All posts by Pam Jahn

A Bleak Picturesque: Nicola Piovani’s score for Le orme

Le orme

In the 1970s, Nicola Piovani was dogged by rumours that his name was just a pseudonym for Ennio Morricone – something he liked to make great play of at after-dinner speeches. If true, it would’ve meant that the one man, Morricone-Piovani, was responsible for 675 film soundtracks. But one thing the two Roman composers do share is the suppleness to switch seamlessly between auteurist productions for Fellini or Marco Bellocchio, and the grislier fare of gialli and nunspoitation films. Luigi Bazzoni’s Le orme, also known as Footprints on the Moon (released on DVD by Shameless as Footprints), fits into the latter category, albeit not unproblematically. The film is concerned with the peculiar lunar dreams of a professional translator-interpreter, Alice Cespi (Florinda Bolkan), who seems to have lost several days from her memory.

About twelve minutes into the film, Cespi starts to recall the events leading up to her fugue. The image switches to black and white and we find ourselves in a large conference centre as a deep organ drone enters on the soundtrack with a series of discordant notes added in the middle voice of the keyboard, offset only slightly by a sparse, gentle melody on the piano. As the camera pans across a series of cubicles containing translators for different languages, strings enter tremolando with a grating sound verging on scratch tone. We hear a series of glissandi played – by the sound of it – using the screw of the violin bow, recalling Helmut Lachenmann. A flutter-tongued flute briefly enters, and the percussion drifts and rolls softly as if somewhere in the distance. It’s only a brief composition, played low in the mix under a number of multilingual voiceovers saying things like, ‘Our computer has also shown us that in the year 2000 it will be almost impossible for men to live on planet Earth’, but in its brief span of minutes this piece showcases several extended instrumental techniques then being popularised by modernist composers like Lachenmann, Krzysztof Penderecki and Luciano Berio, to startlingly atmospheric effect.

The score to Le orme was one of those cited (in numerous interviews) by director Peter Strickland as inspiration for his recent Berberian Sound Studio (it’s name an homage to Berio’s wife, the singer Cathy Berberian). But it was the melancholy opening theme which inspired James Cargill and Trish Keenan of Broadcast in the composition of their own score for Strickland’s film. The principal melody for flute and acoustic guitar is used at several moments in Le orme, its instrumentation evoking the folk records of the time – or perhaps rather the odd combination of folk and easy listening that was becoming a feature of albums of library music at the time. But there is a sadness to it, suitable for that bleak picturesque peculiar to beach resorts out of season, the setting for most of the film. It sounds nostalgic, but with a sort of cloudy, sunken feeling, like a half-forgotten memory.

Over the opening credits, however, this instrumentation is augmented by a steady pulse beat on a drum and bursts of organ, suggestive of church music and, in its trills, particularly reminiscent of certain works of Bach, but in the context of the film also associated with images of the moon. Also, we find again that flutter-tongued flute – a technique popular with the 60s avant-gardists (Berio’s first Sequenza, in particular, makes great use of it), which first entered the mainstream of classical composition at the turn of the twentieth century, with works like Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote, Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, and Pierrot Lunaire, Schoenberg’s moondrunk monodrama from 1912. ‘Piovani’s central flute and string chord progression lulls one into the loneliest of reveries,’ wrote Strickland of the score in a blogpost back in 2011, while his Berberian Sound Studio was still in production. ‘Brooding and full of yearning for something that maybe never was, this is a tender and beautifully understated soundtrack.’

Robert Barry

Beatrice Hitchman is Irma Vep from Les vampires

Irma Vep 2
Les vampires

Beatrice Hitchman was born in London, studied in Edinburgh, lived in Paris for a year and then headed back to the UK to work as a documentary film editor. Her debut novel, Petite Mort, is set in the languorous Deep South and Belle Epoque Paris, and features a mysterious silent movie, with a missing scene, an ambitious seamstress, a starry actress and an illusionist husband. Petite Mort (Serpent’s Tail) is out now at £12.99 (ebook/hardback). Beatrice Hitchman’s filmic alter ego is Irma Vep from Les vampires. Eithne Farry

Paris, 1915: the city is in the grip of a deadly band of criminals, Les vampires. A severed head is found in an air duct! A stage performer is murdered with a poisoned ring! A hundred aristocrats are sent to sleep with gas and their jewels stolen! And at the epicentre of this dizzying crime spree is anagrammatic mistress of disguise, ringleader Irma Vep.

In an early scene, Irma’s dressed as a Breton maid, complete with lacy head-dress – a look that takes guts, I’m sure you’ll agree, to pull off. In this outfit she infiltrates the apartment of the useless journalist who’s trying to unmask her, Philippe Guérande, and then makes a midnight escape out of his bedroom window. He’s too frightened to follow, and stands shaking his fist at her as she retreats. Later, she’ll expand her costume repertoire to include: exotic dancer, secretary, cat-suited sneak thief and – in a too-brief scene that set my cold heart racing – 1915 men’s lounge wear. But through it all, Vep is instantly recognisable – the eyes have it, flashing at the camera, utterly distinctive, utterly threatening, defying us to outwit her.

But it isn’t about the fabulous outfits. It’s not even about the enviable way Paris becomes Irma’s personal playground: a world of sliding bookcases, vertical climbing and operatic hideouts. It’s that, although Vep is a woman surrounded by men, she doesn’t seem to notice, or care. She’ll just keep on doing what she’s going to do – stealing, cheating, upsetting people – indifferent to who’s watching, and with complete conviction. When she creeps away from Guérande’s apartment across the rooftops, Breton headgear shining in the light of the moon, she doesn’t look down once.

Beatrice Hitchman

International Film Festival Rotterdam 2013

Oh Boy 1
Oh Boy

42nd International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR)

23 January – 3 February 2013, Rotterdam, Netherlands

IFFR website

Occurring in January, the IFFR feels like the season opener for the annual round of international film festivals, with one foot in the past year and one in the future. Some of the films have played at other film festivals, with their European premieres taking place at Rotterdam, while others are fresh out of the production house for their world debuts, all of which serve to presage the offerings for upcoming festivals in 2013.

The very broad and encompassing catalogue evidences a film festival dedicated to excellent – I hesitate to say ‘art house’ – world movies. And what an eclectic bunch it was. Space permits only short observations on a select handful of works, so I start with two of my favourites: Oh Boy directed by German first-timer, Jan Ole Gerster, and another first feature by Cameroonian (by way of Los Angeles) director Victor Viyuoh, whose harrowing but moving film, Nina’s Dowry is a terrific and unforgiving look at oppressive village life in Cameroon, where wives are bartered for and treated ‘less well than cattle’. The story of the heroine’s journey to freedom – for which she pays a high price – is a wonderful testimony to the human spirit and a salutary lesson to Western audiences. The more so, as Viyuoh informs us that the story is based very closely on a relative’s terrible, true story. Not an easy watch, but an essential one.

Viyuoh’s film takes place far from the world of contemporary Berlin, where Jan Ole Gerster sets his narrative about a slacker-hero’s journey through the social strata of the city. A Candide-like figure, he goes on a simple and ultimately fruitless search for a cup of coffee, during which time he comes to a profound self-realisation. Shot in black and white, with a terrific jazz soundtrack, Oh Boy introduces a real talent to audiences. Gerster displays a very assured, mature and confident hand, and his film carries the DNA of all those off-beat counter-cultural films by the likes of the BBS gang. The film has garnered a fistful of awards on the Festival circuit in the last months: Best Film, Best Actor, Best Direction and Best Script. Keep an eye out for the release of these films and for future works from both of these impressive new talents.

Many of the ‘old masters’ of cinema have lately raised their lenses above the parapet and offered new works. Not – unhappily – with great results. De Palma fizzled out with his rather over-wrought Passion (2012), Copolla’s Twixt (2011) is painful, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Tree (2011) was a failure, and now comes one of my favourites, Bernardo Bertolucci with his Me and You (I e te).

Me and You is released in UK cinemas by Artificial Eye on 19 April.

The film tells the story of an oddball 14-year-old boy who hides in the cellar of his home to avoid going on a ski trip with his fellow students. He is joined by his beautiful half-sister, who is an addict trying to quit. She shatters his tranquil world and many familial truths come to light. This synopsis makes the film sound like it is rather perfunctory and that the director is merely going through the aesthetic directorial motions. It is. And in this, it is somewhat reminiscent of his 2003 film, The Dreamers, which also got critical short shrift for many of the same reasons. Poor Bertolucci – now wheelchair bound – should have taken note. Sexy adolescents and their world are probably something beyond his directorial grasp these days – and it pains me to say it.

Not had enough of elder cinematic statesmen working with nubile young actresses? Then Alicia Scherson’s The Future (Il futuro) is right up your alley. Intertextual to the last, the film stars the ageing action star Rutger Hauer playing…yes, you guessed it, an ageing action star! Named Maciste, he is prone to hiring ‘lady companions’ to cavort about in the nude doing Last Tango in Paris type things (and with the same attempted existential gravitas). A beautiful young thing is induced to throw her lot in with a couple of Eastern European lowlives, who her brother has befriended and taken in to their parent-less house. These two small-time crooks believe that Maciste has a fortune stashed somewhere in his mansion, and recruit the beautiful young thing – after they both have sex with her – to become an object of sexual interest to Maciste. His interest in her amounts to ritually anointing her body in oil, a la his old Italian peplum films. All this body-oiling is voyeuristically captured in loving detail by the camera – the better to titillate audiences. In all honesty, it is a great role for Hauer, and even the creaky plot is acceptable enough, but the whole composition of the film and the outlandish gratuitous sex give it a distinctly unintended campness. It’s a strange brew that is a cross between a 9 1/2 Weeks (1986) or 1987’s Angel Heart (with intellectual aspirations) and a Last Tango in Paris (1972) with a heist plot thrown in. Could become an unintended classic of its type – art-house drive-in kitsch.

Finally, speaking of drive-in aesthetics (can’t help your roots!) I come to the intriguingly titled Misericordia: The Last Mystery of Kristo Vampiro, a weird post-modern Mondo-type film by Khavn de la Cruz. The voice-over narrative is provided by one Kristo Vampiro, who in his ceaseless search for blood follows a camera crew to the real-life cock fights, self-flagellation and acted crucifixions so beloved of certain groups of Filipino believers. In between, the film crew spends time at the rock bar, Hobbit House, where all the servers are dwarves – and a ringside brothel provides entertainment. All this to the accompaniment of a mouth-organ soundtrack. Who could ask for more?

James B. Evans

Toronto International Film Festival 2012 – Part 2

war witch
War Witch

Toronto International Film Festival

6-16 Sept 2012

Toronto, Canada

TIFF website

Still going strong at 37, TIFF (as everyone there knowingly calls it) delivered everything that it usually does: the Hollywood A-list pack, who love Toronto because it is: a) ‘just like America’, b) even better – America without the guns and violence, and c) a fairly short hop to make for a gilded weekend and fan adulation. That’s the first few days. Then reality sets in as the really important people appear for the next couple of weeks: independent filmmakers and world cinema directors/performers, with a cornucopia of interesting films – not always masterpieces, but more often than not full of surprises. In the main, it is these screenings that bear waiting around for. And though this piece will take a look at a representative range – Olivier Assayas’s Something in the Air (Apres mai), Kim Nguyen’s War Witch (Rebelle) and Brian De Palma’s Passion – it would be a disservice not to mention some other ‘surprises’ that caught the eye of this writer. Chief among them – and some of the best of the festival – were the wholly absorbing cinematic tales, Blancanieves by Spanish director Pablo Berger, Boy Eating the Bird’s Food by Greek director Ektoras Lygizos, which is a timely spin on Knut Hamsun’s novel Hunger, and the weirdly interesting, over-cooked and indulgent tale directed by Nick Cassavetes, Yellow – in which he puts definitive clear blue water between him and his father, John. His mother, Gena Rowlands – always welcome on screen – appears in the film.

But it is to Kim Nguyen’s film War Witch that I first turn my attention. This Canadian–Vietnamese filmmaker has made a compelling, and at times distressing, film that addresses the grim reality of the child–soldier, in this case a young girl (forced to shoot her parents) who is seen to have mystical powers that can foresee trouble in battle. Though she is often physically and mentally beaten, her will to survive triumphs, and she soon meets a like-minded young boy. When they attempt to escape from this horrific life, marriage and pregnancy soon follow. I shall say no more about the plotline after this point, but suffice it to say that though violent and downbeat, this is an important film with important things to say about conflicts in several African countries, and the seemingly low value in which human life is held in some quarters. A tragic story, though with glimmers of hope and courage. The actress who plays the 14-year-old, Rachel Mwanza, won the Best Actress prize at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival.

Something in the Air visits territory beloved of left-leaning Euro directors – the events and aftermath of ‘that’ moment in French history, May 1968. The story concerns the political, artistic and sexual coming-of-age of the protagonist Gilles (presumably the director’s alter ego), as he and his friends juggle love, hate, make-up and break-up. Gloriously shot and well-meaning, there is a feeling of Truffaut, Rohmer and Bertolucci in the mix, as yet another director of a certain age composes a retrospective love letter to their past.

Something in the Air is released in UK cinemas by Artificial Eye on 24 May 2013.

Two very attractive actresses: one a cool and driven careerist, the other her assistant, a shy-ish, reserved type who harbours some deep sexual desires. Bitchiness, humiliation and rivalry ensue. A sub-text (rather forced) of sensuality and sexuality bubbles. The plot twists. The film looks beautiful. It is not exactly Hitchcockian but is a remake (of sorts) of Alain Corneau’s 2010 Love Crime (Crime d’ amour). Sounds to me like a new De Palma film. It is. And like other master filmmakers of late (i.e. Bertolucci, Coppola) this is a great disappointment and merely re-visits past glories without the panache or depth. Much ado about nothing, Passion is passionless.

James B. Evans