Being human


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Film 2013: great beauty

Michael Smiley in Ben Wheatley's A Field in England.beyond_the_hillsSpring+Breakersthe-great-beauty2Frances-Hagravity-cuaronBlue-is-the-Warmest-Colorblackfishbig i-wish

As I write, it’s not quite yet the very end of the year, but my records indicate that I have seen 153 films in 2013 – that is, 153 films I’ve never seen before (which includes films I’ve seen but never before seen on the big screen, such as Manhattan, Aguirre Wrath Of God and Chinatown). Of those 153, 122 have been films released in 2013. If I were an actual film critic, I’d be seeing around seven a week. But I’m not one. So I’m calling 153 a decent tally. But never mind the width, feel the quality.

Here are my Top 30 in order. I’ve eschewed qualitative ordering in my entries for TV, books and albums, but I feel more confident about films as I log them as I go, and enter a star symbol next to any that stand out from the pack. This makes it easier to sift them. Frankly, the Top 10 rose effortlessly to the top, but the next 20 confirm that it was a damn good year.

1. The Great Beauty | Paolo Sorrentino | Italy
2. All Is Lost | JC Chandor | US
3. Gravity | Alfonso Cuarón | US/UK
4. Blackfish | Gabriela Cowperthwaite | US
5. Compliance | Craig Zobel | US
6. Beyond The Hills | Cristian Mungiu | Romania
7. I Wish | Hirokazu Koreeda | Japan
8. Spring Breakers | Harmony Korine | US
9. Blue Is The Warmest Colour | Abdellatif Kechiche | France
10. Frances Ha | Noah Baumbach | US

11. Mea Maxima Culpa | Alex Gibney | US
12. Silence | Pat Collins | Ireland
13. Lincoln | Steven Spielberg | US
14. Nebraska | Alexander Payne | US
15. Made Of Stone | Shane Meadows | UK
16. A Field In England | Ben Wheatley | UK
17. Mud | Jeff Nichol | US
18. The Selfish Giant | Clio Barnard | UK
19. Shell | Scott Graham | UK
20. No | Pablo Larrain | Chile
21. Zero Dark Thirty | Kathryn Bigelow | US
22. Captain Philips | Paul Greengrass | US
23. Parkland | Peter Landesman | US
24. Blue Jasmine | Woody Allen | US
25. Prisoners | Denis Villeneuve | US
26. What Richard Did | Lenny Abrahamson | Ireland
27. Stories We Tell | Sarah Polley | Canada
28. The Place Beyond The Pines | Derek Cianfrance | US
29. In The Fog | Sergei Loznitsa | Russia
30. A Hijacking | Tobias Lindholm | Denmark

Some thoughts. Four documentaries in the Top 30 (and one in the Top 10) says something powerful about the continued relevance of non-fiction. (The Act Of Killing topped many a critic’s poll in Sight & Sound; for me, it was a unique film, but not one I actually enjoyed.) And two Irish films in the Top 10, too, which has to be a first, and a welcome one. I note that only half my Top 30 are American, which feels like a significant victory for “the rest of the world” as Hollywood accountants call it – although I only did a Top 20 last year and less than half were American, so who knows? On a geographical note, Gravity is apparently “British” enough to qualify for a British Bafta nomination in 2014, as it was shot here and Alfonso Cuarón has dual UK citizenship.

For the record, the following films also received a star under my yes-or-no rating system this year, so they merit an honourable mention. More documentaries, and two more Irish films!

Beware Of Mr Baker | Jay Bulger | UK
Django Unchained | Quentin Tarantino | US
This Is 40 | Judd Apatow | US
For Ellen | So Yong Kim | US
The Spirit of ’45 | Ken Loach | UK
Arbitrage | Nicholas Garecki | US
Reality | Matteo Garrone | Italy/France
Neighbouring Sounds | Kleber Mendonça Filho | Brazil
Good Vibrations | Lisa Barros D’Sa, Glenn Leyburn | Ireland
The Gatekeepers | Dror Moreh | Israel/France/Germany/Belgium
Spike Island | Mat Whitecross | UK
The Look Of Love | Michael Winterbottom | UK
Easy Money | Daniél Espinosa | Sweden
Behind The Candelabra | Steven Soderbergh | US
The World’s End | Edgar Wright | UK
Before Midnight | Richard Linklater | US
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa | Declan Lowney | UK
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks | Alex Gibney | US
The Deep | Baltasar Kormákur | Iceland
Fire In The Night: The Piper Alpha Disaster | Antony Wonke | UK
Hawking | Stephen Finnigan | UK
Oblivion | Joseph Kosinski | US
What Maisie Knew | Scott McGhee, David Siegel | US
Mister John | Christine Molloy, Joe Lawlor | Ireland/Singapore
Leviathan | Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel | US

A final postscript: I didn’t get to see Philomena this year, which leaves an obvious gap as I suspect I will like it.

Blue movie


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.)


Writer’s blog: Week 41, Sunday

Photo on 2013-10-13 at 09.15

Guess why it’s been a long while since I’ve blogged, solipsistic diary style, about my writer’s life? Because I’ve been crushingly busy actually writing. For my job. So today, Sunday, a day of rest, here I sit, and here I sip, in a unique position. One, I have what we’ll round up to “five minutes” to take stock. It is an unusual Sunday morning in many other respects. Chiefly, I am in the conservatory of a very nice hotel. But I am not on holiday. I am here, in the rarefied environs of Cheltenham, for the Literature Festival, where last night I appeared, live and direct and strapped into a Lady Gaga-style headset mic, in a rain-lashed tent, “sold out” (except the tickets were free), banging on about subtitled films and telly and the joys thereof.

For this unpaid job (I know, the devil’s work, don’t tell Philip Hensher etc.), I was put up in a very nice hotel for the night. You have to grab such opportunities. The hotel just plied me with a very nice Full English and I have taken coffee to the lounge to listen to the rain and traffic in a wicker chair. It may be pissing down, but the sort of very nice person who attends a literature festival – and Cheltenham is less a festival, more a 10-day way of life – soldiers on regardless, hungry for stimulus of a literary bent. I so wish I could afford the time and money to come here for a week’s holiday and “do” the rich calendar of talky events. I am easily the least famous speaker in the fat Cheltenham booklet. (As I tarried in the “Writers’ Room” hospitality tent before my gig, I saw John Bishop and David Davies and no doubt half a dozen august novelists I wouldn’t recognise from their ruddy faces and tweed coats.)


It’s not unpaid work. I am here as an ambassador of Radio Times, whose presence at the festival is considerable, and who pay me a stipend to be their Film Editor. I can’t tell you how many of the hardy band of lit-hounds who filled the Exchange tent from 7.30 last night were Radio Times readers, but all were interested enough in foreign films and telly to come along, in the rain, when the pubs and restaurants of Cheltenham warmly beckoned. I told them that it was an privilege to be among them, and it was. I had a basic PowerPoint presentation to help me, and a stack of DVDs to give me something tangible to hold and wave, but it was essentially me talking about my own childhood introduction to foreign films and telly, and sharing some thoughts about the importance of availing ourselves of other cultures through “national cinema” and, increasingly, imported foreign TV. But the crux, for me, was getting the audience involved, and it was a joy to have them shout out the foreign films that first inspired them. A shared experience in bad weather. Terrific.

Photo on 2013-10-03 at 10.25

This, above, is one of the jobs I’ve been doing rather than blogging for free. I cannot give away specific details for – here we go again – superstitious reasons, but I have been locked in an office with another comedian, with whom I’ve been cooking up a pilot script of a new comedy. It’s been something like seven years since I did this with Lee Mack on series one of Not Going Out and I’ve had a few flashbacks, mostly good ones. You’ll see whiteboard and Post-It notes. It’s that serious. (If I had an office to work in full-time, you wouldn’t see the walls for Post-it notes. But they take a dim view of that at the British Library.)

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Fruit. Marker pens. Cups of coffee. Through such talismanic items are scripts co-written. Look at the size of these Sports Direct zero-hours mugs which we found in the kitchenette. My co-writer enjoys funny tea in a gallon of hot water.


Because I can be in four places at once, I’ve also been battling away with a radical second draft of a pilot script of my own, which hit a patch of turbulence, was then becalmed, and has since chugged back into life after a useful meeting with the two executives I owe it to. (What insight this must offer: vague descriptions about projects with no names and no pack drill.) I am also script-editing the second series of Badults, whose first read-through with “the boys” took place on Friday, so that’s off the starting blocks. I am also doing a “read and notes” on another script for another set of people. And until yesterday, I was working up a viable presentation about subtitled films and telly. And writing my first ever TVOD for the Guardian Guide, which you’ll be able to read next Saturday.

It has been whatever the positive and grateful version of a living hell is called. And I think I have earned this little break in a wicker chair before heading back to London to put my clips together for tomorrow’s Telly Addict. I plan to do no work whatsoever in the car.

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Oh, and “that” read-through (left-to-right: Tom, Ben, Matthew, exec Gavin, script editor me, producer Izzy) …


The world at war


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.


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


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.


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.

The power of love


Ah, that’s better. I’ve finally seen the two key films I needed to see before the end of 2012. They are Michael Haneke’s Amour, and Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, and both predictably crash into my Top 10 films of the year, which I will publish next week. In the meantime, might I suggest some similarities between what are two alarmingly different films? I love it when circumstance and the vagaries of the release schedules do this, and wish I had the time to do this in more detail. First, the differences:

Amour is an Austrian/French/German co-production, in French, set in France, and written and directed by Haneke. The fictional story of an elderly couple coping with the physical deterioration of one of them, it is apparently based upon a number of Haneke’s own experiences, and stars two veterans of French cinema, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. It is an austere chamber piece, shot largely in a Parisian apartment, which was built on a set.

Sightseers is a British production, in English, set in England, and co-written by its two stars, comedians Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, with Amy Jump (who also co-wrote Wheatley’s previous film, Kill List). The fictional story of a young couple exploring what is a relatively new relationship while caravanning across England, the characters were created and developed by Oram and Lowe in a stand-up act. It is a bleak comedy, shot on location.

What these two disparate films have obviously in common is that neither is comfortable viewing. Amour is slow, precise, claustrophobic and on the surface, tragic, as Riva’s character, a piano teacher, is reduced to a shell by a series of strokes. Her decline is difficult to watch at close quarters. Sightseers has a comedic, self-deprecating tone, and sometimes strays into farce, but it’s driven by a string of murders committed by the couple that take it into much darker waters. Nobody in the admittedly half-empty cinema I saw it in laughed once. Although perhaps they were smiling, as I was.

What they have in common, aside from the fact that I loved them both, is that they are about love, and the things love will make us do. In the case of Georges and Anne in Amour, who have been together for decades, their love forces them to face death, and to ask how far one would go for the other if the other was in a reduced state. Although the situation is sad, and depressing, the impact it has upon the couple’s devoted love is uplifting and, oddly, heartwarming. In both films, we hear an elderly woman moaning in pain. It opens Sightseers: it’s the infirm mother of Tina (Lowe), who is wailing in mourning of her dog, which was killed in an accident. Her pain is emotional. In Amour, we hear Anne moaning; the effect is just as unsettling and hypnotic. But her pain is physical and emotional. Tina and Chris (Oram) have only been “going out” for three months. Their love is new, and fresh, and thrilling. But it, too, is tested by how far one is prepared to go for the other.

I won’t go into plot details, obviously, but Sightseers builds through a series of grisly events to a point where Tina and Chris’s love has been strengthened, or so it appears. Amour begins with the ending and works in flashback, so we know the outcome of Georges and Anne’s ordeal, but it still shocks when it happens. You come out of both films with your faith in the power of love confirmed. (Sightseers actually goes literal and uses Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s The Power Of Love on its soundtrack, one of a number of pop tunes that either underlines or ironically undermines the action. Amour has no score, but classical music is key to the couple’s bond, just as, we might assume, 80s hits might be to the couple in Sightseers – Oram and Lowe were both teenagers in that decade.)

It goes without saying that Oram and Lowe, who conceived the project and their characters, bring a full-blooded sense of reality to two protagonists who might, in other circumstances, feel like Tarantino cartoons. No matter that Tina, for instance, has knitted herself some sexy underwear for the trip – including crotchless knickers – and Steve demands, “Mint me”, with his mouth agape when he requires an extra-strong mint of Tina; these comic creations live and breathe. Equally, although Trintignant and Riva are playing protagonists written from scratch by Haneke, their octogenarian skill and experience create an utterly believable autumn-years chemistry.

Although the apartment in Amour has been artificially created on a soundstage, it was modelled on an existing one, and it has been dressed impeccably, such that you could imagine Georges having sat in that same armchair for years and years. (The film actually opens in a theatre, where he and Anne enjoy what will turn out to be their last ever piano recital together, thereafter prisoners in their own home.) Sightseers makes a virtue of its locations, following Chris’s carefully-planned route from Redditch to Yorkshire, via such well-worn “quirky visitor attractions” as the Keswick Pencil Museum (it’s been used as a gag by many an observer of English life, but now, we actually see it!). It is as much an awestruck monument to England’s dark and mysterious past as The Wicker Man is of Celtic paganism. (Kill List, if you’ve seen it, draws more explicitly on pagan worship – as did Hot Fuzz, whose writer/director Edgar Wright is one of the key producers on Sightseers; both are made by Big Talk films.)

Terminal illness is not a new subject for drama. But Amour takes it to a new level, through the attitude of Georges, who rejects the hand-wringing of their mostly absent daughter (Isabelle Huppert), and refuses pity or sympathy, accepting the round-the-clock care his beloved wife needs with stoic patience. Seeing him sing to Anne, as part of her therapy, while she struggles to use her half-frozen mouth to join in, is one of the most moving things I’ve seen at the cinema this year. Sightseers doesn’t quite hit this pitch at any point, but Tina’s loyalty to Chris is no less touching. It may be played for laughs, but there’s a scene involving someone else’s digital camera that’s almost heartbreaking, thanks to Lowe’s brilliant reaction.

I’ve become a devoted admirer of Haneke’s work – Code Unknown, The Piano Teacher, Funny Games, Caché, The White Ribbon – but suspect that Amour might be his finest hour. I’m also a massive fan of Ben Wheatley’s films so far – Down Terrace, Kill List – and, even though he didn’t write this one, which skews the auteurist pitch a bit, it’s an incredible directorial achievement. The landscapes, in particular, seem to seethe with rage at certain points, while at others, they provide the primal peace and tranquility that Chris cannot get in the town. Down Terrace, made for almost no money, was physically closer to Amour, in that it was confined to rooms. Sightseers takes Wheatley out of himself, and offers a glimpse of a wider world. Meanwhile, Haneke has retreated indoors, back, perhaps, to the confinement of Funny Games. But that film’s trickiness has gone.

So, anyway, two amazing films. Go and see them both. If you’re lucky, four loud women won’t walk in during the final seconds of Sightseers, as they did last night. They thought they were walking in to see Great Expectations and – I heard them say – they assumed what we were watching was an advert.

Perhaps they were: an advert for love.

Blues after Ceaucescu

To some of you, it would seem to be a parody of the kind of film I like, but to me, it is the kind of film I like: a three-hour contemporary Romanian film in which hardly anything happens and almost nothing is explained. Aurora is that film, the third from Cristi Puiu, whose second feature The Death Of Mr Lãzãrescu was hugely acclaimed and kicked off what he has called his Six Stories From The Outskirts Of Bucharest, and what critics have called the New Romanian Wave. This is the second of those. I won’t tell you where it is set.

No idea why it’s called Aurora, by the way. This seems to be its international title. (His previous was called Moartea domnului Lãzãrescu in his native land.) Does it refer to the Roman goddess of the dawn? To the astronomical light display? To the fictional planet from Isaac Asimov? The film is very much set on this planet, and very little occurs to suggest gods or astronomy. The characters, embodied by the enigmatic, muttering Viorel (played by Puiu himself), seem pinned to the earth, trapped inside the grey of their immediate vicinity: work, home and transit in between. There were points in this slow, deliberate, precise film, which takes place over two days under colourless skies, where I thought it was simply a case of watching a middle-aged man in Bucharest go through a mental breakdown. (Without giving anything concrete away – which is fairly easy, as Puiu doesn’t give anything concrete away either – Viorel’s initial purchase of a rifle is the only element that seems to raise Aurora above the level of mundane, everyday routine.)

In fact, it’s nothing as melodramatic as that. He has conversations with workmates at some kind of metalworks; conversations with his neighbours in the worn block of flats where he lives, alone, within the stripped walls of his emptied apartment, apparently prepared for “redecoration” that may be a mirage of forward planning; conversations with shop assistants and others in the service industry – a gun shop; a cafeteria; a brightly strip-lit supermarket; a chi-chi fashion outlet that offers a prickly glimpse of middle-class life albeit one that seems out of this man’s reach, ambition or pay-grade – and he basically goes about his day. Divorced, with two daughters, he slowly picks his way through unsatisfactory relationships with his in-laws, the staff at his eldest’s school, and even what appears to be his girlfriend (or a married woman he’s having an affair with), and amid sll this, Viorel emerges as an amazingly full-blooded creation, for all of his communication problems. Credit to director, screenwriter and actor, who are one and the same, after all.

He seems at times unable to give a straight yes or no answer, preferring to stay silent. He’s the kind of guy you might well divorce, although his eldest treats him with respect and does not seem scared of him. He’s something of an incomplete man. This impression is pointed up by Puiu the director, who frames him so that he is literally not all there.

I must admit, a three-hour film is always a challenge, even if it’s action-packed. Aurora is not action-packed, but its lack of action lends extra weight to ordinarily insignificant details. I became fixated on a tiny Tom & Jerry badge Viorel had stuck to the dashboard of his car: the implied western influence on a former Communist country; the sad trace of a time when, perhaps, it was a family car, with kids in the back; an even subtler suggestion of violence. It’s hypnotic, and very difficult not to get involved in, as this man lurks, and runs, and lurks again, and picks things up and puts them down and then picks them up and puts them down again in a different place.

I’ve read good reviews and bad of Aurora, including a one-star decimation in Time Out New York, which I think deemed it a “waste of time“. There is no consensus. It debuted at Cannes two years ago and only now finds an international release, despite Puiu’s reputation after Lãzãrescu. But it does not steal three hours away from you. Not if you relish the privilege to eavesdrop on another culture, another way of life, another daily reality. It’s over 20 years since Ceaucescu was deposed – and executed – ending more than 40 years of Communist rule, during which time a country that had failed to remain neutral in both world wars, and whose part in the defeat of Nazi Germany was not officially recognised by the Paris Peace Conference in 1947, had industrialised and collectivised, thumbed its nose at the Soviets, and endured a police state under its own autocratic megalomaniac. It’s not too fanciful to read all of this 20th century history into a film about a man going about his business in the early 21st. The narrative deliberately defies context, but carries an awful lot of subtext.

I can’t, and won’t, talk about the film’s ending. Even though it’s not an action thriller, a lot happens in the final 20 minutes, by which time you’ve spent 160 minutes on the outskirts of Bucharest, and although resolution is not achieved in a traditional sense, you learn things about Viorel that were up to that point presumed, or simply opaque, like the windows and screen doors we’ve been watching him through.

I’m glad to have seen Aurora. It’s flawed, but it’s worthwhile. Had I seen it on TV, with distractions and a pause button, and not in the isolating dark of a cinema, I may not have been so engaged and absorbed by its minutiae. It is categorically not a waste of time.

Left to right

Two European films seen a few days apart, one French, one German, and how different. Untouchable, the one everybody’s heard of, is a feelgood French comedy and box office smasheroo with little time for thematic subtlety or narrative ellipse, the sort to break out of the arthouse ghetto and find an audience who wouldn’t normally touch subtitles with a bargepole; Barbara, less concerned with the quest for bums on seats but nonetheless honoured by the festival circuit and laurelled at Berlin, is a more demanding watch, although drew an impressive crowd at the Renoir two nights ago, and paid back in different ways.

I’m sure you’re abreast of Untouchable (or, to use the French, Intouchable): a quadriplegic rich man rediscovers his lust for life thanks to a Senegalese carer from the projects who refuses to stand on ceremony and speaks the truth while all around him tread carefully. Both parts are played with great spirit: François Cluzet – best known here for Tell No One (or Ne le dis à personne) – and Omar Sy – most recently seen in the irksome Micmacs – bring humanity to the frankly cut-out characters they have been given. Cluzet plays paralysed from the neck down with consummate dedication, and, in doing all the work with his face, proves his chops in a way that only playing the disabled can. Sy is the livewire, and certainly feels like he is riffing on the script, whether he is or not, and that’s terrific. It will make you feel good, in that it depicts hope out of hopelessness, and makes the optimistic prediction that upper-class French people can learn to rub along with African immigrants. It also knows how to push buttons.

Some might say that Driss, the character Sy plays, is a reductive stereotype, in that he’s poor, he’s initially workshy and, hey, he’s a great dancer. He also conforms to the “Magical Negro” achetype so beloved of Hollywood (an inevitable English-language Weinstein remake is already on the cards, in which the “Negro” may become even more “magical”). All that considered, Driss is the beating heart of the film – and it’s he who won last year’s Cesar for best actor, beating The Artist‘s Jean Dujardin. It could be argued that we should applaud the film for foregrounding an African character, and performer. He is employed to be the “arms and legs” of Cluzet’s depressed widowed millionaire in his big, lifeless mansion, and does this job with athletic aplomb, at one point cutting a rug to Earth, Wind & Fire in a showcase scene for his talents. But even here, I couldn’t help but think: really? All the white people who work in the mansion are, of course, rubbish dancers. Again: really?

This isn’t a spoiler, but at the very end, the filmmakers show home-movie footage of the real-life quadriplegic and his carer, Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and Abdel Sellou, who had previously been featured in a documentary (Sellou has also written a bestselling memoir You Changed My Life). Notice anything about the carer’s name? Yes, it’s Algerian. Not Senegalese. If you look him up online, he’s nothing like as black as Omar Sy. So why did the filmmakers change his nationality from North African to West African? Did they require Driss to look more black, more African, to help make their ebony-and-ivory point for the broadest audience possible?

Because Untouchable makes fairly blunt and sweeping – literally, black and white – drama from the thorny subject of racial difference and racial prejudice, and it’s based on a true story, I can’t help wondering why the race of a key character has been changed? I’m genuinely interested to know, particularly as we’re in a country like France, where race is a burning issue. Maybe it was simply so that they could cast the likeable Sy?

If you can shed any light on it, let me know. And I’d be interested to know how “good” it made you “feel”. I felt good about the performances, but less so about the film, which, despite its apparent roots in veracity, seemed more like a fairytale than anything else.

Barbara is being sold with this quote from, it says, MSN: “Anyone who loved The Lives Of Others should see this.” (I’ve searched MSN’s film reviews and can find no context for this quote, incidently.) Hey, you can’t blame them; The Lives Of Others is a German-language film that successfully crossed over, internationally, and won the Best Foreign Language Oscar, so if selling this is all about reassuring the potential audience, job done, I guess. And both films are set in the early 80s in East Germany, and show invasive, paranoid surveillance by the Stasi. The big difference between the first film and this one, is that it was a thriller, and this isn’t, despite initial appearances.

Directed by Christian Petzold, of the Berlin School – whose previous film, Yella, had a wider release than his previous work – it stars his muse, Nina Hoss as the titular doctor who is exiled from East Berlin to a small rural town on the Baltic coast after incarceration for some unmentioned crime against the state. (I’ve since read that it was simply to express a wish to leave the GDR, although I didn’t pick this us from the film, which does anything but spoon-feed, to its credit.)

She is understandably wary of those around her, assuming she’s being watched – which she is – and acting accordingly. She is an intelligent woman, and an excellent doctor, but she keeps herself to herself, constantly putting distance between herself and her seemingly benign boss, the bear-like Ronald Zehrfeld, who fancies her. Barbara moves at a slow, exacting pace, and gives little away at first, which actually reflects the general paranoia of the time and place. Even out in the country, people are wary of who’s listening. (Barbara’s nemesis is very real, Rainer Bock’s seemingly sadistic Stasi officer, so it’s not as if it’s all in her mind.) Like the decor of the run-down buildings – the hospital, her apartment with the fizzing wall socket and un-tuned piano – this is a spare, minimalist film, but against such an austere background, symbolic movement – the freedom of a bicycle ride, the coastal winds buffeting the trees – feel more significant.

I don’t know Petzold’s sork, and have not seen Yella, but I’ve a huge soft spot for the New German Cinema of the 60s and 70s, and the more recent revival of Germany’s output – including the obvious breakout likes of The Lives Of Others and Downfall – and this slots comfortably into that intellectual/historical renaissance. Many of the 70s films looked back at the war and Nazism, while the post-unification films use the fall of the Berlin Wall as their focal point.

I recommend Barbara. It works harder for its audience than Untouchable, and we must work harder for it. But there’s nothing wrong with hard work.

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.