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Director: Laura Poitras
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Every weekday, I hop on a Chicago Transit Authority train for my hour-long commute to and from work. My fellow commuters pass the time in a variety of ways—sleeping, staring out the window, reading a book or newspaper, talking to a fellow passenger. However, the majority of them use their commute to text, check email, play games, browse the Internet, listen to music, and do the myriad other things smart phones have made possible in this miraculous age of technology. They also do one thing they may not realize they are doing—provide the U.S. government with abundant information not only about themselves, but also about the people and places they know and frequent.
We know this is happening and how because in 2013, a 29-year-old contractor for the National Security Administration (NSA) named Edward Snowden provided Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, then both reporters for the British newspaper The Guardian, with thousands of documents that offered ironclad evidence of the widespread, highly invasive government surveillance program being conducted by the NSA on American citizens and foreign nationals—including heads of state—around the world. How we came to know what the government never meant for us to know is the shocking, compelling, and utterly engrossing story of Citizenfour, easily the best and most important American documentary since Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976), though I expect a timid AMPAS will find some less-explosive documentary to honor with an Oscar, one whose director can safely accept it in person. Director Laura Poitras now lives in Berlin, having moved there several years ago after suffering repeated government harassment dating back to 2006, when she started producing films dealing with life in the United States following the 9/11 attacks. Poitras was essentially drafted to make this documentary because “citizenfour,” the alias Snowden used when he first contacted Poitras, says she self-selected as the recipient of his information based on the films she’s made.
Citizenfour presents an almost perfect balance of the disclosures that tore the veil surrounding the massive surveillance programs of the NSA and its even more effective cousin in the U.K., the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), and the human drama of the whistleblowing experience for both Snowden and the journalists who made his disclosures public. The intriguing cloak-and-dagger beginning—white-lettered email messages typed on a black background and masses of code scrolling their way up the screen—pulls one into the story. Poitras’ voiceover recitation of these and other messages are as far as she intrudes into the narrative, though her participation is absolutely pivotal to the end result.
After following instructions on how to secure her communications, Poitras receives a series of encrypted emails that outline the scope of the information Snowden plans to share with her; each allegation is appended with the assurance, “I can prove this.” She is encouraged to bring Greenwald into her work. Snowden contacted Greenwald first, but refused to proceed when they were unable to communicate securely. Eventually, Poitras, Greenwald, and MacAskill travel to Hong Kong to meet Snowden and discuss the way they intend to share the information with the public. Her camera focuses on Greenwald as he sets up for the first filmed interview with Snowden in his suite in the Mira Hotel—it’s thrilling to get to know this maverick at the same moment in film time as Poitras and Greenwald do.
Snowden is younger than the reporters expected. He’s good-looking in a geeky kind of way, intelligent, and articulate. He’s realistically paranoid, unplugging his hotel room’s phone because, he reveals, modern phones have a chip that acts as a room bug whether you’re on the phone or not. Most important, he’s principled. He was welcomed into the halls of power with the highest security clearances available in the NSA, and he was horrified by what he saw. He observed the massively invasive nature of programs like PRISM and Tempora that were collecting data from everyone, not just suspected terrorists and, crucially, being run entirely in secret. Remembering the early days of the Internet when young students and university professors from all over the world could freely converse with one another, he is appalled by what this democratic tool has become. He displays a surprising degree of humility, deferring with a touching amount of trust to Greenwald, MacAskill, and Poitras in all things journalistic. He says he wants to reveal his identity early to prevent our personality-driven media from focusing on a manhunt rather than the information he’s disclosing. He knows he will have to give up his home and family, maybe forever, and has done what he can to protect those he loves, though he is distraught about the effect his disappearance will have, especially on his long-time girlfriend. His hope is that his actions will inspire others to come forward.
Poitras puts the story in a brief, but effective context. She takes viewers from the 9/11 attacks through early hearings about NSA abuses, showing archival footage of former NSA intelligence official William Binney revealing in the early 2000s that the organization, through its Stellar Wind program, was spying on American citizens illegally. Importantly, Binney, a double-amputee, remembers FBI agents storming into his home with guns drawn: “I don’t know why.” Then Snowden explains the spying capabilities of the NSA and GCHQ programs in a fairly easy-to-follow way. These explanations may no longer be necessary for most viewers of crime TV dramas, as CCTV is ubiquitous in British programs and real-time video capture from cellphones was part of a storyline in the Nov. 9, 2014, episode of CSI; nonetheless, it’s helpful to know that the metadata that we are always assured protects our identities has been jettisoned in favor of personally identifiable data collected on a routine, daily basis.
Snowden’s caution—he admonishes Greenwald for having too short a password for his computer and Poitras for leaving an SD card in her computer drive for several days—doesn’t seem far-fetched in this context and once his revelations become public in The Guardian and are picked up by media around the world. As Snowden watches Greenwald being interviewed on CNN, his concern for his own safety and the sheer magnitude of what he’s done reflect on his pensive, worried face. Poitras is followed in Hong Kong, causing her to cancel plans to do additional filming and return to Berlin, and Snowden is whisked from his warren at the hotel to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Hong Kong, then to a safe house, and finally to Russia with the help of WikiLeaks.
Following this rapid-fire series of events, the authorities start to get their wits about them. Greenwald testifies in his adopted country of Brazil about U.S. spying in that country; Greenwald’s partner is detained for nine harrowing hours at Heathrow Airport. Snowden is charged in the United States with “willful communication of classified intelligence with an unauthorized person” under the Espionage Act of 1917; President Obama says Snowden should return to the United States where he will be treated with all the rights and privileges to which he’s entitled in the U.S. justice system. We are then treated to a meeting of ACLU lawyers and others looking into Snowden’s legal defense who say that choosing to charge Snowden under this 100-year-old law enacted during time of war allows the government so much discretion that they would not be able to mount an effective defense.
The film’s cumulative effect is deeply discouraging. High-level government officials, including then NSA Director Keith Alexander, are shown apparently lying to Congress. Big-name electronic communications companies like Google, Yahoo, and Verizon are revealed to have provided, either voluntarily or through some form of coercion, whatever the NSA has asked for. The sheer numbers are almost too large to comprehend: 1.2 million Americans on a security watch list, 200 million text messages captured per day, thousands of terabytes of data captured and available for mining now or in the future.
Nonetheless, Poitras is a true believer who knows how to encourage audiences that even this seemingly insatiable machine of high-level control can be fought. A nighttime shot of Snowden in his new home in Russia reveals that the girlfriend he clearly loves very much has joined him in exile. Further, Snowden learns from Greenwald that someone else has taken the big risk to come forward. Together in another hotel room, the two talk and write down messages. Poitras tantalizingly films brief glimpses of the sheets of paper. Nothing is explicit except a diagram that shows boxes and arrows that point to a final box around the acronym “POTUS.” Both Greenwald and Snowden smile—courage inspired, mission accomplished.
Trailer for Citizenfour on TrailerAddict
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Brian De Palma
By Roderick Heath
Crime d’Amour (2010), starring Ludivine Sagnier and Kristin Scott-Thomas, was the last film of reputable French director Alain Corneau. Corneau, who had a penchant for studying master-pupil rivalries and characters under extreme duress, combined his interests in his swan song for an amusingly ruthless, well-told, if essentially lightweight spin on a specific brand of crime drama. That brand is often mistaken for Hitchcockian, but actually has distinctly native roots, as displayed in fare like Jean Renoir’s La Chienne (1931) or Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (1943), and continuing through to many a recent French film like Denis Dercourt’s The Page Turner (2006). This darkly comic Gallic style often reveals a wry and probing sense of what constitutes justice in the context of a corrupting and oblivious society in which human relations are reduced to intimate games of power and humiliation. La Chienne was famously remade in Hollywood as Scarlet Street (1945), a noirish look at an antihero’s self-destruction. Corneau’s final work, which he cowrote with Natalie Carter, has now also been remade in English as a French-Belgian-German coproduction by Brian De Palma six years after his involuntary leave of absence following his messy, furious Iraq War drama Redacted (2006).
De Palma is returning from one of his periodic fiscal and/or critical disgraces, which only seem to have become more frequent as the homogenisation of modern film product is completed. One would forgive him if he played his comeback straight—after all, he’s getting to the age now where he doesn’t have too many more comebacks left in him. But no director in mainstream film has embraced the musical idea of each film they make being a variation on a theme, or an opus in a linked cycle, quite as fulsomely as De Palma. Sometimes, whole films in his oeuvre seem to have been made to critique or develop an idea in a previous entry, and this tendency contributes both to the fun in contemplating his work as a whole while making their qualities as individual dramas highly variable. Thus, critiquing a new De Palma film is a fraught task: one desires, nay, demands a great new work from the quiescent but still-major auteur, but De Palma might deliver the cinematic equivalent of one of those Picasso doodles on a restaurant napkin. The appeal of the material in Passion to De Palma is obvious— a barbed study of the nexus of sex and power in the world of big business from a refreshing female perspective, building to a definitely nonmetaphoric act of corporate throat-cutting.
De Palma starts out by mimicking the cool, stand-offish style of Corneau, who drank in the modernist chill of chicly minimalist interior décor, as fitting surroundings for people whose behaviour remains primal, but whose practice of sadism has moved with the times. Like Crime d’Amour, Passion pits a young rising corporate whiz, Isabelle James (Noomi Rapace), against her immediate superior, Christine (Rachel McAdams), in a battle of sex, will, and finally, lethal intrigue. Isabelle works as a mid-level concept monger at the Berlin office of a marketing firm, Koch Image International: although a relatively new hire at the company, Isabelle has become Christine’s right-hand woman. The duo, contemplating how to improve a clichéd marketing campaign the company has commissioned to advertise a new smartphone, are introduced happily getting tipsy in Christine’s apartment. When Christine’s lover Dirk (Paul Anderson) arrives, Isabelle absents herself, but awakens in the middle of the night with a terrific idea for an ad. She quickly calls in her assistant Dani (Karoline Herfurth), and shoots a rough version of her idea, which she then presents to Christine: declaring her trust in Isabelle, Christine sends her in her stead to a meeting in London, accompanied by Dirk, where her ad seems to be a smashing success. Christine sinuously takes credit for the idea in hopes of landing a job at the company’s New York office, whilst assuring Isabelle there’s enough glory to go around.
De Palma’s major tweaks to the film’s first half, which otherwise follows the patterns of Crime d’Amour’s plotline closely, are to build his narrative around the furtive power of images to expose and indulge sexual obsession. Isabelle’s gimmick for her ad is double-edged: Isabelle plays a young lesbian delighting in showing off her girlfriend’s behind in a pair of tight jeans, with Dani filling the denim out. With the Koch smartphone stuck in the back pocket, providing “ass-cam” as she walks down the street, Dani attracts the delighted and appraising eyes of men and women. This touch introduces one of De Palma’s signature motifs from as far back as his first theatrical release, Greetings (1968): voyeuristic desire mediated through media imaging, the doubled experience of observing and being observed, narcissism and exhibitionism engaged in a dance. The edge of lipstick-lesbian chic touted playfully in the ad has echoes of Isabelle and Christine’s slightly charged friendship, as well as Dani’s simmering desire for her boss. Dani herself has undergone a sex-change from Corneau’s film, where Isabelle’s assistant was a devoted, dronelike male, an apt joke in the battle of the neomatriarchy, with the more traditionally predatory male, Dirk, reduced to an increasingly pathetic patsy. Dirk and Isabelle commence an affair while in London, a development Christine seems to expect and one that gives her an excuse to start pulling the wings off her collection of butterflies. Having covered up Dirk’s embezzling from the company, she now manoeuvres to ensure his disgrace and arrest. Once Isabelle gets sneaky revenge by posting her raw original ad on YouTube, garnering the company a smash hit that suddenly makes Isabelle rather than Christine the new favourite for promotion, Christine begins a programme of intimate humiliation.
De Palma’s fascination for the erotic element of cinema has always worked hand in hand with his explorations of human cruelty and perfidy, counterpointed with the search for safe harbour and human connection. Corneau and Carter reduced sex to a kind of side function of gamesmanship, an indulgence of basic physical need that, like other such needs, is mere addendum to the real business of profit and loss. For De Palma, it is the whole show, the drive underneath the other drives, but fatefully entangled with them. His casting shifts the grounding of the material considerably: Scott-Thomas, with her classy bone structure and capacity to radiate haughty disdain for lesser mortals, is somewhat older than Sagnier, with her Christine pitched somewhere between ruthless, destructive ice queen and aging wizard who’s exiled herself into a realm of isolating success, not yet paying the price as her physique holds up but sensing the bill’s in the post; the rivalry of the two women is therefore based as much in biological angst, the fear of the supplanting of the older by the younger, as it is in corporate ambition. Sagnier, who’s always looked younger than her years, was a more vulnerable-seeming Isabelle, whereas Rapace, most famous of course for playing the petite Valkyrie Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films, stands toe to toe with McAdams, who first found fame playing a similar bitch-queen role in Mean Girls (2004): her Isabelle stands on a fine edge between neurotic self-destruction and pansexual übermensch. McAdams’ Christine is rather a smiling assassin, bordering on sickly-sweet in her charm and seductive approach, the spark of bi-fi magnetism between Christine and Isabelle becoming a hot flame, albeit one that is subordinated to Christine’s need to control or annihilate. She spins dramatic bullshit about her childhood that makes Isabelle partly forgive her until warned by Dirk about her propensity for saying and doing anything that will weaken her opponents.
The closer ages of Rapace and McAdams also help enforce De Palma’s investigation of similarity edging constantly into doppelganger territory, another of the director’s favourite motifs, as characters can alternate identities and dramatic functions, like Nancy Allen’s hooker waking up from dreams of homicide in the bed of a murdered woman in the climax of Dressed to Kill (1980). Isabelle is fascinated and titillated to learn Christine’s peccadilloes through Dirk, opening a drawer to find her array of sex toys, including a fanciful Venetian mask based on Christine’s own face she occasionally has Dirk wear, a fetishistic totem of refined beauty that begins an inevitable journey to the point at which Isabelle will don the mask and annihilate her anima. The great ideal of physical love in human understanding is supposed to be the unity of two people in a transcendent moment, but De Palma has always suggested the logical end point of modern sexuality, with its layers of concept constructed by the act of looking, is a polarised schism of godlike voyeurism and perfect narcissism. Isabelle’s ad taunts as well as exploits, playing a lesbian enjoying showing off her girlfriend’s wondrous rump, sexually attracting whilst remaining off-limits to the gazing male.
One quality of De Palma’s career that remains unique is that in spite of his advancing age, his thematic interests only seem to have become more relevant, to the point where it feels like he’s one of the very few filmmakers actually wrestling with one of the great aspects of the modern world: its saturation by media that can potentially turn every experience into an observed one, a perpetual loop of present-tense that is also past-tense, moment and document. Redacted dealt with his interest in the changes the digital age were wreaking in the bluntest of fashions, presenting the age of the War on Terror as a matrix of images, acts, and reactions. Passion does the same more obliquely, but as completely: no private or public act, Passion suggests, is now free of the lingering anxiety of being filmed and becoming a weapon to be turned against you.
Both Christine and Isabelle reproduce this game in offering themselves as objects of worship and lust to get what they want, as Christine tries to seduce Isabelle as a replacement for Dirk as well as useful hireling, and Isabelle, in turn, plays on Dani’s very real crush on her to make Dani her accomplice. Meanwhile, Christine is in her garters and bodice, strutting around her apartment getting sloshed trying desperately to dig up someone to answer her booty call now that Dirk’s out and Isabelle’s unresponsive. In a pointed gesture, Isabelle, having switched from victim to impending avenger, suddenly calls the bluff on Christine’s constant blend of bullying and flirtation by kissing her with aggression, an act of seeming passion that is also very clearly a fuck-you. Christine instantly repurposes it to her own ends, however: aware that Dani has walked in, she then makes a show of kissing Isabelle more passionately. The film’s funniest self-commentary comes when Isabelle and Christine, still nominally pals, go to a fashion show at which one model falls flat on her face, her attempts to play the glamazon conqueror suddenly brought down with her lost composure and the upskirt shot. This moment proves to be the basic joke of the whole film, a concept of lacquered haute couture perfection that crumbles to reveal the human clumsiness and carnality within: the colossal, tottering heels the woman gawk at become symbols, literal big shoes they all have a stab at filling. Christine attempts to deliver a death blow to Isabelle’s self-esteem first by squeezing Dirk to produce a sex tape he made of himself and Isabelle in bed, and then broadcasting it over the net to Isabelle’s utter mortification. She then exhibits footage of Isabelle’s distraught response, crashing her car in the office block car park, captured on CCTV, as part of a supposedly humorous video played at a company party. Isabelle responds with a strange and lunatic laugh, and immediately seems to spiral into drug-dependent depression. Anyone used to De Palma’s visual style and grammar will spot the shift here with some amusement, as he veers away from reproducing Corneau’s stand-offish approach and goes to town in displays of purified De Palma.
Isabelle and Christine’s master-pupil, Faustian rivalry easily evokes Swan and Winslow’s in Phantom of the Paradise (1974), exacerbated as Isabelle hovers outside Christine’s house, looking to penetrate it and gain revenge, whilst she herself is unwittingly captured by video, watcher becoming watched, lover/victim/killer seeking to assert power but becoming victim of another possessive force. Christine’s actual killing sees De Palma shifting into one of his most distinctive and striking conceits, presenting the unfolding action at Christine’s house in a split-screen effect alongside a performance of a ballet to Debussy’s Prelude a l’Apres-Midi d’un Faun, a gorgeously sensual dance in which the female dancer keeps her gaze locked much of the time on the audience/camera in a manner both intimate and challenging, a call to passion eternally out of reach for the voyeur. There’s a narrative purpose to this: Isabelle is supposed to be attending this performance when, in fact, she’s preparing to kill Christine. Its real purpose, however, is as another of De Palma’ patented, operatic, self-reflexive set-pieces, invoking, like the great opening of Femme Fatale (2001), a deeply aestheticized entwining of crime and art, false surfaces and genuine hurt arriving in turn. The dancer holds the eye of the audience/camera, inverting the idea in Isabelle’s ad, turning what’s surreptitious and leering into challenge and mirror. As Christine showers and prepares for what she thinks will be an erotic encounter, the dancers caress and sway, whilst Isabelle’s eyes peer out with lethal voyeuristic intent. An exquisitely art-directed act of butchery finally occurs, as Isabelle, wearing Christine’s mask, assails her, black giallo gloves gliding over her form, and Christine strips off her lace eye-veil, part of her kink, revelation and realisation that segues into murder.
The main problems of Passion stem from its translation of Corneau’s film and De Palma’s half-hearted annexation of its actual storyline. Whereas the original offered a certain sly, dark humour and obliquely considered consequence in its resolution, De Palma deconstructs everything to the point where suspense and empathy are essentially rendered unimportant: Christine, Isabelle, Dirk, and Dani are all pretty loathsome, whilst the representatives of the law, a bullying prosecutor (Benjamin Sadler) and stern cop (Rainer Bock) who becomes smitten with Isabelle, are, ironically, increasingly castrated. Rapace feels faintly miscast as a victimised fawn with a neurotic psycho under the surface, though that might be a result of associating her too much with her canonical role. McAdams, on the other hand, seems best in key with the film’s sly-malicious tune, particularly when Christine tries to bully Dani by setting her up on a sexual assault charge, an apex of campy humour. De Palma loves reiterating that his characters and their plights are all inventions, variations on themes that can be suddenly turned in upon themselves, revised, sent into rewind, or erased altogether, usually with some moment of choice from which guilt or complicity, a nexus of consequence both for good and evil, is identified.
De Palma’s films always teem with meta-narrative devices and implications, but just about the only occasion on which De Palma ever became overtly extra-narrative in his employment of this was in Body Double (1984), where an actor’s demand for a retake coincides with his resurgence from defeat by the villain. That film was also essentially a comedy, which Passion is, too, but a far more restrained and sour type. De Palma usually prefers to pass off his cinematic structural conceits as internal phenomena: dream sequences or chains of imagined consequence in the protagonist’s mind, which can then be safely revealed as bogus or tricks of perception so his films can retain their functionality as commercial cinema.
But that’s the beauty and welcomeness of a new De Palma film that sees him returning to the overtly fetishistic, deeply stylised manner of his best work. In spite of the film’s weaknesses, Passion still offers the pleasure of a cinematic imagination based unashamedly in visual beauty and expressive technique, increasingly rare in modern film: the sensuous zooms that punctuate scenes like Dani spying on Dirk and Isabelle, the zeroing in of the frame capturing fulminating jealousy planted like a seed, and overhead shots that coolly turn humans into furnishings or chess pieces in analytical notation of strategy and intent. The tilted camera and onerous shadows that suddenly infuse the squeaky clean offices of Koch as Isabelle’s murder plot gathers pace, and workplace bitchery becomes mounting psychodrama. The spiral staircase of Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1926) and De Palma’s own precursors like Dressed to Kill recur as the stairwell in Isabelle’s apartment building transformed into an abstract pit of Hades, with a bouquet of blood-red roses hovering above nothingness. Colour design as lushly camp and exactingly psychologised as Douglas Sirk’s recurs throughout: indeed De Palma highlights the links of his film to a near-vanished class of melodrama based in such über-femme battles royale, a genre of which De Palma has often seemed to circle the edges. Dani, no longer a drone but encouraged to follow in Isabelle’s footsteps as a wily creature of predatory economics and sex, blackmails Isabelle into becoming her lover by revealing the evidence she has proving that Isabelle is the murderer, with footage of Isabelle setting up and committing the crime all captured on the very smartphone the two of them collaborated on to advertise.
So Dani becomes the latest to exemplify De Palma’s general, well-established fascination for the theme of individuals who, for whatever reason, are obsessed with another and wish to assert control over, first established by William Finley’s fruitcake psychiatrist in Sisters (1973), and then in many variations since: whether for sex, love, politics, power, De Palma delights and detests this vaguely osmotic process apparent in human desire and will. De Palma has also often refused to spare certain character types usually left untouched in the morality-play tradition underlying a lot of western drama. Isabelle becomes Christine; Dani becomes Isabelle, and the dance begins again, except that Isabelle’s fragmenting psyche proves a joker in the deck. The film’s last act is a series of absurd, dreamy sleights of hand that sees De Palma at last return to the kind of high-style expressionism that punctuates his career, as in the finale of Dressed to Kill and the infinitely rebootable realities of Raising Cain (1992), entering a loopy multiplication of doppelgangers, repeating events, and murder: Isabelle is shocked to see Christine at her own funeral, but this is instead Christine’s twin sister, an image of chic mystery, who stalks her way toward a reckoning with Isabelle, whilst Isabelle and Dani are locked in a death struggle over the smartphone where one click is literally all that’s necessary to destroy her, a perpetual sword of Damocles that finally drives Isabelle mad. De Palma fans will spot the last-act fake-out a mile off, as dream enfolds reality and imagined retribution shades into actual brutality: the sleeper awakens, the dream ends, but the body lying on the bedroom floor is very real.
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Director: Péter Bergendy
2012 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Do the words “homeland security” make you feel protected? Do they make your skin crawl? Do you look around you in a bustling airport for unattended packages, or are you most interested in finding the food court? We may still say “It’s a free country,” but what citizens of the United States, and other countries as well, are more or less resigned to is the “new normal” of walking around in their stockinged feet as their shoes are x-rayed and their bags are randomly searched at the airport, going to museums that require they pass through metal detectors, or looking idly at Google Earth to see what their homes look like through the surveillance satellites and cameras that never sleep. We are all suspects now in an international game of terrorism, something the characters of Hungarian director Péter Bergendy’s second feature film must understand or face the consequences.
Hungarian screenwriting phenom Norbert Köbli has written a crackling thriller in which the main character is suspicion. Channeling the murderous paranoia of Stalinist rule in the year after the failed 1956 Hungarian counterrevolution, The Exam shows how oppressive regimes tend to eat their own tails by focusing on loyalty tests that were mandated for even the most zealously pro-Communist operatives in government.
The subject who is being tested on Christmas Eve—importantly, without his knowledge—is András Jung (Zsolt Nagy), a handsome young handler for the secret police. The opening credits cleverly show the double life Jung leads, toggling between close-ups of homey Christmas items like tree ornaments and candles and such tools of the spy trade as headphones and a gun being laid out for use. Jung poses as a German instructor who gives private lessons at an apartment maintained by the government as a less conspicuous way for Jung to contact his informants. We see him arrive home and carefully remove a matchstick he placed between the doors to inform him whether someone entered the apartment in his absence. He prepares to receive some of the informants he has been running by getting his hidden tape recorder and microphone set up and checking his list of agents. Before anyone arrives, his mentor Pál Márko (János Kulka) pays him a visit, inviting him for dinner and giving Jung a gift from his wife Janka (Mária Varga)—a ceramic angel to hang on his Christmas tree.
Thus begins Jung’s test. Márko goes across the street to an apartment where a surveillance team is set up to watch Jung, record his phone conversations from the tap placed in his telephone handset, and listen to his conversations with the informants he receives through the microphone hidden in the ceramic angel. The test proceeds uneventfully, and Márko is ready to call an end to it. The official test-runner, Emil Kulcsár (Péter Scherer), a nerdy, by-the-book member of the team who seems to idolize Márko, argues that they are required to watch the subject for 12 consecutive hours. Márko is dismissive of Kulcsár, consistently failing to remember his name, and wants to flaunt regulations so that he can get on with having a nice Christmas at home. That delightful possibility is definitively quashed when an unknown woman (Gabriella Hámori) arrives at Jung’s home and makes passionate love with him as the microphones and embarrassed spies catch every sigh.
Brutal and action-oriented, as befits his status as a war hero and early Soviet supporter, Márko follows up every lead, identifying the woman as Éva Gát, a music student with a questionable past whom Jung met at a concert. He becomes convinced that Jung is in love with her, and wonders how he can warn his surrogate son about the danger she poses to Jung’s position with the secret police. However, Jung is not the only agent in trouble; every main character, including the hapless Emil, has a personal, emotional tie that could jeopardize their position. Like many other films, books, and other works of art that deal with state oppression (e.g., Nineteen Eighty-Four), The Exam posits the personal and individual as major threats to the ruling order. As Jung tells a priest he has recruited to spy on another priest, guns are not the only weapons that can be used against the state.
In addition to the period detail, what I enjoyed so much about this exciting, cat-and-mouse film is that it was hard to decide who was the cat and who were the mice. In fact, from the landladies and enforcers who follow the orders of Márko and Emil to the humorless, intimidating Jung, we are never really sure whom to trust, what anyone is feeling, and what actions are real or staged. The actors play more than one role within their basic character, aware of living their cover stories, how they must behave to accord with the rules of the test, and holding their personal identities like precious water in a leaky bucket. Nagy particularly impresses as a cold operative with an equally passionate flipside and the capacity for sudden violence when his survival is threatened.
Like Jung, we, too, are being tested, asked to examine our loyalties by which character we identify with and root for. In the final scene, Márko and his wife finally sit down to Christmas dinner. The place setting for Jung remains empty until Janka at last removes it. The state has swallowed the personal, and we are left to consider the true cost of the “new normal” to our own lives.
The Exam won the Gold Hugo in the 2012 CIFF New Directors Competition.
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Director: Michael Haneke
By Roderick Heath
When The London Times newspaper named Michael Haneke’s Hidden the greatest film of the decade, I knew I’d have to finally watch it, but also doubted I’d agree with the assessment. Haneke’s undoubtedly a talented filmmaker, and I admired his taciturn adaptation of Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher (2001) very much. Yet his original work tends to attract a kind of cognoscenti consensus about which I can’t help but be cynical. Modern European art cinema prides itself on maintaining certain distinctions from Hollywood and genre film, and Haneke himself helped define that distance with his Brechtian, yet somehow wrongheaded satire on slasher films, Funny Games (1997). Still, Haneke has developed a consistent nerve for dissecting the psyche of the Western Europe’s educated, middle-class-and-above populace, and subjecting them to random tortures to test their mettle, looking for perverse sexuality behind the chic façade of classical musicians or subjecting the bourgeoisie to post-apocalyptic wastelands and home-invading psychokillers who know the plot already.
Hidden, for its part, resembles a more metaphorical, pseudo-politicised edition of Oldboy. Successful television book show host Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil) and his publisher wife Anne (Juliette Binoche) begin to receive mysterious videotapes that at first, merely show their own house and then drop hints to follow a certain route to a mysterious doorway. The pictures that come with the tapes, childish scrawls of a boy with a bloodied mouth, evoke a memory for Georges that needles him. His family, which owned a large estate, had once nearly adopted Majid, the son of their Algerian caretakers who had been killed in the infamous October 17, 1961 police riot against protestors of the Algerian War. The six-year-old Georges conspired against Majid, tricking him into killing a chicken to prove his violent nature and eventually seeing him hauled away to an orphanage. Following the clues in the videotapes, Georges finds himself in Majid’s apartment, where the latter man appears to be a frayed, poor, wash-up. Georges automatically assumes he’s responsible for making and sending the tapes, and threatens him; later a new tape turns up showing this argument in Majid’s apartment.
When Georges and Anne’s 13-year-old son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky) doesn’t come home one night, they assume he’s been kidnapped by their ambiguous persecutors, and have the police round up Majid and his grown son (Walid Afkir). But it soon proves that Pierrot was merely hanging out with a friend, and the hysterical act of rounding up Majid and his son proves to be the last straw: Majid next invites Georges around to witness the spectacle of Majid cutting his own throat. His son confronts Georges the next day. Georges refuses any complicity in Majid’s life and death and accuses the younger man of being the cameraman, while Majid’s son prods Georges for expressions of guilt whilst denying being the clandestine pest. In a cryptic final scene, Pierrot chats with Majid’s son outside his school, with Haneke relying on the audience to imagine a motivation and possible outcome of the encounter.
Hidden tiptoes with mischievous purpose, leaving everything upended in its wake, exposing the bullshit behind the lives of the superficially successful Laurents, with their dishonest exchanges, possible affairs, and finally confirmed moral cowardice. Communication is a major fixation of the film: the videotapes and drawings speak in the most undeclared, evocative terms to Georges, who responds with hyped-up refusals to engage or delve deeper than his own assumptions. The Laurents’ townhouse, with grilled gate and barred windows, is a modern urban fortress, displaying the ingrained paranoia and elegantly rationalised determination to keep the unpleasant aspects of the world out. Georges’ show is the ultimate cake-and-eat-too gig for the contemporary pseudo-intellectual, and the film merely records the distance between his fancy address and life of interviewing high-flying novelists and and Majid’s low-rent flat, concisely recording determinist observations about the nature of class and race.
The essential pitch isn’t a terribly great distance away from Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (1943), which likewise skewered bourgeois smugness and prodded the conscience of the complacent modern human with shadowy socio-political overtones through an anonymous campaign threatening to expose secreted skeletons. Where Clouzot’s film described an author of poison pen letters who actively sought to accuse and mixed truth and lies to upset the landscape, the implications of the videotapes and the drawings are quite different. The devices in Hidden imply unacknowledged wrongs and evoke long-ago violence, essentially operating more as a mix of detective story and laboratory maze for the mouse that is Georges, testing his psychological reflexes and leading him to a certain conclusion all logic dictates he cannot avoid. Early in the film, at a dinner party the Laurents give for some friends, one of them tells an eerie story that ends in a joke that reveals how easy it is to construct a mood of nervous credulity; likewise, a momentary discrepancy in the usual run of Georges and Anne’s lives and Georges’ assumption of persecution sees him write himself a script for a paranoid thriller.
The basics of Clouzot’s template, indeed, have become endemic in contemporary French cinema, which is full of spoilt bourgeoisie getting it in the neck from some direction. A major problem of Hidden is that it relentlessly interrogates some already well-interrogated truths: the moral smugness and hermetic outlook of its chattering classes is a popular target. What is interesting and original about Haneke’s take is the way it describes the unconscious processes of marginalisation that corrode the middle-class hegemony’s attempts to be fair in describing its fear of losing its stability. Haneke carefully removes all elements of actual danger from the experiences the Laurents are subjected to, only the mysterious illustrations even hinting at some kind of violence, yet inviting interpretation according to half-realised anxieties and prejudices. Even the final shot plays a delicate game with the audience’s psyche, asking both those who perceive hope in it if they’re naïve, and those who see waiting danger if they’re not, deep down, still afraid the young brown man will inevitably bring danger rather than understanding to the young white man. It’s also amusing that the key plot element—the videotaping—inverts the nature of contemporary surveillance culture, which is defined by keeping an eye on the rough elements out there on the streets, by instead observing the bourgeois home. This inversion suggests its part in the construction of social divides and firm rest upon exploitation of other people.
Haneke’s penchant for playing with generic elements and conventions to explore problems of cognisance and conscience makes him seem like the Teutonic offspring of Hitchcock and Antonioni, and if nothing else, he’s a master of slow-burn pay-offs. Majid’s suicide, executed in one dramatic slash of his throat with a razor before Georges’ amazed, distraught, utterly edified gaze, is a supreme example of his keen sense of how to shoot eruptions of horror for maximum effect. And yet it has curiously little impact in real dramatic terms, because Haneke defines Majid so distantly that his tale is hard to perceive; Majid never entirely ceases to be a mere prop designed to set Georges’ world in turmoil. Hidden is executed with piss-elegant directorial poise, perhaps too piss-elegant, compared to, say, Claire Denis’ intimate portrait of immigrant lives in 35 Shots of Rum (2009), which raises a troubling suggestion that perhaps Haneke’s take is as short-sighted and spuriously analytical as the sensibility he’s putting down. There’s a contrived ambience to scenes like that in which Georges has an angry exchange with a black cyclist to encapsulate the racial themes lurking within the film’s deadpan, depopulated intent, and some fuzzy hints of parable between one case of lingering ghosts of colonial misadventure and more contemporary editions, by making sure we glimpse scenes of conflict in Israel and Iraq on the Laurents’ television.
Hidden is, then, a double-edged experience. It’s both an absorbing and compellingly articulated movie, supremely well-acted, especially by Auteuil, who, let’s face it, could give a great performance six feet underwater with a pillowcase over his head. Haneke is, finally, no poet of cinema or of people, but a filmmaker and thinker of clockwork sensibilities. Hitchcock could have conjured such a narrative with a depth of emotion far beyond Haneke’s capacity, and there’s a human drama screaming to escape from Hidden’s passive-aggression chic that Haneke suggests only in a late scene—a flashback to Georges’ country home when Majid was unwillingly dragged away by anonymous officials. In such moments, Hidden suggests a tragedy that remains stillborn—which is not to say that it’s bad or anything close to it. But it does manage to both dissemble and be didactic all at once, and that’s why for me, Hidden falls many rungs short of greatness. But Haneke does conjure a lingering sense of unease much like that which dogs Georges right until his final laying down to sleep, assailed by nightmares of a lingering threat emerging from a scarce-remembered past. l
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Director: Åke Sandgren
2007 European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
My Larsen (Trine Dyrholm) is a fictional documentary filmmaker who joins another fictional amateur filmmaker, Arne Thorsen (Kurt Ravn), and director Åke Sandgren in shooting what we identify as Flies on the Wall. The concept of films within a film and the plural title are the conceits around which Sandgren builds a tale of political intrigue in which, by definition, things are not what they seem.
The film starts in a police station in which the shadowy figure of a woman is standing with her back to us in an interview room. A detective comes into the main squad room and says that she won’t talk until they view a CD he has in his hand. He and two of his colleagues gather around a computer. He loads the CD, and they begin to watch a film that is a personal diary My has begun to discover her own truth. She has interviewed friends and ex-lovers, always with her camera running, about herself. We learn that My is a taker who keeps emotional engagement at a distance.
Into this personal meditation comes Peter (Henrik Prip), a former boyfriend who is a PR executive for Denmark’s Liberal Party. He asks her to profile a Liberal district, warning her that the mayor, Svend Balder (Lars Brygmann), will assume that the film is about him and try to control her actions. My does not hold with the Liberal agenda, but she is persuaded because Peter promises her total autonomy, a chance to expose the Liberals if that is what she wishes.
At first, My is treated with efficient deference by Balder’s staff, but the mayor dodges her attempts to speak with him. She finally catches up with him and three of his aides and follows them into a men’s locker room. They are preparing to take a dry sauna and jokingly suggest that if she wants to film them, she’ll have to join them. She strips and follows them into the sauna; only Balder stays in the sauna with her. He finally agrees to be completely accessible to her.
My, of course, does not expect him to be as transparent as he claims he will be. She plants cameras and microphones in his office and slowly unravels a secret. Balder and Arne, who has lost his personal life during his long service to Balder, have taken money promised for a beachfront development to benefit the city and used it to speculate in Asian investments. Their investments have been profitable, and proceeds were plowed back into the town’s schools, but not the beachfront project.
Arne invites My to his home. He used to fish and hunt with bow and arrow, but now concentrates on making film. He rigs a small camera on his chest so he can have his hands free to do other things. He shows her one of the fishing trips he filmed. He’s patient. That’s obvious. He has given up everything to rise with Balder. He suspects My may foul Balder’s future. Balder, however, feels Arne is a bigger risk, and fires him, promising to rehabilitate his career after a suitable amount of time has passed.
In fact, My begins an affair with the married mayor. What started as a cynical attempt to gain his confidence becomes a true love affair. When she is given documents that would incriminate him in the funds scandal, she holds onto them. Balder, out of love for My, decides to come clean about everything. This is certainly not something we expect from crooked politicians. Could love really be so powerful? Will we have a happy ending?
The answers to these questions hinge to some extent on what Balder tells My after one of their intimate meetings. He says honesty and truth are not necessarily the same. This we know instinctively to be true because we don’t all have access to the same information. The various points of view Sandgren sets up in this film—My’s, Arne’s, and his own—show clearly how people can be dupes while thinking they are deeply in the know. The modern world is one of artifice and shallow digging, well represented by My’s character. Once she becomes emotionally involved in her life, she truly sees how much she has missed, not only in terms of personal fulfillment, but also in how she interprets the world around her.
The film builds into an exciting thriller reminiscent of Silkwood. I had a little trouble with the bouncy handheld camera work, but overall, Sandgren uses the different looks of all the cameras he employs in telling this tale to great effect—not giving us easy information by clearly identifying whose version of the truth we are seeing. If this calculated confusion frustrates one at first, sticking with it reaps great rewards.
We live in time when surveillance and information are everywhere. As human beings, however, we’ve become less sophisticated about processing it. Just spend some time on a discussion board or in a chat room and find out how much we miss by not seeing the people with whom we are speaking. Flies on the Wall illuminates the confusion of our three-card monty world of enormous cynicism and even greater naivete. l