Thirtyframesasecond

June 30, 2009

Belle Toujours (2006)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 1:04 pm
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Portugal/France

Director: Manoel de Oliveira

68 min

Synopsis

Paris, the present day. At a concert hall, Henri watches an orchestra performance. As his eye wanders, he notices a blonde woman of similar age, Severine, whom he recognises. She recognises him too. When the performance is over, she hastily departs to avoid him. He attempts to pursue her, but manages to lose her in the crowd. By chance, he sees her again getting into a car outside a bar, but it’s too late. Henri then enquires with the barman about Severine, who apparently now lives in Paris after many years away and discovers that she’s staying at the Hotel Regina.

Henri visits her at the hotel, yet she leaves just before he arrives. She knows he has been looking for her. Returning to the bar, he explains why he must find Severine and the history they both share. He tells the barman of Severine’s perversion; and he, used to the confessions of customers, is intrigued. Henri confronts Severine in the street, a scene shot in silence. They meet at dinner. She’s uncomfortable; there’s many awkward silences. Henri speaks of the past, but Severine has moved on. She’s a different woman now and only wants to know whether he told her husband about her secret life as a prostitute. Henri’s evasive, refusing to disclose whether he revealed this secret. Severine leaves, forever.

Review

With no background knowledge, the prospect of watching a sequel to a much-admired French art house classic would be very daunting indeed. Bunuel’s surreal, blackly comic account of a Parisian housewife-cum-prostitute is not only one of the most significant he’s ever made but also one of the most important films of the 1960s. However, one shouldn’t dismiss the idea of ‘Belle Toujours’ so hastily. It’s not exactly the work of a talentless film maker trying to make a quick buck or generate cheap publicity. The titles reveal the intentions behind the film; to pay homage to Bunuel and Carriere, the director/writer of ‘Belle de Jour’. ‘Belle Toujours’ is directed by Manoel de Oliveira, known as the eldest active film maker currently still working, who began working in the silent era and despite what his age might suggest, he remains one of the most prolific.

Sensibly, de Oliveira realises that what made ‘Belle de Jour’ so impressive was Bunuel’s own idiosyncratic approach to film making. Like many of his films during the 1960s/1970s, Bunuel was interested in skewering the moral values of the bourgeoisie, including sex, politics and religion. Attempting to replicate Bunuel’s unique style would be a mistake for a director who himself is so different in how he works. de Oliveira sticks to his own methods, those that have made his previous work so successful in the past. He’s much more classical and formal a film maker than Bunuel. ‘Belle Toujours’ is a much more solemn, wistful film, almost unrecognisable from Bunuel’s, but given that the central characters are older, although perhaps not any wiser, it’s a smart decision.

This is a film about memories of the past and regret. Henri, the schemer in Severine’s original deception all those years ago; the man who knew her secret and was always in a position to reveal it, now appears to us as a rather pathetic, lonely old man who has nothing to live for but the past. He tells the barman with some relish the details of the entire business, as if this is all he’s had to cling into for forty years. Severine has attempted to move on since her husband’s death, yet meeting Henri again has opened old wounds. Although we only understand her through her interaction with Henri, she reveals that she’s troubled by everything; an ill-spent past, old age as a future and the impossibility to putting things right they wish they’d done differently. Both, however, need a sense of closure to really put the past behind them. Henri’s looking for revenge after Severine’s original rejection of him, whilst Severine needs to know what he told her husband (which had been left vague by Bunuel, with the frozen tear on her husband’s cheek teasing the audience). Crucial to the relationship between them both is the fact that de Oliveira makes no effort to sketch out either character; to inform us of what’s happened to them both since Severine’s husband was paralysed. The intervening forty years is a mystery, but that’s not important for either the director or the audience. The film demands that Henri and Severine continue exactly as Bunuel had left off. Any attempts to fill in the past would be a distraction, but the passing of many decades is a nice touch designed to show the impact of their circumstances as they were left.

This theme continues in several shots that punctuate more active scenes. de Oliveira frequently cuts to overhead shots of the Paris morning skyline, shots of the lit Eiffel Tower at night and shots of traffic lights frequently changing, for instance, which almost feels under the influence of Antonioni, whose final scenes in ‘The Eclipse’ used fixed, static shots of skylines and inanimate settings to reflect time passing. de Oliveira also makes on important decision with sound design as well; the scene when Henri finally catches up with Severine and confronts her. Although it’s shot from distance, it’s still a conscious decision to make the conversation between them both inaudible, so that we’re unaware of the approaching pivotal dinner scene. The dinner scene itself is shot impeccably well. Henri and Severine are never in the frame together, always shot individually, as if to reiterate the distance between them and that they can’t successfully overcome their differences.

It’s interesting that whilst Michel Piccoli reprised his role as Henri, Catherine Deneuve didn’t return as Severine. Bulle Ogier, a fellow French actress, performs admirably enough in her absence. Deneuve has worked with de Oliveira on several recent films but the rumour was that she didn’t agree with the premise of revisiting ‘Belle de Jour’ forty years later, but just because she thought so, it doesn’t suggest that audiences ought to give ‘Belle Toujours’ a miss. The fact that it deliberately avoids to be anything similar to Bunuel’s film is its greatest strength, and ensures it doesn’t pale in comparison so easily. Instead, de Oliveira takes two characters with unfinished business and creates a narrative about ageing and regret, and whilst it’s rather slender and light, it’s rather impressive nonetheless.

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June 19, 2009

Lola Montes (1955)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 8:31 pm
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France/West Germany

Director: Max Ophuls

110 min

Synopsis

American and Europe, the nineteenth century. An American circus. A circus master introduces his star act, Lola Montes. He encourages the audience to ask her revealing questions, including how many lovers she’s had. Lola then has a series of flashbacks about her romantic past. Lola had an affair with Franz Liszt, the composer. En route to Rome, they agree that their romance must come to its inevitable end. The next flashback is to her youth, when her father, an army colonel dies of cholera. Lola’s mother neglects her, seeking herself a new husband. At 16, Lola marries Lt. James, who becomes a drunk, abusive husband.

Back in the present, a doctor warns of Lola’s deteriorating health; she has a weak heart and the show is too dangerous. More flashbacks: Lola acquires a reputation for scandal in Europe as the lover of many married men, including Claudio Pirotto, whose wife she reveals the affair to in a great spectacle. In Munich, she meets a young student, who falls for her, but her efforts to become a dancer, presented to the King, Ludwig I fails. She breaks into the palace, but Ludwig is lenient and takes Lola as his lover. Lola’s influence upon Ludwig becomes incredibly unpopular, with public protests and disorder soon occurring and she is banished from Bavaria. Refusing to settle with the student who loves her, she joins the circus in America, having refused an earlier invitation. In the present once more, she’s about to make a dangerous jump, without a safety net. She succeeds, to rapturous applause.

Review

Causing a scandal upon release that Lola herself might have enjoyed, Ophuls’ final film had been the most expensive French film of all time and became one of its most notorious box-office failures. Much of the blame for this was erroneously placed upon the extensive use of flashbacks to demonstrate how colourful and ultimately dangerous Lola’s life had been, but since this was hardly a novel nor overly esoteric device, it’s a pretty flimsy excuse. Indeed, Ophuls’ own ‘Letter From An Unknown Woman’, his Hollywood masterpiece, uses them just as frequently to document a woman’s fall from grace because of the fickle emotions of the man she loves. Subsequently, the film was recut against Ophul’s wishes, with a more straight-forward, chronological version released thereafter. Some critics have described this version as “savagely butchered”, rather than a release that aids the understanding of the audience, although we can obviously say with the benefit of hindsight that Ophul’s vision of ‘Lola Montes’ was unlikely to have been improved upon through re-editing. A restored version of ‘Lola Montes’ was released in 2008, adding footage hitherto considered lost and edited in such a way to reflect how Ophuls had originally intended his film to be.

Ophuls has always been one of the most sympathetic film makers towards women. Frequently the central characters of his films; most notably in his three Hollywood films – ‘Letter From An Unknown Woman’, ‘The Reckless Moment’ or ‘Caught’, his female characters often begin callow and frail but develop an inner-strength and sense of resourcefulness, but are often prey to the pressures placed upon them by men. ‘Lola Montes’ continues in this style, developing these same themes. Lola’s origins are humble but she’s fiercely ambitious, setting her sights as high as becoming the lover of the King of Bavaria. Such is her feminine influence that she almost destroys a Kingdom. As her student lover explains, “you represent love, freedom, everything they resent”.  Although there’s a sense that her libertine lifestyle has no real substance as she departs Europe for a degrading life in an American circus, having lived too much, having too many adventures, with no other options after Bavaria turns sour. Lola is a woman that men seek to exploit; first her abusive soldier husband, then finally, the circus ringmaster who profits from her glamour and notoriety. Still, the closing scene of hundreds of men surrounding Lola to get a glimpse or touch of her reminds us of her power.

One of the films most admired by Stanley Kubrick, ‘Lola Montes’ is a supremely artful demonstration of Ophul’s visual and technical flair. Beginning with the opening scene with the emergence of the circus environment, rich blue lighting overpowers us, before Ophuls meticulously recreates with some panache the busy world of the circus, symbolic perhaps of how far Lola has fallen. Ophuls, known for his smooth camera movements; crane, dolly and tracking shots, doesn’t disappoint. His camera is seldom skill, the movements articulately commenting upon the interior psychology of Lola herself at times. In the final scene previously mentioned, Ophuls starts with a close-up of Lola before pulling out to reveal her hundreds of admirers. He uses sombre close ups of Lola numerous times during the circus scenes. The world of the circus is stifling. It’s no wonder Lola falls ill and one wonders why she asks for the safety net to be removed against the advice of her doctor when she’s clearly unwell. In her flashbacks, Lola lives a life of romance and freedom but it’s the circus scenes that affords Ophuls the opportunity to impress us with his technical bravura, documenting its claustrophobia.

More confusing for audiences that the mere use of flashbacks might have been the sheer degree of artificiality of the film. But then, why should anyone familiar with Ophuls’ work be so surprised? Take the entire concept of a circus and ringmaster as the premise for a flashback-driven account of Lola’s life. It’s just a variation upon the merry-go-round theme used in ‘La Ronde’, a metaphorical and dramatic device to exploit the basic narrative. The use of Martine Carol is intriguing too. An actress of little reputation, although considered French cinema’s sex siren of the decade, Ophuls almost takes advantage of her lack of acting talent, moulding her to fit his vision. She’s largely expressionless, outacted at every turn by her supporting actors, though somehow, perversely, it more or less works. The absence of any notion of reality is crucial to the film’s success, and whilst it might appear as though Ophuls barely scratches the surface of Lola’s life, the sheer spectacle is sufficient enough to consider ‘Lola Montes’ a welcome restoration.

‘Lola Montes’ was released on DVD on 6 July on Second Sight Films.

June 15, 2009

The New Argentine Cinema

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 11:58 am
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The final piece of coursework for the Sight and Sound/University of Glasgow film journalism course….

Film critics are always looking for the latest cinematic trends or patterns; perhaps national cinemas hitherto unknown. Recent discoveries include the national cinemas of Latin American countries, such as Brazil and Mexico. The films of Walter Salles, Fernando Meirelles, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu have been well received at home and abroad, even securing English language releases and subsequent work in Hollywood for the directors themselves. For all the concentration upon these two countries though, one other Latin American country has dropped off the critical radar to some extent, despite producing some of the most impressive films made worldwide in the last decade or so. This is a richly diverse country that has undergone numerous economic and political crises in recent decades that has fuelled a prolonged period of creative film making. This country is Argentina.

Film production in Argentina has existed for almost as long as the art form itself has. Although domestic cinema flourished in the early half of the twentieth century, the inevitable growth in the distribution of Hollywood cinema had a significant effect, as did the increased censorship of the Peron era. Although there were fits and starts of artistic freedom, nothing had such a serious negative impact upon domestic film making than the National Reorganisation Process; the military dictatorship that governed Argentina between 1976-1983. Film making was so heavily censored that film makers could only deal with light hearted subjects that wouldn’t fall foul of the authorities.

Film making in Argentina is inextricably linked to politics. Only after the fall of the dictatorship was there a renaissance. There was such a need for artistic expression that an outpouring of creativity followed. Film makers weren’t afraid to examine the recent past either. Luis Puenzo, who had retreated from film making during the dictatorship directed ‘The Official Story’ (1985), which won the Academy Award for Best Film in a Foreign Language and was a harsh and honest look at the atrocities and disappearances that occurred during the ‘Dirty War’.

What has been described as ‘The New Argentine Cinema’ emerged in the late 1990s and it was the economic problems that culminated in the collapse of 2001 that has inspired a new generation of film makers perhaps too young to remember the years of repression and censorship. This was a period of mass unemployment, the loss of savings for millions, with a third of the population plunged into poverty, yet it became a catalyst for film making, proving once more that Argentine cinema thrives in adversity. During this period, film makers such as Pablo Trapero, Lucrecia Martel, Daniel Burman and Lucia Puenzo (the daughter of Luis) have worked prolifically, as if inspired by recent events themselves, and their films have competed in international film festivals, won awards and placed Argentine cinema on the map.

Most striking about this group of film makers is actually how a diverse group it is. It’s much simpler to consider what distinguishes them than what they might share in common. These film makers hail from different regions of Argentina, set their films in different milieu and examine different themes, although they can all be loosely tied together by Argentina’s recent social, economic and political history.  Society and cinema are inextricably linked in Argentina. These film makers hold up a mirror to society.

Pablo Trapero first emerged with ‘Crane World’ (1999), a black and white feature about a middle-aged, directionless former musician in a band that had one hit many years ago, now eking out a living as a casual labourer in the Buenos Aires suburbs. It’s not only a sympathetic portrait of a man whose life is at the crossroads, who finds that making a new start at his age is difficult but also an astute examination of working class life on the margins, where prosperity appears to be on the rise across the country, but not for these people. His more recent films, ‘El Bonaerense’ (2002), ‘Rolling Family’ (2004), ‘Born and Bred’ (2006) and ‘Leonera’ (2008) concentrate on various social issues, such as police corruption, the family and injustices within the prison system. Trapero’s films can be categorised as kitchen-sink style social realism, influenced by neo-realism, including the use of non-actors and infused with a sense of social criticism of modern society.

Quite the opposite is Lucrecia Martel, whose three films to date; ‘The Swamp’ (2001), ‘The Holy Girl’ (2004) and ‘The Headless Woman’ (2006) were set in Salta, a religious and socially conservative region of North-western Argentina. Martel’s films are about the Argentina bourgeoisie; their self-indulgence, their self-pity and their self-absorption. These films are partly based on Martel’s own experience, which makes them cathartic for her and ultimately are a rejection of her own upbringing. ‘The Swamp’, in particular, uses vivid images of decay, including an iconic opening scene of a family matriarch injuring herself as the remaining adults watch, slumped in chairs next to a murky swimming pool. ‘The Holy Girl’ explores the religious and sexual confusion of an adolescent girl, whilst ‘The Headless Woman’ is another account of a narcissistic bourgeois family. The matriarch fears she’s been involved in a hit-and-run accident that killed a young boy. The mystery remains whether there was an accident but the family seek to cover it up nevertheless. Martel’s films are abstract, obtuse, with a particular interest in sound design and the interior of psychology of its protagonists.

Daniel Burman’s films represent inner-Buenos Aires, the hustle and bustle of a city with 13 million inhabitants and are made with a much lighter touch than both Trapero and Martel. Often compared to Woody Allen (a comparison he rejects, but is happy to accept given that he admires Allen more than any other film maker), Burman’s trilogy of films; ‘Waiting for the Messiah’ (2000), ‘Lost Embrace’ (2004) and ‘Family Law’ (2006), made with the Uruguayan actor, Daniel Hendler are largely autobiographical, light-hearted comedy dramas about being Jewish in Argentina and the often complex relationships between fathers and sons. His latest, ‘Empty Nest’ (2008) was a change in tack, focussing on the surreal fantasies of a middle aged playwright.

Lucia Puenzo is the youngest of the current generation of film makers, but as the daughter of Luis, she was born into the world of film making. Her debut feature ‘XXY’ (2007) was a sympathetic and nicely balanced account of an intersex teenager in rural Argentina. Puenzo’s second feature ‘The Fish Child’ (2009) appears to have borrowed from the Martel template of holding a mirror up to the decadent bourgeoisie as the daughter of an upper class family falls in love with their Paraguayan maid. The pair, whose love is frustrated by circumstances, then manifests itself in a life of crime. After only two features, no pattern is obvious in Puenzo’s work, but it’s more than likely that she’ll find her voice and she’s made an impressive start to her directorial career. The use of the young actress Ines Efron in both films, who has acted in the films of Burman (‘Empty Nest’) and Martel (‘The Headless Woman’) also draws the work of these film makers together.

What separates ‘The New Argentine Cinema’ from its predecessors is the fact that these films have been shown on the international festival circuit and been distributed abroad having received rapturous acclaim from overseas critics. The eyes of the world have finally been opened to the treasures of Argentine cinema. The critical high watermark was in 2008; when both ‘The Headless Woman’ and ‘Leonera’ competed at Cannes (this was Martel’s second Golden Palm nomination – she had also been nominated for ‘The Holy Girl’). Only France and the United States also had two films in competition, which demonstrates what an achievement it was. To date, these film makers have scored an impressive number of international awards; 25 for Trapero; 20 for Burman; 13 for Martel and 11 for Puenzo. Unlike their other Latin American contemporaries, they’ve not been tempted abroad. They’re making personal films about the country they were born in and they still have plenty to say about it.

This generation has been fortunate that not only have domestic crises fuelled their creativity but that democratic Argentine governments have always invested heavily in domestic film production. An intriguing fact is that only 10% of films watched in Argentine cinemas are Argentine films. It’s been suggested that domestic films aren’t watched because they’re considered too difficult or challenging but because Latin Americans doubt the integrity of their own artists, as if they can’t imagine one of them can be so gifted. The honesty in which they reflect Argentine society might reveal certain home truths that are too uncomfortable. Hollywood’s cultural dominance plays its own part too. Ironically, this actually works in the favour of Argentine film makers. Taxes are levied on non-Argentine films that are distributed in cinemas; all of which is reinvested in domestic film making. Therefore the films of ‘The New Argentine Cinema’ are subsidised by the very people who aren’t watching them! This system of funding means that there’s no commercial pressures placed upon these film makers. They don’t have to compromise or pander to a wider audience. Their films retain their integrity and their honesty. Given these conditions remain in place, there’s no reason to think that the forthcoming features of these film makers won’t confirm their directors’ promise and further represent Argentine cinema as one of the most innovative and intelligent contemporary national cinemas.

June 11, 2009

Kieslowski’s Early Documentaries

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 1:36 pm
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The Imperial War Museum, London, is currently running a season titled “Sparks of Hope: Polish Paths to Freedom”, comprising a series of films about the Communist experience in Poland, from the start of June until early July. Details can be found here. The season includes films by Wajda and Holland amongst others, but the real coup might just be the series of documentaries made by Krzysztof Kieslowski between 1966-1981, before he made his name as an incredibly gifted feature film maker.

All documentaries are shown together, lasting approximately two and a quarter hours in total. It starts with the most recent, but also the longest, ‘A Short Working Day’ (1981). At 73 minutes, it’s more or less a main feature and combines documentary and dramatisation, rather than merely documenting live events as the remaining films do. Kieslowski points out that the film is based on a real incident, when workers protested in Radom in 1976, yet the characters involved are fictional. A precursor and inspiration to the Solidarity movement, Kieslowski’s film demonstrates that the Communist state could be challenged through the unity of the people. A politician who’s enjoyed a rapid ascent to power and is now First Secretary of the Voivodship struggles to deal with the 20000 or so striking workers when they protest outside his HQ, gaining no assistance from Warsaw and all chaos threatens to occur. Most interesting is how Kieslowski freezes upon various protestors, then cuts to their fate, as it were. You have a woman complaining about her salary; we cut to her being tried for vandalism. Another demonstrator goes onto work in underground propaganda against the state, whilst a young man is later beaten mercilessly by police for his role in the protests. Kieslowski ends on a fitting note; the agreement signed at the Gdansk shipyards as a symbol of hope and the first step towards the collapse of Communism.

‘The Office’ (1966) is a short film mocking state bureaucracy. A secret camera operates in the pensions department and observes the inflexible staff carrying out the strict rules to the letter, with no leniency. If forms are not completed correctly, one doesn’t get their pension. The final shots of literally a mountain of paperwork, files kept on everyone and everything shows the horrifying extent of the Polish level of bureaucracy.

‘The Factory’ (1970) films discussions and agreements made at the Ursus tractor factory. Kieslowski cuts between management discussing how to modernise the factory, improve technology and increase production and the workers themselves, trying to do as best they can in an underresourced factory. The appeals of management to the Minister to get anything done fall on flat ears. It’s a sober, realistic look at manufacturing, at the heart of the socialist economy.

‘Hospital’ (1976) is only 20 minutes in length, but documents a 31 hour shift for doctors in the emergency room of a Warsaw hospital. Electrical power cuts affect their work; drills stop working – after which more primitive methods of surgery have to take place. The doctors are constantly busy and overrun, but deliver the best care for their patients. Whilst they might be underresourced, there’s no doubt they’re the best advertisment for Polish healthcare.

‘Railway Station’ (1980) – the Central Station in Warsaw, recently renovated. CCTV cameras operate everywhere, observing their citizens with a close eye. Note the final shot of the camera operator with the all-seeing eye, playing God, in the closing shot. Trains are regularly cancelled, queues are commonplace. Despite the claims of improvements, the passengers don’t appear to benefit. Kieslowski’s emphasis is upon the social control demonstrated by constant surveillance.

There’s numerous other screenings taking place in this season, all of which are worth checking out.

June 8, 2009

Looking For Eric (2009)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 11:02 pm
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UK/France/Italy/Belgium

Director: Ken Loach

116 min

Synopsis

Manchester, the present day. Eric, a fortysomething postman crashes his car on a roundabout after driving erratically. He tries to discharge himself from hospital to make his early shift but is dissuaded from doing so. He returns home to his two stepsons, Ryan and Jess, from a failed marriage to Chrissy, who ignore and disrespect him. Eric’s colleague, Meatballs, tries to cheer Eric up through various self-help techniques; laughter, meditation etc. One evening, Eric smokes some of his stepson’s marijuana and speaks to the poster of Eric Cantona on his bedroom wall. Cantona emerges as a real person in his bedroom.

Eric reveals to Cantona how his accident occurred, having seen his first wife, Lily, for the first time in decades. He left her and his daughter, Sam, at a young age. Ryan gets involved with local criminals, who he hides a gun for in his bedroom. Sam, with a young child, is studying at university and asks Eric and Lily to help with babysitting whilst she completes her studies. Eric decides to repair his relationships with his ex-wife and daughter. He also asks the criminals to take the gun back, but they refuse, humiliating him in the process. Armed police raid Eric’s searching for the gun and arrested the entire family, who are eventually released. Eric’s friends decide to get their revenge by going to the main criminal’s house wearing Cantona masks and destroy his house in the process, forcing a confession, which is recorded.

Review

Playing in Cannes to a rapturous critical response (well, Cantona was an iconic French footballer after all), ‘Looking For Eric’ has already been considered fresh territory for Loach. Usually a director of social realist dramas, this takes elements of the genre and adds a dash of magic as well as aspects of romantic comedy. It has all the ingredients to make it the most accessible Loach film to date; no doubt performing well in Europe, where much of the financing of the film came from, but also picking up a genuine audience in the UK, attracted by the presence of Cantona, who executive produced the film.

The narrative itself is nothing too original, nor complicated. Eric is a down on his luck postman who tries to turn his life around, with the help of his friends, all well drawn-out, and of course, the Gallic superstar himself. Cantona is on good form, nicely sending up his own persona and skewering his own reputation as one of the more erudite and philosophical footballers. After one proverb too many, Eric is quick to ask Cantona to cease his advice if it’s going to be so abstract. There’s even documentary footage of Cantona’s famous speech about seagulls following the trawler as if to reiterate the point. There’s constant doubt whether Cantona was attempting to be profound or attempting to wrongfoot his critics. Cantona is willing enough to make fun of himself and these are the most impressive aspects of the film. The lack of any stability in Eric’s life has led to his hero-worship of Cantona; watching Cantona in his pomp filled this gap. Ergo, Cantona is the only person who can help Eric in his moment in need now. To Loach’s credit, he never makes Cantona’s presence in the film mystical; it’s just a dope-fuelled illusion and nothing more dramatic than this, though there’s a nice touch in the final scene where one of the Cantona mask-wearing mob is revealed to be Cantona himself.

When Loach veers into more dangerous, traditionally social-realist material, the entire tone of the film changes, not necessarily for the better. We’ve been used to whimsicality; now we’re seeing something more real. Cantona can help Eric with his romantic woes, but is nowhere to be seen when Ryan meddles with local gangsters. Maybe it’s something Eric has to sort out for himself. The episode feels like something designed to win Ryan and Jess’s respect. They’ve previously ignored Eric, making him feel like a stranger in his home, but when they really need him, he comes to their aid. Although the revenge against the gangsters turns to farce and humiliation later, the whole plot twist just feels a little dropped in. The denouément, where everything is neatly resolved, is surprising for Loach, who doesn’t seem the type of director who’d settle for a conventional, more crowd-pleasing chain of events. However, when the gangsters are humiliated, it’s a nicely sympathetic act of solidarity and one can forgive Loach for this.

The performances are impressive. Steve Evets (not an especially experienced, let alone well-known actor), in the central role, captures his everyman role, convincing as a man at the end of his tether, trying to deal with a multitude of problems. John Henshaw, as his pal, Meatballs, who’s the jovial self-help guru of the group, provides much comic relief. The remaining cast are little-known actors working mainly in television, so this ought to provide some welcome exposure for actors who seldom put a foot wrong in the entire film. Intriguingly, watch for Evets’ reaction the first time he spots Cantona in his bedroom. Apparently Evets was unaware this was going to occur so his response is completely spontaneous and honest.

Interesting to note how ‘Looking For Eric’, like many previous Loach films acquire most of their funding from continental Europe. This is no doubt partly a reflection upon how his films perform; barely causing a ripple at home but doing decent box office numbers abroad. Although the UK Film Council and Film Four are involved in this production, the fact the so much overseas money contributes to the film should cause discussion about where public money is going in the UK, spent mostly on populist films desperately chasing a mainstream audience rather than more artistically worthwhile projects. Still, Loach’s films are more than capable of standing on their own two feet (‘The Wind That Shakes The Barley’ grossed $23 million worldwide).

‘Looking For Eric’ is hardly new territory for Loach but neither is it the work of a director operating in his comfort zone. It’s more light-hearted than previous material, though it has its moments when the subject matter is more serious and hard-hitting (though it’s questionable whether this actually helps the film), but it’s not proof of Loach selling out or making concessions to make his film for palatable to audiences. For the most part, it’s hugely entertaining, often highly amusing, especially in the superb interplay between the two Eric’s. Too trivial to have been a genuine contender at Cannes this year, it’s nonetheless very impressive work indeed.

Boccaccio ’70 (1962)

Italy/France

Directors: Mario Monicelli, Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti, Vittorio de Sica

205 min

Synopsis

Italy, the 1960s. Four stories inspired by Boccaccio. In the first, ‘Renzo e Luciana’, the two eponymous lovers conduct an affair without their work colleagues knowing as they would both be fired. They marry, but find living with Luciana’s family too overcrowded and search for any privacy. Luciana is pursued by her boss, Osvaldo. She suspects she might be pregnant but it’s a false alarm. Renzo is accused of harassing Luciana at work, but she reveals the truth about their relationship. They might be unemployed but they have each other.

In the second, ‘Le tentazioni del dottor Antonio’, the morally upright eponymous doctor throws stones at copulating couples in the street, accusing them of turning Rome into a brothel. He interrupts a theatre performance to protest and asks women wearing loose fitting clothing to cover up. A giant billboard advertising milk featuring the actress Anita Ekberg, is erected outside his apartment. He asks the Church and local authorities to intervene and he vandalises the billboard. One night he has crazed and delirious dreams where Ekberg comes to life and taunts him.

In the third, ‘Il lavoro’, Count Ottavio returns to his home beset by scandals involving call girls. Speaking to lawyers and colleagues, he realises his wife, Pupe, hasn’t returned home, but she sneaks back home whilst he’s in discussion about silencing the press. Pupe reveals she’s been to visit Ottavio’s call girls. She plans for her future, to get a paid job, although she finds it difficult to reject her life and do so. Pupe realises that prostitution is all she might be cut out for.

In the fourth, ‘La riffa’, Zoe, a carnival booth owner, auctions herself in a lottery to pay for her back taxes, which is popular amongst the local, lecherous men. She has a fling with Gaetano after he rescues her from being attacked by a bull (when she was wearing a red blouse), but he grows jealous when Caspar wins a night with Zoe from the lottery. Although nothing happens, Caspar returns to the village a hero, whilst Zoe is reunited with Gaetano.

Review

The portmanteau film was a curious cinematic phenomenon of the early 1960s – see also ‘Ro.Go.Pa.G’ (Rossellini, Godard, Pasolini, Gregoretti), in which top European directors made loosely connecting shorts, compiled and released together. For the producer of ‘Boccaccio ’70’, no doubt the appeal was to showcase the talents of marquee names such as Fellini, Visconti and de Sica, though he clearly didn’t mind undermining the fourth director, Mario Monicelli, whose short was removed from the international release, which led to the remaining directors boycotting the presentation of the film at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. The portmanteau art film was a short-lived experiment; perhaps rightly so, since neither of the two mentioned have acquired a sterling reputation. One supposes the nearest Hollywood example would be ‘Four Rooms’, the universally derided Miramax release from the mid-1990s when the seeds of Quentin Tarantino’s descent into self-indulgence began to grow.

The format itself makes it difficult for any of the individual directors to flourish. The brief is simple; present an approximately 45-50 minute film on modern love inspired by Boccaccio, author of ‘Decameron’, which itself would be filmed by Pasolini in a decade or so. If Ponti had displayed any kind of foresight, then perhaps Pasolini might have proved an inspired choice to direct a segment, though his plans for the Trilogy of Life might have been some way off.

Even though Fellini and Visconti were probably at their creative peak, the restrictions placed upon them and their colleagues don’t especially help. The Boccaccio remit is probably no more than a gimmick to frame the film around. Each of their films seem personal and not overburdened by respect to the film’s inspiration. The short running times for each film, around half a feature length, means that each film feels rushed and not fully realised. There’s probably enough material in each to extend them to full length features but pressure to reduce the running time mean that ideas aren’t fully developed and narratives contrive too quickly and conveniently.

One of the more ironic factors to emerge is that Monicelli, slighted by producer Carlo Ponti, probably actually produces the most interesting and cohesive short. It’s a sweet tale of two young lovers who find themselves under pressure from family and employers, which threatens to tear them apart but of course resolves itself neatly. Marisa Solinas, in her first role, delivers a nicely understated performance and the overall sense of modesty is actually a welcome change from the excesses of the remaining short films.

Fellini’s short maintains his nascent interest at this juncture in dreams and the subconscious as he wittily punctures the pomposity and hypocrisy of a self-appointed moral guardian but is prone to lapsing into self-indulgence at every turn. Visconti’s short is a detached and remote account of the emotional and romantic woes of the upper bourgeoisie where the wife strives for independence but realises she can’t abandon her life of privilege, yet Visconti makes it tough to care for this self-absorbed married couple. de Sica showcases the acting talents of Sophia Loren in full-on sex-kitten mode but relies too much on exploiting this persona, with all too frequent cuts to lecherous old men leering at her when she bends over or removes her blouse. It’s simple and cheap attempts to gain laughs, nothing more.

More than anything though, these films are a tribute to women. They’re smart, sassy and sexy, constantly in charge of the men they’re involved with, who’re constantly given the runaround. They strive for independence and sometimes find it difficult to attain, but they’re empowered nonetheless. With this in mind, Monicelli’s short seems all the more distinguishable from the others. His Luciana is merely trying to be an equal to her man and navigating the problems that society’s imposing upon their relationship. She’s not the equal of Anita, Pupe and Zoe. So Monicelli’s short becomes something of an unnatural fit, not really working in the overall context of the anthology but almost acting as a standalone film that’s been surgically attached to the others. One could never claim with any justification that any of these shorts are amongst the greatest works of the respective directors; they’re light, often enjoyable but ultimately trivial shorts that pique one’s curiosity but never leaves one really satisfied.

‘Boccaccio ’70’ was released on DVD on 1 June by Mr Bongo films.

June 4, 2009

Marriage: Italian Style (1964)

Italy/France

Director: Vittorio de Sica

102 min

Synopsis

Naples, the 1940s-1960s. Filumena, an attractive middle aged woman, falls ill whilst driving. Her neighbours take her to her bed. Domenico, her on-off lover, is having an affair with a young cashier, Diana, whom he plans to marry. Concerned about Filumena’s welfare, he visits. He has a flashback of how they met during the Second World War. She was a 17 year old prostitute and Domenico has kept her as his mistress ever since, with no intention of ever marrying her. He sets her up in apartments and provides employment but rejects any commitment. When he disappears for months on business, one of Domenico’s employees, Alfredo, proposes. Domenico returns and offers to introduce Filumena to his mother. An old, senile woman; Domenico asks Filumena to be her maid, even sleeping in the maid’s room. Filumena regularly observes Domenico’s faithlessness.

In the present, Domenico offers to marry Filumena on her deathbed, which is overseen by a priest delivering the last rites. After, Filumena reveals her deception. In her flashbacks, Filumena reveals she gave birth to three boys, which Domenico is unaware of. They have been raised by a family friend, unaware of who their real mother is. Domenico discovers this and seeks an annulment of their marriage. Filumena tells Domenico one of the boys is his. He then attempts to discover which. No closer to finding out, he and Filumena physically argue, then embrace. This time, they marry for real.

Review

By the 1960s, neo-realism, the movement that had reinvigorated Italian cinema after the Second World War, was an afterthought for Italian film makers. Those directors who’d made their names with neo-realist films had moved into different projects and different genres. Fellini was becoming more ambitious and self-reflexive. Visconti entered a world of lurid and increasingly overblown melodrama. Rossellini worked on more historical-based films. Vittorio de Sica, one of the founders of neo-realism, was working more in the field of comedy, usually with Sophia Loren. ‘Marriage: Italian Style’ fits perfectly into this template, following the likes of ‘Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’ with its typically Italian ribald sense of humour.

This said though, despite the admiration of Hollywood (the film collected two Academy Award nominations but didn’t the Academy just love anything Italian in this era?), one can’t help but thinking that de Sica, after directing the seminal ‘The Bicycle Thieves’ and ‘Umberto D’, is spreading his talents a bit too thinly here. The remaining former neo-realists adjusted to the decline of the movement (although a relative latecomer, Pasolini was doing his bit with ‘Accatone’ and ‘Mamma Roma’), but de Sica seems to have settled into a nice routine of undemanding and trivial comedies, albeit those that have a fair amount of entertaining qualities. Doubtless they made Loren a star and contributed to Mastroianni’s iconic status, but one feels that they do no long term favours for any personnel involved.

Still, Loren is nothing if not impressive, carefully balancing a series of emotions as she tries to hoodwink the lover who’s kept her at arm’s length for two decades, proving that there’s far more to her than meets the eye. Her acting gifts match her looks. Already in her collaborations with de Sica, she’d proved herself more than capable of breaking out of the carefully constructed image of her, whether it’s the more comic performances in ‘The Gold of Naples’ or the more serious, dramatic performances of ‘Two Women’. Here, she shows an equal amount of range. There’s no doubt Filumena’s role is given more importance by de Sica, thus giving Loren more to work with. Mastroianni looks suave and dapper, but is really playing a by-numbers cad who finally sees the error of his ways. He’s deliberately afforded little depth.

There’s a nice degree of if not social satire, than social observation, in how the Filumena-Domenico relationship functions on a grander level. She runs his businesses and makes him wealthier and then takes care of his ailing mother. All of the while, he’s playing the field, moving from one woman to the next. He’s far more dependent on her than he cares to imagine. Yet she’s able to seize the initiative and make their relationship more one of equals through initially hoodwinking him into marriage and then stalling his attempts to annul the marriage by teasing him about which of her three sons might be his. She claims it’s one, perhaps it’s all three. There’s some nice comic moments as Domenico tries to remember dates or thinks which of the boys most takes after him. Filumena’s power lies in his curiosity and inability to find out the truth. She demands that all her children must be treated equally. Whether there’s any political undercurrents to ‘Marriage: Italian Style’, it’s difficult to say, given the sheer superficiality of this frothy farce, but there’s definitely a sense of bringing the bourgeois bounder down a peg or two from the initial feigning of illness to his final submission of her will.

‘Marriage: Italian Style’ is genuinely fine on its own merits. Had it not been the collaboration of seriously talented personnel, you’d overlook the shallowness quite easily and just enjoy. There’s that constant impression though that you’ve been short-changed somehow; that ultimately, it’s a nice-looking, nicely-acted but completely inconsequential piece of work that could have been better, more substantial. Whilst it’s amusing in the main, the more bawdy aspects of humour just seem lazy. When Filumena and Domenico first make love, the next time we see Filumena, she walks down the street and dozens of boys and men just gawp at her, transfixed. This scene could have come from hundreds of films, which maybe even imitated this one, but it still feels too obvious. It’s lightly handled by de Sica, who never takes the film too seriously and one might even feel entitled to compare it to classic Hollywood battles of the sexes romantic comedies, although I’m not sure it’s an avenue worth pursuing. ‘Marriage: Italian Style’ is all about surface and doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny.

‘Marriage: Italian Style’ is released on DVD on 8 June on Mr Bongo films.

June 3, 2009

The Resurgence of the British ‘Art’ Film

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 12:18 am
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A 1000 word article on the current crop of more art-house friendly British films…

The British film critic Jonathan Romney, writing in the Independent on Sunday about Steve McQueen’s ‘Hunger’ and Terence Davies’ ‘Of Time and the City’, recently remarked upon a renaissance of the British art film. Described in his own words as a phenomenon that was “endangered, presumed lost”, it’s made a surprising comeback with a series of intriguing and complex films, including the two Romney mentions, but also Joanna Hogg’s ‘Unrelated’, Andrea Arnold’s Dogme ’95-inspired ‘Red Road’ and her latest, ‘Fish Tank’, Duane Hopkins’ ‘Better Things’ and the more recent ‘Helen’, directed by Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy.

Each of these films was made on a comparatively miniscule budget, even as far as British film making goes. This no doubt reflects the significant risk involved in making films such as these; they’re hardly safe commercial propositions. But consider the kind of budgets given to more mainstream British films of recent years. The widely panned ‘Sex Lives of the Potato Men’ cost £1.8m to produce, yet scraped about a third back in box office receipts. Unless you count the safe bets that are Danny Boyle or Richard Curtis films, even those British films with fair commercial backing and potential wide releases are underperforming, or maybe audiences are just wise enough to realise rubbish when they discover it. These quality, esoteric British art films are operating with much fewer resources. ‘Of Time and the City’, a celebration of Liverpool’s history and the first Terence Davies film in a decade, cost under £500,000. ‘Helen’ managed to pull together a budget of just over £250,000 thanks to regional funding bodies. This raises questions about the nature of public funding; should subsidies be given to films that might financially succeed or those that have artistic merit? Perhaps it’s a balance that’s yet to be happily met.

This wave of art films owes a huge debt to British social realism, the genre that our domestic cinema does best. Think of the rich tradition that extends as far back as the kitchen sink dramas of the 1950s, the cinema of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh over the past four decades almost and the more recent films of Lynne Ramsay and Shane Meadows. These films documented the real lives of ordinary people and charted the socio-economic history of the UK and its political changes. These new films are doing this too; whether it’s the astute examination of the values of the Tuscan-holidaying middle classes in ‘Unrelated’ or the damning indictment of government policy and state security in Northern Ireland in ‘Hunger’. It’s difficult to imagine these projects being undertaken without the heritage of social realism in the UK. Leigh has satirised the manners of the British middle class in several films, whilst Alan Clarke tackled Northern Irish politics in ‘Elephant’.

What differentiates many of these films from their predecessors though is their devotion to experimental, avant-garde cinema. This in part lies in the educational and artistic background of many of these film makers. Steve McQueen is a Turner Prize-winning visual artist. Sam Taylor Wood, who directed the upcoming John Lennon biopic ‘Nowhere Boy’ is an acclaimed conceptual artist. These film makers are making films with a completely different perspective, using their own artistic backgrounds in other fields to pursue unique agendas, whilst still making films that at least thematically refer back to the likes of Leigh and Loach. It’s this artistic background that also allows these film makers to make the most of the modest budgets allocated to their films. ‘Hunger’ features a single, unbroken shot that lasts the best part of twenty minutes, which would be unthinkable in a more mainstream film, whilst also using a powerful split screen scene with intense police brutality on one hand and the sombre reflection of a policeman on the other.

Perhaps the most curious example from this current wave is ‘Helen’. The roots of ‘Helen’ were in the short ‘Joy’, which involved the same premise. A teenage girl (Joy) has gone missing and a classmate (Helen) is asked to impersonate her for a televised reconstruction. Helen then begins to absorb aspects of Joy’s personality and almost seamlessly slips into Joy’s place, treated by her family and boyfriend almost as if she’s Joy. Amongst the entire crop, it’s probably the most ambitious film and by the same measure, probably the most infuriating and inconsistent. Clearly inspired by Antonioni, from the mystery in park, never resolved, that refers to ‘Blow Up’ and the extended evening skyline shot that almost feels stolen wholesale from ‘The Eclipse’, it’s a film that wants to take risks but ultimately overreaches, often requiring the viewer to suspend his/her disbelief to some extent and to withstand some erratic acting and dialogue, which may be deliberate. Who knows? Still, for all the aesthetical intensity of ‘Hunger’, it’s ‘Helen’ that first hits us as a truly original and vivid piece of film making.

Also unique about these films is that they’re mostly the work of first-time film makers, or at least relative novices at their profession. ‘Hunger’, ‘Helen’, ‘Red Road’, ‘Better Things’ and ‘Unrelated’ are all first features. ‘Fish Tank’ will be Arnold’s second feature, whilst Terence Davies, director of ‘Of Time and the City’ might be a veteran director but has found his career stalled on numerous occasions because of his reputation as a personal film maker of ‘difficult’ (read: commercially unviable) projects. Film makers often learn about film making by making films. It takes several films for film makers to hit their stride, to find a successful formula, to find the confidence to make their masterpieces. This generation of film makers have hit the ground running, approaching their first features with an exceptional level of confidence and a desire to make original films from the start of their careers.

Working with low budgets undoubtedly helps. There are fewer demands upon them to deal with commercial expectations. These films are not designed to turn a profit but to operate as prestigious features that might, with a dash of luck, succeed at the box office. Yet so far, the films mentioned have performed moderately, with none of them breaking out and exceeding expectations. Inevitably, these film makers will probably be allocated larger budgets and possibly tempted to working in Hollywood, although there’s no guarantees of this. These film makers clearly want to work on their own terms and dictate the direction of their films without studio interference. They are responsible for an exciting time for British film and one hopes that these film makers live up to the promise of their debut features.

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