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.

On your bike

A kid, a woman, and an old man, on bikes. Two very different films at the Curzon, which I failed to get round to reviewing last weekend. (I seem to recall a time when I would review every film I saw within a day of seeing it. What happened to that halcyon age? All work and no play etc.) So, The Kid With A Bike is a lovely Belgian film from the Dardennes brothers, whose work is constantly carried aloft at shoulder height by Sight & Sound but with which I admit I am not familiar. They seem to be interested in small-scale human stories, of which this is one, and it comes in at a lean 87 minutes: a boy, Cyril (Thomas Doret) abandoned by his selfish father is fostered by a Samaritan-like hairdresser (Cécile De France) on a nondescript but not unpretty suburban estate (it was filmed in Liège). The story follows the difficult and painful adjustment from a utopian parental model to a trickier surrogate, and yet it avoids all the obvious narrative traps.

I’ll be honest, as a regular at the Curzon, I think I have seen the trailer for The Kid With A Bike more than any other in my life. (The chain has a reasonably limited, niche-aimed bill across a handful of cinemas, and understandably likes to trail early.) By the time I finally came to see it, last weekend, I could almost literally recite the trailer. As such, the basic set-up of the story was well known to me. But although Cyril gets into a few scrapes, and bad company, the film sidesteps complete predictability. As intuitively, almost miraculously played by first-timer Doret, Cyril is neither angel nor devil; he has an adult head on 12-year-old shoulders, but he’s not precocious. This is as much a tribute to the writing and directing as the acting. De France is naturalistically captivating, too, and the sparing use of music – just one cue from a Beethoven concerto – is startling. I need to get some more Dardennes into my life. Our education never ends.

To the second film with heart in this ad hoc double bill, then. The other kid with a bike is 83. Bill Cunningham New York is a genuinely life-affirming documentary that forms a piece with last year’s timely Page One: Inside The New York Times, featuring, as it does, the paper’s long-standing fashion photographer Cunningham, who has been cycling and walking around New York since the late 70s, snapping street style as modelled by ordinary citizens, and enjoying every single minute of it.

The seniors who have been delighted by The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel should seek this out, too. It is a celebration of age and experience. Cunningham, a camp, infectiously upbeat loner and workaholic (not that he sees what he does as work), lives in a tiny studio above Carnegie Hall – a bolt-hole rammed full of filing cabinets from which our man is cruelly evicted during the filming of the documentary – and seems entirely undimmed by old age. He welcomes director Richard Press into his life, and proves anything but a fossil from a previous age. He calls everyone “child” or “kid” and that includes people in their 60s and 70s, and spreads sunlight as readily and tirelessly as he spreads flashlight.

There is a sequence towards the end of the film – another short one, at 84 minutes – during which he opens up about his private life, or lack of one, and about God, and we see tears very briefly, but he hoovers these up and the smile is soon back upon his face. It’s the kind of film where you expect its subject’s dates to come up in a caption at the end, but Cunningham lives on. Surely he must be immortal. (He seems to have achieved this by not allowing others into his life, and yet he’s been a social butterfly all along. That’s his secret: be nice to everybody and retire to a fold-out bed, alone, each night. Oh, and take the filling out of sandwiches, apparently, and don’t accept a free drink.)

My guess is that Bill Cunningham New York will turn up on TV sometime soon. Keep an eye out for it.

Caution: steps

Thanks to Mark Cousins’ electrifying 15-part Story Of Film on More4, its sister channel Film4 is showing pivotal films from his “redrawn map” of cinema history – albeit for my money not enough of them. (One a week? Each of the three chapters of Story Of Film so far have made me want to watch about a dozen films!) It’s only when a supposedly intelligent, offbeat movie channel shows Battleship Potemkin [pictured] or Orphans On The Storm or Ordet or La Regle du Jeu that you realise how very rare it is that you see films that are this old or exotic.

It shouldn’t be a “treat” to see silent movies, or foreign-language movies on TV – not in a multi-channel, narrowcast world – but even on Film4, it is. If you look at its schedules, most of what the channel shows is in English, and in colour, for a start. Yes, you get “old” films, but very rarely something you haven’t seen before. I know, I know, it’s a commercial channel – they run ads in breaks during films, which is a necessary evil, I guess, but annoying – but since it’s the only free digital-terrestrial film channel, it has a lot of responsibility to deliver. I just wish that more corners of the cinema-loving populace were catered for by the film channels, and the non-film channels. Mark Cousins told me when I interviewed him that people who hadn’t seen a 1960s Japanese documentary or an 80s film from Malian filmmaker Souleymane Cissé no longer had the excuse of not being catered for by TV, as such films are “a click away on the internet.” This is true enough – Cissé’s films are on YouTube, in full and in pretty high definition, including his most celebrated, Yeelen, from 1987 (although beware, it starts with the death of a chicken which some viewers may find disturbing) – but what about those without broadband? Or those who don’t like watching entire feature films on a computer screen (which includes me)?

When I was growing up, in a three-channel world, we saw silent movies on TV, and I actually made no distinction between colour and black-and-white films, old or new, partly because we didn’t even have a colour telly when I was very young. I suspect youngsters today, spoiled as they are, would turn their noses up at a film if they felt it was old, or if it wasn’t in colour. (Some of them will assume that all films are in 3D if we’re not careful.) I watched anything that was on. I realise now how lucky I was.

It’s easy to see why modern channels might play it safe. They’re after an audience. An audience wants new. An audience wants big. An audience wants famous. An audience doesn’t want surprises. I love the way Mark Cousins expresses surprise on our behalf as he uncovers unexpected new twists in the history of cinema (“a surprise indeed”). He delights in them. As should we.

Remember when Film4, or FilmFour as I think it was branded at the time, used to have specialist offshoots: FilmFour Extreme and FilmFour World? They didn’t last long. Unless you’re happy watching films online, or have the bottomless funds to buy the abundant DVDs that are now handsomely available, exploring cinema backwards, or outwards from the English-speaking world, is not made easy. (There’s a nice, 24-hour oldies channel called MGM HD on Sky, but you have to pay extra for the movies package to access it.) When I was a bit more flush and presented Back Row every week on Radio 4 in the early noughties, I invested in a lot of foreign-language DVDs and these form a vital chunk of my existing library. But that kind of profligacy is hard to justify in a recession, especially this really shit one. (I tried hooking my laptop up to my HD TV by the way, before you suggest it, but I have a monthly limit on my wi-fi that gets eaten up by downloads, so it’s not practical, really.)

The Curzon cinema chain do an On Demand service, whereby the very arthouse movies they show at their London cinemas are available to download for £8 for brand new ones, and £4 for back catalogue, including my favourite foreign film of last year, Of Gods And Men, for instance (discounts with membership, too). It’s a fantastic service if you have the facility to run your computer through your telly, or are planning on watching a film on your own, on the laptop. There are loads of more obscure foreign titles in the tank here.

Which brings me back to Battleship Potemkin. Cousins’ section on Soviet silent cinema was enlightening in chapter three, and if you saw it, you will have been as desperate as I was to see Potemkin again, in full. And thanks to Film4, we could. Despite interruption by ads, it was amazing how easy it was to get into the 1925 silent groove. The music was stirring, too. There’s no excuse for broadcasters not showing old, foreign films like this. Stick them on in the middle of the night! We’ll record them! It’s fine! They surely can’t cost as much to buy in.

In related news, I had my annual email from BBC4’s World Cinema Awards this week. Now in its eighth year, it’s an admirable initiative from a channel that will hopefully still be able to continue to invest in foreign and arthouse movies after its budget has been mauled. They basically poll critics and assorted academics and festival directors to come up with a shortlist of six films each year from the available pool of around 200, and a jury selects the winner. It’s broadcast this year on November 20. Once again, when they send round the full list to pick from, it’s always a) amazing how many foreign movies find a release in the UK, and b) how many I haven’t seen, and that’s after a concerted effort to see as many as possible, and under a scheme of affirmative action. I won’t tell you which two I voted for, although if you’ve followed my blog, you might be able to guess. (Their Wikipedia entry has all the previous winners, if you’re interested. Jonathan Ross has previously hosted the awards, but I guess it won’t be him this year. Who will it be?)

The Story of Film is all up there on 4OD if you haven’t caught it yet. You have to love Mark Cousins’ voice – and indeed, if you don’t, it may be a barrier (I find it soothing) – but the content is king.

Sighs. I feel as if I bang the gong a lot for foreign movies. I make no apology for it. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good Hollywood movie; and I love it when this country shows the world how it’s done (saw the trailer for Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights last night, and Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur is coming soon: I cannot wait!); but you miss so much if you steer clear of subtitles. Or films with no talking in at all, like the one about the battleship. Back me up on this.

Cold case

I missed this when it finally made the rounds here in August, but it’s coming out on DVD on 24 January, so do yourself a favour: The Secret In Their Eyes, or El secreto de sus ojos, is the Argentinian film that won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year, beating critics’ faves A Prophet and The White Ribbon. Whether it is superior to those two astonishing films is difficult to say. It’s certainly more mainstream than either, and much less self-consciously arty than the latter, but that is not to say it is without artistry, or that being mainstream is a crime; multi-layered, essentially plot-driven, but with plenty to say about its time and its place, it’s really, really good, and in places, spectacular. (It was released in Argentina in August 2009, before being whisked off around the international festival circuit and finding distributors beyond South America.)

Co-adapted and directed by Juan José Campanella – who, it turns out, is something of an American-ophile who studied in New York and makes a parallel living directing episodes of some of my favourite US TV shows, like House and 30 Rock – this is very much an Argentinian story, funded by Argentinian and Spanish money, and set largely, in flashback, in the 70s, when Argentina’s “Dirty War” sealed the country’s status as a police state. Cleverly, it revolves around a single murder, and apparently not a political one, that of a newly married 23-year-old schoolteacher, also raped, whose death haunts a federal counselor played by Campanella’s muse Ricardo Darín. He is determined to bring the perpetrator to justice – at first two blameless foreign workers are framed for the crime, an illustration of how corrupt and lacklustre Argentinian justice was at that time – and although this has all the hallmarks of a standard, identikit police procedural coupled with the usual maverick detective whose precarious home life is threatened by his work, the story is told with such visual flourish and careful juggling through timeframes, it never feels pedestrian. Darin even has a female boss he secretly fancies but cannot have (Soledad Villamil), and an alcoholic partner who has to be summoned back from his favourite bar (a brilliant Guillermo Francella, a comedian apparently), but you will not guess how the story unfolds. (I should say that it’s based on a novel by Eduardo Sacheri, who co-wrote the screenplay. It certainly has the narrative rigour of a book.)

I love the way Campanella frames a shot, often with a figure in the far right or left of a frame, or partially seen through a doorway. This is a stylish director who generally keeps his tricks reined in. That said, the opening scene of a man (Darin) leaving on a train while a woman (Villamil) stays on the platform is so prettified by ambiguous focussing effects you do wonder if you’re watching a perfume advert. Stick with it, though. The sequence is important. There’s also another potential stylistic flourish which has to be seen to be believed. I won’t ruin it, but it’s such an extravagant single tracking shot – which may, or may not be a single tracking shot, but appears to be one – you will feel your breath being taken away. It takes place at what looks like – but may not be – an actual football match and manages to pull off the double: it’s amazing to watch, but it is also dictated by plot. Has anyone else seen it? I have been avoiding finding out how he did it, but it may be time to give in.

I could murder a Mexican

Off to the Curzon for exactly the kind of film I’d go and see at a Curzon: a Mexican film about poverty and cannibalism. We Are What We Are, or Somos lo que hay, is the directorial debut of Jorge Michel Grau, whose interest is not in the gory mechanics of ritualistically killing and eating people (although there is plenty of that), but in the desperation of a family living below the breadline, without a breadwinner, in a city – Mexico City – that has gone so far off the rails, its corrupt, parallel, dog-eat-dog social caste system not only turns a blind eye to cannibalism, but almost condones it as an organic form of “social cleansing.” If I’ve made it sound as fascinating, politically charged and unusual as, say, Peter Bradshaw did in the Guardian, or Paul Julian Smith in a lengthy lead review in Sight & Sound, or our own David Parkinson on the Radio Times website, I should add that it’s also one of the more depressing and unpleasant experiences I’ve had at the cinema this year.

Grau is obviously a filmmaker to watch, and his film is hard to ignore, but it’s also wilfully grim. A horror film? Yes, but that doesn’t cover it. A thriller? It’s certainly thrilling. A family drama? By definition, although it only really hints at what motivates the characters and what informs their borderline incestuous interrelationships, forcing us to accept that cannibalism is a fact of everyday life for them. It opens with the gut-wrenching death of the family’s patriarch, brilliantly staged in an upmarket shopping mall. Shades of George Romero here, and dispatched with the kind of black humour I’d been looking forward to. When two sleazy cops visit a seemingly insanitary morgue and take away the human finger, with painted fingernail, that was found in the dead man’s stomach, you could almost be watching a clever parody of a detective story, or something more horrific. We meet the bereaved family: a widow and three teenage kids, two boys and a girl, who have been scratching a living off a market stall selling and mending watches on borrowed time while Dad pissed the money up the wall on whores (their grotty home is full of sinisterly ticking clocks – a nice touch, but one that goes nowhere). Without Dad to bring home the bacon, as it were, the eldest son must reluctantly step up.

From here, it quickly spirals into something much darker, with the sons’ incompetent attempts to find human food in the dark recesses of Mexico City’s underbelly almost played for laughs, but you won’t be laughing for too long. The mother (Carmen Beato), a domineering harridan who draws the line at a bound and gagged prostitute being brought home for dinner (or for “the ritual”), is a nasty piece of work, whose moral rulebook seems, at best, misplaced, when you consider what they are about to receive. The eldest son, played with depth by Francisco Barreiro, seems to carry the family’s conscience, shaking with tears when, in a tender scene with his sister Sabina (Paulina Gaitan), he asks if this is what life is going to be like, post-Dad. Next thing you know, he’s stalking a gay club for meat, either driven to do so, or having had doubt placed in his heart, by the beautiful singing of a busker on the train, who hands out handwritten fortunes to her fellow passengers – his reads, “You are alive.” This might be the best scene in the film.

Unfortunately, all of this promise – not just for the writer-director Grau, but for the film itself – is subsumed by the often unbearably physical violence and evisceration. I knew I was going to see a cannibal film, but I foolishly allowed the 15 certificate to reassure me. It’s pretty gruesome stuff, and most of the bad stuff takes place at home, in a basement, occasionally behind plastic sheeting, but with what is not graphic visually made graphic in terms of sound effects. I know, I know, it’s about eating people, there was bound to be some eating people, but you will spend most of the film either unsettled by what might happen, or made ill by what is happening. Life, it seems to be saying, is cheap in Mexico City. This is a through-line worth pursuing, and why not through a horror genre? All I’m saying is, We Are What We Are – or, as the man in front of me at the box office brilliantly misnamed it, You Are What You Eat! – is a sometimes necessarily but occasionally unnecessarily uncomfortable watch.

I do tend to read a lot of reviews before I see a film at the cinema. (Clearly, less so if it’s an advance screening.) I went into this latest import – distributed by Artificial Eye and part-funded by the National Lottery and BBC4 – with heightened expectations that it didn’t quite live up to. I’m actually appreciating it more now, the next morning, than I did when trapped in the Curzon with it. Bear that in mind.