Although the film was one of the highlights on last year’s festival circuit, it has taken a while for Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard to get a UK theatrical release. Originally scripted and produced for French television, Bluebeard is a subtly suggestive retelling of Charles Perrault’s fairy tale about an ugly and extremely wealthy lord whose wives disappear under mysterious circumstances, until he falls for the much younger Marie-Catherine, who agrees to marry him in order to escape the shadow of her beautiful, talented older sister. What makes this understated, low-budget film a pure pleasure is the bold, teasing dialogue between the two sisters in the film’s framing plot, set in modern time, in which Catherine, the younger girl, thoroughly enjoys terrifying her older sister Anne by reading her the infamous tale from a book found in their attic. Playfully grim and increasingly disturbing, with a wonderfully cruel narrative that hints at the fiercely, sexually provocative spirit of Breillat’s previous work, Bluebeard slowly inveigles you before hitting you hard.
Pamela Jahn took part in a round table with Catherine Breillat at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival, where the film had its world premiere.
Q: Of all fairy tales, what is it that fascinated you so much about the story of Bluebeard?
Catherine Breillat: When I was a child this was my favourite fairy tale, but I was always astonished that this tale was actually told to little girls, because it’s a fairy tale in which women are killed – Bluebeard is a real serial killer. In fairy tales, you often find a protagonist who is an ogre, like in Little Red Riding Hood for instance, who feels the urge to eat the victims in order to feed himself. But in the case of Bluebeard, you are talking about a human being who marries his victims, including this young woman. But in a way, he is as innocent as Marie-Catherine.
If you look at my films, you will see that I am somewhat obsessed by the relationship between victims and their executioner, but as if the relationship was a rational thing in a physical sense, a relationship between two different forces that measure themselves. And therefore I’ve always wanted to make a movie about Bluebeard. I had decided to make it before I started shooting The Last Mistress. I went to Arte and told them that I wanted to make the movie in five months, and within three or four weeks I wrote the script and organised the shoot. But then I had my stroke and all of a sudden I got a little scared about making the film. But eventually, my desire to make it was stronger and I decided to go ahead with it.
In your film the elder sister dies in the end. Being a younger sister yourself, was revenge something that crossed your mind when you wrote that last scene?
I think a younger sister’s secret desire is always to eliminate the first one. So, the death of the elder sister was a bit of a treat for myself. When I read the fairy tale to my sister at the age of five, I did so because I knew she was going to cry and break down before me, and at that point I felt stronger than her. I could have shouted ‘I have no fear, I have no fear’, like the little one in the film, and I was very proud of that – sadly, very proud of that. In a way, I was the small Bluebeard at the time. And when the mother arrives we don’t see the dead sister, we just see the little one, and we see her finally hugged by the mother.
Why didn’t you show the mother’s reaction to the death of her daughter?
Because this is a children’s world, and the mother is only there to show that the little girl will now get all her attention – this is what really matters. This is why she’s not looking at the elder daughter, she is just concentrating on the little one.
Has your sister seen the film yet?
No. There’s also a direct reference to us in the names. My sister’s name is Marie-Hélène and in the film she’s called Marie-Anne, and the little sisters are called Catherine and Marie-Catherine.
When the girl enters the room with the hanged woman, why did you choose the little girl from the present time instead of the girl from the fairy tale?
Because in stories or fairy tales or fiction in general, people usually like to project themselves onto the story. And it’s the same for this little girl, she wants to see these women, so she goes into the room herself.
It is fascinating to see how well the different time settings work together.
The girls are reading the story in the present and projecting their own feelings onto ancient times. But ancient times are modern, in the sense that Shakespeare is very up-to-date and modern, and the same goes for Sophocles. I remember that I had a big discussion with my producer because she wanted to have the girls’ hair styled in a certain way, but I said no. They had to look exactly how they imagine themselves in the fairy tale, dressed as though they are in the Middle Ages. All the characters are themselves, with the exception of Bluebeard, who is dressed half way between FranÃ§ois I by Clouet and Ivan the Terrible because he is a ghost and therefore is dressed like in a dream.
You also have a very playful way of dealing with the subject matter, for example, when the two girls start talking about homosexuality. Here you bring in a completely new topic into the story that, at the same time, creates some sort of confusion about their relationship.
Children have their own, delirious rationality, like when one of them says ‘God is somebody who is very busy and therefore he had to go down to the earth before going up to the sky’. This is something that I actually heard with my own ears, I didn’t make it up. And that’s why I decided to have this sequence, when they are talking about marriage, and the elderly sister starts talking in a very romantic way, playing with a ring all the time, and then the little one starts talking about sperm in a very rational way but, again, sort of in a delirious way also. Then she suddenly talks about homosexuality and I was absolutely struck by that and decided to keep it in the film. Little girls are not like puppets that will move and behave in the way you want. You just have to show children the way they really are. This is also why you should never explain fairy tales to children, I think, because children have their own imagination and their own way of interpreting them, which is much more important.
You mentioned before that, to some extent, Bluebeard was innocent too.
He is innocent in so far as he cannot not leave the castle, and he cannot not ask his wife to give him back the key, because the key is like a fairy. And this is fate, or a metaphor for fate. And we see very clearly that it is difficult for him to actually kill his wife because he loves her.
So, the monster is a friendly monster, in a way.
Yes, because he is the monster of desire – the monster of our desire, this obscure desire that we all have inside of us. And in that respect he must be somewhat nice, because what is exciting for us must have a nice side to it.
Does the killing of desire free the girl in the end?
She keeps him for herself, just like he keeps the hanged women for himself. So, that’s what unites them, because they do exactly the same thing. They become each other in a way.
So, in the end, the person, and his or her desire, is a very lonely thing.
Yes, I’ve just understood it myself because I’ve been asked the question. I hadn’t actually thought about it at all when making the film. This is why I am telling you that the real birth of the film happens when the audience watches the film. As Freud said, this is where the consciousness is being revealed.
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel):
Black and White Reality: a Sermon and Review – Alain Cavalier’s Le Combat dans l’Ã®le
While ‘love’ is an overused word, even by yours truly, I must proclaim wholeheartedly:
I LOVE black and white movies.
I’m not saying I prefer black and white to colour, or that it’s superior in any way.
As a matta uh fakt, I shorley dew luvs a great color pitcher as much as the next fella’.
For me, however, black and white photography – when used in movies – forces the deep examination (or at least acknowledgement) of various shades of grey with respect to the political, thematic and/or emotional qualities of the work itself. While it might be argued that my preference for cinema in b/w is purely subjective and relates strictly to preferring the ‘look’, I’d counter that the visual qualities take a back seat to cinematic storytelling elements, which indeed go far deeper than mere surface.
One of my favourite movies of all time is Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success, a picture that details the grimy nightlife of New York press agents and gossip columnists. It is a world where Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), a press agent, will pimp out a young woman he genuinely likes to a foul-minded sleaze ball who has the power to grant a very special favour; a world where JJ Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a gossip columnist, delights in wielding his power to destroy people just because he can; a world where, in spite of endless acts of dishonesty and cruelty, redemption – even for the most fetid – might be just around the corner.
Finally, there is the character of the city itself – a city seen mostly at night, from dusk to dawn – full of violence, excitement, electricity, deception and despair. It is a city where the gossip columnist Hunsecker, upon witnessing a violent drunken altercation outside a nightclub, literally salutes the swill around him and declares, ‘I love this dirty town’.
Seen through the b/w lens of cinematographer James Wong Howe, the atmosphere of Sweet Smell of Success and its setting – both exhilarating and rank with people and places of the most odious variety – would, if filmed in colour, make a completely different film. It would be as different as the New York of the 1950s was compared to the sadly gussied-up New York of today. The world of Sweet Smell of Success can only exist in monochrome – a world replete with multi-layered emotions, desires and intentions. In a contemporary context, colour is often seen as ‘reality’ whereas anyone consciously choosing b/w is seen as applying a heavy brush of artifice and mediating the vision in some impure, unreal fashion.
If anything, b/w can often reveal a world that is all too real.
As a filmmaker, I always found myself drawn to the properties and magic of b/w. In fact, I still do. God help me for this, but depending on the property, I have, for the past 12 or so years, suggested b/w to many of my filmmakers at Norman Jewison’s Canadian Film Centre. And of the 10 independent films I produced from the late 1980s to mid-1990s, five of them were in b/w (two of which were directed by Guy Maddin). B/W was employed in both Maddin pictures to recreate an earlier cusp-period of cinema, and also because monochrome seemed to be the best way of capturing that dreamlike, hallucinogenic atmosphere the films were deeply rooted in. Surreal, but imbued with logic, or if you will, dream logic (not unlike, say, David Lynch’s Eraserhead).
As the producer of Maddin’s third feature Careful, I was heartbroken to be the arm-twister who had to convince him to shoot in colour rather than b/w. The making of a tough artistic decision (based, alas, on the exigencies of financing) led to a process comprised of pain, rumination, exploration and lovers’ quarrels – intense break-up-then-make-up gymnastics that yielded the important yet delightfully insane post-coital (as it were) idea of shooting in b/w for theatrical release and then using the cheesy early-90s colorisation process for video and television release.
Realising that some colorised b/w classics had a rather quaint aura and were vaguely reminiscent of early two-strip Technicolor is what led to the final decision of shooting with colour stock since the cost of colorisation technology at the time was prohibitive and it wouldn’t have provided firmer control over the final look.
Using a combination of (now-defunct, at least in Canada) AGFA colour stock and Kodak b/w (that would eventually be colour-tinted), Guy created an archaic duo-chromatic mise en scÃ¨ne where each scene would have no more than two dominant colours. This was not only a visually cool approach, but thematically and emotionally it made perfect sense within the context of the George Toles and Maddin-penned tale of repression that explodes in shame, guilt and depravity. In a sense, I still feel that Careful is a b/wmovie, or rather, a black and white picture in colour.
As producer of Bruno Lazaro Pacheco’s experimental feature narrative City of Dark, my obsession with b/w led to importing 16mm b/w Ilford film stock from the UK (16mm in order to run and gun like Godard and his ilk since we had literally hundreds of locations to cover with a tiny documentary-sized crew), getting the footage processed by one of the best b/w 16mm timers in Canada (an amazing old hand at this, Mr Geoff Bottomley, who ran a tiny, grotty little lab in the bowels of the Ryerson University film department in Toronto) and finally, having the elements blown up to 35mm at NYC’s legendary DuArt Laboratory with many of the same technicians who had worked on the b/w timing of Woody Allen’s forays into monochrome. All this was to create a somewhat contemporary, yet vaguely retro dystopian world where dreams are stolen via technology. Again, the literal shades of grey were rendered to allow the viewer to delve even further into the thematic and emotional shades of grey.
In the end, though, all cinematic art involves the application of artifice – hence my guilt-free preference for b/w. The use of black and white might seem more artificial, but ultimately, it is no less ‘real’ than colour.
* * *
I discovered the great Alain Cavalier picture Le Combat dans l’Ã®le (1962) in the days leading up to Dominion Day (sadly renamed Canada Day in the 1980s) – a magnificent celebration instituted by Mother England among Commonwealth nations to celebrate their official status as dominions under the watchful eye of the greatest colonial power in the world.
I viewed Le Combat dans l’Ã®le on high-def in my hideaway on the extreme northern tip of the Bruce Peninsula – a piece of land that was colonised not once, but twice – first, rather benignly by the French and secondly, less benignly by the British. In both cases, the Peninsula’s Native Indians got screwed while everyone else got rich and powerful.
The first colonisation resulted in the Huron Nation helping the French kick Iroquois butt for explorer Samuel D Champlain and institute a fur monopoly. Once the French buggered off, the Huron suffered a mass genocide at the hands of the Iroquois who, not surprisingly, came back for sweet revenge.
The Peninsula was re-populated with the Ojibwe who migrated from the northwestern regions of Upper Canada. They too were eventually fucked over, but this time, by the British, who brought pestilence along with scads of land-gobbling inbred miscreants from the northern reaches of the UK to ‘pioneer’ or tame, if you will, the wild land. The Dominion of Canada is, of course, still a colony of the UK, although it has maximum self-determination, unlike the aboriginal nations before it.
In any event, it seems utterly appropriate for me to have watched the fabulous new Zeitgeist Films DVD release of Le Combat dans l’Ã®le within the context of a colonial celebration in a region endlessly pillaged by the masters of colonisation. This was, after all, a picture made in the waning days of France’s Algerian War when le beau pays was fraught with division regarding its place as a colonial power.
This, of course, was not lost on the filmmakers. Reflecting those turbulent times, director Alain Cavalier crafted an intensely powerful film – passionate, boldly political, charged with violence, rife with betrayal and sexy as all get-out.
And get this – it’s in black and white!
And yes, the shades of grey within the narrative itself begin early on in the proceedings as we’re introduced to Anne (Romy Schneider) and Clément (Jean-Louis Tritignant). Anne is a former actress who has abandoned her artistic calling to fulfil the role of dutiful wife to Clément. Her hedonistic qualities seem unfairly hemmed in by this arrangement and though she appears to love her husband, her happy-go-lucky nature in social situations wavers between innocent and overtly flirtatious.
Clément, clearly smitten with her charms when they’re alone, is less so in public. The magma jealously roiling in his head would be better served if it travelled to the head located in the southerly nether regions below his torso. With Romy Schneider as his wife – a catch if there ever were one – he’s a lucky fella indeed!
Then again, the picture itself is firmly rooted in a neo-noir world where seemingly lucky (or unlucky) guys can never properly see what’s staring them right in the face. This is certainly the deal with rock-headed Clément. He comes from a wealthy family, holds a cushy, work-free position with his Father, a powerful industrialist, and yet, seeks rather pathetically to become ‘political’. He chastises Daddy for kowtowing to Liberal sentiments, leaves the firm and allows himself to be duped by conservative extremists into assassinating a key left-wing political figure.
In spite of all this, Anne is devoted to him. While she leaves Clément after one of his upper-magma-head outbursts, she soon returns to be his loyal sex kitten. When he’s betrayed after a foiled assassination attempt, his mug plastered all over the newspapers and television screens, she turns into his faithful moll and heads on the lam with him.
Things go awry when they shack up with his old chum Paul (Henri Serre), a sensitive lefty who eventually cottons on to Clément’s right-wing terrorist shenanigans. When our not-so-clear-headed hero takes off on an odyssey of revenge, Anne falls in love with Paul, who rekindles her acting career and a belief in a life of gentle compassion. It is, however, just a matter of time before Clément returns and wants Anne back, and given his transformation from a misguided, somewhat inept terrorist into a cold-hearted killer, the proceedings inevitably point to a showdown. And what a showdown it is!
This is, if you haven’t guessed already, one terrific picture!
Given the state of the world at this point in time, Le Combat dans l’Ã®le seems as vibrantly relevant as it must have been upon its first release in 1962. We currently live in a world where America, purporting to be a saviour, is little more than a colonial power – using Band-Aid solutions to pacify its near-Third World domestic conditions and forcing itself upon Muslim nations in order to control their wealth. Equally, we live in a world where young men on the extremist Muslim side, some from desperate straits and others from positions of privilege, are duped into committing acts of violence in the name of God and ultimately, to maintain control of the wealth America seeks to steal from them.
The puppet masters in both cases have everything to gain, while the puppets have everything to lose. And this is why Clément is never fully reprehensible as a character, at least not during the first two-thirds of the picture. Jean-Louis Tritignant’s great performance allows us to empathise with Clément. Through a sexy, tough-as-nails exterior we see a character who thinks he is making active decisions, but is, more often than not, manipulated by those who are quick to take advantage of his need for political fulfilment. In a sense, Clément reminds me of Tom Neal’s hapless, hard-boiled oaf in Edgar Ulmer’s noir classic Detour – so easily seduced, so easily duped, so easily abandoned – and we do feel for him in spite of all his miscalculations and failings.
I love how Cavalier’s script (with dialogue by Jean-Paul Rappeneau) adds very subtle details to Clément’s character, which in turn force Tritignant to engage in the thespian callisthenics of subtle, delicate shading. Perhaps the best example of this is the manner in which Tritignant conveys his relationship to his father and to his family’s money: there’s a sense that what he needs is not acceptance, coddling or an easy ride from his pÃ¨re, but love – pure and simple – a love that might have saved him from the arms of an evil seductress.
That seductress is not a nasty ice-blooded femme fatale as in Detour, where she is played by the late, great Ann Savage (whose final role was as Guy Maddin’s mother Herdis in My Winnipeg). Clément’s temptress in Le Combat dans l’Ã®le is something far more insidious – the extreme right wing and its insatiable need for power through colonisation, exploitation and deadly terror tactics.
This is, after all, neo-noir as opposed to film noir – where misplaced idealism more than takes the place of a flesh-and-blood hottie.
If anything, the entity Clément admires most is what brings him down. He seeks acceptance from nobody other than himself – a worthy enough goal, but one that renders him irrevocably and tragically prostate to the whims of New World Order-styled power brokers.
Another fascinating element of Cavalier’s picture is the use of trinity within the narrative structure. This is manifested on a thematic and character level through the numerous triangles that stem from Clément himself. The first involves Clément, his wife Anne and his almost romantic obsession with the Bitch Goddess of the right wing. The second concerns his inability to bond with his father, his intense need to find his way in the world through politicisation of the most reprehensible kind and the fact that, ironically, his father is as much a part of the New World Order as the crackpots Clément is aligned with. Thirdly, and perhaps most tragically, is the literal love triangle between Clément, Anne and his old childhood pal Paul.
As played by the sensitive, aquiline-featured Henri Serre, Paul is Trintignant’s opposite in every way, and given Anne’s warmth and vibrancy, he becomes the left-wing White Knight (or, if you will, Red Knight) in Shining Armour. Serre, by the way, was certainly no neophyte when it came to love triangles, having played the role of Jim in the ultimate cinematic rendering of the ménage Ã trois, Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim – released, incidentally, the same year as Le Combat dans l’Ã®le.
Trinity is, of course, an extremely important element within the context of classical cinema, and Cavalier comes from a great tradition of French filmmakers who dazzled us with their commitment to traditional storytelling form while, at the same time, maintaining clear, individual voices. While Cavalier made this picture during the period of the nouvelle vague he is closer to the spirit of Jean Renoir, HG Clouzot and Jean-Pierre Melville (who delightfully makes a cameo appearance in the picture as un membre de l’organisation) than to the style-over-emotional-substance approach of Jean-Luc Godard.
Le Combat dans l’Ã®le is the work of a great artist who works within a very structured narrative environment – approaching his mise en scÃ¨ne with the assuredness of a master, in spite of the fact that this is his first film. This is especially astounding to me. When it comes to contemporary filmmakers and their debut work, so much emphasis is placed by reviewers on pure (albeit occasional brilliant) visual flourishes, or worse, Christopher ‘One Idea’ Nolan-like trick-pony approaches to rendering drama, that Cavalier’s mature, intelligent and genuinely emotional work in Le Combat dans l’Ã®le makes most of the aforementioned lot look like a playpen full of rank amateurs. Cavalier’s precision and attention to story detail is something that more young filmmakers should emulate, while those who should know better need to bestow fewer accolades upon masturbatory workouts.
And despite the claims of auteuristes and their apologists, movies are not made in a vacuum. With this debut feature, Cavalier was blessed to have as producer and mentor Louis Malle, a great classical filmmaker in his own right for whom Cavalier served previously as an assistant director. In addition to the co-authorship of Jean Paul Rappeneau (who would go on to direct Cyrano and The Horseman on the Roof, contemporary entries in the French classical cinema sweepstakes, though far less dazzling and more workmanlike than the works of Cavalier, Clouzot, Melville, et al), Le Combat dans l’Ã®le is stunningly shot in magnificent black and white by Pierre Lhomme, who went on to shoot, among many others, such classics as Melville’s Army of Shadows, Philippe de Broca’s King of Hearts, Someone behind the Door, one of the great French Euro-trash thrillers starring Charles Bronson, Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore and mon préféré du bonbon pervers du cinéma, Dusan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie.
Cavalier’s most prominent collaborators, however, are his fabulous trio of central performers. Schneider, after many historical roles in form-wrenching period girdles, made her debut in this contemporary story and acquitted herself magnificently as Anne, the woman who acts as a deadly wedge between the two leading male characters. (With this film, Schneider also proves, that the girdles were, except for adherence to historical accuracy in her previous work, completely unnecessary.)
Serre as Anne’s lefty saviour has, without question, never been better (save, perhaps, for Jules et Jim). There is both peace and sadness in his eyes, yet his transformation from a gentle, lonely man to someone infused with both the passion of love and the requisite savagery needed for self-preservation makes him a more-than-perfect male counterpart to Trintignant.
All said and done, however, Jean-Louis Trintignant, who eventually gave an equally stunning performance (in a somewhat similar role) in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, continually delivers the unexpected in the role of Clément. One aspect of his performance I have yet to mention is his eventual transformation into a major creep – from an empathetic dupe, he slowly morphs into something that is, frankly, skin-crawlingly malevolent. It’s here where one pines for his character’s redemption even more vigorously than before, all the while sensing futility in such an exercise.
Shades of grey, it would seem, never offer easy solutions or pat feelings. In Le Combat dans l’Ã®le, they offer a rich neo-noirpatisserie of the highest order, deliciously, thrillingly and densely layered.
Oh yes, and have I mentioned how great it looks in black and white?
From the Dominion of Canada,
On the northernmost tip of the Bruce Peninsula,
I bid you a hearty:
The 2010 edition of the Edinburgh International Film Festival opened with Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist, an animated film based on a script written by offbeat French comic genius Jacques Tati, which had never made it to the screen. This remarkable pairing did not quite produce the exciting result one could expect, and although the animation was beautiful, the story was somewhat insipid and lacked the oddball humour of Chomet’s earlier Belleville Rendezvous.
It was an unchallenging opening but this was corrected to some degree the next day with the screening of Kôji Wakamatsu’s Caterpillar (Kyatapirâ), an angry account of the relationship between a soldier, who comes back terribly maimed after fighting in the Second World War, and his wife. It was great that Edinburgh offered British audiences their first chance to see this subversive exploration of duty, heroism, and the cruel ties that bind a husband and wife. Caterpillar had already screened at the Berlinale in February, together with another of the Edinburgh Festival’s stand-outs, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, a remarkably assured hillbilly tale about a young girl forced to face violent relatives to save her family from ruin.
There were few established directors on view and among them Werner Herzog gave us one of the most enigmatic and provocative films of the selection. Similar in style to his bizarrely brilliant Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, and with an equally star-studded cast – this time including Willem Dafoe, Michael Shannon, Chloe Sevigny, Udo Kier and Grace Zabrisky – My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? is, at heart, a Greek tragedy set in a contemporary San Diego suburb. Inspired by the true story of a son who killed his mother, seemingly at random, the film is told from the perspective of the investigating detective (Dafoe), who is trying to piece together the murderer’s story with the help of his fiancée (Sevigny) and an old mentor and friend (Kier). Although the film was produced by David Lynch and borrows deftly (and unashamedly) from his creepily surreal fare, Herzog insists in deploying his own wonderfully outlandish cinematic tropes – a scene in which Kier visits an ostrich farm is one particular highlight. But what makes My Son, My Son a singularly mesmerising treat is the sense of persistent delirium and delight at play here, and the impression that actors and audience are led through events and flashbacks by some mischievous puppet master.
While it seems that Herzog has found great pleasure in unconventional ‘genre’ movie-making, director Steven Soderbergh’s latest offering And Everything Is Going Fine is arguably his most modest work to date, one in which his directorial hand is barely evident. So complacent and burbling is this low-budget biopic about the writer-actor Spalding Gray that after watching 90 minutes of snippets of performances, TV interviews and home movies of the man in question, both his personality and the necessity for this documentary were still, unfortunately, unclear.
The fourth major work by Filipino director Brillante Mendoza (Kinatay, Slingshot, Serbis) had bigger ambitions. In Lola, Philippine cinema icons Anita Linda and Rustica Carpio portray two elderly grandmothers who face the consequences of a robbery-homicide involving their beloved grandsons: one the victim, the other the accused. Frail and destitute as they are, both women seek money in the aftermath of the killing – for a burial and a bail bond, respectively. Everything in this touching tragedy of right and wrong, acceptance and forgiveness, is adroitly done, but it feels so stretched and overlong that any sympathy you may have for the characters is in danger of vanishing even before reaching the half point.
This year, the Night Moves and Under the Radar sections were disappointing: they were vaguely defined and almost interchangeable, their identity and aims too hazy and muddled to produce coherent, meaty selections. Launched two years ago to showcase ‘raw, risk-taking work’, Under the Radar was no more than a hotchpotch of vacant kitsch. We had high hopes for Zach Clark’s Vacation!, the follow-up to Modern Love Is Automatic, which had impressed us last year. It had a similar mix of retro world and female-focused melodrama, but where Modern Love was surprisingly moving and visually stylish, Vacation! offered only ugly 80s Day-Glo as a background to the underwhelming story of a girly holiday that goes badly wrong. Mike McCarthy’s Cigarette Girl was of no higher standard than a student film, and a badly misjudged one at that. Demonstrating a disastrous lack of skill in all areas of filmmaking, it featured over-stylised, cartoonish characters, wooden acting, awful dialogue and an inexistent plot, and was striving pathetically hard for a coolness that entirely eluded it. The Black Panther (La pantera negra) was an instantly forgettable, nonsensical noir pastiche from Mexico; filming in black and white, having God and Death as characters and dropping references to Kiss Me Deadly does not a good film make.
The Night Moves section for late-night screenings was equally marred by pastiche and déjÃ vu. Particularly depressing was The Last Rites of Ransom Pride, another ludicrous attempt at making a ‘cool’ film, this time in the Western genre. The rapid-fire MTV-style editing and overbearing soundtrack frantically tried to hide the lack of substance and the preposterousness of both plot and characters, which included a gun-toting hot chick, a witchy woman prone to pompous mystical statements, and villainous outlaw caricatures aplenty. Dutch horror movie Two Eyes Staring (Zwart water) had obvious echoes of The Orphanage and was too hackneyed to offer any real scares. British supernatural story Outcast was a mishmash of hocus-pocus and grim council estate realities, a mix previously attempted in Philip Ridley’s Heartless and Johnny Kevorkian’s The Disappeared. It was sad to see such excellent actors as Kate Dickie and James Nesbitt mislaid in this silly mess. The other British offering in the selection, Monsters, was much better, although not entirely original. A cross between District 9 and In Search of a Midnight Kiss, it was a romance with a sci-fi twist, charting the relationship that develops between a war photographer and a rich heiress as they try to make their way back to the USA through a Mexico infected by an alien invasion. Although the focus was more on the romance than on the action, it was well written and engaging, albeit in an undemanding, Saturday-night-entertainment kind of way.
Other British films of note included stop-motion animation Jackboots on Whitehall, which presented an alternative version of the Second World War that saw the Germans invading England and Churchill escaping to Scotland. It was a hilarious, witty, satirical romp featuring brilliant caricatures of all the nationalities involved (the weaselly Goebbels, the politically-confused American pilot and the Scots were special highlights) and was one of the most enjoyable films of the festival. In an entirely different style, Amy Hardie’s documentary The Edge of Dreaming also proved a crowd-pleaser. After dreaming she was going to die, Hardie set about to investigate dreams and their relationship to reality and conscious life. Although the scenes of perfect family life are fairly dull and somewhat indulgent, and the film could have gone further in its exploration of the human mind, Hardie, an open-minded woman with a scientific background, was a congenial guide through an uncharted and fascinating territory.
Another interesting British film was Viv Fongenie’s Ollie Kepler’s Expanding Purple World, starring Edward Hogg (White Lightnin’) as a smart, young web designer with an obsessive passion for astrophysics, who experiences a schizophrenic breakdown after the death of his girlfriend. This charming yet at times unsettling portrait of mental illness is unlikely to set the world alight, but it is involving and altogether adult, and Hogg once again lends his character a psychological depth, charisma and soft-eyed madness that is hard to resist. By contrast, Karl Golden’s Pelican Blood was another example of a film that tries too hard in all respects, although it did boast strong performances. Harry Treadaway plays the gloomy antihero Nikko, a birdwatcher who plans to kill himself after ticking off 500 rare birds on his list. He has tried to commit suicide before and failed; now he’d like to do it properly, in a Romeo-and-Juliet way with his unpredictable, animal rights activist, trouble-making girlfriend, whom he met in a suicide chat room. Golden’s film tries hard to position itself as an ‘edgy’ British film, and on the surface it ticks all the boxes, but it never quite pulls it off, partly because the characters are simply too handsome and angelically lit in their misery.
What became obvious as the festival unfolded was that the most accomplished works came from German-speaking filmmaking. Herzog’s outlandish crime comedy was accompanied by a couple of gems from Germany and Austria, both clearly deserving of a UK release. Benjamin Heisenberg’s The Robber (Der Räuber), which also screened in Berlin, is a smart psychological thriller about a bank robber who is also a talented and passionate amateur marathon runner. Just as impressive was Maximilian Erlenwein’s Gravity (Schwerkraft), starring emerging actor Fabian Hinrichs as Frederik, a seemingly mild-mannered young banker, who, after witnessing a customer shoot himself, plunges into an early mid-life crisis that sees him get dangerously involved with a former schoolmate and ex-convict Vince (Jürgen Vogel). Although the story is heavy-handed in places, and at times a little clichéd, overall it is a witty, dark and thoroughly entertaining film, and it was one of the unquestionable highlights of the festival.
Emerging from the escalators at Canary Wharf into an unseasonably cold and damp June evening, the first sight that greeted us was of two futuristic policemen standing guard, while air stewardesses in retro outfits guided ‘passengers’ to a Utopian Airways shuttle. After a few minutes on board, a man in a trench coat abruptly stopped the bus, alerting the passengers and crew that we were to be redirected to a holding station in the wake of a replicant rebellion. In case anyone hadn’t figured it out by now, we were on our way to a screening of Ridley Scott’s classic sci-fi film Blade Runner.
The bus reached its destination a few moments later, a desolate yard in the shadows of Canary Wharf’s skyscrapers. Walking between rows of shipping containers, boys in uniform yelled at us to hurry inside the warehouse; we were harassed by refugees and disturbed by the site of three vertically challenged men taking baseball bats to a car. Inside was a stunning recreation of the film’s futuristic vision of LA, with its crowded stalls selling anything from noodles to replicant pets. Pole dancers, masks covering their faces, shimmied on top of scaffolding, overlooking the bar where Chrome Hoof, clad in gold, played a set of jarring, angular rock. Women with snakes draped across their shoulders roamed through the crowd. A woman in a see-through plastic coat sat at a vanity table applying make-up. An actress, dressed in torn stockings and a fur coat, wearing a blonde wig, wandered, oblivious, through the guests. Outside in the back yard, a fire-eater performed on top of an armoured vehicle.
While it was impossible to completely shake the feeling that it was all an elaborate set-up, the level of detail that went into organising the event was near genius. The army of actors, who portrayed nuns, strippers, police officers, Decker, Roy, Rachael, and almost everyone from the cast, were impressive in their ability to stay in character while surrounded by throngs of film-goers knocking back sushi and beer. A few drinks later, when we were finally ushered into the screening room, the recreation of J.F Sebastien’s apartment that greeted us was breathtaking; more actors and actresses dressed as his robotic playthings littered the remarkable set. By that time, the film itself was almost a side-show, the crowd even cheering at the scene when Decker and Rachael kiss. But there was still a surprise left in store for the audience: Decker and Roy, playing out their final scene, hanging off the brick wall of the warehouse, illuminated by a projection of the building’s faÃ§ade.
The Edinburgh Film Festival once more delivered an excellent, wide-ranging selection of short films, organised in eight programmes, including international and UK films, digital and animation, and Cinema Extreme, an initiative from the UK Film Council and Film4.
The clear highlight for this writer was Maska, the new film by the Brothers Quay, whose achievements in the field of animation were celebrated by the festival in a special event on June 22. Based on Stanislaw Lem’s short story ‘The Mask’, it tells the story of a robot created in the shape of a beautiful woman by an authoritarian king in order to seduce and destroy a noble man who opposed him. The robot tries to work out its identity, ‘it’ coming to know itself as an ‘I’, then as a ‘she’, before discovering that she is in fact a metallic construction resembling a praying mantis, which violently erupts from her previous female shape. The Brothers Quay’s elaborate animation style lends itself remarkably well to a rich visual exploration of the fluctuating identity of the creature and conjures up disturbing echoes that connect the female, robot and insect natures she successively adopts. Artificially gendered, then born of herself, she leads us on a journey through the dark mystery of creation and metamorphosis. Parts of Lem’s wonderful story are narrated in Polish and although the Quays are generally wary of using large amounts of text in their films, the fusion of the sumptuous imagery with the poetic narration and Krzysztof Penderecki’s unsettling music is here perfectly realised and richly evocative.
Other animated shorts of note included the Brothers McLeod’s excellent Gothic fairy tale The Moon Bird, which was shown earlier this year at Flatpack, and Max Hattler’s witty, Busby Berkeley-inspired war satire Spin. Nick Cross’s Yellow Cake was another smart political satire from the USA about the consequences of big cats’ exploitation of small blue creatures, in which escalating death and destruction was contrasted with a cute, childish animation style that underlined the ironic tone. In The Astronomer’s Sun, Simon Cartwright and Jessica Cope told the story of a young man who goes back to his father’s observatory and revisits a traumatic childhood memory, with unexpected consequences. Bathed in melancholy blue tones, the enigmatic story was a true delight. In an entirely different style, Stewart Comrie’s Battenberg was an impressive example of digital animation which saw a squirrel and a magpie locked into a power game inside a miniature cabinet of curiosities within an abandoned house. The objects, evoking the human world, created a bizarre, disquieting setting for the cruel fight to the death between the two animals. A work of startling originality and technical mastery.
In the live action shorts, Cinema Extreme was a somewhat disappointing section – although it is a very laudable scheme – partly because the films seemed rather tame in contrast with what could be expected from such a label. Daniel Mulloy’s Baby won the UK Film Council Award for Best British Film. The story of a brief encounter between a young white woman and a black boy from a street gang, it played with viewers’ assumptions, but reversed them in such an unsubtle way that it was utterly predictable from the start. Scott Graham’s Native Son, which focused on an outsider in an isolated rural Scottish community, was mysterious and menacing but the pace was not quite controlled enough. Tony Grisoni’s The Pizza Miracle, about a man having an imaginary dialogue with his dead Italian restaurateur father, was humorous but offered no genuine insights or emotions.
Among the international shorts, Joyce A Nashawati’s The Bite (La Morsure, France) stood out through its masterful composition, sharp editing and atmospheric quality. A young woman takes a little girl to a park, where she meets her lover. While they talk, the little girl disappears into the woods and has an encounter with a man who is sleeping rough in the park. The story had a fairy tale quality and was told in a nicely elliptical, suggestive manner, which contributed to the unsettling, ominous atmosphere. Magnus von Horn’s Echo (Poland) opened with the reconstruction of the apparently motiveless murder of a young girl by two boys and ended with the confrontation between one of the boys and her parents. It was bleakly realistic and looked fairly drab, but the constant rainfall, timeworn face of the detective and striking finale made it worth checking out.
In the UK shorts, Ben Lavington Martin’s Dust was a particularly affecting and ingenious work. Using NASA archival footage, Martin constructed the story of astronaut Glen Gordon, who is stuck on the moon after his mission goes wrong. As we see images of the moon, a spaceship, an astronaut on its silver surface, we hear Glen Gordon talk to man on the ground Jimmy, fellow astronaut Alan, and his wife Patty. The dying moments of a man alone in the universe are captured with humour and pathos, as he poignantly describes the astonishing experience of walking on the moon, reflects on what is important and ponders the existence of God. A very full and rich 10 minutes.
Nestled between Europe and Asia, Istanbul is undoubtedly one of most fascinating cities in the world – combining the sensibilities of both continents, it’s an exciting and constantly surprising cosmopolitan city with a rich vein of history. Istanbul is also a very vibrant arts capital: the city is awash with festivals, exhibitions, concerts and plays all year round – and perhaps the crowning event is the International Istanbul Film Festival.
The festival showcases the best of both mainstream and independent cinema for an intense and very exciting two weeks every April. It provides an excellent opportunity for foreign visitors to explore Turkish cinema with a selection of the best new productions, as well as restorations of classic (and sometimes thought to be lost) Turkish films. It also introduces audiences to important directors and actors/actresses and gives the prestigious Golden Tulip Award every year to one international and one national production, alongside the FIPRESCI Prize and the Council of Europe Award.
Here are some of the stand-out films from the festival, including the award winners:
The Misfortunates (De helaasheid der dingen)
(Winner of the international Golden Tulip)
Set in a small town in the middle of nowhere, Belgium’s entry for the Oscars last year follows the story of young Gunther Strobbe, who lives with his father, three uncles and his grandmother. While the male members of the house waste their days away drinking heavy quantities of alcohol, chasing loose women and getting into bar fights, Gunther tries to find his own role within this eccentric and decidedly odd household. Director Felix van Groeningen captures the stark brutality of growing up in what can only be described as unusually appalling conditions. The Strobbe Clan are like overblown, grotesque versions of characters from a Mike Leigh film. Their aspirations are inexistent, and it seems that Gunther might be destined to follow into the same kind of dead-end life. The film is exceptionally simple and yet walks a thin line between pathos and humour as it paints a portrait of an extremely dysfunctional, yet endearing family. The performances are stellar and Kenneth Vanbaeden, Valentijn Dhaenens, Wouter Hendrickx and Johan Heldenbergh shine as older members of the Strobbe family. Although there is no distribution deal for the film in the UK so far, one can only hope that it won’t be long before this small and charming masterpiece arrives on our screens.
(Winner of the national Golden Tulip)
At once idiosyncratically Turkish and yet marvellously accessible to any foreign audience, the Taylan brothers’ third film delivers on the promises made in their previous feature. Borrowing heavily from the films and tone of the Coen Brothers, they create the darkest of comedies in a quintessentially Turkish setting. Engin Günaydin, who also wrote the film, stars as Celal, a hapless electrician whose business and marriage are not going so well. In love with a cheap ‘pavyon’ singer from Samsun, Celal decides the solution to his problems lies with his wife Sevilay’s secret stash of money, sent by her father from Germany. A devious plan slowly hatches in Celal’s mind whereby he can solve both his problems with one single act. Reminiscent of Fargo in mood and action, Vavien is a pitch-black comedy. The growing desperation of Celal, his attempts at wooing Sibel, and Sevilay’s abrupt conversations with her dad in Germany, are all played straight, and yet the humour never gets lost, thanks to an intelligent and well-written script. Special mention must also go to Serra Yilmaz, who, in spite of her short screen time, manages to steal every scene she is in. A must-see for any lover of intelligent and unique cinema, Vavien is also an indication of the new standards established within Turkish cinema.
(Council of Europe Film Award)
Already screened at the London Film Festival to great success, Ajami holds the unique honour of being the result of a collaborative effort between Scandar Copti, a Palestinian, and Yaron Shani, an Israeli director. The film is set in Ajami, a tough neighbourhood in Jaffa populated by Jews, Arabs and Christians, and tells five different but interconnected stories using a daring narrative structure reminiscent of Amores Perros. The fact that the film was made using a largely non-professional cast also serves as a testament to the raw power the directors manage to extract from their material. At once a tough crime drama and a powerful statement about life in the multi-ethnic neighbourhoods of Israel, Ajami is an admirable effort using exceptional cinematographic language to tell an exceptional story.
I Killed My Mother
(People’s Choice Awards)
Canada’s bid for the Oscars in 2010, Xavier Dolan’s semi-autobiographical film is one of the most emotionally honest and refreshing stories to emerge in years. Focusing on gay teenager Hubert and his tempestuous relationship with his mother, for whom he feels both guilt and contempt, Dolan’s feature debut explores the myths and mysteries of adolescence in an unexpectedly direct, amusing and emotional way.
Gainsbourg (Vie HéroÃ¯que)
Almost as creative and outrageous as its subject matter, cartoonist Joann Sfar’s debut film based on his graphic novel covers the entire gamut of Serge Gainsbourg’s life, from growing up in 1940s Nazi-occupied Paris through to his death in 1996. Filled to the brim with Gainsbourg’s unique compositions, the film easily sidesteps the usual traps a biopic can fall into, instead creating an amusing and breathtaking ride through its never-felt 140 minutes. Eric Elmosnino’s performance as the titular character is exemplary, effortlessly bringing Gainsbourg’s charm and cool to the screen.
A daring and unusual effort from Israeli directing duo Yoav Paz and Doron Paz, Phobidilia is a modern take on the horrors of the everyday world. After suffering an emotional breakdown in a public place, an unnamed young man vows never to leave his apartment: much to his delight, he quickly discovers that in today’s world all his needs can be met easily within the four walls of his apartment. But four years later, his idyllic existence comes under attack from two figures: Daniela, a free-spirited girl who barges into his life, and Grumps, the building’s real estate agent. But the young man is not willing to let anyone take his comfortable existence away from him. Both claustrophobic and visually inventive, the debut feature from the duo behind a number of exceptional music videos shows real talent. Add to this a script that dares to ask some very unusual, some might say controversial, questions and you have the makings of a genuinely transgressive film.
Following on from the success of My Only Sunshine, which played to great acclaim in the London Film Festival last year, Reha Erdem moves further into more inexplicable and fascinating territory. His new film tells the story of a thief who can work miracles. He arrives in an unnamed, snow-covered border town weeping and immediately rescues a boy from drowning. The townspeople look upon the thief as a wise man, but a sudden rash of robberies and his honest declaration that he is looking for love make them suspicious: in a short time the atmosphere becomes electrically charged. Erdem’s film explores the mystical and the unexplainable through a universal story set in one small town. Magnificent visuals aided by an intriguing story, and what is perhaps the best sound design of any film in the last 20 years, elevate Kosmos to a new level of filmmaking. Bound to create as much hatred as love and fuel many discussions, Kosmos represents the sort of European cinema that we seldom get to see.
Christian Frei’s new documentary takes the audience into a fascinating world full of wonder and surprise. Using breathtaking imagery as well as magnificent music by Jan Garbarek, Christian Frei tells the story of Anousheh Ansari, who was the first tourist in space after paying $20 million for the privilege. Her story is juxtaposed with the many other intriguing people who revolve around space travel, from Kazakh rocket debris collectors to photographers exploring abandoned Russian cosmonaut villages. The film is constantly surprising, unexpected and a delight to watch. Christian Frei was awarded the well-deserved Sundance World Cinema Directing Award in the documentary category this year.
Deliver Us from Evil (Fri os fra det onde)
Ole Bornedal returns to the big screen with another re-imagining of the genre film, just as he as done before with science fiction in The Substitute and film noir in Just Another Love Story. Taking the basic idea behind Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, Ole Bornedal twists and reshapes the story into something surreal, disturbing and very, very unique. The film opens with Lars, a drunken failure, running over the town’s saintly figure, Ingvar. Although he is racked with guilt, he finds an easy solution in blaming the crime on the local Bosnian refugee Alain. Ingvar’s partner Frederik is furious – Ingvar was his only connection to the real world and the only person who could control and subdue his violent rage. The one person who stands up for Alain is Lars’s brother Johannes, who has recently moved back to town with his family. When he rescues Alain from being lynched by the mob and retreats to his place, an angry and vicious group lays siege to the only home he now knows. The results are both deadly and tragic. Featuring a blistering final 20 minutes, this film confirms Ole Bornedal’s credentials as a major filmmaking talent.
A Town Called Panic (Panique au village)
Based on the Belgian animated cult TV series, A Town Called Panic is perhaps the wackiest, most surreal comedy anyone can hope to see this year.
When Cowboy and Indian want to make a surprise homemade gift for Horse’s birthday, little do they know that their efforts will result in the destruction of their entire home and all their belongings. What is even stranger is that the events bring them face to face with an alien race who lives in the centre of the world and whose aim is to steal anything precious. A surreal, mad, hilarious and completely irreverent adventure ends up engulfing not only Cowboy, Indian and Horse, but also their neighbours, the postman and even the local police. With basic stop-motion animation and some of the most charmingly insane characterisations ever seen on the screen, this is the kind of film that reminds you of the power of comedy. It’s no surprise that the film won the Audience Award at Austin’s prestigious Fantastic Fest last year, as well as the Best Animated Feature award at Sitges 2009.
Actor Jacob Tierney’s second directorial effort focuses on high-school student Leon Bronstein, who believes himself to be Leon Trotsky. After starting a strike at his father’s factory during a summer job, Leon finds himself quickly exiled to public school by his father. However, Leon’s instinct for revolution is not easily thwarted: this move gives him an even bigger cause than before – to prove that his fellow students matter to his arch-nemesis, the Stalin-like Principal Berkhoff. Witty, warm and exceptionally acted, The Trotsky comes across as a beautiful and thoughtful combination of Election and Rushmore. Hiding a serious message under its surface, this might be the best teen comedy to come out of Canada in years.
Directors Sergio Corbucci, Damiano Damiani, Enzo G. Castellari
Cast: Franco Nero, Gian Maria Volonte, Klaus Kinski, Lou Castel, Martine Beswick
I prefer the concept of Chianti cowboys to the over-used term ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ as it maintains the spirit of the former while more accurately describing an enhanced viewer enjoyment of them: sit down with a decent glassful and savour the film. It works. And with all those violent scenes and mutilations there is the consoling thought in the back of the mind of how well Chianti and bloody human organs go together – at least according to that bon vivant, Dr Hannibal Lecter.
This month sees the new release by Argent (in this form anyway) of a box-set of Cult Spaghetti Westerns – God, how I loathe that appellation, ‘cult’; talk about capitalism’s ability to appropriate culture! – replete with interviews of Franco Nero, Enzo Castellari, Damiano Damiani and an introduction to each film by Alex Cox in what is described as ‘the style of his epoch-making Moviedrome BBC series’. The set includes Django (Sergio Corbucci, 1966), A Bullet for the General aka El chuncho, quien sabe? (Damiano Damiani, 1966) and Keoma aka Django Rides Again (Enzo G Castellari, 1976), and as such constitutes a collection of some of the high points that this very special and unique genre had to offer. Each is a great exemplar of a tradition of Italian filmmaking that held sway in the period of 1964-1976 (be warned, accounts vary). This re-invention of the Hollywood Western appeared during a time of genre exhaustion in both film centres: Hollywood was giving up on the Western genre in favour of adult-themed contemporary dramas, youth-orientated films, epic VistaVision-type productions, spy stories and fantastical fare in an attempt to lure the television audience back to cinemas. Meanwhile, Italian studios were looking to cater for an audience that was fed up with the pepla cycle of classical mythological motifs – sword and sandal epics to you and me – with which they had made great profits in the late 50s and early 60s.
From 1964 to 1976, Italian studios made hundreds of Westerns, often invoking franchise characters like Django, Sabata, Trinity and Ringo, though in the Wild West of Italian producing, many plot devices, characters, and storylines were cavalierly ‘borrowed’ and passed around from writer to writer and director to director. It has been speculated in various accounts that it was the condition of Italy itself in the 1970s – corruption, uncertainty, terrorism, political incompetence, Mafia control, dirty bankers, tampered juries and bribing of officialdom – that inspired these largely left-leaning directors and that drew disaffected, largely working-class Italian audiences to the cycle. There is some evidence of this social criticism to be gleaned in most of the ‘Spaghetti’ films where the stock characters of Hollywood Westerns such as the sheriff, the Indian, the banker and the wagon trains full of ‘civilised folk’ are played down in favour of the individualistic, lone anti-hero. An anti-bourgeois, free-spirited main character (another trope of 60s cinema) whose morality and behaviours are steeped in ambivalence and who usually finds himself, if not the good guy, then the least bad guy, in the face of incompetent sheriffs, corrupt businessmen and impotent authorities, including the Catholic church, which is often presented as just as corrupt and corrosive an influence on the fictional under-classes populating the films. Popular settings for many of the films are also redolent of 60s and 70s European socio-political upheavals: many are set during troubled times, the Civil War (or the reconstruction period that followed it), in decaying and run-down towns (not new frontier towns, which should look pristine) and during the Mexican Revolution (an ideological class war). One of the best made in this sub-genre of Mexican Revolution films – arguably one of the best of any of the Spaghetti Westerns – was Damiani’s El chuncho, quien sabe? which influenced Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 Mexican Revolution film The Wild Bunch, which in turn influenced many Italian directors’ efforts. Enzo Castellari, for one, acknowledges the debt to Peckinpah and points out actual homage sequences that show up in his film Keoma in the interview extra that comes with the DVD. Certainly, Castellari’s film surpasses Leone’s enervated 1971 attempt, A Fistful of Dynamite aka Duck, You Sucker.
Outside of neo-realist traditions and vérité styles, Italian audiences have always leaned to the operatic, the excessive, the theatrical, the transgressive, the comedic and the carnivalesque (commedia dell’ arte for instance) and especially the raw visuality of these in their popular culture, and this is perhaps due in no small part to the influence of the Church – itself anxiously concerned with many of those social expressions. Hence it was the Italian filmmakers Gualtiero Jacopetti and Paolo Cavara who cinematically travelled there and loosed upon the world the first mondo films, Mondo cane (1962), Mondo pazzo (1963) and Adios Africa (1966), which offered documentary and pseudo-documentary visions of weird and exotic sex, violence and bizarre rituals – the original shockumentaries. At the same time, a re-invigoration of the horror and thriller genre arose with the films of Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava in 1956 and 1960 respectively, which developed into a particularly Italian form, the giallo. The excessive threads of these three – pepla, mondo and giallo – can be seen to be stitched into the ‘Western all’ italianana’ – the Spaghetti Western. Saturated in blood, steeped in sado-masochistic overtones, crowded with ‘fallen women’, whores and Madonnas and chock-a-block full of ‘the old ultra-violence’, the films reinvented the Western genre – ‘violence vérité‘, as Damiani described them. They appeared at a time of history where drive-ins, youthful baby-boomer audiences, film societies, repertory houses – and most importantly, liberalisation of censorship standards – reigned supreme. Of course, by 1976, when Keoma was released, the cycle had rode the long, hard genre trail from innovation to the establishment of codes to the parody of these codes, finally resulting in the Trinity series – more spoofs than genuine, full-blooded genre pieces. As inevitably happens, the cycle had come full circle and in Keoma, the gunslinger returns to his home town to find that it is ruled by a gang of sadistic bullies. A reminder perhaps of Italy’s own troubled situation at this time, with organised crime and the rise in the drugs trade, political kidnappings, murder and the crises of government institutions. It also marked the beginning of privatised takeovers and the eventual monopoly of much media and film production by the Fininvest Group, run by one Silvio Berlusconi.
In Keoma, one of the last of the Spaghetti Westerns, this sense of the hero’s return is evident and signals a finality. ‘The world keeps going around and around. So you always end up in the same place,’ says Keoma. Franco Nero is starring again in a style of Western that he helped invent, and although Keoma does not feature a character named Django, it was re-titled Django Rides Again for markets outside of Italy, so inextricably linked was Nero to the role. And while his role in the film tries to shake off the character of Django that made him a star, and in spite of the fact that there had been dozens of other Django character rip-offs and actors in the role, he was after all the original, and in a sense the final one in this period. Corbucci has been oft quoted as saying that Ford had the Duke, Leone had Clint and that he had Nero – though the two later fell out. Nero only returned to the role once more in the 1987 film Django 2: il grande ritorno aka Django Strikes Again (directed by Nello Rossati and co-written by Corbucci) in the unlikely form of a monk whose daughter is kidnapped. Setting out to save her, he digs up his old Gatling gun, which is buried in a coffin under a headstone that reads ‘Django’. But perhaps it should have stayed buried – along with Rambo, Indiana and John McClane.
El chuncho, quien sabe? genuinely aspires to be a political Western, its most obvious credential being that it is based on a script adaptation by the Marxist author and polemicist Franco Solinas, who penned such ideologically-driven entertainments as The Battle of Algiers, State of Siege, Burn! and The Assassination of Trotsky. As Damiani puts it in the interview extra, interestingly disengaging himself from the genre: ‘the film is a tribute to Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata… I have always to remind critics that it is not a Western. Westerns happen north of the Rio Grande. South of the Rio Grande is Mexico, which has nothing to do with the American West. It is not a film about revolution either, I would say that it is a film about rebellion and revolution. It is a historical film because it depicts the upheaval in a South American country that is exploited by a selfish ruling class… The only thing it has in common with a Western movie is the horses.’
Damiani was not the only director who felt that there was some mileage in raising political consciousness via the Spaghetti Western. Sergio Sollima made two films in the genre, which were criticised as ‘disguised anarchist cine-texts’. In his book Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans From Karl May to Sergio Leone, Christopher Frayling notes that although the directors were utilising Hollywood techniques to tell their stories (a cause for complaint amongst leftists critics), ‘Pasolini certainly thought that A Bullet for the General represented an authentic form of political cinema (one that reached the displaced peasantry, perhaps) for it was as a result of this film that he agreed to appear (as a revolutionary priest, again with Lou Castel) in Carlo Lizzani’s Requiescant (1967), which concerned the struggle against foreign financiers who were propping up the counter-revolutionary federal government.’
The film title poses a question: Quien sabe? Who knows? And given the various twists in plot and especially in the characterisations, it is a good question. The main character, Chuncho Munos / El chuncho, played with great bravura by the talented Gian Maria Volonté (who had appeared in the Dollars films), starts the film as a half-hearted revolutionary bandito robbing trains and stealing weapons to sell them on to ‘General’ Elias, the leftist commander. During one of these raids, he takes an instant liking – that turns into an attraction (and a queer subtext as in many of Damiani films) – to a mysterious American gringo and interloper, Bill ‘Nino’ Tate, played by Lou Castel as the stereotypical outsider and immoral existential drifter character that re-surfaces in almost all Spaghetti Westerns. He has been paid by government officials to assassinate the ‘General’, for which purpose he carries a golden bullet. The box-set presents the film in its most complete version (114 mins), with all of its many plotlines and narrative developments restored after previous editing (butchering) jobs gave it a running time of only 77 mins in order to fit in a double bill. In its full telling it is quite an exhilarating journey – as well as a vast and spacious, visual and textual one – for both the audience and the characters. Damiani says: ‘The many shots of landscape and space contrasted with the deep feelings of the characters and the actors represent this will to live… an open outlook to things, not a narrow view… When dealing with characters who are larger than life and with wide landscapes and deep feelings, as well as the will to live, the result is a necessity for an open outlook to things – not a narrow view associated with more intimate films and inner psychological studies… Here the characters have moments which match the grandness of the landscape.’
It is El chuncho who travels furthest as he slowly comes to grip with his past, his present and his future. His future is as a true and dedicated revolutionary who finally realises the difference between random killing for personal gain and killing for higher political aims. Damiani again: ‘The psychological turning point is the sudden realisation by the main protagonist that he has fallen prey to greed instigated by a cunning man [the American gringo] whose main motivation is money. Suddenly the protagonist understands that these are the people to destroy: the people who take advantage of the suffering of the poor for money, these are to be eliminated… â€œQuien sabe?â€ means â€œwho knows?â€ It is a title that reflects and sums up the main character who doesn’t know where he’s going, but little by little discovers his calling. I didn’t know – quien sabe? – what my life would be. Now I do, I have found out.’
Now, put the film on, pour a glass of Chianti and quien sabe?
Writers: Mario Amendola, Bruno Corbucci, Sergio Corbucci, Vittoriano Petrilli
Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Klaus Kinski, Frank Wolff, Luigi Pistilli
Original title:Il grande silenzio
Two years after Django (1966), Sergio Corbucci returned to the Western with an even stranger, bleaker story about the uneasy compact between lawmen and bounty hunters. Up on the conductor’s podium this time was Bruno Nicolai and the name on the score was Ennio Morricone, the pair made famous for their work on Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, which had culminated in the same year Django was released. Corbucci was an old friend of Leone’s and shared his fondness for big zooms, bigger close-ups, and plenty of bright crimson, but the film is distinguished by its hazy, snowbound Utah setting, and its more explicitly radical politics (Corbucci was a communist, and apparently hated hippies).
Morricone likewise takes a different tack. Eschewing the soaring heroic melodies and pounding horse-hoof rhythms of the Leone films, the music looks forward to his horror soundtracks of the 1970s. The cascading pitched percussion and pealing guitar notes anticipate Florian Fricke’s music for Werner Herzog (especially Heart of Glass) while at other points atonal woodwind motifs align Morricone with modernist composers such as Luciano Berio and Pierre Boulez.
Since the great violin concertos of the late classical era, the interplay between a solo string instrument and an orchestra has stood in for the conflict between the individual and society, and Morricone’s music here works in the same way. The film’s hero, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, is a mute killer with a childhood vendetta against bounty hunters. He is known simply as ‘Silence’ because ‘wherever he goes, the silence of death follows’. Ironically, he is the only character in the film to have his own Wagnerian leitmotif. Upon each entrance, he is accompanied by a solo string instrument playing the interval of a fifth. When we see through his eyes and flash back to his childhood memory, the leap of a fifth is taken over by flutes, and as his father is killed before his eyes, the harmonisation turns gratingly discordant. A decade and a half after John Cage’s 4’33”, even silence has its own distinctive melody.
Writer Patrick Hargadon is obsessed with having a good view in the cinema, but has always been thwarted by people with large heads or big hair. His first film memory is watching Hitchcock’s Rope on television, but being told to turn it off to go to bed. This curtailed watching experience has led to countless viewing of Maya Deren’s and Alexander Hammid’s experimental film Meshes of the Afternoon in the hope of getting to grips with the avant-garde. He is currently working on a non-fiction book: 366 Grand Things To Do When the Sky Is Grey and You’re Feeling Blue. His alter ego of choice is Yul Brynner as The Gunslinger in Futureworld (1976). EITHNE FARRY
There are moments in life when being Yul Brynner in Futureworld would be very useful. You’d just get things done quicker and more effectively. I’m not really the gun-toting lunatic type though, just sometimes in my mind when I’m angry. But I’d rather be Yul Brynner as the Gunslinger. I think it’s the lasso-dancing with Gwyneth Paltrow’s mum that impressed me the most. I have never before been so amazed by a fantasy sequence. Blythe Danner sits in a large contraption that records her dreams. She’s obviously got some problems as her unconscious makes her run around an empty house in a floral dress only to be captured by men in red body stockings and then be tied to a large cross. Yul saves the day, not only untying her but also lassoing her into what can only be described as a dance of love, all the time keeping those little shiny eyes fixed on her in a permanent glare. He may be a gun-crazy psychopathic robot killer, but his android heart beats a rhythm that makes this lady just wanna dance. Well, you might, after narrowly escaping crucifixion. It’s the only sequence I know where the invincibility of a male superhuman gone mad is undone by a starring role in a middle-aged woman’s hot flush. At the end of the scene, the scientists explain to Blythe’s boyfriend that she will need some rest so they aren’t going to wake her up immediately – understandable given the range of her imagination. So the Gunslinger exits into the distance to fight another day, or perhaps not, as it is only truly at this moment that the cryptic tagline of the film makes precise sense: ‘Futureworld – where the only way to survive is to kill yourself.’
Cours Lapin are four film composers from Denmark, and their new, self-titled album is an evocative homage to cinema, lovingly performed in the French ‘chanson’ tradition. Louise Alenius provides the breathless, child-like vocals for the eleven theatrical, atmospheric songs performed by Peder Thomas Pedersen, Asgar Baden and Jonas Struck. The result is the perfect soundtrack to an imaginary film full of mystery, adventure and longing. The album is out on September 13 on Fake Diamonds Records, but in the meantime you can listen to their free track ‘Cache Cache’. Catch them live in London on July 7 at Death Disco, Notting Hill Arts Club and July 8 at Rough Trade East. For more information, go to their MySpace page. Below, they tell us about their favourite films. SARAH CRONIN
Peder Thomas Pedersen:
1. King of Comedy (1982)
De Niro is heartbreaking and sad, I’ve never seen him in a role like this.
2. Mulholland Drive (2001)
When I stepped out of the movie theatre I had a headache and no idea what just happened. But I loved it.
3. Life of Brian (1979)
It is the best laugh ever – and it works for me every time. I’m not into comedies at all, they rarely make me laugh, but Life of Brian is just so extremely funny that I laugh just by thinking of it.
4. Goodfellas (1990)
Because I loooove men with attitude saying cool things. If I were a man I would definitely be a gangster.
5. Blue Velvet (1986)
I’m fascinated by the characters, especially this sad, sad singer and her fucked up relationship with the freak. I must admit that I find it really interesting to watch extremely cruel people abusing some weak person without any ‘scruples’. It’s a theme I often work with in my own music and lyrics, and many of the lyrics on the Cours Lapin album are also about the relationship between a person doing something really bad, and the victim… In Blue Velvet we also meet this prototype young and sweet girl. She is all good but also really boring, and she almost makes me forget that it’s actually a good thing to be honest and helpful. I just find the dark side of people more interesting. The music is also amazing.
6. Naked Lunch (1991)
I like the way Howard Shore’s score understates the mystery and darkness in this fantastic movie. The mix of the symphonic score with free-jazz virtuoso Ornette Coleman on top is absolutely stunning. The movie is very abstract and Peter Weller’s performance as drug addict William Lee taking bug powder is really far out.
7. South Park (1997)
The title theme was composed and performed by Primus. This crazy ragtime tells us what to expect from the episodes – and it’s really a funny signature that sums up the madness of Kartman, Kenny and the rest of the kids.
8. No Country for Old Men (2007)
I love most of the Coen Brothers movies but this one is really something special. It’s very exciting, violent and super-tense, and funny in a darkly comic manner. It’s very meditative with almost no music at all – and it works without music. I don’t miss a single note and it makes it even scarier with just silence. Javier Bardem as psycho Anton is scary but also very funny.
9. City of God (2002)
This is one of my all-time favourite films. It’s about gang wars, drug dealers and young people growing up in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. It’s very shocking but there’s also a lot of humour in it – a kind of Brazilian Tarantino vibe. The songs selected and the 70s score by Antonio Pinto and Ed Cortes really set the right mood. The characters are absolutely fascinating and very endearing, and they are convincingly played by young, unknown actors. The story is well told, and is alternately funny and brutally shocking. The style of the film includes Tarantino-style time-jumping, freeze-framing and titles to indicate the different chapters of the film. It is a sort of Brazillian Pulp Fiction or Goodfellas, but with its own unique flavour.
Peder Thomas Pedersen + Louise Alenius:
10. In the Mood for Love (2000) Peder: Extremely beautiful cinematography by Christopher Doyle… It’s like you’re standing next to the movie and watching it in extreme saturation. Maggie Cheung isn’t exactly bad-looking in all those colourful dresses, and the score is happening too. Louise: 100% because of its music. After I saw this film I began to write music for classical instruments, and that’s what I’ve been doing since.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews