Cinema of the UK


La Lettre du cinéma no. 31; Winter 2005.

La Lettre du cinéma shut shop after this piece.

What a strange case Michael Powell’s is!

He is attributed the exclusive paternity to his films, even though they are co-signed, for the most part, by Emeric Pressburger under the banner of their company, The Archers, or by Tim Whelan, William Cameron Menzies, Ludwig Berger (The Thief of Bagdad, 1940), Brian Desmond Hurst and Adrien Brunel (The Lion Has Wings) and sometimes directed by others. I’m thinking of the ballet in The Red Shoes (1948), the only portion of the film which can have its defenders and which is the work of Leopold Massine. It’s obvious that The Thief of Bagdad is more in the line of Korda (producer of The Jungle Book and The Four Feathers) than in the supposed line of Powell. The work on colour, in his major films, seems to owe predominantly to Jack Cardiff (I’ll come back to this); Kevin Brownlow cited editor David Lean as one of the strongest elements of 49th Parallel. Is Powell the “thief of London”? I think it is posterity that’s responsible for this aggressive exploitation (it’s like lauding Paolo Taviani while ignoring Vittorio). So is alphabetical order. If his name were “Towell” (which would suit him better) instead of “Powell”, he would’ve featured after “Pressburger” in the credits, and the latter perhaps would’ve won all the plaudits. We also know that it’s better to put a disyllabic name in front instead of a trisyllabic one. It sounds better, especially when the first sounds very national and the second very foreign. Powell’s gift of the gab matters too.

What also counts is the fact that, before the beginning of their collaboration, Powell had directed twenty-nine films whereas Pressburger was happy writing scripts. Finally, the existence of a fashionable—and, as it happens, highly overrated—film, Peeping Tom (1959), signed by him alone.

Powell could at best be one link in the production chain, and perhaps a useful one at that. It’s an image that fits well within the British tradition of collective or two-author films—Launder and Gilliat, the Boulting brothers, Lean and Coward, Laurence Olivier and Stuart Burge, Reisz and Richardson—and marks the limits of this cinema: an operation by an industrial group rather than a truly personal cinema, a little like the terrible Russian cinema of the years 1955-65 and its numerous couples.

Moreover, it’s impossible to define Powell’s themes, except for a predilection for ballet films (The Tales of Hoffmann, Oh… Rosalinda!!, Honeymoon) deriving from the commercial success of The Red Shoes, love in Scotland (The Edge of the World, I Know Where I’m Going, The Spy in Black), death achieved during artistic work (The Red Shoes, Peeping Tom), the red attires of fox-hunters (Black Narcissus, Gone to Earth).

We could suppose that Pressburger was the positive element of the couple, given that he was a scriptwriter by profession and that it’s the basic plot idea that gives the films of P&P their interest. The idea behind Colonel Blimp (the long saga of a disgruntled veteran) is solid, but the direction remains rather lacklustre. It’s the idea behind I Know Where I’m Going (1945)—a girl who knows where she wants to go and wanders around, just like the film—that makes the work charming, but this wandering soon becomes very boring. The same could be said of Peeping Tom. I rushed to the film on the first day at dawn, enticed by an unusual plotline: an amateur filmmaker who summons his acquaintances one by one, only to kill them with the pointed end of his tripod while filming them. Unfortunately, this solid idea, repeated endlessly through the film, only causes weariness. It would’ve been better had the exact cause of the crimes not been revealed right away. It wasn’t until the remarkable M-88 (Jacques Bral, 1972) that the idea finally materialized. A cinema of departures and no arrivals. Powell the director scuttles the possibilities of a basic idea. A weak-willed cinema. Powell is a misdirector (démetteur en scène).

The most surprising thing is that this spinelessness has found support among thematically-strong directors like Martin Scorsese and Bertrand Tavernier, twin filmmakers whose work uses the possibilities of film grammar to the maximum, while P. P. wander perpetually in their ill-dressed pictures. The support is understandable in the case of Tavernier, always in the Truffauldian search for forgotten genius (but it would’ve been better to laud—to stick with Albion—Jack Gold, Guy Green or Launder and Gilliat), but it’s less so with Scorsese, unless we make reference to American bad taste, which The Red Shoes gets close to.

P. P. are not actors’ directors: in Gone to Earth, Jennifer Jones plays a savage girl, like in Vidor’s Ruby Gentry and Duel in the Sun. But with Powell, her acting remains conventional, whereas she sets the screen on fire with Vidor. The comparison is overwhelming for P. P. We understand Selznick’s anger at the bad treatment meted out to his wife by the two Britishers.

The big question that arises about Powell is this: whodunit? Who is guilty? Who made Powell pass for a filmmaker? It’s probably the Portuguese who are responsible for this canard: in a publication collecting various lists of hundred best European films, Powell has as many votes as Hitchcock and Eisenstein and outclasses Gance, Becker, Barnet, Fassbinder, Cottafavi, Ferreri etc. In fact, I don’t think there’s anyone guilty. It’s like in Murder on the Orient Express: each one makes his little stab.

It’s incredible that someone whose first twenty-three and last ten films (except Peeping Tom, which has its fans) are universally deemed unworthy of interest could be taken seriously. P. P. could be classified among parenthetical filmmakers, an ambitious parenthesis that spans from 1940 to 1951 and which calls to mind the case of Yves Allégret and Vittorio De Sica.

What remains at the end of the day? The Edge of the World (1937) is a series of “arty” shots. The Spy in Black is highly banal. A Canterbury Tale (1944) has little going for it except the audacious darkness of the first reel (maybe it was a bad print). The collective film The Thief of Bagdad contains some ravishing special effects thanks to Menzies, 49th Parallel remains a decent action film based on a small, isolated group. But there’s nothing there that rises above the level of a Hathaway, an Andrew Stone or a Terence Young in form.

The Red Shoes pushes the myth of the egocentric and dictatorial artist to a repetitious and excessive degree, and offers, like The Tales of Hoffmann, an obvious, overstuffed, shape-shifting, gaudy pictorial composition without unity.

Black Narcissus (1947) presents an almost unique case. On the level of characters and plot, it’s one of the most idiotic films in the history of cinema and it’s a masterpiece of colour composition: the principle here is to look for a colour that’s always in movement, always changing. But the film is also a conventional and ridiculous melodrama in which P. P. seem to believe, though they are the only ones. The film can’t resort to irony as defence, as can Cecil B. DeMille’s Four Frightened People or Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession. There is such a disparity between the film and its photography that we are tempted to attribute the good parts and the bad parts of the film to different people, the latter to P. P and the former to Jack Cardiff, the magnificent cameraman of Boulting’s The Magic Box. Only Almendros’ and Malick’s Days of Heaven and Nutten’s and Fleisher’s Zoo Zero contain a comparable dichotomy. In all, the Archers always miss their target: if they were to film William Tell, his son would surely be dead…

Finally, the only P. P. which holds up is A Matter of Life and Death (1946). I’m all the more objective when I say that because it’s not at all my cup of tea, and because I hate the dainty brand of art so common to certain Britishers (Jarman, Ken Russell, Greenaway, Branagh, Lindsay Anderson or the Boorman of Excalibur) who think they are the shit, in contrast to the constipated British vein (Lean & Reed).

A Matter of Life and Death is as erratic as the other films of P. P. The central character is, in fact, a pretext, a sidekick, the real star being the setting, the limbo with the large staircase. But we can also appreciate its mockery of national idiosyncrasies and its cosmic introduction. The film really finds its feet only in the final trial, whose viewers are like puppets in a parade.

A film without a centre. But the centred films of P. P are often based on a very disappointing central character (Peeping Tom, Gone to Earth, Colonel Blimp), with P. P not being interested in humans, but only in the settings and the colour. Their films are better off without a centre (A Matter of Life and Death, I Know Where I’m Going).

Why criticize P. P. when I’m defending A Matter of Life and Death? You are likely to hold this contradiction against me. It’s simply that, when you turn out fifty films in your life, it’d be goddamn surprising if you don’t make at least one good one. Look at Schlöndorff and The Tin Drum, Cavani and The Skin, Cayatte and The Crossing of the Rhine.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Krabi 2562 (Ben Rivers, Anocha Suwichakornpong)

Like The Sky Trembles, Ben Rivers’ collaboration with Thai filmmaker Anocha Suwichakornpong is a largely fictional, contemplative piece in 16mm and is inspired by the sights and people of the eponymous province in the south of Thailand. This work evolved out of the installation the two filmmakers developed for the Thai biennale, an event referred to in Krabi 2562. The film is a mosaic-like snapshot of the region constructed with a dozen or so characters: a mysterious tourist from another province who may be scouting locations for a film shoot, the petite guide who walks her through the history of important spots, the owner of her hotel who claims to have had supernatural encounters, the old owner of a country house she visits, the proprietor of a defunct movie theatre she finally disappears in, an ad filmmaking crew shooting on an island, and a Neanderthal couple living in the caves apparently in the same time line as the other characters. Not to mention several other outsider figures spending their summer vacation on the islands. Every one, though, seems to have some legend, story or a bit of personal history to recount.

Rivers and Suwichakornpong frame the action from a distance, with the characters of interest typically relegated to the background. Mixing interviews, vignettes of characters engaged in everyday activity or interacting with each other in refreshingly awkward dialogue and shots of the landscape, Krabi 2562 is a freewheeling work that’s always spiralling away from its ostensible plot: the disappearance of the woman. There are also a few “invented” sequences, such as a team of scientists looking for biological samples on the island. Politics is suggested through the sound of soldiers marching through the city and the film opens with an ironic-sounding scene of a school assembly where children pledge their allegiance to the religion, monarchy and the country. But these shards of information don’t necessarily fit together within a single discursive framework. What they evoke are possible histories about the region, where past and present, real and fictional, the living and the dead seem to coexist. This imaginative historiography of the film rests in an uneasy tension with its touristic aspect: though the long, meditative shots of landscapes and human activity capture the rhythm of life particular to the Krabi province, it’s not hard to see that they are also intended as promotional material for the region.

Color-blind (Ben Russell)

Shot in Brittany and French Polynesia, Ben Russell’s Color-blind opens with extreme close-ups of painted canvases that abstract figures in the painting into zones of clashing colours. Flashing on the screen are lines from a letter by Breton painter Paul Gauguin, in which the painter confesses that what appeals to him in this nude portrait of a young girl “on the verge of indecency” are the lines and forms. Speaking about his choice of colours, he adds that, in the mind of the Tahitian girl depicted, the phosphorous colours of the canvas stand for the souls of the dead. Russell’s practice has taken him to different corners of the planet and the ethical challenge in Color-blind remains the same: how does one represent the Other without exoticizing them? His response is to locate his own work critically in an uninterrogated tradition of Western representations of the Marquesas islands. But Russell’s response also involves showing the islanders as living under modern conditions and forms of knowledge. This prologue with Gauguin’s letter, setting up the theme of the outsider’s exoticization of the native, gives way to current day glimpses of the Marquesas islands: a modern music concert, commercialized dance classes, shooting of films with local men dressed in leaves, an old craftsman making a curio in his workshop. These impressions, presented without additional commentary or text, evoke an idea of preservation of tradition predicated ironically on catering to outsiders’ idea of the Polynesian culture.

Color-blind is an exploration of the history of outsider interventions in modern French Polynesian history. The legacy of French colonization is, of course, omnipresent. In a series of interviews, Russell shows a set of cards (presumably a triggering image or colour) to European and native participants, asking them to utter the first word that comes to their mind. Though the ideas are adjacent, there are important differences in nuances between the response in French compared to those in Marquesan (cf: Raúl Ruiz’s On Top of the Whale). A native tattooist talks about the outlawing of the practice by colonisers while a Frenchman expresses guilt over France’s atomic tests on the island. A German scholar discusses the work of historian Karl von den Steinen as the first written history about the Marquesas islands. A while into Color-blind, we get fades into and out of details in Gauguin’s canvases, copies of which hang in a local museum. The juxtaposition of documentary footage from the islands with representation of native bodies in these paintings throws into question Gauguin’s choices, which for all its glowing palette, seems no less colour-blind than the girl whose perception the painter presumes to be colour-naïve. It also places Russell’s own film in the outsider tradition, harking back in cinema to at least Murnau and Flaherty.

Mittelmeer (Jean-Marc Chapoulie)

French artist and filmmaker Jean-Marc Chapoulie’s Mittelmeer opens with shots of the Mediterranean Sea as filmed by closed-circuit cameras mounted on beachside hotels. The images evoke ideas of journey and mythical adventures, and the film is indeed offered as a tribute to Jean-Daniel Pollet’s Méditerranée. But these intimations of the timeless are pierced by history, the shot of a road by the Riviera calling to mind the July 2016 attack in Nice above all. Mittelmeer soon confirms the hunch as it trains its attention on the surveillance of public spaces and the public’s access to this surveillance footage. Like Patricio Guzmán’s The Pearl Button, Chapoulie’s film politicizes the stretch of geography that summer vacationers take to be a site of fun and relaxation. The Mittelmeer in Mittelmeer is a zone embodying the conflicts of our time. It is the burial ground for scores of refugees and immigrants who try to make their way into Europe and thus a border to be surveyed and protected by the state. It is also a preeminent channel of commerce, especially for large oil companies, the movement of goods across waters being more streamlined than that of people. The same containers become housing in the strictly monitored jungle of Calais.

In this regard, Peter Hutton’s At Sea and Godard’s Film Socialism are points of reference. In one passage, Chapoulie discusses the origin of piracy in the sea, relating it with the migrant inhabitants of Arcadia and noting that it was also the origin of theatre. And so he goes, constantly hopping from one set of ideas to another, from the ubiquity of CCTV cameras in public spaces, to the revolutionary theatre of protestors in the Middle East, to the relation of crude oil to history of imagemaking, to early Lumière films of people fishing and vacationing at beaches, to an American company manufacturing a device to detect shooters based on bullet sounds, to Syrian revolutionaries taking down public cameras. To be sure, these are all interrelated ideas, and stimulating ones at that, but there’s no sense that Chapoulie is synthesizing them into an essay with a central line. He constructs the film wholly from existing footage, at times colour-manipulating it, and adds an original sound mix to them, consisting of a multi-genre musical selection and amplified sounds of actions we see on screen. Also present are three human voices. Chapoulie regularly converses with his son about the images on screen, adding an element of fatherly pedagogy and virtual family vacation to the proceedings. There’s also the voice of Nathalie, a friend-collaborator, who furnishes critical commentary and personal musings. I might be underestimating Mittelmeer, but it’s a work that should’ve been better than it is.

Years of Construction (Heinz Emigholz)

Years of Construction is the first Emigholz film I’ve seen, so I don’t have a framework to access this 29th entry in the filmmaker’s Photography and Beyond series. It’s however a very strong work on its own merit. Charting the demolition and the subsequent reconstruction of the Kunsthalle in Mannheim between 2013-2018, Years presents an architecture in flux. There’s no voiceover or text, we don’t get to know anything about the institution or the building, and the film remains vehemently fixed on the material details of the transformation. Emigholz films the building from countless number of vantage points, sometimes with a Dutch angle and always from a non-intuitive point of view. These unusual compositions, nevertheless consisting of strong, expressionistic lines, serve the same purpose as many of the artworks in the museum: to slow down our eyes and force us to reflect on the architecture which is otherwise experienced simply as a negative space to the artwork. Cutting on matching movement, Emigholz accords about five seconds to each shot, no matter the amount or importance of the details it contains. This all-levelling gaze and cubist superposition asks an ontological question: can a building be completely described? But for Years of Construction, another question lies beneath: what distinguishes a building from its surroundings?

Emigholz puts in dialogue notions of indoor and outdoor all through Years. Each of the film’s six segments begins with the museum’s “exterior”—the face it offers to the surrounding city—before moving inside. He films its façade from across the park opposite, while deep-space interior shots of the museum often show the world outside. The statues in the park don’t have the aura that sculptures in the museum have, and this idea of the museum as a context-provider is at the focus of Years. Reminiscent of Berlin in Walter Ruttmann’s city symphony, Mannheim in Emigholz’s film transforms in a manner comparable to the museum: depopulated at first, it serves as a space to be filled, just like how the photograph-like shots devoid of movement in the film’s first passage give way to the busy action of dinosaur-like machines chomping on steel and concrete. Finally, Years explores the intersection between contemporary architecture and sculpture—two domains that have swapped their classical functions—as articulations of space and volume. The museum architecture, like the modernist sculptures in it, modulates visitor movement through and around it. By familiarising us with the building over 90 minutes, Emigholz obliges us to notice it in action when the museum is finally reopened for public in 2018: the sculptures now become the negative space to the architecture.

Synonyms (Nadav Lapid)

Nadav Lapid’s third film, Synonyms, like its predecessor, The Kindergarten Teacher, exhibits a special attention to words. It comes in the form of Yoav (Tom Mercier), a young Israeli ex-serviceman who leaves his home country for France. In Paris, he picks up a French dictionary and amasses synonyms to describe his hate for Israel. He refuses to speak in Hebrew, even when he works at the Israeli embassy and rubs shoulders with fundamentalist Batar volunteers. Identity being socially determined, Yoav can neither completely abandon Israel nor assimilate into the French culture that he loves unilaterally. Lapid realizes that a realist approach to this autobiographical tale would be both tedious and unoriginal, so he pegs the film on a register where psychological causality doesn’t hold. A non-professional, Mercier invests all his energy into the shots, his extreme physicality threatening to spiral out of control at all times. The film is likewise rugged, mixing nausea-inducing handheld shots with more graceful movements of the camera. The extra space available offered by the widescreen also allows for much movement and dynamism within shots.

Inspired by the location as well as his sojourn in France, Lapid draws liberally from the art film tradition. Yoav, and the bourgeois couple who shelter him after he is robbed, are variants on Bresson’s disaffected young men, and their half-naturalist, half-theatrical line delivery is similarly inflected with poetic stylization even when the content is ordinary. The constant interaction between youth, poverty and the sense of dislocation also recalls Carax, while the makeshift ménage à trois Yoav forms with his hosts could be from any post-68 French film. It’s to Lapid’s credit that he’s been able to mould these influences into a personal style. On the other hand, there’s really no framework that contains Yoav’s actions. Just when Yoav obtains French citizenship through a sham marriage, he rejects the idea owing to some undefined moral compulsion. He belts out the Marseillaise and Israeli national anthem with equal zest at the integration class, but the film also undercuts the Republican values taught at the same course. Yoav’s contradictions, as a result, feel artificial, a dramatic contrivance with very little context to back it up.

Midsommar (Ari Aster)

Having tragically lost her sister and parents, Dani (Florence Pugh) leans on her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) for support. While Christian is understanding, his friends think she’s taking too much advantage of him, offering little in return. When one of Christian’s friends invites them to his village in Sweden to participate in midsummer festivities, Christian asks Dani to join them in order to not offend her rather than out of concern. When the film actually gets going, the group finds itself in an isolated commune in central Sweden. The commune, uniformly of Scandinavian extraction and sporting white costume, is welcoming of the strangers, offers them psychedelic drugs and lets them tour their facilities. But movies have prepared us to read communes as cults, and this one turns out to be no different. The summer festivities grow bizarre by the day and includes ritual suicides and sacrifices. Anthropology graduates, Christian and a friend, meanwhile, fight over the rights to write a thesis on the commune. Soon enough, the visitors make those idiotic moves characteristic of horror movies and end up disappearing, leaving Christian and Dani to fend for themselves.

If Midsommar takes its own time to move the story along, it’s because it fashions itself as an intimate film about lovers’ paranoia expressed in horror movie terms. If the film has an insight to offer, it’s that couples in isolation from each other are prone to being brainwashed into doubt, be it by well-meaning friends or by murderous cults, into believing that they deserve better than what they have. It would have served the film better then to have characters that aren’t off a stencil as they are here. Dani, especially, comes across as needier, clingier than the film supposes, and her constant anxiety about Christian ignoring her make her even less sympathetic. Nor does the film have any ambivalence towards the commune to genuinely propose it as a solution to Dani’s perennial loneliness. The tragedy of her past is inserted in flashes, claiming psychological weight in a film whose pleasures are on its surface. Midsommar succeeds primarily as an assured iteration of the last girl template and is noteworthy in how little it relies on traditional horror movie tropes: it’s shot in broad daylight of northern summer, all shocking information is signalled beforehand, and visitors to the cult meet the exact fate you imagine for them. The film has passages of alluring visual and sonic rhythm, and the long-tether narrative moves through different perspectives and spaces freely once at the camp. The camera has a life of its own, pushing and pulling, craning up and down to describe a world out of whack.

The Beach Bum (Harmony Korine)

Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum immerses the viewer into the bohemian life of Moondog (Matthew McConaughey), a seasoned hedonist spending his days on the beaches of Florida in sex, alcohol and drugs. Moondog is a poet of unusual talent, we are told, and lives off the inherited wealth of his wife Minnie-Boo (Isla Fisher), who has an open affair going on with Moondog’s friend Lingerie (Snoop Dogg). When Minnie-Boo leaves behind a will that obliges Moondog to publish his long-pending book in order to inherit her money, the decadent poet becomes a nomad, reaching out to old friends for help. With a highly expressive colour palette, Korine’s sensual direction evokes a particular, self-indulgent view of life on the beach. Cycling through sunlit exteriors, interiors of gonzo tones and moody fluorescent streetlamps, the film progresses in a mosaic-like fashion, never lingering on any event for long, just like its protagonist, even as it deals with plot mechanics. Moondog’s treads light on the ground underneath, even when he’s pushed to a corner. And the film’s breezy aesthetic beguilingly captures this sense of transience of things.

Korine punctuates Moondog’s uncommitted life with moments of pathos, culminating in a charming romantic sequence with Minnie-Boo, the nightfall, the sea breeze, the white streetlight and Peggy Lee’s If That’s All There Is brought together into a fatalistic mix overseeing the tragedy that immediately follows. The Beach Bum is evidently on the side of Moondog, whose excesses it subsumes in a Romanticist notion of the downbeat artist who flouts conventions, but sees things more clearly than those around him. Moondog is a flaneur, perennially on the road with nothing but typewriter and a sack of books, depending on the universe to see him through the day. But the film also makes it plain that Moondog’s poetry is juvenile. He plagiarises from Lawrence, Baudelaire and Whitman, but his own work reads like bathroom scribbling. The people around him indicate again and again that beneath Moondog’s shallow life lies a core of genius, that behind his ironic relation to people and things likes a being of deep sensitivity—an intimation that never comes to fruition. These assurances of greatness subsidise his vulgarity and provide a reason to consider his humanity—an instrumental morality that goes against the film’s generous-seeming outlook.

The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)

In contrast to The Beach Bum, Joanna Hogg’s Souvenir presents a modern, wholly original vision of the artist figure. Her autobiographical Julie (a heartbreakingly beautiful Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda), a filmmaker in training, is neither a tortured genius, nor a social outcast. She is everything one doesn’t associate with artists: generous, unassuming vulnerable, passive, docile and supremely decent. She is in a romantic relationship with Anthony (Tom Burke), an opinionated, strong personality who looms large over Julie’s life. His yearning, poetic letters of love—presented as interludes read by Julie over shots of the countryside horizon—ascribe to her a power over him that (a) she doesn’t possess and (b) only serves to further disempower her. “Don’t be worthy, be arrogant”, he advises her. But Julie is incapable of feigning arrogance or authority, and that’s what gives The Souvenir its unique force. She is literally self-effacing, seen as she is at the edge of the frame for most part of the film. Julie is told to make films based on her experience, but she can’t bring herself to be arrogant enough to believe it’s worthy of being filmed. She’s always seen writing something else than her own life.

What The Souvenir gets so right is that Julie’s self-doubt as a person—in her relationship with her parents, with Anthony—feeds on and into her self-doubt as an artist. At shoots, Julie is never in control, allowing her work to be overshadowed by her collaborators. She’s mentally elsewhere, carrying the guilt of ignoring Anthony and regularly calling him back from the set. Hitchcock is invoked, and The Souvenir can be seen as a loose reworking of Suspicion, where Julie lets Anthony overpower her despite her better judgment. But unlike the swooning Joan Fontaine who is quite obviously head over heels in love with Cary Grant, Julie’s irrational attraction and jealously towards Anthony feels somewhat theoretical and laboured, added in retrospect. Shooting in 16mm in a beige-brown-white aesthetic, Hogg evokes the eighties through events entirely offscreen—money problems, Irish bombings, the flourishing of cinéma du look in France. She frames every shot with thoughtful consideration, with plenty of negative space. She often films Julie through reflective surfaces, accentuating the sense of her fragility, and cycles through familiar spaces and compositions, rendering them as intimate as the subject.

The Death of Stalin

Stalin jokes place the listener in a moral double bind. If there’s beauty in the capacity of humour to sublimate unspeakable horror and make life bearable, the idea of laughing at these jokes strikes us as ghastly precisely because it trivializes terror of the purges and the gulags. There’s no such dilemma about Hitler jokes, possibly because the kind of evil he stood for lives among us to date, whereas we are allowed to assimilate Stalin into history’s endless roster of multi-coloured dictators. Who, though, has the right to make Stalin jokes? The common people who lived under his rule, surely. But can today’s Russian citizens? Or the descendants of those who disappeared? Armando Iannucci, the writer-director of The Death of Stalin, certainly doesn’t think that’s a quandary, and chooses to treat Stalin as a collective civilizational inheritance like Jesus Christ or Julius Caesar. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, Alan Alda’s TV producer declares that comedy is tragedy plus time. It may be either too soon or too late to make a comedy on Stalin’s death. Iannucci, however, has decided that it’s just about time.

The film opens with its finest sequence, a brilliant, concentrated set-piece that blurs the boundary between comedy and horror, beauty and savagery, and terror and absurdity—just like the Stalin jokes. It’s 1953, a couple of hours before Stalin’s death, and Radio Moscow is having a live performance of a Mozart symphony. The Soviet premier calls the director of the station and asks him to ring back in seventeen minutes. The terrified director calls the premier back exactly in seventeen minutes just as the studio audience explodes in applause. Only then does he (and do we) realize that Stalin has timed the call to the end of the symphony. Stalin gives curt orders for the recording of the performance to be sent to him right away. The only problem: the concert wasn’t recorded. In panic, the director rushes to the orchestra, asking them to take their positions and replay the entire programme. To replace the part of the audience that left, the guards at the radio station go pick up random peasants from streets at gunpoint. Meanwhile, the police of the interior ministry, NKVD, is busy rounding up people on Stalin’s execution list. The film intercuts both these commotions, not making it clear which set of people are being picked up for what—an uncertainty reflective of the detainees’ own experience.

While the shell-shocked director prepares for the call, Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) adds new names to his execution list, with Mozart playing on the radio. He hands over the list to Beria (Simon Russell Beale), whom he joins for a dinner alongside Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Molotov (Michael Palin) and Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor). The men make bawdy jokes, force themselves to laugh at Stalin’s dumb repartees and sit through his movie screenings unwillingly. They will later note down the jokes that worked and the ones that didn’t so that they can improve their performance the next time around. It’s not the contrast between a decadent elite and a country in fear, but the necessity for maintaining an appearance at all levels of Russian social life that is suggested here. The symphony and the dinner are simulacra, like Stalin’s funeral pageantry later in the film, intended to hide less cheerful realities (The fear of punishment, Molotov’s imminent arrest, the internal hatred for Stalin). The remarkable set-piece lasts all of fifteen minutes and its astute plot-driven comedy is fleshed out by Iannucci’s customary, razor-sharp dialogue (“—He’s a great man with a great ear.” “—Two great ears.”), which is likely the film’s primary reason to exist.

The stellar opening sequence sets the rest of the film for a failure, which is understandably more mechanical and less inventive and funny. Divided into arbitrary chapters based on ridiculous protocol to be followed upon the premier’s demise (appropriately presented in an equally ridiculous Copperplate Gothic-like typeface), the plot follows the power struggle between Beria and Khrushchev, both of whom want to reshape the republic’s future per their own less-violent conceptions. Their real ideological differences are ignored by the film; this fight over non-existent differences is perhaps the point, just as its implication that Beria could have been any fall man, that Khrushchev could’ve just as well lost the war for history. The content of the Soviet politburo’s policies is of no concern to the film, it’s the form it has ideas on: Iannucci presents the politburo as a man-eat-man battleground for power, its meetings as verbal minefields where one wrong word could change the course of history. Upon Stalin’s death, something similar to democracy emerges within the chief committee, with all the contradictions of that system in place: in order to take control, Beria and Khrushchev find themselves having to influence the other members of the politburo by whatever means necessary, psychological or tactical. In outlining the surprisingly short roads between democracy and groupthink, the film boomerangs halfway back at its Western audience, whose own political climate of “saying the right thing” its satire resonates with.

Anglo-normative (“Beria-r”) without feeling the need to justify it, The Death of Stalin makes no pretence to realism or accuracy—a fact that attenuates its arguably offensive intentions. In fact, the film works off the incongruence of language and setting, treating Soviet Russia as mere costume and décor in a mostly-British sitcom (tea and buns for Stalin’s daughter) where Buscemi and Olga Kurylenko are guest performers with native accents. While the film goes through the motions in its second half, the jokes keep coming (—Malenkov after his inaugural speech: “Yes, ‘bread and peace’. I knew it would work. It was between ‘peace’ and ‘sausages’.” —Khrushchev: “Both good things, but you know where you are with a sausage.”). And it’s surprisingly inventive on the visual front. The tortures at Beria’s NKVD facility are relegated to the edge of the frame, making them perversely register with greater force and humour. A shot of Stalin’s son fighting with a guard over a pistol is milked for all its absurdity by contrasting it with the dignified pose of others in the shot. And I think the film might be unique in that it makes shots of people standing in a circle or a line talking (as in a bad TV drama) carry an ideological weight. Sophisticated, dialogue-driven comedy is a kind you don’t expect in English-language films anymore (it’s in the purview of television), so The Death of Stalin is a rarity. Your mileage may, however, vary.

Loveless

In The Student, Kirill Serebrennikov’s film from three years ago, a young man becomes a religious zealot and polices his classmates using quotes from the Bible. This shocks his progressive Jewish teacher, but the management shrugs its collective shoulder, considering him merely misunderstood. This return of suppressed superstition into current day Russian life is very much present as an undercurrent in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s new film, Loveless, but it’s only touched upon, not hammered down like in The Student. The director’s fifth feature, Loveless revolves around a husband and a wife who hate each other to the depths of their being. They are in the process of a divorce and neither wants to take custody of their taciturn twelve-year-old son Alyosha (Matvei Novikov), on whom their hatred spills over. Aloysha is not like the Antoine Doinel of The 400 Blows, who could just escape the domestic orbit into a premature adulthood. He is crushed by this everyday hell. There’s a heart-breaking shot of him hiding behind the bathroom door crying when he learns that his parents plan to pack him off to a boarding school.

The year is 2012 and speculations about the end of the world are in the air. The ‘family’ lives in the outskirts of Moscow in a high-rise apartment that they are selling off. Boris (Aleksey Rozin) the husband has a desk job and is worried that his boss, an orthodox Christian, would sack him were he to learnt of his divorce. Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) the wife works at a salon. Both of them are having an affair. Following their first, incredibly sordid fight, the film pursues their everyday routines separately: Boris at the office and later with his pregnant lover, Zhenya at the salon and then with her rich businessman lover. As the film loses sight of Aloysha, so does the couple; the boy vanishes from the house without a trace. Zhenya informs the police, but they wash their hands off, deeming the complaint too trivial and pointing her to a civil organization involved in such cases of lost children. Marshalling scores of volunteers, this group sets out to look for Aloysha with a concern and rigour that’s the only silver lining in this utterly despondent film.

Boris and Zhenya aren’t just horrible parents, but hideous people worried about Aloysha’s disappearance only because of its potential impact on them. Zhenya is presented as a shallow woman who spends her time instagramming, waxing herself and sleeping with her lover. Boris comes across only a notch better, but is just as despicable in his selfishness and cowardice. Thoroughly compromised early in the film, their declarations of genuine love and good faith to their lovers doesn’t fly at all. In a discomfiting scene that can find its home in a screwball comedy, Boris and Zhenya are forced to drive together to her mother’s house to look for Aloysha. She wants to smoke, he warns her not to. She asks him to raise the windows, he turns up the volume of the metal music. She screams at the top of her voice. Such unbound mutual hate calls for an act of violence to resolve it, but it never comes. It’s instead deflected onto Aloysha’s unknown fate. The question at the core of Loveless seems to be this: what does it mean for two completely broken, empty people incapable of giving love (outside of compensatory proclamations) to be responsible for a child?

I don’t think Andrey Z’s interest is solely personal here and Loveless, like his earlier works, is obliquely political. In one of the first shots of the film, the camera is planted at the entrance of a building. Children storm out after a day’s school and walk past the camera. After a while, the camera follows a boy who happens to be Aloysha, but it could’ve been any of the other kids. Loveless presents his parents as merely a symptom of an extremely self-absorbed consumer society. The authority figures in the film—Boris and Zhenya, her paranoid mother, but also the police—just don’t care. The state having failed its subjects, it’s up to the civic bodies to fend for the people. The institution of loveless parents produces the machinery of lovelessness that is the volunteer group looking for Aloysha. They search for the boy high and low and end up in an abandoned facility in the woods—a dilapidated hotel with peeling walls, dripping roof and rotting furniture which combines with the winter landscape outside to produce a post-apocalyptic picture echoing Chernobyl. It may not take a village to raise a child, but it certainly takes a village to look for one. At the end of the film, Boris and Zhenya aren’t happy even with their lovers. He dumps his new toddler into a cradle to go watch the news on the Russian intervention in Ukraine. She walks away from her new husband watching the news to go exercise on a treadmill. Wearing the Russian Olympic jersey, she’s running but going nowhere—a blunt symbol to end a blunt film.

Up

The ninth edition of the monumental Up series of documentaries aired in Britain and Australia this June. Produced by Granada television for the Britain’s ITV, the first edition of the series was telecast in 1964. The original producers set out with a quote from Ignatius Loyola as their hypothesis: “Give me the child until seven and I will show you the man.” Politically committed, they wanted to demonstrate in particular that the socioeconomic prospects of British citizens are foreordained at childhood. To this end, they selected fourteen seven-year-olds, of which four girls, from various income backgrounds from across Britain, and posed them questions related to money, school, romance and future plans. The producers and director Michael Apted, have visited the same set of participants every seven years since the first episode to see whether their original theory was indeed correct, whether the master key to the adult was still the seven-year-old.

The Up series is not unique in this respect, having itself inspired several remakes around the world. There have been many other instances in cinema where the same set of on-screen participants have been brought together after long periods of time by the same filmmaking outfit. Truffaut’s group of films on the Antoine Doinel character featuring Jean-Pierre Léaud is also a documentary on the actor aging from the reticent teenager of The 400 Blows (1959) to the mature thirty-five-year-old of Love on the Run (1979). James Benning made a shot-for-shot remake of his film, One Way Boogie Woogie (1977), twenty-seven years later with the same people and locations. Long-running franchises such as the Harry Potter films (2001-11) double as records of their actors’ physical and emotional maturation. A more recent example, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014) was periodically shot over 14 years with the same group of actors who portray a family in the film. Not to mention numerous movie sequels and spinoffs where performers reprise their original roles.

The special force of the Up series, on the other hand, derives from its social, historical and human value. “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards”, wrote Kierkegaard. The participants of the Up films are real people living out their lives, figuring things out as they go along. As they approach the twilight of their existence, the films accrue more and more meaning, narrativizing their lives for themselves and us. In their own way, these films chart the changing political landscape of Britain – from the orthodox conservatism of the early-sixties, through the international cultural tumult of the seventies and the economic upheavals of the Thatcher era, to the promises of the European Union and, now, a post-Brexit period. When it started out, the series wanted to illustrate the thesis that class position in Britain was predetermined by one’s birth and that social mobility was well-nigh impossible. However, as the series unfolded, reality turned out to be more complex: Tony, the East End taxi driver, rose up to middle-class while Neil, with his middle-class upbringing, fell way down the ladder.

Throughout the Up films is this dialectic between theory and reality. There are questions that the first telecast raised that every subsequent episode keeps coming back to: the participant’s financial situation, their relationship with the opposite sex, their schooling system, their perception of other social classes and their impression of the series itself. In the initial episodes, Apted (only fifteen years older than his interviewees) seems to have the answers preconceived in his mind. In the second and third editions (1970, 1977), he handpicks passages from the interviews that seem to suggest that Tony will likely get mixed-up in a betting racket while the private school boys, John, Andrew and Charles, will cruise through their check-listed lives. It didn’t exactly turn out to be so. The social-minded Bruce is now settled into a middle-class life while the Oxford-alumnus John is involved in philanthropical work. These strange turns of reality soften the filmmaker’s convictions and the later Up films open up to the nuances of human existence. The progression of the series, then, coincides with Apted’s own intellectual and sentimental development.

With the series gaining popularity, the participants, too, cease to be isolated, passive subjects of study, their lives now touched by the exposure the films give them. The great learning of documentary filmmaking in the 20th century is also that of 20th century physics: that the observer impacts the observed through the very act of observation. Thanks to his appearance in the series, Tony, an amateur actor, gets bit parts in films as a cabbie. When Neil’s down and out, letters of support pour in. Peter, a lad from Liverpool, was subject to tabloid humiliation for his criticism of the Thatcher government. He dropped out of the series for four episodes, but came back in 56 Up (2012) to promote his band. John used the series to raise awareness about his charities. The interviewees become more vocal about the series as it progresses: in 56 Up, Lynn, one of the London girls, shreds Apted for being blind to the women’s lib movement and for trying to box her into a housewife type in 21 Up (1977); John objects to Apted’s original portrayal of his him as traditionally upper-class and Tony, to his depiction as a potential felon.

As the years go by, the mist of mortality that hangs over the series becomes thicker. French film critic André Bazin likened filmmaking to Egyptian mummification in that it preserves a slice of a person’s existence for eternity. Conversely, every photographic portrait carries with it a mark of death. A future viewer of the Up films – their ideal viewer – will inevitably be burdened by a tragic consciousness. Watching these films end-to-end is to be aware of the fate of these participants, the hope and wonderment in the children’s eyes slowly giving way to the weary wisdom of their adult selves. Like the director, the viewer will then have recognized herself in these lives, in the transience of these lives. Therein lies the ultimate lesson of the Up series, an unfinished work that will end when the last of its interviewees passes away: though shaped by forces larger than itself, every life is irreducibly unique, worthy of attention in itself; but every life can only be understood in generalities, through frameworks larger than itself.

 

[An edited version published in The Hindu]

Toni Erdmann

Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is what the American president would call a world-class loser: a divorced, middle-aged man living with his ailing dog, eating frozen food and making ends meet working at an old-age home. He makes occasional visits to his old mother, plays pranks and has a sense of humour only the viewer can understand. When his dog dies, he goes into crisis and flies into Bucharest to be with his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller). Ines is too busy with her consultation project that’s helping an oil giant outsource its jobs – a term that her client doesn’t want uttered. By his appearance and wilful behaviour, Winfried sticks out in Ines’ corporatized mise en scène – an endless alternation of offices and business meetings masquerading as parties – and is sent home after a costly faux pas. Out of desperation or concern – we don’t know – he decides to stay back in Bucharest and shadow every move of Ines’. The objective: to jolt his daughter out of her Hamster-wheel existence. Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann takes the familiar scenario of estranged relationships and gives it a new life by fleshing it through a series of set-pieces brimming with incident.

With his loose T-shirt, unkempt, flowing hair and split spectacles, Winfried is clearly a pathetic figure, midway between Fellini’s clowns and Lisandro Alonso’s inarticulate loners. The film doesn’t pretend that he’s any more than that. He has no self-esteem, his jokes and the schtick with the false teeth fall flat. So do his attempts at playing the wise fool, his views on what’s important in life revealed to be vague and incoherent. For Ines’ birthday, he gifts her an off-the-shelf cheese grater. It’s only partly a joke. When she’s understandably taken aback, he shows her the wad of Euro bills attached to the grater and says that that’s the actual gift. He realizes that each of the two gifts is more offensive than the other, each serves as alibi for the other. This kind of double act, one insuring against the failure of the other, is typical of Winfried, who leads a kind of ironic existence. He’s always pretending to be someone else, pretence being his way of guarding himself from hurt. In the first scene, he asks a courier to wait at the door, only to come back as “his brother” to collect the package. We see him in costume and make-up throughout the film, weaving stories about himself and others.

Pranking is the only way Winfried can keep the world and himself at bay, but it is what helps him connect with his daughter too. After he forgets to wake her up for an important dinner, Ines all but forces him to go back home. That evening, she complains about him to her girlfriends at a party when Winfried, now sporting a suit and a wig, barges in as Toni Erdmann, a high-profile “life coach”. Toni is a parody of the corporate type, the only one that Ines understands or has time for. Toni encounters Ines wherever she’s with her coterie, thus authorizing himself with all her contacts. Through the figure of Toni, Ade’s film puts in confrontation Winfried’s open approach to life with the fakery of corporate culture, both staking claims on Ines’ time and energy. While Ines’ company wants her to be more charming, throw parties to show that she’s cordial, and basically imitate real life in order to succeed in business, Toni appropriates a corporate way of being, forcing Ines’ to take responsibility for him whenever he’s around. In a spoof of “bring your kids to work day”, Ines is obliged to take her father along with her to an important meeting because he’s handcuffed her to him, a favour he returns by dragging her to a middle-class Romanian family’s Easter gathering and coercing her to sing.

The film is hence centred on Ines’ “thawing”, her movement from her self-denying role as the perfect corporate middle-manager to her role as Winfried’s daughter. Fed up with having to put up a façade, she breaks down just before her big party for her Romanian colleagues, spontaneously turning it into a prank and acknowledging her inheritance. It’s an original set-piece, moving in an organic fashion from sad to weird and finally to hilarious and Sandra Hüller aces it. As much as Simonischek’s Wilfried is a type, Hüller contained response to him saves their dynamic from becoming one. The big outburst that the viewer expects never comes and is instead sublimated in a song Ines belts out. Ade dedicates dozens of shots just to observe the unique way Hüller moves. There’s an amazing shot of her working the zipper of her dress with a fork. She often reacts to Winfried’s excesses with an inward withdrawal, with accelerated blinking and subtle inflections of her posture. Though her Ines is expected to be on top of things at office and at dinners, she proves eminently capable of tuning out of her surroundings – a nuance in performance that makes final passage of the film where she spends an extended moment with her father entirely credible. It’s apposite that the film ends with her blank stare.

Toni Erdmann comes in the long line of humanist films championing the outcasts and deadbeats – that historically-bound section of humanity out of step, voluntarily or not, with the forward march of capitalism. Ade’s film is sensitive to class differences both within Winfried’s extended family – everyone tolerates him with a plastic smile – as well as between Ines and her surroundings in Bucharest. Ines is there in Romania as part of a larger project to take it out of post-communist doldrums, to bring the country up to speed with the rest of the European Union. But the oil industry is privatized, malls are running empty and jobs are going away. Ines and her clients seem to be in a bubble untouched by these details, meeting each other at upscale restaurants and pubs far from Romanians and Romanian life. So, Winfried’s uninvited intervention also has for result the breaking of this bubble. Ade’s intelligent and empathetic film plays out in a handful of languages and is a veritable snapshot of the European Union in all its promises and failings.

You Were Never Really Here

Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is a muscular psychological thriller, less successful than We Need to Talk about Kevin but cut of the same formal fabric, that revolves around Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a veteran turned hitman, who specializes in bringing back abducted girls. Joe is known for his brutal but effective, seamless operation. Joe lives with his old mother in their New York home, likes a certain kind of candy and shops for his weapons in supermarket. His latest mission is to rescue the teenage daughter of the local senator who’s being held captive at a city brothel. Joe infiltrates the facility, kills the keepers and frees the girl, but she’s soon abducted again by an army of henchman sent to eliminate Joe and everyone close to him. He learns that the senator has been killed and that these men have been sent by the governor who’s running the whole racket. Joe decides to get into the governor’s house and rescue the girl again.

This is Ramsay’s first film set in New York and the milieu heightens the echoes the work gives of Taxi Driver. You Were Never Really Here is, in fact, in constant dialogue with Scorsese’s film. For one, both deal with ex-marines trying to integrate back into civil life and who experience a strong revulsion towards the condition of the city and the political figures exploiting it. Both protagonists see innocence embodied in the figure of the white, blond teenager forced into prostitution. And both films feature several shots of the lead male topless, their vulnerabilities exposed. But while Taxi Driver depicts Travis’ descent into hell rather graphically, You Were Never Really Here is insistent on eliding violence. All the violence in Ramsay’s film is only suggested, never shown. A shot of Joe punching a drug dealer is filmed from the side with only Joe visible, the viewer not allowed to identify with the aggressor but observe him from a distance. The entire shootout at the brothel is presented as CCTV footage cut to “Angel Baby” in monochrome and without a single violent visual. Joe’s final raid at the governor’s house is implied through tableaux of the aftermath.

But the more crucial reversal with respect to Taxi Driver lies in the film’s treatment of masculine self-image of the hero. Travis counters his powerlessness in face of the inhuman machinery of the city with a bloody fantasy of triumphal reassertion. Like many of Scorsese’s films, Taxi Driver plunges the viewer right into the lead character’s mind-space and lets the viewer sort out the implications. Ramsay’s film, on the other hand, affords the viewer a distance. Joe has glimpses of a childhood memory flash by now and then: his psychotic father brandishing a hammer, looking for his mother hiding under the table, while kid Joe stands helpless. This helplessness is reinforced in another series of flashing images: his inability as a soldier to prevent the murder of a girl by a teenager over a chocolate bar. This fear of having inherited his father’s toxicity and his repeated inability to save women under duress feeds into his anxiety as a rescuer of abducted girls. Joe’s (unintentionally humorous) self-flagellating reproaches of being weak is a far cry from Travis’ putting up news items lauding a local hero. The fount is corrupt: the men have failed, it’s up to the women to save themselves.

Like in Kevin, Ramsay appropriates horror movie tropes, employing them to illuminate urgent, personal concerns. Ramsay’s associative editing, which connects different elements of the film in unusual, subconscious ways, isn’t as visceral as it was in Kevin, perhaps because the flash inserts are all neatly tied to Joe’s war trauma, but it’s still uncanny in the way it’s hinged on flinch-inducing sensations: sand on feet, candy in mouth etc. You Were Never Really Here invokes film history without that awareness weighing down on it too much. The spirit of Hitchcock’s Psycho looms large and is pertinent given Joe’s obsession with cleanliness and his tortured relationship with women, his mother in particular. There are also recalls from The Searchers, Le Petit Soldat and Kevin itself. A man Joe fatally wounds holds his hand during his final moments, an existential truth that reappeared in cinema the following year, more successfully and less preciously, in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, another film about a resentful ex-serviceman trying in vain to get back to normal life in a city that doesn’t make it easy.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

I’m one of those who think Lanthimos has something to say as an artist, even though The Killing of a Sacred Deer makes that opinion somewhat hard to defend. The film goes back to the universe of Dogtooth, with its isolated family governed by arbitrary internal regulations. Steven (Colin Farrell), his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and their children are the prototypical, white middle-class family with a posh suburban house and successful careers as doctors – unremarkable traits in all respects. When crisis strikes in the form of supernatural happenings controlled by Martin (Barry Keoghan), son of one of Steven’s unsuccessful patients, the family devolves into a primitive formation, with every member sucking up to the patriarch to stay alive. There are certainly echoes of Pasolini’s Teorema here and I do think Sacred Deer takes forward The Lobster’s reflection on the demands modern life makes of individuals as members in a social contract.

As is standard in Lanthimos’s cinema, the dialogue is wooden and delivered by the poker-faced actors as though reading out of a page. The subject matter is either meaningless everyday talk, whose painful banality and falsity are brought out more strongly by the toneless diction, or quaint remarks reminiscent of Wes Anderson. Even when the characters breakdown in rage or grief, there is a studied quality to the expression: the voice changes pitch, but still remains colourless and removed from the vacillations of real human speech. This, at times, produces hysterical exchanges such as the one about a lemon cake. The anxiogenic score, made of high-pitched oscillations, doubles the threat implied by the fluorescent-lit, antiseptic halls of the hospital or the yellow-tinted interiors of the house.

Lanthimos’ is an art first and foremost of framing. He thinks like a graphic novelist, taking as his challenge to find a point of view that is arresting in its obliqueness. He takes the least intuitive angle possible for a shot. A woman knocks at the door of a house with someone inside. While another filmmaker would put the camera behind the woman who is knocking the door or behind the closed door, Lanthimos plants it at right angles to her, showing no interest in the opening of the door. Shots are constantly saying something other than what the scene is about. A shot at the hospital with a bare-chested doctor and patient is scandalous without there being a scandal. The discerning viewer is always invited to study the framing of every shot, to reflect on why something is being presented this way. This, on the other hand, is also an invitation to be put off by the affectedness of it all.

Even when there are camera movements – and there are many – the primary interest is in the angle along which the camera glides. In wide-angle tracking shots at the hospital, the camera hovers just above the head of actors, who walk onward like characters in a first-person shooter. Other camera movements involve starting with close-ups of actors or objects and craning back to a wider view. This amplifies even banal gestures and words, such as when the camera tracks back from Kidman flossing her teeth talking about how wonderful their dinner guest was. But Lanthimos is not solely behind optical bait. There are several shots in Sacred Deer that are tender and beautiful too: like the close-up of Steven’s daughter on a bike with city lights reflected in her pupils, the Oliveira-like shot of feet in a three-character conversation scene, or the soaring rehearsal of a Christmas carol.

The Favourite

Based on a screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, The Favourite, presents a character study of three historical figures: Anne (Olivia Colman), the queen of England, her confidante and second-in-command, Sarah (Rachel Weisz), the Duchess of Marlborough, and Sarah’s cousin and maid Abigail Hill (Emma Stone). Anne is a broken woman, buried in grief over her dead children and cottoning on to whatever love she can get. The iron-willed Sarah is in love with the queen, but the political interest of the country is primordial to her. Abigail is a social climber, trying to rise up the strict hierarchy of feudal England and navigate its coded spaces by whatever means necessary. Abigail and Sarah’s vying for the queen’s attention and love have a direct influence on the country’s efforts in the ongoing war against France.

Handling such an elaborately-detailed material brings a new dimension to Lanthimos’ work, which has so far been built on strings of events pinned on an extraordinary, sparely-sketched premise  On the other hand, the filmmaker’s peculiar choices impart a rough texture, a modernist edge to the costume drama: fish eye lenses that suggest a cavernous, collapsing world, a workshop-like two-note musical score complementing the classical repertoire, the emphasis on the bawdier aspects of the script, the tongue-in-cheek division of the film into chapters, the caricatural, slow-motion inserts of palatial amusements resembling advertisements.

The Favourite is, however, atypical of Lanthimos’ style in several respects. Firstly, he’s working off a script not written by himself for the first time since his debut. Davis’ and McNamara’s writing is suffused with sharp lines that are a world away from Lanthimos’ dry sense of humour. Characters have clearly-defined ambitions and traits with hardly any gratuitous behaviour. The movement of the camera is more motivated than ever by that of the actors. Lanthimos and his regular editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis use dissolves, superpositions and sound bridges – not common sights in the director’s work. The edits are also less jarring and more conventionally meaningful, as when a shot of the queen lying laughing on the floor is followed by a shot of Sarah looking at her and then at Abigail, then by a shot of Abigail smiling at Sarah and finally by a shot of a bird being gunned down.

The most obvious deviation is, of course, in the manner of acting. In contrast to the poker-faced monoliths in Lanthimos’ earlier films, Coleman, Stone and Weisz portray their characters like open books, laying their complexes out in the open and giving them a tangible presence. A look at Sarah’s surprise when she finds Abigail in bed with the queen or the queen’s compassion as she sees Abigail melt down for her or Abigail’s piercing gaze after she’s gotten rid of Sarah is all one needs to understand their entire being. Leaning on these three stellar performances, Lanthimos brings to surface the tenderness latent but only sporadically visible in his previous films. In The Favourite, he creates a film with genuine affect that doesn’t undercut the love, jealously and heartbreak the characters feel towards each other. A Barry Lyndon comparison is valid in more ways than one.

The View From The Train
Patrick Keiller
Verso, 2014

 

British filmmaker and photographer Patrick Keiller’s The View from the Train features thirteen essays written over a period of almost 30 years – roughly overlapping with the length his career – dealing with cinema, architecture, public housing system in the UK and physical space in general, seen in the context of the city of London. Presented in the order they were written, these essays were written originally for various architectural journals and catalogues and hence contain considerable repetition of material. While some of these pieces are not very rewarding for those unfamiliar with London’s townscape (or the works of Charles Dickens, which forms the subject of one of the essays), the others offer valuable and original insights into not just the subjects discussed but also Keiller’s own filmography, his working methods and his artistic ambitions.

Like his third feature film Dilapidated Dwelling (2000), The View from the Train deals primarily with London’s public housing in whose dilapidated state Keiller finds a kind of contradiction in late capitalism’s promises of material abundance and universal prosperity. To be sure, since the Industrial Revolution, the general condition of life has improved in Europe. The life expectancy has seen an increase while access to luxury goods has become easier. The cost of housing, on the other hand, has not stopped increasing, especially in London where, Keiller says, the rate of construction of new buildings has saturated and the majority of the existing structures are over a century old. He points at the economic system as reason for this domestic malaise:

…under advanced capitalism it is increasingly difficult to produce and maintain the dwelling…Modernity, it seems, is exemplified not so much by the business park or the airport, but by the dilapidated dwelling.

Moreover, he sees this characteristic as belonging to a bigger tendency in modernity, perhaps descending from the protestant work ethic that dominates Anglo-Saxon nations: the glorification of the values of work over those of domesticity. He summarizes thus:

The dominant narratives of modernity – as mobility and instant communication – appear to be about work and travel, not home. They are constructions of a work-oriented academic elite about a work-oriented business elite.

As a response to this near-impossibility of changing public and domestic spaces of London, Keiller proposes, the idea of subjective transformation of space enjoyed a growing popularity in the city. This, he believes, harks back to artworks and movements of the past, such as the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe and Eric Baudelaire, in which we witness a subjective capacity to reinterpret the city space, and the theories of Surrealism and Situationism, whose proponents sought a subjective metamorphosis of everyday reality in their ‘rediscoveries’ of abandoned objects and buildings. Keiller reminds us that this is not an academic concept without practical application:

Transformations of everyday space are subjective, but they are not delusions, simply glimpses of what could happen, and indeed does happen at moments of intense collectivity, during demonstrations, revolutions and wars.

This remark above recalls the aesthetic transformation of public spaces during moments of great political crisis (as demonstrated in Sergei Loznitsa’s recent film, Maidan (2014), where the central square in Kiev becomes a site for the theatre of revolution). Nevertheless, according to Keiller, this return to popularity of Surrealist and Situationist – movements with revolutionary intentions – practice and philosophy in the 1990s in London doesn’t signify as much an atavism as the bourgeois appropriation of these movements:

The dérive and psychogeography were conceived, in a more politically ambitious period, as preliminaries to the production of new, revolutionary spaces; in the 1990s they seemed more likely to be preliminary to the production of literature and other works, and to gentrification, the discovery of previously overlooked value in dilapidated spaces and neighbourhoods.

Elsewhere, Keiller investigates the mutual influence of architecture and cinema. He argues that cinema in inspired by architecture, but more importantly, it opens up various possibilities for the latter in the form of spatial critique. Cinema illustrates and critiques existing spaces and points at the possibility of new, unrealized spaces. Old films reveal historic changes in architecture and landscape and help us reevaluate current day architecture and city design.

The best passages of the book, are however, the last essays in which Keiller studies the relation between cinema and trains. Cinema is intimately related to the railways ever since its birth. The first films of the Lumière brothers present a train arriving at a station. The rapid succession of passing landscape seen from inside the train bestowed in the spectator-traveller a thoroughly modern mode of perception which made the comprehension of cinema’s moving images possible. He writes:

Both cinema and the railway offer more or less predetermined and repeatable spatio-temporal continuities, so that it is perhaps not surprising that railways crop up in cinema as often as they do. Films even physically resemble railway tracks – long, parallel-sided strips divided laterally by frame lines and perforations, as is the railway by sleepers.

In the best essay of the book, Phantom Rides: The Railway and Early Film, he analyzes films made before the 1900s and characterizes two film genres in which the railways played a pivotal role. The first consists of films that depict passing panoramas during a train journey. Scholars call the second category Phantom Rides – films that present the view of railway tracks as seen from the front or the rear end of the train. Taken together, these two genres of early cinema offer perceptual experiences which embody in them a unique image of modern times:

This sequence [from Brief Encounter (1948)], with its added superimpositions and narration, confirms an interpretation of the railway panorama – suggested by Promio’s first examples – as an image of the stream of consciousness. In 1913 Sigmund Freud wrote, famously, that psychoanalysts might usefully tell their patients to ‘say whatever goes through your mind. Act as though, for instance, you were a traveller sitting next to the window of a railway carriage and describing to someone inside the carriage the changing views which you are seeing outside. The phantom ride, on the other hand, more particularly resembles Henri Bergson’s ‘predatory’ image of duration introduced in Matter and Memory (1896), in which the present is ‘the invisible progress of the past gnawing into the future’

 

(Originally posted here)

The Man In White Suit

[On Alexander Mackendrick’s The Man in the White Suit (1951), for The Mubi Notebook]

It was the best of years, it was the worst of years. Best because a dizzying number of big and important projects surfaced this year and worst because I haven’t even been able to see even a fraction of that number, even though my film viewing hit an all-time high this December, That last bit was possible thanks to the city’s major international film festival, the first full-fledged fest that I’ve ever attended – a key event as far as my cinephilia is concerned. Although, I must admit, none of the new titles I saw at the fest blew me away, I was surprised by a handful of films that I think deserve wider exposure. (I’m thinking specifically of Jean-Jacques Jauffret’s debut film Heat Wave, a tragic, graceful hyperlionk movie in which piecing together the disorienting geography of Marseilles becomes as important as piecing together the four intersecting narratives.) Instead of continuing apologetically to emphasize my viewing gaps and to rationalize the countless number of entries on my to-see list, I present you another list, The Top 10 Films I Didn’t See This Year: (1) House of Tolerance (Bertrand Bonello, an indisputable masterpiece, probably) (2) Seeking the Monkey King (Ken Jacobs) (3) Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan) (4) This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi/Mojtaba Mirtahmasb) (5) Century of Birthing (Lav Diaz) (6) Life Without Principle (Johnnie To) (7) The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev) (8) Hugo (Martin Scorsese) (9) Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan) (10) La Havre (Aki Kaurismaki). Now that that’s out of my system, here are my favorites from the ones I did get to see.

1. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr/Ágnes Hranitzky, Hungary)


The Turin HorseFor a number of films this year, the end of the world became some sort of a theme park ride taken with ease, but none of them ventured as far as Béla Tarr’s mesmerizing, awe-inspiring farewell to cinema. With The Turin Horse, Tarr’s filmmaking traverses the whole gamut, moving away from the wordy realist pictures of his early phase to this extreme abstraction suggesting, in Godard’s phrasing, a farewell to language itself. Centering on a man, his daughter and their horse as they eke out a skeletal existence in some damned plain somewhere in Europe, The Turin Horse is the last chapter of a testament never written, an anti-Genesis narrative that finds God forsaking the world and leaving it to beings on earth to sort it all out by themselves. Tarr’s film is a remarkable cinematic achievement, primal in its physicality and elemental in its force. Nothing this year was so laden with doom and so brimming with hope at once as the ultimate image of the film, where father and daughter – now awakened, perhaps – sit in the darkness with nothing to confront but each other.

2. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)


A SeparationAsghar Farhadi’s super-modest yet supremely ambitious chronicle of class conflict in Tehran is a massive deconstruction project that strikes right at the heart of systems that define us. Accumulating detail upon detail and soaking the film in the ambiguity that characterizes the real world, A Separation reveals the utter failure of binary logic – which not only forms the foundation of institutions such as justice but also permeates and petrifies our imagination – in dealing with human dilemmas. Farhadi’s centrism is not a form of bourgeois neutrality that plagues many a war movies, it is a recognition that truth lies somewhere in the recesses between the contours of language, law and logic. Working with unquantifiable parameters such as irrationality and doubt, Farhadi’s film is something of an aporia in the discourses that surround cinema and reality and an urgent call for revaluation of approaches towards critical problems in general. Rigorously shot, edited and directed, A Separation is a genuinely empathetic yet highly intelligent slice of reality in all its messy complexity and breathtaking grace.

3. The Tree Of Life (Terrence Malick, USA)


The Tree of LifeJuxtaposing the cosmic, the macroscopic and the infinite with the particular, the everyday and the finite, Terrence Malick’s fifth film The Tree of Life seeks to ask big questions. It is here that the director’s longstanding philosophical concerns find perfect articulation and efficacy in the specific form of the film. Seamlessly shifting between perspectives both all-knowing and limited, The Tree of Life posits the existence of a single shared consciousness across time and place, only a small part of which is each human being. It is also Malick’s most phenomenological film and mostly unfolds as a series of sensory impressions that both invites and resists interpretation. An awe-instilling tug-of-war between finitude and permanence, omniscience and ignorance, narrativization and immediate experience and rationalization and incomprehension, Malick’s unabashed celebration of the birth of consciousness – in general and in specific forms – locates the particular in the universal and vice versa. What lingers in the mind more than the grand ideas, though, are extremely minor details, which is pretty much what the medium must aspire to achieve.

4. The Story Of Film: An Odyssey (Mark Cousins, UK)


The Story of FilmA scandalous history, a disproportionate sense of importance and a frustrating accent. Critic-Filmmaker Mark Cousins’ project to present the story of cinema as a 15-part TV series appears doomed right from the conceptualization stage: can you even attempt to tell a story of film without omitting whole schools of filmmaking or national cinemas? Omit it certainly does, and unapologetically so, but when Cousins chronologically hops from one country to another, halting at particular films, scenes or even shots, providing commentary that is as insightful as they come and situating them in the larger scheme of things, you wouldn’t hesitate to lower your guard. Not only does Cousins’ 900-minute tribute to filmdom introduce us to names in world cinema rarely discussed about, but also presents newer approaches to canonical entries. Admirably inclusive (Matthew Barney and Baz Luhrmann find adjacent seats, so do Youssef Chahine and Steven Spielberg) and never condescending, The Story of Film exhibits towards the history of the form a sensitivity comparable to the finest of film criticism.

5. We Need To Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, UK)


We Need to Talk About KevinWhat is stressed in Lynne Ramsay’s rattling third feature We Need to Talk About Kevin is not only the continuity between mother and son, but also the essential discontinuity. Where does the mother end and where does the son begin? Every inch of space between actors resonates with this dreadful ambiguity. The film is as much about Eva’s birth from the stifling womb of motherhood as it is Kevin’s apparent inability to be severed from her umbilical cord. Every visual in Ramsay’s chronicle of blood and birth works on three levels – literal, symbolic and associative – the last of which links the images of the film in subtle, subconscious and thoroughly unsettling ways. For the outcast Eva, the past bleeds into the present and every object, sound and gesture becomes a living, breathing reminder of whatever has been put behind. Ramsay’s intuitive, sensual approach to colour, composition and sound locates her directly in the tradition of the Surrealists and deems this unnerving, shattering, personal genre work as one of the most exciting pieces of cinema this year.

6. Life In A Day (Various, Various)


Life in a DayAn heir to the ideas of Dziga Vertov and Aleksandr Medvedkin, Kevin Macdonald’s Life in a Day is a moving, bewildering, charming, frustrating and dizzying snapshot of Planet Earth in all its glory, stupidity and complexity on a single day in 2011. An endless interplay of presence and absence, familiar and exotic, lack and excess, similarity and difference, the homogenous and the un-normalizable and the empowered and the marginalized, Life in a Day is a virtually inexhaustible film that is a strong testament to how many of us lived together on this particular planet on this particular day of this particular year. (That it represents only a cross section of the world population is a complaint that is subsumed by the film’s observations.) Each shot, loaded with so much cultural content, acts as a synecdoche, suggesting a dense social, political and historical network underneath. Most importantly, it taps right into the dread of death that accompanies cinematography: the heightened awareness of the finitude of existence and experience and the direct confrontation with the passing of time.

7. Kill List (Ben Wheatley, UK)


Kill ListOn the surface, Ben Wheatley’s Kill List comes across like a sick B-movie with a mischievous sense of plotting, but on closer examination, it reveals itself as a serious work with clear-cut philosophical and political inclination. That its philosophy is inseparable from its mind-bending narrative structure makes it a very challenging beast. Kill List is the kind of kick in the gut that video games must strive to emulate if they aspire to become art. Indeed, Wheatley’s chameleon of a film borrows much from video games – from its division of a mission into stages announced by intertitles to the third-person-shooter aesthetic that it segues into – making us complicit with the protagonist and his moral attitude, later pulling the rug from our feet and leaving us afloat. Early in the film, Iraq war veteran and protagonist Jay mumbles that it was better if he was fighting the Nazis – at least, he would know who the enemy was. He learns the hard way that this ‘othering’ of the enemy into a mass of unidentifiable groups is a psychological strategy to protect and redeem himself, that it’s judgment that defeats us.

8. Sleeping Beauty (Julia Leigh, Australia)


Sleeping BeautyYour vagina will be a temple” one elderly procurer assures Lucy, a twenty something university student who takes up odd jobs to pay her fees. Not only is the vagina a temple in Julia Leigh’s markedly assured debut feature, but the human body itself is a space that is to be furnished, maintained and rented out for public use. Leigh’s vehemently anti-realist examination of continuous privatization of the public and publicization of the private works against any kind of psychological or sociological realism, instead unfolding as an academic study of the human body as a site of control. Setting up a dialectic between pristine, clinical public spaces and messy, emotional private ones, Sleeping Beauty attempts to explore not our relationship to the spaces that we inhabit, but also to the space that we ourselves are. Consistently baffling and irreducible, Leigh’s film displays an eccentric yet surefooted approach to design, composition and framing, revealing the presence of a personality beneath. Sleeping Beauty is, for me, the most impressive debut film of the year.

9. The Kid With A Bike (Jean-Pierre Dardenne/Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France)


The Kid with a BikeThe Dardenne brothers have turned out to be the preeminent documentarians of our world and their latest wonder The Kid with a Bike sits alongside their best works as an unadorned, incisive portrait of our time. Admittedly inspired by fairly tales, Dardennes’ film might appear like an archetypal illustration of innocence lured by the devil, but its parameters are all drawn from here and now. Structured as a series of transactions – persons, objects, moral grounds – where human interaction is inextricably bound to the movement of physical objects, the film presents our world as one defined by exchanges of all kind, but never reduces this observation to some cynical reading of life as a business. Also characteristic of Dardennes’ universe is the intense physicality that pervades each shot. Be it the boy scurrying about on foot or on bike or the countless number of doors that are opened and closed, the Dardennes, once more, show us that cinema must concern itself with superficies and it is on the surface of things that one can find depth.

10. The Monk (Dominik Moll, France/Spain)


The MonkDominik Moll’s adaptation of Matthew Lewis’ eponymous novel concerning a self-righteous priest tempted by the devil could be described as an intervention of late nineteenth century tools – psychoanalysis and cinema – into a late eighteenth century text. Located on this side of the birth of psychoanalysis, Moll’s film comes across as essentially Freudian in the way it portrays the titular monk as a human being flawed by design and the church, society and family as institutions responsible for suppressing those basic impulses. Incest, rape and murder abound as hell breaks loose, but the film’s sympathy is clearly with the devil. The Monk uses an array of early silent cinema techniques including a schema that combines an impressionistic illustration of the protagonist’s sensory experience and expressionistic mise en scène to signal his irreversible descent into decadence. Alternating between metallic blues of the night and sun bathed brown, Moll’s film teeters on the obscure boundary between Good and Evil. Exquisitely composed and expertly realized, The Monk supplies that irresistible dose of classicism missing in the other films on this list.

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