers recently, probably even having deliberately placed the double-edge blade that is Ultron where it would best tempt Tony, for precisely the purpose of making them do the work of rounding up the Infinity Stones. That manipulator is revealed in the now-traditional end credits teaser, and their identity is not actually surprising if you’ve been paying attention, but this element does suggest a degree of planning that’s formed a hidden substructure to the Marvel movies in spite of their occasionally wayward surfaces.
Inevitably, with so much lore and action to wade through, Age of Ultron can’t spare much time for more than cursory interaction between some of his Avengers: Whedon assumes Tony, Thor, and Cap, all of whom benefit from their own standalone movies, have been dealt with enough, and they mostly fill out the margins – but given those guys form the core of the fan following, that will probably leave more than a few feeling gypped. Downey Jr.’s art with a smart-aleck quip and Hemsworth’s ever-growing poise and ability to self-satirise in particular give the movie a sturdy support it doesn’t treat too well. Whedon instead concentrates on two character elements to give Age of Ultron a heart amidst the furore. He makes Hawkeye, the least well-served Avenger in the first instalment, the focus for the emotional journey of the episode just as Natasha was for the first. Chastened, bedraggled, and possibly outlawed after their first battle with Ultron and the Maximoffs has resulted in the Hulk decimating a city, the Avengers let Hawkeye take them to a safe house, which proves to be his own, a small farmhouse where Hawkeye has a wife, Laura (Linda Cardellini, always a welcome presence) and two children, with another baby on the way. This unexpected interlude of top-secret domestic bliss leaves the other Avengers toey in the face of their least “remarkable” member’s suddenly revealed settlement and success in keeping his work and life separate, and they move uneasily between rooms in this space, too large for it and too small for their own gifts.
Hawkeye’s specific gift as an Avenger, in contrast to the overwhelming force of the others, is one of precision, a gentleness of touch that eludes the galumphers around him. Whedon gives Hawkeye a crucial scene late in the film as he appeals to the momentarily overwhelmed Wanda to either stand clear of trouble or engage it wholeheartedly as a warrior. This vignette is a little wonder, referring to crucial backstory – Hawkeye also brought Black Widow over from the darkside – and also illuminating the present, suddenly making Hawkeye perhaps the most vital Avenger as well as the most human, and giving the film the kind of surprising emotional kick that is Whedon’s forte. Meanwhile romance is blossoming between a most unlikely couple, as Natasha is smitten with Bruce: in The Avengers Natasha had an intensely phobic reaction to the terrible spectacle of the Hulk, one that only seemed to infuriate the id-beast all the more. Now she has become the Hulk’s calming salve, able to draw the green guy out of his rages with nothing more than offering her hand, leading to the gently erotic sight of small woman’s palm in giant green mitt. But Bruce, whilst plainly equally taken, denies the attraction at first, and feels too conscious of his potential destructiveness to let the romance run its course.
Johansson, who ironically after several years floundering in stardom finally defined her screen persona playing Natasha, gets to work new levels to the character in love. Ruffalo, long a charm machine, is wonderful portraying Bruce’s befuddled delight. Whedon’s problematic but amiable film of Much Ado About Nothing (2013) was a long study in the dynamics of intimate staging for a roundelay of character expressed through quick-fire humour and effervescent emotion. Here that model is reproduced as haiku: Whedon even uses Hawkeye’s house as multilevelled stage in the same manner as he used his own house in that predecessor. I noted in my commentary on the first film that it represented a revival of an old Hollywood tradition, the all-star extravaganza, a genre that is distinct from the more prosaic style of the ensemble drama. Whedon was rightly praised for modelling the original like a Howard Hawks ensemble flick, like Rio Bravo (1959), watching fractious personalities bump against each-other in a pressure cooker situation and enjoy the process of watching them knit together. Whedon had a chance to make his El Dorado (1966) here, the semi-remake that’s possibly even better. The long, casually comic party sequence that follows the raucous opening does provide an islet of Hawksian interaction between the many different players, laced with appearances by supporting characters from the various sub-branches – James ‘War Machine’ Rhodes (Don Cheadle), Sam ‘Falcon’ Wilson (Anthony Mackie) – and vignettes, from Thor treating some old veterans to some of his potent Asgardian booze, to the various Avengers trying and failing to lift his hammer – except for Cap, who manages to move it ever so slightly, bringing a momentarily worried look to Thor’s face (this also sets up a joke that pays off later on).
But the simultaneous blend of firm genre structure with free-flowing behavioural study that was Hawks’ forte eludes Whedon here, who’s been forced to contend with a teetering superstructure of franchise business. Wanda’s mind-games with the team destabilises them and allows Whedon to offer some trippy sequences that expose the hang-ups of the characters, based so often in the same experiences that have given them their superlative talents, a notion that particularly intrigues Whedon for reasons already noted. Age of Ultron tries here to annex the same territory so well-handled by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), where the hero was confronted by his own internal chaos, confirming how little distance there was between his heroic side and dark one, but then emerging as purified righteous ass-kicker. In this regard, Whedon fails, rather badly. He can’t linger on the psychological trauma of his individual heroes long enough to make it seem more than another piece of plot hocus-pocus, nor can he leaven even the faintest feeling of anxiety that the team won’t reform and resurge. Age of Ultron is so jam-packed, so overflowing at the margins with throwaway details that it starts to resemble the pages of Mad Magazine, with tiny illustrative flourishes dotted between panels often providing the bulk of fun. Such a stuffed narrative would defeat many filmmakers. And frankly I think it’s defeated Whedon too.
Whedon’s sense of throwaway humour in marginalia makes this work for the most part however; the audience I saw the film with had most of its audible fun with such tossed-off touches, like Thor explaining his hammer-swinging technique to Vision, or Natasha shouting “Sorry!” as she pummels through a crowd on a motorcycle. One of my own favourite moments sees Ultron flying a jet whilst singing a ditty that signals just how cuckoo, and how human, he is. There’s a strong dash of the old James Bond spirit to this instalment, littered with rapid shifts between exotic locales to wreak havoc and look good doing it. The ship graveyard of Chittagong, Bangladesh provides the backdrop for an early battle (albeit supposedly in Africa), a location Whedon disappointingly doesn’t make much of, instead shifting focus for the battle between Iron Man and Hulk in a Michael Bay-esque wreck-the-city sequence – a well-staged, spectacular interlude that nonetheless represents screen time that could have been better spent on something else. The very end credits scan a grand Grecian-style monument depicting the Avengers in the midst of battle, well aware these are our neo-Olympians. There’s an odd and effective little moment that suggests again the breadth of cultural reference Whedon can make, as he offers a glimpse of Wanda retreating in a scuttling, stop-motion manner like a J-horror ghoul. Sadly, that kind of effective lo-fi trick can’t live long in a film with so many digital effects artists on the case.
Whedon’s visual sensibility is also still often surprisingly cramped, staging a major action sequence in a confined metallic chamber that looks like a set left over from City of Lost Children (1995), and offering up a climactic final image of a whole city floating above the Earth, and yet barely registering the surreal intensity of the moment: it’s just more cool stuff happening. Whedon’s visual syntax doesn’t break down, and yet the finale is such a whirlwind of events that his efforts to give every hero their clear ground for individual heroism, something Whedon did extremely well in his first instalment, here become more than a little ineffectual, offering, for instance, just a few blink-and-miss shots of Fury and Hill gunning down baddie robots. There is one grand moment when the heroes form together in Zukovia’s central church to protect the controls for the doomsday device and face a storm of steel and violence, a moment that evokes the most beautiful cover-wrapping comic book illustrations. But such moments of visual power are scarce. One reason I liked Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013) more than many was precisely because Snyder was alive to the visual impact of such ideas, achieving an almost DeMille-like grandeur and beauty in his city-levelling battles and doomsday machines, and also wrestled with the notion of god-like entities battling as something perhaps frighteningly inimical to the rest of us. Whedon probably won’t be keelhauled for doing exactly the same thing like that film was because he’s got credit Snyder doesn’t have. In the lengthy, gigantic, overstretched finale, he bends over backwards to depict the Avengers trying to save the civilian populace of Sokovia as Ultron turns their city into a gigantic battering ram.
Apart from Scarlet Witch’s rousing entry into battle after Hawkeye’s pep-talk, however, Whedon never builds the same elating thrill as his first entry in studying all of his heroes defining themselves through battle, simply because he seems to feel unable to pause long enough to do so, nor the same impact in the face of self-sacrifice. The script promises that the battle will certainly prove deadly for at least some of the Avengers, and one significant character does die, albeit one carefully cross-indexed for relative value. But if Whedon was hoping that his second instalment would annex the mythic gravitas of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), all I can say is he doesn’t make it. There is another problem the superhero genre faces and Marvel might soon find the ride becoming considerably bumpier soon because of it: the moment when it starts to become a feedback loop that refers to scarcely anything outside itself, an phase that will delight the long-haul fans but eventually detach the casual aficionados. A large part of the impact of the first Iron Man in 2008 came from its deliberate, naïve but effective tapping of the fantasy of many of finding an impervious shield to the cruelty of the times, worked via a very basic story and easy-going sense of humour. The Winter Soldier brought that to up to date as it depicted the modern American sense of self in vivid conflict: Marvel has traced the history of the War on Terror incidentally. The trouble with Age of Ultron is that it can barely refer outside itself, unless it’s to anxiety over the AI future, which ain’t a new anxiety. Now the brand is brushing the edges of a cosmology, and still uninterested in sacrificing broad entertainment to acknowledge the genuinely deeper streams of its mythos.
Even Whedon proves caged by this: to put it bluntly, Age of Ultron, like the much-abused superhero films Spider-Man 3 (2007) and Iron Man 2 (2010), is haplessly overstuffed, and like the latter, is forced to bear the burden of expanding this fictional world, which seems a bit ridiculous at this point, eleven films into a series. And yet it coheres more than those likenesses, if only because Whedon is talented enough to do big things with the smallest flourish. My criticisms of Age of Ultron might sound a bit more impassioned than they’re really intended to be: Whedon’s made another enjoyable movie here, fashioned with verve and working the rollercoaster intensity that the modern blockbuster movie aspires to. Many of them these days can’t really manage it: such intensity demands a movie offer the capacity to make the audience feel the ride as well as gawk in bemused amazement. Age of Ultron will undoubtedly frustrate many with its sheer too-muchness, and will riotously entertain as many or more, because it retains honour in that too-muchness. Avengers: Age of Ultron is as determined to entertain to the limit as an old vaudeville act. For the sake of the show it tap-dances whilst juggling, singing, and balancing a chair on its nose. I would have settled for just the tap-dance done well.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Ettore Scola
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It was strictly a coincidence, but a few hours before I viewed How Strange to Be Named Federico, I took a look at The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (2012), an experimental biography of Egypt’s biggest star told entirely through clips of her films. Bowled over again by the audacious approach Rania Stephan took to her subject, I was fully primed for this impressionistic tribute to the great Italian director by Ettore Scola, who modeled his own career to some extent on Fellini’s.
Anyone interested in learning all about Fellini’s life and career should look elsewhere. Scola privileges impressions, memories, and imagination in offering some background on the director. In particular, Scola pays tribute to the camaraderie he experienced with Fellini, particularly when they both worked for the satirical newspaper Marc’Aurelio.
Scola transitions between color and black and white cinematography, between reenactments and archival footage, and across decades to show the footprints Fellini left that Scola stepped into. We see a reenactment of a young Fellini (Tommaso Lazotti) showing his sketches to a front-office editor at Marc’Aurelio, who flips through them declaring them funny or not funny and then deciding they are good enough to bring to the attention of the head editors. The bullpen sessions of the illustrators, all with their own “columns” and all vying for the coveted center spread, is a wonder of competitive spirit, friendly banter, and creative foment.
Scola first enters the picture as a nine year old (Giacomo Lazotti) reading Fellini’s cartoons to his blind grandfather. Ten years later, we will see Fellini’s introduction to the Marc’Aurelio office play out again when young Scola (Giulio Forges Davanzati) shows up, portfolio in hand, to see if he can make the grade. A rather sobering scene of some low-level functionaries of Mussolini’s fascist government coming into the editorial office and the illustrators standing at attention and giving their names and “rank,” that is, the sections they draw, created an uncomfortable reminder of the Charlie Hebdo attacks this past January.
Film director Fellini (Maurizio De Santis), an insomniac, is shown driving with Scola to view the prostitutes standing on the streets to ply their trade. They pick up one hooker (Antonella Attili) who relates that her days in the life are nearing their end; she has saved money, which she has given to her boyfriend to purchase a house for them. The seeds of The Nights of Cabiria (1957) thus are sown. There are some other interesting tidbits about Fellini’s works, including the omission of Mastroianni among the great Italian actors the director tested to appear in Casanova (1976) and the enshrinement of Stage 5 at Cinecittà Studios as Fellini’s home.
As the film moves into eras in which footage of the real Fellini and his film shoots are available, Scola gives us a behind-the-scenes look at some of the director’s classic films. Crane shots of Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni playing in the Trevi fountain in La Dolce Vita (1960) intermingle with footage and restaged circus acts from La Strada (1954), with his Fellini stand-in watching the proceedings. Hilariously, Fellini and Scola are accosted by Mastroianni’s mother, who complains that Fellini always makes her son look handsome, whereas Scola always makes him look like a vagabond. While some of Scola’s memories may be suspect, I have no doubt this incident actually took place.
Scola distances himself from the film somewhat by having Vittorio Viviani serve as narrator, offering at least the semblance of an objective point of view from which the audience can take its cues. A familiarity with Fellini’s works makes viewing much more enjoyable and enlightening, as the movie feels a bit like a group of friends getting together to talk about a mutual acquaintance. A sampler of Fellini’s films at the end might jog a few memories, and offers, like a similar end montage of excised kissing scenes from Cinema Paradiso (1988), the only truly sentimental interlude of the film. The free-wheeling and affectionate moments that went before are almost as good as having the maestro back among us.
How Strange to Be Named Federico is the closing night film. It will show Thursday, April 2 at 7:30 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
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Director/Screenwriter: Simo Halinen
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Among the more difficult challenges to empathy I have personally faced is trying to understand the mindset and choices of transgender individuals. I know and consider one transgender woman a friend and colleague, and I accept unconditionally that she is a woman. Yet it’s hard for me to understand how a mind and body can be so at odds that one would literally undergo the pain of surgery and hormone injections required for gender reassignment. That is why I very much looked forward to seeing Open Up to Me, a new Finnish film that puts a transgender woman at the center of its story.
The film opens during a therapy session, the last one Maarit (Leea Klemola) will have with her therapist. Maarit, a former school counselor, puts her underemployment as a cleaner with a janitorial service down to her honesty. She fears she will never have a relationship with her daughter Pinja (Emmi Nivala) because of her ex’s hostility, and she admits she would like to have a relationship with a man but worries that the exceptional individual who would accept her may be too hard to find. Her therapist leaves her with the final thought that it’s no longer necessary to hide away from other people and that Maarit must try to get the things she wants out of life.
On one cleaning job at the home office of a psychotherapist who is leaving town for two weeks, Maarit is given the keys to lock up. She explores the woman’s bedroom, trying on her lipstick and putting on one of her outfits. The doorbell rings, and not sure what else to do, she opens it. Sami (Peter Franzén), an attractive high school teacher and soccer coach about the same age as Maarit, asks if the therapist is in and learns she has just left town. Sami assumes Maarit is her work colleague and asks if she can talk to him. His marriage is in crisis, and he fears it will fall apart imminently if he doesn’t do something. Maarit, a trained social worker, agrees, and learns and is touched by Sami’s innermost feelings about sex and love. Just as he leaves, his wife Julia (Ria Kataja) arrives looking for the therapist, whom she has begged Sami to see to no avail. Again, Maarit agrees to speak with Julia, and gives her some advice that makes the couple’s evening at home the best they’ve had in ages. Unfortunately, Maarit has developed a crush on Sami and pursues him to the affair that was almost inevitable from the moment they met. Maarit, it seems, will now learn what it’s like to be the other woman.
The script for Open Up to Me is a mass of ’80s tropes and techniques, like an abundance of annoying lens flares, the dress-up/mistaken identity set-up from the Melanie Griffith-Harrison Ford vehicle Working Girl (1988), and a horny high school student with a lot of screen time, Teo (Alex Anton), who only seemed to be in the film to channel Tom Hanks’ manchild from Big (1988). Nonetheless, I had no trouble overlooking these recycled plot devices and some pretty schematic coincidences. This film gets my full endorsement for the riveting central performance by Leea Klemola.
Klemola makes Maarit’s sometimes self-sabotaging honesty the hallmark of her character, and suggests some of the masculine habits she has retained post-transition, like pursuing Sami and coming on strong, that make her performance as a transgender female so believable. (A review of the film by one transgender woman confirms that her performance was very convincing.) When she tells Sami what it was like to go on her journey, one that started at the age of five, I felt I got a bit of insight into the flash of awareness many of us have at that age about who we are as a discrete person, separate from our parents and surroundings. Maarit’s attempts to deny her gender identity by becoming an athlete, husband, and father and keeping her secret self well hidden make perfect sense. As with any soul-denying lie, however, the truth will out eventually, and the collateral damage to her daughter and wife a lasting regret she will have to learn to live with.
The women in this film are more courageous than its men. Pinja is harassed at school when a suicide inquiry brings Maarit back to town under suspicion of child abuse. Pinja, however, stands up to the ridicule and fights back to restore her father’s good name. Julia, though she hasn’t much screen time, comes off first as a bigot when she learns what kind of person her husband chose to cheat on her with and then as someone relieved not to have to pretend to be happy anymore. Sami is kind of a mess of a character, seemingly not concerned with Maarit’s physical change, but eventually uncomfortable in her world. I pegged him as a curious man who never intended for the affair to be more than a dalliance and who becomes furious with Maarit for her characteristic honesty when she unexpectedly runs into Julia. He’s a weak, entitled man who doesn’t deserve Maarit, as she learns rather quickly.
Although this is a film that will draw attention because of its unique central character, the real takeaway is that honesty, no matter what its cost, is the most rewarding approach to life and that eventually those we love can learn to live with the truth. In the film’s best moment, Pinja and an emotionally overcome Maarit are reunited. Pinja’s matter-of-fact last line is, “Dad, your make-up is running.”
Open Up to Me is showing Friday, March 27 at 8:00 p.m. and Tuesday, March 31 at 6:00 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Ivano De Matteo
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
One of the most popular writers in Europe is Herman Koch. The sometime actor published his first book, a collection of short stories, in 1985 and has produced eight novels to date. He hit big with his sixth novel, Het diner (The Dinner), a best seller that has been translated into 21 languages, spawned a 2012 film of the same name in his native country of The Netherlands, and reportedly will receive an English-language film treatment with Cate Blanchett at the helm in her directorial debut. The story, one of feuding brothers and family crime, proved irresistible to Italian director Ivano De Matteo as well. His version takes liberties with the novel that open the action beyond a single dinner conversation, giving context to the hard choices at the heart of the drama.
The film opens with two drivers exchanging heated words when one of them blows a red light because he is talking on his cellphone. As tempers flare, the offended driver stops his car, pulls out a baseball bat, and goes after the cellphone user. The driver’s side window shatters, but not from the bat—the driver is a police officer, and he fires a fatal shot into the man in self-defense. The bullet passes through the man and strikes his 10-year-old son Stefano (Lupo De Matteo), who is sitting in the passenger seat and was pleading with his father to stop arguing. This incident brings the two brothers at the heart of the story, Massimo (Alessandro Gassman) and Paolo (Luigi Lo Cascio), together, the former a lawyer defending the shooter and the latter a physician treating the injured boy.
The solidly middle-class Paolo and his wife Clara (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) have one son, the sullen, acne-scarred Michele (Jacopo Olmo Antinori), who hangs out with his older cousin Benedetta (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers) watching embarrassing and violent videos on TV and YouTube. Benny’s father, Massimo, is a wealthy widower who is on his second marriage to Sofia (Barbora Bobulova), who has recently given birth to a daughter. Clara hates Sofia, and Paolo has some long-standing enmity toward his brother, but like clockwork, the two couples meet at Massimo’s favorite restaurant once a month.
Michele has been doing poorly in school, and Paolo wants to keep him from going with Benny to a party. Clara, not wanting him to miss something he has been looking forward to, gets Paolo to relent. At the party, Michele is hopelessly out of place among the college-age crowd and ends up getting very drunk. He decides to leave, and Benny trails awkwardly after him in her high heels. The teens are uncommunicative the next day, but when Clara watches an Italian version of “Crimestoppers,” she sees a video of two people beating and kicking a homeless woman and dragging her along the street. Clara views the video again on her son’s laptop the next day after he goes to school, gets up shakily and walks to the kitchen, only to have her knees go out from under her, shocked to confirm her fear that the pair may be Benny and Michele. Later, Benny pumps her father for legal information about the crime, which she claims her friends committed; Massimo goes to an unsuspecting Paolo and says he suspects that their children were responsible. Angry at Clara for keeping him in the dark, Paolo forces the truth out of Michele. It is then up to the families to decide whether to cover for their children or turn them in.
The theme of The Dinner is similar to that of another EU festival film, Magical Girl (2014), that is, the human struggle between emotion and reason. Clara and Paolo are horrified that Massimo can defend the policeman who left a family man dead and his son temporarily paralyzed, but Massimo believes that everyone deserves a defense. This is the kind of rational thinking one needs and expects from a lawyer. Paolo is overcome with horror at what his son and niece have done, yelling at Massimo, Clara, and Sofia for talking about the best way to keep them from paying for their crime. Paolo’s conflict is enormous, flipping constantly between love for his son and his belief in justice, challenging his kneejerk liberal philosophy. Clara shows herself to be a hypocrite, watching her “Crimestoppers” show to see whether justice will be served, yet choosing to believe the lies of her son until he is forced into confessing and then actively seeking to keep the truth from getting out. Sofia is more dispassionate, as Benny is not her natural daughter, but she will do whatever Massimo believes is right.
The film remains blessedly neutral about technology. Just when we think the film will blame Benny and Michele’s actions on their consumption of violent videos, we see that a security camera is instrumental in uncovering their crime. De Matteo rightly lays the blame directly where it belongs—on human nature, on people driven to violence by thoughtlessness or the view that some people’s lives are worthless. Envy certainly plays a role in how Paolo and Clara regard Massimo and Sofia and their luxurious lifestyle. Our sympathies are constantly shifting, and our beliefs about the characters reinforced and challenged again and again.
The naturalistic film style and the mesmerizing performances, especially by Lo Cascio and Mezzogiorno, take this film and its somewhat familiar theme to some interesting places. It is, however, hard to get a toehold on the film because we are catching these characters at a stressful moment in time; without a thorough grounding in character, the film sometimes tips into melodrama. Whereas the first half of the film contains only diagetic music, the introduction of an emotional score in the second half amps the melodrama rather unnecessarily.
The tack De Matteo takes to this story recalls the amorality of privilege and the immorality of envy found in The Bling Ring (2013), suggesting that Gen X filmmakers (De Matteo is 49) are acutely aware of the worm riddling our new Gilded Age and are seeking to examine and expose it. While The Dinner perhaps needed a more full-bodied script to draw out more nuance to the situation, this film is well worth a look.
The Dinner is showing Thursday, March 26 at 8:15 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
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Director/Screenwriter: Olivier Assayas
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
Olivier Assayas’ career is littered with films studying the cross-pollinating perversities of art and life and contemplations of art as life itself—as hobby, business, mirror, catalyst, passion, refuge. Key to much of Assayas’ cinema is a belief that performance is a kind of life and that all life is a kind of performance. This notion becomes an ever more enveloping truism as new portals of reality are opened by technology and our increasingly narcissistic gaze. Assayas has tackled this obsessive theme from many different angles in his career. Even his discursions into genre and reportage, like Boarding Gate (2008) and Carlos (2011), hinge on the spectacle of individuals trying to reinvent themselves according to a self-concept: the former film’s protagonist, forced to survive conspiracies of power and the brutal results of her own extreme emotions, became something like the science fiction heroine she had once written about, whilst the latter espoused the idea that Carlos the Jackal was essentially a man who fell in love with playing the radical titan and made his life match the image. Assayas’ international breakthrough, Irma Vep (1996), depicted a film shoot as intersection of cultures, peoples, epochs, and modes of artistry, recognising and disassembling all the grand and inane things that go into creating a popular artwork. Clouds of Sils Maria inevitably evokes that movie in constructing a similar fablelike exploration of the tensions between player and play, a cotillion of ideas and impulses dancing around the subject of art in the modern world itself, and also just as fascinated with the iconography of the great female performer. That iconography has clearly often tantalised and tormented Assayas, as he documented in his works with ex-wife Maggie Cheung, Irma Vep and Clean (2004).
Clouds of Sils Maria belongs to a small battery of recent films that have tackled the same theme, including most prominently Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur (both 2014), all of which meditate fixedly on the process of actors creating new realities as they wrestle with the purity of the text and the complexity of existence. The corollary to his recurring theme is that Assayas knows that however much artists might wish it and be facilely in love with the notion of art and life conjoining, it never does, or at least not in the neat manner most takes on the idea suggest. Assayas maintains tension is his variations on this theme by keeping the audience guessing as to where he will draw the line.
Crucial to both the intent and the effect of Clouds of Sils Maria is the presence of Juliette Binoche, whose own aura of matured excellence as a performer and invocation of a specific kind of European chic is crucial for the attitude the audience is encouraged to take toward her character, Maria Enders, and that of Kristen Stewart, playing Maria’s personal assistant Valentine. At the outset, tellingly, Maria and Valentine are travelling, between stages of life. Maria seems at first to be on a kind of cultural victory lap, heading to Switzerland for a film festival where she is to accept an award on behalf of publicity-averse playwright and filmmaker William Melchior. Melchior wrote the play that gave Maria her big break, “The Maloja Snake,” a tragic tale of a widowed, middle-age businesswoman, Helena, who falls in love with younger female employee, Sigrid, only to be cruelly used, discarded, and driven to suicide. Melchior later adapted the play into the movie that made her an international star.
Maria is now just coming off a stint playing an X-Men character in Hollywood, the pinnacle of that career in terms of fame and financial reward. Soon it becomes plain that Maria is actually beating a retreat, turning her back not just on such pay-cheque work but also on new horizons in a changed cultural zeitgeist, and also fleeing the fallout of her ongoing, acrimonious divorce. On the train taking them through the Alps, Maria reads Val her acceptance speech on behalf of Melchior, whilst Val drip-feeds her interesting offers, information titbits, internet gossip, and relevant bulletins that come to her through copious cell phone calls. One call brings genuinely startling and shocking news: Melchior has just been found dead near his home in the mountain village of Sils Maria. Later, Melchior’s widow Rosa (Angela Winkler) tells Maria that he was fatally ill and took a graceful self-administered exit in his favourite spot, high above the lake of Sils.
The festival award turns into testimonial event, and Maria is faced with some less agreeable aspects of her shared past with Melchior, as his other favourite actor, Henryk Wald (Hanns Zischler), comes to get in on the act. Maria is still deeply contemptuous of Henryk after he seduced her, forgot her, and got interested in her again once she hit the big time. Reluctantly, Maria meets with Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), a new hotshot theatre director who wants to cast Maria in a revival of “The Maloja Snake.” Whereas Maria made her name as the young character in the play, whom she played with a precise relish for callow, egocentric cruelty, Maria is now to take the role of the older, waning, doomed Helena.
Maria is initially seduced into this potentially facetious piece of backtracking by Klaus’s theory that Helena and Sigrid are essentially portraits of the same person at different stages in life and thus a predominantly psychological work, whilst Henryk describes it as a simple and relentless portrait in the pathetic subordination of a weaker person by a dominant one, and thus about the power dynamics of interpersonal society. When Rosa decides to leave the house she and Melchior shared, she offers it to Maria as a place to rehearse the play and commune with the essence and inspiration of Melchior’s art. Maria and Val move in for the duration, and begin the heady work of finding an access point into the play’s theatre of pathos.
The title of both Assayas’ film and the play within it refer to a strange weather phenomenon in the region—a snakelike ribbon of cloud that creeps up through the mountains and over the lake at Sils Maria whose exact cause is unknown. This mystery is correlated with the enigma of desire and the wilful self-immolation of Helena depicted in Melchior’s play, which concerns both the consumption and supplanting of the old by the young, but also with the impulses that still burn within us as we age and the overpowering force of repressed, asocial wont. The invented play that serves as linchpin for Assayas’ dramatic enquiries was inspired by Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1970), a work Fassbinder likewise translated from stage to screen. Although Assayas has been prone to fetishizing lipstick lesbianism in the past, the status of Fassbinder’s works as singular classics of the burgeoning age of outright queer art concern Assayas less than using them as template for fabricating an exemplar of ruthlessly psychological, selectively realistic, serious-minded modernist art. Likewise, the film’s allusions to Ingmar Bergman’s films, particularly Persona (1966) and Hour of the Wolf (1968), annex the aura of intense worthiness still retained by that grand, but fading era. Simultaneously, the way Fassbinder used gay coupling with cunning alacrity to render the power dynamics in all relationships bare in deadly contrast is also vital to Assayas’ plan.
Assayas can then toss such high-falutin’ fare playfully against the seeming frivolousness of much contemporary big-budget cinema. Rather than merely exploiting the dissonance to better affirm the aspirations of the would-be artist in the face of sell-out self-loathing, as Birdman was rewarded for depicting, Assayas is a postmodernist, knowing all too well that the divisions between high and low art are often illusory, but also he is determined not to pander. He wants to know why metaphorical studies in human nature, which can be at once simplistically minor and mythically large, have stolen so much thunder from the integrity of such grand art. “The Maloja Snake” is supposed to be the kind of work artists and scholars can get lost in for years trying to plumb its subtleties and evocations of seldom-explored corners of the psyche, and the way each person engaging with the text transforms it via their own experience and intent.
Maria trips up on her own evolving and altering reading of the work, which she once understood on the level of pure instinct in channelling her own ruthless, youthful drive into the figure of Sigrid. This must now be subordinated to the far more painful process of reconciling her own fear of aging with the terrible description of Hanna’s disintegration, but also on the level of raw theatrical craft, stumbling over lines that once seemed abstractly forceful and now only ring as clunky and didactic. Appropriately for the theatrical dimensions of his inquiries, Assayas structures his film in three acts: a first part, a second part, and an epilogue. But he also subdivides the film with a classic cinematic device—fading to black as the punctuation of most scenes rather than the direct leaps favoured by most modern editors, emphasising, rather than sublimating, the passage of time, giving the film a mood of somnolent, yet wiry expectation.
By most standards, not much actually happens in Clouds of Sils Maria. Assayas gives the bulk of the screen time to Maria and Val shacked up in Melchior’s house, arguing approaches to the play in specific and the business of performing art in general in a manner that takes near-unseemly delight in the mere display of actors verbalising with all their wily talent, as if taking a calculated tilt at the dogma of modern filmmaking, to avoid devolution into mere talk. Assayas quietly undercuts cliché in making the older European actress more emotional and quicksilver in her reactions and creative yearnings and the younger American taciturn in her emotional life and more overtly intellectual and theoretical in her explorations, albeit in such a way that often conflicts with Maria’s sense of worthy art, talking up the necessity of committed acting even in light fantasies. The association between the two women seems workaday, but steadily unveils itself as a complex and loaded mesh of mutual requirement as Maria and Val are bound together by shared intelligence and passion for the creative life, albeit a passion that the younger woman must subordinate to the elder as the successful professional. Val functions as sounding board, mental fencing opponent, grease trap keeping distractions and time suckers at bay, and avatar out in the world of youthful desire. The project of restaging “The Maloja Snake” is both expedited and complicated by the other side of the casting equation. Klaus tells Maria he’s secured Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), a rising starlet who’s a big enough fan of Maria’s to have dropped other commitments for the chance to play opposite her, news that helps lures Maria on board with the appeal to vanity, though Maria has never heard of Jo-Ann.
Val, in another of her functions—translator for the vagaries of the internet age for Maria—is able to dish all the dirt: Jo-Ann is infamous for her spacy, spiky interviews and You Tube-enshrined freak-outs. Like Maria, she’s just come off a big-budget scifi movie, cueing a sequence when Maria and Val go to see the film, donning 3D glasses for the privilege. In the brief glimpse of the movie, Jo-Ann’s character is a mutant walking out on her fellowship of good guys, revealing herself to be a traitor who’s in love with the bad guy before exterminating her mutant friend (Nora von Waldstätten). Val vocally admires Jo-Ann’s talent and encourages Maria to work with her, even take some inspiration from her. After the movie, the pair argue over what they’ve just seen. Maria dismisses the pop psychology and what she sees as inherent ludicrousness of the material, but Val argues passionately for Jo-Ann’s transcendent dedication to the part and the force of feeling underneath the generic metaphors. Maria laughs heartily with a hint of wilful contempt, whilst Val continues to argue with frustration, but they patch it up when Val dismisses the film’s villain. This sequence binds together much that’s essential about both the film and Assayas’ recurring peccadilloes, not least of which is the spectacle of cinephilia itself, the critical dissection of clashing artistic concepts and world views, and Assayas’ adoration for louche glamazons in tight outfits, an adoration he always treats with wry awareness, harking back to Irma Vep’s PVC fantasias and the confused invocations of Catwoman as inferior descendant.
As a mimicry of Hollywood blockbuster style, the movie-within-a-movie misses the mark, probably deliberately. The wigs and costuming recall a different brand of comic-book-inspired pop cinema from the ’60s and ’70s with a hint of retro camp, whilst the overt discussion of emotion in the dialogue cuts against the grain of the current superhero genre’s pre-adolescent distrust of such things. In this aspect, Assayas is clearly more definitely referencing the Twilight series, setting up Val’s passionate defence of the kinds of role and performing that gave Stewart her own fame and fortune. There is another message in the mutant movie that has warnings for the two ladies: one mutant kills off the friend who tries to council her wisely but against the flow of her tumultuous feelings. When Maria and Val meet Jo-Ann, she and her boyfriend (Johnny Flynn) are listening to Handel in an upscale hotel. Jo-Ann seems to be a calm, cool, generous young woman light years removed from the half-mad or druggy tyro the internet records. Jo-Ann charms Maria by copiously praising her and explaining the roots of her adolescent obsession with acting as being rooted in seeing Maria live on stage. Only when Maria and Val return to Sils Maria can Val explain the tabloid storm waiting to happen they were just privy to, because Val recognised Jo-Ann’s boyfriend as Christopher Giles, a hot young writer who’s married to a prize-winning German artist. At first, Assayas seems to be constructing an obvious point here, decrying the way celebrity’s worst moments can be captured and turned into permanent, inescapable representations, and that Jo-Ann is just a young talent who indulges, but isn’t defined by her appetites. But another facet suggests itself, that Jo-Ann is a consummate performer in life as well as on screen, becoming whatever she thinks is needed of her in a given moment.
Assayas, who started as a film critic and then turned to screenwriting, penned the script for one of Binoche’s important early films, Andre Techince’s Rendez-vous (1985), and he all but invites the viewer to go right ahead and conflate the various players on and off screen with the characters in the film, with himself cast sarcastically as Melchior, ghostly, pointedly absent but still the puppet master, and Binoche and Stewart playing versions of themselves. Assayas certainly mines the ironies of the two actresses’ careers with assiduous skill, playing off the oppositions they seemingly invoke—European/American, maturity/youth, high art/pop culture, and on and on—whilst also collapsing and undermining those divisions. Mostly this feels like a sarcastic dare for the audience to make such an ill-advised leap: Assayas is ahead of the game. Binoche’s own recent, too-brief part in Godzilla (2014) was an interesting discursion for a hugely admired performer who nonetheless has had a frustrating time of it in English-language cinema, whilst Stewart, an actress with an impressive resume of film performances under her belt in small and independent films, is still currently defined for most by the Twilight franchise, which made her name the easiest of cheap-shot targets, whilst Jo-Ann’s transgressive romance with Giles evokes Stewart’s own tabloid crash-landing.
Of course, there’s nothing terribly uncommon about either actress’s career pattern either, and it’s this very commonality of experience that intrigues Assayas, trying to turn the mixture of specificity and universality that’s supposed to make for great art inside out. Like fellow ’90s French auteur-star François Ozon, Assayas is fascinated by characters who indulge in role-playing and try to actualise their internal dialogues, but he’s careful not to stoop to an overt a trick like Ozon did with Swimming Pool (2003) and have his characters prove to be literal, obvious projections of a creator’s thought process. Instead, Assayas reroutes his awareness that all characters are essentially fragments of the author’s (his) mind, whilst purporting to make them radial extensions of Maria herself, commenting on past, present, and future, as Val, Jo-Ann, Klaus, and Henryk all present dimensions of Maria’s ambitions and anxieties in obedience to the common pattern of function in drama.
At the same time, all of them are struggling for autonomy, for their own justifications and arcs: actors’ egoverse couples folding themselves into every other person around them with the eternal fear that others will erase them. Maria and Val’s life together in Henryk’s house quickly starts to feel like a kind of sexless marriage, especially as Maria relies on Val to give her juice and morale, but she also resents it when Val’s admiration goes to anyone else, like Henryk and Jo-Ann. Maria’s feelings about other actors are coloured by the way they interact with her life experience, whilst Val assesses them purely with the gaze of an intelligent fan. Jo-Ann comes to represent the unalloyed force and ambition of the young actor as opposed to the toey criticality of Maria as the weathered artist.
Maria stores up Val’s implied criticisms and veiled warnings and then ambushes her with their implications at random moments, whilst the two women begin to bicker and butt heads with greater frequency. Their adventures in the surrounding landscape mark stages in the decay of the partnership, from casually stripping off and diving into the lake to getting lost and wandering in the descending murk after arguing aesthetic quandaries until they literally can’t find their way home. Val strikes up a romantic liaison with a photographer, Berndt (Benoit Peverelli), who shoots Maria for the festival promos: Val amusingly introduces him to Maria as the man who took “those really trashy photos of Lindsay Lohan.” Val leaves Maria to meet up with Berndt a few times, but after one excursion, she is depicted driving back through the mountains in the fog, the film’s sole moment of showy filmmaking: Assayas double-exposes the image, so that the road continuing to twist and bend from a driver’s perspective even as Val stops the car to vomit by the side of the road, expertly visualising Val’s physical state of head-swimming nausea and her tumultuous, disoriented emotional state of things having gone bitterly wrong. Eventually, she asks Maria if she wants her to leave after a particularly gruelling rehearsal session, feeling that her ideas are only confusing Maria, but Maria asks her with disarming directness to stay and embraces her.
The mountainous setting is replete with otherworldly evocations, a Wagnerian landscape for communing with gods, and the Maloja Snake itself, which took on a spiritual significance for Melchior. Maria and Val try repeatedly to grasp that meaning by hoping to see it, whilst Val herself gets lost in the churn of lesser atmospherics. Early in the film, Rosa shows them a film of the event, taken by German filmmaker Arnold Fanck (codirector of The White Hell of Piz Palü, 1929). In the film’s provocative, initially bewildering pivotal moment, Maria and Val try to catch sight of the Maloja Snake on a foggy morning. On the way, the duo argues about the play’s ambiguous ending, which implies but does not show Helena’s suicide. Val points out that it’s hardly conclusive and that it might in fact support the theory that the play is actually about Helena wilfully throwing off the vestiges of her life en route to rebirth. Maria barks irritably at Val that she’s trying to make the play the opposite of what it was supposed to be. Moments later Assayas observes the duo descending a hillside, and Maria reappears on the reverse slope, but without Val behind her. Maria reaches the peak and sees the Snake forming, but when she looks back, she sees no sign of Val. Maria searches with increasing frenzy, but turns up no sign of her companion. Assayas fades out and returns weeks later, with Maria in London with a completely new PA and the restaging of “The Maloja Snake” now in final rehearsals.
What the hell has happened? Maria doesn’t seem disturbed or unhappy, so it’s unlikely Val has met a sticky end accidentally or deliberately. More likely she simply gave up, walked back to the house, packed her bags and left her job. But there is no certainty. At first it seems like a mischievous diegetic joke, Val making a point about the ambiguity of the text’s conclusion to taunt Maria. It’s also possible to take it to mean that Val never was, that she was just a projection of Maria’s self, a facet of her personality she now no longer needs as creative quandary gives way to hard career choices (this does seem unlikely, however). As the film’s metatextual humour has constantly threatened, this proves to be rather Assayas’ act of narrative self-sabotage, highlighting the very point that was just being argued about: he quite deliberately erases all sign of what’s happened, and the audience must decide for itself. Val vanishes as the Maloja Snake appears, and Assayas mediates dreamily on the mountains engulfed by cloud, Handel sawing away on the soundtrack.
The unanswered mystery of the sudden disappearance calls back to another icon of mid-20th century art film, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), but where Antonioni was evoking the mystery inherent in much of life, Assayas undermines the very structure of his art to reaffirm it. The notion of a character suddenly absented from a story and thus from existence is another of Assayas’ fixations, from the fraying New Wave director in Irma Vep who seems to vanish into the experimental movie he leaves behind to the antiheroine of demonlover being abducted into the black zones of the internet and the protagonist of Boarding Gate retreating from revenge to be lost in the great mass of humanity. The tale of Val and Maria seemed to demand a conclusion, a grand gesture—that they split, become lovers, destroy each other—but Assayas simply avoids it. Whatever Val has done has been aimed at hurting Maria and perhaps herself, and more importantly, she’s hurt the narrative and broken free. The rest of the film plays out normally. Maria has a new assistant (Claire Tran), who has Val’s confidence but nothing like her bohemian edge. Whilst Maria and Klaus have dinner, the director pensive about his project, news comes of Giles and Jo-Ann’s affair: Giles’ wife has attempted suicide, and the shit is about to hit the tabloid fan.
Jo-Ann coolly invites the tabloid blame for the tragedy to shield Giles, revealing an almost saintly side, but as she and Maria rehearse and Maria tries to sensitise her to the dramatic value of evoking pity for Helena, Jo-Ann dismisses the point, stating that the audience is now entirely bound up in Sigrid—in short, she’s taking charge now and fuck the older woman, Maria and Helena both. Helena accepts this without demure, and meets with Piers Roaldson (Brady Corbet), a young, first-time filmmaker far less slick and self-assured than Klaus who wants her to play another mutant in a low-budget scifi film he’s about to shoot in Ukraine. Ironically, Piers has contempt for this very thing Maria’s been struggling to accept and adapt to, as well as for Maria’s concerns about her age. “She’s outside of time,” Piers tells Maria of the character he’s written for her, a creature who does not age normally. The likeness is obvious, to the image of the eternal actress, frozen at a phase in life by the movie camera, exempted from the petty cares of life. By inference Maria has finally reached a point where she, too, has transcended time. To reach this point, Maria has essentially been stripped of her illusions, her airs, and her beliefs. There is nothing now but the job itself, but that is a form of freedom. Assayas fades out on the image of her ensconced in Helena’s place, smiling with wry expectation to herself, aware that on one level Val was correct, that Helena’s self-destruction is as much a journey of wilful disassembling as it is one of tragic succumbing, an expression of desire to find what else there is life—and that Maria doesn’t have to follow it to the same end.
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Director/Screenwriter: Carlos Vermut
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Midway through Spanish filmmaker Carlos Vermut’s mordant sophomore feature Magical Girl, Bárbara (Bárbara Lennie), a former prostitute in the S&M scene around whom much of the action centers, meets Oliver Zoco (Miquel Insua), a wealthy paraplegic who runs a brothel for sadists. Married to a psychiatrist who keeps her on a short leash and desperate for $7,000 to pay off a blackmailer, Bárbara has agreed to a one-off session with one of Zoco’s clients. Zoco asks her if she likes bullfighting, and they agree that neither of them has a taste for it. Zoco then offers the following analysis of the place of bullfighting in Spain.
It is curious that Spain is the country where bullfighting is most popular. Do you know why Spain is a country in eternal conflict? Because we are not sure if we are a rational or an emotional country. Nordic people, for example, act in accordance with their brains. However, the Arabs or Latinos have accepted their passionate side without blame. Both, they know which are their strong points. Spaniards are balanced right in the middle. That’s the way we are. And what is bullfighting? The representation of the struggle between instinct and technique, between emotion and reason. We have to accept our instincts and learn to deal with them as if they were a bull, trying not to be destroyed by them.
This speech is the key to the quietly savage tale Vermut has put on the screen for our amusement and horror.
In sadomasochistic relations, it is the submissive who controls the action. Magical Girl shows just how much two seemingly vulnerable and submissive females control and bring about the ruin of the men in their lives. One of them is the picture of innocence—Alicia (Lucía Pollán), the 12-year-old, leukemia-stricken daughter of unemployed literature teacher and single father Luis (Luis Bermejo). The close, loving relationship between them is evident in his loving names for her, the games they play, and his parental concern over Alicia’s request to spend the night with some girlfriends watching Japanese anime. Her favorite anime is Magical Girl Yukiko, and her fondest wishes are to possess the costume Yukiko wears and to live to be 13. When her father discovers her laying in her room unconscious and rushes her to the hospital, he learns that her second wish likely will not come true. He decides he will grant her first wish, even though the designer outfit costs nearly $7,000.
The second submissive is Bárbara. The opening scene of the film shows a young Bárbara (Marina Andruix) turn the tables on her math teacher Damián (José Sacristán) when he forces her to read aloud a note she was passing in class. The note reveals that she thinks “Cabbage Face” is pathetic, and when he demands the note from her, she makes it disappear through sleight of hand. The adult Bárbara is kept in luxurious bondage by her husband Alfredo (Israel Elejalde), who shoves an antipsychotic or antidepressant down her throat, checking to see if she has swallowed it, even sweeping his finger around the inside of her mouth to be sure. The depth of her disturbance shows when they go to visit friends, and after being forced to hold the friends’ new baby, Bárbara starts to laugh. Compelled, like Damián compelled her so long ago, to reveal what she was thinking, she says she was imagining what everyone’s faces would look like if she tossed the baby out the window.
At home, Alfredo forces Bárbara to take a sleeping pill, and when she awakens in the middle of the night, she finds only empty hangers in his clothes closet. She downs the bottle of sleeping pills, only to vomit them out the window and right onto Luis, who is standing in front of a jewelry store ready to smash and grab the valuable contents in the window to finance the Yukiko costume. Bárbara takes him in, washes his clothes, and while they are drying, seduces Luis, thus leaving herself open to the blackmail he sees as the only way to get the money he needs.
Both Alicia and Bárbara depend on others to take care of them. Both are sick and find ways to use that sickness to get what they want. The frivolousness of Luis’ mission forms a dead-on critique of affirmative parenting. Luis may be delusional about Alicia’s real needs—as a friend from whom he tries to borrow money says, Alicia just wants to spend time with him—but when he presents her with the dress, her reaction is underwhelming. When she starts looking through the box, he realizes he missed something—the $20,000 magic wand accessory—and is forced to extend his blackmail demand. Alicia is indeed a very entitled child who elicits our sympathy and scorn at the same time.
Bárbara finds a way to embarrass Alfredo for making her go out when she didn’t want to, and though he tries to leave her that same night, he returns the next day with an ultimatum I suspect would vanish into thin air if Bárbara ever called him on it. That she doesn’t, and indeed, pursues increasingly more dangerous sexual activities to deal with her blackmailer suggests to me that she’s trying to have her cake and eat it.
As with any good bullfight, Vermut waves his red cape and punctuates these fairly straightforward, intertwined stories like a picador with some lacerating scenes of seriocomedy, as when Bárbara splits her forehead open when she head-butts a mirror or Alicia dances in manic delight to some Japanese music, clutches her side and suddenly collapses out of the frame. The undercurrent of economic crisis in Spain adds an air of desperation, and Luis’ instruction to Bárbara to put the money in a copy of the Spanish constitution held at a public library because “nobody will read it” offers a sardonic commentary on the state of neoliberal policies in Spain. His men—all educated intellectuals—often have the mere illusion of control, but when they succumb to their emotions, their ferocity is something to behold.
Vermut offers some interesting set-ups to suggest character, and even cinematic parody. When Bárbara enters Zoco’s mansion, the formality of the setting and faux gentility of the characters echo the sleazy sophisticates of Eyes Wide Shut (1999), and the addition of the black lizard room, with this animal silouette hanging portentously over the door, is the kind of sly joke one would expect from the likes of Luis Buñuel. Revelation of the scars criss-crossing Bárbara’s body brings out the Spanish sense of morbidity (and incidentally, offers more erotic menace than a “sensation” like Fifty Shades of Gray  could begin to think of) and the pallor of death that permeates so many film from that country. In other instances, an overhead shot of Damián’s desk, with every object regimentally aligned with geometric preciseness, is a perfect snapshot of a man desperately trying to keep the bull locked in its pen, and the small hand reaching toward him holding the key to the gate.
When Vermut pulls his sword out from behind his cape to go in for the kill, the change is as unexpectedly thrilling as it would be in a real bullfight. Damián is the sleeper character in this film, and his obsession with Bárbara the driving force in a truly unsettling tale of revenge. Like the Spanish, Vermut moves us slyly between the poles of reason and passion. The final victory, perhaps unsurprisingly, goes to the bull.
Magical Girl is showing Saturday, March 28 at 3:00 p.m. and Wednesday, April 1 at 7:30 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago. The Wednesday screening will be introduced by Steven Marsh, associate professor of Spanish film and cultural studies at the University of Illinois Chicago.
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Director: Christian Schwochow
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
On October 3, 1990, East and West Germany were officially reunified, and Germans in both halves of the country looked forward to better times for the entire country. The hardships under which the East Germans lived for decades, however, did not vanish overnight, and integration of the two populations was fraught in many ways. Christian Schwochow, who was born and grew up in East Germany, has begun to examine this past. His 2012 miniseries The Tower dealt with the crumbling of communist rule in East Germany, observing life in the former Soviet bloc country near the final approach of reunification. West takes a step back to the 1970s for a look at life for East Germans who were granted permission to emigrate to the west.
The film opens with our main characters, Nelly Senff (Jördis Triebel) and her son Alexej (Tristan Göbel) bidding a loving farewell to the man of the house, Wassilij (Carlo Ljubek), who is leaving on a trip. The context of the trip is vague, and when he says that he will see them in a week, the furtiveness of the exchange made me wonder whether they were all going to try to escape to the west. Flash forward three years, and a worried-looking Nelly is indeed making for the border with Alexej to start a new life—but with the government’s blessings. Nelly, jittery that something will foul up the plan, tries to keep Alexej from the leaving the car to use the rest room. This action ironically arouses suspicions, and Nelly is asked to submit to questioning. Although her papers are in order, East Germany reserves one final indignity for her before she leaves—she is made to strip, jewelry and all, for a cavity search before she is released to West Berlin’s Marienfelde Refugee Center.
Mother and son are given room and board, and Alexej is enrolled in the local school. They are given a card that will need 12 stamps from various officials before they can leave the center and find a job and a place of their own. Slowly, Nelly begins to make friends, and Alexej latches onto a long-time resident of the center, Hans Pischke (Alexander Scheer), who distracts him when the boy witnesses a hanging suicide. Nelly, initially furious that Hans seems to be playing father to Alexej, relaxes when he tells her why and begins to trust him. Sadly, an American official, John Bird, (Jacky Ido) who refuses to stamp her card because he believes Wassilij was a Soviet courier who is still alive, derails her plan to get on with her life and stokes her paranoia to the point that she begins to suspect Hans of being a Stasi spy.
West is a film that cuts a lot of narrative corners and provides so little backstory on any of its characters that it’s hard to register them as anything but types. This sketchiness may be deliberate, as it helps us to identify somewhat with Nelly’s dislocation and distrust. Nonetheless, because we are shown things Nelly is not—Hans taking Alexej away from the scene of the suicide, Alexej buying flowers for his mother that he leaves as a surprise for her in their room—her anger and paranoia seem quite unreasonable. Schwochow further plays with our sense of reality by giving us a few brief glimpses of Wassilij, sometimes as Nelly’s delusions and then perhaps as a real person. He offers an American paranoic, a fairly predictable, but perhaps accurate touch, but puts Nelly in the position of using sex to find out what he knows about Wassilij; adding this cloak-and-dagger element and setting up the stereotype of the German woman desiring an African-American cheapens an already unflattering portrait of an intelligent, professional woman (a chemist) defined by her lover and mother roles.
Nonetheless, looking past the narrative weaknesses, West is a riveting experience thanks to the mesmerizing performances of Triebel and Göbel. Triebel won best actress awards at the 2014 German Film Awards and 2013 Montreal World Film Festival and was a best actress nominee of the German Film Critics Association in 2015 and the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival. Triebel is on camera almost constantly, and her intense, full-bodied performance makes up for the sometimes weak dialogue with which screenwriter Heide Schwochow, the director’s mother, saddled her. So focused is she that looking at screencaps for this film, I was extremely surprised how much her character smokes in the film—I just never noticed. At the same time that I felt her full-bore seductiveness toward Bird and deep love for Wassilij in their one brief scene together, there was a certain containedness that felt absolutely right for someone who lived under an oppressive, vigilant regime.
Göbel’s open face and innocence stand in contrast to his costar’s suspicions and fear. Alexej misses his father, a fact he and Nelly talk about openly. At the same time, his inability to deal honestly with his mother, standing bewildered, unable to say the flowers are his gift to her when she snatches them out of their vase and smashes them in a trashcan, rings painfully true. His relationship with Hans is wonderfully warm, untainted by the suspicions of others; we’re grateful he has Hans to turn to when the West German boys start to pick on him and break his glasses. Frankly, I could have looked at him the entire film and not have been bored at all.
Alexander Scheer has a tricky balancing act. Hans must be normally friendly but seem abnormally so to Nelly. He doesn’t quite pull it off, but I give him full marks for convincing me that he had been tortured by the Stasi and emotionally crippled as a result. It is important to realize that not everyone can be strong and put the past behind them.
Schwochow’s handheld work, getting right into the faces of his characters, creates an intimacy that draws us into the story, even as his muted, cool colors suggest the gray area between imprisonment and freedom. When Nelly’s world gradually starts to open up, it is a joyful relief, a reminder that despite its imperfections, unification made life better for a lot of people.
West is showing Saturday, March 21 at 5:00 p.m. and Wednesday, March 25 at 6:00 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
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Director/Co-Adaptor: Alain Resnais
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
On March 1, 2014, Alain Resnais died after a long and fruitful 91 years of life. A chronic asthmatic from a comfortably bourgeois family who was exempted from active military duty during World War II, he made some of the most powerful antiwar and humanist films ever produced, including Night and Fog (1955) and Muriel, or the Time of Return (1963). He also created films of mystery with elliptical narratives like Last Year in Marienbad (1961), reflecting his early interest in surrealism. In his later years, he struck up a working relationship with British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, whose comedies of manners reminiscent of Molière’s bedroom farces must have held great appeal for the French director. Resnais’ adaptation of “Intimate Exchanges,” Smoking/No Smoking (1993), swept France’s César awards. His next collaboration with Ayckbourn was an adaptation of “Hearts,” the bittersweet Private Fears in Public Places (2006). Their next collaboration turned out to be the last film Resnais ever made, Life of Riley, or Love, Drink and Sing, as Resnais’ title translates. The story and presentation are light as a feather, yet something of Resnais’ gravitas as a director adheres, making it an appropriate valedictory work.
The comedy involves three bourgeois couples—Kathryn (Sabine Azéma) and her physician husband Colin (Hippolyte Girardot), Tamara (Caroline Sihol) and her wealthy husband Jack (Michel Vuillermoz), and Monica (Sandrine Kiberlain), who has left the titular George Riley, for life on a farm with Simeon (André Dussollier). The first two couples are involved in an amateur drama of the 1965 Ayckbourn play “Relatively Speaking,” and much of the film’s action involves them traveling to and from rehearsals. It appears that Kathryn and Tamara were once professional actresses, and a mild level of competitive sniping goes on. Generally, however, harmony reigns.
All that changes when Kathryn wheedles a secret out of Colin—one he all but reveals to her with poorly veiled hints—that George has terminal cancer and has perhaps six months to live. Despite Colin’s warnings about patient confidentiality, Kathryn immediately blabs the news to George’s best friend, Jack, whose distraught reaction is theatricality itself. The friends decide that the best thing for George is to join the cast of the play to get his mind off his troubles, and he is summarily recruited for that purpose. The heightened emotions that emerge during the amateur theatrical, so reminiscent of a similar treatment by another British humorist, Jane Austen, in Mansfield Park, pose a challenge to the harmony of the couples, as each woman—long-ago lover Kathryn, estranged wife Monica, and current fling Tamara—are drawn toward the charismatic, doomed George out of boredom, duty, or a need to be needed.
Resnais hews close to the stage origins of this romantic farce by emphasizing the artifice of his soundstage shooting, with fake flowers and plants, barely there sets, and long sheets of painted muslin to simulate walls, with the actors pulling back the muslin to exit and enter the scene. There is a sitcom quality to the construction of the film with Resnais’ use of drawings of each set as the establishing shot of where the next scene will take place, and light, lyrical transitional music. The cast of veteran actors use all the verve at their command, with Resnais’ wife and frequent collaborator Sabine Azéma a particular stand-out as a take-charge woman shackled to a passive husband. Michel Vuillermoz is pitch-perfect as a doting father to 16-year-old Tilly (Alba Gaïa Kraghede Bellugi) who all but ignores his gorgeous wife, practically ensuring her dalliance with George. While André Dussollier doesn’t have much screen time, cartoonish encounters with a tree stump, trying to avoid kicking it when Monica runs to George’s side, lead amusingly to the inevitable.
The difference between the “no sex, please” British and the “amour fou” French is the emotional bedrock of their respective approaches to the bedroom farce. British romantic comedies tend to be less fussy, more declamatory, and generally safer from an emotional point of view. The French, who seem to take love as it comes, compartmentalizing the propriety of official matrimonial alliances and the passion of romance, always seem much more serious to me about the place of love in their lives. It’s hard to imagine an Englishman filming Jacques Demy’s semi-tragic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), for example. It is this underlying passion that gives Life of Riley the heft it has. When each of the women contemplates spending George’s final days with him in Tenerife—in his infinite bet-hedging, he has asked them all—their true feelings emerge in a very telling way. It is at this point that Resnais finally and fittingly films scenes in the interior of each of their homes.
Despite the brightness of the comedy and energetic work of the splendid cast, it is hard to watch Life of Riley without a certain melancholy setting in. Like the unseen George Riley, Alain Resnais’ ghost haunts this motion picture. The final grace note of the film reminds us of just how enormous our loss really is.
Life of Riley screens Friday, March 13 at 6:00 p.m. and Thursday, March 19 at 6:00 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
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Director/Screenwriter: Jessica Hausner
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Austrian director/screenwriter Jessica Hausner is one of the most unique voices in European cinema today. Her particular concern with the intertwining dance of love and illness made her film Lourdes arguably the best film of 2009. Amour Fou, her first film in five years, forwards that concern and suggests by its title that Hausner will present a comedy about the folly of love. Indeed, Hausner’s film offers an amusing look at the petty passions of the haute bourgeoisie, but as she did with Lourdes, Hausner builds a sense of horror that mirrors the rising passions of a world in flux.
The film takes place in Berlin in 1811. Friedrich Vogel (Stephan Grossman), a tax official with the Prussian government, and his wife of 12 years, Henriette (Birte Schnoeink) live a comfortable life with their 9-year-old daughter Pauline (Paraschiva Dragus). They are attended to by servants and attend musical evenings and balls among their social peers. Henriette is a compliant wife who considers herself her husband’s property, remarking that she has no desire for the freedom her companions are afraid will infect the common classes as French revolutionary ideas spread through Europe. A poet she admires, Heinrich (Christian Friedel), responds that it is better to die free than to be bound to an unhappy, conventional life.
Heinrich, in fact, longs for death, saying that he has no talent for living and suffers constantly due to his sensitive nature. Further, his romantic nature requires him to find a woman who will die with him out of love for him. Unfortunately, the woman with whom he has been involved, his cousin Marie (Sandra Hüller), refuses to enter into a suicide pact with him. Thus spurned, Heinrich believes that Henriette, who was attracted to the tragic heroine in his most recent poem, may be an acceptable substitute.
Amour Fou is as droll a film as one can imagine. The actors all underplay their scenes, a parody of the polite society to which their characters belong. Their homes and clothes tend to bright colors, thus saving them the inconvenience of donning rose-colored glasses. The scene in which Heinrich implores Marie to die with him is worthy of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, an earnest Heinrich (“You would make me very, very happy.”) met with Marie doing a double-take and dismissing the idea with an incredulous laugh. And Hausner gives the Vogels a Weimaraner, indelible to me as the quintessential absurdist dog because of the photos of William Wegman.
But Hausner tends to trap her characters at the bottom of frames, inside window panes, and below heavy, sashed curtains, similar to how she seemed to crush Christine, her pilgrim with multiple sclerosis in Lourdes, by filming her through a small slit between enormous church pillars. None of these wealthy bourgeois are truly free, though they scarcely seem to notice. Their self-dramatization—the aristocrats whining about having to pay taxes, their loathing of equality and their fear of a Jacobin terror, the poet for whom death seems the only answer to his roaring mediocrity and dependence on his relatives for a living—is laughable, but given the social and economic terrors of our modern world, all too familiar and deadly serious.
Heinrich’s courtship moves in fits and starts, with a selfish cruelty Henriette recognizes but is helpless to resist. He insists that she is lonely, a misfit, unloved and unloving, despite all appearances to the contrary. Henriette begins to have fainting spells and spasms, which are initially diagnosed as a nervous disorder, but later determined to be the result of a large tumor or ulcer that will kill her in a matter of months. Given her diagnosis, Henriette’s attitude toward Heinrich’s proposal changes, but in his simpering egotism, he only wants her to die for love of him, not to forestall her own suffering.
Hausner’s linking of love and illness is an interesting one. In Lourdes, Christine’s attraction to a man and determination to compete for his affections with a pretty nurse seem to banish her disease—making her a shoe-in for the best pilgrim of the trip award—though she is only in remission. Henriette, on the other hand, falls ill when faced with Heinrich’s “mad love”—not a true romantic love, as he clearly says he’s still in love with Marie, but one based on a platonic ideal not unlike the kind of love desperate pilgrims seek from Our Lady of Lourdes.
Looking at her own mediocrity—her skill on the pianoforte is hardly better than her daughter’s and her singing a crow’s caw when she renders a song she heard an opera singer perform at the gathering that opens the film—and her pending mortality, Heinrich’s proposal seems a way to fulfill her desire to make a mark, to become mythic through an act of extreme romanticism. This is the age that birthed Richard Wagner, after all. How else can one explain her rejection of her life, of a daughter and husband who clearly love her? Indeed, Friedrich travels through the conflict-torn countryside to reach a specialist in Paris and returns with the news that Henriette might still be cured.
The careful framing, gorgeous period settings, brilliantly orchestrated set-pieces like a ball with period dancing, and vibrant colors of this film are a feast for the eyes, and I admired the subtle performances of this uniformly fine cast. Schnoeink especially initially emerges as a shallow hausfrau without a thought in her head that her husband and acquaintances haven’t put there. As her situation grows more dire and her choices narrow, our laughter gives way to concern and a contemplation of what we owe to society and what we owe to ourselves. There is a shocking ambiguity to her actions and a genuine poignancy to her growing attraction to the eternal, but is she the victim of yet another man dumping his desires into her empty cranium? Trapped between two equally distressing outcomes from the audience’s point of view, we wait anxiously for Henriette to make her choice.
Amour Fou screens Monday, March 9, at 6:00 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
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Director/Screenwriter: Eugène Green
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Most of us have met people who identify with bygone eras. They style themselves to suit their preferred time, in ’60s go-go boots, short Sassone hairdos, and day-glo miniskirts or ’40s wide-shouldered, double-breasted suits, fedoras, and hand-painted ties. It’s rare to find someone go much earlier than the 1920s, however, because the clothing gets a lot more complicated and cumbersome. However, though he may not dress the part on a daily basis, Eugène Green is all about Baroque, a period that occupied the whole of the 17th century in Europe. Green is an New York-born filmmaker and naturalized French citizen who, through his teaching, theatre work, and films, has revived the French Baroque style of performance.
Green began making films when he was in his mid-50s, and when I saw his last feature film, The Portuguese Nun (2009), I felt he had a lot of potential but hadn’t quite jelled as a filmmaker. I’m happy to report that with his new feature film, La Sapienza, Green has arrived with a clear intention of what he wants to say and the wherewithal to pull it off superbly.
The film’s central couple, architect Alexandre Schmidt and his psychologist wife Aliénor (Fabrizio Rongione and Christelle Prot), are frustrated by their career compromises and disconnection from each other. After a particularly disheartening meeting with some investors who reject his desire to use existing structures and people-friendly spaces in favor of a more cost-effective development project for Bissone, Switzerland, Alexandre decides to take a break. He asks Aliénor if she wants to go to Italy with him, where he intends to do research for his long-delayed book on his idol, Baroque architect Francesco Borromini (1599-1667).
The two travel to Stresa, a beautiful town on Lake Maggiore in northern Italy, where they encounter 18-year-old Goffredo (Ludovico Succio) and his 16-year-old sister Lavinia (Arianna Nastro) while walking along the lakeshore. Lavinia suddenly grows dizzy and weak, and the older couple hail a cab and take the siblings home. Aliénor’s concern for Lavinia grows, and when Alexandre announces that he needs to travel to Turin and Rome to conduct research, Aliénor decides to stay behind. She enjoins him to take Goffredo, an aspiring architect, with him.
It’s possible to look at the doubling of Aliénor and Lavinia and Alexandre and Goffredo as doctor/patient and teacher/student, respectively, and suspect that the roles will be reversed. Indeed, this is exactly what happens, but this schema is more complex than that. The couples are bilingual in French and Italian, but to learn their individual lessons, the females speak French to each other, and the males speak Italian. Aliénor and Alexandre become time travelers, not literally meeting people from the time of Green’s imagining as happens in a film by another New Yorker in love with France—the all-too-facile Midnight in Paris (2011)—but rather by interacting with teens who embrace the ethos of the Baroque period. Succio and Nastro are rather unusual looking, as though they came from another time. Lavinia is said to have a wasting disease, archaic terminology that takes Aliénor aback, and the girl believes there is a cloud hanging over Goffredo that is the cause of her condition, certainly an evocation of hysterical illness that would not be treatable until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Goffredo sleeps with his door unlocked, despite Alexandre’s cautions against it. The young man says he always burns a candle at night, whose light he believes will keep him safe. Indeed, Goffredo wants to design buildings to contain light and people, a stark contrast to Alexandre’s design for a windowless hospital to eliminate outside distractions and focus its patients entirely on their recovery. “I would do it differently today,” he says to Goffredo.
The heart of the film might be said to encompass Alexandre and Goffredo’s tour of the great edifices of Borromini. Alexandre explains the challenges Borromini faced, particularly from his mentor and eventual rival, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a compromising architect with whom Alexandre regretfully identifies. The plain facade of Borromini’s Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, built on a limiting footprint in Rome, opens to reveal an undulating, soaring interior, using the geometry of circles and ovals to create the feverish excessiveness that characterizes Baroque style. Green leads us to the cornice high above the nave floor, shaped and lit like the eye of God, the most ancient being in a film reverent toward the past.
Alexandre’s desire to retain existing elements for new construction, as Borromini did, reminds us that cities and towns are an amalgamation of styles from throughout history; Green’s reference to an archeological dig further reinforces the fact that human life on Earth has been built, layer by layer, on the foundations of the past, a repudiation of modernity and its overweaning ego. Green lays his criticism on a little thick at a dinner party of shallow bourgeois professionals living on an ancient estate without seeming to notice anything around them but their own intrigues. He doubles down with a comic burlesque involving an Australian tourist (Jon Firman) who demands to be let in to a chapel that is closed because he came all the way from Sydney to see it.
Green’s camera roves Borromini’s edifices and lingers lovingly on the majesty of Stresa, contrasting the survivors of the past with the straitjacketed characters of the modern age for whom the camera rarely moves. In keeping with Baroque theatre style, the actors declaim their lines with little emotion and generally static facial expressions. Nonetheless, though the buildings have been given the illusion of movement by their architects, our cast comprises real people with actual movement and simmering emotions that infuse their performances as the film progresses. As with The Portuguese Nun, Green adorns his females, especially Aliénor, with beautiful and distinctive clothing in keeping with his version of a costume drama.
Green himself becomes the mouthpiece of the past, playing the Chaldean, one of an ancient tribe driven by the American invasion of Iraq from their ancestral lands and thought by Aliénor, who encounters him one night, to have gone extinct. The Chaldean says his people were able to read and speak with the stars, and he looks at Aliénor and says her destiny is a good one, filled with love. When Alexandre and Goffredo return to Stresa the next day, Lavinia is cured, Alexandre and Aliénor find themselves passionately in love again, and Alexandre finds a new purpose as a teacher. It appears Green believes in oracles as well, and he arrives at his happy ending via a well-lain journey of discovery. In his worldview, it seems that those who remember the past will be lucky enough to repeat it. Bravo, professore.
La Sapienza shows Saturday, March 14 at 3:30 p.m. and Monday, March 16 at 6:00 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
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Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
Fifty Shades of Grey, a novel by pseudonymous writer E .L. James, has become that rarest of contemporary phenomena—a novel not aimed at children or young adults that is a true pop-cultural totem. It’s also a very old-fashioned kind of hit, the scandalous bestseller everyone snapped up just to see if it was as deliciously filthy as they hoped. This was no anodyne, run-of-the-mill romance novel, journey-of-growth memoir, arty feminist artefact, or any other chick lit cliché, no, this was an outright erotic novel, harking back to the glory days of The Story of O. and Emmanuelle. And it was not just an erotic novel, but one in which sadomasochism is a crucial theme. The novel broke many rules about what should gain precedence in literary culture, not just in subject matter, but also in genesis. The work began life as fan fiction on an online site—the slime ponds on the edges of the great ocean of literary culture—built out of the archetypes presented in Stephanie Meyer’s equally popular, equally derided Twilight novels. Initially published as an ebook and then released in print when it became clear it was going to be something big, Fifty Shades shattered publishing records.
Whatever magic spot Meyer’s creation had located with her essentially sexless tales of deathless romance, James found, too, and filled in what was missing, providing counterbalance and revelling in the filthy adult side of the fantasy. Nothing particularly original there: erotic spinoffs from popular artworks have long been covert currency, and have gained a powerful online presence since some dirty mind let go with the notion of Kirk and Spock gettin’ it on, giving birth to so-called “slashfic”: since then just about any fictional character you can think of has been in the sack with any other one you can think of in some fetid corner of the internet. James eventually rewrote and expanded her daydream smut to arrive at its current form, but as far as many are concerned, it never quite escaped the status of troubling, parasitic growth on the underbelly of an already embarrassing property.
As with any cultural phenomenon, What It All Means had to be pinned down, and in the case of a work that disturbed a tenuous balance of acceptability, safely disposed of. Pundits opined, ideologues worried, experts pontificated. Sexy stuff being sexy doesn’t cut it. From my perhaps all-too-male perspective, the book’s success represents both a triumph and a failure of feminism in a dichotomous manner that, far from aberrant, is rather commonplace today. It plays with the old-school fantasy of meeting a rich, handsome guy with issues just dark enough to both alarm and appeal, but also offers a frank, fearless interest in erotic pleasure and questions of agency that are utterly current. The special contempt many saved up for the Twilight tales was merely a manifestation of a certain vestigial, preadolescent contempt by a boy’s club commentariat for things women like compared to the serious business of turning stories where men in spandex punch each other into grand movie epics. Some of that was certainly turned on Fifty Shades, too, combined with the fact that BDSM will inevitably still be a subject of confusion and hostility to many long after we’re all dead. Of course, the book was bad (full disclosure: I tried to read it, but lost interest, ironically, when James reached the stuff everyone else was reading it for). But that was perhaps part of the point. The banal, conversational, pseudo-interior monologue style of writers like Meyer and James has annexed fields of readership long detached from fancier fare, working like mental glycerine.
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s debut film Nowhere Boy (2009) was an intelligent, but frustrating work, mostly because of a low budget that hampered its sense of period, one that suggested her intimate, ambivalent understanding of the stranger routes of desire. When it comes to Fifty Shades, Taylor-Johnson doesn’t quite seem to approve, which is both what makes her film intriguingly contradictory and frustratingly indecisive. It goes virtually without saying that Fifty Shades hardly represents a descent into the darkest, most decadent depths of Sadean frenzy. The way James exploited this turf lends itself immediately to filming because it identifies S&M as such a visual style of eroticism. All that shiny latex and metal looks so damn good, and it is about the perspective of watching things done to the body in a way that can be read by a cinema audience in a manner not so different to the animating spirit many have found lurking in slasher films, where the body is violated to release a certain frustration in the viewer. Just watching two people happily hump in the normal fashion is as dull as dishwater cinematically because the pleasure is exclusive, perhaps as big a reason for the decline in mainstream movie sex after the late ’80s as any of the other cited causes, like AIDS anxiety and resurgent moralism. But Fifty Shades goes all squishy when it contemplates BDSM as an art that involves inflicting and receiving pain, however interlaced with pleasure; the sensatory reality of it all is still a challenge. All of this, now that I think about it, might be largely irrelevant to Fifty Shades of Grey as a standalone work of cinema. For one thing, the film deemphasises the spectacle of transgressive kink almost to the point where it feels like the cherry on the top of the cake, as opposed to the book, where it was the cake.
Fifty Shades establishes its erotica bona fides quickly, beginning with the arch character names Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson). Ana is a lit major attending university in Vancouver, WA, and working part-time in a hardware store. When Ana’s roommate and pal Kate (Eloise Mumford), a journalism student working with the college newspaper, falls sick when she’s scheduled to interview Grey, Ana does her a favour and travels to Seattle to do the interview for her. Grey, a young but hugely successful tycoon in the field of something-or-other who’s going to be delivering a speech on their graduation day, stands ensconced in his soaring tower (don’t let us think he’s compensating for anything).
The moment he and Ana lay eyes on each other, something kindles: Ana, with her doelike eyes and crudely cut bangs worn like a protective helmet against the world’s interest, couldn’t be more different to the Aryan ladies Grey has on staff, which is perhaps part of the appeal. Ana’s intelligent streak sits at odds with a deliberate lack of worldliness—she’s a virgin essentially by choice, having resisted all overtures thus far, including from her photographer pal José (Victor Rasuk). Christian begins to insinuate his way into Ana’s life, visiting her workplace to buy lots of items that don’t quite make sense for home improvement, including cable ties and duct tape, none of which makes the penny drop for the clueless Ana. A rendezvous later over coffee is ended prematurely and confusingly by Christian, who sends her a set of Thomas Hardy first editions as an apology. Ana gets drunk and bold when out partying with José and Kate. She calls up Christian and insults him, which only proves a magnet that draws him to the bar. He sets his adopted brother Elliot (Luke Grimes) on Kate to keep her occupied, and intervenes self-righteously to give José an aggressive shove when he clumsily puts the moves on Ana before whisking her back to his hotel for a chaste night’s sleep.
After a few vulgar displays of wealthy generosity, Christian has soon swept Ana into his life, but then he introduces her to his dark secret: Christian is a BDSM dominant who wants a relationship with Ana, but only as his submissive who obeys a strict set of rules. The tension in the narrative comes in the uneasy suspension between Christian and Ana’s obvious and powerful everyday attraction and his resistance to the normal constitution of relationships. He tells her, with stern seriousness, “I don’t make love – I fuck – hard,” can’t stand being touched, and insists on sleeping apart from her. After making her sign a nondisclosure agreement, Christian gives her a legally binding contract—I’d like to know how he plans to enforce that over a woman whose total assets to risk amount to a Volkswagen Beetle and a set of used textbooks—that will define their relationship.
Quickly, however, some of his hard limits start to dissolve as he wrestles with his genuine, calming affection for her, even as Ana is required to start erecting her barriers. He confesses that 16 women have come and gone from his life, perhaps because they couldn’t hack it or, more likely, because they were only too willing to please Christian, who seems torn between the desire to corrupt and a need to find his way back to normal pursuits. Ana, after reacting queasily to a bit of online research, calls for a business meeting with Christian to argue over the specifics (no fisting, vaginal or anal, etc.), and successfully resists his seductive attempts just to prove she can. But resistance has its limits. Christian “rectifies the situation” by taking Ana’s virginity in a sequence that suggests sexuality filtered through high-class perfume ads. Then he introduces her to his “playroom,” his exquisitely appointed torture chamber outfitted with all the accoutrements the up-to-date, upstanding sadist might need.
In this scene, I felt the pull of something fascinating going on in Fifty Shades of Grey. Where the film plays as a jet-set fantasy with more wealth porn than anything other kind up to this point, the entry of Ana into the playroom had the potent whiff of entry into another, far more primal realm of experience that lies deep within and beyond the lifestyle fetishism. That feeling is exacerbated by Taylor-Johnson’s careful contrast between the visual scheme of the outside world, all steely hues and pastels, and the saturated reds and browns and blacks in the playroom, part Japonaise minimalism and part neo-Victorian nook, as well as the correlation and distinction between the hard-edged modernism of Christian’s favoured environs and the implements for inflicting pain on soft flesh in the playroom. It’s easy to dismiss the covert appeal of Fifty Shades because it is based in the simple, retrograde fantasy of women who want to be swept up by a paternalistic Prince Charming, but here I sensed that wasn’t quite the whole truth, that somewhere within all this fudge is an interest in the strange extremities of human desire.
In any event, the figure of the rich, remote, intimidatingly formal master (or mistress) with a penchant for arcane speech patterns is one of the key clichés of erotica. The appeal of Fifty Shades, and Twilight, too, with its self-restraining demon lover, lies in the acknowledgement both make of the ways sex is still far more dangerous for women than men, not the least of which is man himself, with both works pleasing on the teasing proximity of anxiety to stimulation. Fifty Shades aims to present outright what most other takes only offer tangentially or through heavily veiled metaphors. This blatant and unashamed approach, and the fact that Taylor-Johnson has crafted a bondage erotica film that seems set to be an actual blockbuster, makes me want to cheer it simply for being.
Moreover, Taylor-John and screenwriter Kelly Marcel have tried to craft a real film out of James’ infamously ditzy prose and narrative absurdities, tracing the tale as one of Ana’s growth from repressed college girl to a woman strong enough to tell her billionaire boyfriend to fuck off. Part of this serious intent, ironically, expresses itself through a certain level of self-mocking humour used to disarm before getting down to business. At first, the film plays as a toey romantic comedy with a kinky MacGuffin, constantly dropping wry, audience-goading in-jokes (that might well only work if one already has some idea what to expect from this) about what’s in store, woven into Ana and Christian’s duels of words and temperaments. Later, as the dance of desire becomes outright orgy, the tone shifts to one of dark, boding intensity scored to slow, thudding music. Probably the best scene in the film is Christian and Ana’s “business” meeting where they negotiate the specifics of the contract in a boardroom with low mood lighting and burnt-orange décor that suggests a rejected set for an ’80s Ridley Scott thriller, perfect setting for a sequence where the characters square off in tense verbal by-play that deflects their erotic shenanigans. A lot of terrible dialogue from the book makes the transition, sadly, though not without a certain wryness: “I’m fifty shades of fucked up,” Christian murmurs at one stage. I heard a young woman laughingly chide her mother for chuckling at this behind at the screening: “This is serious stuff you know.” Some have said this sort of things points to the fact Fifty Shades’ strong female following is coloured with an ironic fascination, and I can believe that.
And yet Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades will never become a cult camp classic a la Showgirls (1994) or Mommie Dearest (1982) despite certain similarities because the film is handled with far too much straightforward finesse. Erotic filmmaking is a difficult proposition at the best of times, and with all the strictures of censorship and marketing upon her, Taylor-Johnson has been forced to be shy to a silly extent about some things. Somehow Fifty Shades manages to get to its end credits not only without a single glimpse of penis or even pubic hair (yes, that’s right, there’s more dick in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, 2007, than in Fifty Shades of Grey). The approach to the messiness of sexuality is absurdly naïve and prim by comparison with John Waters’ later works that sneakily managed to portray utter deviancy as commonplace whilst scarcely showing anything that a censor could get properly hot and bothered about. In fact, I wish Waters could have made this, but he would probably have had Ana and Christian finish up in bed with Kate, Elliott, Ana’s mother, and the Seattle Seahawks in the finale.
Yet Taylor-Johnson does create some effectively sexy moments, mostly of a vanilla variety, and a montage of stuff the couple get up to once the playroom is put to use, gathers real, if not particularly sensual, power thanks to the strong, rhythmic, trancelike cutting by a team of editors including Anne V. Coates, the editor of Lawrence of Arabia (1962)! Elsewhere, risibility strikes, like during the first sex scene when Dornan is required to slowly unbutton his shirt and reveal his ripped torso with wait-for-it relish: the image of Homer Simpson doing the same thing flashed into my mind, not the sort of epiphany from which many movies can recover. One of the problems with transferring erotica from page to screen lies in the fact that erotic narrative is rarely realistic, but rather a construction of arousal detached from normal limitations and references. In S&M fiction this problem is especially marked because it facilitates the role-playing so often key to the experience, telling tales of unholy pacts, enslavement, abuse, transformation, in which one person becomes the property of another, often in tales that look like horror stories from a slightly different perspective. In short, it’s usually a deliberate rejection of the morally instructive quality expected from artworks (not for nothing was de Sade’s Justine subtitled “Good Conduct Well-Punished”), and inherently anti-PC. Fifty Shades of Grey represents, however, an uneasy compromise between bare-boned erotic fantasy and actual drama. The drama had possibilities as far as that went: the story has a strong similarity to Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), as dark, marauding gentleman ensnares a lady he’s fascinated with and wants to dominate, albeit with Marnie’s own hang-ups and culpability removed— and, of course, Johnson is the granddaughter of Marnie herself, Tippi Hedren. The cliché must hold fast: female innocence versus masculine experience. Ana, for all the good work Johnson does in trying to portray her as an intellectual frustrated by the inability of her mind to conquer her body’s kindled needs, strains to be anything more than a one-dimensional Cinderella.
Another common trope of this sort of thing, perhaps best exemplified on screen by Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1978), and Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon (1992), is that of a folie à deux that forms, combusts, and pushes to ever more dangerous and uncontrolled behaviours, entering an Oedipal whirlpool that might only touch bottom with death. Polanski’s film took the same essential plot to a fascinating, but potently nasty place as the older roué introduces his young girlfriend to increasingly intense perversions, only to turn her into a monster who reduces him to an impotent cripple and then makes him watch as she takes his place as destructive seducer. Fifty Shades of Grey initially mimics this structure, but eventually rejects it: it has no intention of losing control, and after all is said and done, doesn’t have any particular sympathy for the lifestyle it exploits. Taylor-Johnson doesn’t seem so much disapproving of S&M so much as James’ indulgence of the fantasy of wilful disempowerment, but the two are far too entwined in the way the story plays out. James annexed the idea Meyer plied so shamelessly, the idea of a transcendental, magnetic love that works something like animal imprinting and must have its way in denial of the good sense of the people beset by it—which is adolescent schlock, of course, but it’s hardly shocking to see it still has a place in our collective daydreams along with fantasies about sailing the ocean blue or sword fighting with Vikings. Taylor-Johnson, for her part, has tried to inject a little adult level-headedness into things and emphasise the degree to which the tale is a dance of attraction and repulsion. The idea of playing schoolgirl fantasy against problematic reality could have yielded fascinating stuff, but James’ source material is too in love with the initial posture of its characters to analyse the divide.
It could be said that what we do get is just a variation on that old schism—she wants love, he wants sex. Except that she really likes the sex she gets, and we’re told repeatedly that Christian feels unusually drawn to Ana in a manner that sounds like love and wants to be around her because he can feel her healing him. We watch a quiet wrestling match of wills with both Christian and Ana giving and taking. Eventually, however, Ana halts at the threshold of joining Christian in his kink. The degree to which Fifty Shades is actually a deeply square piece of rubber-necking becomes clear in time. Far from being a story of forbidden pleasures, it’s a shallow relationship drama, where the arguments over the demarcations of their union start to feel less and less like preludes to erotic deliria than a vision of the way modern relationships are negotiated enterprises. Although eventually we get some hot sex in the playroom, the bondage is pretty tame, enacted between characters who don’t seem to know they’re stick figures. Moreover, the shift from comedy of sexual manners to psychodrama that defines the second half is inherently weak, in part because the film has little psyche to dramatize, with no intention of spelling out the hints it’s given about Christian’s formative experiences. This might be for the best, because the hints we get point to the lamest kind of pop psychology: Christian was possibly mistreated as a child, ergo, he’s a control freak and S&M fan. There’s stuff about his uncomfortable relationship with his adoptive family, with Marcia Gay Harden earning an easy paycheque as his patrician mother, and a conversation about the mysterious older woman who initiated Christian into the BDSM lifestyle when he was a tender 15 years old, whom Ana dubs “Mrs Robinson.”
In this aspect of James’ tale, Taylor-Johnson may well have found her special mojo, considering that Christian readily recalls her conceptualisation of young John Lennon in Nowhere Boy as a natural-born heartbreaker whose own damaged personality will be cosseted rather than liberated by great success at a cost to the women in his life. But one major problem with Fifty Shades of Grey is that, like everything else these days, it’s been franchised to the max: James penned two sequels where this stuff gets worked out. This leaves the movie with scarcely any plot and without the kind of spiralling psychosexual lunacy that might fire things up. After a while, the story completely jams up, marking time with a pointless digression to Georgia, as Ana visits her mother and Christian follows her, and a sequence where Christian takes Ana gliding, replete with tedious thematic underlining: oh look, Ana’s lost her fear of flying. I’d like to hear what Erica Jong’s got to say about all this. The film cannot countenance either the possibility of Ana finding fulfilment cocooned in leather and kept in a box in Christian’s playroom, which would be one extreme of the fantasy, or the idea that she might become a domme herself, and one day turn the whip on Christian’s pasty ass, another extreme.
The film does reach a kind of conclusion, one that also suggests an inescapable recommencement, but also inevitably invites coitus interruptus quips, as Ana, frustrated with this eddying state they’ve found themselves in, gets Christian to try out his tastes at full force. Ana is shocked as she realises that Christian has a need that has nothing to do with sexuality and everything to do with transferring a deeply humiliated rage and sorrow onto someone else. This precipitates a break-up that forms the film’s surprisingly abrupt coda, which I found reasonably effective, as it suited Taylor-Johnson’s take on this fare; everyone else around me groaned in frustration, which is also understandable. It’s the old story. Boy meets girl, boy flogs girl on the rump with a belt a few times, boy loses girl. By movie’s end it’s impossible to escape the feeling that Fifty Shades of Grey has simply upped the ante on Cecil B. DeMille’s winning formula for servicing the audience’s id by letting it get a good gander at forbidden fruit, whilst also reassuring us that we remain superior and that our judgement and moral vantages are right and good.
Dakota Johnson is the film’s focal point and its real buoy. Johnson portrays the slow bloom of Ana, which stems from both resisting and indulging her temptations, with great skill. The scene where she manages to draw Christian into dancing for a few moments, and then breaks away from him to twirl on her own in gauche, girlish happiness, is the sort of moment that crystallises star careers; it’s such a pity that this moment shows up how facile and lugubrious much of what’s surrounding her is. Likewise, her subtle register puts across the key moments where Ana is confronted by just how difficult her new love life is to explain to others. Dornan made an eye-catching debut as the thinking woman’s stud muffin in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) where he played the titular queen’s lover Axel von Fersen. He’s competent as Christian: his regulation hard body is matched by the seemingly permanent half-smile affixed to his lips, which suggests no matter how dank things might get, it’s not so serious. But he’s the one left holding the bag here, because the film has all but neutered Christian: the sense of imperious entitlement and emotional numbness the character requires has been toned down as far as possible. Whilst this undoubtedly took some of the edge off the character’s most arrogant, intrusive acts that might look awfully like stalking from a less buff, charming billionaire, it essentially leaves that character without any bite and thus no real reason for existing. It’s easy to imagine Robert Pattinson in his David Cronenberg-ised persona from Cosmopolis (2012) as a perfect Christian, but casting him would surely have been too meta. The ultimate frustration of Fifty Shades of Grey is that it’s neither gleeful camp festival nor genuinely interesting tale of sexual gamesmanship, but stuck between the two. Much like its heroes, its own scrupulousness has doomed it to eternal dissatisfaction—at least until the sequel.
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Director/Screenwriter: Wim Wenders
By Marilyn Ferdinand
This year, the Berlinale is paying tribute to one of Germany’s most creative native sons, Wim Wenders. Showing next week at the Berlinale Palast theatre is Everything Will Be Fine, Wenders’ brand-new feature film shot in 3D, and the “Homage” section of the festival will screen 10 of his works, including the film under consideration here, Pina. This documentary about one of the giants of German modern dance, Pina Bausch, was the first film Wenders shot in 3D. Clearly, he must have been intrigued by the form during his first outing and wondered how it could be applied to a fictional narrative. Like many of our finest directors, including Jean-Luc Godard and Martin Scorsese, Wenders has found a new toy to play with and has had to learn all over again how to shoot a movie. Pina is an interesting, often beautiful film that shows the learning curve for 3D cinematography is a sometimes steep and bumpy one.
Pina was a project nursed over the 20-year friendship of Wenders and Bausch, but it stayed as little more than an idea until 3D cinematography made its resurgence. In a 2011 interview with The Guardian, Wenders said, “I never knew, with all my knowledge of the craft of film-making, how to do justice to her work. It was only when 3D was added to the language of film that I could enter dance’s realm and language.” Although dance has been filmed since the very beginnings of motion pictures, Wenders’ appreciation of the importance of space as well as movement to dance is an interesting and vital addition to the representation of dance on film. The possibilities of allowing viewers to “enter” the spaces between dancers must have had great appeal for Bausch, for whom some level of audience involvement would be a natural fit with her convention-defying choreography and collaborative work method.
Sadly, Bausch died suddenly before principal photography began, so we will never know what influence the 3D effects would have had on her personal language of movement or what contributions she could have made to the visual approach and results Wenders achieved. But we do have her company, the Tanztheater Wuppertal, who were filmed in live performances before an audience and in sequences set up by Wenders in a variety of environments, including a warehouse, an overhead tram car, a glass house set in the midst of trees, a swimming pool deck, and a busy street, among other locations.
The place where Wenders achieves the potential of 3D is in the film’s opening. A topless woman wearing an accordion briefly sings about the seasons of the year, initiating a kind of snake dance in which the company, dressed in suits and evening wear, move onto the stage in a line repeating small hand gestures for spring, summer, fall, and winter as they cross the stage and double back behind a flowing scrim. The 3D effect actually seems to move us into the line and, at one point, elicits an urge to sweep the scrim out of our way. It’s an amazingly effective opening, giving the audience a stake in the film as a participant, not just the usual passive viewer of dance.
Wenders follows up by showing in slow time lapse workers dumping large containers of earth onto the stage and smoothing it into a giant square that covers the entire performance space. We are then treated to perhaps Bausch’s most famous piece of choreography, her interpretation of Igor Stravinsky’s composition The Rite of Spring. This is the only piece we see in its entirety, and indeed, it would be hard to cut away from this primal, frightening work whose power would pop off the screen with or without Wenders’ camera tricks. As the film moves on, however, Wenders is content to present fragments of dances, interspersing them with short vignettes of the dancers talking briefly about Bausch or sometimes saying nothing at all. He does not see fit to identify the dancers in any way, though he does relate them to the dances they perform. Bausch painted with a wide brush, and her company is polyglot and international, young and not so young, tall and tiny—the very opposite of the regimented sizes and shapes of traditional ballet and even more diverse than can be found in many modern dance companies.
As the film moves on, Wenders’ use of 3D is less obvious, and the film becomes less interactive as a result. He uses his power as director to become something of a choreographer, particularly in a performance of “Kontakthof,” a ballroom-dance-inflected piece concentrating on the awkwardness of finding intimacy transformed into an examination of aging by having three different casts—adolescents, adults, and mature adults—melting successively into each other, thus merging the three age-specific versions of this dance Bausch staged over the years.
The piece that gets the majority of Wenders’ attention is “Café Müller,” which introduced the director to Bausch’s work in 1985. It is also the piece where we get to see and hear Pina dance and talk about the language of dance. It’s poignant to hear her remark that the deep feeling she had for this piece vanished when she tried to dance it with her eyes open—once she closed them again, it all fell back into place emotionally. We see archival footage of Pina in the piece as well as a contemporary mounting with another dancer in Pina’s role. The dance certainly is remarkable, with two women moving through the space of a café peppered with round tables and chairs with their eyes closed, a male dancer rushing to remove the objects before the dancers run into them. Pina’s part was more minimal in this regard—she largely remained against a wall, moving slowly against the vertical plane, occasionally breaking away from it to shuffle behind a plexiglass wall and bash into it from time to time. This dance carries on Bausch’s habit of ritualized movement and repetition, seeming to turn people into machines that become habituated to their environment and frightened of separation.
Wenders recognizes this approach and chooses sites that emphasize a harrowing, hemmed-in quality to match the movements. One dance that particularly struck me begins in a factory of some kind that has metal cars moving on overhead rails along its periphery. A male dancer is swinging his female partner on a concrete floor boxed by I-beams, making this open, expansive movement appear dangerous. As they move out of the frame, a male dancer is filmed moving on the floor; he seems to be paralyzed from the waist down and must use his hands to manipulate his legs in fast, repetitive motions that create a box of his body. The effect is of a man turned into a machine, and the marriage of his frantically busy movements and his mechanical, industrial surroundings is a fortuitous one.
Other sites are less felicitous. Wenders films a younger dancer new to the company who barely had a chance to work with Pina before her death. The dancer talks about how Pina would give her little instruction—in fact, all the dancers remark on her reluctance to give them more than a line or two of direction—and how she realized that she would have to pull herself up by her own hair. Wenders films her dancing on the deck of a pool with a few swimmers in the water, a rather clichéd way to suggest her fear of drowning in her new environment. Interestingly, the choreography includes her pulling her hair up above her head, but whether Wenders suggested the gesture or the dancer improvised it is anyone’s guess.
This poolside dance was revealing of another aspect of Bausch and her company. A young woman with very little experience of or indoctrination into the cult of Pina showed more spirit and feeling in her dancing than the more established members, while still executing moves that were in keeping with Pina’s choreographic ethos. Pina’s dances are often described as cerebral, even cold, while her subject matter is about relationships, community, the fraught landscape of love and its discords. In “Café Müller,” she has a woman desperately hug a man, only to have another man break her grip and place her on her lover’s outstretched arms; when the lover’s arms grow tired and he drops her, she immediately goes back into her desperate clutch. The disruptive dancer again breaks her grip and places her on her lover’s arms, and the scene repeats over and over, moving faster and faster, until the couple repeat the sequence without prompting, a piece of conditioning that overtakes their genuine feelings. It was only when I saw Pina dance in the film’s archival footage that I understood that her choreography, for all its supposed collaborativeness, maps her feelings—every gesture she made was electric and alive. No matter how well-trained and devoted her dancers were to her, they could not duplicate her inner fire, and she could not articulate it to them in words. That Wenders’ 3D effects tended to wane the longer the film progressed may have had something to do with the difficulty even he was having finding the heart of Bausch’s art.
Wenders ends the film at a deep quarry, where a young male dancer runs into the frame from below the lip of the quarry. He is a whirling dervish of movement, thrilling and frightening to watch as he edges dangerously close to the lip. Suddenly he breaks and climbs a steep slope. The snake dance of elegantly dressed dancers miming “spring, summer, fall, winter” moves along the top of the slope. A long shot of them reveals them to be the dancers of death from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), a too-much imitated shot that, nonetheless, offers an appropriate finale in tribute to its departed central subject.
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