August 30, 2009

Broken Embraces (2009)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 2:23 pm
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Director: Pedro Almodovar
129 min


Madrid, the present. Harry Caine (real name: Mateo Blanco), a blind screenwriter makes love to a young woman who helped him cross the road. Judit, his assistant, informs him that the newspaper reports the death of Ernesto Martel, a powerful businessman. In Madrid, 1992, a young receptionist, Lena, is troubled by her father’s illness – Her employer, Martel arranges for Lena’s father to be treated in the best private clinic. She becomes his mistress. Back in the present, Harry is contacted by a man named Ray X, who wants to work on a film about a father who had ruined his son’s life forever. This is Martel’s son.

In 1994, Lena is now an aspiring actress and auditions for a film to be directed by Mateo, ‘Girls and Suitcases’, which is financed by Martel. Lena and Mateo embark on an affair on set, even though Martel’s son, Ernesto Jr. has been sent to keep an eye on Lena. As Lena tells Martel she’s leaving him, he pushes her down a staircase, severely injuring her. Lena promises not to reveal the truth and to stay with Martel as long as he allows Mateo to finish and release the film as he wishes. Once healed, Lena and Mateo holiday in Lanzarote, whilst an angry Martel butchers and releases the film; a flop. Lena and Mateo are involved in a car crash, which kills Lena and blinds Mateo, who now calls himself Harry. Back in the present, Judit reveals she told Martel where he and Lena were. Ray X helps Harry, who now reclaims the name Mateo re-edit ‘Girls and Suitcases’.


The most stylish and financially viable of all European auteurs, the late career of Pedro Almodovar has been more mature and adult than his previous kitschy, chaotic features. Critics worldwide have declared the likes of ‘All About My Mother’ (1999) and ‘Talk To Her’ (2002) as unadulterated masterpieces, whilst ‘Bad Education’ (2004) and ‘Volver’ (2006); the latter featuring a powerhouse, Academy Award-worthy performance by Penelope Cruz were similarly well received. I’m personally slightly more agnostic about Almodovar’s ‘classics’. It’s fine to be influenced by Hollywood ‘women’s pictures’ and noir thrillers if you’re bringing something of yourself to the film, contributing your own original ideas. I think Almodovar certainly does this, but he often seems so in thrall to the likes of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ or ‘Mildred Pierce’ for instance, and wanting to do these films such justice, that the lines between borrowing and creativity often become blurred. More often than not, he’s on the right side of this line, but there’s always a concern that he’s backing himself into a corner. Fortunately though, there’s no sign that Almodovar has hit a creative rut if ‘Broken Embraces’ is anything to go by.

Never has Almodovar been more referential to cinema, and not just Hollywood but also himself than in ‘Broken Embraces’. Cinematic allusions are everywhere; whether it’s the pseudonym of the main protagonist – Harry Caine – a portmanteau perhaps of Harry Lime and Charles Foster Kane, the reference to the noir classic ‘Kiss of Death’ (1947), when Martel pushes Lena down the stairs, or the various films that are watched or discussed. Lena and Mateo watch ‘Voyage to Italy’ (1954) on television, which contributed the title of this film. Diego (Judit’s son) and Harry (as he became known after his blindness) discuss ‘Magnificent Obsession’ (1954) – itself a film where a major character becomes blind after an accident, as well as ‘Lift to the Scaffold’ (1958). These are films that have had direct influence upon Almodovar his entire career, though perhaps the work of Sirk is of most obvious amongst his work – the rich colours, dizzying visuals, the constant lack of reality/presence of artificiality has not only influenced Almodovar, but Fassbinder, Haynes and many others. What’s more, Almodovar is more self-aware than ever; the comedy ‘Girls and Suitcases’ borrows from ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’ (1988), his first international success. There’s a clear extent to which Mateo is based on Almodovar himself. Almodovar is a contrast to that other renowned borrower of the history of cinema, Tarantino. Almodovar doesn’t allow what he’s borrowing to consume his own ideas.

‘Broken Embraces’ is also a pivotal film about the film making process, although this is not just because of what we see going on ‘behind the scenes’, but also because of the fact we have Ernesto Jr./Ray X operating as a ‘witness’, filming the ‘making of’ ‘Girls and Suitcases’ (whilst conveniently spying for his father), running parallel to us, the audience, watching the film being made. Ernesto Jr.’s voyeuristic gaze; at one point Mateo even mentions he reminds him of ‘Peeping Tom’, sits parallel to ours, but as though we watch objectively and he watches subjectively. We’re never quite sure what his interest in undertaking this ‘documentary’ is though. To gain the approval of his father? Ernesto Jr. is an awkward, effeminate young man whose relationship with his homophobic father is at breaking point at this early stage. The wounds of having two parents who bemoan giving birth to a “fairy” are obvious. Even in his twenties, Ernesto Jr. is a twice-divorced father but has now shacked up with another man. Does this suggest a lack of comfort with his sexuality or whether he was bullied by his father into marrying and having children? Or maybe just finding a way to fit into society? Certainly the film he wishes to make with Harry is an act of revenge against his father.

The constant jumps between times and parallel narratives often mean that pivotal moments of interest are overlooked. We don’t always understand the motivations of characters and because of this, often find it difficult to empathise with them. For instance, there’s a good decade between the death of Lena and Ernesto Martel’s death. He apparently was brought down in a financial scandal in this intervening period, and presumably we’re told this so that we equate his financial corruption with his moral corruption. But once Lena dies, he becomes a peripheral character. It’s not just the case with Martel though; there’s very little that links the two time periods in which the film operates.

Anchoring ‘Broken Embraces’ is yet another superb performance by Penelope Cruz, who constantly looks luminously beautiful, though she possesses vulnerability and self-determination at the same time. Not content solely being Martel’s mistress (which we assume was because her father was ill), she wants to provide for herself and rejects her wealthy lifestyle for true love with Mateo. The rest of the cast provide more subtle, low-key performances, but none of which should be overlooked. As expected, Almodovar’s film is slick, stylish entertainment, with impressive cinematography from new DoP Rodrigo Prieto, whose works still harks back to previous Almodovar features. Coming into the film with lesser expectations than the director’s loyal fanbase will, I was pleasantly surprised. The labyrinth plot more or less held up, though the two time periods could be adjoined more successfully and whilst the balance of style and substance sits precariously, the end result is dizzying and often breathtaking.


August 29, 2009

The Hurt Locker (2008)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 12:23 am
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Director: Kathryn Bigelow
131 min


Baghdad, 2004. Staff Sergeant Thompson, team leader of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit, is killed whilst attempted to detonate a bomb. He is replaced by Sargeant William James, who works closely with Sergeant JT Sanborn and Sergeant Owen Eldridge, though his colleagues find his behaviour, which includes approaching explosives minus his protective suit, reckless for the whole unit. When dealing with a suspected device in a car outside a UN building, the team come under fire from snipers, who also seek to record this on camera. Sanborn and Eldridge want to evacuate but James stays to disarm the device. They meet a group of British contractors in the desert, who are hunting wanted Iraqis. They are attacked, where three of the British are killed. Eldridge kills the last of the snipers.

They search a school, where James finds what he assumes is the body of a local boy he was friendly to. The boy has been gutted; his body packed with explosives. Outside, Colonel Cambridge, who has been treating Eldridge’s depression, is killed in an ambush. James finds the boy’s employer and asks what happened to the boy and where his parents live. It is a trick and James is alone, at night, in central Baghdad, before eventually returning to the camp. James leads the team on a mission that night, where Eldridge is seriously wounded. The next day, James discovers the local boy is alive. On the final day of their rotation period, James attempts to disarm a time bomb locked to a man’s chest, but he is unable to. James returns home shortly after, but is shown returning for another year of service.


Given the controversial nature of the invasion of Iraq, Hollywood naturally began to explore the subject in recent years, though not to the effect that might have been imagined. A series of Iraq-themed films, which includes ‘Lions For Lambs’, ‘Redacted’, ‘In The Valley of Elah’ (all 2007) and ‘Stop Loss’ (2008) have all been commercial failures and met critical indifference. Some have suggested public apathy towards the war in Iraq. Everyday the news reports from events on the ground with great detail and scrutiny, so why do we need Hollywood’s take on events? ‘The Hurt Locker’ has the potential to change the perception of Iraq-themed films. Smaller in budget that most of its contemporaries ($11m), featuring a cast of mostly unknowns (save cameos from Ralph Fiennes and Guy Pearce) and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, a gifted and experienced female action director, it’s an assured piece of work and almost certainly one of the finest films of 2009.

What partly separates it from its contemporaries, and this might partly explain why critics have been more receptive to the film, is that is doesn’t have a firm interest in politics (although critics such as Jonathan Rosenbaum have argued that any film about Iraq is intrinsically political). Although audiences are mostly signing from the same hymnsheet, give or take those in the Republican heartlands, the handwringing politics that have been the cornerstone of previous Iraq-themed films have been off-putting; their liberal agendas delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. ‘The Hurt Locker’ doesn’t go in for such overt political discussion; there’s no larger questions such as “why are we here?” being asked. Instead, it’s a film that solely looks at events on the ground, not the decisions made at a higher level, and it’s all the better for that.

The film shows the events that wouldn’t normally be shown or discussed in the media, where the more political issues are usually focused upon; the everyday routines of the American armed forces, which in this case is a bomb disposal unit. The work of James, Sanborn and Eldridge is demonstrated in painstaking detail. Disabling bombs is not a simple task; just watch how tense the attempt to remove the bombs locked to a man’s chest in three minutes becomes, especially given the fact that James is unable to outwit the terrorists. Bigelow is keen to show that this is the work these men have chosen to undertake and that it certainly shouldn’t be equated with heroism. James’s maverick brilliance rightly receives the scorn of his colleagues. Sanborn ferociously punches James the first time he risks the safety of the team and James’s behaviour gradually becomes more reckless, culminating in a dangerous night-time mission that results in the injury of Eldridge, who sustained these wounds when he was kidnapped, then rescued by James and Sanborn.

The opening quotation on screen reveals the essence of the film in a nutshell; that “war is a drug”. Although the film never ventures into the psychological effects of war in much detail, they’re always there. Eldridge is undergoing counselling, whilst James appears to have something akin to a breakdown towards the end of the film. When he returns home, it’s all too obvious that he’s unable to adjust to civilian life, partly because of his own troubled domestic situation. It’s no wonder that he can’t wait to ship out again. These men are capable of doing nothing else. Always at the core of ‘The Hurt Locker’ is the sense of adrenaline; that James feeds off these (extra)ordinary circumstances – this is his fix. There’s always the constant sense of mortality, summed up in Sanborn’s declaration “if you’re in Iraq, you’re dead”. These men know that their lives are on the line every day and that’s a risk they take. Living is purely a matter of chance.

Aside from a couple of descents into cliché, such as when Colonel Cambridge returns to action after being taunted for not being on the front line and immediately dies or when James has a stereotypical breakdown in a shower, ‘The Hurt Locker’ is a superb, audacious film that tackles a much covered subject with a fresh perspective and free from political baggage. Jeremy Renner delivers a star-making performance as James and Bigelow films in subjective fashion; with shots frequently taken from the point of view of specific individuals but she always deploys the contemporary style of action film making – all jittery, hand-held footage that shows Iraq as alien terrain, where chaos outweighs order, where the end result needs to be victory rather than liberty but it’s no place for heroes; just men doing a job because that’s all they can do.

August 27, 2009

(500) Days of Summer (2009)

Director: Marc Webb
95 min


Los Angeles, the present. The film is shown in non-chronological order, but this synopsis will be presented chronologically. Tom, a twentysomething who works at a greetings card company falls for Summer, his boss’s new assistant. They discover a mutual love of The Smiths and enjoy a work karaoke evening, but Summer has reservations about love, in contrast to Tom’s blind optimism. Tom and Summer become closer. Despite her interest in only being friends, they begin a casual romantic relationship, although Tom wants something more meaningful.

Tom and Summer watch ‘The Graduate’ in a cinema, after which she tells Tom they should stop seeing each other. Tom becomes depressed and skips work, which concerns his boss and friends. Tom and Summer meet again at the wedding of a colleague, where they dance. Summer invites Tom to a party she’s hosting. At this party, Tom discovers Summer is engaged. Tom skips work once more and begins to drink heavily. He returns to work after a few days only to quit; his illusions about love having been shattered. Tom decides to resurrect his architecture career, which he had previously suspended. He meets Summer by accident. She reveals his ideas about love were right all the time but she was never as sure about their relationship as she is about her marriage. At a job interview, Tom is interested in a fellow applicant and then asks her on a date. Her name is Autumn.


Presenting itself as a romantic comedy with a difference, ‘(500) Days of Summer’ is an independent film that offers a refreshing, unique look at love amongst twentysomethings. As the warm tones of the narrator makes clear in the opening moments of the film, it’s a story of boy meets girl, where boy falls in love but girl doesn’t. It stays true to its word too, rejecting what would be the simple, crowd-pleasing tactic of reuniting the two lovers. Once the relationship fizzles out, it’s dead for good, despite what ‘boy’ would like. Equally distinctive is the format in which the film is presented to us; non-chronological, jumping between different days and aspects of the relationship according to Tom’s own subjective memories. And Tom’s memory is certainly shown to be unreliable in a couple of key scenes, such as one in a record store, that are replayed from a more impartial perspective. Where Tom never noticed disharmony between himself and Summer before, it now becomes more apparent. He was just too blind to notice.

Much like most American independent films, which are barely definable as ‘independent’ anyway since they’re produced by subsidiaries of major studios, ‘(500) Days of Summer’ struggles to completely break free of the shackles of the conventions of the romantic comedy genre. This is a film that wants to succeed, that wants to opt-in, that follows much of the same template of films that it would turn its nose up at. Although the usual resolution doesn’t take place, it’s still feel-good entertainment, topped off by an ending that seems hopelessly neat and contrived. Tom has spent the film in love and when it doesn’t work out, his life threatens to fall apart. Yet Summer returns again to convince him he was right all along, and even more daft, Tom meets what might be the real love of his life in a job interview; hardly the best preparation for either. Of course you could guess his potential girlfriend’s name a mile off. And then the whole process that the film exists within begins again. The film could have taken a bit more of a risk and avoided clichés so easily, but American independent films don’t want to stay in their ghetto and chase the dollar quite shamelessly at times.

What will either sit easily or uneasily, depending on one’s perspective, is the film’s quite open and brazen attempt to ramp up its own ‘hip’ factor. One of many issues with ‘Garden State’ (2004), another ‘independent’ film obsessed by its own cool, was the excruciating scene in which Natalie Portman told Zach Braff to listen to The Shins and that they’d change his life. Did the makers of this film learn from how embarrassing this was handled? Instead, they’re over-concerned with demonstrating at every corner, using none too subtle indicators, just how trendy Tom and Summer are. This starts with their awkward mutual appreciation of The Smiths (surely every college kid knows The Smiths, right?), Tom’s casual wear of Joy Division and The Clash t-shirts and his singing of The Pixies at karaoke. The soundtrack is littered with the kind of tracks that staff at might have dreamt up as their ideal film soundtrack. It’s obviously reflective of the demographic the film is aiming itself at but it just seems so focus group driven at times. One wonders whether the use of Hall and Oates for a post-coital triumphant dance routine by Tom (which is a nice aesthetic touch incidentally) is meant to be ironic, because this track certainly surpasses the singer-songwriter by numbers drivel of Regina Spektor.

These criticisms might give the impression that ‘(500) Days of Summer’ isn’t a worthwhile film, but far from it. It’s mostly very entertaining indeed and there’ll be plenty of males similar to Tom who empathise with what he’s going through. The examination of male insecurity and self-absorption is akin to that of ‘High Fidelity’ (2000) and it’s a comparison I’m sure the film makers will probably accept and perhaps even welcome. One might suggest that we don’t see much of Summer’s experience of the relationship but the film’s deliberately subjective, with what we imagine to be the ‘truth’ open to scrutiny at all times. There’s a worry the depiction of Summer might be unfair but I don’t see that to be the case. She’s upfront and honest; it’s Tom who misinterprets gestures. The acknowledgement of the woman who inspired the film in the opening credits, with the epithet ‘bitch’ is presumably meant to be amusing but might, in the eyes of some, underline attitudes towards gender politics in the film. Early reviews of the film have so far been mostly very positive. I can’t share that enthusiasm. It’s often very sweet and the two leads are adorable, but there’s something quite calculated and cynical about it; plus it’s hardly as off-beat orcool as it would like to imagine.

August 20, 2009

L’Enfant (2005)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 10:15 pm
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Directors: Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne
95 min


Liége, Belgium. 18 year old Sonia gives birth to a boy, Jimmy. Looking after the child, alone, she searches for his 20 year old father, Bruno. Sonia discovers that Bruno has sublet the apartment allocated to them, so the couple must stay in a hostel, where they are separated. Bruno, a petty criminal, is informed by an associate that there a couples willing to pay good money to adopt a child. Worried about how they’ll raise Jimmy, Sonia asks Bruno to find a regular job, which he dismisses.

Upon learning what they could get for selling Jimmy, Bruno does so. He tells Sonia that they’ll have another child, but Sonia faints and is rushed to hospital. Bruno attempts to retrieve Jimmy, only to be told he can buy him back at a premium. Sonia has the police involved, but Bruno asks his mother to cover for him and he claims Sonia’s lying. Bruno follows Sonia home but she wants nothing to do with him and throws him out. Bruno is beaten by the man he owes money to and is told he will now steal for them to pay his debts. With a younger boy, Steve, Bruno snatches a woman’s bag but is pursued by both a passerby and the police. As they hide in the river, Steve develops hypothermia. He is caught and arrested. Bruno then hands himself in. Sonia visits him in prison, where they both cry together.


The Dardenne brothers sit in a small, but prestigious band of film makers that include Alf Sjoberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Emir Kusturica and Shohei Imamura. They have all won the Palme D’Or, the most important of all international film prizes, twice. The Dardennes first won the award for their 1999 film ‘Rosetta’, which documented the life of a young teenage girl who was trying to escape both poverty and her mother’s alcoholism. Cut from similar cloth then is ‘L’Enfant’, the brothers’ second Palme D’Or winning film. There are obvious parallels between both films, which sit nicely within the Dardennes film making template. As with all their films, ‘L’Enfant’ is set in the industrial city of Liége in the North-east of Belgium. This is a haven it would seem for estranged, dispossessed youths, who make up the usual protagonists of a Dardennes film.

Sonia, the gymslip mother, has had to grow up quickly, whilst her erstwhile boyfriend, Bruno, has no interest in paternal responsibility, preferring to duck ‘n’ dive, eke out a meagre living any way he can, rather than settle for the daily grind. Or has he subtly and succinctly puts it; “only fuckers work!” This is clearly not a couple designed to raise a young child. There is a relationship of sorts, but the Dardennes are keen to show that both Sonia and Bruno act like teenagers. They’re not mature or responsible. They’re obsessed by their mobile phones; not just means of communicating but pivotal possessions for just living. They’re playful, often mock-fighting, but it’s perfectly evident that Jimmy was an accident. Whilst Sonia immediately tries to act like a mother, trying to provide for Jimmy and take good care of him, it’s important that the directors remain impartial in their characterisation and don’t judge their protagonists. It’s a skill they have that lesser film makers don’t possess. Even when Bruno agrees to sell Jimmy, he’s conscious not only of the financial implications, as lucrative as they are, but also of the welfare of his son. He’s well meaning to an extent and wants to know Jimmy is going to have a better life with another family. Then comes Bruno’s volte-face after Sonia’s collapse. In a Bressonian journey of guilt and redemption, Bruno attempts to make amends for his mistakes, only to find, of course, that it’s not so simple, as he finds himself in over his head, ready to resort to desperate measures to atone. The directors empathise with their characters, and whilst they don’t go overboard with the socio-economic factors behind their motives, it’s evident that they’re present, that these characters exist in an environment (not just Belgium, but Western Europe generally perhaps) that alienates them.

This is economic, efficient film making that utilises the fewest possible resources to make its point and doesn’t dress itself in irrelevant or superfluous material. At its core the film is a two hander between Bruno and Sonia. But then what of its title? The eponymous character of the film is Jimmy himself. But note how he barely exists as a character within the film. We barely see him at all. He is carried around but seldom cared for. He becomes nothing more than collateral, currency; something that Bruno can use and sell to continue his feckless, reckless lifestyle. Or are Bruno and Sonia equally the children; teenagers faced with adult situations that they’re not mature enough to deal with? There are no other individuals within the film with whom we identify, except perhaps Steve, the young boy who’s arrested after participating in one of Bruno’s robberies. The Dardennes deliberately strip their films back, showing us as much as we need to and concealing what we don’t. Note how many pivotal scenes seem to take place in darkness. When Bruno retrieves Jimmy, the exchange is undertaken in adjoining garages. The beating Bruno takes for not accepting the terms of the criminals he’d betrayed is all to audible to us but we see nothing.

This is just one example of the intense naturalism on show. Nothing is forced or calculated. Actions have consequences and individuals suffer; none more so than he or she who’s made that decision. This is film making that asks moral questions but doesn’t offer simple answers. The audience is left to decide much for themselves. The performances are routinely excellent; one really believes in Bruno and Sonia and can appreciate why they behave as they do. Presumably the actors work with scenarios rather than fully developed scripts, or at least there’s the air of some kind of improvisation. The influence of Bresson is everywhere but the Dardennes are unique film makers nevertheless; ‘L’Enfant’ is their ‘Pickpocket’ but distinctive from the latter and reflecting the times we live in.

August 14, 2009

The Day I Became a Woman (2000)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 7:43 pm
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Director: Marzieh Makhmalbaf
78 min


Kish Island, Southern Iran. Three tales about Iranian women. Hava is a nine year old girl told by her mother and grandmother that she is now a woman and must act accordingly. She is forbidden from playing with her male friend, although she gains a reprieve until midday, the time she was born. Her friend is still in school, doing homework. They communicate through the bars in the classroom window, passing him sweets, as the time before she must leave approaches. Finally at noon she is collected by her mother, who instructs her to wear a chador.

Ahoo, a woman in her twenties, is participating in a cycling race, with dozens of other women. She is pursued by her husband on horseback, who instructs her to stop cycling. Ahoo defiantly rides on, even to the point of exhaustion. Her husband returns with the Mullah, who divorces the couple on the spot. The men in Ahoo’s family later pursue her, demanding that she stops, but she continues, cycling much longer than her rivals.

Hoora, an elderly and wealthy widow arrives at the airport. She hires some young boys to help her purchase household goods that she never had before, which she remembers with pieces of string attached to her fingers. The goods she then purchases are laid out on the beach as she waits for the ship that will take her away. Two female cyclists watch curiously, then speak to Hoora, mentioning Ahoo. Hava and her mother also watch on as a series of rafts take the goods to the ship.


Mohsen Makhmalbaf might have been the most prominent Iranian film maker of the 1980s and 1990s along with Abbas Kiarostami, but by the end of the 1990s, it was the female members of the Makhmalbaf family that were making a splash and making their names. First, his seventeen year old daughter Samira directed her sympathetic part-documentary, part fiction debut feature ‘The Apple’. Shortly after, Mohsen’s wife directed her own debut. Much like most of the films of the Makhmalbaf clan, it’s a liberal, humanist film that examines the role and position of women in contemporary Iran. What separates it from the films of Samira perhaps, is that ‘The Day I Became a Woman’ has a more surreal element to it, described by Roger Ebert as ‘Felliniesque’.

Hava’s tale might be the most conventional of the three, the most naturalistic. Makhmalbaf earnestly explores the pressures placed upon young girls in Iran at a very early age. In this instance, it’s the ‘coming of age’ of a nine year old girl, who’s now told she’s a woman. Hava is a carefree girl who wants nothing more than to be able to play with her friends. She doesn’t understand the responsibilities that have now been placed upon her. Makhmalbaf captures her confusion well. It doesn’t dawn on her what will change at midday. Her friendship with a local boy is shown poignantly. When he can’t leave class, she passes his sweets through the bars of the window, which are slightly too high for her to reach but she perseveres until she can make it. Then there’s the recurring motif of the chador, the symbol of womanhood but also the end of innocence. Hava doesn’t realise what the impact of what it means, but Makhmalbaf reminds us that this is something that occurs to all girls of Hava’s age, forced to grow up far too quickly in a paternalist society.

It’s the next two tales where Makhmalbaf becomes more visually expressive, whilst also confirming the challenges faced by Iranian women of all ages. The image of the cycling women is a striking one. Ahoo might be a rebellious wife, defying the wishes of both her husband and her family, but is this image a wider metaphor? Ahoo strikes us as being an individual within the race though, racing to the point of collapsing, outstripping her rivals, who cycle serenely at a steady pace. Only Ahoo is challenged en route and cursed for her actions. So whilst the cycling device might be a representation of the female experience, it’s only woman who’s challenging the consensus. With a combination of tracking shots, close ups and sudden shots that pull away, Makhmalbaf keenly demonstrates how women of a certain age, presumably newly married, face the most difficult of pressures, which can hardly be escaped from.

Hoora’s tale is also abstract, with a striking set of shots in particular of a vast number of consumer goods spread out across the coast (as well as a bizarre sequence when the local boys act domestically with them – take pretend showers, wash and iron etc) that also relate to the opulence and wealth of the region, organised as a rival to Dubai and other resorts. Makhmalbaf’s main emphasis is upon depicting widowhood as a form of liberty; that once a woman no longer has a husband, she is once again free or not quite so subjugated at least. Faced with her liberty, Hoora almost is at a loss what to do. She’s disorientated and directionless in the wider world. But we see her pride; her desire for a better life – the life she never had as a married woman, and her determination; to complete her task despite the numerous items she wants to buy, even forgetting some. This entire project has sentimental value for her.

In the final moments of Hoora’s tale, the three tales are all brought together, as the women of all three ages are united. Ahoo isn’t present; her future is perhaps less determinate, but two fellow cyclists refer to her in conversation with Hoora. Most poignantly on the other hand, we see Hava, wearing a chador, watch the strange final sequence of Hoora and her goods travelling over to the ship. Hava’s full life is ahead of her, and her future experiences might reflect those of the other women in the film. These are women who’ve made their own choices in adulthood though. Through a combination of simple but sympathetic storytelling (which presumably relies on semi-improvisation and not so rigid a script) and expressive, eye-catching visuals, ‘The Day I Became a Woman’ is one of the most honest, persuasive examinations of the female experience in Iranian society and is another success from the Makhmalbaf house.

August 9, 2009

Antichrist (2009)

Director: Lars von Trier
109 min


Seattle, the present day. An unnamed married couple (officially referred to as ‘He’ and ‘She’) make love. At the same time, unknown to them, their young son manages to escape from his cot and fall from an open window, dying. She, grief-stricken, collapses at the funeral and is hospitalised for a month. He, a therapist, is concerned at the care and medication she receives and decides to treat She and help her overcome her grief pattern. He discovers that Eden, their country home, is part of She’s fears. Last year, she had visited with their son to work on her thesis. He decides they should both go to Eden so that she can confront these fears.

She appears to improve after initial difficulty. He discovers the research that she had been working on in the attic; gynocide, the abuse and violence aimed at women over the centuries. He has kept the autopsy results of their son’s death from her, who had suffered from a foot deformity. Photographs suggested She made their son wear his shoes on the wrong feet during the last Eden visit. After having sex, She crushes He’s genitals with a wooden block, and whilst unconscious, she drills a hole through his leg, attaching a millstone. He attempts to escape, though She eventually finds him, dragging him back to the cabin. She performs a genital mutilation upon herself, before He strangles her to death, burning her body, then he escapes from Eden.


There was only one talking point at Cannes 2009. Only one film divided the critical community to an almost unprecedented scale. That film was ‘Antichrist’. Whether it was the seemingly inappropriate acknowledgement and tribute to Tarkovsky or the director’s own general arrogance about his own film, von Trier managed to annoy most of the critics at Cannes. Naturally, with the wider cinema release in the UK, there’s been a hysterical reaction from many British newspapers. This is nothing new; von Trier’s been here before. Even the Palme D’Or winning ‘Dancer in the Dark’ (2000) received adulation and scorn in equal measure.

But none of this suggested the reaction to ‘Antichrist’, where critics’ accusations of misogyny became far more commonplace, although personally, I don’t readily accept these allegations. The previously mentioned films, and also ‘Breaking the Waves’ (1996) and ‘Dogville’ (2003) feature the suffering of women as their central theme, often violently, graphically so. But is depicting this violence the same as sympathising with it? I don’t think so. Where these accusations of misogyny might acquire more credence with ‘Antichrist’ is when She embraces the evil that she believes women are capable of, seeming to reiterate the prejudices of the material she’s been researching. As much as the graphic violence, it’s these ideas, which are more ambiguous than usual for von Trier, that make the viewer rather uneasy. Many critics are all too ready to dismiss the film as nothing more than a rather elaborate joke, which I think gives these critics a convenient excuse to refuse to engage with the film, to contemplate its difficult ideas and subject matter.

How much of a genuine interest there is in psychology in von Trier’s film is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it’s just a device to frame his film around. But there are some ethical issues raised; the monstrous ego of He, deciding that medical professionals can’t treat his wife, that they just want to keep her drugged rather than deal with her issues, that of course, only he can work through. Does He by this measure represent the historical repression of women? Ultimately He becomes the tip of the fear pyramid he develops to measure what she is afraid of. There’s also the fact that He is himself fallible, failing to live up to his own expectations, allowing the personal and professional relationships with She to blur (they continue to have sex after their therapy has commenced as She sees sex as the only means of dealing with grief). Is there a sense that He brings the explosion of violence waged against him upon himself? There’s no real easy answers in this film; whether that’s because von Trier has constructed his film with great intelligence or because it’s more of a muddled, contradictory mess is open to the viewer’s interpretation. It all depends on how you normally get on with von Trier, I suppose. He’s a difficult film maker to sit on the fence with.

What no-one can possibly dispute though is that the film is a visual tour-de-force. Working with Anthony Dod Mantle, who’s worked on previous Dogme films but of course won an Academy Award for his work on ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ (2008), von Trier has conjured a striking look that’s very much influenced by Tarkovsky, flying in the face of those who mocked his tribute to Tarkovsky in the closing credits. The mark of the Soviet master is everywhere, with various shots seemingly lifted wholesale from his films, such as the wind sweeping across the grass at Eden, borrowed from an iconic shot in ‘Mirror’ (1975). Each of the specific chapters in the film, including the prologue and epilogue (von Trier’s been using this concept since ‘Dogville’) has a unique visual style and colour palette. The prologue, shot in black and white in extreme slow motion (which includes a penis as its second or third shot!) looks terrific, although it almost descends into a parody of a sensual lovemaking scene. Maybe that’s the point. Symbolism is everywhere, based usually around nature. The three beggars (rabbit, deer, crow) become integral participants in the film, almost stalking He and She, influencing events, although we probably see them in more unflinching detail than one would wish for. This nature symbolism is a more reassuring flipside to the intense levels of violence.

Because of the divisive nature of ‘Antichrist’, the reviews will overall look mixed, though it’s anything but an average film. It’s impossible to sit on the fence; it provokes a strong reaction all too easily from the viewer. It makes for uncomfortable viewing, even though there’s plenty to admire about it. This is ambitious film making, featuring an excellent central performance from Charlotte Gainsbourg (which was awarded with the Best Actress accolade at Cannes, almost a throwback to Isabelle Adjani’s manic, hyperactive performance in Andrzej Zulawski’s ‘Possession’ (1981), which was also awarded the same prize) and is constantly visually dazzling and distinctive, yet it’s easy to have reservations about whether the film’s ethical and moral perspectives really bear scrutiny, and it’s these that are far more concerning than the violence on show, though most critics have rather hysterically concentrated on the latter, which is surely no worse than seen elsewhere (even in art cinema – Bergman’s ‘Cries and Whispers’ (1973) featured genital mutilation).

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