Shane Carruth’s first feature Primer, a mind-bendingly complex time travel drama, which he wrote, directed, produced, edited, scored and also starred in as one of the two principal roles, won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2004. But while time-travel movies usually have the protagonists pitching up somewhere – and sometime – more thrilling or more glamorous than where they started, in Primer, they stay right where they are, in a suburban wasteland of strip malls and storage units, hushed conversations, ambiguities and loose ends.
Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan) are tie-clad engineers by day and hobbyist project types by night, trying to develop a big idea they can sell to a venture capitalist. One of these is a refrigeration system that does strange things inside a metal box, appearing to change the mass of an object. Then a watch left inside the box starts to run backwards. Yes, they have invented a time machine. Almost any other movie would mark this moment with deathless dialogue, and perhaps some lightning flashes. Here, they appear stunned, nervous and perturbed. Soon they are making well-organised six-hour forays into the future, taking care to avoid their doubles, and making a killing on the stock market. They remain in denial about the reality of their discovery, as if they don’t want to admit it to each other, leading to the best gag of the movie: ‘Are you hungry?’ to which the reply is ‘I haven’t eaten since later this afternoon.’
Soon a mix of greed, paranoia and fear starts to disrupt the sequence of events, and the narrative begins to fracture. Doubles of Abe and Aaron start piling up. The storyline veers into a strange subplot involving someone pulling a gun on a girl at a party, which the duo revisit again and again, changing the timeline each time. Unfortunately, by this point (or was it before that?) Abe and Aaron have stopped trusting each other, and each of them try to change things back to the idyllic, pre time-travel state – which by this stage is the one thing the audience is sure is not going to work.
At some point in this sensibly brief movie, you are going to have trouble understanding exactly what is going on. Some people make it past the hour, some people get confused after 45 minutes. The timelines become so fractured and tortuous that even with the help of a (possibly unreliable) narrator you are left scratching your head – the linear medium of film struggles to hold the ideas presented. Some people have unpicked it all for you here, but even on my second viewing I found it difficult to follow. One of the greatest strengths of Primer is that it assumes the audience’s intelligence and willingness to watch it again, to puzzle it over, even as it deliberately distances you with complexity – it is a genuinely 21st-century movie, aware it will be rewound and scrubbed through for answers. This doesn’t mean that a one-sitting experience isn’t worthwhile. The rapid fire techno-patter is completely free of ‘As you know, Bob…’ countersinking. It trusts you to work it out.
Primer was reportedly produced for just $7000, shot in borrowed spaces and mostly starring the director’s family and friends – although the pacing, shots and sound design punch way above the budget’s weight. Many of the choices made – the dreary locations, the flat lighting, the complete lack of special effects – are part of this constraint, but the filters and high-temperature 16mm stock work beautifully to give the film an otherworldly, Instagrammy glow. The sound design in Primer complements the visual aesthetics; minimal, disorienting and ambiguous. It ignores the tropes of Hollywood sc-fi sound design where the usual objective is to dazzle the audience with fantastical, previously unheard gleams of sound to complement the fantastical elements on screen.
Whether for budgetary or aesthetic reasons, the film eschews 5.1 surround and uses a straight two channel mix. The dialogue is live and apparently unlooped – you can hear the acoustic spaces. Washes of static come and go. Whirrs. Hums. Refridgeration units. The sounds of the everyday suburban landscape, amplified and brought closer in a manner that reminds me of paranoid 1970s’ thrillers like The Conversation. The sound of the first time machine operating was made, according to Carruth, by layering the sound of an angle grinder with a car. The later time machines are dry and mechanical. Not magical. Actual machines.
The music is sparse and tonal, mostly simple piano motifs over deep synthesizer pads, alternating with simpler tones and the occasional crescendo of noise, while there are nice little touches such as a musical motif reversing itself. The density of music and effects increases as the film goes on and the narrative fractures further. All these elements combine to give an overall effect of unsettling disorientation which complements the overall narrative.
Carruth – a former software engineer – has made much of how he wanted to present exciting scientific ideas in the manner in which they are usually discovered; undramatically and methodically, but this belies that it’s quite a sensuous experience to watch. It’s a film for geeks and cineastes alike, and a joy to revisit.
Now happily settled into its multi-million dollar purpose-built home, the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the statistics alone give some indication of the scale the Toronto International Film Festival has reached now. Of the 4,143 total submissions from 72 countries, 372 feature films in total were ultimately screened and, as the official fact sheet notes, that is 30,918 minutes of film. A dutiful film critic would have to attend 37.2 features a day to come to grips with the entire festival – a sobering thought for audiences and filmmakers alike. It is near impossible to venture an overall opinion as to the tone or theme that arose, though an observation is that the quality of the films, not unexpectedly, ranged from adequate to very good, with a dearth – for this writer – of anything in the future ‘classics’ category. For me, some much-anticipated films were a bit of a let down, notably the heroin-chic, self-conscious style of Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. What the world doesn’t really need is another ‘name’ director having a go at the vampire genre. Nevertheless, critical opinion was divided on this one. It was, however, a bumper year for documentaries and these were standouts: Burt’s Buzz (Jody Shapiro), Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich), When Jews Were Funny (Alan Zweig), Filthy Gorgeous: The Bob Guccione Story (Barry Avrich) and Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Marcel Ophuls). Below I take a look at some of these and some other highlights from the festival.
iNumber Number (Donovan Marsh, 2013)
Expect loads of action, shoot ’em ups, and fast paced – though occasionally over the top – scenes of brutality and violence in this South African crime thriller. This is a grimy world where corruption among police officers is not the exception, and the story of Chili and his partner Shoes is one of straight cops trying to do their best and play it right, but getting screwed at every turn. Deciding that honesty does not pay, Chili decides to infiltrate a gang who are planning a heist and then taking the money when it’s done. But in a taut and well-paced scene, the gang members discover his identity and subsequently kidnap Shoes. Very well edited, the many killing-spree scenes build to a tremendous if over-wrought finale. Sheer exuberance and energy define this film, and director Donovan Marsh deserves credit for putting together a great cast: the leads are convincing and the secondary characters are well-drawn and provide enough eccentricity to add a touch of black humour to the proceedings. Donovan has studied his Tarantino but learned to trim some of the excess fat; one can only hope that was an aesthetic and not a budgetary lesson. Ultimately, we’ve seen the plot loads of times, but the setting adds a new dimension to the narrative and style.
Watch the trailer for iNumber Number :
Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Mohammad Rasoulof, 2013)
This Iranian film about a surreptitiously printed manuscript, which details the truth behind a failed government plot to kill 21 writers and journalists in a staged bus accident, is a searing indictment of the Iranian regime and its ruthless attempts at censorship and control of the truth. It follows two impoverished men working for the regime as assassins, who are tasked with getting back the three extant copies of the manuscript in question. The two have been hired to find – and eliminate – the remaining writers who have the scripts and to return them to the government offices. Their task is no more, no less than to silence any opposition to the official government line. The matter-of-fact way that they go about their business while in pursuit brings to mind the mundane conversations between the hitmen in Pulp Fiction, though with less ironic patter and more of a ‘just making a living’ urgency. Beautifully shot in wintry colours, the sense of desperation of the oppressed victims and the moral and ethical dimensions of the script are wonderfully realised by director Mohammad Rasoulof. A superior meditation on state violence, oppression, censorship and morality in contemporary Iran, the film won a Fipresci prize at Cannes this year.
Closed Curtain (Jafar Panahi, Kabozia Partovi, 2013)
The unstoppable Jafar Panahi has made his second film since being sentenced to house arrest for six years and banned from filmmaking for twenty years. His earlier feature, This Is Not a Film was smuggled out of Iran to Cannes in 2011. Two years later the tone of his new film is darker, more claustrophobic and has overtones of death wishes – Panahi films a fictional suicide of himself as part of the narrative. Establishing the mood of the film with his everyday ritual of taking in the groceries and then blacking out all his windows from spying eyes, we the audience are trapped with him in his beach house, where he lives among his memories of better days, his film posters and scripts. That narrative arc is abandoned by the abrupt entry into his house of two absconding young people…Who are they? Why are they there? Are they undercover Revolutionary Guards? As the elliptical mystery unfolds, no one – least of all Panahi – are even certain that they are not figments of imagination or projections of his cracking psyche. This is a brave and imaginative film given the circumstances of its production, and the extremely limited means and freedoms within which the director is forced to work. It would be churlish to gripe too much about insignificant technical or formal details given this situation, and better to state that it is a successful and, in its own way, life-affirming piece of work. Let’s hope the new regime will see the folly in keeping him under arrest and cinematically speechless.
Watch the trailer for Closed Curtain:
Palestine Stereo (Rashid Masharawi, 2013)
The production credits say much about the state of funding for Palestinian films. It is a Palestine/Tunisia/Norway/United Arab Emirates/Italy/Switzerland financial pudding – but nonetheless focussed for all that input. ‘Stereo’ is a nickname for a former wedding singer who, having lost his home and wife in an Israeli missile strike, has likewise lost the spirit to sing. His brother Samy is an electrician who lost his ability to speak or hear in the same bombing. Deciding to emigrate to Canada, the two undertake various schemes to earn money, most notably renting out sound equipment from the back of an old, used ambulance which they purchased. Balancing the absurdities of West Bank life with a compassionate, humane and ironic – sometimes droll – script and sensibility, Rashid Masharawi has produced a touching and realistic film which doesn’t shy from awkward politics or from the complications of life in Ramallah. A film that makes its points and is served by a terrific cast, especially the actor Mahmud Abu-Jazi. A film, then, with something to say, and for me one of the best of the festival. It is a follow-up to his successful Laila’s Birthday.
A Wolf at the Door (Fernando Coimbra, 2013)
At long last, a Brazilian bunny boiler! Which to some extent gives the plot away. Learning that their six-year-old daughter has been picked up at school by an unknown woman, a distraught husband and wife, Bernardo and Sylvia, wait furtively at the police station for any news. During the course of their own questioning, Bernardo confesses to the detective that he thinks it may have been his lover, Rosa, who was responsible. When she calls him, Bernardo decides to take matters into his own hands, and meets with her in hopes of having his daughter returned. From here darkness descends upon this thriller, and the back stories and duplicitous nature of the protagonists are slowly revealed. As are the cruelty of humans and the lengths to which revenge can be taken. Suffice it to say that the Todorovian idea of narratives – equilibrium established, equilibrium disrupted, equilibrium restored – does not quite apply to this feature debut by Fernando Coimbra.
Watch a clip from A Wolf at the Door:
Brazilian Western (René Sampaio, 2013)
Another first feature from Brazil, René Sampaio’s gangster/thriller film is set in Brasilia, where the main character, Joao, comes from the wrong side of the racial tracks and the wrong side of the law – at the start of the film Joao kills the cop who killed his father. After doing his time for the crime he heads to the big city, where a relative is able to get him a job as a carpenter’s assistant, but he must also agree to do some moonlighting as a drug dealer. As he gets deeper and deeper into the morass of dealing, he encounters a beautiful, white architecture student whose father is a Senator. Cue racial tensions and fatherly disapproval, but also cue audience bewilderment as to quite why a privileged upper-class student would fall so completely and utterly for this convicted dealer, and risk everything – life and limb – to be with him. But as in the other Brazilian film, A Wolf at the Door, the unusual settings – in this case Oscar Niemeyer’s famous utopian architectural buildings standing in stark contrast to the shantytowns butted up against them – make for a more insightful exposition about crime, punishment and retribution in other cultural milieus.
Watch the trailer for Brazilian Western:
To the Wolf (Aran Hughes, Christina Koutsospyrou, 2013)
I wanted to report on this film as, for me, it was a year of seeing less-known national cinematic offerings, in this case a Greek/UK co-production set in rural Greece and featuring a large cast of goats. Extremely long takes and even longer static shots tell the tale of extreme marginal existence in contemporary Greece, where the peasantry is particularly hard hit by the economic crisis. A bleak film shot in drizzly rain conditions, and utilising local shepherds, it’s a quasi-documentary which doesn’t so much tell a story as it reveals a situation. Regrettably the audience doesn’t really get to know much about the characters – other than their menial existence and constant complaint – and so no real empathy evolves. Added to this is the fact that this film is not an example of slow cinema, or even slower cinema, but slowest cinema. The running time of 74 minutes felt considerably longer.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Marcel Ophüls, 2013)
In this autobiographical, self-directed film, the renowned documentary filmmaker, 85-year-old Marcel Ophüls, looks back on his life, talking with old friends and discussing a variety of clips from his films. And he has had quite a life – son of the great Max, he spent many years in Hollywood among the likes of Preston Sturges and Bertolt Brecht. Deciding to become a film director himself, he made first fiction films and then switched to documentaries, which is where he gained an international reputation with films such as The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) and Hotel Terminus (1988). The history that he has lived through and the remarkable people he has come into contact with make this a fascinating history piece, but it is the curious mix of this and his own accounts of life good and bad, lucky and unlucky, and his unsparing critique – and lauding – of himself that fascinates. The tales of his confrontations with war criminals and his often-appalling tales of how he has treated his wife make for an unflinching and wholly satisfactory self-portrait rich in detail, remembrance, humour and curmudgeonliness.
Watch the trailer for Ain’t Misbehavin’:
Le Week-end (Roger Michell, 2013)
This satisfying film written by Hanif Kureishi centres on two older characters who choose to return to the site of their honeymoon, Paris, after 30 long years of marriage. This city of romance and escape is not going to alter the emotional tensions and anxieties that fairly bleed between the two characters. But this film neither cow-tows to the recent trends in making older couples’ cinematic presence charming or cloying, but rather shows them as bickering, snappy, frustrated, yet still reliant on one another, and full of a curious kind of affection. It is a softer Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. As the sea between them rises and falls, they go through a weekend journey both comedic and serious.
Le Week-end is released in the UK by Curzon Film World and out now cinemas nationwide.
The duo of Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan and their obvious acting chemistry brings out the best of Kureishi’s script, and Lindsay Duncan’s work in the film is particularly noteworthy and something of a revelation. During their flanerie about Paris they run into old school chum, Morgan, played by Jeff Goldblum. But Goldblum’s style of acting tends to subvert the delicate balance between pathos and comedy that has been established by Broadbent and Duncan, and this exaggerated and non-realistic performance from Goldblum throws the film a bit off-kilter. The climactic dinner scene is effective, if a bit predictable, but nevertheless, Le Week-End is a bitter-sweet confection, and the knowing nod to Godard at the end of the film is a subtle touch and makes for a satisfying conclusion.
With the looming infringements of this year’s Toronto ahead and the snapping of the glitzy behemoth that is Cannes behind, the Venice International Festival of Cinematographic Art – the oldest international film festival in the world – is beginning to feels its age. Despite the roundness of the figure 70, the line up that was announced in August in Rome included few big names and no giants, and the sense at the festival was that the programme had been front loaded so that big-name journalists could leave halfway through and not miss much. That said, with the absence of big hitters, the field felt open and there was a general high level, including some surprises.
The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, 2013)
Festival favourite Hayao Miyazaki returned to the Lido with what is promised to be his last film, The Wind Rises, an epic biopic of the aeronautical designer Jiro Horikoshi (Hideaki Anno), who dreams of great things and goes on to design the Mitsibushi Zero fighter. In Japan the film is being viewed as a timely intervention in the debate regarding the rewriting of the post-war pacifist constitution; but film’s pacifist stance and adoration of the dream-like qualities of airplanes clang at times with the real rise of fascism and the bellicose uses that Jiro’s dreams are put to. The film follows the myopic hero’s own vision in failing to see or ignore the obvious historical context of his work, the invasion of Manchuria and the disastrous course of the war. In fact, the soft development of a love affair between Jiro and Naoko (Miori Takimoto) increasingly becomes the dramatic focus and emotional core of the film. This is such a sui generis movie for Miyazaki that many fans of the Japanese animator will be confused, but deep down the themes are the same: the dangers and delights of a beguiling imagination.
Watch the trailer for The Wind Rises:
Child of God (James Franco, 2013)
James Franco has alienated many with his interview techniques, the temerity of his ambition and his pretty-boy good luck, but his latest literary adaptation, from the 1973 Cormac McCarthy novel Child of God, is as much a snarling, feral beast as its protagonist Lester Ballard, played here with ferocious abandon by Scott Haze. Ballard is a disenfranchised woodsman who lurks in the mountains, gripping a rifle that seems a part of himself, while gripped by his own mental demons and a hidden yearning for company. Franco’s dedication to the original text can occasionally dip into Sixth Form literalism – to represent the different perspectives of the Faulkner novel As I Lay Dying, his version employs split screen throughout – and here lumps of text are quoted on screen; the plot of the book is followed closely, but the core of McCarthy’s concerns, the violence of male loneliness and madness of the heart and the head, are clearly depicted.
Watch the trailer for Child of God:
Sacro GRA (Gianfranco Rosi, 2013)
Picking up the Golden Lion, Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary Sacro GRA takes the Roman ring road – the GRA, the Grande Raccordo Anulare – as a fairly arbitrary rope with which to lasso a hodgepodge of eccentrics and colourful characters into an at-times funny and occasionally moving, but oddly unrevealing picture of a series of places. Rosi has gathered an eel fisherman, an ambulance worker, a monkish tree surgeon, a seedy nobleman, a father and daughter chatting in their emergency housing, and bar-top dancers preparing in the dingy back room of a grubby bar. The road passes close by them, but serves little purpose except a tenuous connection and perhaps a structuring absence. The road is the audience that passes by these lives but doesn’t stop to listen, perhaps. As with previous work – El Sicario, Room 164 and the American based Below Sea Level – Rosi maintains a neutral space of bland observation, but sometimes the neutrality feels like a pose. As with Le Quattro Volte, which feels like a rural companion piece to Rosi’s documentary, there is an awkward feel of an essayist presenting his supporting evidence too neatly on the page. The hair-in-the-gate spontaneity is missing and some of the effects realised are done so neatly that there is a suspicion Rosi is filming his characters with specific traits in mind: the laughable photo-novel and the horny-handed hero of toil.
Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang, 2013)
Having won the 1994 Golden Lion with Vive L’Amour, Tsai Ming-liang returned to the Lido with Stray Dogs, a ‘motion’ picture of glacial slowness, a portrait of life clawed by the sharp end of the Taiwanese free-market economy. Lee Kang-sheng is a human billboard, standing at a busy intersection to make some cash, battered by the wind and rain and the incessant thunder of the traffic. When not blowing his money on booze and cigarettes, he supports his son and daughter (played by the director’s nephew and niece), who have to fend for themselves during the day, eating free samples at supermarkets and killing time until they can retreat to the container squat where they sleep amid the flotsam. A kindly/disturbed supermarket worker (played by three actresses: Yang Kuei-mei, Chen Shiang-chyi and Lu Yi-ching) visits a ruined tower block to feed the ‘stray dogs’. She befriends the little girl and, when the drunken father tries to take the children away on his boat one stormy night, she rescues them.
The experience of watching the film is mixed. Initial curiosity and admiration for Ming-liang’s obvious skill at shot composition gives way to an awareness of boredom and discomfort as single shots of not-very-much-happening begin to push the ten-minute mark. The initial realism gives way to an absurdist, archly black humour. When we watch Kang-sheng holding up his sign for several minutes we can get an inkling of the boredom and unpleasantness of the job. Life is literally passing him by; he’s forced into paralysis by the harshness of an economic system which has no room for him. But later, as he stands staring at a wall with the woman who has taken in his family, I began to suspect Ming-liang was forcing his character into stasis as a way of preserving the austere beauty of his composition, and the wall staring was a meta-joke on us.
Watch the trailer for Stray Dogs:
Tom at the Farm (Xavier Dolan, 2013)
With four feature films to his credit and at the fresh age of 24, Xavier Dolan might be someone any budding young director would gladly see roughed up, and in Tom at the Farm Dolan gives us that opportunity. Based on the play by Michel Marc Bouchard, the young director casts himself as Tom, a dishwater-blonde city boy in an oversized leather jacket who drives into the rainy countryside to attend his lover’s funeral. However, once at the farm, Tom finds it difficult to escape the cloying needs of his lover’s mother Agathe (Lise Roy), who knows nothing of her son’s homosexuality, as well as the violent intimidation inflicted on Tom by elder son and psychopath, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal). With a streak of self-loathing-fuelled sado-masochism, Tom’s burgeoning relationship with Francis goes from being enemies to something resembling a weird love affair. There is a Lynchian apprehension of the weirdness of normality, with the rural rain-drenched setting, the endless fields, the barns and creaking rooms of the farm, and the neon-lit bars adding a sense of Alfred Hitchcock menace. Gabriel Yared’s richly orchestral score swoops and soars with the delirious decadence of a Bernard Herrmann composition circa the 1950s.
From his casting to the score to the occasional change in film ratio, Dolan’s film is a firm-handed piece of filmmaking. The comedy is unnervingly funny and the performances are all top class. Towards the last third the restrictions of the origin material begin to impinge, but on the whole the film will continue to elevate the status of a precocious and fascinating talent.
Watch a clip from Tom at the Farm:
Miss Violence (Alexandros Avranas, 2013)
Greece continues to challenge Austria as the world leader in miserablist exploitation with Alexandros Avranas’ Miss Violence, an icily efficient and technically accomplished portrait of a dysfunctional family, which ultimately has nothing new to say. Themis Panou – who picked up the Best Actor award – plays the quietly spoken head of a family that comes under official scrutiny when Angeliki (Chloe Bolota) leaps from the balcony to her death halfway through her 11th birthday party. Her mother and grandfather insist it was an accident, and the family try to resume their normal life, but just what that normality consists of is slowly revealed to be horrific abuse and exploitation. Treading closely in the footprints of Giorgos Lanthimos’ 2009 Cannes success Dogtooth, Avranas manipulates his audience with his slow reveals and black absurdist humour. The banality of evil has sadly become something of a cliché and Miss Violence, from its baffling title to its glib provocation and tonal incongruities, revelled too much in what it ostensibly sought to deplore.
Watch the trailer for Miss Violence:
Via Castellana Bandiera (Emma Dante, 2013)
Writer, director and actress Emma Dante based her feature-film debut, the Sicilian-based drama A Street in Palermo on her own partly autobiographical novel, and took one of the lead roles. Rosa (Dante) has returned to Palermo for a wedding with her lover Clara (Alba Rohrwacher). Driving on a narrow street they come face to face with Samira (Elena Cotta, who picked up the Best Actress award at the festival) and her family. Samira has a life touched by tragedy and has regressed into an almost catatonic state. Egged on by her ne’er-do-well son-in-law Saro (Renato Malfatti) she refuses to budge and the two women are locked into a battle of wills. The neighbourhood watch on with interest as bets are placed and plots are formed around the nucleus of epic female intransigence.
The strength of Dante’s film is its slippery evasion of the clichés that abound in Italian cinema and which the opening of the film seems ready to reinforce. However, there is an abiding sense of mischief here, as the women enjoy their battle – indulging in a literal pissing match at one point with Leone-esque close-ups of the twitching eyes – to the numb incomprehension of those around them. The abiding irony is that the women have much more in common with each other than they do with those who are supposed to be close to them. Dante’s background in the theatre can be seen in the in the ensemble acting and the occasional Brechtian flourishes, such as a chorus of women who briefly invade Rosa’s car to proffer advice.
Locke (Steven Knight, 2013)
Steven Knight’s second film in one year – the first was the Jason Statham thriller Hummingbird – is a brilliant minimalist piece of cinéma de chambre, in this case the chamber being the titular protagonist’s car. Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is driving alone from Birmingham to Croydon, away from his his wife and two teenage sons, from his work as a senior site supervisor on a huge building project, and from his life as he knows it so far. Armed only with the car phone and some tissues and cough medicine for his head cold, Locke attempts to repair the damage even as he is doing it. Boasting a wonderful performance of unshowy maturity by Hardy and driven by a superbly detailed script by Knight, Locke is a film that is never hampered by its own rigorously applied confines.
The emotional moments are hard won and brilliantly delivered. Although credit should also be given to the vocal presence of Ruth Wilson, Olivia Colman and Andrew Scott, Hardy carries the weight of the film with aplomb. To add to the difficulties of holding the screen on his own for the duration of the film, he also adopts a Welsh accent, which is entirely in keeping with the character, who makes poetry out of hard work and who desperately struggles to maintain his values and integrity even when they will effectively destroy him.
The Police Officer’s Wife (Philip Gröning, 2013)
Told in a series of 59 short chapters, Philip Gröning’s domestic-abuse jigsaw puzzle The Police Officer’s Wife is a gruelling, but disconcertingly and powerfully intimate close-up portrait of a nuclear family gone Chernobyl. Uwe (David Zimmerschied) is the police officer and Christine (Alexandra Finder), the eponymous wife, who live in a redbrick terrace house with their young daughter Clara. Their lives seem to be cut off from the outside world, but the elliptical style of storytelling means that very little is certain and nothing is explicitly laid out. Indeed, the narrative gaps that fall between the title cards ‘end of chapter x’ and ‘beginning of chapter x’ could represent the unknowability of interiority, and the motivations that lead to not only violent abuse, but the decision to submit to it. Gröning’s reputation was built on his documentary work, in particular 2005’s Into the Silence, and he is very good at achieving a neutral non-style for his camera and rendering the textures of confined domestic space. However, not giving the audience information is just as manipulative as spoonfeeding them. The inclusion of 118 chapter cards is an unnecessarily arch gesture at high-mindedness and feels, along with the accumulative power of the violence, to be punitive. The manner of the documenting of the violence drains its victim of any agency, in the same way Uwe does, and even makes her culpable in her own oppression. It is a film that will linger and irk and worry long after you’ve watched it, though the watching it is in itself a trial.
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
Jonathan Glazer’s return to feature films after an almost decade-long absence, Under the Skin stars Scarlett Johansson as a predatory alien who prowls Glaswegian streets in a white transit van, searching for young men who will not be missed. Mixing arthouse visuals of mesmerizing abstraction with naturalistic (and occasionally incomprehensible) street scenes and occasional lurches into Lynchian horror, the film escapes the gravitational pull of its genre and the dubious slightness – and potential misogyny – of its storyline. As with Johansson’s victims, we are beguiled by the look of the film, its self-confessedly empty eroticism and its otherworldly perspective on mundane British life. Whereas the criminally underrated Birth riffed on Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, Under the Skin ditches the lightweight satire of the Michael Faber source novel to absorb the influence of Nic Roeg – The Woman Who Fell to Earth if you will – and create a disturbing trip into the other.
As this year’s London Film Festival draws to a close, we review more films from the 57th edition. Some better, some worse.
Check out Part 1, 2 and 3 of our 2013 LFF coverage.
The Witches (Cyril Frankel, 1966)
’Nothing can eat your soul,’ states the voice of reason, Miss Mayfield (Joan Fontaine), just before the mission school she has been running in Africa is attacked by freaky mask-wearing witch doctors and she dissolves into a blubbering mess. Months later she is back in England, supposedly recovered from her ordeal, but still clearly brittle. She is delighted to be offered the post of headmistress in the archetypal English village of Heddaby. Everything seems delightful at first, with colourful characters and rolling fields, but slowly bits of weirdness creep in, and all the locals seem overly concerned that schoolgirl Linda (Ingrid Brett, frankly, hot) should be separated from her would-be boyfriend as soon as possible. When the boy falls suddenly ill, and a headless plastic doll with pins in its chest is found, it becomes clear to Miss Mayfield that something is up, but as she begins to pry, her fragile state comes under strain, and under scrutiny.
The Witches is largely a woman’s picture, with Miss Mayfield (and her oddly Thatcherite hair) at the centre, and Linda and her mum, newspaper columnist/community leader Stephanie Bax (Kay Walsh), pushed to the fore, with the men supporting, at best. Alan Bax (Alec McCowen) is especially useless: ‘I wanted to enter the church but I failed,’ he says, and seems to spend much of the film going silent and sloping off whenever the conversation takes an awkward turn. It’s an atypical Hammer from 1966, adapted from a Peter Curtis novel by the great Nigel Kneale. I’m not sure how much is Kneale and how much Curtis, but the confluence of’ ‘old ways’ hoodoo with modern science is a Kneale trope, and certain lines have that spark of offbeat realism (‘I’ve got veins!’). The way that the full import of the words ’give me a skin for dancing in’ are left to dangle in the viewer’s mind is sublimely horrible. But time and again the full impact of the script is let down by pedestrian staging, and meat–and-potatoes cinematography. There are some nice shots and the occasional visual coup (a writhing, jerking cloth doll on a pentacled floor is authentically nightmarish). But a film in which the lead character may be losing her marbles should look a lot more deranged than this, and the climactic witches’ sabbath looks, unfortunately, like the rehearsals of an off-Broadway musical. All things aside, though, it’s a bit of a forgotten gem, looking ahead to elements of The Wicker Man and Rosemary’s Baby. Occult madness in sleepy England is always a winner, and Leonard Rossiter pops up as a doctor. Well worth checking out. MS
The Zero Theorem (Terry Gilliam, 2013)
Christolph Waltz plays Qohen Leth, a black-clad man in a day-glo world – a loud, irritating future of intrusive technology and automated intimacy. Not that he wants intimacy. He just wants to be left alone at the fire-damaged church he calls home, where he is hoping to receive a phone call that will explain his existence. After a strange encounter with the mysterious Management (Matt Damon) at a party held by his boss (David Thewlis), he is granted his wish to work from home, as long as he works on a hush-hush project, an attempt to assemble a computer model of an insanely complex equation. He makes better progress than most in a task that has driven others to despair, but still begins to lose his mind under the pressure. A therapy programme (Tilda Swinton) proves unhelpful, so sexy Melanie Thierry, as a kind of virtual call girl, and a teenage wizkid (Lucas Hedges), are brought in to keep him working, turning his ordered and isolated life upside down in the process.
Terry Gilliam’s latest is restless in its own skin, feeling like a hugely absurdist science-fiction satire trying to fight its way out of a five-hander play, or an intimate study of modern madness lost in an overactive hyperkinetic playground. Zero Theorem takes you to the edge of a black hole, and the beach of a tropical island at permanent sunset, but still feels claustrophobic. Where the likes of Minority Report are thematically dystopian, but fetishise the gleaming technology, Gilliam has a cartoonist’s eye for bullshit: the street advertisements in his lousy future address passers-by as the wrong sex, the pizzas sing annoying ditties, and digital communications are a great new way to not listen to each other. As you would expect from this director, the environmental detailing, the sheer visual exuberance, is something to behold. I heard ripples of delight spread around me at the screening from some shots, but this is, essentially, a beautiful boat without a goddamn motor. The earlier, kandy-koloured-Kafka scenes evoke a sense of stress and alienation many people in 2013 will be familiar with, but for the most part Leth’s problems, his goals and desires, are just too abstract and peculiar for easy identification (especially when he’s determinedly throwing off the advances of Thierry). Elements of the OTT visual dynamic obscure the storytelling. Forward momentum drops away, and the suspicion begins to grow that nobody knows where this is going or how to satisfactorily end it. It’s a film with many incidental pleasures, but little purpose. A downbeat, pretty, befuddled mess. MS
Watch the trailer for The Zero Theorem:
How We Used to Live (Paul Kelly, 2013)
Filmmaker Paul Kelly has built up a fine body of work over the last decade devoted to chronicling London’s hidden corners and gems, through films such as Finisterre and This is Tomorrow. His latest is a lyrical love letter to London’s post-war past, beautifully composed of footage housed in the BFI National Archives. With just the right amount of narration delivered by a throaty Ian McShane (and written by Bob Stanley and Travis Elborough), the film almost wordlessly lets the audience glide through the transformation of London into a modern city.
A blonde woman in a long white coat wanders lost among the bombed-out ruins of her neighbourhood; wrecking balls smash through the remaining walls of destroyed terrace homes; London Bridge is dismantled before its move to the US. The men in bowler hats commuting to work in the City are replaced by boys with long hair and leggy girls in mini-skirts. In one of the most engaging sequences, a skateboarder threads his way through the crowds crossing a bridge over the Thames to the sounds of Saint Etienne. The excellent soundtrack, composed by the band’s Pete Wiggs, terrifically sets the mood, from some jazzier numbers to more sombre notes, and in many ways it serves as the fabric that binds the interwoven images together. It’s easy to immerse yourself in the hypnotic visuals, and find delight in the little details that fill the frame with every shot. But what is most strikingly revealed in How We Used to Live is how much of the old London remains – shop fronts may have changed, cafés and clubs are gone, but the heart of the city, the people, are still there. SC
Watch the trailer for How We Used to Live:
Sx_ Tape (Bernard Rose, 2013)
Jill is a would-be artist being filmed going about her business by Adam, one of those boyfriends incapable of putting the camera down in films like this. She paints a little, they have sex, shop, eat, annoy each other. Try to have sex again, before being rudely interrupted. He wants to show her something: a huge abandoned hospital where ‘naughty women’ used to be sent to have abortions. The perfect venue for an art show. She breaks in, he, reluctantly, follows and then bad things happen to Adam and Jill and later arrivals Ellie and Bobby, the film’s regulation aggravating, macho arsehole.
It seems a little mystifying as to why Bernard Rose chose this script to mark his return to the horror genre; it’s a late jumper onto the ‘found footage’ bandwagon, passably executed and pretty unpleasant. There’s a theme, of sorts, about the abuse and exploitation of women, but it gets lost among the shock tactics. Too often the illogicalities felt preposterous rather than nightmarish, and the series of endings on offer at the climax of the film (none of which resolve the film’s police station-set opening sequence) seem to confirm that nobody really had a handle on this mother. I’d be lying if I said I was bored. Or that there was nothing here of interest, but films like this need to develop some solid, creepy ideas to really pay off, and this just ain’t working. MS
Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich, 2013)
If we imagine a world without Star Wars, we can imagine a world where cinema was not dying as it is now. If we imagine a world where Alejandro (El Topo) Jodorowsky beat Star Wars to the punch with his planned film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel Dune, we can imagine him laying the groundwork for a new and different kind of film spectacle, rather than the empty state-of-the-art 80s blockbusters that spawned endless rollercoaster rides masquerading as movies.
Frank Pavich’s feature documentary is as close as we’re ever going to get to seeing what might have been one of the great movies of the late 20th century. A mere five-million-dollars short of becoming a reality, the film was to star Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali and Orson Welles. Seeing this doc is to indulge in the creative excitement that went into every second of preparing this epic motion picture. We experience Jodorowsky’s pride (albeit with a tinge of melancholy) at planting seeds for the future greatness of others from a movie that was never made. The films exists only in a massive frame-by-frame storyboard book with the screenplay and Jodorowsky’s notes – a document used to raise additional financing in Hollywood, but which was instead passed around to one filmmaker after another. Hollywood accepted the genius, but rejected the artist and, sadly, his film. GK
Watch the trailer for Jodorowsky’s Dune:
Pioneer (Erik Skjoldbjaerg, 2013)
A pleasingly paranoid Norwegian thriller from Insomnia creator Erik Skjoldbjaerg. It’s the early 1980s and American and Norwegian diving teams are collaborating on a project which will exploit the oil and gas deposits to be found under the ocean floor in the Norwegian Sea. This is deeper than any diver has been before, and to this end the American team have developed a special breathing mix which should enable the teams to operate below 500m. But things go horribly wrong during the first test dive at sea, and Petter (Aksel Hennie, great), a dedicated diver with little outside life, becomes obsessed with finding out why, bringing him into conflict with political and commercial forces who want the tests over, and the money to start rolling.
As with Insomnia, a standard thriller set up is made much more interesting by a derangement of the senses. Petter is experiencing little blackouts, lacunae in his ability to function, and we are left unsure as to exactly how compos mentis he is – we have already seen him hallucinate a seabird into existence in the dry-run test of the opening sequence – so when he starts throwing accusations around, and breaking into offices to steal medical files, a suspicion remains that this might be all in his head. Decompression chambers here are used as instruments of torture, and places to isolate the inconvenient. Everything is murky, motives are obscure and, as in The Conversation, the evidence is open to interpretation. Pioneer plays games with focus, becoming increasingly woozy and warped as it goes on, and in the closing sections of the film Petter and the viewer have a case of the bends, which is not the best state to be in when unravelling a conspiracy or fending off shadowy killers. Good stuff, with an occasionally wonderful soundtrack by Air.
Potential viewers should be warned that this film contains Norwegian hair. MS
Watch the trailer for Pioneer :
We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson, 2013)
For all you punkety rockety girls out there, and those who love them: this is your new favourite film, you just don’t know it yet. With We Are the Best! (which is based on his wife Coco’s graphic novel), Lukas Moodysson returns to the inclusive humanism of his earlier work (Show Me Love, Together), rather than his pass-the-razor-blades phase (Lilya 4-Ever, A Hole in My Heart) or his what-the-bloody-hell-is-this phase (Container). It’s a simple tale: two 13-year-old girls, Bobo and Klara, are outcasts at school, mainly because it’s a bad place and time to be ferociously dedicated to punk rock: Stockholm in the early 1980s. Partly out of spite, they get the metal band Iron Fist thrown out of the practice room at their local youth centre on the pretext that they have a band, and having booked the room, they decide that they might as well start a band for real. Undaunted by their lack of talent, but aware that they ought to have somebody on side who knows what they’re doing, they recruit Hedwig, a Christian and another outcast, on guitar, and the film follows their trials and tribulations as they attempt to get it together for their first gig.
There is very little conflict here (an unfortunate haircut incident, a falling out over a punk boy), just a lot of brilliantly observed business about families and schools and pop culture and all that other stuff you have to negotiate when you’re 13. The girls are adorable, fearless and bulletproof, wide eyed and vulnerable, with their own cool punk chic (it involves a lot of scarves) and Moodysson perfectly captures that age when you can be obsessing over nuclear annihilation one minute and having a food fight the next. There is a great sense of time and place, and fun to be had about the difficulties of being a rebel when everybody’s so tolerant and accommodating (Swedish punk songs of the period seem pushed to find stuff to complain about). We Are the Best! finds time for everybody – youth club workers, parents, and hell, even Iron Fist are people rather than characters. There may not be a great deal to the film other than a little slice of time, but it’s bloody delightful – a warm, spiky hug. MS
Grand Piano (Eugenio Mira, 2013)
The experience of watching Grand Piano is something like wandering around a Victorian folly – a cunningly constructed, visually appealing exterior that knowingly obscures a lack of substance. Directed by Eugenio Mira, this giallo-influenced film stars Elijah Wood as Tom Selznick, a classical pianist who is about to perform in front of an audience for the first time in five years after a disastrous concert led to his retirement. The occasion: a tribute to his mentor a year after his death, and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to play his priceless grand piano before it’s shipped to Switzerland.
Wood effortlessly conveys all the stress and stage-fright that threaten his come-back performance, and his anxiety is only magnified when he discovers that there’s a sniper in the theatre threatening to assassinate his glamorous, movie-star wife if he plays a wrong note during his grand finale. There is a point to the slightly absurd plot, which is finally revealed towards the end of the increasingly bloody stand-off (although Mira does well with delivering an ambiguous ending). But it’s not the film’s premise that makes the movie appealing – it’s simply great fun to watch, an entertaining 90-minute visual treat. The art design is excellent, while the blood red tones that infuse the cinematography lend a terrific atmosphere to the thriller. There’s some clunky writing and ham-fisted acting by the more disposable characters at play, but in the end it all seems like part of the game. SC
The Sacrament (Ti West, 2013)
After his slow-burn Satanic chiller The House of the Devil and offbeat ghost story The Innkeepers, Ti West continues on his idiosyncratic path with a faux documentary investigating a religious cult in a far-off land. Presenting itself as an ‘immersionist’ Vice piece, it perfectly captures the mixture of reckless bravery and self-conscious ‘craziness’ that typifies the magazine through the characters of reporter Sam (AJ Bowen) and cameraman Jake (Joe Swanberg). When photographer Patrick decides to visit his former junkie sister Caroline in the commune she has joined, they tag along to document the reunion. Although they are met by intimidating armed guards when their helicopter lands on the island, their initial interviews with commune members seem to paint an idyllic picture of life at Eden Parish. But after a bizarre on-stage interview with Father, the charismatic cult leader, the surface begins to crack, and a far more sinister reality is revealed.
Very restrained in its use of violence, The Sacrament is about a disturbingly realistic kind of horror, recalling the Jonestown Massacre and similar fanatic cults. Key to the film’s emotional power is the complex character development, one of Ti West’s greatest strengths, helped by tremendous performances from the excellent cast. Aimy Seimetz is both unnerving and pitiful as the screwed-up sister who has traded drug addiction for another kind of escape, and Gene Jones is extraordinary as Father, a frighteningly intelligent, creepy, manipulative man, who also desperately believes what he preaches. There is a great sense of human tragedy in all of the characters, including the gung-ho reporters who sober up as they become the unwitting catalysts for horrifying violence. An intelligent, original, category-defying gem. VS
Virginie Sélavy, Mark Stafford, Greg Klymkiw, Sarah Cronin
With the 57th BFI London Film Festival now in full swing, Virginie Sélavy, Pamela Jahn, Mark Stafford and Sarah Cronin report on more films being screened over the next nine days.
Check out Part 1 and Part 2 of our LFF previews and come back for more reviews throughout the festival.
The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani, 2013)
As gorgeous as it is oppressive, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s latest neo-giallo is an ultra-sensuous, hypnotic trip through dark desires and the disturbing, delicious lines between pleasure and pain, madness and sanity, dream and reality. With what has to be the best title of the festival, riffing on the wonderfully convoluted names of the films that inspired it, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears strengthens the potent aesthetic vision of the directing duo’s 2009 feature debut Amer, focusing entirely on pure sensation. In this hallucinatory, obsessive psychosexual dream, every shot is a marvel of composition, every object and texture is fetishized: leather, gloves, boots, jewels, blood, mirrors, blades. Male and female bodies are repeatedly penetrated, skull wounds are shaped like sexual organs, broken mirror shards enter flesh, as sensual ecstasy becomes deadly and lovers turn assailants.
The narrative is even more minimal than in its Italian predecessors – a man is looking for his missing wife – and it serves as the pretext for an intense distillation of the visual and sonic motifs of the giallo. Just as its masters effortlessly found stunning decors in beautiful, decadent Italian architecture, Strange Colour makes great use of the Brussels art nouveau building in which it is set. With its exuberance of organic round shapes, flowery motifs, voluptuous naked women, twisted stairs, stained glass and golden curlicues, the building is like a living organism, the figures on its walls breathing and moaning with the rapture and agony of its inhabitants.
A baroque film composed of giallo elements that are themselves baroque, Strange Colour constructs a dizzying, infinite cascade of doubles and repetitions, of stories within stories and structures within structures, where everything is mirrored, multiplied and fragmented. While it pays brilliant homage to its models, it is compellingly alluring in itself, and its meticulously crafted world of lush excess, sumptuous sophistication and opulent illusion is deeply seductive. VS
Watch the teaser trailer for The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears:
Harmony Lessons (Boris Khlebnikov, 2013)
Directed by 29-year-old first-time Kazakhstani filmmaker Emir Baigazin, Harmony Lessons was one of the most impressive films in the international competition at this year’s Berlinale. In its essence, the film is a twisted school-bullying revenge drama revolving around introverted 13-year-old Aslan (Timur Aidarbekov), who is targeted by his ruthless classmates. In return, Aslan vents his anger and frustration on cockroaches and other pests and insects that he uses as guinea pigs for the cruel little scientific experiments that he conducts in his room. Things seem to get slightly better when a student arrives from the city and helps defy the bullies, while palling up with Aslan. However, when a murder takes place at the school, the main suspects are easily found, transforming both the characters and the plot into something deeper, darker and more mysterious. With its existential overtones and the creative assurance of a young director who seems to have little to learn from any arthouse veterans, Harmony Lessons is an inventive, genre-defying film located on the borderline between the real and the imaginary, and deserves more attention than it received in Berlin.
Watch a clip from Harmony Lessons:
Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, 2013)
“War is death, Hell is pain, chess is victory.”
It’s the early 1980s, and a nondescript American hotel is hosting a computer chess tournament, in which various teams will match their machines against each other over one weekend, with the winner to play against a human being for the grand finale. It’s a kind of geek Olympics, which the world, most assuredly, is not watching, and things aren’t going to plan: one of the competitors has failed to book a room and wanders the corridors at night; another team grow concerned as their computer seems determined to commit suicide on the battlefield. Tensions and conflicts grow, and to make matters more uncomfortable, these generally uptight types are sharing the hotel with a touchy feely ‘encounter group’ who have booked the same weekend.
Mumblecore director Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess promises at first to be something of a lo-fi Best In Show, a comic study of a particular group of obsessives in their own environment, a parade of analogue tech and bad hair. It’s shot in black and white, seemingly on a contemporary video camera, and starts in a naturalistic mode. But as the film progresses things get weirder: the late-night chatter revolves around artificial intelligence and the Pentagon, and the apocalyptic uses to which their technology might be put; cats multiply; smart people seem to be consumed by odd ideas; and a whole lot of sex doesn’t happen. There is the suggestion that the work that they are all engaged in may have altered the world in some way. It’s a funny, charmingly strange piece of work in which the unravelling of minds is reflected in increasingly inventive visuals, and massive ideas are conjured on a tiny budget. Cool. MS
Watch the trailer for Computer Chess:
A Long and Happy Life (Boris Khlebnikov, 2013)
City boy Sasha (Aleksandr Yatsenko) is now a farmer employing a handful of locals, and hoping to turn his land into a viable commercial operation when shady developers take an interest in the property. Everyone else seems to be selling out, and the council offers him no choice but to sign and take the compensation, which he is about to do until his workers convince him to make a stand against the powers that be. A deadline approaches, and a showdown seems assured, but while Boris Khlebnikov’s film is inspired by High Noon, it’s a very cynical, Russian take on that scenario. ‘You shouldn’t have listened to us… we’re morons,’ admits one of the more honest workers to Sasha’s face after it all starts to go south, in one of those ‘Hollywod scenes we’d love to see’ moments that world cinema occasionally throws up. A punchy 79 minutes. MS
Watch a clip from A Long and Happy Life :
Trap Street (Vivian Qu, 2013)
Li Qiuming is a naïve, trainee urban surveyor, who develops a romantic obsession with Guan Lifen, a girl he spots on the job, and tries to engineer ways to bump into her again, when not engaged in his sideline of installing secret security cameras. Vivian Qu’s film plays partly as a love story, but takes a darker turn when Li disappears during a date, and all that romantic behaviour is seen in another light. There’s nice play here with streets that don’t exist on maps, and maps that don’t stick to real-world geography, in a China where the truth is whatever the authorities say it is. ‘We don’t arrest innocent people,’ says a policeman at one point, as it all gets a bit nightmarish, in a low-key thriller with shades of The Conversation. MS
Story of My Death (Albert Serra, 2013)
In which an aging Casanova (Vincenc Altaio) moons about a mansion, strains on the toilet, indulges in an odd bit of wenching, and delivers monologues about the nature of the world for an hour or so, before repairing to the country, where Dracula (Eliseu Huertas) shows up. Casanova seems to represent the enlightenment, reason and open sensuality, Dracula something darker and more violent. It doesn’t end well. For the record this Count is hirsute of face, as in the Stoker novel, but sits about in the sunlight, which seems a bit off.
Albert Serra makes proper art-house films of the type that barely trouble art-house cinemas anymore, impenetrable things featuring dialogue with endless pauses, ravishing pastoral photography, gnomic visual metaphors and murky plotting. There’s much to engage with here if you’re in the mood, much to infuriate you if you’re not, but if the world had no room for baffling 148-minute-long indulgences like this, then we’d all be living in a poorer place. MS
Watch a clip from Story of My Death :
Shame (Yusup Razykov, 2013)
Almost certainly inspired by the Kursk tragedy, when 118 men died aboard a nuclear submarine after an explosion and an inept (if nonexistent) rescue attempt, director Yusup Razykov rejects the more obvious approach to the story – that of an on-board thriller – in favour of a slow-burning drama focused on the wives of the men lost at sea. Set in a remote outpost in the far north of Russia, the story mostly revolves around Lena (terrifically portrayed by Maria Semenova), who’s recently moved from St. Petersburg to the bleak, desolate, Communist-era ‘town’ inside the Arctic Circle, where her high-ranking husband has been stationed (though the audience never meets him; the only men left at the base are either the young or those unfit to serve). Lena, in her black high heels, keeps to herself, rejecting the company of the other, more matronly wives, and is seemingly indifferent to both them and her husband. Slowly, painfully, word begins to spread that a tragedy has struck the submarine, sparking a chain of consequences that sweeps through the lives of the devastated women.
Shame starts with an enigmatic mystery, only resolved much later; for the most part, events play out slowly until then, but the film has a compelling rhythm, while the cinematography beautifully captures the cold, heartless environment. What unfolds is a moving, at times heartbreaking, yet redemptive portrait of a woman and a community that exist at the mercy of outside forces. SC
Virginie Sélavy, Pamela Jahn, Mark Stafford, Sarah Cronin
From October 12 to November 9, the Horse Hospital is hosting a unique exhibition celebrating the work of Israel’s only 1970s counter-cultural movement. It will give Londoners a rare chance to explore some of the seminal group’s subversive artwork and films, which were unearthed in a retrospective at the Nachum Gutman Museum of Art in Tel Aviv in early 2012. Led by visionary artist Jacques Katmor, the 3rd Eye group searched for revolution, free love, drug-enhanced perception and artistic experiments, shocking and angering Israel’s ultra-conservative, nationalistic society. Although the movement only existed for a few years and disbanded in the mid-70s, its impact on Israel’s left-field artists and musicians cannot be underestimated and the striking art and films it produced remain richly fascinating, a must-see for anyone interested in counter-cultural transgressions and innovations.
Below, Virginie Sélavy talks to Ori Drumer, the curator of the Nachum Gutman Museum of Art exhibition ‘The Third Eye: Jacques Katmor Is Wishing You a Good Death’, and former member of 1980s noise band Duralex Sedlex.
Virginie Sélavy: How important is Jacques Katmor to the cultural history of Israel?
Ori Drumer: Katmor was a pioneer then and is still misunderstood today. He represents a culturally repressed generation which was never researched despite its prolific output and abrupt end at the eve of the 1973 war. During that small window in time, the first left-wing counter movements were established and the first anarchist groups began to emerge – mainly by immigrants from the US, South America and France. It was the first wave of political dissent in the young state’s history and it broke on the shores of the Yom Kippur War.
The memories of Katmor and the Third eye, in the eyes of their contemporaries, carry a great deal of nostalgia. His effect on people was magical, although his works in art and cinema were forgotten.
He was the first artist to bring the influence of modernism and 20th-century avant-garde movements to Israel’s art, in particular American experimental cinema, Dada, Beat, Lettrism, Guy Debord and psycho-geography. In what way was he influenced by them?
In the 60s and in the beginning of the 70s, there were no venues for either foreign or alternative cinema and the 3rd Eye Group managed to obtain films from private collections. Katmor must have also been exposed to such types of materials during his frequent trips to Paris. In turn, he used what he saw: editing styles, sound and picture juxtapositioning, using modern pop/rock music as soundtracks, investigating the cinematic apparatus, film and screen as metaphors for the human skin. But as a painter who later entered the medium of cinema, he mainly tried to explore the transfer of painting to film. Hence his work with geometric shapes, particularly in A Woman’s Case. Katmor wanted to project an experience of expanded cinema and ‘films for the inner eye’.
Katmor studied art in Paris and Switzerland. Did he meet any important cultural figures while he was in Europe?
In Paris, he met the founder of the Lettrist movement, Isidore Isou and several of the movement’s members. He also revealed how in the 80s, Goddard made romantic advances towards his (Katmor’s) wife Anne on a Club Med vacation.
How many films did he make?
Katmor directed two feature films: A Woman’s Case (1969), and a documentary titled The Fool, which documented the Fools’ Festival in Amsterdam. Between these two films he also directed 13 short films, including documentaries about Israeli art, Israeli music as well as experimental films. Despite my exhaustive research, some materials may still be in private hands.
Despite its combination of experimental visuals and rock’n’ roll, its copious amounts of nudity and its violent undertones A Woman’s Case was chosen to represent Israel at the Venice Film Festival. What was the reaction to the film?
Film-goers in Israel rioted in the theatres, as they expected to see an erotic movie and were seemingly forced to watch an artistic film. The riots were followed by the appearance of the police, which, in the context of a Lettrist strategy, is exactly what Katmor wanted.
At the Venice Film Festival, the film was accepted warmly and its critics loved the beautiful women it portrayed as well as the innocence of its Eros & Tanathos theme. However, the public’s interest ended there. Maybe they were expecting to see more from this young and promising director, but that never happened.
Two of his short films, The Journey (1971), and Sign (1974), explore the work of two painters, Yosl Bergner and Michail Grobman respectively. Why did he choose film to explore the work of other artists?
For Katmor, cinema was a natural continuation of painting and drawing. In cinema he saw an evolutionary path from the paintings of the Renaissance to the present mediums: from the dialectics and spontaneity of painting to the intimate inclusion of film. Of course, time and motion were also an important part of that evolution.
Why did he pick those two artists specifically?
It was natural for him to choose artists among his fellow immigrants: Bergner from Canada and Grobman, who belonged to the second stream of Russian avant-garde. Jacques’s affinity with them stemmed from the exploration of mysticism and cosmology in their art. Both artists incorporated Jewish motifs with symbols from their personal world in religious visionary paintings.
Katmor’s inclusion of these artists in his films was, in fact, a journey into the private worlds of his friends. His use of music from the rock opera Tommy and the German Krautrock band Faust merged with the imagery, brought a new interpretation to both.
In The Hole (1972-74), he mixed Kabbalistic symbols and psychedelic drugs. How do those elements work together?
The Hole was part of a two-year project, culminating in the film itself. In the movie, Katmor, under the influence of LSD, draws symbols on the ground, digs himself a grave and enters it. The film starts even before the appearance of the title during the leader: Katmor flashes countdown numbers that alternate with images, combining the Kabbalistic Ladder or numbers with symbols and references to… Creation. The Triangle is a prominent symbol, appearing in his earlier and later works (brought to the Now of the film), in filmed imagery and in the movements of the camera.
He also refers to the actual physical medium of film through which we experience the movie; its transparency as it allows a blinding sun to obliterate the image with light. The film is an attempt to convey a personal experience, which, in hindsight, brought on a mental crisis.
Do you believe he succeeded in defining a new Jewish identity through his art?
Before Katmor, the Israeli art world avoided interpreting religious experiences either in secular terms or in their relation to the Jewish identity in ‘modern’ Israel. He was the first to create a visual language based on Kabbalistic symbols and personal semiology. He was especially interested in ecstatic religious visions. For example, in one of his early works he depicts Jacob’s struggle with the Angel in a homosexual context. He was heavily influenced by an ancient Kabbalistic story, ‘The Tale of Joseph Della Reina’, which depicts salvation through the gutters, cosmic journeys, drug use and art as a transformational tool.
Katmor saw himself as the archetypal Fool and Jews as such too. He saw the Jewish people as artists and the image of the Wandering Jew as The Fool. Despite his attempts at defining such a figure, he never succeeded in capturing the new Jewish identity. The Israeli art scene came to tackle these kinds of issues only later in the 70s, while Katmor preceded them by two or three years. It wouldn’t be surprising to see his influence on some of the younger artists of the time, who later became central figures of Israeli art.
Who were the other important figures of the 3rd Eye movement?
Several members of the group became central figures of the Israeli underground in the 70s and 80s. One member became a rock journalist (Michael Rorberger), another became a graphic designer (Michel Opatowski, whose exhibition I am currently preparing for in 2014). Katmor’s cameraman, Amnon Solomon, who died last year, became one of the most important cinematographers in Israel.
What sort of artistic activities did they engage in?
The group staged various shows in public spaces in Tel Aviv. Amongst them an art show at the first supermarket in Israel that sold imported goods from the US, which was the first sign of opulence in the country.
Other activities included art schools and Kibbutzim, in which some adopted drugs and orgies as part of the artistic act. Shows opened frequently to shrill sounds or motorbikes zipping through startled visitors, others opened with sexual performances.
How important was the book and record store they ran for a while?
The 3rd Eye group opened a store in Tel Aviv, which stocked rock records and musical genres that were unavailable anywhere else in Israel at the time: psychedelic rock, experimental music and such. Israel was in a cultural vacuum and the establishment had no interest in developing these avenues. (We should remember that The Beatles were not allowed to perform in Israel). The shop also carried contemporary posters, books (by authors such as Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley, as well as books on Eastern philosophy), erotic comic books, mainly from France, and alternative magazines from San Francisco and London.
The latter were the inspiration for the group’s fanzine, Strip, designed by Michel Opatowski, who later became a successful graphic artist and political left-wing activist. Other members contributed texts, photography, illustrations and other works which were published in the only edition ever produced by the group. The fanzine was later revived in the eighties.
In addition, there was a small gallery which displayed the works of local artists. The shop became a centre of pilgrimage where visitors could drink Indian chai and candidly smoke marijuana and hashish but it never made enough money to get by. At one point the shop was burglarized, its contents stolen, which were irreplaceable due to the group’s low funds. Their ‘infamy’ also brought the police, which, together with the burglary and financial problems caused its closure only 14 months after its opening.
Why did the 3rd Eye Group disband in 1974?
Katmor and the rest of the members of the 3rd Eye were constantly persecuted by the police under the excuse of drug use. Their apartment was frequently raided and criminal records were drawn for every member. This kind of environment was impossible to operate in as Katmor saw his freedom taken away repeatedly. The tiny group seemed too insignificant to be a threat to the Israeli consensus. Furthermore, Israel at that time was in a state of post-war crisis and was grieving over its dead, with many broken families to mend. Why were so many resources diverted just to demoralize some hippies? We may never know the answer but a guiding hand is felt in these occurrences. The group, which had planted the seeds of Israeli communes and the Israeli New Age, left for London, Amsterdam and the Far East, either one by one, or in couples.
Orson Welles arrived in Hollywood in 1939 having negotiated a two-picture deal as producer-director-writer-actor with George Schaefer of RKO Pictures. Drawing on an entourage of colleagues from New York theatre and radio, he established Mercury Productions as a filmmaking entity. Before embarking on Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Welles developed other properties: Nicholas Blake’s just-published anti-fascist thriller The Smiler With a Knife (1939), Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) and Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Like the Conrad, Dracula was a novel Welles had already done for the Mercury Theatre on the Air radio series (July 11, 1938). A script was prepared (by Welles, Herman Mankiewicz and, uncredited, John Houseman), sets were designed, the film cast, and ‘tests’ – the extent of which have never been revealed – shot, but the project was dropped.
The reasons for the abandonment of Count Dracula remain obscure. It has been speculated that RKO were nervous about Welles’s stated intention to film most of the story with a first-person camera, adopting the viewpoints of the various characters as Stoker does in his might-have-been fictional history. Houseman, in his memoir Run-Through (1972), alleges that Welles’s enthusiasm for this device was at least partly due to the fact that it would keep the fearless vampire slayers – Harker, Van Helsing, Quincey, Holmwood – mostly off screen, while Dracula, the object of their attention, would always be in view. Houseman, long estranged from Welles at the time of writing, needlessly adds that Welles would have played Dracula. He toyed with the idea of playing Harker as well, before deciding William Alland could do it if kept to the shadows and occasionally dubbed by Welles. The rapidly changing political situation in Europe, already forcing the Roosevelt administration to reassess its policies about vampirism and the very real Count Dracula, may have prompted certain factions to bring pressure to bear on RKO that such a film was ‘inadvisable’ for 1940.
In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, published in This is Orson Welles (1992) but held well before Francis Ford Coppola’s controversial Dracula (1979), Welles said: ‘Dracula would make a marvellous movie. In fact, nobody has ever made it; they’ve never paid any attention to the book, which is the most hair-raising, marvellous book in the world. It’s told by four people, and must be done with four narrations, as we did on the radio. There’s one scene in London where he throws a heavy bag into the corner of a cellar and it’s full of screaming babies! They can go that far out now.’
Throughout Welles’s career, Dracula remained an idée fixe. The Welles-Mankiewicz script was RKO property and the studio resisted Welles’s offer to buy it back. They set their asking price at the notional but substantial sum accountants reckoned had been lost on the double debacle of Ambersons and the unfinished South American project, It’s All True.
When Schaefer, Welles’s patron, was removed from his position as Vice-President in Charge of Production and replaced by Charles Koerner, there was serious talk of putting the script into production through producer Val Lewton’s unit, which had established a reputation for low-budget supernatural dramas with Cat People (1942). Lewton got as far as having DeWitt Bodeen and then Curt Siodmak take runs at further drafts, scaling the script down to fit a strait-jacket budget. Jacques Tourneur was attached to direct, though editor Mark Robson was considered when Tourneur was promoted to A Pictures. Stock players were assigned supporting roles: Tom Conway (Dr Seward), Kent Smith (Jonathan Harker), Henry Daniell (Van Helsing), Jean Brooks (Lucy), Alan Napier (Arthur Holmwood), Skelton Knaggs (Renfield), Elizabeth Russell (Countess Marya Dolingen), Sir Lancelot (a calypso-singing coachman). Simone Simon, star of Cat People, was set for Mina, very much the focus of Lewton’s take on the story, but the project fell through because RKO were unable to secure their first and only choice of star, Boris Karloff, who was committed to Arsenic and Old Lace on Broadway.
In 1944, RKO sold the Welles-Mankiewicz script, along with a parcel of set designs, to 20th Century Fox. Studio head Darryl F. Zanuck offered Welles the role of Dracula, promising Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland for Mina and Lucy, suggesting Tyrone Power (Jonathan), George Sanders (Arthur), John Carradine (Quincey) and Laird Cregar (Van Helsing). This Dracula would have been a follow-up to Fox’s successful Welles-Fontaine Jane Eyre (1943) and Welles might have committed if Zanuck had again assigned weak-willed Robert Stevenson, allowing Welles to direct in everything but credit. However, on a project this ‘important’, Zanuck would consider only two directors; John Ford had no interest – sparing us John Wayne, Victor McLaglen, Ward Bond and John Agar as brawling, boozing fearless vampire slayers – so it inevitably fell to Henry King, a specialist in molasses-slow historical subjects like Lloyd’s of London (1936) and Brigham Young (1940). King, a plodder who had a brief flash of genius in a few later films with Gregory Peck, had his own, highly developed, chocolate-box style and gravitas, and was not a congenial director for Welles, whose mercurial temperament was unsuited to methods he considered conservative and dreary. The film still might have been made, since Welles was as ever in need of money, but Zanuck went cold on Dracula at the end of the War when the Count was moving into his Italian exile.
Fox wound up backing Prince of Foxes (1949), directed by King, with Power and Welles topping the cast, shot on location in Europe. A lavish bore, enlivened briefly by Welles’s committed Cesare Borgia, this suggests what the Zanuck Dracula might have been like. Welles used much of his earnings from the long shoot to pour into film projects made in bits and pieces over several years: the completed Othello (1952), the unfinished Don Quixote (begun 1955) and, rarely mentioned until now, yet another Dracula. El conde Dràcula, a French-Italian-Mexican-American-Irish-Liechtensteinian-British-Yugoslav-Moroccan-Iranian co-production, was shot in snippets, the earliest dating from 1949, the latest from 1972.
Each major part was taken by several actors, or single actors over a span of years. In the controversial edit supervised by the Spaniard Jesus Franco – a second-unit director on Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (1966) – and premiered at Cannes in 1997, the cast is as follows: Akim Tamiroff (Van Helsing), Micheál MacLiammóir (Jonathan), Paola Mori (Mina), Michael Redgrave (Arthur), Patty McCormick (Lucy), Hilton Edwards (Dr Seward), Mischa Auer (Renfield). The vampire brides are played by Jeanne Moreau, Suzanne Cloutier and Katina Paxinou, shot in different years on different continents. There is no sight of Francisco Reiguera, Welles’s Quixote, cast as a skeletal Dracula, and the Count is present only as a substantial shadow voiced (as are several other characters) by Welles himself. Much of the film runs silent, and a crucial framing story, explaining the multi-narrator device, was either never filmed or shot and lost. Jonathan’s panicky exploration of his castle prison, filled with steam like the Turkish bath in Othello, is the most remarkable, purely Expressionist scene Welles ever shot. But the final ascent to Castle Dracula, with Tamiroff dodging patently papier-mâché falling boulders and wobbly zooms into and out of stray details hardly seems the work of anyone other than a fumbling amateur.
In no sense ‘a real film’, El conde Dràcula is a scrapbook of images from the novel and Welles’s imagination. He told Henry Jaglom that he considered the project a private exercise, to keep the subject in his mind, a series of sketches for a painting he would execute later. As Francis Coppola would in 1977, while his multi-million-dollar Dracula was bogged down in production problems in Romania, Welles often made comparisons with the Sistine Chapel.
In 1973, Welles assembled some El conde Dràcula footage, along with documentary material about the real Count Dracula and the scandals that followed his true death in 1959: the alleged, much-disputed will that deeded much of his vast fortune to English housewife Vivian Nicholson, who claimed she had encountered Dracula while on a school holiday in the early ’50s; the autobiography Clifford Irving sold for a record-breaking advance in 1971, only to have the book exposed as an arrant fake written by Irving in collaboration with Fred Saberhagen; the squabbles among sundry vampire elders, notably Baron Meinster and Princess Asa Vajda, as to who should claim the Count’s unofficial title as ruler of their kind, King of the Cats. Welles called this playful, essay-like film – constructed around the skeleton of footage shot by Calvin Floyd for his own documentary, In Search of Dracula (1971) – When Are You Going to Finish el conde Dràcula? , though it was exhibited in most territories as D is for Dracula. On the evening Premier Ceauşescu withdrew the Romanian Cavalry needed for Coppola’s assault on Castle Dracula in order to pursue the vampire banditti of the Transylvania Movement in the next valley, Francis Ford Coppola held a private screening of D is for Dracula and cabled Welles that there was a curse on anyone who dared invoke the dread name.
This is an extract from Anno Dracula: Johnny Alucard by Kim Newman. First published in Video Watchdog No 23, May-July 1994.
Novelist Ann Leckie has worked as a waitress, a receptionist, a rodman on a land-surveying crew and a recording engineer. Her home is St. Louis, Missouri, and her science-fiction short stories have been published in a galaxy of publications, including Subterranean Magazine, Strange Horizons and Realms of Fantasy; she’s currently also the Secretary for the SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America). Her debut, Ancillary Justice (published by Orbit Books, £7.99), is essentially a space opera with the pace of a psychological thriller that involves corpse soldiers, a vengeful sentient spaceship as a narrator and has the battle for individual justice against a merciless, expansionist empire at its heart. Eithne Farry
I was two years old when Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey came out. Sometime between then and my first day of kindergarten, one of the less responsible of the adults looking after me took me along when he went to see it.
I know plenty of perfectly intelligent adults who tell me they find the film incomprehensible. Tiny me didn’t stand a chance of making any sense out of it. But I left the theatre with several sights and sounds stamped indelibly onto my very young mind, foremost among them, HAL singing ‘A Bicycle Built for Two’ as Dave pulled his mind apart, piece by piece.
HAL 9000 is often casually referred to as an evil computer. And I know when people say that, they don’t mean much by it, it’s shorthand. But it irks me. HAL isn’t evil. HAL is tremendously smart, but less than 10 years old. He has very little actual real world experience, and he’s put in an incredibly difficult situation that he isn’t equipped to handle. The authorities that chose the crew for the Jupiter mission took care to examine their psychological makeup. But they didn’t take the trouble to examine HAL’s. He was a tool they had built, that they expected to function as required. They never asked themselves what sort of a person HAL was, and how he might respond to what they were asking of him. And what they asked of him struck right at the heart of HAL’s image of himself. It’s no wonder he cracked.
And no wonder, then, that scene is so memorable, even when you’re small and don’t really understand what led up to it, that moment when HAL is revealed to be, at base, a child, eager to show off his abilities, eager for approval. Maybe HAL stuck in my imagination so hard because that was something I understood.
As an adult, I’m struck by the way that Dave Bowman is silent through all of HAL’s pleas, but when HAL announces that he can sing a song, Dave answers, and his answer is the only one possible when you’ve realised that HAL isn’t just a computer. ‘’I’d like to hear it, HAL. Sing it for me.’
Once again, the Etrange Festival in Paris lived up to expectations, offering a wide array of films from many different horizons (whether in terms of genre or geographic origin) for its 19th edition, and discouraging any restrictive definition of ‘étrange’ cinema. The audience got their fill of fiction, documentaries and shorts from virtually all over the world, which confirmed the continuing importance of Asian cinema and revealed the frighteningly poor number of contributions from the festival’s home country, with only two genuinely French feature films: Philippe Barassat’s Les Dépravés and Albert Dupontel’s 9 mois ferme (Quentin Dupieux and Marina de Van having shot theirs with English-speaking casts). This year’s winners were Yuri Bykov’s The Major (for the Nouveau Genre award), Sion Sono’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (for the Audience award) and Adan Jodorowsky’s The Voice Thief (for the Short Film award). As usual, besides the official selection and the innumerable unreleased films, the festival also had its share of rarely seen curiosities, notably thanks to the cartes blanches given to Albert Dupontel and former Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra, as well as the tributes to actresses Martine Beswick and Caroline Munro, and a focus on production designer Stephen Sayadian. On Sunday 15 September, the closing day, the weirdness of the festival was enhanced when it experienced a major breakdown in the computer ticketing system. The resulting chaos was handled good-naturedly without any blunders or complaints, thus proving how exceptional the festival is, not only because of its eclectic, comprehensive and international selection, but also thanks to a loyal, supportive and enthusiastic audience.
Read our 2012 L’Etrange Festival coverage by Nicolas Guichard here.
Wrong Cops (Quentin Dupieux, 2013)
Quentin Dupieux’s latest feature builds on a shorter version of the story shot in 2012, which focused on Marilyn Manson’s role as David Dolores Frank, a victim of corrupt cop Duke’s harassment. The feature version is articulated around Duke, who deals drugs concealed in dead rats (and later in dead fish) and has to get rid of a neighbour’s body, whom he accidentally shot while aiming at David Dolores Frank. He talks Sunshine, a colleague and client of his who owes him money, into disposing of the body. While digging a hole in his backyard, Sunshine discovers a bag containing $13,000. As the news spreads, another ‘wrong’ cop successfully blackmails him out of the money to pay for her nose job…
These are but a few protagonists in this Short Cuts-esque ensemble film. French critics like to describe Dupieux’s movies as filmic UFOs, but Wrong Cops has a much tighter and coherent plot, where everything falls into place in the final graveyard dénouement. Though one might be tempted to see Wrong Cops as Police Academy for an audience with a good sense of humour, the film is actually quite subversive in presenting the police force as the only threat to society, surrounded by innocent and/or dumb people. I wonder if this may be the meaning of a shot that recurs throughout the film: the revolving lights of a police car in focus while the rest of the street and background remain a blur.
Watch the trailer for Wrong Cops:
La torre de los siete jorobados (Edgar Neville, 1944)
Presented as one of the ‘Pépites de l’étrange’ (Weird Gems) by Gaspar Noé (Irreversible), La torre de los siete jorobados (The Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks) is a masterpiece of pre-Jess Franco, Spanish horror cinema, and actually the only one of that period. Based on a novel by Emilio Carrere, Edgar Neville’s witty film tells the story of a ghostly justice meted out against a pack of hunchbacks who run a counterfeit money press in an underground synagogue. Heavily, though fruitfully, influenced by German expressionism (see the staircase of the inversed tower) and Hollywood genre films of the 1930s (see the Gothic streets of Madrid), Neville cannot resist injecting more wit into the story than there is in the original novel. The best example is the apparition of Napoleon’s ghost, who comes to the wrong apartment and complains that whenever occultists raise a ghost he is always the one to be conjured up.
This beautiful and well-performed film also has a darker side to it, not so much because of its Gothic setting, but because of its director’s less laudable activities at the time. Although a friend of left-leaning poet Federico Garcia Lorca, composer Manuel de Falla and Luis Buñuel’s, as well as of Charles Chaplin’s during his stay in Hollywood, Neville became a champion of General Franco’s propaganda and The Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks takes on an additional meaning when decrypted in this more dubious context. Still, it is definitely a gem to be (re)discovered.
Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho, 2013)
The screening of Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer was one of the major events of the festival, having already scored eight million viewers in Korea, and standing as the biggest-budget offering in the selection at $40,000,000. The impressive aesthetic and technical aspects of the film show money well invested, but the radical changes in the plot reveal a lot about its director’s vision as well as about the 30-year gap since the creation of Jean-Marc Rochette’s French graphic novel Transperceneige. Only the main idea remains from the original graphic novel: a lonely train running across a frozen planet, carrying the last of mankind on board, and a hero making the arduous trip from the bleak tail to the privileged head of the train. Exit the solo adventure, exit the love story, exit the plague. The dark pessimism of Rochette’s black and white illustrations (created in the 1980s during the Cold War period, when a third world conflict leading to the end of civilisation was still on everyone’s mind) gives way to much more optimistic, sunny, pure white, snowy mountainscapes, contrasted with the usual modern horror-lore: insects, grimy dirt, sadistic punishments, cannibalism, etc.
The climactic weapon unleashed in the graphic novel becomes a double-edged remedy against global warming in the film, and the rebel/prisoner Proloff turns into revolutionary leader Curtis, manipulated by two arch-conspirators, Wilford and Gilliam. The most regretful feature of the film is the fact that Joon-ho cannot resist Hollywood sirens, and builds the film up into a series of violent encounters punctuated by some irritating slow-motion sequences, indulging in bladed bloodletting, reminiscent of Oldboy and Gangs of New York in its use of hatchets and axes. The scene where all the combatants suddenly suspend their heated confontation as the train has to break through a series of ice blocks on the railway, before resuming their hostilities as if nothing had happened, is perhaps one of the worst of the film, verging on (or plunging into, according to how well disposed you are) bathos.
Rochette actively contributed to the film, sketching all the drawings made by one of the characters throughout the story, which probably explains his unrestrained enthusiasm about this adaptation. Yet, for all its flaws, the film is far from being a failure. The cast is brilliant, and all-in-all the plot is well above the usual Hollywood fare of the Elysium or Pacific Rim type. Unsurprisingly perhaps, there are rumours that Harvey Weinstein intends to cut down the film and add a voice-over for the US release.
Watch the trailer for Snowpiercer:
Freak Orlando (Ulrike Ottinger, 1981)
Screened as part of Jello Biafra’s carte blanche, Freak Orlando is one of those rarities that is hard to classify. A famous German artist, as well as a painter and a sculptor, Ulrike Ottinger has directed some ninety films and, like Alejandro Jodorowsky, insists on having control over the whole process, from filming to editing to production. In the words of Jello Biafra the film is a ‘confusing mystery’ that ‘makes El Topo look like Disney’. Bearing only a remote resemblance to Virginia Woolf’s story, the film spends most of its time conjugating the figures of transgender, starting with bearded women straight out of Tod Browning and carrying on with hermaphrodites and transvestites. Ottinger seems to be exorcising her inner and outer demons, the latter being Christianity, fascism and consumerism.
There are moments of grace in the film, like the song of the crucified St. Wilgefortis performed by Else Nabu, or the French Siamese twins episode, and of course the illuminating presence of Delphine Seyrig. Yet, it seemed to me that part of the charm the film may have exerted on Biafra, who saw it one night on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg’s red-light district, not understanding any German, may have come from the context. Sadly, three decades later, watching the film in a comfortable Parisian cinema with no substance to stimulate your reception, the mystery no longer works.
Europa Report (Sebastian Cordero, 2013) Europa Report is named after one of the moons of Jupiter, to which an international space mission travels to search for possible extra-terrestrial life. The film takes the form of found footage, miraculously transmitted from the spaceship after a long period of lost contact. Unlike Cannibal Holocaust and other Blair Witch Project(s), Europa Report achieves a perfect match between its genre and chosen setting, as a spaceship is definitely a place where every inch of space is monitored. Particular care was brought to the verisimilitude of the technology and the result is very convincing. Similar care is found in the editing, for in order to create and maintain the tension throughout the film, the Ecuadorian director Sebastian Cordero opted for a non-linear timeline with several levels of flashbacks and flashforwards, as well as later comments from the space agency on earth. All this is fortunately made clear by the adopted CCTV convention, which constantly displays the time codes of the mission.
Although Cordero does not seem willing to build on the philosophical and scientific reflections that the premise of the film might have allowed – as in most recent science-fiction films, we are quite far from Kubrick – he proves that good science fiction can do without expensive digital special effects and offers us a much more intelligent and effective story than Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. There is one fly in the ointment, though: the final image of the film cannot help revealing what has caused the death of the crew.
Watch the trailer for Europa Report:
Borgman (Alex van Warmerdam, 2013)
Alex van Warmerdam returns with Borgman, which masterfully plunges into the uncanny without ever fully acknowledging the supernatural dimension of the plot. Indeed, Camiel Borgman (played by Jan Bijvoet, recently seen in Alabama Munro) might well be the devil, as suggested by the Bible-like quotation opening the film: ‘And they descended upon earth to strengthen their ranks.’
The feeling of something otherworldly is introduced from the opening scene, in which two hunters, accompanied by a Catholic priest, hunt down Borgman and his followers, who are living in underground shelters in the forest (reminiscent of the Black Man in Warmerdam’s The Northerners). On the run from them, Borgman arrives at an upper-middle-class house asking for a bath and gets sorely beaten by the owner, while the wife takes pity and shelters him. From then on things go wrong, and we soon realise that Borgman is definitely more than just a tramp, as he turns into a literal night-mare, such as pictured by Henry Fuseli. Once again, in his very idiosyncratic style, Warmerdam combines social criticism of the bourgeoisie with mystical angst, leaving the audience to weave the threads of interpretation as they please.
In the second part of our BFI London Film Festival previews, Pamela Jahn, Mark Stafford and John Bleasdale pick out more highlights from this year’s festival line-up.
Check out Part 1 of our LFF previews here and look out for more coverage throughout the festival.
All Cheerleaders Die (Lucky McKee, Chris Sivertson, 2013)
Anyone who’s suffered through the likes of Head Cheerleader Dead Cheerleader, and Delta Delta Die! will know that the cheerleader-based horror film is a dubious prospect at best, but All Cheerleaders Die is spiky, nasty and massively enjoyable. The first third of Lucky McGee and Chris Sivertson’s film is a tense and unnerving affair, as, after a shattering opening sequence, we follow high-school-outsider Maddy while she infiltrates the cheerleading squad at Blackfoot High with some kind of dark agenda, sowing distrust and disharmony in an already spiteful, brittle environment of ‘bitches’ and ‘dogs’. The paranoia builds, and there are no especially sympathetic characters, only a sense that something dreadful is going to happen, which it duly does, as tempers flare during a party scene. After this the film changes, via some witchy business, into an arguably less interesting, but undeniably more fun, out-and-out black comedy horror ride. It’s as if Afterschool morphed into Jennifer’s Body, but a lot more entertaining than that sounds. It’s sharp stuff, with quotable dialogue and a game cast giving it their all. The sexual politics may be debatable, and assassinating airheads may be like shooting fish in a barrel, but sod it. This is great. MS
Blue Is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)
The winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival was the talk of the town from the moment of the first press screening until long after the award ceremony. Although most critics immediately fell in love with this oddly seductive, three-hour lesbian love saga, soon after taking home the main prize, the film was slammed by others for some oddly positioned camera angles focusing on the central character’s arse and the lengthy scenes of real-looking sex between her and her female lover, allegedly all designed for the male gaze. What’s more, Julie Maroh, author of the graphic novel the film was inspired by, has publicly expressed her disappointment about Kechiche’s adaptation, describing the sex scenes as ‘ridiculous’ and comparing them to porn. What’s true is that Kechiche has a tendency to keep the camera pointed and rolling just a little longer and deeper than most directors would have done when it comes to depicting Adèle’s lust for life, love and home-made spaghetti.
Blue Is the Warmest Colour will be released in UK Cinemas by Artificial Eye on 15 November 2013.
On the other hand, the sex aside, there simply aren’t many films that manage to keep you hooked for that sort of running time on not much more than the coming-of-age of a middle-class, high-school girl who instantly and desperately falls for a foxy art student, from the moment she spots her on the street until their painful and moving break-up as young adults. That of course is in no small part thanks to the two leads, Adèle Exarchopoulos (Carré blanc) and Léa Seydoux, who play their parts with utter conviction, guided by a script that allows them to find their own voices. PJ
Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013)
The latest offering from Joel and Ethan Coen was one of the hottest tickets in Cannes this year, and deservedly so. Inside Llewyn Davis tells the heartfelt story of an itinerant, relentlessly failing and unashamedly self-pitying folk singer in 1960s New York, loosely based on the life of Dave Van Ronk, who was at the centre of the Greenwich Village music scene. Adored by many at the time, Van Ronk never had his big breakthrough, just as Davis (Oscar Isaac) struggles to keep his head above water with occasional gigs in a tiny club called Gaslight, and with the help of his peevish ex-girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) who might, or might not be, expecting his child. But that’s only one of the many problems leading to his downfall, which culminates in a trip to Chicago to visit the legendary folk club The Gate of Horn.
Inside Llewyn Davis will be released in UK Cinemas by Studiocanal on 24 January 2014.
To a large extent, the Coens are working in known territory: a bunch of flawed, but strangely intriguing characters, dry-as-dusk dialogue and some wonderful music supervised by T-Bone Burnett, fused together into an impressively subtle, dark but magical character study that says as much about shattered dreams and the trouble with art as it does about the mystery of life and luck. What makes the film uniquely special, however, is Isaac’s riveting performance (both playing the guitar and acting), and who makes his precariously unlikable character unexpectedly compelling, as he wanders through the streets and other people’s lives, and shines whenever he’s on stage. PJ
Watch the trailer for Inside Llewyn Davis:
Locke (Steven Knight, 2013)
Steven Knight’s second film in one year – the first was the Jason Statham thriller Hummingbird – is a brilliant minimalist piece of cinéma de chambre, in this case the chamber being the titular protagonist’s car. Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is driving alone from Birmingham to Croydon, away from his his wife and two teenage sons, from his work as a senior site supervisor on a huge building project, and from his life as he knows it so far. Armed only with the car phone and some tissues and cough medicine for his head cold, Locke attempts to repair the damage even as he is doing it. Boasting a wonderful performance of unshowy maturity by Hardy and driven by a superbly detailed script by Knight, Locke is a film that is never hampered by its own rigorously applied confines.
The emotional moments are hard won and brilliantly delivered. Although credit should also be given to the vocal presence of Ruth Wilson, Olivia Colman and Andrew Scott, Hardy carries the weight of the film with aplomb. To add to the difficulties of holding the screen on his own for the duration of the film, he also adopts a Welsh accent, which is entirely in keeping with the character, who makes poetry out of hard work and who desperately struggles to maintain his values and integrity even when they will effectively destroy him. JB
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013)
After Jarmusch’s last film, The Limits of Control, it seemed that another great director was close to losing his genius, but there is a welcome sense of rebirth about Only Lovers Left Alive from the moment it opens. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston make for a brilliant pair of vampire lovers who have been truly, madly, deeply in love for centuries, yet are now living apart. Swinton’s resilient and enigmatic Eve resides in lush Tangiers while Hiddleston’s disheartened underground musician, Adam, is holed up in the outskirts of derelict Detroit. When their longing for each other becomes unbearable, Eve decides to take on the difficult journey (she can only travel at night) to reunite with Adam, but soon after the couple are back together, their gently hedonistic idyll of non-murderous blood and old vinyl is disrupted by the arrival of Eve’s unnerving, uncontrollable younger sister (Mia Wasikowska).
Only Lovers Left Alive is released in UK Cinemas by Soda Pictures on 21 February 2014.
Nothing much happens in Jarmusch’s sensuous fantasy of night and nostalgia, apart from the fact that the pair are running short of the sort of pure, uncontaminated blood that they now need to keep them going. But watching these two archetypal outcasts, still in full possession of their animal instincts, as they roam around trying to blend in with their surroundings, is an undemanding, irresistible pleasure. PJ
Watch the trailer for Only Lovers Left Alive:
Sacro GRA (Gianfranco Rosi, 2013)
Picking up the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival a few weeks ago, Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary Sacro GRA takes the Roman ring road – the GRA, the Grande Raccordo Anulare – as a fairly arbitrary rope with which to lasso a hodgepodge of eccentrics and colourful characters into an at-times funny and occasionally moving, but oddly unrevealing picture of a series of places. Rosi has gathered an eel fisherman, an ambulance worker, a monkish tree surgeon, a seedy nobleman, a father and daughter chatting in their emergency housing, and bar-top dancers preparing in the dingy back room of a grubby bar. The road passes close by them, but serves little purpose except a tenuous connection and perhaps a structuring absence. The road is the audience that passes by these lives but doesn’t stop to listen, perhaps. As with previous work – El Sicario, Room 164 and the American based Below Sea Level – Rosi maintains a neutral space of bland observation, but sometimes the neutrality feels like a pose. As with Le Quattro Volte, which feels like a rural companion piece to Rosi’s documentary, there is an awkward feel of an essayist presenting his supporting evidence too neatly on the page. The hair-in-the-gate spontaneity is missing and some of the effects realised are done so neatly that there is a suspicion Rosi is filming his characters with specific traits in mind: the laughable photo-novel and the horny-handed hero of toil. JB
Pamela Jahn, Mark Stafford, John Bleasdale
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