International rescue

ManCalledOve1

As a long-established tennis widower, I feel very fortunate to have a Curzon cinema in a workable radius, especially during Wimbledon fortnight. This week, I took advantage of clement weather and a free afternoon/evening to forge my own European foreign-language double-bill. (In fact, one of them was a bit like a tennis match between two champions.) Both films I saw are, as it happens, available on Curzon Home Cinema, which means if you don’t live in a decent radius of a Curzon, or other arthouse chain, you can stream them for a tenner for 48 hours: A Man Called Ove (En man som heter Ove), from Sweden, and The Midwife (Sage Femme), from France/Belgium.

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I actually saw them in reverse order, and I’m glad that I did, as I preferred Ove. The Midwife, directed by Martin Provost, whose previous work I’m not au fait with, is notable for its pairing of two celebrated French actresses, the regal 60s icon Catherine Deneuve, now 73, and Catherine Frot, a decade or so younger and less well known to me, but showered with awards in her prolific career. Their uneasy reunion – Deneuve was the lover of Frot’s father, a champion swimmer, who committed suicide when she dumped him – is the engine that drives the film, with the elder, boozy floozy bringing the tight-arsed, dedicated midwife out of her celibate shell – ironically, she’s the one with the teenage son, but he’s never home. The relationship between the two women is tragi-comic as Deneuve has only looked her onetime stepdaughter up because she’s got a brain tumour and has no actual family.

There’s no doubting the fun Deneuve is having, playing a feckless, dishonest, gambling goodtime girl, but Fort’s is the more interesting character, if rather one-note. (We see her successfully and lovingly delivering gooey baby after gooey baby, as if her job is an act of sainthood.) I have a lot of time for contemporary French films, because I’m shallow enough to aspire to the lifestyle, and enjoy seeing grown-ups sit down at a bar for a single glass of red wine or a chalice of beer and a fag (or, in Deneuve’s case at one point, a lovely looking omelette and fries). I quite enjoyed Frot’s allotment neighbour and love interest, played by Olivier Gourmet, but after Deneuve’s operation on the tumour, The Midwife becomes a little idealised and gooey.

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A Man Called Ove, from Swedish director Hannes Holm and adapted from a popular novel by Fredrik Backman, also hinges on a suicide, albeit an unsuccessful one. Rolf Lassgard, usually seen with a fine mane of hair (he’s best known as Wallander), plays the bald widower of the title, initially presented as a grumpy, interfering busybody and self-styled caretaker of a pleasant neighbourhood estate. He locks up bicycles that are improperly parked, shouts at a woman with a Chihuahua, rages at a new neighbour backing a trailer up a path not designated for motor vehicles, refuses to accept that a single bunch of flowers costs more than one in a two-for-one offer, and so on. But Ove is not just angry, he is sad. We see him talking to his beloved wife Sonja’s grave (“I miss you”), while replacing the flowers, and he assures her that he will join her soon. (After 43 years at the same company, he has recently been let go, another act of cruelty by a world that seems to have left him to rot.)

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It has a certain, deadpan, Amèlie-like storybook quality, especially in the flashbacks, through which we learn of Ove’s life. You may find some of it a little twee, and that the more prosaically daft details – such as Ove’s feud with a neighbour based exclusively in their opposing choice of car make – Ove worships the Saab, his nemesis Rune drives a Volvo, and heinously replaces it with a BMW – undercut the grave seriousness of both Ove’s suicidal tendencies, and the tragedy in his backstory, but I rather liked the incongruity. When – no spoilers – a tragic event happens in one of Ove’s early flashbacks to childhood and encroaching young-adulthood, it’s almost played by Holm in the same off-the-cuff style, and for me it makes the mortality all the more portentous.

There’s a Hollywood remake in here waiting to happen. Re-stage it in Omaha, or Cleveland, or Westchester, stick a curmudgeonly Bryan Cranston in a bald wig in the main role (the Sight & Sound reviewer suggests Jack Nicholson, but he’s way too old; Ove is only supposed to be 59), and there’s a diversity-friendly sidekick waiting to balance it all up. Ove is initially irritated by his new neighbours – Swedish husband, Iranian wife Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), two adorable kids – but it’s clear that Parveneh will be his salvation, with her no-nonsense attitude and refusal to play Ove’s game of one man against the world. He will learn to love the kids, and get over himself, and it will be Parveneh – terrible driver, scatty householder – who teaches him. The foregone conclusion has surprises along the way, though. This is a story that rewards. (People tell me they loved the novel.)

I’ve thought a lot about Ove since seeing it, and him. The Midwife, less so.

I have seen a lot of foreign-language films I loved in the first six months of 2017: Elle, The Salesman, Graduation, The Handmaiden, Neruda, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki, Toni Erdmann, El Pastor, The Other Side of Hope, Frantz, Heal the Living … But also, some exceptional films in the English language, both UK-made and American: Prevenge, Manchester by the Sea, Christine, Moonlight, The Lost City of Z, Free Fire, Baby Driver, A Quiet Passion, Lady Macbeth, The Levelling … I also liked Personal Shopper, a French film largely in English, and starring an American, and two of the most celebrated, and decorated, films from Hollywood: Moonlight and La La Land. All are welcome in my tent.

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It doesn’t matter, but I think my Top 10 have been (in a fairly casual order):

  1. The Levelling | Hope Dickson Leach (UK)
  2. El Pastor | Jonathan Cenzual Burley (Spain)
  3. A Quiet Passion | Terence Davies (UK)
  4. The Lost City of Z | James Grey (US)
  5. Neruda | Pablo Larraìn (Chile/Argentina/France/Spain)
  6. Graduation | Cristian Mungiu (Romania)
  7. Baby Driver | Edgar Wright (UK)
  8. Heal the Living | Katell Quillévéré (France/US/Belgium)
  9. David Lynch: The Art Life | Rick Barnes, Jon Nguyen, Olivia Neergaard-Holm (US)
  10. The Handmaiden | Park Chan-wook (South Korea)

Another week of tennis to go. Love all.

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Being human

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There’s a clear and present danger we’re becoming inured to newsreel footage and images of migrants from as far afield as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Albania, Kosovo and Nigeria squashed into boats, risking death as human contraband in waterways between North Africa and Italy, and Turkey and Greece. It has felt like a weekly, sometimes daily experience for those of us watching: frightened faces, capsizing vessels, the spinning radar of a coast guard ship, life jackets, hoodies, backpacks, helicopters, children, babies, bacofoil blankets, corpses in the surf. Which is why I think the Italian documentarian Gianfranco Rosi is making such a splash with his latest film Fire At Sea (which, if you’re not fortunate enough to live near an arthouse cinema, is now available to stream on that constant lifeline for cinephiles, Curzon Home Cinema).

I’m not au fait with Rosi’s previous work, but can’t wait to seek it out, if this is how he rolls. Fire At Sea is one of those documentaries that tells its tale not through narration or captioned talking heads (although some participants are clearly being interviewed by Rosi for the camera), but fixed shots of a landscape, or neatly composed glimpses of everyday life, which cumulatively build a bigger picture – or, you might say, a smaller or more intimate picture. It ostensibly presents a free-standing slice of life on the small Sicilian island of Lampedusa, where desperate migrants from Africa and the Middle East arrive each year hoping for a new life in Europe; a rare caption tells us that, unbelievably, 400,000 have passed through in the last 20 years. This is an island with a population of around 6,000, essentially a way-station, and the Italian coast guard is shown diligently and humanely processing what seems to be a constant flow of migrants. But this is not a film about the migrant crisis.

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Rosi is not here to provide answers. He merely presents the facts as he, or his camera, sees them. If anyone is our guide, it’s 12-year-old Samuele, something of a tyke, the son of a fisherman, an artisan of the homemade catapult (with which he and his pal fire stones at cactuses and, we suspect, local birdlife), a proficient mime when it comes to the firing of imaginary assault weapons, and a kid with an old head on young shoulders. We see him explaining his symptoms to a doctor – the doctor, in fact, as the island appears only to have one – and not only does he use his hands and arms to express himself like an Italian man, he even seems to suffer from the hypochondria of a patient six times his age. (The doctor tells him that it’s stress-related, a very grown-up diagnosis. This is the doctor who later confesses his horror at having to cut off the finger of a dead migrant for reasons of later identification.)  You might say that in Samuele, Rosi has discovered “a star”, but again, it’s not about him, or any one person. That our boy seems to lead a relatively self-contained life among the scrub and low trees of his immediate landscape – as far as this film’s viewpoint suggests, utterly untouched by the boatloads of refugees being numbered, photographed and examined by the coast guard – illustrates the potential joy of a simple life.

Although the sheer number of foreign migrants passing through the lens of this film – many are dead, or on the point of death through dehydration – means that we do not get to know them with anything like the same intimacy with which we commune with Samuele’s father, his grandmother, an unnamed diver, the doctor, and a local DJ who plays the song Fire At Sea as a request for a fisherman’s wife – but that, I guess, is the point. The local people are fully integrated into their environment. The fisherman catches a squid (we see it breathe its last on the deck of a boat); the squid is de-inked and chopped into a stew by Samuele’s grandmother; then eaten as a hearty, life-giving meal by a family of three generations. The circle of life. The grandmother, who keeps reminding Samuele he’s still young, asks only for “a little health” when she kisses the heads of her icons of the Virgin Mary and a saint in her spartan bedroom. The people who “belong” on Lampedusa – as opposed to the migrants who fundamentally don’t, but are welcomed, temporarily, with compassion and without argument – do not ask for much. Samuele is happy with a twig from a tree. His father is happy to be home from sea. His grandfather is happy to be served a mid-morning espresso at the kitchen table, gone in one sip. The migrants have little more than the t-shirt on their backs, or the scarves wrapped around their heads, but they are grateful for a sip of water when they are unloaded onto the rescue ship, some of them also potentially breathing their last, like the squid.

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There are a number of especially profound sequences in Fire At Sea, chanced upon by Rosi in the time he spent on the island: one of Samuele literally having to acclimatise himself to life at sea by facing down his seasickness: a creature of the land attempting to adapt to the ocean, in a perhaps cruel echo of the Africans forced off terra firma onto barely seaworthy boats, not to fish to survive, but to survive. In many ways, his options are limited; following in his father’s footsteps is a prescriptive path, and he’s not a natural seafarer (he’s sick over the side of his dad’s boat and turns the colour of paste). The options on Lampedusa are few, and the modern, interconnected world far away (the modernity of the doctor’s Apple monitor jars). This 12-year-old might understandably wish to leave for the mainland one day. He would, indeed, hop on a boat to achieve that. But he will be a willing migrant, not a refugee. It’s not necessarily a revolutionary visual and thematic link to make – refugees coming in, a native heading out – but it’s typical of Rosi’s sense of visual poetry.

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Another profound image is that of Samuele’s lazy eye. Again, it’s an accident that Rosi captured this milestone in a young boy’s life. But when he is prescribed a flesh-coloured eye patch to help “correct” the eye that’s not functioning properly, it’s actually impossible not to read all sorts of subtext into it. Do we, in the comfortable West, view the migrant situation with half an eye? We see the constant news footage – footage nothing like as aesthetically beautiful and patiently composed as Rosi’s, by the way – but do we actually process it? Or does it go by in a blur? Is anyone fooled by the fleshy illlusion of the rubber patch?

Fire At Sea is a film about seeing. Samuele uses his trusty slingshot with the patch fixed to the inside of his new glasses and he misses the target. He must adapt to survive (if we take his weapon as an ancient tool of survival, rather than a toy), but his adaptation is intimate, personal. The adaptation of the North Africans fleeing their country is more profound, and more deadly. Their boy is no toy. They are fleeing the weapons of others.

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I loved this film. Some critics have questioned the balance of its gaze. While Samuele and his family are viewed in close up, we never hear from the migrants, who are presented en masse. But that, I feel, is the point, and a fair point. We see them, exhausted, confused, thirsty and yet relieved, being photographed by the Italian coast guard (all wearing masks and gloves for fear of infection, which makes them anonymous), and each migrant is assigned a number, which is held next to their head in the photo for identification. They are a number and yet they are “free” in the sense that they have left a war zone or persecution behind. If this “dehumanises” them, then it is not Rosi who does this, it’s the world. Also, he takes care to include a frankly joyous scene in which African migrants in the concrete yard of a detention centre, awaiting the next stage of transit to what they hope is a better life, play football against a team of Syrians – with, poignantly, two empty water bottles as goalposts. They cheer and shout, united by the international detente of sport. They are free, but they are also locked up. Contradictions fall from the sky.

The image that moved me the most was towards the end, when Samuele goes out hunting by the light of the moon (hunting not for food, but for sport). He seems to lure a tiny young bird by imitating its tweets. But by torchlight, as he gently approaches the bird, he either changes his mind, or he was never hunting it in the first place, and he gently strokes the bird on the head. Humanity is on the doorstep. Just look for it.

2015: the year in film

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Once again, I’ve tried to see as many films as humanly possible, in order to be able to take a fair-minded assessment of the year. But a glance at the Sight & Sound end-of-year lists – which blatantly reflect the year’s international festival programmes, with not a care for the straitjacket of UK theatrical release (their number one film, The Assassin, is not out here until the New Year) – instantly renders mine a little more parochial. That said, if foreign-language pictures do not dominate my Top 42 (it seemed silly to stop at 40), they enhance and enrich the list. One of my jobs is to keep up with new releases so that when the films arrive on television, I can have an opinion on them in Radio Times. But I don’t have the pressure of a national newspaper critic, or blogger, who seeks to keep up with the big new films in the week of release. I saw most of the less mainstream titles on steam-powered DVD, or via Curzon Home Cinema, which continues to be a lifeline.

Here is my Top 12 (I intended this to be a Top 10, but a couple of late entries have expanded it – at the end of the day, or the year, you can’t realistically measure a Star Wars film against a Roy Andersson, but you can celebrate the appreciation of both):

1. 45 Years | Andrew Haigh | UK
2. Carol | Todd Haynes | US
3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens | JJ Abrams | US
4. A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence| Roy Andersson | Sweden/Norway/France/Germany
5. The Tribe | Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy | Ukraine/Netherlands
6. Brooklyn | John Crowley | UK/Ireland/Canada
7. The Falling | Carol Morley | UK
8. Black Souls | Francesco Munzi | Italy/France
9. The Ecstasy Of Wilko Johnson | Julien Temple | UK
10. Force Majeure | Ruben Östlund | Sweden/France/Norway
11. Amy | Asif Kapadia | UK
12. Timbuktu | Abderrahmane Sissako | France/Mauritania

I like the way that five our of the Top 12 turn out to be UK productions or co-productions. This tells us something good about our national cinema, which can just as easily be scenes from a marriage or an impressionistically elemental work of art. As for the two UK documentaries, interestingly both are about musicians, one who dies, the other who cheats death. Of the three US films, one is the biggest film of the year, and possibly of all time come the final tot-up, financially speaking, so deal with that. (It’s the same as putting an Adele album in my Top 10 LPs, which I have done again this year. I’m used to it.) Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat On A Branch and Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe are so different from the pack, and from each other, they may as well have their own chart. I watched the former – far from ideally – in two hotel rooms, one in Liverpool, the second in Durham. It transfixed me, even so (in fact, maybe because of the circumstances). I caught up with The Tribe on Boxing Day, via Curzon, and it’s the best film I’ve seen in Ukrainian sign language ever.

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I won’t order the remaining 30 films. It goes without saying that all did more than just divert me, or fill the time, or meet a professional quota.

Slow West | John Maclean | UK, New Zealand
Big Hero 6 | Don Hall, Chris Williams | US
A Most Violent Year | JC Chandor | US
Whiplash | Damien Chazelle | US
White God | Kornél Mundruczó | Hungary
Fidelio: Alice’s Journey | Lucie Borleteau | France
Selma | Ava DuVernay | US
Inherent Vice | Paul Thomas Anderson | US
The Lesson | Kristina Grozeva, Petar Valchanov | Bulgaria, Greece
Birdman | Alejandro G. Iñárritu | US
Foxcatcher | Bennett Miller | US
Still Alice | Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland | US
Altman | Ron Mann | Canada
Eden | Mia Hansen-Love | France
San Andreas | Brad Peyton | US
Wild Tales | Damián Szifron | Argentina/Spain
When You’re Young | Noah Baumbach | US
Love and Mercy | Bill Pohlad | US
Clouds Of Sils Maria | Olivier Assayas | France/Germany/Switzerland
The Salt Of The Earth | Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado | France/Brazil
Far From The Madding Crowd | Thomas Vinterberg | UK
Everest | Baltasar Kormákur | UK/US
The Martian | Ridley Scott | US
Ex Machina | Alex Garland | UK
Trainwreck | Judd Apatow | US
Steve Jobs | Danny Boyle | UK
Red Army | Gabe Polsky | US/Russia
Mia Madre | Nanni Moretti | Italy/France
The Wolfpack | Crystal Moselle | US
Straight Outta Compton | F Gary Gray | US

Please do share your own. Nobody’s opinion counts for more than anybody else’s. (Oh, and by the way, of course I included San Andreas, which is probably only a three-star film, but this is my list, it is the list that is mine, and what it is, too.)

Blue movie

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There are three distinct reasons why Blue Is The Warmest Colour threatens to be an uncomfortable watch. One, it’s a film about a lesbian relationship. If you are a heterosexual male – and I am not the first to entertain this taboo thought – discomfort might extend from a feeling of being unfairly judged by others for choosing to go and sit in a darkened auditorium to see two young actresses pretend to fall in love, because of the common heterosexual fascination with lesbian relations. I’m self-aware when it comes to my feelings about sex, which are frankly prudish and distorted by a deep sense of guilt about the “male gaze” and institutionalised sexism; and this makes me ill at ease around porn. You’ll know that the thumbnail sketch of Blue Is The Warmest Colour since it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes is predicated on its explicit same-sex sex scenes.

Which brings me onto the second reason for discomfort: Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, who won the combined acting prize at Cannes for their lead roles in the film, are on record complaining about the “horrible” way they were treated by director Abdellatif Kechiche. To be fair, this assessment was as much about the emotional demands of the roles as it was the gruelling sex scenes, but they did state that they’d never work with him again. It’s not easy to know that when you watch the film.

The third reason for trepidation was, for me, perhaps the most pressing. The film is 179 minutes long. It’s had rave reviews, mostly four- and five-star ratings, so it was vital that I saw it, but the prospect of sitting still for three hours was daunting whatever the subject matter. (When a three-hour film is compelling, such as the Romanian film Aurora a couple of years ago, it’s amazing to be able to lose yourself in it. If it’s a stinker, it’s an ordeal.)

Well, I steeled myself on all three counts yesterday and saw Blue Is The Warmest Colour and the first thing I want to say is: the three hours fly by. Clearly, it’s not a porn film and never was going to be, and although the couple’s first bedroom exploration – for the younger girl, Adele (played by Exarchopoulos) it’s her maiden Sapphic experience; the elder, Emma (Seydoux) is a seasoned “out” lesbian – goes on for a full and frank ten minutes, it’s both narratively and artistically justified. The build-up has been slow and gradual, and it explodes with pent-up feeling and, yes, love. The camera by definition exerts a “male gaze” – there’s a man behind it, and one whose tactics were “horrible” – but you are able to lose yourself in the story. It’s all about the story.

Onscreen sex has been getting more and more explicit for years in any case, and not just in foreign movies – think of Michael Winterbottom’s Nine Songs, or the English-speaking Intimacy – but at least in all of these cases, it’s a long way from Hollywood sex, that glossy, soft-focus, blue-filtered, slo-mo pantomime. The sex in Blue Is The Warmest Colour is corporeal, and sweaty, and urgent. There’s no saxophone, is what I’m trying to say.  The Hollywood kind is way more embarrassing. I’m not a lesbian, and I have never seen real lesbian sex, so I’ve no idea if lesbians smack each others’ arses as much as the couple of Blue Is The Warmest Colour, but it seemed a little excessive.

Moving on from those ten minutes to the other 169 minutes, what’s compelling and moving about the film is the acting. The two leads are definitely fearless for those ten minutes – especially as we know that scene took days to shoot – and deserve our respect and admiration. But the emotional ups and downs are even more demanding, and both, but especially Exarchopoulos (only 19 at the time), rise to the challenge. Utterly convincing. Kechiche’s technique of always framing their faces so they fill the screen, gives us access to some very clever acting. Adele changes a lot over the course of the story, as she has further to grow up, and she effects these changes subtly; she leaves school, takes a job as a classroom assistant, then teaches “first-graders”, and you can see her maturing as this takes place.

The story, partly based on a graphic novel of the same name, is a love story, but it’s also a film about peer pressure, expectation, nature versus nurture (both sets of parents are brilliantly essayed, but it is Emma’s, the more free-spirited and bourgeois, who create the little conservative, ultimately) and betrayal. It also touches on the buzz phrase “sexual liquidity”. Adele starts out as a heterosexual, seemingly finds her true sexual calling, then prevaricates. I’m sure this is common.

It’s not perfect. The colour blue is played heavy handedly. The scenes in the classroom where literature is dissected fall a little too neatly into the themes of the action. But overall, Blue is a seriously well-played saga that never drags. You could cut the sex scenes, or scenes, down to a minute or two and it wouldn’t detract from the story. But there they are. (The second, shorter one, feels hugely indulgent; it doesn’t move the story forward one iota. But I would say that.)

Not seen as many French films in 2013 as I usually do of a year – In The House, Something In The Air – but Blue Is The Warmest Colour reminds me of why I should remedy that. Perhaps it’s the familiarity of the language. Or simply the aspirational nature of French life: bread, cheese, philosophy, really intelligent seeming kids. (Positive enough stereotype for you?) In my lists, France seems to have been edged out by superior works from Germany, Romania, Argentina, Russia, Denmark, Ireland and Italy. Not that it’s a race. Except it is.

A writer called Nick Dastoor wrote a very pertinent, honest and funny piece in the Guardian called A Single Man’s Guide to Seeing Blue Is The Warmest Colour. (They should have added “Heterosexual” to the headline.) I was fortunate enough not to have to sit in the darkened auditorium yesterday afternoon alone, but I know exactly where he’s coming from. (Don’t go below the line, though, I warn you. Seriously. Don’t.)

 

The world at war

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Two films at the weekend which I intend to line up for arbitrary comparison because they are both new, both are foreign language and both were premiered at Cannes last year, where they competed in parallel for the Palme d’Or and Un Certain Regard: from Russia, In The Fog, or В тумане, and from Argentina, White Elephant or Elefante blanco.

They formed a sublime, if challenging and counterintuitive double-bill for me at the Renoir, a subterranean refuge from a sunny Sunday afternoon in London’s Bloomsbury. A barbecue and a beer are not the only ways to celebrate the late arrival of spring; you can retreat underground, on your own, and immerse yourself in Russian and South American poverty. Each to their own!

In The Fog first, a long and courageously ponderous fable set in Nazi-occupied Belarus during the Second World War; 1942, to be precise, where the hanging of three partisans sets the scene in an apparently unbroken tracking shot that discreetly turns away from the moment of death and alights upon a cart piled high with bones instead (animal bones, but you get the idea). Such is the skill and precision of relatively new Belarusian feature director Sergei Loznitsa announced. He previously worked on documentaries, but despite the handheld opening, do not expect a story built with the improvised looseness of photojournalism. In The Fog is in many ways a formal piece, in which three central characters move slowly through the forest, their individual backstories illustrated in flashback.

Not much happens. In this regard, I couldn’t help but think of Waiting For Godot. The three main characters seem also to be archetypes, the central protagonist, Sushenya, played by Vladimir Svirskiy, a stoically noble and fatalistic embodiment of the Russian spirit, perhaps. (I am no student of Russian classical literature – this film was based on a 1989 novel by Vasil’ Bykaw – but I’ve seen the films, and I get a sense of the ideological and political forces that shape the national temperament, particularly in times of war or struggle.) There are few laughs to be had – alright, none – this is a fable of death and punishment and separation and hardship. An early scene has one partisan emptying his boots of water and squeezing out his sodden socks, which seems to sum the film up.

Sushenya’s wife, from whose comfort he is taken early on in the film (he also leaves behind the carved wooden animals he made for his young son and the warm bathwater), begs him to take food when he is called in for questioning by two partisans after a fatal misunderstanding. She suggests some lard, or an onion (“Everything tastes better with an onion”); again, this sets the tone of humility and gratitude for only the bare basics of subsistence living in occupied Belarus. It’s hard going. Between the occasional bursts of action, it’s largely men in hats murmuring in a forest. But it feels oddly poetic and certainly measured and sincere, and although the Nazi occupiers are clearly the “baddies”, the internecine conflicts between partisans and collaborators make it morally ambiguous. My favourite kind of cinematic morality.

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For the far more conventional but no less stimulating White Elephant, writer-producer-director Pablo Trapero, who made last year’s memorable ambulance-chasing thriller Carancho (released in Argentina in 2010 but released here last year, and also Cannes-selected), returns to Buenos Aires and to the two excellent stars of that film for a more socially conscious piece about “slum priests”. Ricardo Darín, a big star at home and familiar to international audiences from Nine Queens and The Secrets In Their Eyes, is a likeably crumpled presence with a twinkle in his eyes, here playing what we would call a “community leader” in a shanty town that has grown, like mould, around an abandoned hospital project. (I think I’m right in saying that this is the Ciudad Oculta in real life – it’s clearly a genuine location and the shell of a hospital makes a striking image throughout, a hollowed-out symbol of civic failure and economic collapse – instead of making people better, it houses self-destructive drug addicts.)

We first meet Darín’s Father Julián, a selfless, tireless beacon of commonsense and charity among the dispossessed who live in the slum, when he fetches the younger, Belgian priest, Fr Nicolás (Jérémie Renier) back from a horrific paramilitary massacre at a jungle mission. His own mission is to train up the junior to eventually take his place. It’s a nice touch to show the real-life memorial to Fr Carlos Mujica, shot – and martyred – in 1974; his sanctified spirit lives in Julián, although he cannot perform miracles and make the inevitable drug war go away.

If you’ve seen the Brazilian film City Of God, set in Rio, you’ll know the fatal, bullet-riddled milieu and will not be surprised to see young kids at the centre of it. One school-age addict, Monito (Federico Barga), forms a focus for the priests’ efforts to stem the body count, although their techniques differ: the older priest wants to stay out of the politics of the drug trade, the younger wants to get his hands dirty. Disaster this way comes.

I won’t reveal too much of the plot. The director’s wife and co-producer, Martina Gusman, who was so vital as the flawed emergency-room doctor in Carancho, plays a dedicated but non-Catholic social worker trying to get new housing built, a key player in the conflict between the priests. White Elephant has the same liberal, do-gooder feel as any number of white British or American films about aid workers in Africa, but without the colonial guilt. These slums are local problems on the doorstep of Buenos Aires, and there is something terribly old-fashioned about the Church having to solve society’s ills. The easy banter of the volunteers, and the law-abiding citizens (many of whom must be non-actors) stops it being too earnest or grim, although the conclusion feels a little bit Hollywood.

Still, another important glimpse of life during wartime.

Austerity measures

beyond_the_hillsshell

The vagaries of the release schedule and a low-key, post-Oscars weekend at the Curzon gave me two films in two days that depict life on the geographical margins of society. One is set in a remote region of Romania, the other in the Highlands of Scotland, both windswept and austere. Both films are compelling and make capital from the unremitting bleakness of their environment, physical and figurative. I like it when this happens.

Beyond The Hills is Cristian Mungiu’s belated follow-up to the internationally acclaimed 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, which helped put Mungiu at the heart of “the Romanian New Wave”, a movement arguably kick-started by Cristi Puiu, whose The Death Of Mr Lazarescu won at Cannes in 1995 (as did 4 Months) and “put Romania on the map,” as they say. Puiu also made Aurora, which was one of my favourite films released here last year. Every Romanian film I’ve mentioned so far has been bleak, critical, illuminating and vital.

It’s hard to meaningfully sum up a national cinema without generalising wildly, but Romania’s emergence from life under a totalitarian Communist dictatorship clearly coloured its filmmakers’ individual visions, which understandably tend toward the bleak and the realist. The “shock doctrine” that shakes a society out of itself after a seismic change usually refers to a move into market capitalism, and this often looks better on paper to economists – and perhaps to freshly unyoked citizens – than it works out in practice. (Lazarescu and 4 Months were set at the time of the Ceausescu regime and served a cathartic purpose.)

Beyond The Hills, which won Mungiu another laurel at Cannes for his screenplay and for his two lead actors, is set after 1995, as the Euro is referenced, but – I gather – before 2007, when Romania entered the European Union. (One of the characters has just returned from the economically strong Germany, where she has been working, and where she wishes to lure her friend, while a more reactionary priest who has never left Romania denounces the licentious behaviour of “foreigners”.) Certainly, we are shown glimpses of a modern, or modernised, Romania – a smart cafe, a well-equipped hospital, the priest using a mobile phone for emergencies – but the meat of the story takes place in an Orthodox monastery with no electricity, heating or running water, which seems willingly marooned in the past.

Into this sealed world of prayer and candlelit plain living comes Alina (Cristina Flutur) in her conspicuously “outside world” outfit of blue tracksuit top, which sits in stark contrast to the chaste, all-black robes and headgear of the nuns, including Alina’s best friend Volchita (Cosmina Stratan), now a devout and humble novice. While Volchita seems at peace, Alina is at war, with herself perhaps, or her desires? She is not an immediately sympathetic character – demanding, selfish, hysterical, stubborn – but when pitched against the insular, controlling paranoia of the monastery, at times she feels like an avenging angel, albeit a flawed one. Flutur and Stratan deserved their Best Actress accolade at Cannes; they are utterly believable as friends.

The monastic mountain setting immediately recalls the equally austere and precise French film Of Gods And Men, one of my favourites of 2010, set in an Algerian monastery in 1996. It too dealt with a crisis, but one from the outside – Islamic militants. In Beyond The Hills, the crisis is within. It is Alina, who refuses to accept God and descends into selfish, petulant anger at the newly-found faith of her now-lost childhood friend – and, it is implied, lover. This is only a 12A, and nothing is shown, but when Alina first comes to visit Volchita, she asks her to soothe her back with rubbing alcohol, a medical treatment that clearly has sexual undertones, and the pair are shown sharing warmth in bed together. When Alina’s square-peg status erupts into something seemingly demonic, the film takes a dramatic turn, and I’ll reveal no further details.

Beyond The Hills is long (over two and a half hours), slow, and deliberate, and, to borrow Philip French’s astute description, “neutral”. As with Aurora, and 4 Months, when, say, a character leaves a room to fetch something, there is no edit: we wait for them to return. The way of the monastery means that “Papa” (Valeriu Andriutã), the dominant priest, is frequently asking one nun to go and fetch another, and we must wait in real time for that to happen.

You could edit this film down to 90 minutes without losing any of the story beats, but it would be less of a film in so many other ways. The unhurried pace simply points up the urgency of the mounting crisis, and the bungled way in which it is handled, not just by the priest and his nuns – who at one point become a comically incompetent gaggle – but by the hospital staff, and by Alina’s former foster parents. It’s not a film about religion; rather, the deficiencies of the system in Romania. The final shot, which again I won’t ruin, is utterly spellbinding; ingenious in its slow, symbolic minimalism.

Let’s make another visual rhyme out of these two films.

beyond-the-hills2shell2

So, to Shell, which is the first feature of Scottish writer/director Scott Graham, who expanded it from a short of the same name. More hills. This time, the hardscrabble existence is not about tilling the recalcitrant land, nor drawing its water up a well, but serving the motorists who pass through a remote stretch of the Highlands. With fuel, essentially – Shell (another amazing performance, this time from newcomer Chloe Pirrie, who was in the most recent Black Mirror) and her epileptic father Pete (the always transfixing Joseph Mawle) live and work in this jerry-built petrol garage, where he also turns cars into scrap, and theirs is an existence just as sealed-off and meagre as the nuns’ in Beyond The Hills.

Again, in an unhurried, real-time fashion, we get a vivid picture of their life together, their daily routine punctuated with the occasional car or lorry, stopping to fill up, and, in the case of the regulars, to chat. Human contact seems vital to the teenage Shell, who is at ease with Michael Smiley’s stoic, smiley divorced dad, on his way to see his kids, and with Iain De Caestecker’s Adam, a potential suitor who works at a nearby sawmill. But her first loyalty is to her dad. We see her tenderly nurse and comfort him through an epileptic fit on the kitchen floor, immediately setting her up as the carer. She cannot escape because of his needs, and because of her loyalty. (We discover that he literally built the house, although as pointed out by another reviewer, the fading interior decor suggests it hasn’t been tended to much since his wife and her mother left.)

This is a slice of life, just as, say, Aurora was. Life is simply going on, before our voyeuristic eyes. Pete professionally butchers a deer killed by a couple’s car on the road, skinning it in the garage and chopping it up into cuts for the freezer. He seems a primal man, but he is rendered helpless by the regular seizures, about which you sense he feels embarrassed, as his dominance as a father and as a man is lessened by them. That he and Shell’s relationship borders on the incestuous is something that’s subtly and never melodramatically explored as the story unfolds, although “story” is laying too much responsibility as its feet. Drivers come and go, but Shell and Pete stay in place, fixed, pinned, incarcerated by their situation, stripping cars and skinning deer and reducing them to their component parts.

Although the glacial pace and minimalist narrative of Shell are persuasive, this is a much shorter film than Beyond The Hills, and, almost as if the budget ran out, it makes something of a mad dash to the denouement, which is disappointing because of the hurry with which it arrives. I could have watched for at least two hours. There’s also a misunderstanding that ignites the final dramatic twist, and it felt a bit underpowered when all before seemed so deliberate and realistic. Scott Graham is clearly a talent, and he frames the environment with an artist’s eye. You can hear the wind whistling through the drafty house throughout, and the sense of place is intensely affecting. Unlike the Romanian monastery, there is electricity, and it brings news of the outside world when Shell dances with abandon and joy to Walk Of Life by Dire Straits, making you wonder if the film’s set in the past. When Michael Smiley’s Hugh brings Shell back a pair of jeans from the city as a courtship gift disguised as something more paternal, it’s as if we’re in Soviet Russia.

Even though the ending is disappointing, Shell is well worth a look. It’s almost as if both filmmakers are trying to take us somewhere. They certainly both appreciate the dramatic and figurative power of inclement weather. One character says to Shell, by way of small talk, something like, “When’s this winter going to end?” In Beyond The Hills, snow falls and cuts the monastery off even more decisively from “civilisation”.

It was a wet weekend in London, and these films really suited my mood. It’s great to see a British film coming on all East European, though.

All around the world Pt 2

The Easter foreign film festival continued yesterday, with two more from the Curzon. First, A Cat In Paris, which is the Oscar-nominated French animation whose actual title is Un Vie de Chat (A Cat’s Life), which is not the same thing at all, but hey, they’ve got to sell it to a non-French-speaking audience. Unfortunately, this also means re-dubbing it in English, which was an otherwise sweet family film’s downfall. Hey, I’m a cat person, as you are no doubt tired of hearing, and as such I was very happy with the way the cat was animated by Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli (neither of whom seems to have any past form – maybe this was their debut animation).

The way le chat “spoke” (ie. miaowed and purred and hissed) was realistic, and despite the stylised animation, which rendered human bodies and faces as 2D geometric shapes, shaded by a Marc Chagall-like “pastel” shadow effect, our feline protagonist was made fur and flesh in a convincingly catty way. However, it was the humans who ruined it. The story, about a little girl rendered mute after the death of her policeman father at the hands of a dastardly villain who finds her voice when she discovers that her cat is leading a double life with a lithe and seemingly benign burglar, may be centred around the pet, but it is largely populated by people who are little more than, well, caricatures and archetypes. They are not without style (I liked the dainty way their feet were animated), but the humans are sucked of all charm by the woeful quality of the English voices.

I can only hope the French dialogue sounded better in French. (Maybe the French original was the one that was circulated to the Academy, hence its surprise Oscar nomination?) In English, in those voices, it was either insincere, melodramatic or comic. The lead characters were American. Why? In Paris? There’s the Eiffel Tower! There’s Notre Dame! The criminal gang has an assortment of accents, ranging from idiotic Cockney, via humorous German to a truly arse-quakingly bad Texan. I wonder if these voices were supplied by French voiceover artists “doing” English? If so, why not have them all speak in English but with ‘Allo ‘Allo-style “Fronsh” accents? It would have made more sense.

So, ultimately, a nice, 70-minute visual experience – with some really beautiful, jazzy, funky, bendy, asymmetric rooftop backdrops – almost killed by bad dubbing. Still, the cat was nice.

A much better bet all round was Headhunters (or Hodejegerne), the first cinema adaptation – I believe – of a novel by Norwegian thriller writer Jo Nesbø, whose work seems to have taken off in the wake of the success of Steig Larrsson. Though I am not a reader of thrillers, or novels actually, I know that Nesbø is well known in Scandinavia for a series of novels about recurring characters, but Headhunters is a stand-alone story.

As directed with style, pace and wit by Morten Tyldum (who appears to have very little in the way of form, but will be in demand now, one guesses), Headhunters is a bold, bloody, brutal but deadpan-comedic thriller about a recruitment exec who compensates for his short stature by stealing art and paying for the high life he believes his trophy wife requires in order to stay with him. The actor who brings him so brilliantly to life, and without a hint of vanity, is Aksel Hennie, who has the look of a young Christopher Walken and Steve Buscemi about him, and who must now be in line for some juicy Hollywood parts.

The book is already being made into an American version, although as Philip French notes, Hollywood will be hard pushed to recapture the unique atmosphere of the original. It is, to be blunt, so Scandinavian. The architecture, the forestry, that all pervading crisp, clean, grey melancholia … if you liked Danish imports The Killing and Borgen, and have a penchant for Swedish cinema ranging from Bergman to Moodyson, as I do, you’ll know what I mean. I remember seeing the Norwegian original of Insomnia, and it forever affected how seriously I could take the otherwise well-made American remake.

Anyway, it’s not about national cinema, it’s about a fantastically fast-paced unfolding nightmare, which is leavened throughout with scatalogical schlock and dry wit (including, at one insane stage, a tractor chase, with a certain ghoulish detail that I won’t spoil). As a story, packed with twists and turns, it has “novel” written right through it, and the outcome is both surprising and one of those that has you slapping your own forehead and going, “Of course!”

A mealy-mouthed two-star review in the Guardian had me worried, but I think Paul MacInnes who reviewed it was having a very bad day when he saw it. Headhunters is bloody great, and had the audience in the Curzon chuckling and wincing in equal measure. Go and see it before the Americans misidentify what made it great and just do a fast-paced thriller version without the septic tank bit.

This – German-Norwegian – and Le Havre – Finnish-French – have been my favourite films of the festival so far. Now it’s off to Soho for This Must Be The Place – Italian-French-Irish – and Into The Abyss – American, but by a German director.