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.

Don’t speak!

I was almost speechless after this rare cinematic treat at the weekend. We had tickets to see Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent classic La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc – or Jeanne d’Arc lidelse og død – on the big screen at the BFI Southbank in London, with live musical accompaniment and the original Danish intertitles to add to the authentic evocation of the 1920s experience. Not everyone’s idea of a big Saturday night out in the year 2012, I realise, although the auditorium at NFT1 was encouragingly packed.

This was showing as part of the BFI’s Sight & Sound Poll Winners season, as it was voted number 9 in the magazine’s most recent ten-year critics’ poll, as discussed here. Because it’s silent, and foreign, and black and white, it’s pushing against many prejudices to find a modern audience, but I’m lucky enough to have grown up at a time when silents – early Mack Sennett and Hal Roach comedies at any rate – were still shown on TV during the school holidays, so even though these curios were already 50 years old, I was exposed to them without prejudice.

That said, it’s unusual to be sat in a cinema watching one. I am coming relatively late to Dreyer (I’m never shy to admit my own latecomings – nothing worse than someone pretending to have seen something they haven’t), but was knocked out by Ordet, earlier this year, one of his later, sound films. My appreciation of his work has also been coloured by my growing love of modern Scandinavian cinema and TV, the ground laid by a longer-held love of Ingmar Bergman. Put it this way, I’m as used to hearing Danish speech these days as I am to hearing, say, French, or Spanish, or Italian, and that wasn’t always the case. Oddly, there is no Danish speech in Joan of Arc, as it’s a French film of a French story, featuring French actors, speaking in French. But with the intertitles in Danish, it retains the director’s origins. (The BFI notes state that this restoration is the closest yet to a replica of what the audience at the 1928 premiere in Copenhagen would have seen. Imagine!)

I wish I could credit the amazing pianist, but it wasn’t Neil Brand as listed in the BFI notes, as he was introduced as Steve something, and I can’t remember his surname. He also played flute while tickling the ivories at certain points, and made dramatic percussive noises on the piano strings too. Bravo! There is something uniquely thrilling about watching moving images soundtracked before your very ears. (I once saw Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman at the Cadogan Hall with a live orchestra and choir, and that was brought to life, in a completely different way.) La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc is an hypnotic experience; you’re watching predominantly close-ups of actors’ faces for most of the 96 minutes, arranged as if in monochrome Expressionist paintings.

It goes without saying that the actors in these early silent movies will have been stage-trained. And the demands of emoting onstage, at a distance from the audience, mean that silent movies often feel melodramatic, with actors over-emoting, and over-gesturing. As such, they can be an acquired taste. In silent movies, damsels in distress will often hold a fist up to their mouth and bite their knuckles, to convey fear and anxiety. There’s a lot of staring off camera, too. But Jeanne d’Arc is incredibly controlled, and restrained, and subtle. Renée Jeanne Falconetti, as the Maid of Orleans, is seen throughout, her amazing face filling the screen, usually at the same diagonal angle as the iconic image of Christ, but with tears streaming down her cheeks. Actually 35 at the time, although playing a 19-year-old, she reminded me of the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser, with her shorn hair and wide eyes.

The judges are grotesques; again, characterful old stage actors, one imagines, shot at Expressionistic angles, and, once again, filling the screen. (The famous playwright Antonin Artaud, he of the Theatre Of Cruelty, is also seen, as a monk.) The contrast between Falconetti’s smooth, wet skin and theirs – dry, wrinkled, fat, puffy – is stark. There is no doubt who’s the goodie, and who are the baddies in this film. The story concerns only her trial, and is based upon actual 15th century court documentation (which is shown at the beginning), and falls into three acts: the charges against her; the torture; and her execution at the stake. We all know the outcome, but – as with Mel Gibson’s heavy-handed, blood-soaked Passion Of The Christ – we are forced to endure the prologue to death right there with the accused. It’s powerful stuff.

Loaded with symbolism – much of it, to be fair, also sometimes heavy-handed – this is a sensory experience that pushes a lot of buttons. You’re swept along by the music: torrid, melancholy, sparing; by the imploring images: ugly, beautiful, exquisitely framed, the early tableaux giving way in the last act to crowd scenes and mayhem that you’re just not expecting; and by the sheer inevitability of the tragedy, postponed by administrative and legislative to-ing and fro-ing in the courtroom.

Sometimes, you watch a “classic” (or “an immortal screen classic”, as per the original poster), and you appreciate its historical importance, and are glad that you have seen it, but it’s a dry, academic, box-ticking exercise. With Dreyer, for me, it’s an experience to savour. There’s nothing antique about this film. It’s over 80 years old, and yet it moves and terrifies and manipulates with the same skill and artistic audacity as anything powered by digital technology or studio profligacy or – and here’s the point – endless dialogue.

More of this type of thing, please.

Mind you, can’t wait to see Looper.

Eclectic children

This useless summer is apparently driving people into cinemas, so it’s not all bad. Here’s what the crannies of the arthouse circuit – and one DVD – lined up over what was a cinematically satisfying and geographically various weekend. I’ve been slow in reviewing films this year, due to workload and a sudden need to exorcise my political demons in words. So let’s log five … (all are illustrated in chronological order above)

A Royal Affair (aka En kongelig affære) is the Danish historical drama produced by Lars Von Trier and yet about as far from his own work as could be, within the realm of gloomy Danish cinema at any rate. It’s the true story, possibly well known to Danes but not to me, of the Enlightenment-driven town doctor who became the trusted adviser to “mad” King Christian VII and manipulated him into passing enlightened laws, all the while, power-hungry, having an affair with the Queen. It’s torrid, cape-and-dagger stuff, well told by director Nikolaj Arcel, and a cracking yarn for the uninitiated. (My grasp of Danish history is poor, considering how highly I rate the country’s cinema and TV, and this film filled a gap.)

Full marks to Mads Mikkelsen, who is best known to foreign audiences for playing the baddie in Casino Royale and perhaps for tough-guy roles in some CGI sword-and-sorcery epics. He imbues Dr Struensee with just the right amount of everyman charm and radical fervour. Silver Bear-winning Mikkel Boe Følsgaard manages to make the sniggering, weak-willed young monarch three-dimensional and when, under Struensee’s Svengali-like spell, he almost becomes his own man, the transformation is credible. (Great news for fans of Scandi-drama: Søren Malling aka Jan Meyer in The Killing and Torben Friis in Borgen, pops up as a sympathetic courtier.)

Nostalgia For The Light (aka Nostalgia de la Luz) couldn’t have been more different: a Chilean documentary about, ostensibly, astronomy, which turned out to be more of a poetic meditation on the “disappeared”. Filmmaker Patricio Guzmán, now 70, is not someone whose earlier work I’ve ever seen, but he’s been making films since the 60s and if there’s a thread to his work it’s Chile’s shameful recent past, specifically the horrors committed under Augusto Pinochet. (I now need to see his classic trilogy of films about the 1973 coup, The Battle Of Chile – this is an aspect of history I know a lot about already, but I’ve missed these films.)

Here, he starts with the magnificent but incongruous telescopes built in the Atacama desert, where there is no humidity and thus makes stargazing just about perfect under its thin, clear skies. Having met an astronomer, who articulates why he is devoted to exploring space, and walked the Mars-like red, dusty surface of the unyielding desert and seen its fossils and Indian drawings, etched into rock, we suddenly hit the Pinochet coup, and learn that the thousands of Chileans killed were buried in the desert. Now the link is made.

A survivor of Pinochet’s concentration camps, explains that astronomy lessons were banned because the authorities feared prisoners would use the constellations to escape. I must admit, I thrive on connections like this. And Guzmán mines these links with poetic ease. The reviewer in Sight & Sound praised the film’s beauty and structure, but felt it was “moribund” as a piece of theory. I disagree. To link astronomers searching the skies, archaeologists searching the rocks, and a few devoted widows and bereaved mothers picking through the dust in search of bone fragments of lost loved ones, almost 40 years later, strikes me as deeply profound. When a cosmic-terrestrial link was made between stardust and the calcium in all our bones, I was sold. This is a lovely film, whose disturbing subject matter and accent on grief and the political power of memory is always offset by visual splendour.

The Giants (aka Les Géants) is a Belgian coming-of-age drama directed and co-written by actor-writer-director Bouli Lanners that has drawn comparisons with Stand By Me, but it’s a whole lot darker than that. All credit, first of all, to Zacharie Chasseriaud, Martin Nissen and Paul Bartel, who play Zak, his older brother Seth and their slightly tougher friend Danny, three boys who find themselves against the world, having been abandoned in the Belgian forest for the summer. (Danny’s parents seem to be dead; Zak and Seth’s – apparently diplomats? – have dumped them at their deceased grandfather’s summer house, with their mother’s voice heard occasionally on a mobile.) Naturally, their fun and games – dope-smoking, hot-wiring, canoeing – take a more dangerous turn when their money runs out and the only solution to make some more involves a truly unpleasant drug dealer.

Although the boys’ travails far outweigh Stand By Me‘s leeches, junkyard dog and railway bridge for threat and peril, there are parallels. Adults are largely absent, and those that we do meet – the dealer, his doped-up girlfriend, Danny’s psycho older brother – are caricatured to such a grotesque extent that, against the naturalism of the kids, you wonder if perhaps we aren’t seeing the grown-ups through young eyes. It’s not an over-stylised film otherwise, and indeed it drinks in the verdant forest and millpond, green-coated water, the natural beauty serving to point up the ugliness of the houses we go into.

A rite of passage is guaranteed, of course, but if this were a Hollywood movie, it would be far more conventionally plotted. Aside from that one mobile phone, it’s a film that journeys away from “civilisation”, and takes these would-be savages back to the mud and the elements. What drives them on is – deal with it – friendship, loyalty and laughter. When Marthe Keller turns up as a benevolent adult, she is almost saintlike, and again, you wonder if this is all in the minds of these abandoned, and thus frankly abused, youngsters. The adults are “les geants“, and they are not wholly big and friendly.

I loved The Giants. I hope you can find it. After The Kid With A Bike, I’m beginning to see the appeal of Belgian filmmaking.

Electrick Children rounded off a fantastically varied weekend at various Curzons. Hey, it was English-language! A token gesture towards my native tongue. The directorial debut of Rebecca Thomas, about whom I know very little, it mined a peculiarly American seam, in which a Mormon teen (Julia Garner, last seen in the thematically similar Martha Marcy May Marlene) escapes the strictures of an Amish-like community in modern-day Utah and drives to Las Vegas. Are you thinking fish? Are you thinking water? Yes, it’s a worn trope, but something about this beguiling and single-minded film sidesteps obvious clichés. In her pinafore dress, this 15-year-old girl, pregnant by immaculate conception, or so she claims, and in awe of the technology of a simple cassette player, rocks up in America’s most garish town in search of the singer of a rock song on a tape she has illicitly heard and become obsessed by. Her brother (Liam Aiken), has stowed away in the truck, and wishes to take her back. But she falls immediately in with Rory Culkin’s rock band pals and goes on an odyssey.

You expect peril. None is forthcoming. Although she knows not of dope or rock gigs or clubs or cursing, Rachel is keen to adapt. You expect some kind of social embarrassment. None is forthcoming. She accepts her new friends and they accept her. Her relationship with Culkin’s Clyde (also a runaway, except from well-to-do suburban parents) is touching and warm. If I’m making the film sound airy or fairy, it isn’t, but it’s magical-realist rather than realist.

I was charmed by it. Thomas’s dialogue is original, and if the storytelling hinges on one too many coincidences, you won’t care, as it’s so breezy and uplifting to watch. She elicits are real, unabashed youthful energy from her main cast, and – as with The Giants – the adults are cast as remote, usually adversarial figures, lacking in empathy for those at a more difficult age. Billy Zane works well as the righteous preacher who drives Rachel away, and Bill Sage makes a good guardian angel as the hippy driver of a red Mustang, itself imbued with sexual subtext thanks to an earlier sequence.

I must say I’m constantly in awe of first features. The aforementioned Martha Marcy May promised much of writer-director Sean Durkin, as did, last year, Animal Kingdom of David Michôd, and Another Earth of Mike Cahill. There’s something bracing and tantalising about seeing a debut that’s as good as Monsters by Gareth Edwards, or Margin Call by JC Chandor, or District 9 by Neill Blomkamp, to pluck a couple of recent examples, which have yet to be followed up. Imagine starting so high. Electrick Children tells us to watch out for Rebecca Thomas …

21 Jump Street saw us back in the living room with a new DVD that could have gone either way, in that it’s a mainstream Hollywood comedy aimed at teenage boys rather than being about them, and – desperately – based on an 80s TV series that we never got over here anyway. With expectations at knee-height, it turned out to be a pleasant surprise (and not least because the knowing screenplay, by Scott Pilgrim‘s Mike Bacall, acknowledged the anorexic nature of the source).

I like Jonah Hill, and have enjoyed seeing him graduate from stoner comedies to more substantial acting parts in Moneyball and Cyrus, so this might have been a backward step, but – having co-written it – his easy, off-the-cuff style helped 21 Jump Street along, and, under the direction of How I Met Your Mother‘s Phil Lord and Chris Miller (never seen it, by the way, but I know it has made their joint career), the usually plastic Channing Tatum also found his inner comedian.

It’s two rookies who go back to high school, undercover, and the humour is often subtler than the obligatory gross-out/swearing-match moments suggest, with some wry digs at how the traditional high school caste system has changed in a short number of years from jocks and nerds to something more subtle and less extreme. (Basically, Tatum’s jock becomes a science nerd, and Hill’s nerd becomes a sort of … something else; I’m not pitching well.)

Hey, it’s an “action comedy” so you get the also-obligatory funny car chases and funny, if blood-spurting, shoot-outs, and while the drug-bust plot is merely a line upon which to hang gags, it adds a degree of momentum. At the end of the day, if you’re smiling or laughing at the antics of those onscreen – essentially Hill, Tatum and a potty-mouthed Ice Cube as their boss, with extra juice from Rob Riggle – that’s all that’s required.

Films. It takes all sorts to make a weekend.

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.

All around the world

I may have been working on Good Friday, but with Mr Blue Sky now edited and ready to go, I had a mini foreign film festival planned for the three-day Easter holiday. Yesterday, Day One, we saw Le Havre, a French-Finish comedy-drama, and Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, a Turkish police procedural. Le Havre is another one of those films, like The Kid With A Bike, that has been too heavily trailered at the Curzon chain, which really can start to erode the experience of seeing the actual film. I certainly knew what to expect from the story, which is about an old French man befriending and sheltering an African boy. Written and directed by the Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki, greatly revered but whose back catalogue has sadly passed me by (it is only in the last 15 or so years that I’ve been obsessed by foreign cinema, so I still have a lot of catching up to do), the style of Le Havre appears to be his trademark. The drama is stilted and staged, with characters speaking, or declaiming, in aphorisms, and often framed so that they face the camera. (This makes it very easy to cut up into a trailer.)

I was captivated by it. Un homage to the style of Robert Bresson, it tells a disarmingly simple story – man takes in illegal immigrant while wife is ill in hospital – but imbues it with all sorts of meaning. The acting is not naturalistic, in that it feels “acted”, but at the same time, Le Havre feels utterly authentic. Kaurismäki uses real locations – specifically, the dour, ancient docks of the port itself, and the shanty-like housing around it – but gives them a hyperreal sheen, using neon signs and bursts of colour. The very fact that the run-down cafe bar that acts as a hub to the dockside community is called “La Moderne” is a brilliant visual joke. It has been described as a “comedy” but most of the laughs are in the trailer; the rest is actually rather grave. But that’s not a complaint. In the main roles of man and boy, André Wilms and Blondin Miguel are superbly affecting (the latter in his first role, apparently a non-actor, but all the better as a boy who escapes from a shipping container full of Senegalese refugees and finds himself adrift and on the run in a foreign land), while Finnish actor Kati Outinen brings deadpan pathos to the dutiful but possibly dying wife Arletty. Incidentally, this character’s name, a direct nod to the iconic 1940s-50s French actress, is typical of Kaurismäki’s playfulness. Wilms’ character is called Marcel Marx; a nosy neighbour is played in cameo by Jean-Pierre Léaud, the 14-year-old star of 400 Blows, another film about a boy on the run from the police; and I’m sure there’s other stuff I didn’t spot.

It’s a lovely film, moving and witty, and you can taste the salt of the sea air.

I had high hopes for, but less foreknowledge of (I think I saw the trailer once), Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, a film heaped with praise from a director already lauded, Nuri Bilge Seylan. I saw his film Uzak a few years ago and thought it was phenomenal, a massively understated look at the strained relationship between two brothers in Istanbul, so that was a good start. But I couldn’t really go on with this one. I read that it’s “Checkovian” and is as filled with references to Checkov as Le Havre is with references to French cinema, but I know little of the Russian playwright, so this is no help to me. I liked the look of Anatolia, especially the beginning, which takes place at night, during the police search for a body in the steppes of rural Anatolia, and where the action is lit pretty much exclusively by headlights. It’s hard on the eyes, I warn you now. But it gives these scenes a naturalism that puts you right there at the centre of the work. I also enjoyed the banter in the car between the various officers; it had a Tarantino quality to it, with mundane chit-chat about buffalo milk yoghurt.

However, somewhere along the road, the film lost me. The search for the body goes on and frustratingly on, with no sign of the sun coming up at any point, and in fact, that seems to be the intention of the film: to show how boring police work can be. The party stops at the house of the mayor of a tiny village that only just about has electricity, and they eat a lovely-looking feast, then sort of doze off when the power cuts out. There’s more conversation, some of it mundane, other stories more meaningful, and then, finally, they find the body and it’s the next day. The film climaxes, if that’s the word, with an autopsy, about which I will reveal nothing. This film is 158 minutes long, and it feels like it. I don’t mind admitting I fell in and out of a sort of half-doze in parts, and that’s not good, is it? However, I appreciated the humour in the writing, and I’m sure it’s an authentic portrait of the ultra-male world of the Turkish police. There is only one significant female character, and she is the daughter of the mayor, who appears as a spectral vision, lit by a lamp, serving tea to the men; I’m sure this means something profound, but I was as tired as the men were at this point.

Ultimately, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia just didn’t grab me. It made me want to watch Uzak again, though.

Right, what’s next? Ah yes, A Cat In Paris from France, and Headhunters from Norway. I will report back tomorrow.