Review


A Wild Pear Tree

“Simple minds like to reduce a work to a central idea”, says Sinan (Aydın Doğu Demirkol) in a conversation with a local celebrity author. It’s a gibe at the critics of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s The Wild Pear Tree, a polyvalent, multi-thematic portrait of life in the director’s native region of Çanakkale in the western extreme of Turkey. Sinan has just graduated and returned to his hometown of Çan for his teacher’s exam preparations. Çan is chiefly known to the world as the site of the Trojan war and for its war cemetery. Sinan hates the city, whose natural beauties have been overridden by industrial and domestic garbage. All his childhood friends have left the city for better prospects elsewhere. But he’s nevertheless written a personal book on Çan and its people. Through the film’s three-hour runtime, Sinan tries to secure funds for the publication of his book, talking unsuccessfully to the mayor and then a businessman who patronizes the arts because the corporation gives him contracts. The film is told entirely through his perspective; he is present in every scene of the film, and his subjectivity merges with the events depicted.

One of the primary notions Ceylan’s film examines that of inheritance and legacy. On his return, Sinan connects with his two grandfathers, one a farmer living up in the hills and the other a retired Imam, still solicited by his younger colleagues for weddings and the like. Sinan’s father Idris (Murat Cemcir) is a school teacher and spends his weekends digging a well in the mountains close to his father’s house. Idris is of scientific temperament and believes that the villagers, including his father, are wrong about the village being barren. Sinan, in turn, rebels against Idris, whom he takes to be a gambling addict. It is said that Idris, once a white hope of the town, got mixed up in horse races and lost his house in it. But we never see him gambling and Sinan’s conviction that his father is a ne’er-do-well remains unsubstantiated.

A self-styled misanthropic, Sinan rejects this lineage, considering himself above all this. His disgruntlement with his forefathers is as much artistic as it is familial. In the conversation with the local writer, Sinan grows increasingly confrontational, provoking his interlocutor in typically-upstart fashion. He belittles the author for participating in literary conferences, insinuates that he’d not understand the kind of novel Sinan’s writing. When he manages to publish his book, he signs a copy for his mother and basks in self-satisfaction of having arrived (or rather left this region in an intellectual sense), and having been better than his father. His parricidal tendency, Ceylan seems to be hinting, is a form of wanting to be accepted and the trajectory of the character ends in his owning up to his own provenance. Ceylan’s return to his hometown to make this film is also a kind of owning up, a return to roots for a filmmaker whose calling is now international.

The loosely-autobiographical nature of The Wild Pear Tree is also suggested by the specific memories it offers. The film unfolds leisurely through a series of conversations Sinan has at home and outside. In the first of these, he speaks with a woman he knew as a high-schooler, perhaps a flame, who is now engaged to a rich man against her wishes. They kiss under a tree as the wind ruffles its leaves. In another conversation on literature, the businessman scorns Sinan’s suggestion that anything is to be learnt from the cheerfulness of the town’s old fruit-seller. Sinan’s subjective novel, of which we know next to nothing, is a defence of art as personal expression against the utilitarian approaches of the people he speaks with, who’d rather he writes about the town’s tourist attractions.

There’s a constant friction between the abstractions Sinan deals with and the rooted, pragmatism of his surroundings. In an arresting conversation with two clerics, the non-believing Sinan teases out the head Imam’s hypocrisies. A newer Imam talks about the necessary distinction between the popular Islamic scholars and the important ones, just like Sinan did with the writer. The whole exchange takes place as they walk from an apple tree in the hills down to a tea joint as the sun sinks. As is his wont, Ceylan films them as tiny beings in the landscape, the abstract contours of their theological debate set against concrete physical phenomena like the fading sunlight, smoke from chimneys, moos of cows and noise of motorbikes. The speciality of this dialectical presentation, already evident in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, is that it can be interpreted differently by the Imams and Sinan, as per their proclivities.

There are references to the current situation in the country. The entire scenario is predicated on money problems and the issue of unemployment is a constant threat facing Sinan, who’s always looking for things to sell – an obsession he is oblivious to while he scorns his father for gambling. One of Sinan’s friends is now a member of the government-sponsored paramilitary (or military) mobilized to bash up dissenters. But Ceylan is not a political filmmaker – if anything he’s likely the state’s cherished cultural ambassador of cinema like Jia Zhang-ke now is. His sensibility, like Asghar Farhadi’s, is closer to the 19th century Russian novelists than anything modern, and The Wild Pear Tree stretches out like a long parable minus the moral clarity. A shot of Sinan, his father and his grandfather together pulling up a boulder from a pit only to drop it back is a cogent summation of the film’s existential thrust.

Mektoub My Love

There’s a shot some fourteen hours into Abdellatif Kechiche’s Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno in which a baby goat stares right at the camera. It’s not planned but it’s the first time we are reminded of the director’s presence in a film that’s all fly-on-the-wall. Kechiche’s always-mobile camera registers the smallest wrinkle of human interaction; his film is a veritable encyclopaedia of modern French greetings, gestures and social rituals. It’s rigorous, it’s exacting, but it’s also incurably obsessed with the heroine’s body, especially its rear end. One thing is sure: Kechiche really puts the cul in culture. It’s not anything new for the maker of Black Venus, an incisive study of the objectification and progressive breakdown of the black, female body. But here, as in Blue is the Warmest Colour, the viewer’s gaze of the film’s subject isn’t questioned. The film opens with a sex scene, but the camera is squarely on the woman, an all-too-easy site of male identification that’s already pervasive in visual culture.

The ostensible point of view of this opening scene is the voyeur-protagonist at the window, Amin (Shaïn Boumédine), who is taken aback that this woman is sleeping with his cousin Tony while engaged to another man. Amin interrupts the session, prompting his cousin to flee and the woman, Ophélie (Ophélie Bau), to scamper for her clothes. The dialogue between Amin and Ophélie that follows is awkward as expected, but tensely humorous in its mixture of empty cordiality and latent expectation of sexual violence. Nothing untoward happens though, and Amin turns out to be not just the film’s most charming character, but a downright gent. The year is 1994, Amin is reluctantly studying medicine in Paris and has come home to Sète on the Azure Coast for vacation. Like the protagonist in The Wild Pear Tree, he is an artist at heart: he writes film scripts and photographs. And just like Sinan, Amin is present in every scene of the film.

Life in Sète revolves around his extended family, which manages a popular restaurant in the city together. It’s summer and Amin’s relatives, all uniformly good-looking, spend their days at the beach and evenings at restaurants and pubs. Mektoub is an endless series of beach and party scenes, and presents a dreamy idea of fun with boys and girls frolicking in groups – a 20th century version of fête champêtre paintings. The mood is invariably, suffocatingly upbeat, with one girl’s heartbreak providing a welcome, sombre counterpoint to the primary-colour emotions of the scenes. Kechiche’s film opens, funnily enough, with quotes from the Bible and the Koran about light, and the film is a showcase of beautiful sun-kissed bodies shot in immersive intimacy. After sundown, they are seen in the artificial lights of disco and bars. The men and women dance with and seduce each other in varying permutations and, given their vague relationships, the invitation to dance scan as competitive mating rituals. Kechiche films their dynamic like an ethnographer, observing the minutiae of the process of la drague, the progress of flirtatious conversations from everyday exchange to something more.

The film is narrated through Amin’s perspective, but the point of view is fluid within each sequence, with Kechiche’s camera moving around the restaurant to construct mini-scenes involving different characters, something like a Renoir tableau. One impressive aspect of Kechiche’s film is that, despite being coupled to Amin, it breathes freely. So we get a subtle, superbly-detailed conversation between women of the family trying to passive-aggressively break up Ophélie’s affair. Likewise, a moment with Ophélie and Tony trying to steal a kiss, fretting about the crowd in the pub, in a work full of explicit, very physical exchanges. Kechiche’s film brims crushingly-banal small talk and they would be of high documentary value if they weren’t so repeated and generalized. There are conversations between Ophélie and Amin about his relatives that are tediously long and go nowhere in particular. The fatigue is deliberately induced for what Kechiche wants to contrast it with later.

Amin remains an observer and a reticent participant in all this. While his cousins are busy picking up girls, he isn’t interested even when girls proposition him. On the contrary, his conversations with prospective partners builds up from shop talk to end in awkward silence, whose tension remains unresolved. He prefers spending his morning taking photos or watching Pudovkin. There’s no suggestion he is indifferent to girls, especially Ophélie, whom he stares at whenever she’s intimate with someone else. But there’s no sense that he wants to sleep with her either. As a favour from Ophélie in exchange for keeping silent about her affair with his cousin, Amin asks her if she can pose nude for his photos. His emotional peak comes in a sequence at a goat shed – a calculated break from the headiness of the other scenes – where he photographs a goat giving birth. Scored to operatic vocals, it’s a moving scene, and Kechiche pitches it at as an experience more rarefied than what transpires in the rest of the film. Amin, like Kechiche, is presented as the artist figure, trying to preserve his integrity in a world full of distractions and shapely bottoms. The point is that you can either make art or have fun. It’s Kechiche exculpating himself: he’s not having fun filming these undulating bums and naked torsos, he’s making Art.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

[Spoilers below]

Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, weaves a fictional narrative around the Tate murders of 1969, in which a pregnant Sharon Tate and four of her friends were killed by members belonging to the cult of Charles Manson at her residence in Hollywood. The film unfolds through a collage of four perspectives: Rick Dalton (a hammy Leonardo DiCaprio) a waning Western TV star ruing his sunset, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), once Dalton’s stunt double, now his pal and go-to-guy, actress Sharon Tate (Robbie Margot), who has just moved in next door to Dalton with her husband Roman Polanski, and the Manson Family, a hippie commune living in Spahn Ranch, a run-down movie and TV studio where Dalton and Booth used to shoot. The film begins six months before the murder and charts Dalton coming to terms with his imminent professional irrelevance, Cliff’s apathetic life alongside Dalton and Tate’s stuttering rise to public recognition. If not for its ending, the film registers as a transitional work for Tarantino in the way it leaves behind many of the filmmaker’s stylistic traits.

To be sure, Once Upon a Time turns out exactly the way one would expect a film written by Tarantino about the Tate murders to. But it doesn’t look anything like a Tarantino movie. For one, there’s a lot more “dead time” here than in any of his previous films. Nothing much happens in these long stretches except for characters driving around Los Angeles, the radio turned on, wind in their hair, Tarantino asking us to just absorb the atmosphere. The extreme close-ups that he usually reserves for a telling detail is generalized and multiplied. There are at least three identical shots of the Manson Family members walking towards Tate’s house – a superfluity that is symptomatic of the whole film. The pace is measured and the individual scenes themselves are much longer than usual, many of them outlasting their nominal purpose. There are three protracted sequences dedicated to Dalton bemoaning his decline. The last of these unfolds as a conversation with a precocious eight-year-old child actor (Julia Butters). It’s a remarkably insipid scene, even more than the other two, too shallow to be sincere and too cliched to be smart, and it’s surprising to find it in such prominence in a Tarantino film.

Secondly, Tarantino’s relationship with his influences is given much more showcase and precious attention than we’ve come to expect from the filmmaker. Tate looks at a poster of The Wrecking Crew (1968), her newly-released picture with Dean Martin. While this would’ve been a passing glimpse in the director’s previous works, here we get a shot of Tate looking at the poster, then a close-up of the poster and a reverse-shot of Tate again. Scenes of the real Tate in the film are also played for us. When producer Schwarz (Al Pacino) names the Dalton movies he’s seen, we see a detailed film reel of fake films starring Dalton. The reel comprises of Westerns, a musical, and an action movie where Dalton torches Nazis with a flamethrower, and serves as a wish-fulfilment for the Tarantino. Home turf for QT, the Hollywood milieu might have allowed for many more tributes, a temptation that he avoids for fewer, more elaborate quotations.

What most distinguishes Once Upon a Time from Tarantino’s earlier works, however, is the startling absence of suspense and a curious undercurrent of sentimentalism. While the film intercuts between Dalton, Booth and Tate from the outset, there’s no tension that the juxtaposition produces. It’s February 1969 and we know that the murders happened only in August. The first conflict of the film, and its first instance of accelerated editing, doesn’t occur until two hours in, when Booth visits the Spahn Ranch and picks up a fight with one of the Manson Family members. The only expectation the viewer has all through the film derives from the tragic consciousness of the Tate murders and even that is thrown into doubt considering Tarantino’s tendency to rewrite history. Unlike in any other QT film, the film’s only real tense sequence arrives at the end, on the day of the murder, when the filmmaker quickens the crosscutting with arbitrary, pointless time markers, expanding the sequence with extreme detailing of events.

The film’s emotional locus is instead vested in the friendship between Dalton and Booth, one of the few sincere relationships in Tarantino’s body of work. The friendship gets its own emotional climax, in a restaurant scene where Dalton, now married and washed-up, confesses he can’t afford Booth anymore, and a parting shot in which Dalton tells Booth he was a good friend. Also nagging the film’s conscience is Booth’s tragic professional situation. Like countless professionals Hollywood’s technological progress has left behind, Booth leads a ghost-like existence in the shadow of Dalton, himself fast becoming a shadow. He lives in a trailer park, drives Dalton around and even does household chores. His vocation is of no use anymore in the new Hollywood, where actors are expected to do their own stunts. Tarantino’s ode to the profession includes a fight between Booth and Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), presented in long takes, and several shots of Brad Pitt doing stunt-like activities.

This sentimentalism might be interpreted as nostalgia, but what Once Upon a Time deals with is nostalgia for a time when nostalgia was possible. His yearning is not for the old movies and movie studios but the neon lights of cinemas and restaurants that once dotted the Hollywood landscape. It’s a yearning that’s second-hand, for Tarantino couldn’t have himself lived the experiences he describes. The film is set in 1969 (two years before The Last Picture Show was made), a time when the studio system had collapsed and the movie brats had started to shape up the business and method of making films. The Vietnam War (and protests against it) continues under the newly-elected Nixon. Tarantino frequently cuts from Dalton to Tate to set up a contrast between an eclipsing, old Hollywood of the fifties and the rising, new Hollywood of the late sixties. Somewhat of a relic, Dalton is modelled after the suburban, middle-class, Eisenhower-era executive. He is mostly seen at the lot or back home. He spends his evening preparing for work or in front of television. He prefers his beer over drugs, hates the hippies and wants nothing to do with the debauched lifestyle of the times. It’s noteworthy, for a film set in Hollywood, how little of Hollywood or its people we actually see. The only party we are shown owes to the presence of Tate, Jay and Polanski, people wholly of their era, unlike Dalton. As Tate watches The Wrecking Crew, Tarantino regularly jumps to Dalton’s shooting of a TV Western. It’s a “old-timey” Western, but made in Tarantino’s style of long takes and direct sound. We don’t see the camera crew for the most part and the decoupage is presented as Tarantino would conceive it. There are several shots in Once Upon a Time of actors snoring, spitting and slurping – sounds rare in classical Westerns. The intercutting between an actor performing and another actor watching herself performing signals the shift of American movies towards greater self-reflexivity.

This opposition between the simple forms and moral clarity of old Hollywood and the darker, self-reflexive anti-authoritarianism of new Hollywood takes on a politically-noxious flavour when combined with Tarantino’s desire to deny the Tate murders. In Once Upon a Time, the Manson Family members enter Dalton’s house instead of Tate’s. Booth, under the influence of an acid-soaked cigarette a hippie sold him, kills all of them with the assistance of Dalton, who is finally invited home by a relieved Tate. In other words, the old heroes of old Hollywood, with their clear-cut notions of good and evil, have protected the Polanski household from crazy hippies squatting over the ruins of Hollywood. The implications are odious: that though home-grown antisocial elements denigrate them, it takes soldiers and war heroes, like Booth once was, to protect the country; that the movies and TV shows of old might have shown violence, but the mediatized images of the Vietnam War have rendered the violence in movies more real, more immediate, making them even more responsible for the violence in society. Tarantino’s reactionary re-revisionism is the opposite of the necessary process of cultural reexamination filmmakers such as Penn, Peckinpah and Altman were undertaking during the time the film is set in.

In Tarantino’s dichotomous image of Hollywood, hippies, cultists, druggies, squatters, libertines, the counterculture in short, are pitted against a pragmatic, intuitive world of cowboys and Mexicans – a strangely anachronistic vision that seems to belong to the film’s era and not current day. There’s no equivalence between the Manson’s Family’s real violence and the fictional violence that Booth and Dalton exercise on them. They are home invaders and so any violence on them doesn’t carry the same moral sanction as their own violence does. Before they leave their car, the Manson Family discusses television shows. One of them wants to “kill the people who taught us to kill”. This twisted reasoning helps Tarantino justify his excesses: movie violence, no matter how graphic, is ultimately harmless compared to real violence. This gives him the carte blanche to abandon himself in the thrill of brutal imagery, as Booth smashes the face of one woman against various hard surfaces of the house, including a framed movie poster. Dalton burns another one down with a flamethrower.

It is, however, impossible to precisely pin down the politics of a Tarantino film and Once Upon a Time, like all Hollywood tentpoles, is riddled with ideological paradoxes that makes any reading tenable. It is quite possible that Tarantino simply wants to further his project of harnessing cinema’s capacity to forge myths and correct historical-representational errors. His film is set in Hollywood, an ahistorical zone where fact and legend mix. Booth is said to have killed his wife, but nobody knows. The production of its films is based on a lie that the actor and the stuntman are the same people. Tarantino recreates a scene from The Great Escape with Dalton/DiCaprio in place of McQueen, even as Dalton clearly states that he was never in the running. It’s a lie that QT visualizes nonetheless: why shouldn’t cinema belie history, when every sane person in their implicit contract with the movies knows it is all made up? One has to be as deranged as the Manson Family, the filmmaker seems to say, to take what is represented for fact. Most auteur films Hollywood tend to be bitter about the industry and its people, but Tarantino’s too much in love with its history for that. In the final passage of the film, he cycles through various characters watching prime-time television. Through the cross-cutting, this shared cultural experience takes on a communal quality. Something resembling a prayer, which is what movie-going is for Tarantino. The prayers have been answered. The movies have made America safe again, if only on screen.

First Reformed

[Spoilers below]

With First Reformed, Paul Schrader moulds his lifelong influences – Bresson, Ozu, Dreyer – into a film that resembles theirs in many ways, but is an entirely personal project. Veteran Ernst Toller (a terrific Ethan Hawke) lost his son in the Iraq War and was down in the dumps. Abundant Life, a corporatized megachurch in Albany, decided to give him a break by appointing as the reverend at the eponymous church in a small town in New York State. The church is of historical significance, but is mostly a tourist spot surviving by the grace of Abundant Life. As preparations are on for the 250th anniversary celebrations, Toller is requested by Mary (Amanda Seyfried) to talk to her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), a militant eco-activist despondent over climate change. In an arresting conversation, which he compares to Jacob’s tussle with the angel, Toller turns out ill-equipped to console Michael, who doesn’t want Mary to have their baby. When he thwarts Michael’s plans for a suicide attack, presumably against a locally-headquartered, super-polluting corporate behemoth, Balq, Michael commits suicide. The reverend gives Michael a service that includes a protest song, a gesture that doesn’t go well with Abundant Life or its sponsor Balq. Disappointed with the Church’s blissful inaction towards pressing questions of our times, Toller finds himself filling the dead man’s shoes in several ways and experiences a crisis of faith of his own. Alcoholic and suffering from cancer, he decides to continue Michael’s mission.

The Gordian knot at the heart of Toller’s spiritual crisis, it appears, is the incompatibility between two world views, between the Church’s teaching of courageous acceptance and the global consciousness of the young people the reverend encounters. When Michael despairs about bringing a child into a world that’s heading towards disaster, Toller has no convincing answer; he asks Michael to choose courage over reason in face of uncertainty. It’s an appeal for resignation that Toller himself gets from Pastor Jeffers: it may be that the destruction of the world is part of God’s plan. That advice is not just an absolution of individual responsibility, it’s a falsification of one’s spiritual turmoil – the same kind of emotional violence that positivists wreak on people claiming to have experienced religious transport. What elevates Toller’s crisis of faith above a notional concept and gives it a particular force is that it’s rooted in the character’s personal history. Toller’s disillusionment with the Church’s tendency to reduce political issues to an abstract question of providence stems from his own guilt of not having questioned his faith in abstractions like patriotism. That his son was killed in Iraq is a political tragedy, not simply a personal misfortune as the Church would have it.

Michael’s response to his despair is calculated political violence. When Toller takes the explosives away from Michael’s garage, he also takes his life purpose away, turning the violence inward and killing Michael. Toller’s response to his crisis is identical. He comes in the line of Schrader loners, present in every scene of the film, trying to work through their anguish by acting on the world around. Toller’s spiritual sickness feeds on and into his physical sickness. He tries to give meaning to his impending death and cherry-picks ideas from the Bible to justify his turn to extremism, just as Jeffers cherry-picks to justify status quo. To preserve is to participate in creation, he writes, and thus to do God’s work. And to preserve, you have to sometimes destroy. When his bombing plan is hindered, Toller wraps himself with barbed wire and tries to drink drain-cleaning acid. Mary stops him, they embrace each other in a coupling of love and death as the camera roves around them to end the film. Ultimately agnostic, Schrader’s film cannot claim to provide a solution to the dilemma, only a momentary suspension.

The Franciscan austerity of First Reformed derives from an acute film-awareness. Right from its 1.37:1 aspect ratio (same as that of Winter Light) and its old-style cursive credits, the film announces itself as the inheritor of a cinema that Schrader described as transcendental. There is, specifically, a Bressonian vein in the choice of having a priest maintain a diary, his solemn voiceover, the opening shot of the church and the style of editing. The major part of the film unfolds between two Sundays, but the film doesn’t give provide any explicit markers. Sparsely furnished, with a large living room containing a sole, inexplicable chair, Toller’s Ordet-inspired quarters as well as Mary’s house are products of a theatrical mise en scène, a possible one-act play in which the character paces around the stage and monologues to the audience. Scenes transition from master shot to close-ups sparingly, which renders the latter more effective. A shot of Toller pinned in his seat holding a coffee cup drives home his agitation all the more directly. The tight, fixed-camera shot of the reverend and Mary on bicycle is Ozuvian in its liberative simplicity. Toller himself is an extremely self-aware character, analytical about his own feelings and cognizant of the vanity of his diary-keeping project. He compares writing to praying and, in his torment, Schrader recognizes the spiritual quandary of an era.

mother!

Another film with religious overtones, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! couldn’t be more different from Schrader’s sober film, what with its unabashed formal and thematic excesses. It showboats from the opening shot where Lawrence’s bloody face stares at the viewer against a burning backdrop. A writer (Javier Bardem) and his wife (Jennifer Lawrence) live in their isolated bungalow surrounded by vegetation. The building, the writer’s childhood home, was burnt down in a fire and the woman is rebuilding it entirely from memory. Her husband is experiencing a writer’s block and is growing aloof from her. When a suspicious fan (Ed Harris) comes into their house, he senses inspiration and invites him to stay over. The following day, the guest’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) moves in and one of their sons murders the other in the bungalow. The writer lets the mourning take place at his house, making way for the encroachment of dozens of obnoxious friends. When he finally finishes his play, it becomes a success and a horde of fans invades his house, destroys his property, and kills his baby, the writer welcoming all of it. The woman remains a helpless witness to the disintegration of her own life. Aronofsky’s film shifts from psychological horror to outright camp by the time it ends. The transformation is deliberate and is intended to sever the film from wan realism.

Aronofsky’s film is of a piece with The Wrestler and Black Swan, but with one crucial change: the narrative perspective is no more that of the artist figure, but of the woman he lives with. This tempers the overarching narcissism of the earlier films and turns the gaze back on to the artist, whose self-love now becomes a problem, the main problem. The artist here is a needy, vampiric god, sucking all the love and attention from his environment. The filmmaker is entirely critical of Bardem’s writer, to the point that he becomes a caricature, a pawn in sway to the adulation of his fans. Aronofsky’s sympathy is instead with Lawrence’s character. She is a caregiver, a homemaker maintaining the house and nurturing their child. Her dedication is met with indifference, the writer preferring to be left alone or recognized by others. Pfeiffer’s character grills her about her love life and insults her for not having a child. Ed Harris calls her a pretty face. Most direct and effective among the many allegories mother! accommodates is that of the universal mother itself.

The value of mother!, however, resides less in the interpretations it yields, which are no doubt numerous, than in the unrelenting atmosphere it creates that doesn’t allow the viewer a moment’s breather. There is perhaps a streak of sadism in dragging a character through an endless series of distressing situations which she has no power to tackle. This, of course, is a horror movie trope, the last girl who has to go through hell to come out alive. Aronofsky’s success lies in how closely he binds the viewer’s perception to that of the character. His characteristic, ever-moving camera is always fixed on Lawrence and from up close; the viewer is hardly allowed a glimpse of her surroundings before she is. This claustrophobic locking down of the viewer amplifies the horror and the suspense tenfold. Adding to this is the accentuated sound design that magnifies ambient noise to a point of threat. There are low frequency hums at certain points, but there’s no real musical score – a lack that’s barely noticeable.

Aronofsky can direct the hell out of a scene and if mother! provokes extreme reactions, it’s less because of its raw material than the way the filmmaker has turned it into a bludgeon that assaults the viewer from the get-go. He threads one gratuitous, strong image over another, one potent sound choice over another to effect a sensory overload. Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique draw their visual cues from Andrew Wyeth as much from Tarkovsky, Malick or Hitchcock. It’s all one steady, monotonic build-up till the apocalypse at the end. Every time Lawrence’s character has a chance to intervene or get a word in, there’s an interruption – a fit of cough, the phone ringing, the stove going off – that pulls her back on the everyday treadmill. She’s always cleaning the house, fixing stuff, trying in vain to prevent its inevitable collapse. In this respect, she’s a reincarnation of the Deneuve character from Repulsion as much as she recalls Rosemary. The house is her sanctuary and its violation constitutes a rape. She is destroyed by the film’s end and replaced by another woman. The film’s campiness veers into noxious territory at times, but Aronofsky must be given the props for hyperbolizing as full-blown cinematic horror what is otherwise low-key everyday horror.

Parasite

[Spoilers below]

In the inaugural shot of Bong Joon-ho’s masterful new film, Parasite, the camera glides down from the view of a window, taking us into a netherworld where the Kim family lives. The setting is a semi-basement, a two-room residence whose only access to natural light is through this window. The family of four is leeching its internet from the Wi-Fi connection upstairs. The Kims are unemployed and make a living in the underground economy folding boxes for a pizza service. A public exterminator passes by and floods the house with smoke as the family continues folding its boxes. By the time the film ends in a green and sunny garden, however, we aren’t sure who the parasites are. Like Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, the previous Palme d’Or winner, Parasite describes a society whose marginalized figures find it necessary to bend the rules of the game just to stay afloat. Even more, it presents a contemporary dystopia in which the working-class has to fight against itself for social ascendancy.

When one of his successful friends leaves the country, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), the son of the Kim family, gets the chance to tutor Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), the daughter of an affluent couple, Mr. and Mrs. Park (Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong). Ki-woo learns that Mrs. Park, who has now christened him Kevin, has artistic aspirations for her son. So, he introduces his sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam) to her as Jessica, a famous art teacher. Jessica, in turn, schemes to get the family’s driver sacked and her father, Mr. Kim (Song Kang-ho), hired. Mr. Kim, promptly, has the house’s long-time maid replaced by his wife (Jang Hye-jin). The film proceeds like a mathematical theorem till this point, depicting the linear, rigorous takeover of the Park household by the Kims. As the Parks drive away on vacation, the Kims sit boozing in the sleek living room of the house. There’s an uncertainty as to what course the plot will chart, now that the Kims have what they wanted. The sexual charge between Kevin and Da-hye and between Mr. Kim and Mrs. Park hints at a dissolution of the Park family à la Pasolini. The film, however, takes a whole new direction right at the midpoint. What was so far a comedy with elements of the crime movie turns into a darkly-comic crime movie. The fired housekeeper comes back and reveals a bunker in the house where her husband has been residing for the past four years with her help. As the housekeeper and the Kims one-up each other, the Parks announce their return over phone. What follows is a remarkable passage involving conflict, stealth and subterfuge in which the Kims lock the housekeeper in the basement and get out of the house without the Parks noticing.

Like Shoplifters, Parasite depicts an impoverished family tying to meet its needs by working its way through morally questionable territory. They are, no doubt, qualified to do the jobs they take up, but the means they employ to get their break is shady. They forge documents, feed on Mrs. Park’s parental anxiety, prey on other members of their class and usurp their jobs. For the Kims, this well-orchestrated employment project is as theatrical as it is logistical. They fake elite provenance, perform in front of the Park family, manipulating their fears and prejudices to their advantage. That said, the Kims a happy, loving bunch, sticking by each other at all times. They are always seen eating together and their big dinner in the posh living room attests to their genuine cordiality. Their rise is based on family solidarity, as is their incredible escape from the house. The family, in Bong’s film, is in fact the only bulwark against precarity: without the “chain of trust” that the Kim family form together, they’d fall apart.

The Park family, on the contrary is hardly seen together in the same shot. They never have their meals together, holed up as they are in different corners of their massive residence. Bong and co-writer Han Jin-won mount a broad critique of middle-class Korean family, lampooning their American obsession and their preference for western names, objects and social codes. They contrast the hierarchized relations within the Park family with the egalitarian dynamics of the Kims. Mr. Park has unflattering opinion about his wife, though he’d call what he feels towards her love. He doesn’t like the boundary between the driver’s seat and the back of the car violated and prefers that his workers stay within their line. Mrs. Park fear of her husband’s reproach is opposed to Mrs. Kim calling her husband a cockroach in jest. The whole problem comes about – and the plot moves forward – because Mr. and Mrs. Park prefer keeping information from one another. They refuse to openly talk with the employees they fire, relying on their own preconceived notions of how the servant class behaves to make their decisions. Their discreet existence has made them so gullible that all it takes to take them for a ride is a fancy visiting card.

“Lots of people live underground”, says the housekeeper’s bunker-dwelling husband to a surprised Mr. Kim. Parasite’s class-coded topography of high and low isn’t merely literal-minded symbolism, it corresponds to the spatial experience of different social classes. Perhaps for the first time since Kurosawa’s High and Low, we have a scenario whose metaphors are derived from the actual living conditions of the characters. The Kim family has to literally look up at the world. Their cellar of a house hardly gets any sun. Its window is a urinating spot for drunken drifters. When it rains, the whole house is flooded, “washing out” the residents. The basic necessities of life – clean air, water and sunshine – have been rendered luxuries in their world as in ours. The high-walled house of the Park family, on the other hand, is constructed at an elevation and sealed away from other humans. The Parks have a lush garden receiving abundant sunshine, where their Indian-crazy son pitches his tepee during the rain that floods the Kim home. They stock their daily supplies in the basement, but there’s a bunker even beyond that they’re unaware of. These bunkers, we are told, were traditional components of affluent households, constructed for the owners to take shelter during war or from debtors. Bong’s film is marked by several upward and downward movements that are physical as much as economic.

Fertile though the scenario is, the success of Parasite entirely rests on Bong’s orchestration of the material. The film proceeds at breakneck pace: Kevin’s comment about introducing Jessica is followed by a shot of the two entering the house, without any filler event intervening. Ditto with their father and mother. Their elaborate scheme to get the entire family employed at the house is presented as a montage cut to a string-heavy classical score. Bong constantly finds ways to break the monotony of over-the-shoulder shots in conversations with different configurations of actor positions. By nature of the script, the viewer cannot identify with any character in the film and Bong plays on this ambiguity all through. Our expectation in every scene changes rapidly depending on the characters involved: in the confrontation between the Kims and the old housekeeper, the sympathy lies with the latter, but as soon as the Parks are back home, the axis of identification changes. The set-piece of the family’s escape from the house is a mini-marvel of filmmaking that synthesizes all the narrative information the viewer is provided so far and provides new ones without diluting the tension. The intuitive manner in which it stitches together various spaces of the house is a tour de force of sequence composition.

Bong’s penchant for and adeptness in blending genres is well-known, and it’s an explosive generic cocktail he concocts in this film. The film weaves in and out of comedy, drama, horror, crime and even sci-fi, the multivalence palpable even on the soundtrack which overlays different genres of music. The tensest moments of the film are also its funniest. The sequence that follows the intense escape scene, in which the Kims discover their house flooded by the rain and take refuge in a state camp, provokes a complex of strong emotions one rarely experiences in cinema: relief (at their escape), worry (about the condition of the housekeeper), fear (of the Parks’ discovery of the bunker), pity (for the Kims’ flooded house), anger (at the Parks’ plans for a party). Bong’s editing is as intellectual as it is visceral. He intercuts between the Kim household drowning in rain and the bunker where the housekeeper and her husband are trapped, creating an extra-narrative working-class solidarity that’s only present subconsciously within the film. A shot of a character smashing another’s head with a rock is cut to an opera performance, the unnerving combination of low and high human impulses emblematic of the whole film.

Following Lee Chang-dong’s sensitive Burning last year, Bong gives us a work that puts Korea’s exacerbating unemployment problem under the scanner. Like Lee’s film, it throws light on Seoul’s segregated districts that keep social classes in increasing isolation from each other and which modulate the very manner these classes see themselves and each other. That it provides this insight in a form that’s as dynamic and enrapturing as it is intelligent and complex is Bong’s special success.

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.

Oru Kidaayin Karunai Manu

[Possible spoilers ahead]

Debutant writer-director Suresh Sangaiah’s Oru Kidayin Karunai Manu (“Mercy petition of a scapegoat”) follows a group of villagers setting out for their ancestral temple. One of them, Ramamurthy (Vidharth), has gotten married and it’s time his family sacrifices the goat they’ve been raising for years to carry out their vow. The extended family and other members of the community hire a lorry and start early. Following a mishap in the middle of nowhere, they find themselves with the dead body of a young man; they’re not sure whether they’ve killed him by accident or if he was dead already. After an entire day of confusion and half-measures, they call a lawyer they know (George Maryan), who comes to the spot to sort things out. Things, however, spiral out of control and the residents of the nearby village discover the truth behind the disappearance of one of their own. Shot with elements borrowed from the international arthouse style, Oru Kidayin Karunai Manu makes compelling interventions into the conventions of the “village film”.

The protagonist of Oru Kidayin Karunai Manu is not any particular character but the community – a great rarity in fiction in general. The first portion of the film describes this community as it gets ready for the road trip. We witness the preparation process in a mosaic-like fashion: the hiring of accompanying personnel, the renting of the lorry, the various jokes, arguments and suggestions circling within subgroups and the departure before daybreak,when the entire group assembles prim and proper. The thread that connects these different scenes is the notion of community itself. The individual characters have no significance in this scheme of things, each being a caricature with one or two very humorous tics. The result is a flat canvas full of innumerable, uniformly attention-catching incidents comparable to Bruegel’s peasant paintings.

The portrait, however, isn’t all fun and games. We see the internal dynamics of the community, the rules that emerge to regulate relations within the group and squash dissent. As crisis strikes, we see fault lines emerge, but they are quickly attended to by the expedient hierarchy of the collective (organized along several axes, men-women, elderly-young, family-outsiders). When the lorry driver, or anyone else, threatens to leave, he is intimidated into groupthink. The Vidharth character is collectively cockblocked by the community till the end, but nevertheless maintains his new-groom privilege even when he’s at fault. His happiness is shared by all, as is his guilt. Whatever happens within the community stays within. Perhaps for the first time in Tamil cinema, we are dropped into Dogville (not gonna make the obvious joke here).

The abrupt shift that occurs half-an-hour into the film reorients the converging point of the narrative from the goat’s sacrifice to the resolution of the dead man problem. The death that the community was preparing for is replaced by another one that’s directed inward. The sacrificial goat now has to be a person who takes the fall for the well-being of the community. As the men try to dig a hole for the corpse using cooking utensils, the rest of the group settles down at a deserted temple and sets up a stopgap kitchen in the dark, life and death feeding into each other. The shift is also reminiscent of Luis Buñuel in that it parachutes an old world steeped in its own conventions, prejudices and hypocrisies into a situation it’s fundamentally unprepared for. (Had Buñuel made this film, he would’ve had the group consume the dead body, but Sangaiah’s view of the community is too ambivalent for such radical gestures.)

Oru Kidayin Karunai Manu has for its central line the movement of the group from tradition to modernity. The group starts from the village and ends at the courthouse. Legends, myths and half-truths abound within the community. The film opens with photographs from village temples: idols of village gods who were perhaps once men, totems and talismans to be used in rituals, miniature cradles and ribbons tied to trees as vows. On the soundtrack is a folk ballad about an animal killing by the villagers – real or collectively-accepted like everything else here. As the preparations for the function are on, the goat gets its own apocryphal history by word of mouth. The characters are addressed by nicknames that have unsaid stories behind them. We can’t tell legend from fact because one constantly becomes the other. Though there are cell phones, the villagers’ contact with modernity as a knowledge system comes when they have to call the lawyer and the doctor to sort out their issue. When the truth is out, cohabitants of the dead man get into an armed skirmish with them, until the police intervenes in this medieval justice. The liberation of the sacrificial goat and the chicken, in this regard, coincides with the community’s final submission to modern law, which does not deal in half-truths. Though the group is acquitted, they never know the truth, for what they have seen is truth enough for them.

Remains the goat, the mute witness to the entire drama. It’s treated as property and objectified by the community, but the filmmaker endows it with sentience with several point-of-view shots. Its gaze, however, is neutral, incapable of ascribing moral value to the villagers’ actions. Like the donkey from Agraharathil Kazhuthai, it is located at the eye of the storm around which the human community polarizes and fights it out. Its own existential threat is ignored as the film shifts gears, making it somewhat of a superfluous appendage. The world remains a mystery to the goat, just like many things in the film are to the viewer. In this, the animal perhaps shares the filmmaker’s vision of the universe, a morally neutral space with an internal harmony, where one sacrifice is swapped for another, a lost son replaced by another. There’s no evidence that the filmmaker’s desire to keep the answers from us – the nature of the death, the lawyer’s intentions, the perception of the goat – stems from a coherent philosophical position, but it makes for a welcome ambiguity.

Kurangu Bommai

A nondescript don in inner Tamil Nadu has his hands on a precious idol and wants to smuggle it to Chennai. Acting as his courier is the naïve Sundaram (Bharathiraja), who is supposed to hand over the idol to the cricket-obsessed Sekar (Elango Kumaravel). Sekar decides to appropriate the idol and have Sundaram take the fall for it. Sundaram’s son Kathir (Vidharth), whom Sundaram believes to be employed as an engineer, makes his living in Chennai as a taxi driver. One day, Kathir finds a pickpocket making away with a man’s bag, apparently valuable, and retrieves it after a chase. But the man’s gone and Kathir decides to surrender the bag to the police. The bag, however, has a mind of its own and decides to go from one pair of hands to another. Writer-director Nithilan’s debut work, Kurangu Bommai (“Monkey picture”, referring to the image printed on the bag) crisscrosses the lives of its seven or eight central characters over the possession of the idol and, while always interesting, the result is less than illuminating.

A comparison of the film to Maanagaram is unavoidable, but also unflattering. Where Maanagaram (as do some other hyperlink films) embodies a specific conception of the metropolis and its residents, Kurangu Bommai can only imagine Chennai as a village where the characters bump into each other on cue. The film flattens its social landscape, its characters abstractions floating in an unmarked narrative space. The film’s story could take place anywhere or nowhere – with any group of characters – and it so happens that it’s in Chennai. The hero, a nonentity, posts a picture of the bag he has on Facebook, and the entire city seems to be on it. The issue here is not the implausibility, but the distorted idea of what connects the inhabitants of a city. The hero is supposed to be a driver, but outside of an opening montage, we never see him at work though he always appears in uniform. He’s given this profession as a screenwriting formality. He takes to extreme violence at the push of a button, people are killed and bodies disposed of without repercussions, because the director is thinking in terms of templates in order to arrive at the sucker punch he wants to deliver at the end.

If Kurangu Bommai manages to hold the attention despite its numerous contrivances, psychological inconsistency and lazy scene detailing, it’s thanks to its overall construction. The film shuttles between two timelines that unfold linearly and have a certain overlap. The first thread is piloted by Bharathiraja as he travels to Chennai to hand over the statue to contacts. The second one is led by Vidharth and his efforts to return the bag to its owner. The weaving of these two story-threads creates a series of changing questions in the viewer’s mind, first related to the destination of the bag with the statue, then to Bharathiraja’s fate, the discovery of his body and finally the form of revenge the hero will exact. The film shifts from one story to another at points calculated for effect. Some work, some don’t: the emotional climax the film’s been building towards, with Bharathiraja’s disappearance at the focus, occurs at a point earlier than its ideal location. Individual sequences, in turn, are over-edited, betraying an insecurity towards the script and the actors. Despite the softness he brings, Bharathiraja is too intelligent a public figure to pass as the slow-witted Sundaram. It’s Vidharth, doing less once again, who is more convincing.

Based on a True Story

[Possible spoilers ahead]

Delphine (Emmanuelle Seigner) has had a success with her new novel, Vienne la nuit, and fans are queuing up to get their copies autographed. They have all been touched deeply by the book and believe that it speaks to their own personal problems. Unnerved by this unsolicited responsibility, and the series of poison letters she receives for having made money out of her family’s story, Delphine retreats into a shell, unable to write anything anymore. She meets the mysterious, charming Elle (Eva Green), her “biggest fan”, who casts a strange spell over her. Elle helps Delphine with her work, sorting her notes and giving her suggestions, and starts occupying an increasingly large place in her life. She disparages Delphine’s ideas and insists that Delphine must not give into the demands of what her editors want but write her great, “hidden book”. Delphine doesn’t resist the takeover and instead sees Elle as a potential subject for her next novel. What ensues is a tug-of-war between Delphine and Elle to unlock each other’s history. That description might make it sound like an arthouse cliché à la Persona, but Polanski’s circular film treats the obvious symbolism directly, without conceit, and steers clear of the lures of psychological interpretation.

Based on a True Story is an adaptation of Delphine de Vigan’s 2015 novel of the same name, reportedly an autobiographical work. A viewer of Polanski’s film can well imagine the extreme self-reflexivity of the book: here’s a novel about an author who withdraws into herself for four years following the success of her latest book. In 2011, Vigan wrote a personal book about her mother’s suicide and it took her four years to come up with Based on a True Story. She is married to the literary journalist François Busnel who, just like his character in the book, was mired in controversy for interviewing Vigan on his own show and who was traveling the USA interviewing authors at the time Vigan wrote this book. Elle (L. in the book) urges Delphine to reject fiction, dive into her memoirs and write about her own life, but Delphine argues that even autobiography needs a perspective and is, in the final analysis, fiction. The solution to Vigan’s problem of perspective is the character of L./Elle, who gives concrete, personal form to Delphine/Vigan’s memories.

Surmounting creator’s block by representing it is not new even to cinema – Fellini did the same thing in 8 ½ – but the special force of Vigan’s material comes from the social commentary it derives out of the situation. Vigan’s/Delphine’s creative paralysis comes from the conflicting demands society makes of her as a woman, an artist and a woman artist. L./Elle is the ideal version of Delphine, always perfectly groomed and dressed, capable of saying no to her editors and publicists, turning up to events she’s signed up for, rejecting the need for male companionship, and even burning down the house with her abusive father. She is a ghost-writer, which means she doesn’t ever have to burden herself with book tours, speeches and signing sessions, and can therefore concentrate on her writing all the time – a luxury that Delphine can only dream of. Delphine, on the other hand, is in a relationship with a famous journalist whose company she increasingly looks forward to. L./Elle’s self-confidence and unapologetic career-focus is in contrast to Delphine’s jealousy over her boyfriend’s courting of American authors and her guilt of ignoring her children. On screen, this pits Green’s impeccable elegance and command of space against Seigner’s maternal clumsiness and vulnerability.

Needless to say, Polanski’s adaptation – the very intention to adapt – unmakes the vertiginous mise en abyme the book constructs with Vigan at the epicentre. Even worse, the story of a middle-aged matron (played by Polanski’s wife) being supplanted by a younger, more beautiful woman introduces an uncritical element of male fantasy into the film, especially bothersome considering the filmmaker’s history. The film nevertheless works as a dramatization of the creative process, reimagines as it does the quotidian artistic dilemma of what to write about and whom to write for as a ghost story. We are not sure who is haunting whom, with Delphine trying to get into Elle’s head to mine material for her book and Elle taking over Delphine’s life to instruct her on what to write. Delphine keeps getting complimented for capturing her reader’s minds so accurately, but it is Delphine’s whose mind-space is constantly conquered by her reader-subjects. The artist writes on the world, but the world writes on the artist too, dissolving the boundary between the two. It’s truly the death of the author.

A few years ago, when I heard Haneke was making a film about the internet, I expected what we got from The White Ribbon and Amour: a declarative statement about the dangers of the digital age and its capacity for abetting evil. But Happy End is more open, more suggestive than the conclusive theses that were Haneke’s previous two films. To be sure, there’s hardly anything spontaneous about the new film and its shot compositions are still very calculated, perverse in their vehement disavowal of violence, but the manner in which information is presented or withheld forces the viewer to actively stitch the pieces together to understand what’s happening. Even when the final picture emerges, one is not entirely sure if all the behavioural details, choice of shots or narrative information have been accounted for, which makes for a summary that’s far from decisive.

Michael Haneke’s Happy End, an oxymoron if there ever was one, is set in Calais in the northern extreme of France and centres on an upper-class white family that owns a public works construction business. The grouchy head of the Laurent family, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) suffers from dementia and wants to kill himself. His doctor son Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) is married but is having a kinky online affair with another woman. Georges’ daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert) heads the business one of whose sites her bumbling son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) manages. Following an accident at the site, in which a worker is seriously injured, their business comes under the risk of government sanction. Meanwhile, Thomas’s daughter Eve (an incredibly precocious Fantine Harduin) from his first marriage is forced to move in with him following her mother’s death. Present in the outer orbit of the Laurents are housekeeper Rachid (Hassam Ghancy), his family and the many refugees of the Calais jungle waiting to get across the channel.

None of these character relations are clear until late into the film. The Laurent family is given to us in shards, as though like pieces of a broken mirror. They appear to be representatives of an old order, the haute bourgeoisie, now crumbling under the weight of political and technological turmoil. Georges the patriarch has lost his mental faculty and thus economic power; he wanders the film looking for ways to die. In an interesting scene, he’s on his wheelchair in an impoverished part of town, having forgotten his way home. Amidst deafening traffic noise, he speaks to a group of male refugees, who don’t understand why he’s willing to give them his watch in exchange for information. Waning under his mother’s supervision, Pierre feels emasculated. Thomas doesn’t really believe in marriage anymore. Eve is out poisoning herself and other people. At the eye of it all is Anne, trying to unsuccessfully hold this European union together.

Numerous instances of digital media feature in the film. Eve records her life with her smart phone and sends the recordings to friends. She watches videos of YouTubers discussing their personal lives. Thomas’s affair takes place entirely on phone, e-mail and social media. This increased publicization of private lives, which Haneke clearly sees as dangerous, is contrasted with the infusion of the public affairs into the Laurents’ private lives. Their business is troubled by strikes in Scotland. The government is grilling Pierre to trace possible negligence as the cause of the accident. At Anne’s all-white engagement, Pierre brings in refugees from the area and creates ruckus. (Not that he’s the voice of the marginalized, he simply uses them as bugbear). The family members love each other, but you sense that it’s the wealth that ultimately holds it together, the stability of the family dependent on the stability of the capitalist social structure they represent. Happy End is Haneke’s vision of post-Brexit Europe.

Okja

[Possible spoilers ahead]

Bong Joon-ho’s Okja begins with Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), the new CEO of Mirando Corporation, unveiling “super-pig”, a new porcine variant her GMO company has come up with to solve the world’s hunger problems. In order to soften its public image and garner popular support for the new pork variety, the company announces a “best super-pig” competition, in which super-piglets are given to farmers around the world for a duration of ten years. One of these creatures, now named Okja, grows up with Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), an orphaned farmgirl living in the mountains of South Korea. When the competition day arrives, Okja is taken by Mirando to Seoul and then to New York against Mija’s wishes. Mija, with uninvited help a group of American activists from the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), follows Okja to New York to get her back home.

Bong lampoons Mirando Corp as being headed by a family of deranged egotists convinced of the nobility of their mission. There’s no pretence to realism here. Swinton, that epitome of ironic existence, draws from Cruella de Vil and Jake Gyllenhaal as Johnny, Miranda’s neurotic PR, clearly works off cartoon/anime types as well. Though he’s ultimately with them, Bong parodies the ALF activists too, with their facetious politeness and misplaced idealism. Both are, of course, gross exaggerations and Bong’s equating of both reeks of a cool cynicism towards his subject matter. On the other hand, the filmmaker invests all his heart into the world of Mija and Okja. The film spends considerable time depicting the Edenic life in the mountains, where men and CG animals live in symbiosis with nature. The elephantine Okja, a cross between a pig and a hippopotamus, eats a small dose of fruits, helps Mija and her grandfather in fishing and sustains the ecosystem with her droppings. Bong doesn’t question this violation of nature’s rules, effectively acknowledging Mirando’s claim of having created a superior animal.

As the film shifts to the technologized jungle of Seoul – a disorienting change from the mountains – the film takes on more complex tones. A long, compelling action sequence finds both Mija and the ALF members coming together to hijack Okja, plant a spy-cam on her and let her be taken to the Mirando test facility in New Jersey. There’s a conversation between ALF and Mija translated by a Korean member of the group that speaks to Bong’s status as a Korean director making English-language films. The punch-line for this scene comes later and with the splash of violence that was always on the cards. Meanwhile, at the Mirando lab, Johnny has successfully bred Okja with a male super-pig and whipped up a meal with samples from Okja’s body. Scenes such as these involving ALF and Mirando corrupt the innocent fable of Mija and Okja and change this children’s film into a genetically-altered organism in itself.

Yet, Okja is a Disney movie at the DNA level. In the Korean portion of the film, Okja is demonstrated to be an intelligent, non-human person capable of empathy and even sacrifice: she saves Okja from a fatal fall at the risk of her own life – another disconcerting characteristic for a manufactured animal the film doesn’t bother to question. The film’s final scene takes place in Mirando’s large-scale abattoir where super-pigs are stocked and killed. Bong shows us the slaughter and we are all the more repulsed because the animals are invested with human emotions. This anthropomorphism reveals an instrumental morality typical of Hollywood animation, which only humanizes animals that aren’t eaten. The super-pigs need to be saved not because all animals need to be saved, but because they are extremely useful, higher beings. As Mija and Okja walk out of the facility, lucky to be alive, a super-pig couple nudges out their piglet out the barbed-wire fence to be smuggled out by Okja. Followed by a collective howl of thousands of super-pigs doomed to die, it’s a very disturbing scene with unsavoury echoes of the Holocaust. It moves us for the wrong reasons. Tough luck if you aren’t a species with human-like expression.

Burning

Lee Chang-dong’s first directorial project since Poetry in 2010, Burning portrays the civil life of an ex-serviceman Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) who falls in love with a shop girl Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo). After a trip to Kenya, Hae-mi grows close to a dodgy, rich young man called Ben (Steven Yeun). Jong-su, meanwhile, discovers that his estranged father, who likes collecting knives, is tangled up in a case involving assault of a government official. In a marijuana-fuelled meeting at sundown at Jong-su’s house in the countryside, Ben reveals that he likes burning down greenhouses – a metaphor that Jong-su, wannabe novelist, picks up a little too late. Hae-mi vanishes and Jong-su spends his time stalking Ben to find out the truth. The closer he seems to get to the bottom of his girlfriend’s disappearance, the more it seems that he’s imagining things. Lee’s excellent film is a thriller that’s also an astute socioeconomic portrait. And the philosophical questions the thriller aspect of the film raises, Lee seems to be telling us, are also emanations of class conflict.

The protagonist Jong-su’s predicament is whether he has inherited any of the insanity and violence that characterizes his father. As a child, he was forced by his father to burn his mother’s clothes when she left home for someone else. The confusion as to whether he’s seeing things as they are or he’s losing it manifests in Jong-su’s slow response to happenings around him. He takes time to make sense and even longer to act (and Yoo realizes this slowness in his sluggish physicality). He’s trying to write a novel, but doesn’t know on what. Outside of odd delivery stints, he is unemployed, like many of his young compatriots. He refuses to take up a menial job, preferring to move back to his father’s now-deserted home outside Seoul. His relation to Ben (“Gatsby”) is also determined by class resentment and Lee’s film is clear-eyed about the classist spaces of Seoul. Ben lives in a swanky apartment in Gangnam, where Jong-su’s pick-up truck sticks out like a sore thumb. The places that Ben frequents (and which he sometimes invites Jong-su to) – the brewery, discotheque, gymnasium, art museum, the church even – are in stark contrast to Jong-su’s downtown hangouts and Hae-mi’s matchbox-sized studio in a noisier part of town. Lee includes several shots of the characters navigating Seoul’s various districts and of Jong-su driving around in his pick-up truck, following Ben’s Porsche, like Scottie from Vertigo. Just like Hitchcock’s film, Burning is full of repetitions, reflections, pairings whose patterns appear to impart sense to Jong-su’s quest and redouble his obsession.

Burning unfolds as a metaphysical thriller like Blow-Up, and Shutter Island. Its protagonist is never sure whether his understanding of the world is reflective of reality or simply a product of his broken self. But, as with most narrative films that intend to depict the enigma of perception, the ambiguity Burning constructs runs the risk of being undone by the nature of the medium itself. Lee’s film is inspired from two short stories both titled “Barn Burning”, one by William Faulkner and the other by Haruki Murakami – influences acknowledged several times in the screenplay. While, in literature, it’s possible to present reality as being entirely refracted through the protagonist’s subjectivity, the fact of having to film in third person adds an objective dimension to Burning’s narrative. Ben’s demeanour and behaviour is there on screen for the viewer to see for herself. Lee gives Ben all the trappings of a gay serial killer, and even if his protagonist is unable to make up his mind on Ben’s true nature, the viewer is pushed to. Sealing the issue is a final scene at Ben’s house where he is with another girl: Jong-su isn’t present here and the scene exists in order to bait the viewer and challenge her view of Ben. It would have better served Lee’s accomplished film to obscure Ben’s presence.

Kapoor & Sons

[Spoilers ahead]

When their grandfather (Rishi Kapoor) falls ill, Rahul (Fawad Khan), successful novelist, and Arjun (Sidharth Malhotra), struggling novelist, return home to parents Harsh (Rajat Kapoor) and Sunita (Ratna Pathak Shah). Arjun believes that Rahul’s perfect life is built at his cost and resents that his parents like his brother more. While supportive of Arjun, Rahul believes he has his head in the clouds and is unwilling to grow up. Harsh is sitting atop a failed enterprise and is annoyed with his wife’s desire to start her own food business. Sunita complains about Harsh’s financial incapacity and dependence on his brother. Another bone of contention between the brothers is the presence of Tia (Alia Bhatt), who is romantically attracted to both of them. This interpersonal algebra is further complicated as the film unfolds, to a point that the entire family is held in tense suspension by mutual grudge.

If the Kapoor family seems out of place in this Bollywood version of Coonoor, here emptied of its local population or landmarks, it’s partly because they are exceptional. Exceptional not only because they are upper class, but because they are unhappy in their own way. Kapoor & Sons stands out in the way it puts its hand into sticky areas of familial life not generally broached by Indian cinema, where moral centres are clearly defined when the family unit is threatened. Everyone in Kapoor & Sons has their reason, and no one’s really right or wrong. (That this detail registers as revolutionary speaks of the industry’s general compulsion to infantilize its audience.) The misery of the Kapoors is spontaneous, independent of external factors. To the world, it’s a happy family, but as the shiny wrappers come off, each member confronts the image the others have of them, confirming their suspicions of not having been truly loved.

The film is centred around grandfather Kapoor’s final wish of having the whole family convened for a photograph. This conceit makes for the film’s most effective set-piece: director Batra intercuts shots of the characters finding out truths about each other with the photo-shoot taking shape under the threat of rain. It’s thrilling and low-key tragic the way this quotidian inconvenience imposes a time pressure over the intense drama: the photograph can’t be made if the characters keep talking, but it won’t be made precisely because the characters haven’t talked enough. When they do assemble for the abortive photo-shoot, we realize that the crux of the problem lies not in the existence of secrets but the in lack of time for the characters in which to explain themselves to each other. Lack of time is what the photograph is about too: the photo purports to hold memories, but constantly lies, picking out a moment in time and stripping away its history. And the lie of the photogenic happy family is what the old patriarch wants to go down with.

Kapoor & Sons is located at the twilight of Bollywood’s old vision of family (community, filial respect, hierarchy, role-playing), now being fast replaced by an occidental vision informed by disruptive liberation narratives (romantic individualism, liberalism, free enterprise, feminism). It’s curious that, despite taking place in a Westernized upper-class milieu, the film looks backwards, dealing with old familial and civilizational sentiments: the guilt parents experience over their children’s perceived faults, the obligation children feel to fix their parents’ lives, the childhood hurt siblings preserve and nurture even as grownups. While Harsh’s and Sunita’s disillusionment with the familial institution is gradual and protracted, Rahul and Arjun face a rude awakening, having to confront primal truths: finding the father at the house of a lover, learning that the mother truly loved one child more than the other.

Commendably written and directed, Kapoor & Sons is constructed out of long, fleshed-out scenes, all of them conversations of some kind – a noteworthy quality in itself. While the effort to crank up the temperature is apparent (a pipe leakage, a dog entering a clean house, a tiff at a card game always at hand to heighten tempers), there’s a clear-cut evolution to every scene. As the film proceeds and the drama reaches a fever pitch, you sense that an expiatory sacrifice in order to appease the narrative gods: it’s not the old man as you’d expect, but his son, and this sudden hole in the family fabric creates a dual perspective of the tragedy, the grandfather’s and grandchildren’s. At the same time, the film treats its material preciously and often forces the issue, spending too much time reinforcing this sibling rivalry and verbalizing that which the actors already convey without words. Rajat Kapoor stands out, but Ratna Pathak Shah’s character is somewhat hollowed out. A more austere, improvisational approach, letting the actors define the contours of their characters themselves, would have helped in a more rounded picture, and made the cruelty family members are capable of towards each other all the more personal.

Bhavesh Joshi Superhero

Bhavesh Joshi Superhero confirms Vikramaditya Motwane’s status as a reliable metteur en scène, a filmmaker capable of mounting effective entertainment in various genres without much personality. He’s made four films so far: a coming-of-age drama, a literary romance, a lone man survival saga and, now, a social-minded superhero movie. All films with specific pleasures and specific ideas, but without any connecting theme. That Motwane isn’t an auteur is a moot proposition and, in the era of instant canonization, perhaps not even worth arguing about. What is of pertinence is that Bhavesh Joshi is his weakest film by far. The failure is instructive in its own way. His films, it now appears, are only as good as their material, and when the latter is uninspired, the films aren’t either.

Motivated by the nationwide anti-corruption movement of 2011-12, two young men from Mumbai, Bhavesh Joshi (Priyanshu Painyuli) and Sikandar Khanna (Harshvardhan Kapoor), launch an activist YouTube channel. Wearing black jackets, paper bags over their heads and carrying a smiley-faced LED panel, they confront various misdoings around them with a camera, uploading the videos online and garnering public support. The project is only half-serious, and, for Sikandar, a means to impress girls. Bhavesh is revolted when Sikandar bribes to get his passport issued and so punches him in rage. In revenge, Sikandar outs Bhavesh’s identity on the channel, just when he’s exposing the water mafia headed by the local MLA and enabled by the police.

Motwane treats the pair’s activism with irony, but when they move from policing individuals to confronting institutions, the film shifts to a serious tone and eventually into full-blown melodrama replete with a strawman villain spouting parables from Greek mythology. Casting relatively unknown actors allows for a surprising protagonist swap midway. For a film that intends to be topical – several reproachful references to the current government, the true-blue Gujarati name of the vigilante protagonist being an insurance against backlash – the characters are oddly unrooted, their familial and social situation not even getting a passing mention. This tendency for topicality is complemented by a desire for legend-building. When Bhavesh Joshi Superhero completes his first foray, we only see him as a silhouette against a burning background.

The compulsion to create a legend clashes with the work’s realist moorings to create a totalitarian vigilante story that pits one man against the entire universe. The film’s distrust of all state and public institutions results in one implausible plot point after another: because everyone is corrupt, the bad guys can get away with anything, anywhere. The opposition party has no voice, the police is rotten to the core, the media is manipulated by the powerful, and the public is swayed by the media. It’s Bhavesh Joshi (and YouTube) vs the World. Yet, it’s the media and the judiciary the script eventually looks to for resolving its plot and bringing the villains to account. For a film that started with the acknowledgement that justice is not a question of setting the crooked straight, but a long-drawn, institutionalized process of negotiation and influence, Bhavesh Joshi takes a quick U-turn.

Motwane and team imagine Mumbai like Gotham City, made and unmade over and over. The film’s best passage is a chase sequence in which the superhero on bike snakes in and out of not just the city’s roads, but impossible locations such as its local railway as well – a parody of a regular day for many residents of Mumbai. The film accentuates the home-made quality of its super-hero, he might as well be called Jugaad-man: we see him buy electronic parts from the black market, stitch together his own attire, customize his bike with makeshift power boosters. The action sequences, likewise, are shot with an improvisational, low-budget aesthetic to look like local variations on Soderbergh. The film tempers its seriousness with touches of humour: after a botch-up, the hero makes for the exit limping, his undercover identity consists of thick-rimmed glasses and an absurd, off-the-shelf bald patch he puts on with the help of a Chinese instructional manual. The final fight sequence takes place on a pipeline and Motwane shoots it like a video game – scattered grace notes in an otherwise ordinary venture.

First Man

Made during the runup to the golden jubilee celebrations of the first moon landing, First Man begins in the middle of action: Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) manoeuvres his plane at the edge of atmosphere, veers close to catastrophe, but manages to land back on earth without much damage. The reason for his lapse of judgment, it is revealed, is that his toddler daughter is suffering from an incurable tumour. She dies shortly thereafter and Neil moves with his wife Janet and son to Houston, having been selected for the test programmes in NASA’s moon mission. Life in Houston has all the trappings of middle-class normalcy – sub-urban house with a lawn, grill parties with neighbours, pastel-coloured wallpaper – but Neil and Janet can never blend in. The moon mission is proceeding at full throttle against all odds, resulting in the loss of several astronauts, all Neil’s friends and neighbours.

It appears that, constantly touched by death, Neil is a stoic, melancholy man, not yet on the moon, but entirely not of this earth. He removes himself completely from family life, content to gaze at the moon every night. In the film’s most effective scene, he is forced by Janet before he leaves for the mission to have a final chat with his sons, which Neil completes like a press meet. Gosling channels some of his work from Lars and the Real Girl and one of the ironies First Man is going for is that this man, brilliant engineer but a social outcast, is constantly asked to bear the burden of history, to be in the eye of media attention, give press conferences, attend White House dinners, and be the receptacle of popular anger against the mission; that he had to go to the moon to be able to get back home. The thrust of Damien Chazelle’s interspersing of Neil’s incurable gloom and the agitations of the sixties is that, no matter one’s privileged social-historical situation, private grief is all-consuming and can’t be relativized.

In this, the film also seems to want to paint a metaphysical portrait of the sexes. Like Western heroes, Neil’s and his fellow male astronauts’ straying away from the pull of domesticity towards the unknown and the endless suffering of their wives and children comes across as descriptions of an eternal condition. The repeated superposing of the domestic scenes at home featuring Janet and children and NASA’s commentary of the mission is supposed to have an Odyssey-like weight, but only grows increasingly wearisome. Janet’s character, more than Neil’s, remains greatly underdeveloped (Claire Foy’s drama school tics condemn it to a type) and it’s symptomatic that this film, which namechecks various discontentment of the sixties, completely sidesteps the sexual revolution that could’ve given Janet a more rounded presence.

Some of the formal choices are interesting, especially its low-budget-movie tendency to avoid spectacle for suggestion of spectacle: most of the thrill is conveyed to us not through rocket ballets but via numbers on screen, the low-key score, the sound of metals clinging, the actor’s frenetic breathing and the claustrophobic setting of the capsule. Not allowing for sights outside the capsule makes for a subjective experience of impending death. It also reinforces the film’s parallel theme about man’s conflicted faith in technological progress. In a recruitment interview, Neil says that he wants to go to space in order to get a better perspective of life on earth, hinting at a distrust of technology that wasn’t able to save his daughter.

Given that everyone knows how Apollo 11 or the preceding missions panned out in reality, screenwriter Josh Singer pegs the dramatic power of his script on the time-limited nature of the mission. Kennedy’s declaration that an American will be on the moon within the decade taken alongside the impossible odds against which that goal has to be achieved lends the film the thrill of a countdown. Chazelle employs glass as a crucial element of his mise en scène and the material comes to reflect Neil’s emotionlessness, his distance from his family as well as the vastness of the unknown facing him. The last scene, loudly understated, is La La Land Redux.

High Life

The human aspect of space travel is also at the centre of Claire Denis’ first full-length English language production, High Life. Far in the future, death row inmates are given a choice to volunteer for a one-way mission to the nearest black hole. Strict rules are observed on board, the inmates are still treated like prisoners, with everyday tasks to be completed. Overseeing the ship is a slowly-disintegrating captain (Lars Eidinger) and a cookie scientist Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who is trying in vain to produce babies by artificially inseminating the female prisoners with semen samples from the male prisoners. With exposure to radiation mounting as they near the black hole, the prisoners get increasingly restless and Dibs keeps them sedated by adulterating their rations. But the strict prohibition of sexual contact between inmates leads to a breaking point and the mission is thrown into jeopardy.

Well, that is the story, but we don’t get to it right away. The film’s opening fifteen minutes constructs an otherworldly ambience. A glide through a misty garden with a mysterious shoe hints at earth. A baby is seen in a cradle surrounded by screens and electronic equipment, her father Monte (Robert Pattinson) speaks to her through the computers, but he’s perched on top of a spaceship trying to fix an issue. There’s no information about how these spaces are linked and the enigma creates fertile connections in the viewer’s mind. The film proceeds in several stretches through such mosaic of details, which are glued together through clumsy expositional elements such as an Indian professor in a train on earth spelling out the premise. The image of a man and his child aboard a ship heading nowhere is a combination of hope and doom that the film drops for the more ordinary spectacle of the inmates going bonkers.

The everyday events on the ship unfold gradually with sudden bursts of violence, causing the attrition of the crew. We are never sure how big the prison-ship is or what the exact relation between the spaces we see is, except that the garden is a more spiritually-invested zone that disinfects the inmates, gives them an experience of home and helps them come to terms with their dire situation. Monte resists Binoche’s charms to preserve his essence, but is overpowered by her and fathers a baby unbeknownst. His resentment and eventual acceptance of the child perhaps is perhaps what the film is most committed to, turning the story into an allegory of sorts for life on earth. The narrative shifts back and forth in time and there’s a twenty-year jump that finds the baby all grown, now picking up human concepts like faith and cruelty through videos still being transmitted from earth – an improbable Bildung we are asked to take on faith.

As is customary for Denis, particular attention is given to the various textures of the ship: the plastic curtains overseeing the garden, the fabric in “The Box” where prisoners go to let out steam, the padding on the ship’s walls, Binoche’s writhing skin, the actors’ hair which seems to have some special power in the narrative. Every bodily fluid that exists is roll-called and becomes a resource to be harnessed. Denis shoots in odd aspect ratios and that adds to the echo of Solaris resounding through the film. The film, to be sure, is a distinct auteur excursion into this derided genre. But it lacks the consistent ambiguity of The Intruder or the emotional beats of 35 Shots of Rum. Going one-up on the cynicism of Bastards, High Life seems to embody a bitter outlook towards not just civilization, but the human race in totality. Why bother?

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