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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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Director/Coscreenwriter: Peter Jackson
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
When Peter Jackson left off his first round of J.R.R. Tolkien adaptations with 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the world was his. The series was a smash hit crowned by Oscar garlands, and the Kiwi auteur had gained a reputation as an illustrator and orchestrator of the fantastic of the highest level. Jackson’s brand has taken some concussive hits since then. The Lovely Bones (2009), an attempt to revisit the kind of everyday melodrama Jackson pulled off so well with Beautiful Creatures (1994), was the kind of disaster only somebody with great talent can conjure, a forsaken mess that nonetheless contained remarkable patches. King Kong (2005) was majestic and quite undervalued, but Skull Island could never be really turned into another Middle-earth, and the film vibrated with such personalised élan that it made one wonder why Jackson felt the need to tether himself to mimicking such a well-worn model. Jackson’s return to Tolkien with 2012’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, wasn’t supposed to happen. Guillermo del Toro was primed to take over the reins under Jackson’s aegis and gave the material a fresh vision. But then scheduling, the grind of the production process, and the perhaps inevitable question of ultimate authority pushed Del Toro out.
The Hobbit, published by Tolkien in 1936, was initially marketed and met as a children’s adventure tale, was the seed for the grandeur of Tolkien’s fictional universe that comprises The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Yet, out of studio urgings and the whim of the creators to sate a vast and still-enthusiastic audience, The Hobbit was inflated into an epic as stately, expensive, and lengthy as its predecessor trilogy. This, on top of a glut of weak fantasy films trying to recapture Jackson’s success in the intervening decade, combined to generate a generally sniffy reception for the new trilogy. I’m generally happy to disagree with the received wisdom on The Hobbit trilogy. The strain and inflation have shown at times, where the flow of picaresque vignettes has threatened to devolve into Middle-earth tourism and theme-park rides, particularly with such superfluities as the dimwit trolls in An Unfinished Journey and the battle with the spiders in The Desolation of Smaug. Yet Jackson and his battery of writers—regular collaborators Frances Walsh and Philippa Boyens, plus Del Toro—have found scope and room to manoeuvre, and above all, allow the viewer to relax and revel in this invented world, less colourful than James Cameron’s Pandora, but far more diverse and substantial. It is easy and largely fair to turn up one’s nose at the recent predilection of movie studios for wringing franchise properties for maximum value, as evinced by the ridiculous splitting of the last books of the Twilight and The Hunger Games series. But that doesn’t really count for much on a case-by-case basis. The Harry Potter filmmakers pulled off something of a coup by splitting the last novel, and the idea that Jackson has engaged in anything beyond the pale by inflating a short book into an expansive adaptation is bunkum: long-running TV shows and film series have long been spun off from scant sources. The story had eminent scope for an epic telling, and for the most part, Jackson has told it with a depth of detail, affection, and intensity. Even Tolkien revised and suggested deeper resonances of his playful debut novel when his follow-up eclipsed it.
One of the problematic elements of Jackson’s approach has been making them not as individual units, but as connected parts of what is essentially one distinct project: all of them gain from being viewed in quick succession, making them artefacts perfectly attuned to the age of home viewing. Viewers long used to the vicissitudes of serialisation through TV and the habits of binge-viewing that the DVD/streaming age ushered in can easily negotiate this, but many film critics retain an old-fashioned belief in the integrity of the individual work. The Battle of the Five Armies is the last part of the Hobbit and demands reasonably fresh memory of the first two films to really make sense and seem rhythmically correct. Such expansive labours recall the days of Abel Gance and Fritz Lang’s multihour wonders, and Jackson’s conceptual spirit and visual sensibility contain more than a little of the spirit of silent cinema’s most ebulliently illustrative instincts, that joyful sense early filmmakers had in telling stories in whatever fashion they wanted via the medium’s horn of plenty.
The Battle of the Five Armies, as the title readily promises, is a study in scale and motion. From the very opening seconds, there is the relentless tug of imminent action, even in the quieter moments, as the characters and events set in motion in the early scenes finally collide, a formidable array of moving parts snapping into place. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was a breezy work, laced with puckish yeoman humour, with a hero knocked unconscious for most of the climactic battle; Jackson’s is far more imposing, and yet the essential spirit is still apparent. Interestingly, what distinguishes The Hobbit trilogy in the end from The Lord of the Rings is its far more human-level story.That might sound like an odd comment in the face of the film’s large swaths of CGI demon armies and fire-belching dragons. But The Lord of the Rings series inflates the stakes of its tale to consider the very fate of the entire world and the shifting balance of the natural order between warring poles of perfection and nihilism; the stakes, fought for by individuals and communities, were colossal beyond everyday reference. In The Hobbit, on the contrary, the issues are far more essential. Home. Property. Prosperity. Ambition. Revenge. Greed. Middle-earth is a place of incredulity-stirring dangers, but Jackson knows that the danger is there to give meaning to the security the characters long for.
Perhaps one reason why Jackson’s prelude trilogy hasn’t been as lauded as his first might lie in its similarities to the even more reviled Star Wars prequels: to a certain extent, both sets of prequels question and deconstruct the cosier presumptions of the series they follow. Jackson and his cowriters have carefully shuffled events to offer mirroring contrasts. The return of the King, such an idealised moment in the original trilogy as the restoration and apotheosis of order, is here subverted, as Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) finally regains his homeland and birthright, only to plunge immediately into one-eyed rapacity. We are told this is the “dragon sickness,” the evil of Smaug the dragon having sunk into the enormous treasure horde in the Dwarf city of Erebor, a fitting mythical metaphor that has been carefully woven in with effective psychology and foreshadowing. Thorin’s smouldering rage at dispossession and the allies who couldn’t or wouldn’t help finds more than sufficient indulgence in Erebor to enable his egomaniacal delusions. The heroic conjunctions of armies that save the day repeatedly in The Lord of the Rings give way here to competing camps motivated variously by desperation and prerogative, obligated to join forces only when something evil and impending demands it. The Shakespearean pathos of mad Denethor’s false regime is contrasted by the mere vanity and avarice of Laketown’s Master (Stephen Fry); the nobility of Elf leaders Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) gives way to the haughty postures and self-regard of Thranduil (Lee Pace).
The opening scenes of The Battle of the Five Armies take up where The Desolation of Smaug left off, with the terrible dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) breaking his way out of Erebor and, in a fit of saurian pique, attacking the commune of Laketown as a reprisal for its aid to the dwarf band that had tried to take back Erebor from him. Jackson’s gift for complex interactions, one part Rube Goldberg and one part Chuck Jones, is quickly revealed again describing calamity in vistas that evoke Cecil B. DeMille and Fritz Lang. The fleeing Master, boat loaded with gold, accidentally gives Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) his chance to break out of prison. Bard makes his way across the city rooftops to take on Smaug with his paltry weapons. Bard’s son brings him the Dwarf-made black arrow that is the only effective chance against the malevolent creature, and in the midst of a churning inferno of blazing buildings and seemingly hopeless odds, Bard makes his stand with his son serving as a human bow. Jackson executes all of this with astonishing panache—the sweeping, vigorous camerawork, the ingenuity of the effects and vividness of the colour, and most particularly, the careful twinning of different scales, as monumental events crowd in upon individuals, from an old woman left haplessly alive in the midst of fellows turned to black ash as tidal waves of flame dash upon them to Bard’s slight, slowly stretching smile as he sees his chance to kill the monster, a tiny registration that signals the turning of worlds. Most directors would be happy to pull off such a sequence once in their careers; compare, indeed, to Gareth Edwards’ laborious Godzilla (2014), which couldn’t get anywhere near such clarity, intricacy, and high drama. For Jackson, it’s just an opening scene.
This moment is such naturally climactic stuff that almost anything that comes after it runs the risk of anticlimax. But Smaug’s death must come to facilitate what happens next, with Erebor freed and reclaimed by Thorin and his Dwarvish band, Laketown decimated and its citizens needing a home and sustenance. The citizens of Laketown would gladly make Bard, already a popular and populist figure, their new chieftain, with the Master, in a grandly comic coup de grace, killed by Smaug’s colossal corpse plunging from the sky to land on his fleeing barge. The Master’s sleazy aide Alfrid (Ryan Gage), faced with the unleashed contempt of the townsfolk, even tries to hitch his wagon to Bard’s success, but quickly finds that Bard’s ideal of civil service is uncomfortably different to his predecessor’s. Bard decides the citizenry should reclaim the ruins of Dale, the formerly prosperous human city outside Erebor laid waste by Smaug, as well as the share of Erebor’s treasure Thorin offered Laketown. But when he presses the claim, Thorin contemptuously refuses him, infected with the greed for the gold whose endless lustre promises to place him “beyond sorrow or grief” and granted all the power his will might use to humiliate everyone he once had to bargain with, plea to, or outwit in his days surviving as exiled king and freebooter. He has his band seal up the great gap Smaug left in the gate of the city and prepares for an assault by the coalition of Bard’s humans and the Elvish army of Thranduil, who seek the return of a collection of ancestral heirlooms. Meanwhile, Thorin’s arch foe, Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett), leads an army of Orcs sent by the resurgent Sauron to capture Erebor as a strategic position. The Manichaeism that renders the moral schema of The Lord of the Rings so blissfully, uncomplicatedly heroic, but also thematically bombastic, is thus tempered with irony throughout Jackson’s take on The Hobbit.
The death of the singularly terrifying monstrous beast, rather than liberating, proves to be an act that merely uncovers the lack of faith between the factions and races and sets them picking at one another, the various leaders exposed in their chauvinism. Lee’s arrogant Thranduil happily provokes the Dwarves, and they, in turn, jeer and insult him, as Thorin’s cousin Dain (Billy Connolly, having a ball) turns up with an army to support him and vows to cut off Thranduil’s head and see if he still smirking then. Jackson and company elide Bard’s royal heritage to better bolster him as a figure of everyman sense and heroism in contrast to Thorin, but even Bard feels obliged to engage in battle if Thorin won’t respect his claim. Bilbo maintains the incorruptible streak that distinguishes his Hobbit breed: his great prize for the venture is an acorn he’s carried hoping to plant it at home. Yet, even he is seduced by the mysterious and magical gold ring he carries. Bilbo, having found the precious Arkenstone that is the symbol of kingship and sovereignty in the domain of Erebor, withholds the stone from Thorin, as his increasingly unreasonable instability frightens Bilbo and the rest of the hapless party. Thorin’s fear of a cursed lineage echoes Aragorn’s, but whereas Aragorn never seriously seemed in danger of his dark side, Thorin’s nearly consumes him. Thus the moral crux of the film comes when Bilbo sneaks out of Erebor to give the Arkenstone to Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who has come to warn all of the approach of an Orc army, in the hope the claimants can use it to leverage Thorin out of his intransigence: Bard attempts to make a deal, but Thorin instead almost throttles Bilbo for his perceived betrayal and then refuses to help Dain when the Orcs turn the confrontation into a savage battle for survival. It’s all a lot like Ran (1985) with monsters.
The Hobbits, as little folk in a big world, are ideal audience avatars, but problematic protagonists. Their peaceable homelands and instincts insulate them from the scale of threat that actually lives in their world, and thus our surprise is theirs, too. But Bilbo is as much viewpoint as protagonist in this tale, in spite of the title; his naïve charm counters Thorin’s tragic hero status and his attempts to stand up for right are important precisely because Bilbo is not a great force, but the representative of humble virtues. Freeman’s quietly excellent performance as Bilbo has deserved more attention than it has generally received or demanded, perhaps because his role necessarily lacks big gestures, except for his leap to save Thorin in An Unexpected Journey. Freeman’s Bilbo, surviving by the grace of his quick wits and dodging a thousand forms of death, is all the more engaging a hero—compared to Elijah Wood’s Frodo, who remained a little too much of a big-eyed blank slate—because he sounds like a neurotic Sussex accountant tossed into the centre of a Wagner opera, his small bleating voice competing with the roars of monsters and overlords, quietly offering “Sorry” to Thranduil when the Elf king notes Bilbo broke the whole Dwarf party out of his jail. His expert way with a character forced to negotiate his path in the world contrasts Armitage’s showier role, playing a figure of grand melodrama, including having to mouth most of the trailer dialogue—you know, those breathy, momentous lines like “Welcome to such-and-such!” before the cut to a wide shot of some rad-looking place. But Armitage, as well as wielding fervent, dark charisma, readily swings between Thorin’s schizoid poles without feeling affected.
The biggest outright invention for The Hobbit trilogy on Jackson’s part was the Elf warrior-woman Tauriel (Evangeline Lily, who wins the award for cast member whose name sounds most like a Tolkien character), and her triangular romance with Dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) and Elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom). This fresh aspect hasn’t always been too elegantly woven into the straight-ahead flow of the original narrative, but it pays off here, placing a stronger emotional stake amidst the battle, particularly as Kili and Tauriel try desperately to save each other’s lives whilst battling Azog’s hulking brute of a son Bolg (John Tui). Jackson and company’s efforts to flesh out the background drama and give the tale a denser sense of connection and import in the light of The Lord of the Rings has been honourably attempted, but hasn’t really added up to much, in spite of their efforts to try and synthesise the multiple plot strands that made the predecessor trilogy so gripping. In the earlier works, Jackson might cut away from a giant battle to Frodo and Sam climbing into the lair of Shelob, with the promise that something cool and scary would soon happen to make up for the segue. Here he has Legolas and Tauriel go scouting the ancient Goblin stronghold of Gondobar to see what’s going on. They see lots of Goblins and run off, mission accomplished. In The Desolation of Smaug, Gandalf was caught by Sauron and Azog and caged; here Elrond, Galdriel, and Saruman (Christopher Lee) turn up and rescue him without any resolution or revelation much greater than confirming Sauron is alive and well and living in Middle-earth.
At least with Jackson, his ready indulgence of fan service–that is, inclusion of tropes and actions designed to delight those already familiar with this fare–has always felt honest and part of his own enthusiasm. Even at their most erratic, these films feel generous, especially compared to the increasingly parsimonious franchise-wringing displayed by some recent blockbuster rivals, like the Marvel superhero films that have become a perpetual game of promise without payment. The rescue of Gandalf pays off in an entertaining, if brief, display of bad-ass skills from the trio whose aura of power and accomplishment was always suggested in the previous films but scarcely enlarged upon. Galadriel, in particular, has long been a frustrating figure, the image of beatific Celtic wisdom, but here at last she gets to do the routine where she turns into a blue, glowing transsexual last seen in The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) to send the resurging evil spirits running.
One of Jackson’s special talents is particularly apparent here: most directors would have been readily overwhelmed by the mere action business, but Jackson throws in details of near-operatic intensity, as the bedraggled and injured Gandalf begs Galadriel to flee with him, finally giving more than a hint that there’s something romantic in their relationship, and Galdriel instead uses the arc of emotion to spur her attack on Sauron and the Nazgul in a desperate and self-destructive use of her powers. Many apparently found Radagast (Sylvester McCoy), who spirits Gandalf away, another annoying addition, but perhaps because of my own youthful fondness for McCoy and his stint as Doctor Who, I’ve had no problem with him as a figure of the kind of whimsical battiness Tolkien was very fond of, but that Jackson and company usually suppressed in the material to communicate to an audience in a much less whimsy-friendly age. I wish Radagast had gotten to do more here, as he and Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) turn up with the last-act deus ex machine to join battle.
There is, yes, the slight feeling that Jackson, perhaps pushed to deliver a more ruthless cut for this last chapter, has forced to treat some of his competing elements scantly in favour of putting over his action pay-off; whereas the last two chapters were baggy, The Battle of the Five Armies is almost a little too focused on bringing the action. At least Jackson’s sense of humour has never been entirely buried amidst all the epic pomp and portent, though never as recklessly impudent as in his rowdy early fare like Bad Taste (1987) and Brain Dead (1992). In The Desolation of Smaug it seemed to me that with Laketown, a fascinating polyglot (particularly notable in the usually lily-white Middle-earth precincts) and crossroads dominated by a corrupt oligarchy, Jackson was actually trying to make some satiric capital. This sense rises again as Jackson references The Simpsons, with Alfrid squealing, “Think of the children!” annexes that show’s special talent for mocking bleating self-interest dressed up as civic virtue; indeed, this jokey dissection of rotten leadership prefigures the more serious versions driving the storyline. One of Bilbo’s lines has a stealthy, Monty Python-esque absurdity as he points out to Thorin that “there’s an army of Elves out there, not to mention several hundred angry fishermen!” The Looney Tunes sort of sensibility tends to bob up more, however, in such dazzlingly goofy vignettes as when the Orcs send trolls with rocks tied to their heads dashing at walls as living battering rams, knocking themselves stone cold in the process, and Alfrid, like a blend of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, dresses up as a woman and tries to escape the warfare with “breasts” filled out with filched gold coins, so gaudy in his puerile selfishness that he’s almost lovable.
A brief vignette in the book, with Bilbo’s return home to find his house and possessions being auctioned off, serves a neat narrative function, as Jackson tweaks it into the mordant punchline of Bilbo’s journey. The great drama of dispossession and reclamation he’s just been through giving way to this petty variation, with the quiet, throat-catching codicil that the only way he can prove who he is is to show the original contract he signed with Thorin and the company—the mission has become his only identity. In this manner, mirth and darkness in this fictional universe are constantly in dialogue, and the touches that keep it recognisable sometimes surprising: Jackson depicts the entrance of the Laketowners into Dale, where they’re confronted by a blackened public sculpture that clearly evoke photos of the blasted ruins of Stalingrad. Such a different, grimmer zone of reference plugs into the undertone of personal World War I reminiscence some critics have found in Tolkien’s writing. The impact of broadened horizons and fighting for one’s life always provides an undercurrent of melancholy to these tales: you can go home again, but never as the same person. Moreover, as thrilling, expansive, and deliriously well-staged as the eponymous battle is, The Hobbit, unlike The Lord of the Rings, is essentially a tragedy, building as it does to the deaths of Thorin and Kili.
Jackson’s approach to the fantastic hasn’t entirely met with approval beyond immediate issues with his individual works. For the most part, Jackson has taken Tolkien’s creation literally, and some critics have accused him of sucking out the protean symbolic power of fantasy, with its Freudian and folkloric dimensions (and with them all but the most vaguely metaphoric or chaste sexuality). There is an accurate facet to this, though perhaps a similar dynamic can be observed in Tolkien’s own work, even with its grand cosmology and constant underlying spiritual parable. From his first published work, Tolkien has represented a strange kind of faith in the legitimacy of world-building, a creator of fixed points for the unconscious’ formless stuff, as opposed to the destabilised whims of surrealism. But one of Jackson’s most integral aesthetic touches has been to infuse his images with those underlying thematic urges toward transcendence, purity, and communication with the ethereal, as well as the fulsome, earthy, tangled nature of the organic universe and its blazing malefic zones beneath: the characters are constantly tugged between such poles. The films are thus constantly touched by a Zoroastrian sense of light.
In the original trilogy, this urge was most clearly sublimated into human Aragon’s love for Arwen, embodiment of the ethereal whose fate is connected with both the stars and the sustenance of the earth, first appearing in a blaze of white light to Frodo, who is healed by her touch. Here, romance is worldly; Tauriel, like Arwen, is an Elf but is draw closer to the corporeal by her love for Kili, and finally left distraught with very real tears pouring down her face. In the film, Jackson stages the climactic battle on Ravenhill in the midst of fairytale reaches of frozen waterfalls and billowing snow on ruins, augmented by the Melvillian touch of making Azog, Thorin’s nemesis, white as Moby-Dick. Transcendence here in The Hobbit is bound together with death. Thorin’s romance is with death; it’s the only form of greatness he’s ultimately made for.
The film’s most powerful and distinctive moment touches the same woozy, ethereal zone of communion between life and death, heaven and earth, in a landscape of enchanted ice, Azog seems to float dead under the ice that has become a zone of slaughter, and the rigid, white waterfall becomes a torrent of blood. The final duels on Ravenhill reference the battle on the ice of Alexander Nevsky (1938) and its manifold children, like The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and the ebullient wire-fu of Tsui Hark: the influence of the Asian fantasy film style Hark and others initiated, with its fast pace, lunging camerawork, and easy sense of how to blend the corporeal and the mystical, has been powerful on all of Jackson’s Tolkien films, and particularly marked in the barrel ride of The Desolation of Smaug and the climactic battle here of Legolas with Bolg, staged on a toppled tower jammed between two cliffs in a breathless whirl of action. Another film that’s surely often lurked in Jackson’s mind throughout the series has been John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981), and here Jackson tips it an explicit nod as Thorin and Azog’s fight climaxes in a similar fashion to Boorman’s depiction of Arthur and Mordred’s last embrace, which was itself inspired by the most influential of fantasy illustrators, Arthur Rackham.
Most admirable is the final scenes’ surprising sense of gentle diminuendo rather than overt triumph. Bilbo’s urgings for Thorin to look at the Eagles soaring in the sky as he dies is close to the best thing Jackson’s accomplished in this universe, as is Tauriel’s desperate appeal to a regretful Thranduil that he take away her grief, and the simplicity of the moment when Gandalf sits himself beside the battered, already haunted Hobbit and starts cleaning his pipe, ludicrously small and yet utterly beguiling gestures in the face of such experience. “You’re a good fellow, and I wish you well,” Gandalf says when taking his leave of Bilbo, “But you’re only a little thing in a great big world after all.” Somehow, it’s a testimony, a warning, and a benediction all at once: would you actually want to live in Middle-earth after all?
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Director/Screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson
By Roderick Heath
Thomas Pynchon has long been considered an unfilmable author. The celebrity-averse writer’s absurdist, metastasizing narratives and quintessentially postmodern, metafictional conceits, wrap the reader in material wrought from a heated blend of cultural detritus. Pulp novels, B-movies, history books, philosophy volumes, underground comedy skits, comic books, urban legends, paranoid nightmares—anything that gives off a strange and lively psychic radioactivity helps build his byzantine worldview and heady conceptual universes. Such tales usually prove too dense, too eccentric to wrangle within the acceptable demarcations of a feature film. Enter Paul Thomas Anderson, unafraid of a challenge.
Anderson’s only other proper novel adaptation was his revision of Upton Sinclair’s Oil! for There Will Be Blood (2007), a radical variation on a theme that allowed him free space to construct his own vision. With Inherent Vice, Anderson faced a more difficult task, not the least of which is satisfying Pynchon’s cult, though the novel was greeted as one of Pynchon’s less complex and most accessible works, if also one of his less powerful. The invocation of the hectic, distrustful, whirlwind energy of hippie-era SoCal offered Anderson a landscape to lose himself in and another stage of modern American history to infiltrate and anatomise. The decline and decay of the 1960s counterculture fits between the ’50s imperial flimflam of The Master (2012) and the devolved hedonism of the ’70s in Boogie Nights (1997). But Inherent Vice allows Anderson to go one better, because Pynchon’s tale is a pop cultural core sample that presents a host of subterranean connections between modes of Americana.
Rather than return to the balletic ebullience of Boogie Nights or channel the frenetic pop-art accent of much ’60s cinema, Anderson takes a different tack, adopting his hero Larry “Doc” Sportello’s frazzled, spacey, mesmeric rhythm of perception, enforced by his steady diet of strong weed, as the aesthetic key. Anderson breaks up the world not into pop fantasias but into free-floating surveys that occasionally resolve in startling moments of revelation and visions of clarity. Doc is essentially a professional hippie, but he’s also a licenced private eye who got into the business tracking down criminals who skipped out on their bail and found himself adept enough at it to make a tolerable living while living in a hash haze. One day, his ex-girlfriend, would-be actress and former surfer chick Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), turns up at his beachfront shack looking urbane and trendy. She appeals for Doc’s aid with a moral conundrum on the verge of becoming a dangerous situation. Shasta is the kept woman of wealthy property developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) and is worried Mickey’s wife, Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas), and her personal trainer/boyfriend are plotting to shanghai Mickey into a funny farm and annex his fortune. Shasta wants Doc to try to head off the plot before she is forced to make an unpleasant choice between survival and collusion.
Through some eerie conjunction of unlucky stars, Doc quickly finds himself embroiled in other cases that all seem connected by mysterious threads and cross-currents of coincidence and conspiracy in the covert Los Angeles social war. Black power tough Tariq Khalil (Michael K. Williams) hires Doc to seek out a prison friend of his, Glen Charlock (Christopher Allen Nelson), who’s a member of the White Power motorcycle club Wolfmann uses as bodyguards, to help get weapons for the revolution. When Doc is knocked unconscious whilst visiting a brothel on the fringes of LA, he awakens in a car park next to Charlock’s corpse and Det. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), with a mass of coppers itching to pin the murder on him. Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone) hires Doc because she was married to one of Shasta’s friends, Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), a surf rock saxophonist who supposedly overdosed, to investigate rumours Coy isn’t as dead as he’s supposed to be. Bigfoot, Doc’s police persecutor/contact, has personal reasons to be interested in one of Charlock’s fellow Nazi thugs, Puck Beaverton (Keith Jardine), who works as muscle for professional assassin Adrian Prussia (Peter McRobbie) and may have facilitated Mickey’s disappearance for various colluding forces. Doc has found a new part-time squeeze in Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon), uptight deputy D.A. by day and pot-smoking cool cat by night, though that relationship isn’t going far even before Penny hands him over to the FBI, which might have played a part in Mickey’s disappearance. One of the prostitutes from the brothel, Jade (Hong Chau), alerts Doc to the danger of the Golden Fang, the name of a mysterious schooner often seen off the coast. Or it might also be a drug cartel dug as deep as a tick into the fabric of the new, groovy American life. Or it might just be the tax dodge of a bunch of dentists. Or it might be…
The hilariously convoluted plot does in the end make a kind of sense, the mimicry of forms and protocols from decades’ worth of private eye fiction ingeniously sarcastic. A femme fatale breezing in and out of reality like a conjured dream calling the hero into the netherworld. Down these mean streets stumbles a man who is himself not mean. Dense and mysterious connections between the seedy back alley and the mansion on the hill. A plethora of come-ons from exotic lovelies and sneak-peeks into the sordid delights of fame and power. Friendly antagonism with the respectable forces of law and order. A double-cross and a fight for survival. A host of oddball foes and friends, alliances and chance encounters. The P.I. genre was always popular because it offered the chance of ennobling justice pursued by nonofficial forces, gratifying the courage of the everyday rather than the occupation of the state. On another level, the story is mere mass distraction, a random free-for-all of worldly nonsense that impedes Doc’s ability (and desire) to recognise crucial facts, immediate dangers, and the reality of the relationships that define his life.
Doc is no Mike Hammer, but he isn’t clueless either, constantly revealing a streak of native wiliness and survival instinct that seems to have been honed rather than dulled by his druggy lifestyle. His perpetually fazed state usually synchronises functionally with the surreal barrage of events he’s faced with. Indeed, as presented, the landscape Doc inhabits might only be tolerable whilst stoned and make sense only when filtered with the specific mix of detachment and the preternatural powers of perception imbued by heavy cannabis input. His tale is narrated by his astrologer and soothsayer friend Sortilege (played, in a genius stroke of casting, by folk singer Joanna Newsom), whose drawling, blowsy voice weaves soft as smoke through the tale, matching Anderson’s recurring use of wide master shots gently prodded toward focal points in creating a sense of blasé estrangement. Inherent Vice elides ramming home points about the decline of the counterculture but does so through inferences that are bitterly amusing, particularly in the inevitable corruption of the drug scene, which is indeed the deepest, truest satiric target and essential theme of Inherent Vice, formulating too much of then-modern American life as “something to be run away from,” but also depicting the very thing you want to flee ready to meet you on the far side of the rabbit hole.
Rather than subdivide the realities presented through Doc’s fuzzy-headed narrative, the film keeps them all connected literally or spiritually in a roundelay of perversity. This refrain is perfectly in keeping with Anderson’s fascination with the manifold and defining ways of life in a modern western state, refusing the simple division of the ’60s landscape into one of squares and longhairs—a division that suited both camps—and contemplating the woozy, iniquitous nature behind much of the “liberation.” Pynchon’s tale, readily understood by Anderson, comprehends the foul meeting place of haute capitalism and hapless counterculture in the perfect enterprise—illegal drug retail. The Golden Fang, or whatever it is, deals out both addiction and redemption, financing rehabilitation facilities where junkies can dry out, tune back in, and start their journey back toward the point where they want to get high, in perfect tune with the circadian rhythms of the nation.
The doppelganger aspect of this is drawn out by Doc’s love-hate relationship with Bigfoot, a policeman who wants to be Joe Friday and also wants to be a media star, and is constantly caught short of his many all-American ambitions. He torments Doc, going so far as to bash and kick him when he catches him trying to speak to Sloane Wolfmann and taunting him with the suggestion that Shasta might be dead, but then admitting she’s only missing. But Bigfoot also seems to desperately rely on Doc in some fashion as his alter ego, his smothered conscience or unconscious, his drop-out double, calling him up in the middle of the night essentially to hear the voice of someone he doesn’t owe anything to. Ironically, the first glimpse of Bigfoot comes when he, in his half-assed acting career, plays a hippie with a giant fake afro flogging Wolfmann’s tacky new real estate (“…and best of all, a view of the Dominguez Flood Control Channel that can best be described in two words—right on!”). As if in obedience to the mysterious cue in the coincidence, Doc is already making himself over by sporting an afro.
Doc’s first stop on his mission is the brothel, lazily disguised as a massage parlour, set up in a demountable on the fringes of Wolfmann’s latest crime against the landscape overlooking LA, building an unbearable future through which a mysterious army of men scuttle and dive to the dirt avoiding Doc’s gaze. Within, Doc encounters Jade, who starts casually making out with coworker Bambi, ignoring Doc’s status as private eye. A hidden assailant clops him on the head with a baseball bat, and he awakens sprawled on the dust of the estate next to Charlock’s dead body, amidst fluttering, red plastic flags and a row of cops aiming guns at him. All this is scored sublimely by Lex Baxter’s “Simba,” one of the composer’s popular “exotica” recordings that evoke communing with the wild and tribal via the hi-fi in plastic suburbia. Anderson’s ear for music to pervade his work is just as clever and telling elsewhere, particularly in the use of German psychedelic band Can’s throbbing, percussive, alien music rather than the sound of a more familiar band from a nearby scene, like The Doors, Love, or Jefferson Airplane.
Inherent Vice shudders with rattled nerves. Doc’s segue into searching for Coy Harlingen evokes the most fervently paranoid side of the era’s fantasies, probably the most famous of which is the “Paul’s dead” rumour communicated through signs and symbols permeating the Beatles’ output that Paul McCartney, despite all signs to the contrary, was actually dead and had been replaced by a lookalike. Funny thing is, Coy really does turn out to be alive, having faked his death to end his destructive relationship with Hope. Coy took an offer from a morals crusade group that wanted him as an agent to infiltrate the hippie scene, but has been forced onto a treadmill of fake identities and ridiculous assignments, like pretending to be a hippie scum protestor at a Nixon speech. Of course, the morals crusade is actually the Golden Fang’s public face, and Coy is trapped with no way back to his personal reality.
Doc’s first meeting with Coy comes at a classic noir location, a fog-shrouded pier, perfect for swapping mythologies of the night and anguished personal lessons, for ghost ships to cruise the harbour, for men returning from the dead and melting back into the murk. Later, Doc has to track Coy down to where he’s undercover, having slotted himself back into a band he used to play in—they’re too drug-addled to recognise him—for the sake of an investigation, living in a record exec’s rented house that’s become a kind of commune for bohemian brethren who divvy up pizzas in a burlesque of Last Supper art, with Coy nominated as the hipster Jesus, seeking his return to life after his sacrifice. Anderson tips his hat most explicitly to long-time influence Robert Altman here, who used the same joke in MASH (1970). The atmosphere and essential conceit of Inherent Vice recalls Altman’s similar defloration of the Marlowe myth in his flaky take on Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (1974), whilst the visual language often recalls early ’70s Altman’s love of wide shots and slow zooms.
It would be easy to overstate the Altman imprint on the film, however, as Anderson seems to have other models equally in mind. Anderson fashions the film in complete opposition to the hallucinatory, chiaroscuro approach to the Californian alternative scene Oliver Stone wrought so well in The Doors (1991), though that style would have seemed apt for adapting Pynchon’s novel. Pynchon’s writing has long shared the antic, near-cartoonish quality that was popular in much ’60s culture, sharing that quality in common with figures like MAD Magazine artist Mort Drucker, the early films of Richard Lester, and Pynchon’s fellow black-comedy writer Terry Southern, who penned the novel Candy and cowrote Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and Easy Rider (1969), two of the most influential films of the era. Anderson tweaks Bigfoot in a fashion that recalls Easy Rider’s tragic character George Hanson, portrait of trapped America, a man so busy playing parts demanded of him that he doesn’t quite know who he is anymore.
Anderson generally takes his cues from a different strand of period film, particularly Arthur Penn, whose Alice’s Restaurant (1969) was the first post-counterculture film that came out when the movement was cresting, and his own revisionist take on the private eye flick in the light of shifting modern mores, Night Moves (1975), and Lester’s radical turnabout Petulia (1968), whilst the inner thesis of the film invokes the famous “high and beautiful wave” passage of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Wim Wenders’ early works also feel like powerful influences on the film’s serious substrata, particularly his American debuts Hammett (1982) and Paris, Texas (1984). The former film walked the detective drama through reverent genre pastiche, but also adopted a similarly opiated, abstracted sense of time and sad learning as well, studying the distance between the odd comfort found in the terse, distorted world created on page and the actual spectacle of a deeply corrupt world, and the latter’s intimate, emotionally gnarled anatomisation of formerly happy, wayfaring lovers wrecked on the shoals of an unforgiving land. Anderson, whose jesting, yet penetrating vantage on his native land has defined his work to date, seems to want to adopt the same stranger’s-eye view. And indeed, that suits Doc’s status as self-imposed exile in his own land.
Doc is presented as a classic kind of comic character on the surface, the guy who stumbles blithely through danger, a figure that threads through the history of movie comedy from Harold Lloyd to Inspector Clouseau and Frank Drebin, with just a little of Groucho Marx’s shyster ingenuity, and, of course, his name pays tribute to Groucho’s progeny Bugs Bunny. But Anderson, via Phoenix’s dextrous performing, confirms there’s a real person buried under the shaggy hair and patchouli cloud, a man trying to fly over petty abuses and major heartbreaks inflicted by the ways of the world, from losing Shasta to a rich man to getting knocked over by cops like schoolyard bullies. Late in the film, when Doc converses with smooth, cold-blooded lawyer Crocker Fenway (Martin Donovan), who may be connected to the Golden Fang and have arranged the murder of his wayward daughter’s lover, Doc meets Fenway’s sneering depreciation of his worth with, “Well I might not be as well connected, and for sure not as much into revenge as you folks are, but if you jive with me, my man—’ and makes a clicking sound as if cocking a gun. Phoenix expertly twists this line, eyes bugging out like Jack Elam after a bender, so that it comes out as both punch line and exact character signature.
Inherent Vice neglects Anderson’s theme of master-pupil relationships, perhaps because The Master signalled a natural end to them, all the better to concentrate on his twinned rivals and doppelgangers, another constant refrain in his work. Equally, Inherent Vice’s official status as comedy, however uneasy, suddenly gives new dimension to the farcical impulses throughout his films, like There Will Be Blood’s invocations of Tom and Jerry, Coyote and Roadrunner, and the Three Stooges. Turning Coy into hippie Jesus readily evokes the many profane temples constructed by Anderson’s characters in their searchings, his pilgrims in a land without holy places, and evokes the purest side of the counterculture in its search for things worth honouring distinct from the interests of commerce and state. Woven throughout all the dope and derring-do is a meditation on Doc and Shasta’s relationship, tethered to the drama overtly and spiritually. A flashback depicts the couple in their happiest moment, when, strung out during a weed famine, they consulted Sortilege who made them try a Ouija board; the board immediately gave them a street number to what seemed to be a connection, only to belong to an empty lot. Doc heads to the same spot on an impulse and finds an oddball modernist building now in the space. Moreover, the building proves to house the Golden Fang, or at least a Golden Fang, a collective of dentists headed by depraved Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short, bless him) who has a massive stash of heroin under his desk he shares happily with Doc before dashing off for a quickie with his vinyl-clad secretary Xandra (Elaine Tan). Then Fenway’s professionally maladjusted daughter Japonica (Sasha Pieterse) turns up, having just escaped from the institution her father exiled her to after Doc tracked her down on an earlier case, to resume her corrupt ways with boyfriend Blatnoyd. Somehow Doc finishes up in a car with this twisted duo and his pal and protégé Denis (Jordan Christian Hearn), stopped by cops who have been told, post-Manson family, to look out for cults. But the invisible hand of some defender stops them all getting busted. Blatnoyd turns up dead shortly thereafter, having fallen off a trampoline and then been mauled on the neck; Doc suggests to Bigfoot that he investigate to see if Blatnoyd was killed with actual golden fangs.
The scenes with Blatnoyd mark the most overtly rompish passage in the film, whilst the subplot of the boat that also bears the name of the Golden Fang, upon which Doc suspects Wolfmann, Shasta, or both may have been borne across the seas, provides a host of connections with pulp fiction, particularly the otherworldly junk bearing human cargo in Albert Zugsmith’s proto-psychedelic epic Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962). The voyaging motif that popped up throughout The Master returns here, postcards from far off places touched with hints of enigmatic benediction and longing. Doc’s marine lawyer pal Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro, in a marvellously dry performance) clues Doc in on the Golden Fang’s mysterious past, including a sojourn into the Bermuda Triangle when owned by once-blacklisted, now anti-communist movie star Burke Stodger (Jack Kelly). Meanwhile, Sauncho happily gives advice with equanimity to Doc and Bigfoot, because Doc never pays him and, well, he’s a marine lawyer. Doc eventually does track down Mickey, finding him installed in a Golden Fang front, a rehab facility, where Coy is also installed on one of his missions. Mickey is a wreck painful to behold, mumbling through the haze of detox about his epiphany that his business depredations were evil, a portrait of cynic turned loopy, drug-fuelled idealist now being forcibly transformed back into his previous condition because too many people, from his wife to the U.S. government, require it. Anderson abruptly and disorientingly has Doc’s seemingly all-consuming investigation fold in upon itself in tragicomic diminuendo, as Mickey returns to business and Shasta suddenly appears again as she did at the beginning, fetching beer and questioning Doc about his requirements in women.
Here, crucially, the underlying tone of something darker, rawer, in Anderson’s enquiry leaps to the fore, hinted at throughout the early scenes with a cheeky sensibility, as he notes that the sexual liberation surveyed in the LA scene is too often rather an elaborate form of prostitution, particularly around Wolfmann’s house, where Anderson places his camera at Doc’s sitting eye line, so both sexy housemaid Luz (Yvette Yates) and Sloane’s trainer and lover Riggs (Andrew Simpson) are both objectivised as bodies. Upon her return to Doc, Shasta strips off and lays herself across his lap, taunting him with a long story of being reduced to Wolfmann’s concubine, brought in as if she ought to be on a leash in secret dens where plutocrats meet and shared around as common property. Shasta’s long monologue, delivered in a slurred testimony replete with disquieting, simultaneous urges to be chastised and purified but also have stirred masochistic, anti-human impulses sated, drives Doc to spank her and fuck her in a spasm of powerful anger and desire.
This astounding vignette drives the film into radically different territory, Waterston’s quake-inducing performance evoking Nastassja Kinski’s haunted reverie in Paris, Texas and Last Tango in Paris (1972) in grazing the edges of sexuality’s intense, troubling ambivalence, and also a hint of Olivier Assayas’ Boarding Gate (2007), which similarly explored the problems of love interwoven with hate through a prism of pulp fiction. The notion that too much of human life is, under all the flashy surfaces and propaganda, a case of people seeking power over others and the strange, contorted ways the dominated react proves a secret thesis of Inherent Vice, and the throughline of the entire affair, Doc’s attempt to bury and forget the plain fact that his girlfriend left him for a rich man and now comes back to the better man only to test him, is simplicity itself. But, of course, the encounter concludes with Shasta’s reminder that “This doesn’t mean we’re getting back together.”
Shasta’s mysterious return begs as many questions as it answers, but it’s Coy who then haunts Doc; just as Bigfoot is Doc’s doppelganger, Coy is Shasta’s, another free spirit similarly erased from reality by the forces of iniquity. This drives Doc to foolishly brave the lair of the one definite (and perhaps, in the end, only) spider in the Golden Fang tree, Adrian Prussia (Peter McRobbie), who seems to have killed Bigfoot’s partner and is perfectly willing to get rid of Doc’s pestering presence by having Puck take him captive and arrange his death by forced overdose. Doc battles for his life with the kind of streetwise skill that’s always been lurking under his ridiculous exterior. The sense of threat Anderson has managed to infuse amidst all of these antics pay in off in a sudden burst of real and thrilling violence—except Doc, in his peerless fashion, cries out, “Did I hit you?” moments after unloading a load of bullets into a man’s face. This sequence would have made an old-school noir filmmaker proud, proving Anderson’s gift with nuts-and-bolts cinema is still tuned whilst still defiantly maintaining his chosen style, via an oblique framing of captive Doc and Puck through a window.
Inherent Vice ultimately belongs in a genre that is infamously difficult to pull off and even harder to sell: profound farce, a vision of hapless humans entrapped by their own unruly impulses within a society defined by the same impulses, shot through an ironic, but still correct sense of the unity of opposites. Even in Bigfoot’s final, near-fatal betrayal of Doc we find the opposite, a gesture of desperation and hunt for comradeship that the cop can’t quite acknowledge. Inherent Vice is a thoroughly immersed period piece, but sustains a peculiar blend of the hazily remembered with the immediate: Anderson knows that Doc’s desire to excise himself from the pains of living in the world is an ancient and immediate ambition. Anderson cuts him a little more slack than Pynchon. Where Boogie Nights wrapped up with the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” as it elegy to happy endings after nightmares, Anderson leaves off with Doc and Shasta adrift on the highway, Doc keeping one suspicious eye on trailing headlights, knowing evil is always lurking, but feeling that a puce knight like him stands a chance of fighting it off.
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Director/Screenwriter: Jean-Luc Godard
By Marilyn Ferdinand
You know why I quit playing ballads? Cause I love playing ballads. —Miles Davis
The above quote by jazz great Miles Davis has always stuck in my mind. Why would someone give up on something they love? Why would they push themselves to the edges of their chosen form with sounds that couldn’t be more different from a ballad? Miles was frank about his reasons: “”You should never be comfortable, man. Being comfortable fouled up a lot of musicians.” Comfort has fouled up a lot of other people, too. Just see what some writers about movies have to say about the National Society of Film Critics’ choice for best picture of 2014—“…as stupid & self-congratulatory a choice NSFC could make” (David Poland, Movie City News); “snobbish and elitist” (Scott Feinberg, Hollywood Reporter). In an age of punditry, not being utterly accessible for critical parsing or two-line synopsizing is perhaps the greatest offense a film could make.
I, for one, congratulate the NSFC for their choice and wholeheartedly agree with it. Goodbye to Language is a joy, not least because the 84-year-old dean of French cinema, Jean-Luc Godard, continues to embrace new challenges and humbly said to the NSFC in a thank-you missive that he is “still learning.” Nobody insisted he keep making movies, and at his age, he would be forgiven for retiring on his laurels to write full time or tend his garden. Instead, while other directors have approached 3D technology timidly or in the pursuit of butts in seats just like its original aim in the 1950s, Godard has, like Roberto Benigni, chosen to “lie down in the firmament making love to everyone” with his warm and ground-breaking embrace of 3D cinematography.
There are many knowledgeable Godardians who have done a far better job than I could of analyzing the content and technical aspects of his latest effort and contextualizing it within his oeuvre. Indeed, the excited discourse among Godardians is a juggernaut of its own, with the endless possibilities of Godard’s intentions being picked over like the booty in a dragon’s treasure chamber. For me, such detailed intellectual exercises are for the young. As an older film enthusiast who craves the immediacy of experience, I prefer to bask in the absolute beauty of Goodbye to Language.
If I can be so presumptuous, it seems that Godard is a little tired of these mental roundelays as well. Goodbye to Language seems more like a repository of impressions, inspirations, even questions. While he drops a few references, images, and actions into the film regarding Africa and violence, his oft-repeated refrain, “There is no why!” challenges his seriousness of purpose in raising these subjects. For me, the film is a valentine to all the things Godard loves—nature, dogs (particularly his dog, Roxy), art, film, language, and his partner in life, Anne-Marie Miéville. As though to confirm that assertion, one enterprising writer at MUBI has catalogued many of the literary, visual, and musical quotes Godard incorporated into the film, and the range of his influences, from Derrida to Anouihl to Ezra Pound, reveals Godard’s far-ranging intellectual and cultural engagement that makes the title of his film all but impossible to take seriously. At the same time, Godard is dipping several toes into the media of today, commenting on and making use of the renaissance in 3D filmmaking and smartphone videography, the former with wild abandon, the latter with more petulant reservations.
Goodbye to Language concerns itself with nature and metaphor in four alternating parts, preceded by an introductory scene at a book stand near Usine a Gaz, a cultural center in Nyon, Switzerland. Most amusing of the goings-on in this section is a professor named Davidson (Christian Gregori) looking at a copy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and telling a young woman not to look the writer up on Google. Godard juxtaposes book readers with smartphone readers and eventually shows a smartphone with a headshot of Solzhenitsyn on the screen. I laughed out loud at the futility of Davidson’s plea and at the way a man of towering importance concerned with the worst in state oppression in his writings could be reduced to a selfie by proxy.
Godard uses two couples who strongly resemble each other to play almost identical scenes in parts 1 and 2, in what seemed to me to be an homage to his New Wave compatriot and former film editor Jackie Raynal, particularly her film Deux Fois (Two Times, 1968), in which she says goodbye not to language, but to meaning. At the same time, by using different actors, he is illustrating a very literal interpretation of the word “metaphor,” that is, a comparison of two unlike things that share something important—and no matter how much the pairs of actors (Héloïse Godet [Josette] and Kamel Abdelli [Gédéon]/Zoé Bruneau [Ivitch] and Richard Chevallier [Marcus]) resemble each other, they are not the same.
Godard varies the scenes in ways that modulate the amount of alienation between the two couples. In a pierside scene, Josette is looking forlornly at the clouded sky from behind a set of bars when a man’s hand moves tentatively into the frame, but remains far from Josette’s hand. In the replayed scene, Marcus’ hand moves much closer to Ivitch’s. Josette and Gédéon are filmed in an apartment. Both are nude, but unlike Ivitch in the later sequence, Josette is conspicuous in her nakedness, putting a trench coat on at one point but allowing it to flap open. Gédéon says with disgust that there is no Nobel Prize for art, which must be his profession, and his unease spills through the scene. The couple’s unhappiness crystallized for me when Josette sits naked next to a vase of flowers, more subjugated objects for a painting than real and relatable. A shower scene shows Josette from behind, standing in the bathroom doorway urging Gédéon to finish so she can use the shower. The second couple tussle in the glassed-in shower, a scary scene considering that they could break through the glass, but at least they are showering together.
Godard also offers sequences of violence (an apparent murder, water running in a blood-filled sink) and of low comedy (the men farting on a toilet while their women try to talk to them). Throughout, scenes from films appear as short snippets or on a large TV in the couples’ bedroom, drawing the eye away from the foreground. And that is literal, as Godard’s use of 3D allows us to separate the planes of background, foreground, and subtitles. The viewer has the freedom to close one eye or the other to get different angles and colors, reminiscent of the open-source films like Sita Sings the Blues (2008) that allow viewers to embellish and change the basic film.
Godard even seems to send up his own rebellion against France’s so-called quality films and Oscar-bait period films by inserting an interlude of Mary Shelley with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron as she pens Frankenstein. At the same time, he seems to suggest that the act of creation is a terrible beauty and that technology can unleash forces that can subvert our humanity. Is Godard a hypocrite, decrying smartphones while playing with 3D? I say we all draw our lines, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
He saves his most dazzlingly colorful scenes for the nature sequences that feature his dog Roxy, which may be a proxy for Godard himself. Roxy is a philosopher queen in her natural world of trees, grass, and flowers ruminating on what the river knows, immediately putting me in mind of “Ole Man River” from Show Boat (1936/1951). Roxy is rejected by one couple, left standing on a pier while they go off in a boat; they may even have tossed her in the rapids. The other couple adopts her and takes her everywhere with them. Dogs, we are told in voiceover, are the only creatures that love others more than themselves, making them superior to human beings in their capacity for empathy and sacrifice. Godard, the old dog learning new tricks, may be wondering whether he will be accepted or rejected and signals in what I believe to be an almost total lack of ego that he really does what he does for us, not himself. The ungenerous criticisms flung at this sweet film show us to be the lesser—again.
To quote from Miles Davis again: “If you understood everything I say, you’d be me!” It’s time to stop our own ego trips, give up on finding new ways to reduce his vision to a few paragraphs, and offer this consummate artist our sincere thanks for never giving up on us.
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Director/Screenwriter: Gina Prince-Bythewood
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Last year, I participated in one of group blog Wonders in the Dark’s legendary countdowns, which poll numerous cinephiles on what they consider to be the best films in a given genre or category. This countdown involved romance films, the definition of which was left up to each voter. Film fans will quibble as they always do about what is included and what is missing, but I think the voters did a pretty good job of choosing a wide array of films with a romantic bent, from cartoon features like Lady and the Tramp (1955) and WALL-E (2008) and warped relationships in the noir films Double Indemnity (1944) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), to gay love in Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013) and eternal love in Portrait of Jennie (1948) and Romeo and Juliet (1968). I was happy to see some newer films on the list, but dismayed that most of them were made by indie and foreign directors. It seems that Hollywood’s formerly large portfolio of adult romances has been pushed out of the way by adolescent and dysfunctional relationships, as well as period pieces made more romantic by their elegantly arcane settings.
That’s why Beyond the Lights hit me like a ton of bricks. The central pair in this contemporary romance, a Rihanna-style pop star and a policeman with political aspirations, are in their 20s, accomplished, and self-aware. They don’t meet anywhere near cute, and they don’t give up everything just to be together. They actually have lives that include, but don’t revolve around each other, and director/screenwriter Gina Prince-Bythewood lets us see those lives. Wow, imagine that!
The film opens in Brixton, London’s sketchy multicultural neighborhood. We meet Noni as a 10-year-old child (India Jean-Jacques) being dragged into a hair salon by her mother Macy (Minnie Driver). Macy successfully begs the beautician, Felicia (Deidrie Henry), who is closing for the day, to give her a few tips so that she can bring Noni’s unruly hair into line for an important talent competition the next day. The film cuts to the competition, where we see a tap dancer whirl around the stage before Noni takes her turn. She offers a soulful, a cappella rendition of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird,” and comes in second, behind the dancer. Macy drags Noni off the stage in a rage and forces her to throw her trophy away. Noni learns the hard way that winning is the only option.
The film fast-forwards to the present in which a grown-up Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) no longer worries about her nappy hair or being a runner-up. She’s a popular singer who works a sleek, purple weave and fuck-me clothing and gestures, and carries on an affair of convenience with rapper and musical collaborator Kid Culprit (Machine Gun Kelly). The duo’s latest single wins a Grammy, and as Noni drives off with some friends in a limo, the teetotaler uncharacteristically swills some champagne straight from the bottle. When she returns to her hotel room to change clothes for an after-party, she tells Kazan (Nate Parker), the moonlighting cop guarding her door, not to let anyone in. Wondering why her daughter is taking so long to emerge, Macy orders Kaz to open the door. They find Noni sitting precariously on the balcony railing, crying that “nobody sees me.” She pushes off, but Kaz catches her wrist and hauls her back up with the words “I see you” on his lips. The media are abuzz with reports of her suicide attempt, witnessed by people on the ground. Forced into a position of damage control, Noni goes with the cover story that she was intoxicated and slipped. Kaz, cast as a hero, believes in telling the truth, but compromises his principles to support her cover story. He wants to keep his distance from Noni, but she pursues him and the two commence a serious romance.
What sets Beyond the Lights apart from other mainstream romances—and despite the largely black cast, this film maintains an assured classic structure—is the attention to the details of the lovers’ lives and the way such now-familiar components of popular culture as paparazzi, scandal-mongering, hero worship, and image creation actually affect those who work in the public eye. Noni’s suicide attempt could have signaled just another cliché of the poor little rich girl or tragic star, but Prince-Bythewood smartly let us see the soul of this person in the opening scenes, drawn to jazz and self-expression but pushed by an ambitious mother to pursue fame and fortune. This strategy invests the audience with a stake in her rescue and recovery, as well as lifts the story out of the jaws of superficial melodrama.
Kaz’s story is just as interesting. The son of a retired cop (Danny Glover), Kaz is following in his father’s footsteps as part of their joint plan to launch him into politics. His initial courting of some influential religious leaders is rocky, as they question him about his youth and then upbraid him for seeming to compare himself to another youthful mover and shaker, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Annoyed by their retreat behind the sacred cow of King, Kaz merely asks them to know him by his deeds. He is warned that Noni might not be good for his image, even though he has gotten some much-needed name recognition from the press conference at which she thanked him for saving her. But his dedication to honesty might be a larger hindrance to him in the long run.
Ultimately, what makes this story so compelling and this love match so right is the journey toward authenticity Noni and Kaz are on. Kaz tells Noni that he loves Nina Simone, unwittingly signaling to her that he can understand her real self, and self-consciously says that his parents named him Kazan because they thought it sounded African, a sly joke on an older generation that looked to a continent many of them had never seen for their authenticity. He refuses to consider himself her boyfriend until she breaks up with Kid Culprit, giving her the courage to do just that and try to jettison her false, hypersexual image on stage. The new relationship kicks into high gear when they drive across the border to Mexico for a weekend idyll. Noni pulls off her fake fingernails, pulls out her weave, and the pair visits an open-air market. Kaz refuses to give her some cash for an ID bracelet, forcing Noni to barter her diamond earrings for it. In a moment in which Noni owns her stardom as part of who she is, she gives Kaz a “really?” look when he asks her if the diamonds are real.
Unfortunately, the getaway is ruined when Noni’s mother and the paparazzi find her after a fan videos her singing a very moving version of “Blackbird” at a karaoke bar and posts it on YouTube. Whisked back into the fray of celebrity, Noni refuses to chuck it all because it makes Kaz uncomfortable to be under a microscope. She wants to have a world stage to say what she wants to say as a singer and songwriter and isn’t ready to cash in her chips based on the wants and needs of a man. When Noni and Macy play hardball with her record company to include a couple of songs Noni wrote on her new album, which will cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars in rerecording and production fees, the price is dropping Kaz. After a quick beat, Noni simply and unemotionally says, “OK.”
Prince-Bythewood offers a wonderfully intimate look at Noni and Macy’s relationship. Macy tells a story Noni hasn’t heard before. Macy was abandoned by Noni’s black father and rejected by her family and she ended up—infuriatingly—just as they predicted: broke in a Brixton tenement. A passage out opened when a very young Noni opened her lungs to sing along to a recording of “Blackbird.” Macy’s actions become much more understandable, even forgivable, when put in context, but she just can’t seem to recognize Noni as a person—a common affliction of parents everywhere. In the end, both Noni and Kaz have to separate their own dreams from those of their parents if they are to give birth to their true, adult selves.
I believed almost every minute of this film, with only a few false notes sounded mainly to move the action forward. The portrayal of the music industry, with its power plays, image churning, and negotiating, seemed real without being the caricature of villainy we often see in feature films. Noni and Kaz’s relationship develops slowly to the random rhythms of life, not on the predictable waves of plot. Prince-Bythewood doesn’t feel the need to show skin when her characters have sex—indeed, this welcome change of pace offers insight into what Noni is fleeing, revealed in a very professionally shot music video at the beginning of the film that is little more than a visual sexual assault. I liked how full and teeming the film was—it was a nice touch to have the kindly hair stylist return as a member of Noni’s staff. Even the concertgoers seemed to get just enough camera time to make them seem like more than extras.
Most especially, I loved Mbatha-Raw, who with her appearances in the highly regarded film Belle and this one, is having quite a year. She adopts a different spine for the Noni she presents to the world and the one she has kept under wraps, and melds the two believably through the course of the film. Her rendition of “Blackbird,” sung through tears, is inspired and beautiful. Her dignity is kept intact by a sympathetic director and matched by a dignified love interest who learns that his chosen path doesn’t really fit his character. Mbatha-Raw and Parker have a wonderful chemistry, which Prince-Bythewood captures in some beautifully paced and rendered scenes. Beyond the Lights may be optimistic about the power of the truth, but this large and talented creative team have made a believer out of me.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
By Roderick Heath
Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has steadily gained a select and growing circle of international film devotees since his debut in 1998 with Small Town. His last four films have won prizes in the Cannes Film Festival, 2011’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia brought him a far wider level of acclaim, and this year’s Winter Sleep captured the Palme d’Or, cementing his reputation as one of the age’s major filmmakers. For fans of Anatolia, Winter Sleep may prove to be a subtly dissonant experience. Extreme length and a vivid mood connect them, and yet where Anatolia was a stark, eerie work where conversation and human connection were as scarce as houses in the blasted plains of central Turkey essayed through a rarefied mix of utter realism and poetic contemplation, Winter Sleep calls back to Ceylan’s earlier efforts as a novelistic work where the loquacity of the characters pointedly contrasts the taciturn men of the previous film. That’s not so much a criticism as a point of reference, for Ceylan’s gift for situating stories in very specific climes that are nonetheless readily recognisable, universal portraits of humanity is still palpable, and he captures that specific sense of place with longing and desolate romanticism. Whereas Anatolia was a film about exposure, as its policeman and functionary protagonists wandered the vast plains searching for a dead body, Winter Sleep is a tale of homes and refuges, albeit one that notes how a bedroom can become as wintry and alienating as King Lear’s blasted heath.
Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) is a middle-aged former actor who now runs a hotel in the rocky region of Cappodocia, a tourist hot spot in the summer because of its spectacular scenery and the fascinating local tradition of building houses into the rocks. But it is also a place of chilly, oppressive winters and depressed conditions for many of the inhabitants who aren’t benefiting from the economics of tourism. The film opens in the last wane of the tourist season, and the only guests now at the hotel are a Japanese couple and a motorcycle-riding wanderer, Timur (Mehmet Ali Nuroglu), who’s interested in the possibility of riding a horse whilst staying at the hotel, as promised by pictures on the website. Aydin apologetically explains that the pictures were just for visual impact, but then he does discuss obtaining a horse for the hotel guests to ride and hires a wrangler who promises to capture one of the wild horses that live in the valley below. Aydin’s energies are scarcely demanded by all of his interests, delegating them to assistants and family, giving him considerable time to pursue a significant project in his mind, a history of the Turkish theatre. But he procrastinates with a sideline he loves, writing “The Voice of the Steppes,” a column for a regional newspaper in which he can pontificate on any subject he desires. Aydin lives with both his sister Necla (Demet Akbag), who’s recently divorced her alcoholic husband, and his wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen), who, being much younger than her husband, is beset by the boredom and isolation of the hotel and has made herself useful running campaigns and soliciting donations to improve the local schools.
Besides the hotel, Aydin is a landlord, owning many houses in the nearby town of Garip. Aydin’s troubles begin when a stone crashes into the passenger side window of his jeep when he’s being driven through the town by his manager Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan). The rock was thrown by a kid, Ilyas (Emirhan Doruktutan), who runs off but falls in a pond. Hidayet fishes him out, and he and Aydin take Ilyas back to his father, Ismail (Nejat Isler), who is one of Aydin’s tenants. Ismail is unemployed after a spell in jail, and is now well behind on his rent. Aydin’s agents had seized some of their property as payment, including their refrigerator and television, and also possibly manhandled Ismail in the process. Ismail slaps his son in the face for his act, but then punches in one of his own house’s windows, and almost attacks Hidayet in a fury, held back only by his brother, Hamdi (Serhat Mustafa Kiliç). Hamdi is an imam, amiable and personable–perhaps a little too much so. He tries to act as interlocutor with Aydin and broker an arrangement to keep the peace, but he proves hapless as he offers to pay for the repair of the car window, only to learn it’s excruciatingly expensive for his poor family’s finances. To even make such an approach, Hamdi has to walk the 10 kilometres from town. Aydin, for his part, rather than being pleased or understanding about such efforts, takes veiled potshots at Hamdi in his column, complaining about badly dressed, rundown imams who stick their nose in other people’s business.
Like Asghar Farhadi from Iran, another paragon of the new Middle Eastern cinema, Ceylan tips his hat to artistic traditions of Europe and Russia as well more parochial ones, and makes a very literate, not merely literal movie. The great Russian authors of the 19th century are clearly a major influence on this work, particularly Anton Chekhov, whose wryly observed, ultimately tragic tales of ordinary oppressions and disappointments are an official inspiration, as well as Ceylan’s favourite film masters, including Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson, with whom he shares an unfashionable yet powerful fondness for deep, meditative tales digging into psychological and sociological matters. Aydin is the kind of character Chekhov and Ibsen particularly enjoyed, if that’s the word—a pompous, self-appointed master of the world who quietly grinds down the people around him, though Aydin isn’t quite such a pillar of monstrous egocentrism as some of those writers’ protagonists are. Initially, Aydin seems like a quietly industrious, but world-weary, henpecked intellectual whose prosperity is merely resented, but we get an eyeful of just what a shit he can be when Hamdi brings Ilyas to see him and apologise, as with smarmy delight, Aydin holds out his hand for Ilyas to kiss. Ceylan’s portraits of contemporary society out in the Turkish boondocks do indeed seem to justify the likeness to Victorian Russia, glimpsing a country riddled with uncomfortable extremes, where a prosperous urban class has partly annexed remnants of power and position and expected deference once reserved for the aristocracy, cheek-by-jowl with people trying to subsist.
Ceylan’s eye for physical context and cinematic atmosphere, which dominated in Anatolia, is more muted here, but just as crucial. He introduces Aydin wandering in the dawn light amongst the crags of the landscape, and returns to the motif, viewing Aydin ironically and consistently as a man exiled from his own home in spite of his nominal security and mastery. This impression is made literal when Nihal asks him to leave whilst she holds a private meeting of donors and interested parties to her school project, leaving Aydin wandering without, gazing in pained jealous at the warmth of the interior and the place Nihal has gained for herself in a niche that doesn’t involve him. Early in the film, the wrangler Aydin hires captures a wild horse, which stumbles into a canal and has to be hauled out in a gruelling sequence. The animal is stowed in a cave near the hotel, where Aydin visits it in the darkness of early dawn, the animal a boding presence of shackled, incomprehensible wildness under his house, encapsulating all the violently contradictory feelings starting to burst forth in Aydin’s little world. At first, this seething seems aimed at Aydin from out in the world, crashing in very solid form as Ilyas’ rock against his car, but soon becomes palpable in his house.
A revealing early scene sees Aydin consulting with one of his friends, the bearded and contemplative Suavi (Tamer Levent), and calls in Nihal to give her two cents as well, on the subject of an email he’s received asking for his help lobbying for a specially built sewing hutch for local women. Nihal reacts with scarcely concealed contempt and anger that Aydin hasn’t done a damn thing to help with the local schools that badly need upkeep, but responds to a flattering email into helping with a scarcely necessary project. What gives Winter Sleep it subtle propulsion is the way each scene opens a gate into the next, as this scene presages Aydin’s subsequent encounters with Necla and Nihal, which reveal the household to be no paragon of domestic tranquillity. Early on, Necla mentions to Aydin that she liked his latest column, but as he begins to expound on subjects beyond his usual ken, and particularly as he indulges critical pot shots at Hamdi, Nacla chafes. Finally, during their familiar evening scene when she reclines on a lounge behind him in his office, she unloads, pouring suspicion and scorn on his pretences to punditry and suggests he takes stances he thinks will make him popular or save him from really taking a position: as she notes, he pours scorn on the faithful for their naiveté and distrusts the irreligious for their lack of commitment. Aydin fires back that he understands why she got divorced; clearly her husband couldn’t take her venomous tongue anymore. Indeed, Necla does seem to be taking her feelings out on Aydin a little, in part because earlier he sceptically responded to her wistful thesis of shaming wrongdoers into right action by asking for their forgiveness, an assumption of sin and mode of passive resistance.
Later, Aydin intrudes upon a meeting of Nihal’s school donors and encounters Levent (Nadir Saribacak), a teacher with a wry streak who enters murmuring that he’s just visited the local army base: “These military types pretend to love their wives in public,” Levent notes, “But if they had the chance they’d put them in sacks and dump them in the river.” Aydin is quietly ruffled as Nihal tends solicitously to Levent, and then goes morose when Nihal asks him to leave. Aydin retreats to his office where, in a droll jump cut, he’s pictured sitting at his computer with a long-nosed mask on, a vision of sullen rejection. After Nihal’s meeting is over, he makes a play of concern about the state of her records of the donations she’s received and the trustworthiness of the donors, stating that any scandal might affect his own good name, but actually, obviously just trying to insert himself into her business. “Your altruism moves me to tears,” Nihal comments acidly, and it becomes clear that their marriage has only been technically sustained for a couple of years now by his promise to let her have this salving venture to herself. The film’s centrepiece arrives in a chain of epic, melancholy exchanges between husband and wife, in the classically Bergman-esque mode of tearful truth-telling by wintry firelight a la Hour of the Wolf (1968). Nihal condemns Aydin for his intrusive egotism but also herself for her cowardice in remaining married to him to avoid the cruelty of surviving alone in the big world. Aydin goes through a big show of collecting up Nihal’s records and papers to inspect, retreats to his office and, realising he’s made a major tactical error, returns them, confessing he’s too lazy.
One of the best qualities of Winter Sleep is its sensitive mixture of the utterly humdrum with the majestic, the slow-burning intensity of its humans turning minor bugbears and petty conflicts into spurs for major crises, and their tethering to a landscape that both ignores them and inflicts realities upon them. Where Anatolia depicted the aftermath of murder, the heat of the moment long left behind and only the chill of a dead body and destroyed lives noted, Winter Sleep avoids even that much melodramatic cue. People in this film are smouldering, cramped, and aching with mostly self-imposed frustration and anger and sorrow. Aydin’s lack of interest in the property that sustains his situation is indicted as part of the problem rather; he has scarcely any concept of how enforcement of his proprietorial interest has left the already desperate and disenfranchised Ismail even worse off—and of course, this is the sort of iniquity that happens every day anywhere. However, Ceylan and his coscreenwriter, his wife Ebru, are careful not to make Aydin a monster; although his thoughtlessness and position of economic power are definitely destructive, he is just as hapless as the people who would like to blame him for all their problems. Aydin, aging and greyed, seems to yearn to dissolve into the landscape at some points, and his pretences hide his anxiety over the final wane of the abilities and attributes that have allowed him to make his life. Not that the Ceylans indulge his self-pity either or the usual shallow psychology of suffering: during his argument with Nihal, when he begins a spiel about his upbringing in a poor town without electricity, Nihal interrupts him by telling him he’s not playing a role anymore.
Winter Sleep is a highly verbal experience in many respects, sustaining dramatic engagement almost purely through the conversation between its characters at many points, though just as often defined by the silences between them. Many of the characters uphold, or try to uphold, a distinct philosophical viewpoint, but for the Ceylans, this is not so much philosophical work as a depiction of characters wrestling with the gap between their gift for reason–that is, their humanness–and their inability to make it work in their lives. Some have criticised this aspect of the film, and yet the discussions reminded me acutely of real-life versions I’ve engaged in, stews of words and impulses mixed together in yearning toward a coherent sense of meaning, inflected with the peccadilloes, humour, and competitive spirit of the people engaging in them. Necla and Aydin’s argument over her ethical ideas lays down a basic dichotomy, with Necla upholding a vision of forgiveness and accepting responsibility for another’s faults that could create a firmer connection of common feeling and thus perhaps heal, whilst Aydin ripostes with questioning whether the victims of Nazis should therefore have apologised to their persecutors. Necla never gets around to trying to put her thought into action, but is clearly tormented by the idea that in leaving her husband, she abandoned him to worsening alcoholism.
Aydin doesn’t have an actual intellectual or ideological position. The Ceylans cunningly use him to exemplify something all too common in the contemporary world, a person with pretences to being a thinker who nonetheless has only a series of ideas he’s rejected, bugbears to expound on, and fashionable causes rather than an actual set of concepts and ideals to be coherently expounded. Indeed, the figure of a blowhard pontificating on the internet is hardly relevant only to Turkey. Finally, Nihal is the one who actually tries to put an ideal into practice, but this works out in a different manner to how she expects. “A life that’s all mapped out isn’t real,” the motorcyclist states simply but with unshakeable authority, though his way is pointedly lonely, an existential cowboy passing through the lives of these domesticated ethicists. Aydin finally begins to look like an avatar for the divided state of modern Turkey, an urbane pseudo-intellectual in a country that stretches between Europe and Asia, modernity and history, his real past rooted in the hardscrabble soil of the national past but turned into self-dramatizing present, making him expansive and parsimonious, yearning and defensive, sceptical and sentimental all at once.
Gökhan Tiryaki’s cinematography is one of Ceylan’s great weapons in sustaining his films, with his capacity for finding a line of beauty in landscapes that offer no focal point, and capturing a sense of physical opposition, interior lights smeared in honeyed warmth and exteriors of sharp, yet bleary space. The drama of big egos and small towns could be played out just about anywhere, but Ceylan is keen to the specific nature of the environment he depicts, a place of history deep, dense, and boding, inflecting casual actions with an awareness that Ceylan articulates as a mood of haunting. Aydin often seems poised as if straining to hear something just beyond the frequency of human ears, the hum of the ghosts that inhabit these ancient hills. But Ceylan also notes the modernity infusing this landscape, the laptops and mobile phones, the presence of interloping tourists and the necessity of bilingualism (Aydin chats amiably with his Japanese tourists in English), things that define a borderless world, the sophisticated as opposed to the parochial. But it’s the parochial that’s inescapable once the tourists have fled the winter snows that will enclose everyone and force them to sit and stew in their thoughts. One wry scene shows Aydin and Hidayet skipping across the hotel’s muddy forecourt. When Hidayet asks why Aydin doesn’t pave it or cover it with gravel, Aydin retorts that if he did, his authenticity-craving clientele would be disappointed.
After the excoriating argument with Nihal, where Aydin’s bullying fails and forces him to try and save face in utter defeat, he announces he’s decided to decamp to Istanbul for a while to work on his book. But faced with a wait for a train and tramping around the cheerless, snow-clad expanse of the railway station, Aydin instead decides to go to Suavi’s house and hide out with him for a while. This amusing, pathetic discursion sees him getting drunk and gabbling with his friend and Levent, who’s also a pal of Suavi’s. Here the film becomes a gruesomely funny portrait of middle-aged men drinking in their underwear until they recite Shakespeare and then vomit on the floor. Understandably, Aydin is ultimately chastened by the experience. The trio then go out to stalk the hills and hunt, with Aydin cast as bandy-legged Hercules, managing to plug a rabbit after glancing around to see if there’s anyone else to do it for him. This funny antiheroic passage is contrasted by Nihal’s attempt to do a good deed and expiate Aydin’s excruciating patronisation of her moral intelligence. Just before he left, Aydin give her an envelope filled with cash to put towards the school fund, but Nihal knows all too well it’s essentially a bribe to make her think he’s a generous person after all.
Instead, Nihal resolves to give this money to Ismail’s family to help them out of trouble, and she treks to their house, where she chats with the stunned Hamdi, before Ismail enters, in a moment Ceylan shoots with sly operatic intensity, Ismail’s shadow falling on the floor just before he’s seen, looming like the tragic hero of some Wagnerian extravaganza. And indeed, he does suddenly possess such stature. Where most of Winter Sleep shows its kinship to the Chekhov of “Uncle Vanya” or “The Cherry Orchard,” here Ceylan, who had suggested the influence of Dostoyevsky in Anatolia, tips his hat more definitely to that Russian master. The subplot of Ismail and Ilyas proves to be a variation on that of Snegiryov and Ilyusha (note the similarity of the names of the boys) in “The Brothers Karamazov,” the tormented and fallen father triumphing before his son in his refusal to put money before pride, whilst also calling out to “The Idiot,,” in a rejection of Nihal’s efforts that nonetheless proves cathartic in a distressing way for her. From Hidayet’s jeep Aydin glimpses the town of Garip and transforms it into a raft of humanity afloat on the elements, a promise of shifting perspectives and epiphanies that offers the climactic scenes a hint of awakening even in the midst of the winter snows that drown time and sound, and narcotise the will.
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By Roderick Heath
Many times in 2014, I was tempted to throw my hands up and walk away from the year’s film scene. It seems to have been a pretty common feeling. The profitability of the film industry’s most exalted spheres have slumped, and the sense that the obsession gripping Hollywood for recycled product and well-milked cashcows might be choking the industry it at a time when people are all too willing to switch over to some other source of entertainment is becoming more convincing—not that it’s likely to spark any great sea change in Hollywood yet. Certainly a sense of diminishing returns was all too palpable in this year’s mass market cinema. Some have posited that the current economics of Hollywood have practically killed off the stream of mid-budget films aimed at adult audiences, though that strand had long been an endangered species: adults have long been very picky about what they go to see in a movie theatre. This year, I lost the last of my patience with Marvel and even Godzilla’s presence on the big screen couldn’t entirely please me.
Despite all that, 2014 has slowly accumulated good films like specks of gold in river sand until the year has proven doggedly, quietly impressive.
We Are the Best!
A lot of this year’s films have concerned themselves with creativity itself as a theme: the sources of it, the process of gaining the skill to express it, the worldly powers it gives those who master it, and the constant, dogging anxiety of doing right by it. We Are the Best! looked wistfully back to time most artists have gone through, when their impulses and characters demanded creative outlet long before they actually had the skills for doing so, when their spirits were at their purest. Damien Chazelle’s scripts for Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano and his own Whiplash posited the idea of the artist needing brute force to gain virtuosity. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood proposed that creative vision is the result of specific, often terrible, sometimes wonderful formative experiences. John Carney’s Begin Again and Jon Favreau’s Chef both suggested a fall is needed to rise again as a creative force. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook presented a heroine as a frustrated artist whose possible incipient psychosis might be a by-product of that potential creativity. Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur turned creative ownership into gender struggle, the wish-fulfilment side of much art turned around on itself in a bitter sex farce. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) portrayed an actor who had known the dizzy heights of Hollywood success trying to prove himself an artist in the face of a culture geared to poles of celebrity-obsessed admiration or antipathy. Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner gave us a panoramic contextualisation for a boorish genius. David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars portrayed creativity turned septic tank, the world of acting and celebrity having turned into stews of self-worship and pharaohlike, incestuous self-perpetuating discourse control. Jerome Sable’s Stage Fright, a film that failed resolutely to achieve any of its interesting goals, nonetheless also made the link between cathartic horror and creative success with a great climactic image, its heroine transformed into a stylised icon of trauma and triumph, splattered blood and theatrical make-up mixing on her face.
Bobcat Goldthwait’s Willow Creek depicts an exercise in self-mythologising fallen victim to the primal, unruly terrors that still inhabit our world. The Lego Movie made good sport of generations of popular mythology and then delved into the childhood roots of how we construct our own world views, and then how we adapt them to coexist with others. Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys breezed through the familiar rags-to-riches-to-pain narrative of the showbiz flick to conclude that sometimes professionalism is a greater value than mere inspiration and that identity often trumps aspiration. The Fault in Our Stars tried to portray the moment when the intellectual awareness that art cannot contain life’s grief suddenly becomes all too immediate.
Some films took this thematic turf a step further and contemplated characters trying to create or recreate themselves, the creation of the self and life itself becoming art forms. The very notion of becoming, the processes that create us as individuals and as a collective and point us forward became a recurring concern. The alien temptress of Under the Skin felt the faint breezes of the humanity she gazed at uncomprehendingly, but finally became fatally trapped between worlds. The heroines of Wild and Tracks both sought to conquer distance to rebuild their damaged interiors. The eponymous Lucy of Luc Besson’s scifi action epic accidentally pushed onto a higher level of awareness and then willingly pushed herself to achieve the status of a god. The flailing hero of Locke, his life suddenly turning into a disastrous quagmire, struggled throughout to pull off a piece of managerial legerdemain that would write his commitment in the sky. The hapless heroine of Obvious Child converted the minutiae of her existence into her art, stand-up comedy, which then often affected her life, an ouroboros chain of creation and deflation. The bourgeois Los Angelinos of Coherence, many of them failed or flailing artists, are confronted by doppelgangers who might turn their own failings and self-hatreds upon themselves, and offers a heroine who quite literally tries to beat herself to death to grasp a better version of the same thing. Amy of Gone Girl tried to control her own life narrative through a dense mesh of art and action.
As far as “big” movies go, this year has been trending lacklustre to rotten, riddled with overhyped, underwhelming fare as the current Hollywood ethos of sequels, remakes, and franchise service finally began to crack up under its own weight. Usually a film year offers two or three blockbusters deserving of appreciation, but this year, the fun and spectacle the genre offers have been remarkably lacking. Something like Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla sounds far better as a think-piece article than it actually played as a movie, with its occasionally brilliant images foiled by a flimsy script. Guardians of the Galaxy, a pseudo-original hit for Marvel, spawned innumerable memes, most of them wittier and more entertaining than the spectacularly ordinary, lazily composed film. Maleficent, a promising concept in revisionist fairy-tale-telling from Disney, proved to be depressingly incompetent trash that couldn’t even be bothered to sustain a basic story and character logic. After feeling the strain throughout 2013, I also felt this year like I saw the comic book movie, the industry’s greatest money faucet at the moment as well as its stand-out cultural phenomenon, begin quietly dying. The depth of enthusiasm it can still wring from aficionados has started to feel forced and wilful, with minor tweaks and twists greeted like momentous events and competent films inflated into titans by sheer force of hype. What was once one of the best comic book series, the X-Men franchise, saw Bryan Singer returning to the helm on Days of Future Past, a work overloaded with promise and expectation that managed to piss just about all of it up against the wall, save for the great “Time in a Bottle” scene. Captain America: The Winter Soldier provided a reasonably honourable attempt to bring the superhero genre down to earth and contextualise it amidst a semblance of real, contemporary evils, but still ended up a grab bag of random story elements and stodgy action. The unfortunate mess that was The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has been generally recognised, though again I felt a little out of step as I found it a slight improvement on Marc Webb’s first, dolorous reboot; at least it had the minatory courage to shoot for romantic tragedy, something the gutless Marvel films couldn’t countenance.
Exodus: Gods and Kings
Ironically, I found two of the most entertaining big-budget works of the year were throwbacks to bygone brand of spectacle, the biblical epic: Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, and Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. Scott’s film sometimes played like a highlights reel from The Ten Commandments (1956), but Scott’s pernickety, critical scepticism gave it specificity and wove intelligently with the vistas and grandiosity, taking as its keynote the detail that “Israelite” means “he who wrestles God,” and keeping camp and earnestness in a healthy balance. Aronofsky’s was a different beast, more ambitious and cinematically lively than just about any other big movie of the year, if also more humourless in trying to forge new zones for mythopoeic inquiry. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Peter Jackson’s (probably) final entry in his Tolkien series, like Scott’s film, is all but a throwaway master class in big movie making, making sweeping use of the screen, reading action coherently, and packing even the most functional shots with visual lustre. The most hyped and discussed blockbuster this year was Christopher Nolan’s divisive Interstellar, another supremely ambitious work that saw Nolan trying simultaneously to earn the Kubrick comparisons he’s had heaped on him whilst also positioning himself as heir to Steven Spielberg as king of the Hollywood mythologists. He didn’t make it, with a script that ran the gamut from irritatingly pedantic to haplessly schmaltzy, took some blind alleys and a last act that didn’t work. Yet Interstellar was still an often-compelling experience that packed a sense of true wonder in both scientific theory and cinema, and signaled the widening outlook of movie scifi after decades of being reduced to mere action backdrop.
The Lego Movie
One of the best major money-spinners from Hollywood this year was Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s The Lego Movie, a zippy, hugely entertaining film that contained, in its building blocks, a sense of perspective on how children build their own worlds, a satirical streak that broadly and successfully lampooned many popular modern Hollywood narratives, and also more specific gags that occasionally cut deep: after its portrayal of Batman as an emo-jock jerk with a sideline in death metal music sporting lyrics like “Darkness!” and “No parents!” I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to take the character seriously again. One thing that 2014 has been a quietly terrific year for is the kind of trashy fare we’re not supposed to honour on best-of lists: I’ve created an honour roll for my preferences below.
Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons
Not for the first time in cinema history and surely not for the last, it was interesting to see filmmakers from beyond the pale take on the sort of thing we used to expect from the Dream Factory and outdo it by degrees. Stephen Chow’s funny, frenetic, almost endlessly inventive Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons had zest and ingenuity enough for 10 films, as well as a lampooning streak that didn’t strain to seem urgently hip. Meanwhile Welsh expat turned Indonesian auteur Gareth Evans made the year’s best action film and crime epic by far in The Raid 2: Berandal. Evans will certainly hear the call from Hollywood soon, and part of me hopes he might spread his gospel from such a vantage, but another part of me wants him to stay where he is, creating tropical storms. Paul W.S. Anderson took a thankful time-out from those goddamned Resident Evil things to make Pompeii, a film that was crucified by many on release and a box office bomb, and yet became a quick fetish object for Anderson’s vulgar auteurist fans. Yes, it reminded me why I once thought him an interesting talent: the film’s clunky, clichéd sword-and-sandal first half gave way to a second half that was a sustained study in controlled, ebullient cinematic spectacle.
David Ayers, who gained some notice as a screenwriter and then as director, released two films this year, the fairly well-regarded and successful Fury, and the much-derided Sabotage. I greatly preferred Sabotage, a gamy, vicious, hard-driving revisionist western in cop garb that sported Olivia Williams and Mireille Enos’ in two impressive, blind-siding female performances—you know something’s weird when Williams and Arnold Schwarzenegger counted as one of the best romantic pairings of the year. Fury, by contrast, tried a two-faced game in looking with unvarnished force at the inhuman side of war, and offered a marvellous centrepiece sequence that saw Yankee tank crewmen and two German women thrust together amidst rites of passage and stews of resentment. But then it retreated into a stale and incomprehensible celebration of comradeship that threw away the very point it had been making in favour of a clumsy, ill-conceived action finale. Jaume Collet-Serra, who has made some decent DVD shelf filler in the past, raised his game considerably with Non-Stop, an expertly developed pressure-cooker thriller that slipped into excess by its finale, but along the way used widescreen photography to conduce both claustrophobia and paranoia, expertly charting a drama that concerned not just Liam Neeson’s regulation damaged badass and his electric concerns, but also a small community roused from dozy distraction to group action. Even better was Omid Nooshin’s barely seen Last Passenger, a thriller similarly pitched at first on a level of near-subliminal menace amidst a drowsy romantic comedy, building into an urgent fight for survival with dashes of Spielberg’s Duel (1971), even if, again, Nooshin didn’t quite know how to end it.
Cold in July
Veronica Mars, Rob Thomas’ attempt to revive his beloved TV show, proved a mixed, but mostly charming bag that provided solid evidence that social commentary and good humour don’t have be mutually exclusive and that Kristen Bell remains one of America’s wasted natural resources. I wasn’t so thrilled with Jeremy Saulnier’s much-hyped Blue Ruin, a very indie film that displayed some fine craft throughout but fizzled on both the levels of raw suspense and supposed critique of revenge-minded action films, many of which already essentially made the same points: if the movie really wanted to disassemble the genre’s usual presumptions, it might have started by making the villains less caricatured. Jim Mickle’s Cold in July was a similar mixture, more intriguing and pulling off some inspired perversions of expectation. Scott Waugh’s Need for Speed was excessively goofy and a little too determined to annex the Fast and Furious fans, yet it was the kind of formally strong, candy-coloured entertainment too rare this year, and benefited from an excellent cast having a ball. Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano sustained some strong sub-Brian De Palma staging and remained taut until almost the end, though, like too many films this year, failed to even try to come up with a convincing finish. The zippy efficiency and moodiness of these films to my mind showed up the pretences of some of the year’s more acclaimed genre-leaning films, including Bong Joon-ho’s okay but incredibly overblown Snowpiercer (save that schoolroom sequence, a black comedy apotheosis) and David Fincher’s Gone Girl, a film that had no idea how to discipline the many impulses of its source material for effective cinema, leaning at different stages towards media satire, marital parable, thriller, and horror film, and doing none that well.
Similarly confused was Luc Besson’s Lucy, which toyed with some great mind-bending scifi ideas and confirmed Besson’s powerful sense of style hasn’t entirely abandoned him. But Besson’s lazy story development and perpetual B-movie presumptions foiled its potential. José Padilha’s remake of Robocop was a beggaring spectacle, lumbering where the original was fleet, obvious rather than sly, painfully literal and bogus-classy rather than disreputably ingenious. Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow became a critical charity case after it bombed at the U.S. box office because it was a rare attempt in the current studio scene to forge something new, but it never had any clue what to do with its superficially clever storytelling and battery of reliable actors. Kenneth Branagh’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was an odd duck, trundling into a tedious welter of contemporary action clichés, but along the way suggesting something more serious, contemplating its young hero’s confrontations with his mortality and first life-or-death struggle and patriotic duty shading into romantic conflict in a manner vaguely reminiscent of The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934). Divergent was a The Hunger Games cash-in that moved in frustrating fits and starts, but proved ultimately more entertaining than any of the Hunger Games films have managed to be yet, with a less duly stoic heroine and some nice villainy from Kate Winslet. McG’s 3 Days to Kill was a sorry waste of talent, including the agreeably battered Kevin Costner, Hailee Steinfeld playing the same part as she did in Begin Again, and Amber Heard cast as a potentially great character, a brilliant, ruthless, sexually adventurous hit woman who was then made to stand around and do absolutely nothing.
White Bird in a Blizzard
The Expendables 3 continued that barely watchable series’ habit of casting an increasingly awesome array of leathery action greats and forcing them to mouth terrible dialogue and mow down cardboard villains. Machete Kills, which likewise cast Mel Gibson in what seems now to be his most appropriate role as charming asshole, was a slightly more enjoyable genre mockery, but signs are that between this and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, it’s time for Robert Rodriguez to grow up. The latter at least featured a well-reviewed Eva Green, who was unleashed to great effect in an off-the-wall incarnation of thwarted passion in White Bird in a Blizzard, where she found the meeting point of Douglas Sirk character and J-horror ghoul, and also in 300: Rise of an Empire, the latter, a mildly entertaining, if often ponderous study in CGI action that offered one of the year’s most memorable movies images: Green’s Queen Artemisia kissing the lips of a prisoner’s severed head, a bold moment of far-out eroticism in the midst of a genre usually very busy sublimating it.
Amidst the growing school of independent fantastic cinema, Ti West, who had been shaping up as a major talent, turned in The Sacrament this year; tense and entertaining, it was nonetheless something of disappointment in resorting to the found-footage mode West had so effectively countered before, and skating over its not-quite recreation of Jonestown without penetrating beyond its studiously composed surface. Still, some sequences, like the lengthy one-shot portrait of a woman poisoning her brother, were powerful, and Gene Jones’ performance, alternately seductive, defensive, and imperial, was superlative. Two classy thrillers I was eager to see and ultimately severely disappointed by were Hossein Amini’s The Two Faces of January and Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man. The former almost gave “old-fashioned” a bad name as it moved pokerfaced through potentially cracking, perverse material, and the latter crept glacially towards a preordained, cynical finale without locating its own dramatic heart, for all the good work by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rachel McAdams.
The Quiet Ones
More sustained, and indeed one of the small gems of the year, was professional provocateur Bobcat Goldthwait’s restrained, smart, witty found-footage burlesque Willow Creek, which wove rich, satirical value contemplating various forms of mythologising and coupling whilst offering some quality scares, particularly in its signature, epic-length tent sequence. Hammer Studios’ revival continued to slip along unsteadily with John Pogue’s well-made, attractively cast, but rickety The Quiet Ones, a film that, like Blair Erickson’s The Banshee Chapter, mixed traditional horror filmmaking with found-footage touches to varying effect. The Banshee Chapter sustained interest by having a plot composed of an array of inspired connections and a defiantly Val Lewton-esque sense of minimalist scariness. The Irish horror film In Fear failed to keep me until the end, sadly. Surprisingly, the best-regarded horror film of the year has proven to be an Australian film, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, all the more remarkable considering the film’s quick trip in and out of movie theatres here. I must admit, however, that apart from Essie Davis’ sustained performance, it left me cold: the relentless showiness of the filmmaking couldn’t disguise that this is well-worn territory for horror fans, replete with neon-flashing metaphors, and the marvelous prop book that sets up the drama wrote a cheque the film couldn’t cash. Also, the characterisations, particularly of the hapless heroine’s son, kept changing according to what Kent wanted to do with a scene. James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence was a fleet and entertaining mindbender, made for next to nothing and sustaining its “Twilight Zone”-esque plot with conceptual cleverness and a dash of enjoyably sarcastic commentary in offering a literal portrait of people who become their own worst enemies.
The Monuments Men
Over in “serious” movie land, things have often been just as frustrating. George Clooney, who was so impressive with his first two features as director, reached an artistic nadir with The Monuments Men, a film that lurched from scene to scene with no sense of structure, tension, or character substance, only the most snivelling take on its cultural thesis, and a series of lazily tethered vignettes that added up to the one of the most galling moviegoing experiences I had in 2014. Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo were terrific as a pair of mutually exploiting rodents in Nightcrawler, with Gyllenhaal particularly offering an expert black comedy performance as a creep who shape-shifts into whatever he thinks the market wants of him. But the one-note script was far too pleased with itself, built to an utterly predictable “dark” climax signalled about an hour earlier, and cut no deeper as media satire than the average Kent Brockman report. Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel was for me a new departure for the director: whereas his take-it-or-leave-it directing style has been at least reliably on a level with his writing, this was the first time I’d been frustrated that his script couldn’t have been handled by a director with a half-ounce of taste and a real sense of the European tradition he was bastardising and trivialising. David Cronenberg, who had been on a roll, crashed to a halt with Maps to the Stars, a would-be devastating critique of modern Hollywood and American parenting. Cronenberg’s direction was poised in a way that only showed up the emptiness of the script, which did at least have a core idea with potential—the likening of modern Hollywood with ancient Egypt as a place where incest is the logical end-point of cordoned power and privilege. Yet the satirical points were dismayingly stale and smug: nutty actress celebrating a rivals’ misfortune and a self-help guru who’s a total asshole to his kids.
Under the Skin
The year’s most unavoidable movie in terms of critical regard has been Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Boyhood’s stature derives entirely from the unique conceit behind its filming, having been shot in snatches across a 12-year period to chart young star Ellar Coltrane’s growth. This method is indeed affecting for allowing us to see actors age before our eyes, but as a work of dramaturgy, it’s a superficial achievement that fails to gain real entry into the psychology and viewpoint of its young hero (certainly not like Terrence Malick did with The Tree of Life), instead presenting a mass of vignettes and ironically being prevented by the niceties of that method to get up close to the poetry of becoming. Studying Ethan Hawke’s face and how much it’s changed since Joe Dante’s Explorers (1986; another greatly preferable study of childhood dreams giving way to adult realities), moved me more than young Mason’s growth into a vague and wooden avatar for just about every stubbly, arty, self-involved young man likely to make up the bulk of its audience. Yet the film offered up some excellent moments that rang painfully true, particularly Mason’s encounters with the various men, most of them his mother’s poor choices in mates, frustrated with his ever-intensifying individuality, making plays for power over him disguised as sagacious aid. Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is another highly regarded work of the year, and I have more sympathy with it: the final scene was so good it almost urges me to put it on my best-of list, and yet I could never shake off the feeling that I was watching an exercise in music video aesthetics being stretched to a 90-minute film: so coolly confident when portraying utter alienness stalking social refuse in a desolate Glasgow, the film turned stodgy as it tried to reverse the perspective, as ornery, ordinary humanity can scarcely get past Glazer’s relentless aesthetic filter. Still, the film’s sense of atmosphere, the chill and cheerless Glaswegian streets and the wild surf and rain-smothered hills, were powerful in a manner that made the film’s contemplation of various forms of life stunted by circumstances urgent.
Gregg Araki, a filmmaker who shifted from enfant terrible to major artist nearly a decade ago with Mysterious Skin, returned with White Bird in a Blizzard, a jumpy, oddly curtailed film that nonetheless continues to nag at me, in Araki’s perfervid and often dreamlike blend of John Waters-esque camp and P. T. Anderson-like haunted nostalgia. The film’s animating murder mystery offered a thriller element less by pondering who murdered whom, but rather in contemplating whose aberrant and frustrated sexuality boiled over with destructive results, and how much Shailene Woodley’s young protagonist has inherited it, in a work pitched at the nexus of wistful coming-of-age tale, suburban tragedy, and punch-drunk satire. Gia Coppola’s debut film Palo Alto, an interesting if rather loosely structured adaptation of a book of short stories by James Franco, sometimes trod similar territory in portraying adolescence in affluent, distracted America as a no-man’s-land of experience. Franco’s much-mocked, yet dogged, directorial career threw up some intriguing, if ultimately unsuccessful films, particularly Interior. Leather Bar., a pseudo-documentary exploration made with gay filmmaker Travis Mathews that rummaged through concepts of acting and the aesthetics of sexuality, whilst Franco’s solo work Child of God turned Cormac McCarthy’s arty gross-out novel into a portrait of utter human degradation that, by the end, may well have been reborn. Jean-Marc Valee’s Wild tried to bash Cheryl Strayed’s diffuse memoir of walking therapy into an epic of personal experience: the result swung wildly between clumsy devices and granola pseudo-philosophy, and yet often communicated a sense of life far more unruly than this sort of thing usually offers, and had the straight-up nerve to portray a heroine who was no angel. John Curran’s Tracks, a similar tale, chose a more distanced take, one that ought to have proven superior, and yet the evasive smugness of the film’s dramatic pitch somehow turned great adventure into tedious hike. Amma Assante’s Belle touched on fascinating history and personalities and offered Gugu Mbatha-Raw a star-making role she made the most of (see also Beyond the Lights), but proved filled with vapid characterisations and laborious speechifying on a level somewhere between romantic melodrama, historical consciousness-raiser, and Jane Austen fan bait, to the point where it almost became self-satire.
Get On Up
As ever, biopics were a cash crop this year. Mr. Turner essayed the form with eccentric power and teeming detail, trying to capture an age and way of life as much as the prickly personality of the singular man who inhabits it. And yet somehow, somewhere, the film lost its own thread of enquiry, to the point where it seemed to be essentially ingeniously-composed rubbernecking. The Theory of Everything provided an utterly contrived and smoothed-over portrait of Stephen Hawking, exemplifying just about everything wrong with this contemporary brand of prestige lure. Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys and Tate Taylor’s Get On Up were both showbiz biopics that gained less attention than expected. Both films kept their own theatricality in mind, making comedy out of the usual road-to-stardom stuff, and the vivacity of Get On Up’s early scenes suggested Taylor might redeem himself after the godawful The Help: the recreations of the flash and cool of a real cultural revolution were often superb. But whereas Eastwood’s sturdy sense of technique and emotional directness eventually helped his film locate a modicum of worldlywise catharsis, Taylor’s became cartoonish and ultimately formless: Chadwick Boseman worked his ass off playing James Brown, and yet never quite found what was going on behind those sharklike eyes, whereas Nelsan Ellis quietly stole the film as his long-suffering, less mercurial yet vital compadré Bobby Byrd. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Coincidence) likewise was essentially a showbiz farce constructed out of archetypes and received ideas posing as a grand and incisive tragicomedy, but redeemed by its sheer delight of technique and performance.
A Million Ways to Die in the West
2014 was a weak year for comedy, but then again so are most years now. The controversial dumping of the Seth Rogen-James Franco vehicle The Interview by an assailed Sony probably hasn’t cheated us of a classic of mirth, and yet the event as a whole suggested new truths about global culture with some galling and ridiculous ramifications. Few were particularly keen to see a film from Seth MacFarlane after his job hosting the Oscars, and his western parody A Million Ways to Die in the West proved frustratingly patchy and indecisive as to what kind of movie it was. Yet it was an intermittently enjoyable experience after all, a contemporary answer to Blazing Saddles (1974), just as undisciplined and tendentious, if much less consistently inspired, offering such random joys as the spectacle of Amanda Seyfried sucking on Neil Patrick Harris’ moustache, and Gilbert Gottfried’s wacko cameo as a fake Abraham Lincoln joyously announcing his newfound wealth to a bunch of oblivious schoolkids. On the other hand, the much-praised Obvious Child was, like its heroine, nowhere near as funny or radical as it wanted us to think it was. Jon Favreau’s likeably minor Chef had energy and a good-humoured take on the same story other films took deadly seriously this year, though its chief effect in the end was to make me hungry. Lukas Moodysson’s We Are The Best! was a gleefully energetic if rather shallow and sometimes nerve-trying paean to the joys of youth rebellion.
Quai d’Orsay (The French Minister)
2014 was at least a vintage year beyond the precincts of the Anglo-American zone. Little surprises and pleasures I was privileged to catch this year included a couple of fine Canadian films, Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais’s mordant portrait in comedic existential angst Whitewash, featuring a drolly soulful Thomas Hayden Church, and the superior Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, both films unfolding like bleak fairytales in the midst of the woods. Out of France came one of my more frustratingly unseen films of the year, Jean-Luc Godard’s much-acclaimed Goodbye to Language. Bertrand Tavernier’s Quai d’Orsay (released abroad as The French Minister) was a divisive film, as some branded it a laboured Gallic version of Yes, Minister and The Thick of It, but it was to me a lighter, much less one-note indictment than those satires, instead a deft comedy of manners that tried to comprehend the degree to which modern politics is a game of perpetual catch-up football enacted by people whose talents and follies coexist. Roman Polanski offered what was, to me, easily his most enjoyable and full-blooded film in a long time with the twisted role-playing satire Venus in Fur, setting Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Seigner into a pas-de-deux of sexual and artistic gamesmanship. Francois Ozon’s Jeune et Jolie was, by comparison, a good-looking but still-born study of an alienated young woman who finds…well, something or other in prostituting herself out. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, maker of 2011’s superlative Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, captured the Palme d’Or this year with Winter Sleep, an equally lengthy and intensive interrogation of the modes of petty tyranny and fear that too often consume and define life on the most everyday levels, unfolding like a good book but infused with genuine cinematic values. Jauja, Lisandro Alonso’s spacy, intriguing, if ultimately unsatisfying odyssey across the Argentine pampas inferred history as a chasm people fall into and societies emerge from. Naomi Kawase’s Still the Water was a lustrously beautiful, if excessively diaphanous fable that told a not-dissimilar story to Boyhood, but with a far richer sense of social and natural connection, as well as a more specific sense of the fears and torments of growing up.
Performances of Note:
Agata Kulesza, Ida
Allison Pill, Snowpiercer
Brendan Gleeson, Calvary
Dakota Fanning, Night Moves
Don Johnson, Cold in July
Dorothy Atkinson, Mr. Turner
Dylan Moran, Calvary
Edward Norton, Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Emma Watson, Noah
Emmanuelle Seigner, Venus in Fur
Essie Davis, The Babadook
Eva Green, 300: Rise of an Empire; White Bird in a Blizzard
Gene Jones, The Sacrament
Golshifteh Farahani, My Sweet Pepper Land
Imogen Poots, Need for Speed
Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
Joaquin Phoenix, The Immigrant ; Inherent Vice
Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice
Katia Winter, The Banshee Chapter
Katherine Waterston, Inherent Vice
Marion Cotillard, Two Days One Night; The Immigrant
Martin Freeman, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Mireille Enos, Sabotage
Nelsan Ellis, Get On Up
Olivia Williams, Sabotage
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Russell Crowe, Noah
Shailene Woodley, White Bird in a Blizzard
Thierry Lhermitte, Quai d’Orsay
Tilda Swinton, Only Lovers Left Alive; Snowpiercer
Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner
Tom Hardy, Locke
Favourite Films of 2014
Calvary (John Michael McDonagh)
Calvary wasn’t a perfect work, but it was a massif of ambitious drama that actually had something to say and said it well, simultaneously curious and sceptical, brutal and humane, extraordinarily funny and deeply sad. A titanic lead performance from Brendan Gleeson backed by excellent ensemble work helped give flesh to a film that delved into matters of faith and character and beyond, to study the failure of the most profound social bonds in the modern world, to try and honestly state both why the failure happened and also question what, if anything, might remake those bonds.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Peter Jackson)
A lot of pretenders have tried to claim the crown of the FX blockbuster king in recent years, and the sharp knives that greeted Peter Jackson’s final Tolkien entry suggests many are ready for a change of dynasty. But Jackson still does this sort of thing with a sense of gusto, fulsomeness, and an eye for beauty in unlikely places that makes most rivals look pathetic, particularly amongst this year’s big movie dross. Battle of the Five Armies stands tall in the Hobbit triptych: fun as they were, the first two often felt like theme park rides in Middle Earth, whereas here the final battle rams together every moving part in the story with consequence, and pays off with a pair of harshly beautiful death scenes carrying more tragic gravitas than just about anything else in the entire sextet. The spectacle of cross-purposes, naked greed, and swaggering arrogance from various self-appointed supermen who conspire to start a war also represented the most morally complex passage in the series, and the possibility of redemption through trial therefore more moving.
Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski)
I found myself cocking an eyebrow suspiciously at Ida, a continental excursion for a filmmaker who had previously been based in Britain. With its black-and-white photography, Holocaust themes, preciously framed shots, and general air of mournful seriousness, it seemed like something carefully pitched to be the perfect art film for pseuds. Yet under the film’s studied surface lay a fervently beating heart and a brilliant sense of character in a work attuned to cultural dislocation and flavourful in its evocation of the period. Pawlikowski’s style conveys the way life flows on, running roughshod over personal loss and horror, suggesting both why that’s inevitable and possibly even for the best, and also noting the good and bad reasons why some might choose to opt out altogether.
The Immigrant (James Gray)
A tragic tale situated in real history but dusted with the lightest gilt of magic-realism, The Immigrant needed no gimmicks or stunts other than good filmmaking to tell its story, rising with a symphonic blend of intricacy and directness and represents one of the most concise and intelligible aesthetic constructions of recent years: The Immigrant withholds until its last shot, and then haunts for days afterwards. The sublime intelligence of Marion Cotillard’s bedeviled heroine and particularly Joaquin Phoenix’s tortured Caliban deserve great acclaim, but won’t get it.
My Sweet Pepper Land (Hiner Saleem)
This oddball mix of Fordian western, Leanian epic, Shakespearean romance, with a jigger of antic gallows humour, has gained little release and appreciation, and yet it’s stuck with me with more affection that many other films of the year. My Sweet Pepper Land resituated Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946) in the wilds of Iraqi Kurdistan, portraying a young policeman’s entanglement with a victimised schoolteacher and a criminal potentate as a way of exploring the new frontiers of an ever-assailed nation and cultural tensions pulling the Middle East in the many directions all too clearly described by contemporary history.
Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt)
I wasn’t sold on Kelly Reichardt’s lauded anti-western Meek’s Cut-Off (2010), but her follow-up Night Moves was accomplished in treading similar territory with a lighter foot and a less obvious sense of irony. A notable film talent emerged more completely. Depicting a trio of eco-terrorists driven to blow up a dam by various motives both political and personal, Reichardt, like Hiner Saleem, blended disparate genres, including war movie, murder mystery, horror film, and the jangled nerved thrillers of ‘70s cinema (including Arthur Penn’s great film of the same name) for the sake of depicting people and an age at a crossroads, the grey zone where commitment shades into hostility, idealism is subsumed by solipsism, and alienation realises that it is actually sociopathy.
Noah (Darren Aronofsky)
Aronofsky’s startlingly odd, mammoth, misshapen revival of the biblical epic had chutzpah beyond the measure of any rival in big-budget cinema this year and an actual vision to purvey, daring to enrich a stark legend with conceptual weight and philosophical enquiry. See also Ridley Scott’s less thoughtful, but brilliantly staged Exodus: Gods and Kings.
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)
Jim Jarmusch’s best film in many years was a droll and opulent exploration of the bohemian creed through a twist on an old metaphor: vampirism. Tourism through the desolate grandeur of Detroit is equated with the intellectual journey of life and of romance through the ages, constantly changing expressive form and governing code but never the vital essence. The coda landed a blackly humorous rabbit punch in contemplating how sooner or later, everyone who looks at the stars has to acknowledge the gutter they’re in.
The Raid 2: Berandal (Gareth Evans)
Punctuated by thunderous, brilliantly staged and choreographed sequences of mayhem and martial artistry, Gareth Evans’ follow-up to his claustrophobic ass-kick classic from 2011 expanded his scope enormously, not entirely without some pacing problems, but finally creating a spectacle of motion matched to an expansive drama of gangland honour, offering everything from tragedy to farce and hazy poeticism.
Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
Note-perfect social realism and incisive ethics and psychology provide reminders just why the Dardenne brothers are so lauded, in a taut and thrilling tale that is also utterly believable. Marion Cotillard’s second great role of the year saw her inhabit an Everywoman without a trace of either star slumming or self-important art.
Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (Denis Côté) / Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie)
I pair these films in part because Stranger by the Lake was a delayed 2013 film, which Marilyn Ferdinand reviewed back then, and because both are cool, bare-boned, almost mythic tales with a queer twist: Stranger by the Lake invoked primal rituals of mating and blood sacrifice in a landscape deliberately cordoned off from the modern world, whilst Vic + Flo Saw a Bear becomes a kind of fairy tale enacted by two aging, life-damaged lesbian partners threatened by a lurking demon from one woman’s past. Both films conclude with wrenching, brutal, yet oddly touching visions of people who just can’t live without love, even in the face of annihilation.
Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
The Palme d’Or winner is over three hours long, driven by dialogue, and replete with silence and evocations of alienation–it’s like the art movie your mother warned you about. Yet Winter Sleep is patient rather than inflated, dense with detail and quietly motivated, taking its characters seriously but never over-indulging them. Ceylan analyses psychology and social context with a feel for how the two affect each other. Like Calvary, with more finesse, Ceylan uses a small town and its occupants to delve into the way so many of us create phantoms of our preoccupations, terrors, and preferred world views and inflict them on other people.
Would Be On Favourites List If I Had Seen It In Time:
Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
American Sniper (Clint Eastwood)
Locke (Steven Knight)
Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh)
Still the Water (Naomi Kawase)
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
Venus in Fur (Roman Polanski)
White Bird in a Blizzard (Gregg Araki)
Willow Creek (Bobcat Goldthwait)
Rough Gems & Underrated
Begin Again (John Carney)
Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu)
Coherence (James Ward Byrkit)
Exodus: Gods and Kings (Ridley Scott)
Interstellar (Christopher Nolan)
A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor)
Palo Alto (Gia Coppola)
Quai d’Orsay (aka The French Minister, Bertrand Tavernier)
Selma (Ava DuVernay)
Starred Up (David Mackenzie)
Roll of Genre Pleasures
Cold in July (Jim Mickle)
Grand Piano (Eugenio Mira)
Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (Stephen Chow & Chi-kin Kwok)
Last Passenger (Omid Nooshin)
Need For Speed (Scott Waugh)
Non-Stop (Jaume Collet-Serra)
Pompeii (Paul W.S. Anderson)
Sabotage (David Ayer)
Veronica Mars (Rob Thomas)
Overrated & Underwhelming
The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)
Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier)
Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman)
Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller)
Fury (David Ayres)
Godzilla (Gareth Edwards)
Gone Girl (David Fincher)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn)
The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum)
John Wick (Chad Stahelski, David Leitch)
Lucy (Luc Besson)
Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg)
Obvious Child (Gillian Robespierre)
Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho)
Tracks (John Curran)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer)
3 Days to Kill (McG)
The Fault in Our Stars (Josh Boone)
Maleficent (Robert Stromberg)
The Monuments Men (George Clooney)
Robocop (José Padilha)
The Rover (David Michôd)
Bird People / The Blue Room / The Captive / Charlie’s Country / Child’s Pose / The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby / Force Majeure / Frank / A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night / Gloria / Goodbye to Language / The Guest / Horse Money / Ilo Ilo / In Bloom / It Felt Like Love / Joe / Land Ho! / Leviathan / Love Is Strange / Mommy / Norte, The End of History / Nymphomaniac / Pride / The Strange Little Cat / Stray Dogs / The Tale of the Princess Kaguya / The Tribe
The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2014:
Baby Face Nelson / The Beguiled (Don Siegel)
Bell Book and Candle (Richard Quine)
The Big Night / Finger of Guilt (Joseph Losey)
The Bigamist (Ida Lupino)
Break of Day (Ken Hannam)
China Seas (Tay Garnett)
The Colossus of Rhodes (Sergio Leone)
Creature with the Atom Brain / The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake / Pier 5, Havana (Edward L. Cahn)
The Driller Killer / China Girl / The Addiction (Abel Ferrara)
Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler / The Testament of Dr. Mabuse / The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang)
Electra Glide in Blue (James William Guercio)
Faces (John Cassavetes)
Girl Walk//All Day (Jacob Krupnick)
Hatchet for the Honeymoon (Mario Bava)
Heaven Can Wait (Ernst Lubitsch)
The Horsemen / Black Sunday / Prophecy (John Frankenheimer)
Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian)
The Loyal 47 Ronin (Kenji Mizoguchi)
Matango (Ishiro Honda)
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Hayao Miyazaki)
Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak)
Queen of Spades (Thorold Dickinson)
Rabid / The Brood / Scanners (David Cronenberg)
Railroaded! / T-Men (Anthony Mann)
Seas Beneath / The Plough and the Stars / The Long Voyage Home / The Sun Shines Bright (John Ford)
Shaft / Shaft’s Big Score! (Gordon Parks)
The Sorcerers (Michael Reeves)
The Story of Temple Drake (Stephen Roberts)
Strangler of the Swamp (Frank Wisbar)
The Town That Dreaded Sundown (Charles B. Pierce)
Trouble Man (Ivan Dixon)
Une Femme est une Femme / Vivre Sa Vie / Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard)
The Uninvited (Lewis Allen)
Winstanley (Kevin Brownlow)
Woman Who Came Back (Walter Colmes)
Wyatt Earp (Lawrence Kasdan)
Scorecard: Best Films of the 2010s, Halfway Mark:
12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)
Anna Karenina (Joe Wright)
A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)
The Grandmaster (Wong Kar Wai)
Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)
The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz)
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Edgar Wright)
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
To the Wonder (Terrence Malick)
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu
By Roderick Heath
Most filmmakers portion out what talent they have in small, polite courses. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu throws messy, teetering banquets every time. Since his debut with 2000’s Amores Perros, Iñárritu has made technically bravura, deeply felt and seriously intended works that push at the edges of narrative cinema, sometimes to the limits of credulity and patience. His second film, 21 Grams (2003), was radically told soap opera. His Oscar-nominated Babel (2006) displayed all of his best and worst traits—intense and vibrant portraiture of characters and the worlds they live in, conveyed with powerhouse cinema, tied together with threadbare contrivances and inchoate emotional connections and impulses. Iñárritu has been quiet for some time since his bruising break-up with his screenwriting collaborator Guillermo Arriaga—only the exhausting, Spanish-made drug-addiction drama Biutiful (2010) was released in the interval. Now he’s come roaring back to prestige-clad attention again with Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), a film that seems intended to give Iñárritu’s rival in the Latin-American wunderkind stakes, Alfonso Cuaron, some more competition. Following Cuaron’s showy technical extravaganza Gravity (2013), with its epic-length shots and special effects, Iñárritu ripostes with a more earthbound drama that nonetheless one-ups Cuaron by offering a film that affects to be composed of one, constant, driving shot.
Iñárritu uses this device to illustrate the drowning wave of anxiety and detail that threatens to swamp his protagonist, actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who’s directing and starring in his own adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Riggan is a former movie star, famed for his part in the “Birdman” franchise of nearly 20 years earlier, and he feels like he sacrificed too much of his credibility and talent for a paycheque. Now he is dogged by the alter ego by which too much of the public knows him, constantly hearing a droning, mordant voice mocking his efforts to reinvent himself as an artist, his Birdman characterisation become his personal daemon.
Riggan has managed to pull together the theatrical production and steered it to the very threshold of opening in the St. James Theatre on Broadway, but has just realised how bad his supporting male star Ralph (Jeremy Shamos) is. By serendipitous fortune, or perhaps contrivance, a lighting rig falls on Ralph’s head during a rehearsal, badly injuring him. Riggan has to find another actor quickly. He consults with his lawyer and confidant Jake (Zach Galifianakis) and rattles off a list of potentials, like Woody Harrelson and Jeremy Renner (“Who?”), but they’re all busy playing the current wave of superhero films. Costar Lesley (Naomi Watts) suggests her boyfriend, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), an actor of the stage who has great critical favour and a reputation for uncompromising artistry—that is, he’s a pain in the ass.
Because he knows Riggan’s play inside out from helping Lesley rehearse, Mike is able not just to slip quickly into the role, but also immediately coax Riggan to make improvements. Riggan is delighted at first with his new costar, but soon Mike’s loose-cannon ethic starts to make Riggan’s situation feel even more nightmarish. Iñárritu has described himself as a frustrated musician, and he once composed scores for Mexican films before he broke through as a director. The intimate flow and relentless tug of music is clearly what he’s after here, translated into visual terms. The constant sense of headlong movement created by his tracking shots is matched to a syncopated jazz drum beat, lending a neurotically arrhythmic yet propelling heartbeat—at one point, the drummer is even glimpsed as a busker outside the theatre and then, later, inside, playing merrily in the theatre’s kitchen. The cumulative effect of this scoring suggests just such a nerveless, neurotic beat has invaded Riggan’s ear and won’t leave it. Iñárritu’s camera aims to transform his chosen setting into a multi-levelled, pan-dimensional stage, sweeping up and down stairwells, in and out of the most cramped confines of the theatre, and out into the expanse of the Manhattan night where crowds reel and neon blazes.
Iñárritu records the teeming, electrified ambience of this location in a way that few recent films have managed, recalling classic works whose grungy-glamorous portraits of urban gods captured both the city’s boiling, stygian ferocity and vigour, a crucible of possibility—movies like Sweet Smell of Success (1957), as well as the specific canon of Broadway films like A Double Life (1947), All About Eve (1950), and The Country Girl (1956). In Birdman, powerful theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) sits in a solitary vigil with pusillanimous pen poised for takedowns in a nearby bar, recalling Sweet Smell’s savage columnist J. J. Hunsecker, whilst Riggan seems to be threatened with a schizoid breakdown along the fault lines of the real and fictional persona like Ronald Colman’s Anthony John in A Double Life. Riggan keeps moving because, like a shark, he’ll die if he stops—he’s invested all his money into the production. His actors share and amplify his brittle, egocentric, dedicated gusto, particularly Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who’s also his girlfriend. He recounts to Mike his “origin story” and its connection to this obsessive venture: as a young performer in a school play, Riggan impressed Raymond Carver, who sent a congratulatory message backstage to him written on a bar coaster, inspiring Riggan to choose acting as his career. Mike ripostes by noting this clearly indicates Carver was drunk at the time.
Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone), a recovering drug addict who’s just of out of rehab and is working as Riggan’s PA, stands outside of the stream. She’s angry at her father for his false promises as a parent and has been inoculated with a raw and cynical understanding of this niche world, plainly contemptuous of her father’s hoped-for redemption via art in a scene that’s scarcely relevant beyond a few city blocks. She lets loose this contempt on Riggan after he confronts her about smoking dope. Mike, on the other hand, is deeply impressed with his own integrity as anointed artist-hero who brings edge and danger to the stage, and constantly tests the limits of Stanislavskian realism. He erupts in a fury during a preview performance when the real liquor he’s been drinking proves to have been replaced with water. During another preview, when he and Lesley are being wheeled on stage in a prop bed, Mike, in the thrill of imminent performance and momentarily overcoming the impotence that’s been besetting him, attempts to ravage Lesley there and then. Lesley, appalled and infuriated, promptly breaks up with him, and when Laura consoles her, they lock lips, caught up in the whirl of passion. Mike further antagonises Riggan by giving an interview where he steals Riggan’s Carver anecdote, and postures as the saviour of the show.
Mike is often insufferable in this manner, but also candid and committed in his bullshit artiste way. He tries to warn Riggan that he’s headed for a fall, locked on the wrong side of a perceived opposition between artist and mere celebrity. Mike reveals a far less aggravating side as he forms a bond with Sam, whom he encounters at her favourite hideaway, perched on the edge of a balcony high above Broadway, ironically calling to mind the similarly poised, detached yet omnipotent Batman that Keaton played a quarter-century ago. Mike is drawn to the damaged and sceptical young woman, and seems almost like a different person when calmly admitting his fears and faults to her, though his attempts to convince her of her worth are met with good-humoured derision. Nonetheless, the sideways-glimpsed romance between Mike and his daughter adds another worry to Riggan’s already overloaded psyche. Riggan is having semi-hallucinatory experiences, introduced at the start when we see him floating like a bodhisattva in his dressing room, and then seeming to use superpowers to move objects and, eventually, trash that dressing room—except that when the camera steps back and takes on a more objective viewpoint, he’s revealed to be smashing things the old-fashioned way. Finally, the mocking voice is revealed to be Riggan in his Birdman guise, sweeping down through the city streets to preach like Mephistopheles the gospel of entertainment and the security of low expectations with high pay.
Casting Keaton as Riggan was a coup of uncommon fortune for Iñárritu, giving him as it does a legitimate hinge not just of performing ability but potential satiric and thematic impact. Keaton’s stint as Batman was his apotheosis as a movie star and also the start of a long wane, though he’s long been a difficult actor to contain, too impish and odd to make a standard leading man, too self-contained and nonchalant to behave as comic fount. In a similar way, Iñárritu’s other actors are cast to play off associated roles; Watts’ pash with Riseborough clearly is a skit based on Watts’ breakthrough role in Mulholland Drive (2000), whilst Norton plays a variation on his public persona. Such conceits are entirely understandable in a film that is both about theatricality and possessed by it. The way Iñárritu films his actors and lets them combust in big, showy spiels and set-piece rants may only indulge rather than critique that theatricality, but there’s nothing much wrong with that, especially as it all contributes to the hothouse atmosphere and, moreover, delights in acting, raw and untrammelled, as the ultimate source of spectacle, both on stage and screen. Iñárritu lets his actors go wild with their tools just as he’s doing with his camera.
Meanwhile, Iñárritu manages a cunning and sinuous control of tonal shifts whilst never seeming to demarcate his moves officially, leading from farce to drama to elegy through virtuoso manipulation of elements and the connective sinew of Antonio Sánchez’s score. Riggan’s encounter with a hot-to-trot Laura in the lowest hallways of the theatre sees her transformed by lighting into a sultry and beckoning sylph in the labyrinth, then the camera follows her up to the stage, segueing into the first preview performance where a tone of elegy dominates, the tone Riggan wants for it, until Mike suddenly violates the mood with an outburst. Iñárritu cues a shift from hyped-up intensity to punch-drunk eeriness after the dispiriting impact of Sam’s excoriation of her father and his bleary, defeated suck on her worn reefer: the camera slides out and across the stage in the midst of dry ice and blue light, picking out Laura as a ghostly figure in mid-flight of elegiac speech in one of Riggan’s stylised dream sequences. A trip out the door of the theatre plunges first from exhausting claustrophobia to the mad tumult of the street to the shadowy and sheltering refuge of the bar. A quick recourse to a salving cigarette shimmers with a sense of relief and relaxation. Mike and Sam making love on a catwalk high above the stage sees camera hover and then float out above the actors at work below with swooning romanticism falling into gentle diminuendo. Iñárritu almost wills style into substance in such pirouettes, lending his vision of this hothouse of creation the quicksilver changeableness of creative vision and dramatic mood.
As a statement about the soul of the actor and the eternally tendentious nature of creative endeavour, Birdman works best through such epiphanies and flourishes of stagecraft, transforming mundane realities into mimetic canvas where Riggan’s terrors and inspirations collide and crossbreed. The problem here is that when one examines each facet, the film seems composed of a great mass of clichés. The washed-up star striving for a second chance. The sassy, irate, burn-out celebrity’s daughter. The young tyro prick. The nutty, oversexed actress. The vituperative critic who has appointed herself as guardian of culture determined to cut down our hero. It’s worth noting that 2014 has seen a small glut of films that seem like obvious metaphors for their makers’ troubled relationship with the business of art, the demands of family, and the pundits who approve or dismiss their work; there’s a strong undercurrent of this in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, John Carney’s Begin Again, and Jon Favreau’s lightly comic Chef, which strained to transfer the theme onto the world of celebrity cooking. Birdman shares with the last two films the figure of the unruly, ageing male talent and his efforts to balance a relationship with a child against renewing artistic success. Yet Chef was more sophisticated and accepting than any of the more self-righteous and noisy versions, particular when it came to the hero’s relationship with his critic-antagonist, who curiously pointed out that their battles on Twitter were “theatre.” Iñárritu, bluntly and ridiculously, portrays Dickinson as an outright creep who announces her intention to destroy Riggan’s project for even daring to try.
The best defence one can offer is that Birdman is an exercise in cut-up aesthetics, an extended jazzlike improvisation based in stirring, familiar melodies and refrains that reflect the distorting intensity of such a feat as Riggan is intending. We could accept the film’s stereotypes and cornball ideas as mere extensions of his enthused, but not terribly original mind—and I would, except Iñárritu’s technique, wonderful as it is, subtly foils his excuse, as he readily leaves behind Riggan’s viewpoint when he feels like it. This isn’t exactly a deal breaker in terms of the film’s worth, especially as Iñárritu and his cast make the characters vibrate with such energy and offer many segues of contradiction and surprise. More problematic is the film’s approach to the art it portrays. Unlike the makers of such stalwart works of artist-meltdown portraiture as 8½ (1963) and All That Jazz (1979), Iñárritu doesn’t suggest much deep knowledge or interest in the art form he’s portraying, and scarce interest in whether Riggan’s boondoggle project is worthwhile; reasonable questions about just how worthwhile this project is are subordinated to an imposed desire to see Riggan win through. The snatches we see and hear of Riggan’s adaptation may strike one as effectively stylised and lyrical or stilted and graven, and there are dancing reindeer in his dream sequences, which, in spite of what Laura says, isn’t a good idea.
In terms of artistic commentary and perspective, Birdman poses as specially relevant to the moment: it mentions superhero movies. But its cultural presumptions are actually passé. Iñárritu’s idea of cutting-edge satire of actor vanity is to show Riggan pulling off his wig. Appearing in superhero movies might have hurt the careers of some actors in the past, but the idea that it’s some sort of ticket to serious career oblivion is dated. Perhaps if Iñárritu had cast a more obviously limited actor than Keaton, some classically bland leading man crumpled by time and anxiety, his points might have landed with more urgency and specificity. When Tim Burton cast Keaton as Batman, he did so precisely to avoid cliché about square-jawed heroes, a subtlety that seems lost on Iñárritu, who plays up the presumed entrenched dichotomy between capital-A Art and lowbrow fantasy with thudding simplicity as food for the sorts of self-congratulatory pseuds Riggan’s supposed to be battling. Theatre critics line up to bathe in the aura of celebrity like everybody else these days, and Hollywood stars regularly use the Great White Way to give their careers a retooling.
Iñárritu does fruitfully use his dichotomy at one interval, when Riggan’s Birdman alter ego finally appears and unleashes a wave of blockbuster destruction, offering the balm of such regressive but buoyant destruction fantasy as a cure for the terror of “seriousness,” an eruption of Michael Bayisms that scarcely feel out of place in this work’s sturm und drang. Riggan responds with his own, stripped-back fantasy of flight, evoking Marcello Mastroianni’s escapades as a kite in 8½. Birdman needed to embrace its inner Robert Altman film more, given flesh to the potential in Riseborough and Watts’ characters, and kept the film a grand extravaganza of comic types crashing against one another. Because Birdman steadily loses steam in spite of its propulsive method, as the conflicts of ego and temperament that pop and fizz so well in the first half give way to more sustained contemplation of Riggan’s hapless state. This doesn’t work very well as Riggan isn’t that detailed or empathetic a protagonist: there’s no sense of who Riggan was before Birdman—did anyone ever take him seriously as an actor?—and his major failings, including infidelities and neglecting of Sam and his warily understanding ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), are all safely vague and past. Also bordering on inane is the subplot where one of Riggan’s antics makes him an online superstar, with Sam translating and exploiting for the social media sceptic the power he doesn’t yet understand. This element feels shoehorned in (again, Chef actually did this better), perhaps to make sure we know the film is set in the present rather than in 1965.
The constantly unstable sense of reality certainly invokes the Latin-American traditions of magic-realism, with which Iñárritu, a fan of Borges and Cortazar, is clearly conversant: most every moment tingles with the mysterious, transformative energy of the imagination, or maybe lunacy. Time folds in upon itself, reality bends to one’s will, invented personae torment their creators, and dream states infuse and upend all certainty. But Birdman may be viewed best as a screwball farce, as much a lampoon on the idea of artistic endeavour as anything else, sharing more in common with the Marx Brothers of A Night at the Opera (1935) and Room Service (1938), the early scenes of Some Like It Hot (1959), and Looney Tunes than Fellini or those old Broadway films. The script is littered with good lines, like Riggan’s furious self-description as Birdman prods him to return to the cape: “I look like a turkey with leukaemia!” Even if Iñárritu isn’t a comic filmmaker of great finesse or originality yet, he still manages to pay off with some sequences of slapstick zest as well done as anything I can think of recently, particularly when the infuriated Riggan drags the supposedly ascetic Mike out of his sunbed in a rage over the newspaper interview and starts a fight. Norton reveals surprising comic grace as Mike scrambles and flails like Jerry Lewis cast as hapless henchman. One sustained sequence varies a very old bit of comic business, as Riggan steps outside of the theatre’s rear entrance for a smoke during his break, only for the door to swing shut and catch his bathrobe: Riggan is stranded outside, and forced to dash in his underwear through Times Square and back in through the front entrance of the theatre, with enthused tourists and gabby New Yorkers taking photos of him all the way. Inside, he has to dodge Ralph and his lawyer who have come to try and squeeze money out of him, and once he gets back into the theatre, has to start acting a scene from the aisle, a disaster that becomes gold as the audience is wowed by the unique staging and Riggan’s seemingly raw and risky playing.
Fittingly, the film’s climax is based on another old showbiz joke, one memorably used by the Looney Tunes cartoon “Show Biz Bugs,” with its immortal punch line “I can only do it once!” as the artist self-conflagrates on stage, totally breaking down the barrier between act and deed. Frustratingly, though, Iñárritu can’t quite commit to the joke and its black comedy triumph and gives a coda that offers instead triumph through going above and beyond in a not-too-costly fashion. In a crowning visual joke, Riggan, masked by dressings that resemble his Birdman guise, has become the hero at last, but only in the most ironic and self-punishing of fashions. Although farce is the official frame here, on another level none of this is a joke, but rather an attempt to articulate flurrying artistic worry and ecstasy with deadly, transcendental seriousness. Riggan’s climactic gesture is offered as an ingenious as well as tragicomic solution to his quandary, an act of daring that can wow even the most jaded or hateful. Except that it would fairly be taken as a sign of deep mental illness in real life, and indeed Riggan may well be ill. Either way, Birdman‘s very end obfuscates too much. The film’s weak and shop-worn ideas can’t be entirely forgiven when it yearns so badly to say something of substance. Yet Birdman still counts as a major work of cinema purely because it loves cinema so much, and evokes that line of Orson Welles’ about a movie studio being the greatest toy train set a kid ever had.
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Director/Screenwriter: Mike Leigh
By Roderick Heath
Joseph Mallord William Turner’s place in the heart of his native folk has only become more secure as time has advanced. He’s seen as triumphantly, transcendentally English as Walt Whitman was American or Goethe was German and is more popular than either. His painting “The Fighting Temeraire” was recently voted the greatest British artwork of all time by newspaper readers, the perfect encapsulation of a national spirit always torn between bold forward lunges and a haunted sense of loss. Mike Leigh is, on the face of things, the last filmmaker one would correlate with Turner, save in their very specific sense of nationality. Leigh is a portraitist and Turner a landscape artist, but both have stretched far beyond those limits. Turner’s blazing vistas, his expressivity through elements that humble mere humanity but also subsume them into the primal dramas of existence, couldn’t be more different from Leigh’s meticulous realism in environment and slightly skewed character study that is the very core of his art, closer to Dickens and Hogarth. In short, Leigh is literal where Turner became increasingly ecstatic and allusive.
Mr. Turner, Leigh’s new biopic about the artist, has the quality of an old, bitterly humorous observation that the lovers of so many artists are eternally frustrated their mates are never as sensitive in their dealings with life as they are in their art. Leigh conceptualises Turner accordingly and seems to push it to an extreme, offering Turner as a man with the elephantine hide of a Londoner who’s survived everything life has thrown at him, swathed in a mound of flesh that deep, deep within, holds a man of exceptional, almost morbid sensitivity. The film’s Turner (Timothy Spall) is first glimpsed furiously executing a painting of a Dutch landscape, complete with two gabbling women walking by on their day’s business, as oblivious to Turner as he is to them. Leigh returns to this motif repeatedly, contemplating not just Turner as man of and in his time, but as only one functional element, meeting other savants of the era, joking and jesting and crossing swords with characters of all sorts, roaming through crowds, be they holidaymakers, passengers, or fellow artists—a viewpoint, but not an entirety.
There’s a constant sense of buffeting, a sense that slowly makes the almost implacable veneer Turner usually offers comprehensible, especially when one knows Leigh’s perspective. Leigh has generally been less didactic in the political and social perspectives of his works than fellow British realist, director Ken Loach, whilst still being obviously and unabashedly fervent. This sensibility, particularly in his earlier work, reflects in the figure of a tortured working-class male trying to make good on his talent but stymied in major and minor ways, faced, in Meantime (1983), Naked (1993), and Career Girls (1997). Leigh’s take on Turner essentially envisions the same figure having survived and gained prosperity against the odds, whilst also splitting this characterisation, and offering the eruptive ne’er-do-well Benjamin Robert Haydon (Martin Savage) as Turner’s professional malcontent twin, echoing Meantime’s Mark and Naked’s Johnny Porter. Leigh emphasises Turner as the barber’s son made good as artistic genius as a man who’s remained utterly of the earth, a portly mound of flesh, a man who can offer a range of responses from approval to contempt with variations on the same porcine grunt.
Leigh’s formally interesting decision to start with Turner at age 51 in the full stream of his success and tracing his final few years, invites inevitable personal reverberations: like Turner, Leigh is acclaimed but getting old, facing the shifting tides of taste and critical favour. The film’s narrative is both teeming and yet also exceptionally simple, portraying the last years of Turner’s relationship with his father William (Paul Jesson), with his housekeeper and concubine Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), and with another lover, Margate boarding-house keeper Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), in whose house and company he finally dies. The one person Turner trusts and loves implicitly is his father, who, as his assistant, is first seen seeking out the paints that his son turns into visions.
Like any Mario Puzo gangster, the Turners are bound together in their class-informed, clannish interdependency: everyone else really is just a stranger, and whatever happened to sunder Turner from his former lover Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen), he’s made the break completely, even denying the two daughters he’s had by her. The Turners pursue their venture as a trade, whatever its trappings: a wry scene early in the film depicts William’s showmanship, ushering buyers for their wares into a dark annex before opening doors into the gallery, the better to dazzle them with a sudden flood of colour and light. This is British art as cottage industry. Yet it drags Turner all around his world, hobnobbing with the gentry, arguing with fellow artists, conversing with boarding house owners.
A quietly bravura sequence early in the film sees the artist parading the halls of a colossal manor where a coterie of fellow artists are employed to offer décor for the cavernous house, chatting in a way with Lord Egremont (Patrick Godfrey) in a manner that reveals their shared traits of quick understanding and dour dislike of wasting time. Turner pauses to share a brief interlude of clumsy but intent bonding with a young woman (Karina Fernandez) practising Beethoven on the piano who indulges him by playing some Henry Purcell for him to sing raggedly along to. Turner is bitten for a loan by Haydon, who remarks with dry wonder at the turns of his life: only recently released from debtor’s prison, he’s now being entertained by a lord. After hectoring Turner, Haydon extracts the promise of £50 from him. During the evening soiree, a young soprano’s precious recitals give way to a bawdy song that delights the guests in a calculatedly cute assault on the rules.
Like most of the film, this sequence seems to be a mere quilt of vignettes, and yet the supple moves of Leigh’s camerawork and staging gives the film an oblique, but unified tenor that skirts the dancelike and the theatrical, as everyone’s free on their stage of life, eventually compositing into a tapestrylike vision of the age. Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope offer one marvellous shot as punchline: Turner watches Haydon stroll off into the garden whilst still framed by one of the manor’s huge doors. Three more painters lurch into the shot from the side, pausing to follow Turner’s gaze and cluck over their hapless, solitary fellow who’s nominated himself to play the role of unappreciated genius, and yet, with Turner’s attention and the frame itself suggesting the tension between the security of acceptance as an artist and the unfettered state of the man beyond. Neither the character of Turner nor Leigh as controlling voice have too much time for rebellious romanticism: Turner is powered by sublime vision, but releases it in a job of work. Leigh is evidently trying to deromanticise the past here: this Georgian London is a bristling, dirty, vigorous, aggravating, invigorating sprawl, still earthy in a manner alien to the oncoming Victorianism. John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire), intellectual definer of his era’s culture, is portrayed as a chirpily effete idealist who engages Turner amidst a salon session with other artists in a conversation that ranges from gooseberries to French artist Claude Lorrain. Turner has a professional’s reluctance to bad-mouth Claude, one of his influences, in the face of Ruskin’s breezy dismissal.
Painting is often portrayed as a dainty art, the cliché of the artist seated and dabbing away at a canvas, but anyone who’s spent any time actually engaging in the form or seen anyone tackle the form on a large scale know that it’s actually a virile, physical activity, messy and demanding. Leigh embraces this quality and pushes his notion of the artist as brute force, as Turner does everything from politely caress his paint to spit on the canvas to gain his physically involving effects. Spall’s Turner is a genius Caliban who can be showman, raconteur, even a seducer, and can offer the most surprisingly eloquent soliloquies on art or life, if often sputtered out between lips barely willing to move. Turner barely bothers to speak, and the sense emerges that verbal expression is not something he likes, particularly when called upon to release emotion. The film’s torturous scenes dwell on this incapacity—amusingly, when he tries to give a stilted speech on optics to the Royal Academy, and, more hurtfully, when he can’t cough up a cliché to conjure his feelings after one of his daughters dies. Not that he’s an insensate pillar of self-indulgence: Leigh constantly hints at secret sources of pain and also the very real incapacity in many creative types to offer the sorts of codes and semaphores used to mollify and normalise social situations.
Mr. Turner as a whole is both brilliant and problematic, a storm-swell of accomplished filmmaking where the exact object feels uncertain, like a great, necessary leap was left untaken. Yet the result is stirring and fascinating, a fresco of ingenious detail that communes between the mud of history and the ether of personality. The sustained depth and brilliance of Spall’s performance as the pivot of Mr. Turner is a career highlight for a hugely talented actor and is surrounded by such pitch-perfect turns. Leigh does not, as we expect from most biopics, transfer the passions of creative endeavour onto a romantic love for easy consumption; far from it. Turner copulates bullishly with Hannah and others when the need arises, but seems to feel them as no more than natural urges, like eating or defecating. Instead, he finds electric transcendence in art, clearest when he has a sailor strap him to the mast of a ship, Odysseuslike, to be swept up in a snowy squall at sea, both an act and observation which he alchemises into his mighty work “Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth.” Turner’s relationship with Danby is both excruciating and funny, and finally dusted with tragedy. Quite clearly Hannah enjoys Turner’s attentions, but nothing like a romance persists between them, with interludes of carnality suddenly rising and falling like winds and then returning to polite distance. Only right at the end when Hannah, essentially left alone to exist as a peeling, scabby wraith in Turner’s house, seeks out her missing master and finds him now ensconced with Booth, does the depth of Hannah’s bond emerge. The theme of the servant who takes both pleasure and refuge in being the pokerfaced crutch of the genius reminded me more than a little of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972).
By contrast, Turner’s relationship with Booth starts when he goes to paint in Margate, a picturesque and teeming seaside locale fit for his artistic obsessions. The town proves to have a personal meaning to him, as he was sent to school there, and survived where friends didn’t in the dank and appalling state of educational institutions of the age. Mrs Booth has a husband (Karl Johnson) who fascinates Turner with his grim and guilty recollections of days as a sailor on a slave ship, which Mrs Booth tries to awkwardly bypass with bromides. On a return trip, Turner learns that Mr. Booth has died. He takes the opportunity to praise the widow on her weathered beauty and seems to prize her company as a refuge from the world he strides through as colossus but can actually barely stand. As the two become a couple, Booth eventually sells her Margate house and buys another on the Thames as an easier-to-reach refuge for Turner. Again there’s a hint of investment for Leigh here: Bailey is his partner, and the scenes of Turner’s oddly earnest seduction of her have the immediacy and particularity of such a backdrop, the authentic human comedy of courtship in late middle age.
Compared with the increasingly formulaic and tepid state of the prestige biopic industry, which has served up turds in the past few years like The King’s Speech (2010) through to this year’s cartoonish Get On Up and empty The Theory of Everything, Mr. Turner seems like an alien artefact, overflowing with biographical detail, but much of it subordinated to a powerful but discursive intent to explore the world about its antihero as much as his impenetrable head rather than turn the stuff of life into dreary plot beats. Everything from serious artistic debate to glimpsed contretemps between lovers excites Leigh’s eye. Mr. Turner isn’t quite sui generis, as it particularly resembles Alexander Korda’s underrated Rembrandt (1936), which likewise considered the artist from mid-life onward and contemplated him from a similar perspective of interest as a man of real artistic ideals but hapless in the world. Echoes here, too, are to Ken Russell’s similarly holistic fascination for artists in the world. Russell’s lacks of measure and subtlety and Leigh’s lack of the penetrating force of metaphoric exploration that a less earthbound artist can wield, are revealed as complementary. What Mr. Turner ultimately lacks is a focal point. Whereas the sprawl of Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy (1999) was given centrifugal force by the project of creating and staging “The Mikado,” Mr. Turner, moving across time as it does, flails to find shape. Although the creation of “Snow Storm” is brilliantly exposited, other sequences affecting to portray moments of inspirations for great works like “Rain, Steam, and Speed” and “The Fighting Temeraire” are weak.
Leigh and regular cinematographer Dick Pope occasionally stoop to offering hints of Turner’s vision in their visual textures, most cleverly in one shot where the camera seems to be studying what could be fine details of blotchy paint on one of his canvases, only for this to prove to be a mountainside, creating a clear and explicable link between Turner’s subjects and his vision. Otherwise, Leigh circles his subject, studying Turner’s surface exactingly, expressing wonder and incisive fascination, but never gaining access to the mysterious mills of his creativity. In fact, Leigh doesn’t really even try, and it’s arguably a good idea that he doesn’t, refusing to tie the wonder of creativity or life in general up in the neat bows of pop psychology and false epiphany. But Leigh’s contemplation of Turner’s artistry too often threatens to become banal, as when he shows a friend his painting of Hannibal’s progress across the Alps and has her strain to pick out an elephant: Turner doesn’t paint the obvious! At one point Ruskin, studying Turner’s vision of drowning slaves thrown from a sinking ship, bypasses the hapless humanity to concentrate on suggestions of God’s presence in the glimmering light piercing the clouds above: the object which Turner contemplates is subsumed by the aesthetic perspective, something that the often peevishly literal Leigh can’t abide. Here Leigh shows his hand to a great degree, suggesting a cheeky likeness of critical masturbation, but he might just betray his own lack of real penetration into his subject, trying to cover it up with sneering that stumbles perilously close to boorishness. More interesting and telling is the later conversation Turner and Ruskin have about Claude: Turner quietly refuses to engage in Ruskin’s critical habit of creating hierarchies and dichotomies, maintaining professional respect and perspective for an artist responding to different stimuli. At his least, Leigh can lumber like a thoroughbred horse drunk on fermented apples, a mixture of precision and wayward intent.
Leigh’s method is far more at home depicting Turner attending an exhibition of his fellow artists, an electrifying sequence laced with wry and pointed observations as Turner shrugs off news that his work has been relegated to the dreaded antechamber along with Haydon’s, and instead struts through the scene like a king surrounded by fellow royalty, offering pleasantries and keen observations whether wanted or not. John Constable (James Fleet) labours on his mammoth painting of the opening of Waterloo Bridge, furiously adding flourishes; Turner, with impudent precision, strolls over to a naval painting and adds a red buoy to break up the visual texture and thus enrich it, making a theatrical act out of his very simple revision and grabbing attention from all, from the fascinated to the appalled. Haydon, on the other hand, explodes in anger and frustration when he’s grilled over the meaning of his painting of a donkey, which he claims is Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem, and almost comes to blows with his rivals.
Turner and Haydon’s acquaintance is faintly reminiscent of that between Lesley Manville’s frantic Mary with the centring couple in Another Year (2010), with a similarly empathetic yet unsparing wisdom about the types of personalities that weather storms and those that don’t, and how they tend to relate. There’s the suggestion Haydon, rather than being burdened by Turner’s loan, actually needs it to keep him connected, and Turner senses this when he abruptly absolves the debt and washes his hands of the wayward fellow artist. Manville appears in another of the film’s transfixing scenes, playing plucky Scots scientist Mary Somerville. Somerville demonstrates the peculiarities of magnetism to the interested artist, a swift understanding and amity developing between the Turners and Somerville fired by intuition and sharing a wry sense of their own individuality and hard-won space for expressing it.
That indeed is one of the major themes of Mr. Turner. One of Turner’s few outbursts of intemperate feeling comes after his father dies. He goes to a brothel, intending to sketch one of the young whores (Kate O’Flynn) in a pose of desolation, but when he learns she’s 13, suddenly taps his own grief and becomes a sobbing mess. Art here is most clearly a ritual Turner uses to sublimate his emotions, but fails in the face of such a well of grief—or, perhaps it succeeds in just this cause. Turner is left unmoored by his father’s death; where William took pride in turning his son’s showroom into a place of wonder, all Turner can do is poke the dead flies gathering in some meshing whilst showing some buyers his wares. Leigh works in a hint of satiric semblance as Turner evolves not just into a proto-modernist with spare, almost abstract visions that bemuse his public, including Queen Victoria (Sinead Matthews), but also becomes the first to receive the backlash of incomprehension. Turner is burned and humiliated when he’s satirised in a stage revue he attends, his art jeered as a confidence trick to suck in rich patrons, a routine gone through about once a week in British tabloids with artists like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin these days. By the end of the film Turner is turning his nose up at the rigorous craft and sentimentality of the pre-Raphaelites (Leigh turning his own nose up at the current film scene?), aware that his intransigent pantheism and Regency libertinism is on the way out. He’s also confronted with the new phenomenon of photography and is fascinated even in the face of his own potential obsolescence.
Turner later encounters Joseph Gillott (Peter Wight), who is also a working-class man made good, but in industry, which has made him fabulously wealthy. Gillott, bucking the turning tide of Turner’s popularity, offers to buy up all of Turner’s works. In spite of the similarities between the two men, Turner resists because he wants to donate his works to the British people. Although Leigh surely means this moment as an earnest apotheosis for the artist’s concept of his role in his society and denial of mere financial success, nonetheless, he has Spall play it less like triumph than as a bemused, half-willing gesture toward an ideal and a hope from a man who’s feeling bruised and confused by the twists of his fate. Leigh depicts Turner’s waning days as a brutal and unstoppable succumbing to the natural forces Turner himself worships. He hauls himself out of his bed to try to sketch the corpse of a woman found drowned in the Thames mud, again perhaps trying to conceptualise his own looming fate through his art. “The sun is God!” he declares on his deathbed, and then gives a dry little chuckle before expiring, as if his dying epiphany is a private joke between himself and the universe.
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Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In 2010, we had Eat Pray Love. In 2013, we had Tracks. Now, this year, it’s Wild. I haven’t seen so many people on walkabout since, well, Walkabout (1971), and they all happen to be women. What’s going on?
Unlike adventuring men in the movies, who conquer nations and open new frontiers both physical and intellectual, adventuring women escape their societies and take on physical challenges to heal and find some direction for their directionless lives. In the case of Wild, our heroine is quite literally tamed. That many women have found the memoir upon which Wild is based so inspirational leaves me feeling a little let down.
Wild tells the true story of writer Cheryl Strayed’s 1,100-mile trek on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 1995 at the age of 26 to recover from the loss of her beloved mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) and the breakdown of her first marriage. Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), who it appears took that last name in memory of her infidelity to Paul (Thomas Sadoski), takes on the PCT on impulse. She’s not like all the men on the trail, who hike regularly just for the pleasure and challenge of it. She’s never done a hike like this, has packed so much stuff that she spends several minutes just trying to stand up with the pack on her back, and reads instructions for her camp stove when she’s out on the trail, only to find out she’s got the wrong kind of fuel. In an obscure way, her voyage of self-discovery seems like a death wish, except that there are other people on the trail who keep up with her by the epigraphs she puts in the guest books that dot the trail, making her a minor celebrity; she gets care packages mailed to her at regular intervals by her friendly ex-husband; and she leaves the trail several times to eat, drink, and be merry. Tenzing Norgay she ain’t.
Despite an opening that would seem to predict otherwise, the actual trek is the least important part of Wild. We begin by seeing Strayed remove a boot and a bloody sock to reveal her big toenail hanging on by a thread of skin. She braces herself against her pack and tears the toenail off, only to go reeling in agony, bumping the loose boot down a cliffside. In fury, she removes the other shoe and flings it after the first one with a frustrated scream. But this is a mere set-up for the copious flashbacks that overwhelm the scenic beauty and demands of the trail to show all the bad breaks and bad choices that have brought Strayed to this point.
The film toggles between her progress on the trail and her past life. It is through these lengthy flashbacks that we learn Strayed’s story—her abusive father and impoverished life with a single, uneducated mother. Dern’s hippie-spirited Bobbi is a complete joy and a person who shows the beauty of the present moment that I wish more of the film had given us on the PCT. Seeing Bobbi attend the same high school as her daughter speaks volumes about her backstory—married too young, dropped out to raise her unplanned-for child—and her spirit. When we learn she is fatally ill with cancer at the tragic age of 45, the loss is ours as well as Strayed’s. The other significant people in Strayed’s life—her brother and ex-husband—are sketchy, though both Sadoski and Keith McRae make the very most of their supporting parts.
Indeed, the entire film is filled with perfect cameos of the people Strayed meets along the trail. The farther she goes, the more real those people become—a generous farmer (W. Earl Brown) and his wife (Ann Hoag) who invite her to have dinner and take a shower in their home, a friendly and helpful hiker (Will Cuddy), even a one-night stand when she goes into Portland to avoid a snowed-in part of the trail. Her memories become snippets of roughness—her father (Jason Newell) pushing a fist near her face, her boyfriend shooting heroin into a vein in her ankle, a forceful sexual encounter in a hotel room.
Of course, Wild is a showcase for Witherspoon, a controlled, conventional actor who is a good fit for this material. Strayed is too smart to be anything but honest—in fact, she’s a terrible liar in a scene in which she initially fears for her safety from the farmer—and not given to open displays of emotion. At the same time, Witherspoon can convey just enough vulnerability to put across Strayed’s love for her mother, sorrowful regret for her failures, and bald-faced terror when she encounters a real threat on the trail. She proved with Walk the Line (2005) that she is fully matured from the child actor she was. In Wild, she’s unafraid to show sexual desire, and her acting is largely unself-consciousness.
Writer Nick Hornby produced an understated script that could perhaps have used a bit more of his trademark humor. I found Strayed’s struggle with her backpack in a tacky motel room one of the most memorable parts of the film. That, unfortunately, is a problem. The film feels flat, with staged moments like Strayed’s encounter with a rattlesnake that seemed like a fugitive from a TV western. The cinematography should have been a slam-dunk, but the unimaginative set-ups and pedestrian lensing captured little of the trail’s beauty. Dropping a red fox in at certain moments as a spirit guide was hokey, but it was nice to see a wild animal that hadn’t been wrangled within an inch of its life in the movie.
Perhaps the hardest part of the film for me was how little I liked or cared about Strayed. The last letter she writes to Paul is a kiss-off, telling him that she’s gotten him out of her system and has no further use for continued communication. Nice way to use a guy you’ve abused to keep you alive in the wilderness and then kick him in the ass once more just for good measure. Strayed reaches the Bridge of the Gods between Oregon and Washington, and we learn, in her own words, that she’ll meet her current husband and have two kids. So finding herself with a mold-breaking trek meant learning from her journey and her self-destructive behavior how to be a good conformist. Ultimately, despite the many good things it has going for it, Wild left me sadly uninspired.
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Director/Screenwriter: Ruben Östlund
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It’s the holidays, and in this part of the world at least, audiences finally have the opportunity to see the feel-good Swedish movie we’ve all been waiting for.
. . . . feel-good Swedish movie?
Yeah, not exactly what I was expecting either—but then, I’d be lying if I said you’d really feel all that good at the end of Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure. In true Swedish style, this closely observed parable about social roles and the lies we tell ourselves and others mixes an ounce of bitters with its liberal doses of comedy and leaves behind a queasy-making aftertaste.
Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) arrive at a frightfully luxurious ski resort in the French Alps with their two children, Vera (Clara Wettergren) and Harry (Vincent Wettergren), for a rare five days of quality family time. As with many modern families, Ebba pries Tomas and the children away from their electronic masters for a beautiful day on the slopes. The family cuts a fetching figure of togetherness as they shuss on a pure pillow of snow, pose for photos, and nap together in almost identical blue underwear on the king-size bed in the master bedroom.
Trouble stirs when a controlled avalanche is triggered by the report of cannons rimming the resort for just this purpose. The Swedish family and others dining on the resort’s outdoor terrace start snapping photos and shooting videos with their smartphones until they realize that the advancing snow seems to be coming perilously close to the resort. In the panic that ensues, Tomas runs away, leaving Ebba and the children to fend for themselves. Although only harmless spray from the avalanche reaches the café and dissipates quickly, something just as dangerous has been loosened between Tomas and his family. The remainder of the film watches this family as they blunder through their disillusionment at discovering the head of the household has feet of clay.
In 2014, the idea of a male protector seems almost prehistoric, particularly in Sweden, the divorce capital of the world, and Tomas and Ebba’s marriage is something of an anachronism compared with the friends they meet at the resort. For example, Charlotte (Karin Myrenberg Faber) has an open marriage and picks up at least two different men during the trip, astonishing Ebba by saying that if her husband were enjoying himself with another woman, she’d be happy for him. To Ebba’s question about whether she is afraid of being left alone, Charlotte says she doesn’t like the idea, but that her life doesn’t revolve around her husband and children. Ebba, on the other hand, is especially vulnerable to her family’s opinion. Harry and Vera, free of the many social layers that burden adults, initially despise their parents and throw them out of the master bedroom with torrents of jeers, causing Ebba to try to accept Tomas’ version of events—that he didn’t run off—to win back their children’s trust. Tomas’ continuing and fervent denials only set off a series of increasingly hilarious—and harrowing—episodes, as the children worry about divorce, Ebba’s anger repeatedly bubbles and bursts like a thermal hot spring, and Tomas crumbles into a blubbering mess of self-pity.
Relationship troubles have been the stuff of high comedy for centuries, and Östlund knows how to draw the absurdity of the situation out of his actors. Kuhnke’s sad-sack look is so cluelessly nonchalant that I cracked up every time I saw him; his embarrassment at being caught out as the self-centered guy he is makes his intense self-loathing and over-the-top crying jag two-thirds of the way through the film ring like a cracked bell. He confesses to cheating at games with his kids and being unfaithful to his wife—it’s like watching Bill Clinton begging forgiveness from his wife and the nation through his voluptuous smirk and twinkling eyes. Östlund ups the ante by introducing Mats (Kristofer Hivju), a divorced friend of Tomas’ from their bachelor days, and his 20-year-old girlfriend Fanny (Fanni Metelius), and the pair very nearly walks off with the entire picture. After he and Fanny have been drafted by Ebba into a little game of “Courtroom” and watch in growing discomfort the event captured on Tomas’ smartphone, Mats stammers out an unconvincing defense of Tomas’ actions as the force majeure (irresistible compulsion) alluded to by the film’s title. Infected with outrage but well aware of the cliché she and Mats are, Fanny scolds him for running off with her and ignoring his own children, and the two have a hilarious bedroom argument that is both absurd and painfully real.
While Force Majeure focuses most of its attention on the failings of men, especially bourgeois men, it ranges over the whole of humanity, contrasting our social constructs with our primal instincts. Modern conveniences, including exquisitely appointed apartments for the well-heeled vacationer, insulate this family from the snowy, rocky environment they have chosen to visit. Yet they depend on funiculars, chair lifts, covered conveyor belts, and tow chains get them to and from the ski runs—the effect is similar to Charlie Chaplin threading helplessly through a series of giant gears in Modern Times (1936). Watching Tomas and Ebba argue in the hall amid massive wooden beams or in a funicular with a craggy mountainside passing behind the window only confirms the pettiness of these two mortals, so protected by their wealth and technology that Tomas’ failure to think of his family before himself is actually all but irrelevant. It’s telling that their solution to restoring family faith and harmony occurs on the mountain, the only place where this instinct really has any use at all, and even that solution must be faked—another stab at Tomas’ loss of animal prowess.
Force Majeure isn’t perfect. In Bergmanesque fashion, the semi-tragedy of this family’s illusory happiness is laid on thick, in both appropriate and unfortunate ways. One of Ebba’s reactions to her husband’s fecklessness is to go skiing by herself, a potent symbol for both her vulnerability at this moment and her potential strength. But then she sees Tomas and the kids skiing on the other side of a wood and breaks down sobbing in a somewhat heavy-handed symbol of her lost state of grace. Tomas’ breakdown goes on for too long, mainly to set up a joke group hug, a joke that fell flat for me. Another joke in which two young women come over to Mats and Tomas and say their friend thinks they’re cute, and then return to say that their friend wasn’t pointing at them after all, seems an unlikely and schematic way to showcase the men’s considerable egos. Better was a nighttime swarm of drunken men screaming and jumping like apes, Tomas unwittingly caught in their bacchanal of raw testosterone.
The film drags on too long and includes an unnecessary and improbable emergency that panics Ebba in a false equivalency with Tomas’ fear and shows Tomas to be a changed man, willing to own up to who he really is. That he tells the truth to Harry may be a small glimmer of hope that the next generation will be better than Tomas’, but frankly, I wouldn’t bet on it.
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Directors/Screenwriters: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
By Roderick Heath
The cinema of Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne has hardly lacked admiration since their breakthrough La Promesse in 1995. The duo all but defined a new style of European realist cinema, charting the evolving moral, economic, and social states of their native environment with keenly felt authenticity, but also quietly blending aspects of many forebears who covered the same terrain of utterly ground-level human experience. The brothers have stuck to a basic template that’s served them well, turning what at first glance would seem to be major impediments—the recessed, caught-between nature of Belgian identity, the lack of fame and import accorded to their native city of Seraing, an industrial and port city of staggering ordinariness—into perfect keynotes for their studies. The stark character drama of their first Palme d’Or winner, Rosetta (1999), portrayed the dogged and perhaps unwelcome persistence of common human feeling even when survival dictated determined self-interest in its hard-bitten young heroine. Two Days, One Night, their latest opus, deals with a spiritually similar drama, but inverts the focus. Like the brothers’ previous work, The Kid with a Bike (2011), Two Days, One Night tries to comprehend the forces both overt and subtle that create not just the context for individual failures and miseries, but also the forces that bind communities and that snap into action once they’re faced with intolerable situations.
Sandra (Marion Cotillard) is first glimpsed dozing on her bed, waiting for a tart she’s baking to finish, when she’s roused by a phone call. Sandra’s immobility proves to be portentous, as she’s recovering from a bout of intense depression. The phone call reflects this: Sandra, barely recovered and still emotionally fragile, is faced immediately with a crisis her condition has precipitated. She learns that at the solar panel factory where she works, the foreman, Jean-Marc (Olivier Gourmet), has essentially given her coworkers a choice to either keep Sandra on or receive their annual €1,000 bonuses, because the company can’t afford both. The call has come from Sandra’s friend and advocate Juliette (Catherine Salée), who believes that if they can confront the factory boss Dumont (Batiste Sornin) quickly enough, they might be able to call another vote on the Monday morning when she can be present and argue her case. Sandra’s husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), a chef in a local fast food restaurant, encourages Sandra to fight for her right to be heard, and when she and Juliette manage to catch Dumont just before he drives home from work, they gain his harried acquiescence to another vote. What becomes immediately clear to Sandra and Manu is that she can’t afford to wait until the Monday to plead her case with her fellow employees: she must lobby them individually with pleas not to agree to her sacking.
Sandra’s journeys to confront her coworkers are laced with more than a plea for her economic survival, as Sandra’s very sense of self and worth is at stake. At first, she can barely be stirred from her bed, her sense of uselessness and unworthiness now seemingly affirmed as she has been implicitly indicted by her coworkers as a being no longer worthy of their loyalty and affection. Only her husband and Juliette’s unswerving loyalty get her moving, though their loyalty feels almost cruel to a person who can barely face the mirror, never mind the outside world and the glares of people she has to beg for her job. To achieve her ends, Sandra quickly realises, she not only has to confront people who have effectively declared her a nonperson, but has to do so in their own little worlds, their own lives, some of which prove to be as straitened as her own and all of which involve a certain rupture of comfortable privacy and precious leisure time, or, indeed, the lack of either. Some are busy with second jobs or coaching children’s sports teams, or looking after babies or trying to kick back.
Most of us have been in a predicament like Sandra’s at some point in our lives, and the Dardennes are brilliantly attuned to the states of mind and little epiphanies that move with quicksilver intensity during such times. The shifts of Sandra’s headspace are casually but acutely noted, as she murmurs in a momentary wish as she and her husband sit eating ice cream in the park, “I wish that was me…that bird singing.” It becomes clear through such touches that the Dardennes are actually telling two closely related, but slightly asymmetrical stories: the tale of Sandra’s recovery, as well as the crisis that both threatens it and confirms it. Fighting for her job and sense of self causes Sandra many anguished moments of doubt and self-disgust, particularly after a violent incident she believes she’s precipitated. But Sandra’s journey is, of course, only intersecting with others, and indeed becomes a study in the uncertainty principle, as her knock on the door both encounters individual quandaries and collides with and catalyses them. This proves particularly crucial when she visits the home of Anne (Christelle Cornil), who explains that she can’t want to give up her bonus because she and her husband are renovating their house, but promises to talk it over with her husband and asks for Sandra to return. Sandra comes back to find the couple quarrelling violently, and soon after, Sandra and Manu find themselves taking Anne in after she leaves her husband.
The tight and remorseless structure bears out some of the Dardennes’ influences. The film’s plot is driven by cause and effect of almost Sophoclean concision, up to and including the limited timespan, the traditional 24 hours of Greek tragedy expanded to about 60. Echoes, too, of French realism like that of Emila Zola can be found, and those particularly Spanish genres, the picaresque and tremendista stories of wanderers and of slices of lives afflicted by sudden calamity. Cinematically, the Dardennes have always seemed close to the unvarnished, resolutely proletarian work of early Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, but they’re better character students than Loach and far less untidy than Leigh. Their films often feel closer to the rigorous, unblinking portraiture of Robert Bresson and Neo-Realist studies in compressed desperation and blue-collar straits, including Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves (1948), except, of course, the world has changed so much since those works were made, and today’s economic turmoil is more elusive and insidious. As some have noted, Two Days, One Night is something like a thriller as we cheer on our heroine through mounting tension and twists of fate, with Jean-Marc, unseen until the “climax,” cast as the antagonist who’s carefully laid the carrot and stick on the employees. There’s even a strong echo of High Noon (1953), stripped of its gunfighter bravado, and reduced instead to a round of pleas for conscience versus self-interest; that film’s roots in the milieu of the blacklist is crucially similar to the forces the Dardennes are exploring. The film also bears the imprint of Flemish art traditions, the internationally renowned product of the Dardennes’ corner of the world: Holbein’s “Hunters Home from the Hunt;” Rubens, in the glimpse of Hicham’s wife as Madonna with child; and Hicham himself hefting about farm produce in echoes of a once-popular subgenre of Flemish painting. Nor are these mere aesthetic echoes, but they also are reminders of art fundamentally based in things people actually do, and a belief that in such things lie deep truths.
The Dardennes often evoke religious images and ideas in their work, not with the sense that they’re quietly proselytising, but rather to invoke the most common roots of communal ethical understanding, the vivid and collective intensity of parable. The ethical drama is as important as the surface fate of the characters, whilst Sandra, our everywoman hero, moves through a range of possible likenesses: Jesus sacrificed for our sins, Don Quixote tilting at windmills, Pamina called back from the dead, Diogenes searching the marketplace for honest men. Whilst Sandra and Manu are working to keep their toehold in the middle class, the question as to what sort of person Sandra is and can be becomes a vital issue, and indeed, seems the question that plagues the woman herself most powerfully. Seeing the melancholic self-contempt etched into her face, we can only immediately assume empathy for her, for she’s such a hapless and assailed creature, and yet a dissonance is carefully built, as Sandra’s rounds uncover the degree to which people remain mysteries to each other even when in close contact. Her workplace is filled with such vile characters and subtle iniquity that it seems reasonable to assume working there might have precipitated her depression. The question looms by the end: does Sandra have the kind of mettle she looks for in her fellows?
The Dardennes’ characters are so often in desperate search of something, usually a definite goal, a job, a loved one, but with a hint of existential anguish lurking just behind that official end, because they’re lost in the world. The very elusive issue in Sandra’s life is also the crucial question of the film: where’s our solidarity? The political dimensions of the film are immediate and powerful, of course. This is a portrait of working-class people and the kinds of problems that afflict them. The boss Dumont is portrayed believably as a man with his own reasonable motives and worries, a person of responsibility and judgement who tries his hand at Solmonlike wisdom and repeatedly fails, and thus becomes party to barbed and cruel choices that make one of his employees a scapegoat, transmitting downward the pressures of the market to the level of the individual employee, the canaries in the coal mine of capitalism, the one who has no room to move and can’t shift the effects any further. The choice to situate this drama in a struggling solar panel factory nicely complicates the situation insofar as it’s not some long-caricatured bastion of capitalism. Interestingly, implicit but not actually spoken aloud in Two Days, One Night is the prejudice against Sandra’s psychological malady as unreal compared to a physical injury that would mark her as a nobly injured worker.
The film correlates this invisible state of crippling with the equally hard-to-discern nature of financial distress in a modern Western state, where the accoutrements of suburban life give an illusion of stability that can become a perpetual goad to anxiety. This belief in Sandra’s status as a glorified malingerer is plain in what proves eventually to be the conspiracy against her whipped up by Jean-Marc, who has characterised her as a useless drag, a feeling some of the workers clearly share. The Dardennes are keenest in studying the links of individual psychology to larger subjects. They trace unfailingly the stew of fear, annoyance, frustration, anxiety, outright transference, and prejudice that conspire against Sandra, as well as the empathy, common feeling, and scruples that aid her and gain her unexpected fellowship. The worst reactions Sandra encounters, from Anne’s puerile inability to face her at all to Jerome’s (Yohan Zimmer) assault, suggest intense displacement, and even Jean-Marc’s conniving is rooted only in his function as the man who turns top-down whim into achieved fact. Sandra is introduced to gradations of personal necessity, as what might seem as a luxury to one of her coworkers is for another an overriding and desperate need. Sandra also stumbles into the subtle distinctions of class between the nominally equivalent workers: Alphonse (Serge Koto) is one of the factory’s contract workers whose job security is much less assured than the other workers, and he informs Sandra that he’s afraid to vote for her in case it pisses off his bosses.
The film’s moment of biggest dramatic potential becomes instead an almost comic diminuendo. With echoes of Chantal Akerman’s stringent portraits of hapless domestic women, Sandra, after a particularly hard rebuff from one of her coworkers, goes home, does the housework, fixes her kids lunch, and then goes into the bathroom and takes a fistful of antidepressants to kill herself. Juliette comes by to break news of a fresh chance, whereupon Sandra admits to her and Manu what she’s just done, with a blankly sheepish look. The Dardennes cut straight to Sandra in a hospital bed, fresh from her stomach pumping and already clearly itching to get moving again, suicide already no solution for a woman who’s starting to relearn the joy as well as the pain of fighting for herself. The Dardennes build the film around two interludes of listening to music in the car as Sandra and Manu drive about on their torturous route: the first time Sandra irritably stops her husband turning down Petula Clark’s French-language version of “Needles and Pins,” “La nuit n’en finit plus,” whilst the second sees the pair joined by Anne, singing raggedly along to Them’s “Gloria.” Such a scene suggests the influence of another classic feel-good movie moment where characters sing along to a pop hit, but without the feeling of vulgar manipulation; instead they rather capture the vitality of the place pop music has in many people’s lives that no other art form can touch, and its power to bond them.
Cotillard’s French-language work has seen her moving from strength to strength lately, and Sandra complements her turn in Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone (2013), a role that offered and demanded more acting pyrotechnics, but was similarly about a woman learning to repair herself and operate in a harsh world, eventually turning her weak points into points of armoured strength. The Dardennes only recently broke with their general preference for nonprofessional actors in lead roles: the rest of the cast mixes in several actors, including Rongione, who have become regulars. Cotillard, whose signature smoky eyes deliver registers of sensation like a seismograph, both blends in with the scenery seamlessly and lends the proceedings the finite intelligence and charisma a good actor can offer, defining her character’s states of mind and mood with pointillist precision. The outcome of the meeting on the Monday morning that will decide Sandra’s immediate fate is in doubt until almost the very end, but by the time Two Days, One Night reaches the destination it’s been heading to with inevitability for every little swerve in fortune, it is clear that Sandra has all the tools she needs to continue and formed a small fellowship who affirm both her and their own rights to exist. When Sandra is given a Faustian offer that could swerve off the worst, however, we realise that the entire movie has been leading to this point, as it presents Sandra with the same dilemma she’s presented everyone else with, only intensified in its you-or-them meaning. Sandra’s eventual choice is bound thus to entail defeat either way, fiscally or morally. Which choice you prefer may say too much about yourself and the world you live in.
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