Thirtyframesasecond

February 27, 2009

Where is the Friend’s Home (1987)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 7:22 pm
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Iran

Director: Abbas Kiarostami

83 min

Synopsis

Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

Koker, Northern Iran, the present day. A classroom in a rural school. Mohammed has not done his homework in his notebook, which incurs the wrath of his teacher, leaving the boy in tears. He thinks he has left it at his cousins and is threatened with expulsion if he does not have the notebook the next day. Upon doing his homework, Ahmed, his classmate discovers that he picked up Mohammed’s notebook as well as his own. Ahmed tells his mother he needs to return the notebook but his mother thinks it is just a trick to avoid doing homework but she has no sympathy for Mohammed anyway and tells Ahmed to return the book the next day.

Ahmed travels to Poshteh to find Mohammed. A classmate only knows the approximate area Mohammed lives in. He finds Mohammed’s cousin, who provides only basic details. Arriving in the Khanevar district, no-one knows where Mohammed’s house is. Learning that Mohammed and his father have traveled to Koker, he follows but discovers it’s a different Mohammed altogether. Aided by a slow, old man, Ahmed finally returns home after dark, upset. At school the next day, Mohammed expects to be expelled but as the teacher begins to mark his pupils’ work, Ahmed arrives in time with Mohammed’s notebook, in which Ahmed has done his homework for him. Mohammed finally wins the teacher’s approval.

Review

‘Where is the Friend’s Home’ was the first Kiarostami film to attract the attention of Western critics and was the first of several masterpieces he directed over the next two decades. Unlike most directors of his generation, Kiarostami’s career began during the reign of the Shah. His early films were produced by the Institute of the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, a body that he helped established, which were responsible for education films for children. Shortly after, Kiarostami moved onto directing films about more serious issues within Iranian society, but ‘Where is the Friend’s House’ remains not only one of this director’s most affecting films but one of the most sympathetic films I’ve ever seen about childhood.

Kiarostami uses this template to make numerous observations about contemporary Iran, a country that underwent regime change just years before and was still in the middle of a bloody conflict with its neighbour Iraq. Purely on an educational level, we see the purposes of the teaching of young children – to create discipline, achieved through repetitive tasks (discipline is a recurring theme – a discussion between Ahmed’s grandfather and a fellow elderly gentleman recalls their own childhood, where discipline was imposed by a regular beating). Just notice how Mohammed’s teacher reinforces the point several times asking why he hadn’t brought his notebook and what the potential consequences would be. When Ahmed returns home from school and decides to seek Mohammed, Kiarostami shows us the family unit in full; a busy mother whom Ahmed helps with chores, but curiously, no father. There are also a set of grandparents who are increasingly less reliable (the grandmother shows signs of senility). Kiarostami has always showed the pressures upon Iranian women in his films with great subtlety, and here he demonstrates the domestic burden in full. Kiarostami uses his camera imaginatively in the detail of depicting Ahmed’s family life in full. First he starts with a series of close up shots of the lower floor of the house. The camera roams, following Ahmed or his mother going about their business. Then Kiarostami begins to pull his camera back to reveal both floors of the house to show the entire workings of this family unit. This is a snapshot of rural life, steeped in tradition.

Most viewers will note the friendship between Ahmed and Mohammed, and the sacrifices and effort made by Ahmed to protect his friend. It’s an incredibly natural and remarkable relationship the two boys show, first seen to devastating effect when Mohammed weeps when the potential consequences of losing his notebook are made apparent. Kiarostami constantly cuts between Mohammed and Ahmed, looking on with great empathy. Babek Ahmed Poor (who only seemed to appear again in film as himself in ‘Through the Olive Trees’), a non-professional, conjures up a stunning performance, but this is the boy at his most affecting. Even before he discovers the notebook, Ahmed is shown tending to his friend when he injures himself in the playground, cleaning his bleeding knee. At the moment when Ahmed discovers the notebook, the look on his face reveals the entire story. There’s no need for words. It’s a scene set solely in silence.

Ahmed defies a series of adults who wittingly and unwittingly attempt to prevent his journey; first his mother who suggests he forgets the entire plan and those who accidentally misdirect or misinform him. Ahmed’s mind is purely logical. He has to return the notebook. A boy this young doesn’t comprehend the potential issues; of not knowing where Mohammed lives or how long it will take. His stubbornness is his virtue. Of sole importance is the debt he owes his friend for getting him into trouble. The long shots of Ahmed making his journey between villages, scaling a zig-zag path represent its nature – difficult to navigate, not straight-forward, but ultimately a journey that must be made.

‘Where is the Friend’s House’ is an early indication of Kiarostami’s talents, which would be confirmed by the likes of ‘Close Up’ (1990) and the Palme D’Or winning ‘A Taste of Cherry’ (1997). A deceptively simple tale of friendship, the film functions on many more levels than this, demonstrating the everyday life of rural Iran, a world that certainly not many in the West will have seen. Showing the influence of the Italian neo-realists, it would go on an influence numerous Iranian film makers, many of whom would be under the patronage of Kiarostami himself.

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February 25, 2009

The Young Victoria (2009)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 12:25 am
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UK/USA

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée

100 min

Synopsis

Our synopses reveal the plot in full, including surprise twists

Great Britain, 1837. King William IV sits on the throne but his niece Princess Victoria of Kent is the sole heir. An overprotected young woman, she lives with her mother, the Duchess of Kent and her advisor, Sir John Conroy. Both conspire to force Victoria to sign a regency order so that they may rule entire she is of legal age should the King die before then. Conroy and her mother keep Victoria away from the King’s court, apparently for her own protection. Leopold, the King of the Belgians, wants to engineer a marriage between his nephew, Albert and Victoria (who is Albert’s cousin) in order to protect his throne. He sends Albert to Great Britain to woo Victoria. They bond over their mutual loneliness and manipulation by others.

Victoria finds an ally in the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. King William IV publicly denounces the Duchess for keeping Victoria from court. The King dies shortly after and Victoria succeeds to the throne. Lord Melbourne arranges Victoria’s staff, which causes concern in Parliament. When Lord Melbourne loses the general election, Victoria refuses to accept Robert Peel’s request to make her court less partisan, which triggers a constitutional crisis. Victoria overcomes her self-doubt, criticising Lord Melbourne for his manipulating her to further his own agenda. Albert returns and proposes marriage, which Victoria accepts. Victoria soon becomes pregnant. Albert asserts his authority at court by putting Lord Melbourne in his place and he then prevents an assassination attempt against Victoria.

Review

From producers Martin Scorsese and Graham King, screenwriter Julian Fellowes (‘Gosford Park’) and director Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y.) comes an Anglo-American production of one of the most glorious ages in the history of the British monarchy. This is no history lesson though. Of course it examines the political and constitutional issues that surrounded the coronation of the young Queen Victoria, but this takes second billing to the courtship between Victoria and her cousin, Albert. What we have is therefore a tale of star-crossed lovers, initially forced together for political expediency, but who created a loving and romantic marriage. Whether this film has one eye on the growing female demographic and the success of romantic drama films rather than history buffs with an interest in the subject is up for question, but certainly the emphasis of the narrative gives this impression.

The film fills in the blanks both in the opening and closing titles for those not familiar with the history of the time. Victoria is the sole heir to the throne, with King William IV not expected to live much longer, though there’s conveniently no mention of his ten illegitimate children, though of course they weren’t eligible to take the throne. To be fair, the film makers tackle the problems of Victoria’s youth, knowing that only she can keep the monarchy intact in its present form; her life is suffocating, watched at all times, personally escorted up/down stairs in case of an accident. Given the circumstances, there were inevitable political machinations, though the film suggests there’s no-one more dangerous to Victoria’s personal welfare than her mother, the Duchess of Kent, and her adviser (and presumably lover), the pantomime villain of the film, Sir John Conroy, who intimidates and strikes fear into the heart of Victoria to force her to sign the Regency Act. Of course Victoria eventually plucks up the courage to reject his demands. It’s simple characterisation of course, with no attempts to create any depth, but I suppose that’s what works best for the film.

The intrigues that brought Victoria and Albert together are depicted; both are pawns in the political games of their families (both the Duchess/Conroy and Leopold, Albert’s uncle encouraged the courtship), a metaphor which is explained with zero subtlety during a chess game between the couple, as Victoria asks whether Albert feels like a piece in a chess game played against his will? Albert’s witty response is to learn how to play the game better than they can. Both of course develop a tentative courtship although they effectively betray the wishes of their respective families – Albert is expected to spy on his future wife and return juicy information about politics, which he refuses to. Whilst politics and circumstances keeps them apart, what I assume to be a pretty fictional set of correspondence between the two develops, and to maintain tension there’s the relationship Victoria shares with the liberal Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. Melbourne was some forty years older, but played by the dashing Paul Bettany, he’s shown almost to be a romantic rival to Albert, with numerous references to his reputation as a seducer. Melbourne has his own agenda, manipulating and flattering Victoria just as much as those he warns her against. An example; Melbourne tells Victoria how courageous and wonderful a man her father (whom she never knew) was, then Vallée cuts to Peel, Melbourne’s political rival describing her father as a brute to a political colleague. This plot development is rather easily resolved though, with Melbourne’s true colours being revealed and his pomposity and arrogance deflated by a socially progressive Victoria and Albert, and Melbourne of course takes this with typically good grace.

‘The Young Victoria’ is an incredibly tasteful film. Everything about it looks sumptuous and obviously great care has been taken to reflect the period detail. However as a drama, I’m not sure it overly convinces. Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend make an attractive but ultimately tepid couple, making it difficult for you to care whether they ultimately pair up or not. Jim Broadbent makes an ebullient King William IV whilst Mark Strong makes a good fist of his role as the villain of the piece. This is almost completely conventional film-making with not a risk in sight. Vallée’s previous feature ‘C.R.A.Z.Y.’ has a reputation as a complex family drama, so it’s a shame that here, no doubt at the behest of his producers, that he plays it so safe, as if the film’s been developed according to a precise formula. There’s one impressively shot moment when Victoria sees Albert again after a long period away, and she appears to float across, reflecting her perspective rather than her actual movements. That’s as far as Vallée goes with adding some visual trickery to what is otherwise a pretty inert drama, that will inevitably find an audience but never feels anything better than prospective middlebrow Oscar-bait.

February 22, 2009

La Cérémonie (1995)

France/Germany

Director: Claude Chabrol

112 min

Synopsis

Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

Brittany, France, the present day. Catherine, a middle aged, middle class art gallery manager meets Sophie, a young woman at a cafe – Sophie is applying for the position of housekeeper. Catherine collects Sophie from the rail station a few days later to start work, where Jeanne, the post office clerk cadges a lift. Catherine’s stepdaughter Melinda considers their treatment of Sophie degrading. Sophie avoids using the dishwasher, refuses to take driving lessons, buys glasses with weak lenses and has trouble giving a shopkeeper the correct change for shopping – all hint at the secret of her illiteracy that she has kept hidden from everyone.

When the family are on holiday, Sophie befriends Jeanne who seems to have her own agenda towards the family. Jeanne helps her order the shopping when Catherine leaves a list she can’t read. Jeanne has secretly been reading Georges’ (Catherine’s husband) mail. Georges who suspects this tells Catherine that Jeanne murdered her child many years ago. Sophie sneaks out of Melinda’s birthday party to meet Jeanne. Jeanne has discovered that Sophie’s father died in an arson attack that Sophie was suspected of, whilst Sophie reveals she knows Jeanne’s past. Sophie overhears Melinda telling her boyfriend she is pregnant and Melinda discovers Sophie’s illiteracy. Sophie blackmails her into keeping quiet. Georges fires Sophie when Melinda tells of her blackmail attempts. The family watch Don Giovanni on TV at home one night. Sophie and Jeanne return and kill the entire family. Jeanne dies in a car accident leaving the scene.

Review

Chabrol is considered one of the more mainstream of the Nouvelle Vague film makers; not strictly mentioned in the same revered tones as Godard, Truffaut or Resnais, but he also proved to be the director from this era with the greatest longevity, still making a film a year into his seventies. Considered perhaps the finest of his 1990s cycle and nominated for several Cesars (winning only for Isabelle Huppert’s performance), ‘La Cérémonie’ is based on a 1960s Ruth Rendell mystery, “Judgement in Stone” and has been relocated to 1990s Northwestern France but otherwise remains faithful to the original source.

Referred to by the director in jest as “the last Marxist film”, ‘La Cérémonie’ is a typically caustic exploration of the French middle class, which had been familiar ground for Chabrol for many years (including his best regarded cycle of films from the late 1960s; ‘La Femme Infidele, Le Boucher etc). He presents us with a typical middle class family; Georges a businessman, Catherine an art gallery manager, and Melinda and Gilles, their student children. However the superficial perfection of this family is undermined by an accusation by Jeanne that Georges’ first wife committed suicide, presumably because of the implied infidelity between Georges and Catherine. Like their working class “inferiors”, Jeanne and Sophie, this family also has its secrets that it wishes to hide. Their behaviour towards Sophie is described as patronising by Melinda, who thinks the term “maid” is more degrading than “housekeeper” or “domestic” for instance, and that they treat her like a slave, not talking to her and using television to pacify her. Although their interaction with Sophie is impersonal and a little cold, Chabrol doesn’t strictly demonise his bourgeois characters with as much venom as he had done in previous films. This makes the final act of violence all the more frightening and inexplicable.

The issue of Sophie’s illiteracy is interesting because Chabrol reveals it after leaving several clues; asking Catherine what day it is, her inability to count correct change and so on. It’s only when Catherine asks Sophie to call the grocers for a shopping delivery that her secret is revealed to us. There’s a painful scene when Sophie uses a manual designed for those with illiteracy to make sense of words. Upon learning this secret, it makes such sense to us having seen Sophie refuse seemingly innocuous requests. However although Sophie’s illiteracy is known to us, it’s kept a secret from the family for far longer and is in fact only known when Melinda randomly puts on Sophie’s glasses and realises the lenses are weak. The patronising reaction of Melinda and later her family might reveal why Sophie wouldn’t mention her illiteracy. But on the other hand, isn’t Sophie’s illiteracy a MacGuffin of sorts? It explains her alienation from the family but doesn’t explain her collaboration with Jeanne in their ultimate act of violence. What bonds Sophie and Jeanne is their ambivalent violent pasts, for which neither could be found guilty – Sophie was accused of murdering her father in an arson attack and Jeanne was accused of murdering her mentally deficient child (a rumour Georges is happy to repeat). Note how they joyously embrace when they mutually discover the others’ pasts. It’s at this point that their relationship becomes increasingly disturbing with homicidal potential and the issue of Sophie’s illiteracy becomes almost forgotten, besides being a tool to blackmail Melinda and force her firing.

Even in the moments before the massacre, we’re still uncertain about what’s going to occur. Although Jeanne has been banned from the house (Sophie is almost treated as one of the children) and Sophie sneaks her in, it just seems rebellious, almost adolescent behaviour. The pair vandalise the house and even as they handle the guns, mock-shooting, it still feels harmless. The family, seated together, watching Don Giovanni are blissfully unaware of their own impending destruction, as is Georges when he confronts the pair. Perhaps influenced by Genet’s “The Maids”, based on the real-life Papin sisters murders, Jeanne and Sophie are two women with the potential for murder, which can only be realised fully together. Although there’s an extent of class-based hatred on Jeanne’s part, these murders strike us mostly as being out of left-field. Even more peculiar is the calm reaction; mutually exclaiming “well done” and Sophie shooting a book as if taking a shot at her own illiteracy or the comfort of the bourgeoisie. There’s also the chilling clean-up operation as both agree that nothing can be proved.

Starting with a stunning demonstration of camerawork trained on Sophie’s movements towards the cafe, revealed to be a subjective shot from Catherine’s own point of view, ‘La Cérémonie’ is a chilling account of one woman’s shame and insecurity about her secret that spills into murder. Critics such as Jonathan Rosenbaum immediately declared ‘La Cérémonie’ a masterpiece and there’s plenty to recommend;  perfect performances by Sandrine Bonnaire and Isabelle Huppert, two of France’s finest actresses, a wicked and dark sense of humour and a denouément that confounds our expectations. Chabrol’s subtle and ambivalent approach only increases the tension.

February 21, 2009

A Brighter Summer Day (1991)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 9:44 pm
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Taiwan

Director: Edward Yang

185 min

Synopsis

Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

Taiwan, 1960. Rival gangs of youths, notably the Little Park Boys and the 217 compete for territory and respect. The Little Park Boys play truant from school, hang out at film studios and pornographic stores and play pranks, whilst lying to their parents about their extra-curricular activities. S’ir, a 14 year old boy and his family have lived in Taiwan since 1949 having fled the Communist government in China. He befriends Ming, a young girl known as the girlfriend of a rival gang member when she is offered a screen test and he is warned by others about the danger of associating with her, given that Honey, her boyfriend, is in exile for murder.

Intimidated by another pupil into allowing him to copy his work, S’ir is disciplined and warned, although his father insists S’ir was set up and believes him to be a model pupil. The father’s pleas for leniency against his son are ignored. S’ir is then picked out of school by rival gang members for his friendship with Ming though he is saved by the intervention of Ma, a fellow pupil and also the son of a general. Honey returns and prevents any harm coming to S’ir. A changed man, he finds he no longer commands the respect he once did. Honey soon dies, described as an accident by the press though others suspect it was the 217 gang. S’ir’s father is interrogated by the secret police because of his links to various people he knew on the mainland. Though released, others distance themselves from him. S’ir’s behaviour at school results in expulsion despite his father’s pleas. Arguing with Ming, S’ir stabs her and she dies.

Review

The late Edward Yang, along with Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Ang Lee and Tsai Ming-Liang revitalised Taiwanese cinema in the 1980s and 1990s, and all four have since become internationally well respected directors since. Yang’s final film ‘Yi Yi’, for which he won the Best Director prize at Cannes in 2000 was a subtle exploration of contemporary middle class life in Taiwan. More explosive was ‘A Brighter Summer Day’, which tackled the concerns and instability of Taiwan in the formative years of the Nationalist government. The film was made during an increasingly liberal political climate so Yang was able to consider issues that only a few years prior would have been taboo – proof of this sea change was Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s award-winning ‘City of Sadness’ (1989), which described the White Terror of the late 1940s, in particular the massacre of thousands of civilians in the 228 incident of 1947. Like Hou, Yang explores this era of paranoia and fear, as the Nationalist government that had decamped from China after the Communists seized power exerted its considerable force in order to maintain power. Most significantly, Yang shows great skill in viewing the political climate through the personal perspective (S’ir and his family).

The main focus for approximately the first two thirds of the film are the gangs of youths that roam the streets of Taipei, before Yang begins to address the powers exercised by the authorities in monitoring those citizens whom they suspect of undermining the security of the country, however spuriously. The Taiwan of the early 1960s was a country that experienced instability and faced an uncertain future – its citizens had been uprooted from their own country just a decade previously. Yang shows the regular blackouts, the ominous tanks that regularly pass by and the rigid Taiwanese bureaucracy. This was a country trying to distance itself from its past and seems to wholeheartedly embrace an American culture. The title of the film is taken from the Elvis Presley song ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ and youths regularly perform American rock and roll songs of the age or hang out at pool halls. The behaviour of these youths, joining gangs for a sense of brotherhood and empowerment, is surely born out of Taiwan’s indeterminate future. These gang members might feel like big shots within their own milieu but they’re thwarted by their elders whenever things step out of line, except for the final, tragic act of the film.

Although the tragic death of Ming seems to be the consequence of gang rivalry, it’s also firmly rooted in the wider political context. As S’ir’s father becomes increasingly persecuted by the state because of his mainland associates, S’ir’s own psychology becomes frailer, eventually culminating in his rash actions. S’ir’s father might have been a respected civil servant on the mainland, but this means nothing in this brave new world, and Yang demonstrates how the stock of the family is in continuous decline. S’ir’s father has invested much in the future success of his son but finds himself frequently humiliated trying to defend his son by school administrators who warn him that maybe S’ir isn’t the model student he thinks he is. S’ir has his own domestic pressures, trying to live up to these expectations and also living in the shadow of an older sister who attends one of Taiwan’s most prestigious universities.

The interrogation scenes indicate perfectly how a secret police designed to weed out potential traitors operates. S’ir’s father is initially requested for informal co-operation – when he asks whether it can wait until morning, he’s told it’s better to clear it up right away – no hint of what’s to follow. Yang then reveals that after the initial pleasantness, the methods become more psychologically exhausting; no let up in the questioning, questions about everyone you’ve ever met, no matter how tenuous or previous the relationship, ignorance taken as guilt etc. What happened to S’ir’s father no doubt happened to several thousands others during this time and it’s probably that a large proportion of these were innocent of what they’d been accused of – they’re victims of a paranoid and concerned state.

‘A Brighter Summer Day’ is regarded by many as a masterpiece and I could easily think this to be the case. The film requires more than one viewing, I should think, to really appreciate what Yang is doing as well as an understanding of the political context. As a noted appreciator of the cinema of Antonioni, Yang mostly uses medium and long shots, using hundreds of characters, many of them nameless and making fleeting appearances. We don’t really get that close to any of the film’s protagonists; perhaps not even S’ir, whose murder of Ming comes out of the blue. Yang deliberately distances himself, trying to objectively reflects events that he recalled as a youth (the film was based on a real life murder – the first teenager charged with murder in Taiwan). ‘A Brighter Summer Day’ is an epic achievement, and like ‘City of Sadness’ (regarded on the same level as amongst the greatest of Taiwanese cinema) merges the personal and political to reflect a traumatic age for an entire nation.

February 19, 2009

Blanche (1971)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 3:25 pm
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France

Director: Walerian Borowczyk

92 min

Synopsis

Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

France, the 13th century. Blanche is the young second wife of a much older baron. Nicolas, the baron’s son returns from fighting in Egypt. He is secretly in love with his stepmother. The King and his page, Bartolomeo, visit the secluded estate. Observed by Nicolas, the philandering Bartolomeo instantly tries to seduce Blanche but she rejects his advances. Because of his own lust for Blanche, The King informs the Master that Bartolomeo was pursuing Blanche, invoking the Master’s temper. Blanche confides in the King about Bartolomeo’s pursuit, and he promises to punish his page but instead he seeks to exploit this.

The Master believes his wife’s innocence and asks Nicolas to duel with Bartolomeo to defend Blanche’s honour. Bartolomeo has the chance to kill Nicolas but declines, realising that they both love the same woman. The King seeks to win Blanche by sending Bartolomeo away and then having him arrested; a plan that Bartolomeo discovers. The Master gradually doubts Blanche’s innocence, accusing her of bewitching Nicolas and cavorting with Bartolomeo when the latter is found in her room. Bartolomeo defends Blanche’s honour and kills Nicolas in combat. Blanche also soon dies. The Master seeks revenge on Bartolomeo but the King argues doing so would be equivalent to armed rebellion. In a fury, the Master has Bartolomeo dragged by horses. The King attacks the estate where the Master kills himself.

Review

As alluded to in previous reviews of his films (The Story of Sin) and (The Beast), few directors have ever achieved the critical fall from grace that Borowczyk had in the late 1970s-early 1980s. Still widely considered as one of the finest and most innovative animators of his age, his film career is most widely known for his later, more “adult” features, which included prominent degrees of nudity and became the films’ talking points. ‘Blanche’ is one of his earliest and best films, included in Derek Malcolm’s Century of Film list no less. Much like the equally feted ‘The Story of Sin’, it’s a mostly tragic account of a naive, innocent young woman whose unconscious sexual allure becomes the undoing not only of her, but those who lust after her.

Based on Polish legend, but also influenced surely by the Byron poem ‘Mazeppa’, Borowczyk has taken this template and moved it to France of the Middle Ages. Initially playing as farce, ‘Blanche’ recalls some of the more satirical aspects of Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’, notably ‘The Miller’s Tale’, in which a young wife of an older man is lusted after by two prospective lovers. Every man who has contact with Blanche immediately falls in love with her, though she herself is unaware of her attractiveness to men. Certainly she never encourages Nicolas, the King or Bartolomeo at any point, remaining defiantly loyal to her husband. In the case of the King and his page, they attempt to manipulate circumstances and each other to put themselves in a better position to win her love. Ultimately though, it’s the King’s arrogance and jealousy of Bartolomeo that sets the tragic course that the film takes in the second half.

This shift from near-comedy to tragedy is what provides ‘Blanche’ with much of its emotional depth. It would have been simple to continue the farce element (along the same lines of Pasolini’s own adaptation of ‘The Canterbury Tales’, made around the same time), but this remarkable turnaround in approach feels right and draws in the sympathy of the viewer, identifying with the unjustly accused Blanche, who is a victim of the vices of those who seek to pursue her. Later Borowczyk films seldom concerned themselves with empathy or depth of characterisation but ‘Blanche’ hits the correct notes. Blanche’s situation is perfectly captured by the recurring symbolism of a trapped dove in a cage, starting from the opening scene in fact (another reference to ‘The Miller’s Tale’ perhaps?); she is woman whom men wish to trap and confine, yet is hopelessly stuck. Contrast this with the animal symbolism of the King and Bartolomeo; a manic and misbehaving monkey, which possibly embodies their mutual desire to tear this dynamic apart.

For a former animator, Borowczyk is certainly a gifted visual film maker and approaches his films with a fetishists’s eye (as this podcast by Graeme Hobbs suggests). Borowczyk has taken great care with ensuring that ‘Blanche’ reflects its period setting as accurately as possible, including a score composed from contemporary instruments, props, costumes and so on. It’s as immaculate a reconstruction of the age as you’re likely to see outside of a museum. Not that the interest in the aesthetics of the film really undermines the depth of the film much, but you wonder what Borowczyk’s overriding interest was. Numerous shots showing the secluded estate from a distance reiterate its confining aspect, described by the King as ‘gloomy as a Holy Land prison’. Borowczyk is also able to use this environment for psychological purposes; perhaps it’s not just Blanche who is trapped but everyone – caught in a web of deceit, love and jealousy that can only have one inevitable and tragic outcome.

For those who only know Borowczyk as a director of more notorious, soft-pornographic films, ‘Blanche’ is a welcome rejoinder and an indication that Borowczyk was once a gifted film maker who for whatever reasons allowed this talent to be squandered on undeserving films. The sole concession to nudity is in the opening scene, where Blanche bathes, but that’s as much as there is. There’s an emotional resonance that subsequent films, ‘The Story of Sin’ apart, never featured, possibly because both are based on famously tragic pieces of literature rather than contemporary screenplays. The acting is largely impressive; Michel Simon (known for his performances in early Renoir classics) in his last role captures his character’s jealous and temperamental nature well, though Lawrence Trimble as Nicolas is rather vacuous. Although not quite the classic that Malcolm and others have suggested, ‘Blanche’ is still an entertaining and intriguing period piece.

February 16, 2009

Let The Right One In (2008)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 3:11 pm
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Sweden

Director: Tomas Alfredson

114 min

Synopsis

Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

Stockholm, 1982. Oskar, a pale twelve year old boy lives on a housing estate with his mother. Bullied at school, he practices his revenge against his tormentors. A young girl, Eli, and an old man, Hakan, move into the adjacent flat. Hakan chloroforms a young student one evening and then collects the blood he drains from him. Eli and Oskar meet outside their flats one evening; she evasively answers his questions whilst he shows her a Rubiks cube, which she quickly solves. A connection between these two lonely youths develops.

It emerges Eli is a vampire. She attacks a neighbour one evening, which is witnessed by another resident. Oskar is assaulted by his bullies. Eli encourages him to fight back as the only way to make them stop, which he does. Hakan is caught trying to kill another student. He burns with face with acid to disguise his identity, to protect Eli. She finds him and kills him, draining his blood, as he requests. When a blood brothers pact encourages Eli’s lust for blood, she attacks Virginia, a local woman. Knowing she is a vampire, she asks to be exposed to daylight in hospital, which kills her. Her husband, Lacke, realises Eli is a vampire and attempts to kill her. Oskar interrupts, which allows Eli to kill him first. Oskar’s bullies attempt their own revenge, by drowning him in the school pool, but Eli comes to his rescue, killing the bullies. They both leave town together.

Review

There was one teenage vampire film discussed in the mainstream press in 2008. Catherine Hardwicke’s ‘Twilight’ (based on the novel by Stephanie Meyer) was an unexpected commercial success, recouping several times its production budget; a triumph of marketing and an existing fanbase rather than artistic merit. This coincided with the production of ‘Let The Right One In’, itself based on a recent novel of the same name by John Ajvide Lindqvist (a title that references ex-Smith Morrissey) and produced on a significantly smaller budget. ‘Let The Right One In’ is more than just a vampire film as it’s almost certain to be marketed as overseas (and almost certainly will when it is remade by the director of Cloverfield!); it’s the most touching and poignant depiction of the troubles of adolescence since another Swedish film, Lukas Moodyson’s ‘Show Me Love’ (1998).

Alfredson begins with Oskar, who looks positively otherworldly himself, practicing revenge against his tormentors, using the very same lines they use (“squeal like a pig” etc). Both parents are absent; his mother always at work, his father in another town entirely – Oskar is a lonely child, craving attention, which no doubt makes him a suitable victim to bully. Oskar is filmed numerous times in his room alone, always with the glass of the window separating him and the camera as if to create a distancing effect, to create a divide. Living in a permanently snow-covered housing estate in disrepair, one of those communities that almost seems to entrap its residents, there’s nothing here for Oskar and no way out, until Eli walks into his life.

Eli’s arrival seems natural enough; we assume the older man is her father and that they’re moving in as would any usual family. However there are ominous signs straight away when Hakan covers one window with cardboard. Eli’s secret is kept from other characters in the film but crucial for the purposes of tension, it remains vague to the audience as well. We watch with great detail as Hakan chloroforms a young boy, slits his throat and drains his blood into a bottle. Is this a serial killer at work? Does Eli know about this behaviour? The first instance we witness Hakan murdering is one of the most disturbing I have seen in film in a while – it’s shown so meticulously, unrushed and even more disturbingly, the violence is shielded from us by Hakan’s body position but the sound of the drops of blood hitting the bottle more than makes up for this. The relationship between Hakan and Eli is kept deliberately vague as well. As we gather he is not her father and that he is murdering to satisfy her lust for blood (preventing her killing presumably), we wonder what precisely exists between them. The dynamics of the relationship are certainly not familial; she’s more assertive and he’s more apologetic. Apparently the novel hints at a paedophilic relationship although Alfredson has airbrushed this and presents Hakan as a far more sympathetic character, which adds to the ambiguous nature of the film.

The strongest aspect of the film is the bond between Oskar and Eli, which is never romantic but merely a connection between two lonely, mutually sad individuals. The issues of gender and sexuality within the film have been discussed in numerous existing reviews. It’s been suggested that Eli is indeed a boy and there’s a coyness attached to Eli’s suggestion that “what if I tell you I’m not a girl?” Do we read that as “vampire” being the alternative or not? There’s a scene that’s also consciously indecisive when Oskar spies on a naked Eli. Emphasised in the novel and slightly alluded to here is the fact that Eli is a eunuch boy. Lina Leandersson captures this androgyny with the same kind of perfection as Ines Efron had in ‘XXY’ (2007), an Argentine film about a teenage intersex child. There’s another school of thought that has suggested that should you dispense with the vampire mythology aspect of the film, what remains is a simple revenge story. Taking Oskar/Eli as dual elements of one person (submissive/aggressive), you have someone finally standing up to his tormentors.

In addition to that, it’s the final scene that threatens to undermine the sheer brilliance of what has transpired before. The natural conclusion would have been when Eli announced she had to leave town. Instead this conclusion seems more contrived, neatly rounding events off. Oskar is almost drowned by the elder brother of the main bully before Eli comes to his rescue. It’s an incredibly well filmed scene; shot entirely from Oskar’s perspective below water, you hear the violence and then the head of the bully sinking into the water, before the hand holding Oskar’s head appears unattached, allowing Oskar to rise to the surface. It just felt a little unnecessary and when Oskar and Eli leave together by train to who knows where, this resolution appears too neat. It’s a minor quibble though with what is otherwise an astonishing film. The central performance by Leandersson is one of the most breathtaking I have seen for many a while, let alone from a novice child actor, capturing the sadness of someone who has lived for hundreds of years off the back of killing in just the melancholy of her saucer-shaped eyes.

In most countries, ‘Let The Right One In’ has been rated 15 or its equivalent, despite the copious violence, which means that the target audience for the film will at least be able to watch it. Certainly one of the most significant films about children for a while, it was one of the finest made in 2008.

February 11, 2009

Don’t Move, Die and Rise Again (1989)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 11:25 pm
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Soviet Union

Director: Vitali Kanevsky

105 min

Synopsis

Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

Siberia, 1947. Valerka, a young boy, sells tea to the miners in his local village. Galia, a young girl, is a rival tea vendor.  Valerka undermines her business by claiming she uses dirty water for her tea, but claims he uses fresh spring water. The two becomes friends. Valerka’s mother, a prostitute, accuses Valerka of stealing when he purchases ice skates but Galia tells her how he came by the money. One night Valerka is robbed of his skates by two local boys. He lies to his mother about this robbery and eventually retrieves his skates from the boys who stole them.

Valerka is discovered pouring yeast down the school toilets, making them overflow. He is expelled from school despite the best efforts of his mother. Valerka then derails a train on the way to the mines. Escaping the police, he visits relatives in Vladivostok. Valerka becomes involved with a group of local thieves and he is caught trying to steal from a jewellery store. Again, he escapes the police. Galia finds him, informs him that he is not suspected of causing the train derailment and they return home. It is implied that they both die in an offscreen accident.

Review

Regarded as one of the finest films produced during the glasnost era, ‘Don’t Move, Die and Rise Again’ is a powerful and part autobiographical but relentlessly grim account of post-war life in a remote mining community, as observed through the eyes of two young children, Valerka and Galia. Films such as ‘Ivan’s Childhood’ and ‘Come and See’ demonstrated the horrors of war with children as their central protagonists, but Kanevsky uses this device to show domestic horrors in the aftermath of war. From the opening shot, we’re made perfectly aware of the hardship that’s about to unfold; a number of men emerging from a coal mine, whilst children play excitedly, oblivious to their own desperate circumstances.

How this community came into existence is left deliberately vague. One imagines it’s a gulag, based on forced labour. There are hints to suggest that it’s a village where dissidents or those punished for other crimes have been sent. There’s “Crazy Abram”, the Moscow professor who’s ‘lost his mind’ and Japanese POWs who are the subject of Valerka’s curiosity but the resentment of the locals who declare them “Samurai bastards”. The most heartbreaking scene to demonstrate the desperation that people find themselves in is when a fifteen year old implores a similarly aged boy to make love to her, in the hope that she might become pregnant. She believes that carrying a child would result in her being resettled.

Whether the adults were sent to this village because of political crimes or not, there’s plenty of “re-education” taking place with daily pro-Stalin songs and marches. The first instance we hear the spoken word is when a child shouts “Thanks to Stalin, the Georgian, for our rubber boots”. Interestingly though, the children frequently misbehave during these processions, not through defiance but ignorance of consequences, their own situation and the purposes of propaganda.

Kanevsky places great emphasis on observing the dynamics of this community, which is certainly not unified in its hardship. When a thief is caught, there is no sympathy for his plight. He is beaten mercilessly before being passed onto the authorities. Valerka is robbed for showing signs of extravagance with his skates, whilst villagers push in at food queues. In a world where it’s hard to survive, selfishness is practically a way of life. This feeds its way down to the children who all compulsively lie, cheat and play pranks on each other. In her own desperation, Valerka’s mother has become a prostitute, throwing her son out of the family home when she has a customer.

However this almost seems lost on the children, whose games and antics are a world away from what their parents experience. Take for instance how Kanevsky establishes his film, immediately shown from Valerka’s point of view. As he observes the village “centre”, he hears a confusing set of overlapping voices – this is something he can make neither head nor tail of. The world of adults is more than he can comprehend. Valerka too is unaware of the consequences of his actions. His behaviour begins harmlessly enough, telling the village that Galia’s tea is poisonous but gradually it escalates; stealing a pen, flooding the school toilets, then ultimately derailing a train. Ironically though, Valerka is never wanted for this crime, even if precipitates his swift departure from the village. Galia is at least more mature and able to guide Valerka, encouraging his return from Vladivostok and is dedicated to their friendship in spite of Valerka’s increasingly dangerous pranks. It’s a tender and touching relationship that contrasts sharply to the ugliness of the world around them.

Kanevsky was originally afforded funds to make a ten minute short but utilised this to make a full length feature which was rewarded with the Best First Film prize at Cannes in 1990. Some have suggested this was more for political reasons than artistic merit and there’s probably more than a grain of truth in this assertion. At the heart of the film however is a remarkably sympathetic but honest account of how tough life was in the labour camps of Stalin-era Soviet Union. The grainy monochrome cinematography adds to the effect as do the frequent intense close ups of many of its suffering protagonists.  However it’s mission of showing “Hell on Earth” is so intense and asks so many demands of the viewer than most would find the film pretty hard going.

February 3, 2009

L’Argent

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 6:18 pm
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France/Switzerland

Director: Robert Bresson

85 min

Synopsis

Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

France, the 1980s. Norbert, a middle class teenage boy requests his monthly allowance from his father. When he asks for more because of a debt to a schoolfriend, his father declines. His mother too rejects his plea. He then pawns his watch to a schoolfriend in exchange for a forged 500 franc note. Norbert exchanges the note at a photographers, pretending to want to buy a picture frame. The manager discovers the forgery and passes the note on at the next opportunity to a gasman, Yvon. Yvon is caught trying to use the note and is arrested. When the police investigate, the photographers claim not to recognise Yvon.

Yvon loses his job because of the scandal. He acts as a getaway driver for a robbery but is caught by police and sentenced to three years imprisonment. His daughter soon dies of diphtheria and his wife leaves him. Upon his release, Yvon murders the owners of the hotel he’s staying at. Taken in by a housekeeper who looks after her mean widowed father and his disabled child, he confesses to his crime but she absolves him. He then murders the entire family.

Review

Perhaps the least prolific of first rate film makers (although Dreyer would surely give him a run for his money), Robert Bresson directed 13 feature length films in approximately 50 years. Several of these films, including ‘Pickpocket’, ‘A Man Escaped’ and ‘Au Hasard Balthazar’ are widely acknowledged classics, possibly because Bresson refused to rush his craft, but also because Bresson is one of the most spiritual and humane film makers, inspired by his own strong Catholic faith, with a keen interest in salvation and the human soul.

‘L’Argent’ was made when Bresson was in his eighties but still feels vital and relevant, and the work of director still operating at the peak of his powers. Loosely adapted from a Tolstoy short story, ‘The Forged Coupon’, it’s a stark tale of greed and deception, the victim of which descends into a bleak downward spiral which finally culminates in redemption of sorts. The fate of Yvon, the luckless gasman, is decided by those who’ve sought to deceive through passing off the forged note but then evaded responsibility for it, protecting themselves and implicating others.

This chain of hitherto unconnected individuals starts with Norbert, the arrogant son of wealthy parents who is manipulated by a friend into using the forged note. In the exchange with the photographer’s assistant, he seems anxious and uncommunicative and it’s his friend who makes the transaction. The photographer doesn’t want to be the one who’s been cheated and out of pocket so he passes the notes on and of course ultimately someone is going to be wronged. Unfortunately for the well-meaning Yvon, it’s him and his life unravels rapidly from the moment he’s unwittingly caught using those notes.

Whether Bresson has any serious interest in class politics or not, I can’t be sure, but it’s interesting how the circulation of the note from wealthy schoolboy to respectable photographers to a working class gasman reveals much about social prejudice and the fallbacks and amount of self-protection each protagonist has. Norbert could quite easily have been blamed for the entire incident. The photographer’s assistant visits his school and informs the headteacher that a pupil of the school has passed forged notes. The assistant would almost certainly have recognised him and Norbert is asked about whether he was involved. His subsequent storming out of class is pretty much an acknowledgement of guilt. However it goes no further and his mother even pays off the photographers to keep silent. The photographers in turn deny ever seeing Yvon, let alone paying him with forged notes. It’s ironic that their lies are rewarded by the dishonesty of their employee, Lucien, who later robs the safe – to which the manager exclaims “you see how easily he lied in court!” Yvon has nothing to fall back upon, no means to defend himself, particularly when on trial and thus he’s sentenced harshly. He is fired as soon as the scandal breaks and once imprisoned, his child dies and his wife leaves him. It’s precisely because he is so vulnerable that he’s able to take the fall for another’s crime.

The central focus of many of Bresson’s films are the redemption of the main protagonist, whether it be the suicide of the saintly Mouchette in the film of the same name or the imprisonment of Michel in ‘Pickpocket’. Much like the latter, ‘L’Argent’ references Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’, with the words of Yvon’s cellmate echoing those of Roskolnikov. Much like Dostoyevsky’s anti-hero, Yvon is capable of kindness and compassion but when fate turns against him, he finds himself more capable of cruelty and recklessness. Society has determined that Yvon is a criminal and he has acted accordingly.

There are two sets of murders in the final third which are interesting, both of which are shown with as little detail to the acts as possible. The first are in the hotel that Yvon stays in upon his release. We only know they’ve occurred because we see him washing the blood from his hands and robbing the till. However, the second set of murders could be considered mercy killings and demonstrate Yvon’s redemption. There’s more detail; Yvon moves around the house furtively holding an axe but the actual deaths are unseen, only made obvious by the desperate whimpering of the family dog or the destruction of a bedside lamp. Yvon then confesses his crimes – his actions in this part of the film directly mirroring those of Roskolnikov.

‘L’Argent’ is a remarkably economical piece of film making. Scenes are only as long as they need to be. Bresson never dwells, nor do his characters say any more than they have to. The framing of scenes is usually simple. For instance, during the conversation between Norbert and his father, never once are both in the same frame. Bresson cuts from one character to the other, never changing this style. Aesthetically conventional, Bresson sticks to his theory of “not beautiful images, but necessary images.” However, the real strength lies in the narrative and the psychological complexities of Yvon, as well as the deeper themes Bresson explores.

February 2, 2009

To Sleep With Anger

USA

Director: Charles Burnett

102 min

Synopsis

Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

Los Angeles, 1990. A middle class African-American family. Junior (the eldest son) and his wife attend a prenatal class. Babe Brother (the youngest son) leaves his son in the care of Gideon and Suzie (the parents). Babe Brother forgets his mother’s birthday, causing arguments between Babe Brother and Junior. An old friend of Gideon’s and Suzie’s from the South, Harry, is passing through but Gideon invites him to stay, which he does so for several weeks. Harry meets Hattie, an ex-lover perhaps in the South. Reminding her of their past, Hattie informs him she’s been saved since by religion.

Gideon criticises Babe Brother for neglecting his child and leaving him with them. Gideon soon falls ill and becomes comatose. Harry asserts himself more prominently in the house, almost as a surrogate patriarch. Babe Brother and Harry spend more time together, which causes arguments between Babe Brother and his wife. Babe Brother hits her. She leaves to stay with Junior and his wife. Hattie tells Suzie that Harry spreads bad luck. Babe Brother and Junior have a violent disagreement and Suzie is injured during the scuffle. The family are brought closer together by this. Harry collapses in the kitchen and dies when they return, after which Gideon makes a full recovery.

Review

Charles Burnett’s brand of African-American cinema couldn’t be any more different than the more prominent examples from the blaxploitation and inner city ghetto genres. His interests are observing the African-American middle classes based around the family unit; their trials and tribulations, their values and sense of solidarity. Although ‘Killer of Sheep’ is his best known film, ‘To Sleep With Anger’ is perhaps his most interesting. It considers the impact that a mysterious stranger has upon a family that is respectable enough on the surface but has potential tensions that are yet to be explored. The device of a figure spreading a malign influence upon a family has been used numerous times in cinema, notably in Pasolini’s ‘Teorema’ or even Hitchcock’s ‘Shadow of a Doubt’. The issue is whether the figure is completely responsible for the chaos that begins after his arrival or whether his arrival merely exposes what was already there.

Harry, as performed by Danny Glover, is charming yet mysterious and his charisma allows him to work his way into the family. Gideon and Suzie have not seen him for the best part of thirty years and since they last met their lives have changed dramatically. Gideon and Suzie are much like Burnett’s own parents who moved from Mississippi to California, and they’ve become successful, however the memories of the past can still be recalled. These memories are made more vivid by Harry’s arrival. One imagines that Harry probably never left the ‘Old South’. He still retains the values and superstitions of a bygone era. He keeps a rabbit’s foot that his mother gave him, he brings corn liquor, the taste of the ‘Real South’ to a party and he chastises Babe Brother’s son for touching him with a broom. Harry sticks to his own moral code, exclaiming “you folks sure got some strange ways” in reference to the family’s new middle class status.

Harry reminds this family of their own past and what they’ve tried to move on from since. For instance, when Gideon and Harry walk down a set of train tracks, Burnett cuts to an image of the same tracks but a generation or more earlier of young black men coerced into labour. Gideon’s family and friends are regular church attendees, including Hattie, whom we assume was an ex-lover of Harry’s tells him he reminds her of so much that went wrong in her life. That’s all the details she gives but we sense there’s more to it than just this simple phrase. Harry possibly represents something this community, first generation migrants to California, can’t forget. Harry embodies the past and the history of this community which became emancipated and has since adopted the values and trappings of bourgeois society. Gideon’s children are almost ignorant of their family’s past although Gideon constantly reminds them, particularly angering Babe Brother who feels he’s been treated so patronisingly by his father because of their past. There’s the constant reminder of Big Momma being born into slavery. Gideon’s children are selfish and materialistic, products of a bourgeois upbringing – perhaps Burnett wants to reclaim the link between the past and present, to remind those like the sons of Gideon where they originated from?

Whether Harry is ultimately a destructive element for the family or whether the family itself is prone to self-destruction is kept ambivalent. Despite the warnings about Harry; from his ominous entrance to Hattie’s concerns that he’s evil and spreads bad luck and death, Burnett makes it plain that not all was right from the start. Gideon, the family patriarch ensured his sons worked and sweated when they were younger and they’ve resented it ever since. Junior and Babe Brother squabble over who was the most favoured son when growing up. Babe Brother thinks himself as a “black sheep” and that Junior was never treated as harshly as he was. Burnett constantly reiterates how this has been a bone of contention for years, which culminates in the explosion of the violence between them in the film’s final third. Would these resentments have come to the surface without Harry’s involvement – for instance, he leads Babe Brother astray, causing problems in his marriage which Junior rebukes him for – or would they have continued to simmer? Ironically, Harry’s presence and ultimate death reunites the family – there’s much more of a calm as the film climaxes.

Although neither the concept nor style of ‘To Sleep With Anger’ are anything especially original, it is executed with such confidence and poise that this hardly matters. Observing the dynamics within middle class families occurs so commonly in film and television, but this is an impressive example, capturing the frustrations and tensions within relationships but also the warmth and sense of solidarity. Burnett himself remains objective with his camera, allowing events to unfold naturally and without bias or need to intervene. He uses a wonderful blues and gospel soundtrack, including several standards to reflect the past and history. The most impressive visual moments of the film are the stunning opening credits sequences of Gideon, seated as patriarch, then Burnett cuts to a portrait of Big Momma before then cutting to a bowl of fruit on the table before the entire screen self-immolates. This represents a link between the past and present and represents the entire film in a single shot.

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