Film 2017

GodsOwnCountrybath

NB: Since first publishing this list on 12 December, I have amended it to accommodate some late entries.

It’s only 12 days into December, but I sense that my films of the year are almost fully formed, so let’s make it official. First, a carefully graded Top 10 that I may reshuffle at any time. These are essentially the ten films that moved me the most in 2017 and stayed with me for any number of reasons. I’m thrilled with the at-the-time imperceptible takeover by UK films, especially those from first-timers like Francis Lee and, further down the roll-call of genius, William Oldroyd.

Ironically, it’s also pleasing to see three singular, low-budget American films in the Top 12 – especially in a year when diverse, independent US cinema did well at the big awards. Also, a Dutch director who usually works in English switching to French to make a French film in France, and an Austrian who usually works in French working in French and English. Talking of which, in the first full year of the Brexit nightmare, or at least the grim prelude to the UK’s disengagement from Europe and the world, I find I feel even more attracted to foreign-language films, represented in the Top 12 by Romania, France, Turkey, Austria and, beyond Europe, Chile, Cambodia, and further down the list, Hungary, Denmark, Germany and Spain.

It can be no accident that my favourite film of 2017 explicitly addresses immigration and shows foreign intervention into English society as a positive force.

  1. God’s Own Country | Francis Lee (UK)
  2. Moonlight | Barry Jenkins (US)
  3. Graduation | Cristian Mungiu (Romania/France/Belgium)
  4. Get Out | Jordan Peele (US)
  5. Dunkirk | Christopher Nolan (UK/US/France/Netherlands)
  6. A Quiet Passion | Terence Davies (UK)
  7. Happy End | Michael Haneke (France/Germany/Austria)
  8. Neruda | Pablo Larrain (Chile/Argentina/France)
  9. A Ghost Story | David Lowery (US)
  10. First, They Killed My Father | Angelina Jolie (Cambodia/US)
  11. Kedi | Ceyda Torun (Turkey)
  12. Elle | Paul Verhoeven (France/Germany)

And the next 30 or so, in handy groups of ten, whose order is at the end of the day random. All films on this list have been marked with an asterisk in my private, ongoing log of films seen, which elevates them from the herd. There are more films than ever now that Netflix is a significant player (there are three Netflix Originals here, for the first time, and not the last). My traditional nod, too, to Curzon Home Cinema, a prestige streaming service that keeps me abreast of films that don’t always make it even to the arthouse, and if they do, don’t stay for long.

Land of Mine | Martin Zandvliet (Denmark/Germany)
The Levelling | Hope Dickson Leach (UK)
On Body and Soul | Ildikó Enyedi (Hungary)
El Pastor | Jonathan Cenzual Burley (Spain)
Blade Runner 2049 | Denis Villeneuve (US)
Good Time | Ben Safdie, Josh Safdie (US)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi | Rian Johnson (US)
La La Land | Damien Chappelle (US)
Jackie | Pablo Larrain (US)
Manchester by the Sea | Kenneth Lonergan (US)

The Lost City of Z | James Grey (US)
Free Fire | Ben Wheatley (UK)
The Salesman | Asghar Farhadi (Iran)
Lady Macbeth | William Oldroyd (UK)
Heal the Living | Katell Quillévéré (France/US/Belgium)
Prevenge | Alice Lowe (UK)
Mudbound | Dee Rees (US)
Baby Driver | Edgar Wright (UK/US)
A Man Called Ove | Hannes Holm (Sweden)

City of Ghosts | Matthew Heinemann (US)
Bunch of Kunst | Christine Franz (UK)
The Big Sick | Michael Showalter (US)
I am Not Your Negro | Raoul Peck (France/US/Belgium/Switzerland)
Frantz | Francois Ozon (France/Germany)
Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond | Chris Smith (US)
War for the Planet of the Apes | Matt Reeves (US)
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) | Noah Baumbach (US)
The Ghoul | Gareth Tunley (UK)
London Symphony | Alex Barrett (UK)

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2014: My Top 50 Films

UnderTheSkinCalvaryAStoryofChildrenFilmAmericanInteriorGruff20000DaysOnEarthCitizenfourTheRovertwo-days-one-nightShowrunnersBonesNymphomaniacofficeIdaS2dallasbuyersclub2

I have a simple, private, binary grading system with films. Once I have logged a film as “seen”, I either give it a star or not. This is quite a relief after the minefield of having to award stars out of five for professional reviewing purposes. Either a film feels like it was worth seeing, or it wasn’t. I sometimes go back and add or remove the star, depending on how I feel at a later date about the film. This makes collating an end of year list much easier, as it sifts the wheat from the chaff before I start. (This is why a bit of airborne nonsense like the Liam Neeson thriller Non Stop gets into the Top 50; I liked it enough at the time to give it a tick.)

Of the 142 films I saw in 2014, 92 were new, in that they were released in the UK for the first time this year. (For quick but odious comparison, of the 153 films I saw in 2013, 122 were new. I don’t know why I saw less films, especially less new films, but it may have something to do with having worked harder for less money in 2014, and having to make some tough choices simply in terms of sparing the time. I regret this.) Here they are, in order – and I have been tinkering with this for about a fortnight. An important note: I did not get to see Turkish maestro Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s film Winter Sleep in December, as it is three hours long and I had no-one to go and see it with. I know in my bones it would be in the list, possibly near the top. Its absence is glaring and unbalancing. So it goes.

Boyhood

1. Boyhood | Richard Linklater | US
2. Leviathan | Andrey Zvyagintsev | Russia
3. Stranger By The Lake | Alain Guiraudie | France
4. Ida | Pawel Pawlikowski | Poland/Denmark
5. 20,000 Days On Earth | Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard | UK/US/Canada
6. Dallas Buyers Club | Jean-Marc Vallée | US
7. The Grand Budapest Hotel | Wes Anderson | Germany/UK
8. Two Days, One Night | Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne | France/Belgium/Italy
9. Nymphomaniac Vol. 1/Vol. 2 | Lars Von Trier | Denmark/Germany/France/Belgium
10. Calvary | John Michael McDonagh | Ireland/UK

11. American Interior | Gruff Rhys, Dylan Goch | UK
12. Under The Skin | Jonathan Glazer | UK
13. Citizenfour | Laura Poitras | US
14. Lilting | Hong Khaou | UK
15. The Lego Movie | Phil Lord, Christopher Miller | US/Australia/Denmark
16. Starred Up | David Mackenzie | UK
17. Showrunners | Des Doyle | Ireland/US
18. Belle | Amma Asante | UK
19. Locke | Steven Knight | UK
20. A Story Of Children And Film | Mark Cousins | UK

21. Nightcrawler | Guy Gilroy | US
22. The Rover | David Michôd | Australia
23. 22 Jump Street | Phil Lord, Christopher Miller | US
24. Inside Llewyn Davis | Joel Coen, Ethan Coen | US
25. Noah | Darren Aronofsky | US
26. Jimmy’s Hall | Ken Loach | UK/Ireland
27. Cold In July | Jim Mickle | US/France
28. The Past | Asghar Farhadi | France/Italy
29. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes | Matt Reeves | US
30. Chef | Jon Favreau | US

31. ’71 | Yann Demange | UK
32. X-Men: Days Of Future Past | Bryan Singer | UK/US
33. The Wolf Of Wall Street | Martin Scorsese | US
34. August: Osage County | John Wells | US
35. Only Lovers Left Alive | Jim Jarmusch | UK/Germany
36. Northern Soul | Elaine Constantine | UK
37. Her | Spike Jonze | US
38. Edge Of Tomorrow | Doug Liman | US/UK
39. Non-Stop | Jaume Collet-Serra | US/France
40. A Most Wanted Man | Anton Corbijn | UK/Germany/US

41. The Riot Club | Lone Scherfig | UK
42. Maps To The Stars | David Cronenberg | Canada/US
43. The Guest | Adam Wingard | US
44. The Armstrong Lie | Alex Gibney | US
45. The Unknown Known | Errol Morris | US
46. American Hustle | David O. Russell | US
47. The Heat | Paul Feig | US
48. The Two Faces Of January | Hossein Amini | US/UK
49. Easy Money III | Jens Jonsson | Sweden
50. Captain America: The Winter Soldier | Anthony Russo, Joe Russo | US

Leviathanwhale

Really, I don’t think there has ever really been anything like Boyhood, but its technical and logistical achievements might just have been that had it not been for Richard Linklater’s guiding hand and a cracking cast, most remarkably Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater, respectively seven and eight years old when shooting began in 2002. Rarely have 165 minutes passed in a cinema without anybody looking at their watch. This film singlehandedly made a case for the occasional preeminence of American filmmaking in the 21st century, where noise and surface are often all it’s got. (I say that, but the US dominates my list, if not the Top 10, as the bulk of the films I saw were American, or American co-productions. As ever, a bit of Danish or French often rises to the top.)

In a year without Boyhood, Leviathan would have sat comfortably at the top of a the pile. Andrey Zvyagintsev’s austere, symbolically rich tale of contemporary smalltown corruption plays out as a David and Goliath struggle between a car mechanic and a grotesque mayor on the coast of Northwestern Russia over a patch of land (the mechanic, Alexei Serebriakov, lives on it, in a house he built himself; the mayor, Roman Madyanov, wants it). A slow, downbeat, naturalistic and unshowy slice of life, Leviathan nonetheless rears up into moments of pure beauty and portent, not least when one character glimpses an actual whale breaking the surf in the bay, or when the teeth of a JCB tear into a house like a dinosaur searching for prey. It’s all about scale.

I’m pleased that a large number of UK and Irish releases made the final cut – Starred Up, Belle, Locke, Calvary, Under The Skin, American Interior, Jimmy’s Hall – as well as a clutch of documentaries, although I can think of half a dozen I’ve missed, too. I also missed Pride, which I feel might have been in there, had I seen it. Feel free to tell me yours, but don’t take it personally if a film you’ve loved this year isn’t in my Top 50; I might simply have missed it. And I really didn’t like Mr Turner.

StarredUp2

A postcript: I continue to hold a Curzon cinemas membership, and it is my lifeline. It should be noted that in 2014, the chain announced that it had finally recognised the union Bectu and agreed to pay its workers a living wage. So far, this agreement seems to have held, and no funny business has emerged. I am in touch with the previously aggrieved Curzon workers via Twitter and have heard nothing to the contrary. I sincerely hope this continues to remain true. Other cinema chains have not been as willing to compromise, and it blights the whole business of cinemagoing.

Blue movie

Blue-is-the-Warmest-Color

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.)

 

Holy split!

Not having time to review it here in full, two weeks ago I Tweeted about the hugely talented Australian director Andrew Dominick’s hyped hitmen caper Killing Them Softly, saying something pithy and eye-catching like, “Beware the four- and five-star reviews,” keen to posit a sincere counterbalance to the hype with a limb-balanced view that, beyond some smart dialogue, moodily derelict visuals and a nuanced turn by Brad Pitt, this is a fairly modest film that’s short and narratively underpowered, and perhaps not the dazzling, politically-charged Tarantino-esque epic-for-our-times it was being marketed as. You know, it’s a decent three-star movie. In my book. Which is the only book I’m writing.

At the end of the day, it’s just my opinion versus the opinions of most other critics, but I felt that anyone yet to pay good money to see it might, in fact, appreciate an alternative view. I was disappointed that it’s all over so fast, that so little actually happens, and that there isn’t much in the way of resolution. For all the newsreel that places it firmly in the US presidential election year of 2008, its ending is pretty facile, when it might have been profound. (When the credits suddenly rolled, I genuinely thought, “Is that it?”)

The reason I’m telling you this, is that one respondent on Twitter called me “conceited” for expressing my opinion. This seemed harsh. We are all entitled to an opinion, and everyone is a critic, albeit not necessarily a professional one. Since I had paid money to see Killing Them Softly at a cinema, as is my preference, I was not commenting as a critic, but as a punter. Nobody’s opinion is more important than anybody else’s, but to express your own is not conceited.

I am about to offer my opinion on another film that has picked up rave reviews from critics, Holy Motors. Peter Bradshaw, who I respect and like (and who gave Killing Them Softly five stars in the Guardian), gave Holy Motors five stars in the Guardian; Robbie Collin gave it five in the Telegraph; Nick de Semlyen gave it five in Empire, so that’s a broad waterfront. Now, it is a strange, oblique, difficult, experimental film, and was always going to divide opinion. My opinion is that it is preening, self-congrulatory rubbish. You may disagree with me.

I have no history with its writer-director Leos Carax, although I am aware that his Les Amants du Pont-Neuf was an artistic hit and commercial flop in the early 90s (“the French Heaven’s Gate“), and it nearly bankrupted him. (He has only made five features in just over 30 years, which lends his work a Malick-like cachet that it may, or may not, deserve. I don’t know.) I was all too aware that Holy Motors was a big splash at Cannes this year, and that it had Kylie Minogue in it, which – it being an art movie – seemed newsworthy.

Well, it does have Kylie in it. But it’s not vital that it does, other than she looks a bit like Jean Seberg with her Jean Seberg haircut, in the brief segment that she is in, and it seems that more than anything else Holy Motors is like a European Cinema exam. Those who have swooningly submitted to its admittedly colourful and stylish but unhinged charms seem to delight in its constant references to such giants of French cinema as Cocteau, Renoir, Buñuel, Godard and, most evidently, Leos Carax. I’m not enough of a scholar in any of these great auteurs to spot every nod and wink, but I get the picture. It’s a film about cinema, which also tips its hat to Chaplin, and Chaney … and to Georges Franju’s key 1960 horror film Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without A Face), in which Edith Scob wore an eerie facemask, and who, 50 years on, wears one in Holy Motors to make the debt as subtle as a big flashing neon sign.

I’m not against cinematic indulgence, or reflexivity, or in-jokes for cinephiles, although there can be something dryly academic about this kind of point-scoring. Not always: think of Pedro Almodóvar’s own playful update of Les yeux sans visage in La Piel que Habito (The Skin I Live In). It’s just that, well, I found the style, and the central performance by Carax muse Denis Lavant, irksome in the extreme. It’s not that I’m not clever enough to “get it”, just that I couldn’t get into it. It made me fidget. It frustrated me. Its undoubted audacity wasn’t enough.

There are amazing visual moments, such as the bit where Lavant’s mysterious, limo-bound master of disguise leads a brass band through a church, or when he dons a motion-capture bodysuit and performs an erotic tango with a lady, their movements transformed before our eyes into an alien animation; even some of the bits I hated, like Lavant’s transformation into the grunting “Monsieur Merde” who kidnaps Eva Mendes’ supermodel and shows her his erect penis in the sewer like a priapic Phantom of the Opera, had evocative visual merit. But I didn’t feel these added up to much.

There’s a journey, physically, and a series of episodes, that sort of join up to each other, but I felt as exhausted as Lavant’s latex-weathered clown by the end of the day and night over which the action takes place. And I won’t mention the humorous ending. Even people who are captivated by Holy Motors think the ending is a bit shit. It’s certainly an evocative spin around Paris, mostly by car, occasionally on foot, but the imagery seemed fashioned by blunt instrument, and unless you are a member of Carax’s club, you weren’t really welcomed with open arms.

That’s my opinion. It is an opinion that is mine. And what it is, too.

And yes, I know Buñuel was Spanish, but he had two French periods.

Breaking up is never easy I know

Here’s another interesting, random connection between two films seen close to each other: Café de Flore is a French-Canadian film, mostly in French, and Goodbye First Love is a French film, completely in French, and they share a fascination with love that is impossible to give up. The big difference being: one works, the other only partially.

I was filled with trepidation about Goodbye First Love, as writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve’s previous film, her second, Father Of My Children, rubbed me up the wrong way, despite glowing reviews and a laurel of some kind at Cannes. Actually, they’re French films, let’s give them their native titles: Le père de mes enfants; Un amour de jeunesse. Now, those with schoolboy French will have spotted that, while Father Of My Children is a literal translation of Le père de mes enfants, Un amour de jeunesse comes out as something like A Love Of Youth, or A Love Of The Young; Young Love, I guess. Even First Love. But the Goodbye part seems to be peculiar to the official English title. It gives a little more away, as this is a film about the first meaningful relationship of a Parisian girl, Camille (Lola Créton), aged 15 when we first meet her, and her tousle-haired boyfriend Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky), who doesn’t just have a roving eye for the ladies,  but a roving eye for the map. Here’s the goodbye part – and it’s given away in the trailer, which, again, I think I’ve seen about 50 times at various Curzon cinemas , where it’s an understandable shoo-in – Sullivan goes travelling in South America and ends the relationship. Typical boy.

There they are, in the top picture, young and in love and mistaken in the belief that their love will last forever. Hey, we’ve all been there. Hansen-Løve, who apparently based the story on her own experiences, captures the guileless optimism of this life-stage with a lightness of touch, and eliciting believable performances from her two leads; the way Camille puts up with Sullivan’s evident failure to live up to her many-splendoured plans for their relationship, and the way, in turn, that her needy demands on his heart and silly threats about not being able to live without him actually start to drive him away. When he hops it, she puts up a map of South America, and they exchange letters, but these letters dry up, and eventually, she tears the map down.

There’s nothing startlingly original in making a drama about saying goodbye to first love, and going over such adolescent ground could have spelled Twilight without the vampires as Camille moons about, her cheeks permanently moist with huffy, heartbroken tears (“When will you get over him?” asks her mum), but in playing the story out over a number of years and haircuts, Hansen-Løve shows how durable that first bond can be, and even when Camille has signed up to an architecture course and found a new distraction in her middle-aged tutor (a louche Norwegian, played by Magne-Håvard Brekke), the flame for Sullivan still burns.

I won’t roll out any more of the plot, other than to say it’s confidently and carefully seen through, consistently engaging and even occasionally surprising, so any trepidation about Hansen-Løve based upon my disappointment with Le père de mes enfants was misplaced. Maybe I just didn’t buy the trajectory of that one – which I won’t spoil – even though I’ve since read that it, too, was autobiographical and actually happened! I do have a massive soft spot for French films – just seeing the bread on the table and the red wine in glass tumblers, and recognising that all-pervasive air of bohemian ease, never mind the aesthetically pleasing rhythms of the language – but I’m not blind to individual faults. Elles, for instance, was awful, and its Frenchness did not save it. Goodbye First Love is superb.

Café de Flore isn’t. Having read a one-star assassination by not Peter Bradshaw but one of his lieutenants in the Guardian, and passed a five-star rave by the redoubtable Alan Jones for the online database of my very own Radio Times, I went into the cinema with one eye wide open and the other wide shut. Would it be a “narcissistic and fundamentally unpersuasive mosaic” with “the most stupid movie twist of the decade”? Or a “bold … uncompromising, passionate … intoxicating triumph that bristles with sly innovation”?

Well, it was a bit of both. From French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée, who, oddly, made serviceable heritage drama The Young Victoria, this is a striking collage of imagery built from fragments that represent not just actual memories but sometimes imagined ones. It cuts together two parallel stories: one about the domestic mid-life hari-kiri committed by a crashingly unsympathetic 40-year-old superstar DJ, Antoine (Kevin Parent), who, when he’s not at home in Montreal is out tickling clubs full of ravers with his supreme deckmanship, and when he’s not doing that, he’s leaving his angelic and lovely wife Carole (Hélène Florent) for a younger “bimbo”, which leaves him socially exiled by his parents and daughters; the other about a poor young single mum (Vanessa Paradis) in late-60s Paris who raises her Down’s Syndrome son Laurent (an amazing Marin Gerrier) with so much love it threatens to engulf them all.

Like Goodbye First Love, Café de Flore effectively depicts that unquestioning brand of love, the kind that can drive you mad. You can trace parallels between the lovey-dovey passion of Camille and Sullivan, and the similarly pubescent devotion of Antoine and Carole as young teenage Goths listening to The Cure’s Faith album, and making vows in eyeliner. In both films, we see that intoxicating brand of first love develop, although in the latter case, the pair get married, have kids and then split up. She even clingingly forgives him for straying with the blonde “bimbo” (as she’s called constantly by the eldest daughter), but he won’t go back as for him, the love is gone. It’s not as if his wife is old and worn out, or that his bimbo is particularly stunning and nubile, but it’s enough to cause this preening ninny of a man to make a bonfire of his marriage.

Throughout the film, and this is where it gets infuriating, we are teased with possible connections between the present and the past. When, in the final act, we are offered something concrete, it is in fact balsa wood, and although the final twist isn’t “the most stupid of the decade” (we are only two years into the decade), it’s not enough to hang a two-hour film on. And certainly not when that film seems to revel so arrogantly and confidently in the cosmic clues that are constantly dropped. Vallée seems to want us to keep asking, “How are these two stories linked?”, and we do, because he jumps from one to the other throughout, but if you demand an audience asks questions, you have to answer them in a meaningful way. (For instance: the coincidental party of adults with Down’s Syndrome who come through an airport arrivals hall in the present when Antoine is leaving for a foreign gig – he disappears into a blur; they emerge from a blur and come into focus – it’s an arresting image, but playing with the focus and putting it in slo-mo does not fool anyone; it’s actually a pretty manipulative coincidence. It’s never explained. But it’s hardly subtle enough to be called a visual rhyme, or an allusion.)

Goodbye First Love got better while I watched Café de Flore. Hansen-Løve sees no need to muck about and tantalise; she just tells her story, in order, and we’re with her. Vallée is clearly of a more experimental mindset and while his ambition can be applauded – and, to be fair, some of the fragments do pay off, like the vapour trail in the sky, and the sheer audacity of using a modern piece of dance music to link contemporary Montreal with 1960s Paris takes some front – but it veers towards pretense too often. And it’s way too forgiving towards Antoine’s infidelity. Typical man.

Hey ladies

By accident and not design, I saw two films at the cinema over the weekend that were about women. The first, Damsels In Distress, written and directed by a man, portrayed men in a very bad light; largely as thick-headed, arrogant dimwits or shysters. The second, Elles, written and directed by a woman, also portrayed men in a bad light; as desperate, shallow sad cases, sometimes cruel with it.

The first, and more successful, was Damsels In Distress. American indie auteur Whit Stillman takes his time. He’s only made four films since 1990. The first two, which I haven’t seen, were linked by low budgets, no stars, lavish praise and a concern for the urban haute bourgeoisie, Metropolitan and Barcelona. I’d like to see them. I saw The Last Days Of Disco in 1998, the third part of a loose trilogy apparently, because I was tempted by the subject matter, and I remember really enjoying it. It also revolved around two women.

Disco was set in the early 80s. Damsels is set now. Or, at least, I think it is; there are few clues that time has passed much since the 1950s, and because it’s set in a minor, fictional Ivy League college where the puzzling culture of fraternity houses still holds primitive sway, it all seems very remote and old-fashioned. That is, I’m sure, the point. (There is a subplot about the frat houses being closed down.) When I saw National Lampoon’s Animal House in 1979, aged 14 – it was my first “AA” – this was my first exposure to the arcane college system of the United States, and I wasn’t worldly enough to spot that it was set in the early 60s. I realise that now, just as I realise that Happy Days was set in the 1950s, which I didn’t at the time. America seemed so foreign when I was a kid, I assumed it was still all about milk bars and the hop. Which, of course, to an extent, it still was in the 70s, and to a lesser extent, still is today.

Greta Gerwig is the only recognisable face. As Violet, she leads a group of prissy girls whose stated mission is to “save” dimwitted boys by going out with them and seeking to improve them. It’s a bizarre almost sexless set-up, but Stillman plays it so straight, it’s hard not to be drawn into this parallel universe. Nobody speaks as people speak; they are all dazzlingly eloquent and self-aware, and you will either find this a delight, or a massive irritant. I fell almost immediately into the former camp. If someone told me they couldn’t even sit through it, I would empathise.

It’s a 12A. There’s nothing in Damsels to frighten the horses. One subplot hints that a boy – duplicitous and untrustworthy, naturally – elicits anal sex with one of the prissy girls by claiming it’s a religious necessity for him, but this is as close to adult the film gets. It’s sort of the anti-Heathers. Gerwig’s troupe, who run a suicide prevention centre and offer tap-dancing as a therapy, seem brittle, remote and untouchable at first, but reveal deeper human feelings as the story progresses, even depression, all of which are whipped back into a fluff by an ending that comes as something of a shock, albeit a feelgood one.

It’s rare you see a film that reminds you of little else. Damsels is one such. (I gather it reminds people who’ve seen them of, yes, Metropolitan and Barcelona, the first of which was also concerned with an Ivy League college; Stillman went to Harvard.) It’s clever, wordy and weird, and if it puts women on too high a pedestal – and casts men into such a corresponding trench – well then, hooray for Whit Stillman. Better his breathless praise for the opposite sex, than Polish director Małgorzata Szumowska’s apparent disdain for her own, as we are about to see.

I’d read some lukewarm and hostile reviews of Szumowska’s French-language reverse-porn film Elles before seeing it, and such reviews are rare for anything with Saint Juliette de Binoche in. She plays an almost totally implausible journalist for Elle magazine, the kind who sits at home in her gorgeous Paris apartment staring at a computer and fielding calls about word-length from an unseen editor. (It may have been sloppy subtitling, but at one stage, she and the editor haggle over 8,000 “characters”, which must surely have meant words?) She interviews two female students who work as prostitutes to supplement their fees, and in doing so, unlocks her own inner prostitute. Not literally, of course, but that seems to be the thrust of the story.

It’s tosh. The studes, one French, Charlotte, one Polish, Alicja (hey, the director is Polish and she’s making her first French film, who can blame her?), seem not just guilt-free about servicing “bored husbands” for Euros, but empowered by it. They are certainly no damsels in distress. I may have missed a few meetings since becoming a feminist in the 80s, but the empowerment of women through submission to male needs and fantasies has always been a thorny one for me to grasp; clearly, women should enjoy nothing less than equality in all areas of life, from work to sex, but I’m not modern enough to see how pole dancing fits into this.

Anyway, Elles (rotten title) revolves around Binoche’s superwoman preparing a slow-cook casserole for her blasé husband’s boss, juggling the kids (including a particularly nightmarish teenage dopehead son), going food shopping and trying to fix the fridge door, while also attempting to finish her article, which chiefly involves listening to interview tapes that provide us with flashbacks mostly of the two students having frank sex with various men. Their clients run the clichéd gamut: from the businessman who bursts into tears after a premature ejaculation, to the shark in the hotel room who turns out to be a disgusting sadist (a rare instance of momentary distress there, but not enough for Charlotte to consider putting a stop to her extracurricular revenue stream). The only character who seems new is the middle-aged bloke who serenades his prostitute, naked, on an acoustic guitar. Was this odd moment of comedy supposed to show that not all men who pay women for sex are bad? That rather lets them off the hook, doesn’t it?

Although the sex is not titillating – or at least, not titillating unless you are titillated by seeing bored young women service older men – there is a lot of it, and I’m not sure it added much to the already fairly thin thesis. In the end, I found Elles infuriating, which wasn’t helped by the couple sitting next to me who had sought out the Noisiest Snack Available in the foyer and kept talking until I politely asked them not to.

I didn’t buy it. Binoche is literally never bad; and she gave the part her all – an “all” it didn’t really merit – imbuing a cardboard cut-out with life and radiance. But her grown-up journalist seemed to find the whole subculture of prostitution so shocking, you started to wonder if she’d ever read a newspaper article in her life. The scene where she gets drunk with the Polish student and they indulge in a sort of semi-erotic, quasi-Oedipal display of dancing to a terrible electro track is particularly embarrassing, and if it had been conceived by a male writer/director, you could have put it down to sleazy voyeurism. But it wasn’t.

Perhaps Elles is simply intended to be a protest about student fees. But a film about bar work isn’t really going to get the punters in, is it?

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.