Illegal Aliens: Racism in Science Fiction

District 9

Imagine a film in which a jive-talking fool, with a childlike inability to understand basic technology, and who is, despite possessing a natural sense of rhythm, hilariously clumsy, provides the comic relief. And in which a hook-nosed, slave-owning, money-grubbing Jew is so careless of the value of life that he loses a small boy in a bet. And in which the villains are a bunch of unscrupulous and murderous lisping Japanese who are by turns vicious and cowardly. This isn’t some Nazi propaganda film, or even a D.W. Griffith epic admired because of its place in cinema history despite its deplorable antebellum politics. No. This is Star Wars: Episode One: The Phantom Menace (Lucas, 1999).

In a way, the film’s very awfulness has gone some way to protect it from the devastating critique it so richly deserves. It seems ungenerous to castigate George Lucas and his many creative collaborators as racist, when there are so many juicier crimes against cinematic humanity with which to convict him (see Pinkett’s review at and redeem wasted hours by enjoying a hilarious dissection of the prequel trilogy). But then again, Lucas does have form: his Leni Riefenstahl celebrations at the end of Star Wars, the sore-thumb tokenism of Lando Calrissian in the second film and the concluding, black voice, black helmet, white face of Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. Some of his best friends are no doubt Calrissians, but this fecklessness is not an isolated case for George, nor for science fiction as a genre.

Science fiction has the tendency to show up the limits of the imagination starkly. All those invented Tomorrow’s Worlds can’t help but look like cut-and-paste jobs from existing worlds; 2001 looks like 1969, 1984 like 1948, Metropolis like New York and Blade Runner is set in a still recognisable Los Angeles via Tokyo. So when it comes to aliens, it is hardly a surprise that writers and directors start flicking through back copies of National Geographic to find some inspiration. The Alien is rarely alien (except perhaps for Alien); it’s simply other. The Romulans are ancient Romans, wookies are walking dogs, Orcs speak Turkish and look like Rastafarians and the Nav’i from Avatar are Navaho cross-bred with stretched Smurfs. This is not necessarily a failing of science fiction, but in fact its function: the reimagining of the universe rather than the creation of new universes. And so, as it reproduces notions of the other, it does so from an existing cultural perspective and carries with it the prejudices and assumptions of its own time and place and, of course, of the race that produces it. The great Flash Gordon serials (1936-1940) give us Ming the Merciless, the oriental despot, in keeping with and reinforcing the prejudices that would see, among manifest historical injustices, America intern its own citizens of Japanese origin.

When racism becomes the subject matter, science fiction is frequently cack-handed. Wolfgang Petersen’s 1985 film, Enemy Mine, is a case in point. This reworking of Robinson Crusoe via Hell in the Pacific (Boorman, 1968) sees Dennis Quaid as Will Davidge, a gung-ho, Han Solo-type fighter pilot gleefully waging war against the evil Dracs, a humanoid/reptilian alien race. Stranded on a planet, with an enemy Drac played by Louis Gossett Jr., the erstwhile foes learn to cooperate and become friends. On the surface, it has an impeccably liberal credo, but why does the alien have to be played by a black actor? Gossett Jr. at this point had name recognition since his scene-stealing and Oscar-winning role in An Officer and a Gentleman (Hackford, 1982), but he is the one with an eight-hour make-up job and [SPOILER] becomes irritatingly pregnant. Davidge eventually turns against his own race/species in a way identical to Kevin Costner’s cavalry officer in Dances with Wolves and Sam Worthington’s character in Avatar. This ‘going native’ in itself, however, rests on racist assumptions as old as Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. The white man who realises his complicity in an immoral form of oppression against an ‘alien race’ invariably ends up leading the given community in their resistance, or at least contributing in some vital way. Kyle MacLachlan’s character in David Lynch’s Dune (1984), Paul Artreides, becomes the messianic leader of a marginalised tribe of indigenous people. In District 9 (Blomkamp, 2009), Wickus Van De Merwe, despite going native in an involuntary way (he sees his condition in terms of a disease and longs for a cure), facilitates the escape of the aliens. Of course, from the narrative point of view, each of these characters represents an avatar themselves, a way of inscribing the white audience into an experience of the alien other. But it also realises a white fantasy of superiority, even as it ostensibly assuages white guilt.

The problem is the identification with any alien as non-white: the exception that proves the rule might be the über-white David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth (Roeg, 1976). The black actors who voiced Jar Jar and the Nav’i, and Louis Gossett Jr. play opposite white actors. The alien is a tempting analogy for racism, but, in the analogy, a lot is given away. Even as pleas for toleration are voiced, the central tenets of racism are upheld: these beings are resoundingly different, monstrous, etc. The ‘prawns’ of District 9 live in townships and are subject to a racism that the film on one level is explicitly condemning, but the liberal attempt to negotiate racism via the talking head interview with a sociologist is likewise ridiculous: ‘What to them is a harmless pastime such as derailing a train is to us a highly destructive behaviour.’

Call it the Caliban Conundrum. We learn to love the alien, pity the monster, and even as we do, we admit our racist notions of the other as essentially alien, monstrous, non-human. In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Caliban is at once a monster to be despised and a creature to be pitied: ‘not honoured with human shape’. He is the other, conjuring fears of miscegenation but also a voice of protest with his own post-colonial voice of political resistance: ‘You taught me language and my profit on it is I learnt how to curse.’ But Caliban, for all that, is still not human.

Of course, there’s the danger of being over-literal here. I get that Caliban’s monstrosity could be portrayed literally, or as a racist projection of the white European colonials. Likewise, science fiction can have something valuable to say about race via attitudes to difference. In fact, District 9 is valuable perhaps because it is not so much against racism as about racism. It appears unabashed, for instance, in its own stereotyping of the Nigerians as the criminal underclass of South Africa and its protagonist doesn’t exactly ‘learn’. Illegal aliens appear in the Men in Black films (Sonnenfeld, 1997, 2002) as little more than a happy pun, but the meaning is explored more interestingly in John Sayles’s 1984 satire, The Brother from Another Planet. Here, the alien is a mute three-toed black man who takes refuge in Harlem, but, in one of the many reversals, the white men in black who pursue him (played by the director, John Sayles, and David Strathairn) are aliens too. In Harlem, the black patrons look after the alien (thinking him an immigrant: ‘half the city is illegal immigrants’) and are immediately hostile to the alien whites. ‘White folks get strange all the time,’ one notes.

John Bleasdale

The Curriculum Vitae of Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley


1. Name: Ellen Ripley
When we first meet, her name is just one more surname in the work place. We have Kane, Ash, Dallas, Ripley, Brett, Parker and Lambert. Even the cat goes by Jones. ‘Enough of this kitty bullshit,’ says Brett, on an ill-fated hunt of the cat. ‘Jones!’ There’s no way of knowing who’s going to survive. Ripley’s just a crew member: abrasive, self-serving and by no means heroic. She’s smart in wanting to quarantine Kane, but not exactly a team player, not someone your heart goes out to. And there’s nothing spacey about the names, in the same way there’s nothing space-age about the chunky steam-powered technology.

2. Sex: Female
A tough woman in a man’s world. Aside from the construct of Mother, the only other female crew member of the Nostromo is Lambert, played by Veronica Cartwright, a stereotypical weak link, whose death comes as a mercy to the audience and whose emotional incontinence contrasts with Ripley, the tough, capable, authoritative and, most importantly, unemotional character. The threat this represents is played out by Ash (the synthetic man), who attempts to kill her by literally ramming a male view of female sexuality down her throat. Ripley’s actual sexiness is a late discovery, in her standard issue knickers. As the last woman standing, she combines Little Red Riding Hood with something witchy, especially in her otherwise inexplicable devotion to Jones, the cat.

Aliens screens at BFI Southbank on March 26 and 31 as part of the A Woman’s Gotta Do season.

3. Family: one Special Edition daughter, one surrogate daughter, one weird alien daughter
Ridley Scott’s 1979 film, as well as being a science fiction/ horror hybrid, is also crucially a work place drama. Characters are defined by the job they do. Parker and Brett repair the engines, Ash works in his laboratory. We go through procedures: landing, taking off. Perhaps the most exciting sequence involves the self-destruct procedure in its full fiddly-ness. James Cameron’s sequel, Aliens (1986), as well as becoming a more straightforward action/war film, also segues into a family romance. On the Special Edition DVD, this is rendered more explicit with the inclusion of a scene explaining that Ripley had a daughter, who died while Ripley was in hyper-sleep. In the photograph, she is played by Weaver’s mother, Elizabeth Inglis. According to Cameron, Weaver was appalled that this scene was cut, saying that she’d based her whole performance on it. But this is precisely the kind of back story that is good for the actor, but not necessary for the audience. We understand the minute we see Rebecca (aka Newt, a nickname hinting at the ineffable weirdness of children) that there is a surrogate family in the offing, with Hicks as ineffectual father and Bishop as Synthetic Uncle (I prefer Avuncular Artificial). The feminist survivor of the 1970s becomes the working mum of the 1980s, juggling child care and grenade launchers and ultimately going mano a mano with the mother of all Aliens. Of course, motherhood is compromised as the original terror of the chest-bursters is a fear of malignant pregnancy and Newt has to be rescued from the alien maternity ward. With the shift to war movie/family romance, Cameron’s Aliens become less alien. They become resourceful soldiers and one angry mother. The femme-on-femme violence anticipates Weaver’s Women Beware Women role as the manipulative ‘bony-assed’ career woman Katherine Parker in Mike Nichols’s Working Girl (1988). Feminist struggle becomes a catfight. ‘Mommy,’ Newt cries at the end as she embraces Ripley, completing her in a way that seems incomprehensible without the Special Edition daughter subplot.

4. Marital Status: Single
In the Nostromo, sexual tensions brew but are not acted on. There are no overt romances and the various wet deaths are the only consummations, devoutly not to be wished. Cameron, in his attempt to normalise Ripley, gives her a potential partner (and Newt a potential father) in Hicks, a white- bread, charisma-free zone. And just as Lambert’s flapping panic assured us of Ripley’s heroism, so Vasquez’s butch marine (‘ever been mistaken for a man, Vasquez?’ — ‘nope, have you?’) assures us that Ripley’s het. David Fincher happily rips into Cameron’s facile sitcom values by despatching both Newt and Hicks in the credit sequence of Alien 3. Whatever flaws his film might have (Skippy the CGI kangaroo Alien chief among them), we should be thankful for Fincher’s attempt to radically cancel the homogenising impulses of his predecessor, as well as giving Ripley a post-Aids haircut. In contrast to the Pretty Woman dream of meeting the right man, Ripley is happy to get her rocks off with a similarly damaged partner who certainly offers her nothing in terms of a marital future. ‘I’ve been out here a long time,’ Ripley says in explaining her direct need for sex. Played by Charles Dance, Clemens is a doctor, an ex-drug addict, a prisoner and the most interesting character in the film. His early death at the hands of an apparently jealous Alien robs the film of much of its emotional content and leaves us with a cast of anonymous, unpleasant and brutish characters for the Alien to lunch on. Ripley will survive that attack because she is carrying an Alien. Ripley evolves from the innocent pursued by the wolfish Alien of the first film through the competing matriarchs of the second, and the third film cements her relationship to the Alien via an offstage rape. Perhaps this is what the Alien always wanted. Think back to the first film and how odd it is that once ensconced in the escape pod, the previously implacably hostile, aggressive and effective Alien seems to relax, settling in for the ride, now that all possible competitors for Ripley’s affections are dead. It would be tempting to see Ripley’s suicide/infanticide, which concludes Fincher’s film, as a meta-commentary on the state of the franchise, which she affectionately and thankfully finishes off, but for the horrors of the Jeunet sequel to come.

5. Work Experience: Warrant Officer
The original Alien brought a rare highlighting of class to a major Hollywood film. Brett and Parker are, respectively, the indifferent and angry horny-handed heroes of toil, and the rest of the crew represent a higher echelon, a middle management, while still being subordinate to the Company for which their lives are (literally) expendable. Yaphet Koto walks straight off Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar (1978), arguing about bonuses, belligerently and amusingly obstructive. Ash and Ripley bicker about priorities, everyone is touchy and no one (aside from Kane) has any enthusiasm for adventure unless it is written into their contracts. Ripley goes from being a member of the workforce to a ‘fish out of water’ hero in the following two sequels. In Aliens, she earns her spurs as a grunt, comfortable with ballsy machinery and improvised weaponry. In Fincher’s film, the Company is a cartoonishly malignant presence, and in the final film Ripley is no longer worker but product. The Company, as a character, goes from faceless menace to slimy presence (Carter Burke, the lawyer in Aliens). However, the increased villainy of the Company comes at the cost of any real critique. The credible deception and betrayal of the Company in the first film becomes a pantomimic caricature and Ripley, instead of a paid-up member of society, becomes increasingly ostracised throughout the franchise, from warrant officer to soldier to inmate, until in the end she’s more Alien than human. Likewise, Sigourney Weaver transmutes from an ensemble player in the first film, a more conventional lead but still within an ensemble context in the second film, to a co-producer and undisputed star of the final two films of the franchise. In the latter two films, she is more complicit (as the bearer of secret knowledge) with the Alien (Jeunet) and the Company (Brandywine Productions).

6. Age: 300 and something
There was always going to be some falling off in a franchise whose main initial attraction was surprise and shock. The last productions seem particularly fraught with a ‘why are we doing this’ mentality and the very naming of the final entry (Alien: Resurrection) smacks of ironic apology. One of the main problems was Ripley herself and the contrivances the films had to use to put her in harm’s way. Weaver admitted to the danger of turning Ripley into a ridiculous cartoon who keeps waking up to find aliens chasing her, but was apparently convinced by the quality of the scripts and the artistic merit of receiving ever larger cheques in her bank account. The clone that she plays in the final entry gleefully enjoys her polymorphous role as a Ripley/Alien hybrid, but the ghosts of greater films haunts Jeunet’s Gilliamesque comic book romp. A moment of genuine tragedy, the discovery by Ripley of sister clones in tortured partial forms reminiscent of Nazi medical atrocities, is undermined by Ron Perlman’s throwaway line ‘must be a chick thing’ and the rest of the film feels like a tortured cloning of the first movie’s original motifs: instead of the original film’s chest-burster we now get a chest-burster that becomes a head-burster, instead of the computer, Mother, we now get Father.

7. Hobbies and Interests: Likes Animals and World Peace
In Alien, Ripley wants to save herself and the cat. By Alien Resurrection, she’s saving the world. ‘You sound disappointed,’ Winona Ryder’s Call notices as they look at… erm… clouds. To be fair to Weaver, with her environmental charities and her inspiring performance as Dian Fossey in Gorillas in the Mist (1988), she has used the clout and dollars earned via Ripley to do good, but doing good was never what Ripley was about. She was about surviving. And survive she did, but perhaps for a little too long.

John Bleasdale

Venetian Blind: Don’t Look Now

Don't Look Now

Format: Cinema

Dates: 6-26 March 2011

Venue: BFI Southbank

Director: Nicolas Roeg

Writers: Allan Scott, Chris Bryant

Based on the novel by: Daphne du Maurier

Cast: Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland

UK/Italy 1973

110 mins

Underneath Venice, there is a hidden forest. The forest was cut down over a thousand years ago in what is now Slovenia and the trunks were driven into the marshy soil of the 117 islands on which Venice was then built. Under the water, deprived of oxygen, the wood petrifies. Venice is a labyrinth, built on a dark stolen wood that has slowly, over the centuries, turned to stone. A city perfect for the darkest of fairy tales. A little red figure sits in a church. A little red figure crosses a bridge. But (to paraphrase Shelley) if Little Red Riding Hood comes, can the wolf be far behind?

Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 horror film has one of those titles, like Eyes Wide Shut, that at first glance appear naff, but in which every word takes on a different meaning during and after a viewing of the film. It is a warning, but one that we most commonly expect to be ignored: ‘Don’t Look Now but someone is staring at us’. The Italian title gives us a giallo feel: A Venezia… un dicembre rosso shocking, which, translated, means ‘In Venice… a Shocking Red December’ – a time, a place, a colour and an emotion. But to concentrate for a moment on the place: Venice.

Venice has provided an exotic location for historical romps, a Klaus Kinski vampire film, an Al Pacino Shakespeare adaptation and picture postcard backgrounds to several 007s as well as the recent Johnny Depp excretion The Tourist. [I must here declare my bias. I almost got a job as an extra on this film, but was turned down as (apparently) I resembled the lead actor and would have only caused confusion.] Working in Venice the last 10 years, I got used to turning a corner and walking onto a film set. I even had the ambiguous pleasure of seeing Donald Sutherland (a very tall man) preparing his role for the remake of The Italian Job (hence the ambiguity) at Campo San Barnaba. And yet Nicolas Roeg’s Venice is different and its difference is of a piece with the oddness of Don’t Look Now, which despite its recent elevation from cult gem to National Treasure (Time Out’s Best British Film Ever™) stills retains a gritty, mucky unusualness that no amount of praise can polish off.

Fundamentally, Don’t Look Now is a dirty film; a film of spreading red stains, of dripping liquids, of mud and blood and breaking glass. It is a messy examination of entropy: things fall and fall apart and we try to restore what can’t be repaired and recover what has already been irretrievably lost. And this filthiness comes with the city of Venice. When we first see Venice (aside from a brief shot of the sunlight through the slats of the Venetian blinds), we are in a trench with John Baxter, the bereaved architect played brilliantly by Donald Sutherland. He is supervising the restoration of a church and the workmen are drilling into the foundation, the petrified forest of the city’s substrata. ‘Tutto marcio,’ the disgruntled Baxter tells the Italian worker. ‘It’s all rotten.’ In a crucial change to the Daphne du Maurier short story, John Baxter and his wife Laura are not holidaying in Venice, rather he is working. Venice, for Baxter, is a building site, and not a good one. The church, San Nicolò dei Mendicoli (Saint Nicholas of the Beggars), has an unassuming, perhaps beggarly exterior, and (in a city that is almost all façade) has no great façade. Tucked away in an unvisited corner of Venice, not far from the prison at Santa Marta, the church was in the process of being renovated in 1973, providing Roeg with the scaffolding he needed. Roeg’s Venice is a wintry, dirty workaday city; a city of hospitals, police offices and off-season hotels. It is a city with a rat problem (still very much the case), a city of lost gloves on windowsills and a baby doll abandoned on the steps down to the canal. In the final funereal shot of the film, we see a huge pile of bin bags in the background, also awaiting disposal.

Baxter’s work of putting the pieces back together reflects the piecing together of the Baxters’ lives after the death of their daughter. The Baxters live in rooms of middle-class clutter, strewn with books, papers and half-empty glasses, unable to find their cigarettes. This messiness and Baxter’s work are also reflected in Roeg’s justly famous non-linear editing, which mixes up the narrative in such a way as to make us uncertain as to where we are and (crucially) when we are at any given time in the film. The past pollutes the present, as indeed does the future. But this messiness is all the point and Baxter’s and the viewer’s analogous urge to bring it to some coherence is literally a doomed project. Ultimately, things fall apart. When Laura Baxter (Julie Christie) collapses onto the dinner table at the restaurant, Roeg’s slow motion, unlike Peckinpah’s epic beautifying of violence, prolongs the agony, the moment of helpless tragic knowledge when we grasp at a world that is slipping through our fingers, the glass rolling off the tilting table towards the tiled floor. While restoring a mosaic in the church, Baxter is almost killed, when a falling beam destroys the scaffolding on which he’s standing high above the floor of the church. The mosaic tiles he had been meticulously examining are scattered to the winds.

The source of all muck and chaos is the muddy English pond of Christine Baxter’s accidental death. There are very few moments of horror in the Horror genre that live up to the meaning of the word. John Baxter’s grief-filled bellow, the freezing brown water (Roeg makes sure we hear John gasp as he plunges into it), the slippery muddy slope and the hopeless struggle to carry the girl’s small body to safety are moments of bungling, tormented pain, absolutely stripped bare of any staged dignity. This is Conradian: ‘the horror’. Later in Venice, a woman’s body will be pulled, knickers dripping, the soles of her feet, from a canal in a similarly undignified end to a life. There is a murderer on the loose. However, the film refuses to comply to generic requirements. The police investigation is essentially a red (there’s that colour again) herring. We might understand at the end what we were seeing but we won’t understand why. There are no resolutions. [SPOILER] Baxter’s own death is just another meaningless death in a long line of meaningless deaths. The true horror is that all death (and all life) is ultimately meaningless.

The beam of wood falls for no reason, just as we never fully understand how Christine came to drown in the pond. There is no angry ghost, no curse, no original sin to be punished and no demonic presence. We might seek meaning, motivation, an explanation, the way Baxter chases his Little Red Riding Hood through the forests of Venice, but in a universe as arbitrary as this, death is deprived of such comforts and does not follow a narrative arc, and our Little Red Riding Hood could just as easily turn out to be the Wolf.

John Bleasdale

Haneke, Bitte?

Code Unknown

A young woman is harassed on the metro by a young man and his friend. Having verbally bullied and menaced her, her tormentor spits in her face.

A family are taken prisoner by two young men and are subjected to sadistic games that end in murder. There will be no revenge and no justice. The victims will be despatched with a flippant glee and the murderers will continue their escapades.

An apparently good and respected man, a pillar of the community, tells his lover that she is ugly and he has no feelings for her beyond using her for his own gratification. In the same idyllic village, the son of the landowner is tied up and beaten and a young disabled boy is almost blinded.

After an unspecified apocalyptic event, society breaks down into a bunch of savagely competing groups. It is a world of cruelty, violence, despair and hatred.

People do terrible things to people. Michael Haneke’s films are all essentially hate stories. His corpus of work is an anatomy of hatred: hate fuelled by post-colonial racism (Hidden, 2005), hate caused by racism pure and simple (Code Unknown, 2000), misogyny or class jealousies, misunderstandings, paranoia and anxiety. It can be provincial (The White Ribbon, 2009) or urban (Code Unknown); personal, political, familial (The Seventh Continent, 1989, and The Piano Teacher, 2002), intimate or partake of an epic historical sweep (Time of the Wolf, 2003, and The White Ribbon). It can even be a kind of hatred without hate; the unfeeling hatefulness of Funny Games (1997) and Benny’s Video (1992).

As well as showing hatred, Haneke, in his turn, has been hated. His films are uncomfortable viewing experiences to say the least. In The Guardian, Jonathan Romney accused his films of being ‘a terrorist attack on the audience’ and in a Sight & Sound review, Mark Kermode writes of Haneke’s ‘unbridled contempt’ for the audience. At first glance, Haneke might look like he belongs in the pantheon of contemporary provocateurs, such as Gaspar Noé and Lars von Trier, whose films seek to cause outright outrage in their audiences, but Haneke is much subtler than that. His films rely less on schlock, the in-your-face, taboo-breaking shot (although he can provide that as well) than on a creeping, insidious manipulation. While garnering critical praise and festival awards, Haneke’s project has often been greeted by an ambivalent critical reception. His acceptance of the best director’s award at Cannes in 2005 was emblematic as the audience responded with boos and applause in equal measure. Some of his films, such as Funny Games and its US remake, have been met with outrage: ‘a sophisticated act of cinematic sadism’ (A.O. Scott). And even his critical successes have been decried as cold, cynical and manipulative: ‘an exercise in pain’ as Mike LaSalle noted of Hidden. Haneke’s public utterances often stoke reaction rather than placating it. His famous argument that if you left during a showing of Funny Games you didn’t need the film, annoyed the hell out of everybody for its presumptuous circumscribing of all possible reactions, i.e. if you left hating the film, that’s exactly what he wanted and if you stayed then you definitely need the film (also what he wanted).

For Catherine Wheatley in her new book Michael Haneke’s Cinema: The Ethic of the Image, Haneke’s films are ‘irritating’ in a very real and intentional sense. Wheatley argues that Haneke doggedly produces an uncomfortable watching experience as each film probes and wrong-steps our own ethical presumptions. This is done in different ways. In Funny Games, our expectation of a conventional horror movie calculus (capture, torment, turning point, revenge) is consistently foiled as one of the attackers takes over the film, breaks the fourth wall (winking at the audience) and even rewinds a scene when things go wrong, the little Brechtian bastard. In Code Unknown, the audience is given privileged information (the Code Unknown of the title?) which is denied the characters. As in classical Greek tragedy, we watch helplessly as terrible events unfold, unable to intervene, our knowledge no use to anyone, helping only to make us feel worse. In both The White Ribbon and Hidden, this imbalance is reversed and it is we as the audience who lack information that the characters might be withholding, suppressing or might even themselves not know.

Although the bad things that happen in Haneke’s films often appear random, they occur within a framework of overarching moral judgement. Haneke’s films seem hell-bent on punishment of one kind or another. Although Anna’s attacker on the metro in Code Unknown cannot possibly know this, we know that she has participated in an injustice towards a beggar and the son of an immigrant earlier in the film. We also have seen her as an actress starring in an exploitative thriller about a misogynistic killer (at least this is as much as we glean). In this sense, her random attacker becomes a kind of karmic agent, a version of Jean, the thuggish relative she defended earlier in the film. By blindly defending him and not listening to the accusations against him, she is allowing a world to exist that also includes someone like her own attacker.

Likewise in The White Ribbon, the original crime that begins the film, the placing of a tripwire that brings down the doctor’s horse, giving the doctor a broken arm, is retrospectively justified by the doctor’s vile abuse of his housekeeper. The moral equivocations of the entire village, the hypocrisy of the pastor who punishes his children for impure thoughts but then refuses to act when they are implicated in a series of more serious violent crimes, foreshadows the punishment of the film’s historical aftermath: the First World War and the disastrous slide into Nazism and near annihilation.

Haneke’s films punish people with a moral rigour few would survive, and poetic justice allows for no legal defence, no humming and harring. Our discomfort as viewers is that we are rarely just viewers: we are the jury and Haneke is the executioner in a process that feels as rigged and unfair as the sadistic bet of Funny Games. Although Haneke’s films vary in language, technique, location, genre and historical period, the accused are frequently the usual suspects: a middle-class, privileged couple called Ann(a/e) and Georg(e/i/es). Anna and George retreat to their house by the lake in Funny Games with disastrous consequences. Likewise, at the beginning of Time of the Wolf, Anna and George retreat to their holiday home (with disastrous consequences). In Code Unknown and Hidden, Anne and George’s lives and assumptions are rattled /disturbed /destroyed by events that they are somehow complicit in. But do Anna and George ‘deserve’ their punishment? Or is this an Old Testament punishment, which punishes you for the presumption of expecting fairness, of expecting God to act with humanity? Is it perhaps paradoxically through witnessing hate and its consequences that we see love and feel pity?

Anna is tormented on the train by a stranger, a young Arab, but it is also a stranger, an old Arab, who, at great risk to himself, stands up and defends her. In Funny Games, despite their smugness, their yacht and their ridiculous opera guessing game, we feel pity and despair for Anna and George. There is no scene more moving than when George asks Anna’s forgiveness. Love and pity do exist, and are (perhaps) more valued and more valuable for existing in a world of punishment and hate. Even the bleak end-of-days final judgement that is Time of the Wolf ends, remarkably, with a ray of hope, and hints at salvation.

John Bleasdale

Attack of the Frozen Things!

The Thing

In the Paul Auster-scripted film Smoke (1995), William Hurt recounts an anecdote about an alpine skier who is caught in an avalanche and lost, presumed dead. His son grows up and he also becomes a skier and one day, while out skiing, he finds a body frozen in the ice. At first he thinks he is looking into a mirror but then he realises he is seeing his father’s body, his father who is now a younger man than he is. The frozen parent has the power of a parable, illustrating the curious paradox of our travelling through time and outliving that which came before. What is disconcerting in the story is the fact that the father has stopped time travelling and so allowed his son to overtake him.

The uncanny nature of the frozen is a commonplace in science fiction. As in Auster’s story, the frozen is never genuinely dead so much as stopped/suspended. In H.P. Lovecraft’s novella from 1936, At the Mountains of Madness, an expedition to the Antarctic uncovers the remains of a prehistoric race of monstrous life forms, the Elder Things. One of the recovered specimens comes alive and wreaks havoc. The horror plays on the anxiety caused by the theory of evolution. Older civilisations have ruled the earth and will rule again. Humans are just a temporarily dominant species without a permanent foothold and with no particular claim, or purpose. It was partly to direct the film version of the Lovecraft story that Guillermo del Toro eventually passed on The Hobbit (announced for 2012). Lovecraft has had an unhappy relationship with the cinema. Mined by Roger Corman once Edgar Allan Poe had run dry, or schlocked up by Brian Yuzna and Stuart Gordon for films like Re-Animator (1985), perhaps he will receive a more serious approach from del Toro. Although how exactly del Toro will render the ten-foot-tall blind penguins that inhabit the underground city without veering into camp remains to be seen.

For Lovecraft, the frozen represents an ancient other, an attack of the old on the young. To add to the sense that we are doomed comes the additional horror of realising it was ever so; our destruction was simply waiting for us to uncover it. This idea is borrowed in Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005) remake, which somewhat implausibly insists that the alien machines were already buried, frozen, thousands of years ago, ready only to be activated and piloted at the moment of invasion.

As in Lovecraft’s story, John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There? is also set in Antarctica and features a scientific expedition going badly wrong. Campbell’s story is an extreme exercise in group psychology. The isolation of the setting and the hostility of the environment ramps up the tension, as a shape-changing alien frozen in the ice hundreds of thousands of years earlier is defrosted and comes to life. The ancient and alien other for Lovecraft represented a blow to humanity’s ignorant self-importance, but the Thing challenges the very notions of identity and the integrity of the self. The men discuss their predicament with clarity. If the Thing copies you perfectly, including your thoughts and prayers, your memory and your knowledge, how would it be different from you, the men ask. Would you even know you had been copied?

Ostensibly an adaptation of Campbell’s novella, Howard Hawks’s The Thing from another World (1951) jettisons much of this discussion and reduces the angst-ridden paranoia with a far safer and more straightforward fear of the other. The Thing is a lumbering Frankenstein’s monster, unchanging, safely malignant and freshly alien (he’s just crash-landed the night before). Partaking of a post-Hiroshima distrust of science, the mad (or at least deluded) scientist is seen as being as much of a threat as the creature he seeks wrong-headedly to protect. Rather than the full-throated anxiety and cannibalistic madness of the original story, Hawks’s Americans are a can-do citizen army of practical solutions, replete with a quick-fire banter lifted straight from the screwball tradition exemplified by Hawks’s own His Girl Friday (1940). There is a racy romance in the offing and the beanpole journalist says ‘Holy cat!’ far too often. Even the way the alien is defrosted is framed like a joke: an electric blanket is mistakenly left on the block of ice containing the alien. The nascent Cold War allows for no internal divisions and Hawks’s army are a loose and relaxed set of chums, with the exception of the scientific party, but even there the scientist is conveniently dispatched by the monster. The captain himself is the opposite of Campbell’s anguished Garry and is content to follow the best ideas of his men rather than ordering and inspiring (or indeed leading) himself.

John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) is a far more faithful rendering of the original story, restoring the paranoia, the mutating alien and the names of the characters from Campbell’s version. There are no quipping girlfriends. The captain is despised, the men are all dysfunctional and get on each other’s nerves before the intrusion of the other even takes place. The Thing is now once more the ancient Lovecraftian creature, frozen in ice for thousands of years. Its indeterminacy is, as one of the characters points out, a possible result of its history. It has adapted to so many forms on so many planets that we never see it as itself. Even in its monstrous manifestations it could simply be replaying a copied enemy, complete with tentacles and jaws, claws and what not. Rather than the ‘intellectual carrot’ of Hawks’s version or the blue-skinned three-eyed monster of Campbell’s, we never see the creature actually frozen in the ice. Carpenter’s film is preceded by the attack and massacre of the Norwegian base. The Thing we first see is a dog. Its original history as a frozen artefact is discovered after the fact by MacReady (Kurt Russell) when he discovers a sarcophagus of ice at the deserted Norwegian base.

Whereas the ending of Hawks’s film issues a call for vigilance which is essentially optimistic, leaving the characters and the audience forewarned and steeled to any coming conflict, Carpenter poses a hopeless and paranoid dilemma. Is MacReady or Childs the Thing? Or are they both? Or are neither of them (this obviously being the least satisfying)? Thankfully the projected sequel to Carpenter’s film has never been made, although a prequel (relating what happened to the Norwegians) is currently in post-production. The only happy ending we can imagine for the Carpenter film is that they both die without further contact with other people, thus averting an apocalypse. Of course, given that the creature has already survived freezing and given the nature of the frozen generally in science fiction films, it is more than likely that the creature has already won.

As the most famous frozen dad of film, Jack Torrance in The Shining (1980), reminds us, for something that is frozen it is only a matter of time.

John Bleasdale

Venice International Film Festival 2010

Norwegian Wood

Venice International Film Festival

1-11 September 2010

Venice, Italy

Biennale di Venezia website

The 67th Venice Film Festival pulled off the difficult trick of presenting a diverse roster of films while simultaneously maintaining a thematic consistency. Mental instability, for instance, featured large as film after film was populated by psychopaths (13 Assassins and Homeland), suicidal depressives (Norwegian Wood), the institutionalised (La pecora nera), Gilliam-esque dream animations of brawling psychiatrists (Surviving Life) or the encroaching depredations of age (Barney’s Version). The opening film by Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan, is a portrait of a ballerina (Natalie Portman) on the edge of a nervous breakdown, a jangling mix between The Red Shoes, Cronenberg-like body horror and Repulsion. The film is almost as mad as its subject matter, and whether it’s any good or not seems beside the point. The madness inherent in art was also applied to filmmaking itself in Sofia Coppola’s airless Somewhere, in which Stephen Dorff looks like Bryan Adams. Initially setting off to attack the pressures of fame, Coppola pulls her punches so much she ends up hitting herself in the face. Her Hollywood is far from the horrific excesses of Italy, which replaces Lost in Translation‘s Japan as the defining and mitigating other — movie people are basically decent people who just need to realise how much they love their daughters. Dorff’s angst is never credible and his meltdown feels like an Oscar clip, rather than any genuine torment.

Far from Coppola’s sleepy indulgence, I’m Still Here, Casey Affleck’s ferocious mockumentary, deconstructs the celebrity in the form of Joaquin Phoenix, only to reserve its genuine ire for the culture that elevates only to destroy. A bloated, chain-smoking Phoenix produces the most courageous performance since Andy Kaufman stepped into a wrestling ring.

Alongside the insanity there were tales of sexual awakening (the Greek gem Attenberg, which won Ariane Labed a best actress award) or adventuring (the French film Happy Few and Tykwer’s brilliant Drei). The latter two were both refreshingly intent on the normalcy of sexual adventure, setting acutely observed comedies in comfortable yuppie households, where a more open idea of sexual love can be possible, at least until they run out of steam.

East Asian Cinema was well represented with Tran Anh Hung’s aforementioned Norwegian Wood, films from Tsui Hark, Andrew Lau and Takeshi Miike, as well as a lifetime achievement award for John Woo (there was also a screening of his co-directed production, the intricate Reign of Assassins) and a surprise entry into competition of Wang Bing’s The Ditch, a harrowing account of the experiences of forced labour camp in the Gobi desert. Miike’s film 13 Assassins merits a mention as a blood-soaked samurai epic that is amusing without ever being silly (except for the scene with the bulls).

Of course, there were films that don’t fit into any easy parallel or thematic schema. Vincent Gallo annoyed the hell out of everyone with his indulgent tosh Promises Written in Water (which he wrote, edited, produced, scored and directed) before infuriating everyone even more by turning in an excellently intense performance in Essential Killing, elevating what is an implausible Taliban version of The Fugitive into something hypnotically special. There were two slick entries from veteran French cineastes, Le Bruit des glaçons by Bertrand Blier and Potiche from François Ozon, the latter, a political comedy from the 1970s featuring crowd-pleasing turns from Gérard Depardieu and a phenomenal Catherine Deneuve as a kind of Sarah Palin with brains (that is to say…).

Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff was the kind of Western Kubrick might have made. As slow-paced as the century in which it is set, the film tells the tale of a nascent America, in the form of three families split off from a wagon train, trying to find their way. Full of possible contemporary analogies, (ie to Bush’s legacy in the figure of the bloody-minded but hopelessly lost Meek), the film is rich in historical detail and is enduringly compelling to it. Similarly paced and equally powerful is the Russian film (also showing in competition) Silent Souls, which relates the journey of two men transporting the body of a loved wife through Russia to be burnt by the river in accordance with their Merjan culture: a magical film on the persistence of difference in what seems to be, on the surface, a globalised and homogenised culture.

The disaster of the festival was Julian Schnabel’s Miral, which championed the Palestinian cause via the history of an orphanage so cack-handedly as to make one wonder if it wasn’t financed by Mossad. The odd visually striking set-piece was hopelessly marred by tin-eared dialogue (much of it, nonsensically, in English), Mrs Merton wigs and a rushed pace that forced the audience to give up any hope of caring about the characters despite the cloying prodding of the soundtrack.

John Bleasdale

London Film Festival 2013 Preview – Part 1

Under the Skin
Under the Skin

BFI London Film Festival

9 – 20 October 2013

London, UK

LFF website

With this year’s 57th edition of the BFI London Film Festival just around the corner, Pamela Jahn, Mark Stafford, John Bleasdale and Pierre Kapitaniak preview some of the feature films screening in cinemas across London during the first week of the LFF, including Ari Folman’s bold, riveting and unmissable The Congress, Ivan Sen’s Australian western Mystery Road and Jia Zhangke’s angry, strikingly stylised A Touch of Sin, and J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost, which features one of Robert Redford’s finest performances.

Check out Part2 of our LFF previews here and look out for more LFF coverage throughout the festival.

A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, 2013)
Although director Jia Zhangke officially denied in interviews that his close relationship with Office Kitano was more than simply based on financial support for this production, A Touch of Sin feels like a ferocious piece of work very much in the same vein as the best films by the Japanese director and friend, albeit intensified by the social-political backdrop addressed here. Based on four real-life criminal cases (including a murder, suicide and a couple of killing sprees), Zhangke’s protagonists represent a cross section of contemporary Chinese society, from different areas of the country. Seen from that perspective, the film, which deservedly won Zhangke the award for Best Screenplay, is a sanguinary, tense investigation into the Chinese economic miracle and the brutalising effect it has on the lives of ordinary people at the bottom end of the ladder, who ultimately can’t help but vent their rage, rising up against authority, in a world not theirs. Likewise, on a visual level, A Touch of Sin is a powerful war of the senses, in the way the stylised violence seems gently aligned with the character’s innermost thoughts and emotions, enabling the audience to savour a similar cold adrenaline rush as those wuxia and Lady Vengeance-type characters on screen. PJ

Watch the trailer for A Touch of Sin:

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. PK

Watch the trailer for Borgman:

The Congress (Ari Folman, 2013)
Opening this year’s Director’s Fortnight, Ari Folman’s follow up to his 2008 Cannes competition entry Waltz with Bashir is an idiosyncratic masterpiece, highly ambitious in its scale and complexity, and fuelled with dazzling animated beauty. In a daringly intimate performance, Robin Wright plays herself, an acclaimed actress just past her prime with a market value diminished to zero, her previous stardom being long buried in Hollywood history. When her agent, Al (Harvey Keitel), tells her she’s being given one last chance by her studio, Miramount, Robin reluctantly agrees to a meeting, unknowing what this final offer entails. The plan is to motion-capture Wright, to copy her body, feelings, memories, and gestures in order to create a digital alter ego that can easily be adjusted to fit into any blockbuster, TV show or commercial as required by the studio. As part of the deal that promises her both a generous pay-off and the guarantee of eternal youth on screen, the real Robin Wright must retire with no claim as to how her virtual self is being used in the future. At first, she refuses, but family constraints force her to reconsider.

So far, The Congress might appear as a vicious, darkly cynical take on the movie industry in the digital age and how Hollywood treats its ageing goddesses. What then happens, however, about 50 minutes into the film, is best seen first-hand. Loosely inspired by Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress, and again combining animation and live action to puzzling effect, Folman jumps forward 20 years to find the real Wright aged and out of business, while her alter ego has become one of the biggest action heroines on screen as ‘Rebel Robot Robin’. Invited to Miramount’s Futurological Congress, the actress must pass into a strange animated zone, which opens an entirely new, imaginary universe of its own, crowded with celebrity doubles who escape their daily misery through drug-induced hallucinations; it’s a place that visually blends the style of 1930s Betty Boop cartoons and the trippy aesthetic of Ralph Bakshi’s Cool World. At the same time, Folman slows down the action to plunge into something darker, deeper, more inventive and more existential than merely teasing the Hollywood system to the core. Soused in gorgeous imagery and surreal, intoxicated melancholy, the second half of The Congress meanders gracefully between philosophical, religious and ideological reflections on the human condition, yet despite minor flaws, never loses sight of its original premise. The film is a fiercely original, bold and riveting meditation on the future of the silver screen and the stars that make it shine. PJ

Mystery Road (Ivan Sen, 2013)
Ivan Sen’s fine, modern-dress Australian western impresses as much for what it doesn’t do as much as what it does. It’s unhurried, unprettified, and has a sparse soundtrack with minimal music; not everything is explained, and much is left unsaid. In other words it’s a genre film made for adults – remember them?

Aaron Pederson plays a man alone, an aboriginal copper, treated as the enemy by his own people, and hardly ‘one of the boys’ in the small police department he has recently returned to in outback Queensland. Tasked with a job nobody else wants – investigating the murder of a teenage aboriginal girl – he begins to uncover some murky business involving drugs and prostitution, in which his own force, and, more queasily, his own abandoned daughter, may be involved. Clearly headed into troubled waters, and with nobody to back him up, he begins to look more and more vulnerable under those wide-open skies…

The set-up is entirely conventional for any number of thrillers, but there are no Hollywood faces here, no extraneous action sequences, no master criminals either. The details of life in this harsh environment are well observed, and the atmosphere of menace is well sustained right up to the brilliantly delivered final confrontation. All the performances are pitched just right, with Hugo Weaving especially good value as the wayward and worrying leader of the drug squad (in terrifying double denim!). It looks great, too, especially the night sequences, where the land turns black, and the horizon is a riot of oranges and reds, with human figures picked out in sick green neon. Photography by Mr. Sen as well. Clever boy. Gold stars. MS

Watch the trailer for Mystery Road:

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. JB

Watch the trailer for Under the Skin:

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (Denis Côté, 2013)
Canadian critic-turned-director Denis Côté’s eccentric Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (Vic et Flo ont vu un ours) starts off promisingly, but gradually loses momentum, as well as character depth, before an unexpectedly superb, if bitchy, ending. Pierrette Robitaille as Victoria, who has been discharged early from prison for a life sentence, and Romane Bohringer as Vic’s former cell mate and now lover, Florence, who has her own agenda for consistently soft-selling Vic’s mounting fear that she will eventually drop her, both give convincing performances as the outlaw couple trying to make a new start somewhere in the Canadian forest. But Côté doesn’t quite manage to keep the viewer interested in his deceptive directing choices and the film’s enigmatic atmosphere, so much so that one doesn’t really care anymore when the trap that has been carefully laid out eventually snaps shut. PJ

Watch the trailer for Vic + Flo Saw a Bear:

Pamela Jahn, Mark Stafford, John Bleasdale, Pierre Kapitaniak

Tale of Tales: Interview with Matteo Garrone

Tale of Tales 1
Tale of Tales

Format: Cinema + VOD

Seen at Cannes 2015

Release date: 17 June 2016

Distributor: Curzon Artificial Eye

Director: Matteo Garrone

Writers: Edoardo Albinati, Ugo Chiti, Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso

Based on the fairy tale collection Pentamerone by: Giambattista Basile

Cast: Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones, John C. Reilly

Italy, France, UK 2015

134 mins

The Italian director talks about fantasy movies, casting Toby Jones as an eccentric king and why every director only needs to make one good film.

Matteo Garrone might have made his name with the gritty, realist mafia drama Gomorra (2008), but his latest offering is a different beast entirely. A fantastically bizarre, wildly imaginative and highly stylized affair, Tale of Tales features a trio of stories, set in three neighbouring kingdoms and focusing on the increasingly mad and often hilarious miseries of their royal leaders, all of which are loosely based on the folk myths collected and published by the 16th-century Neapolitan poet and scholar Giambattista Basile.

Pamela Jahn met with the Italian director at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2015 to talk about fantasy movies, casting Toby Jones as an accentric king and why every director only needs to make one good film.

Pamela Jahn: It seems like Gomorra, which turned out to be your most successful film to date, and your new film Tale of Tales could not be further apart?

Matteo Garrone: Yeah, it seems strange…But, for me, there are also dark fairy tales in Gomorra, in the same way as the tales talk about archetypes, about human beings, so they are also somewhat modern too. And my approach is always one that starts from a realistic approach, from observation of contemporary reality, but at the same time there is also a fantastic dimension. In this case, I started off with fantastic tales and tried to bring them a little closer to reality. But all my movies are very visual, so the approach was not so different from my point of view. I actually felt that the line was quite natural, especially since I always talk about obsessions in my films, and Tale of Tales is about desire and how this desire becomes obsession. Of course, the language of Gomorra was much more based on a documentary style, but behind this choice of the language is an important visual work.

There are not many fantasy movies coming out of Italy these days.

No, but we also have directors who in the past worked well in that genre. For me, one of my references was Mario Bava, for instance. He worked with horror but also with fantasy. And I also like the early work of Pasolini, his short movies and fairy tales in particular, so we do have a heritage of that in Italy too.

When did you discover Giambattista Basile’s tales for yourself?

As a kid, I read tales like the ones by the Brothers Grimm like everyone else. I discovered Giambattista Basile only four or five years ago, through a friend of mine, who is a painter. I immediately fell in love with them, with the different characters of the stories, but also with the visual aspect.

This is your first English-language film. Do you think anything got lost in the translation of the stories into English?

No, because, first of all the original stories were written on the streets in the Neapolitan dialect of the 16th and 17th centuries. So even when you read the book in Italian you are already reading a translation. I also think there is something Shakespearean in the way Basile writes, and hopefully we helped a little to make him known in the world, finally. Because it’s really unfair that nobody knows this author who wrote the first book of fairy tales in Europe and who was the first to write about Cinderella and about many other famous tales…everybody only knows the Grimms. And at that time, the tales were not for kids, they were seen as entertainment for a mixed audience. That’s partly why these tales are also very dark sometimes and also almost oral because they are of medieval origin. It was important to me to keep the soul of Basile’s writing, the violence but at the same time also the comical aspects, because Basile is a master of mixing comedy and fear.

Toby Jones is brilliant as the eccentric king whose love for a giant flea overpowers the love he feels for his own daughter.

Yes, he’s wonderful. Jones is an actor, who like Vincent Cassel, can play comical and dramatic, all at the same time, and always in a way that never becomes cliché, he’s always believable. And that was very important for me with Basile’s tales, to find the right balance between comic, dramatic and the grotesque.

Like in the scene in which Salma Hayek, who plays a queen desperate to receive a child, has to eat a sea monster’s beating heart.

Salma was very generous with me. She’s Mexican, you see, and when we met, she basically told me I’m like a Mexican director because I’m so crazy. But in all honesty, when you believe in something the rest doesn’t matter, so she went through that scene without flinching because she believed in what we were doing.

What is she actually eating in that scene?

It’s a sort of disgusting cake, I think.

Together with Paolo Sorrentino, you are one of the most acclaimed Italian directors today. Is it true that you live in the same building?

Yes, it’s true. We meet in the elevator sometimes, but since he won the Academy Award for The Great Beauty I decided we shouldn’t meet too much. (laughs)

Why did you decide to work with Peter Suschitzky, the cinematographer, who is also a long-term collaborator with David Cronenberg and who shot all of his films?

I saw the work he did with Cronenberg. It’s realistic in its roots but at the same time you can feel something that is artificial in a way. And that’s exactly what we wanted to do with this film, we wanted to create an image that is believable but at the same time you feel like it was created in a studio. Almost like the beginning of the cinema, like the Méliès, something that is almost a performance, something that can surprise the audience, visually and emotionally. But at the same time you feel it’s artificial.

You used to be a painter in your earlier career. Why did you stop?

When I stared making movies I stopped painting, because for me making movies is always a figurative art, and it’s my way of painting now. Unfortunately, I can’t do both, because when I do cinema I think about it 24hours a day, I’m constantly thinking about the language of cinema. It’s something that I cannot combine and think about both at the same time. So if I ever start painting again I have to stop making films. But I’ll probably need at least two years to switch my mind because it takes time. I am very curious though to see what would come out of it, so maybe if I make a movie that is a complete disaster, I’ll go hide in my studio and start painting again.

You mentioned elsewhere that making this film was a very difficult experience for you.

I learned a lot about the technical aspects with this movie, but sometimes it was very frustrating for me because I like to have the control, especially the visual control. And sometimes when you work with special effects you shoot only with a green screen, so you have to imagine what it will actually look like. It’s like you’re giving away your brushes to somebody else and see what they do with them. And it took a long time to see something, like for example, even only to see the giant flea, I had to wait five months.

Has that somewhat discouraged you from making more ambitious fantasy or genre-twisting films like this in the future?

I think making films is always difficult. The world of cinema is somehow connected to something almost esoteric, because when you make a movie in a way you’re blind. Every day you make a piece but you forget what you’ve done the day before, it’s not like when you’re painting that you always see the colour that you put in front of you on the canvas. Instead, putting all the different pieces together is like a mosaic and finally, hopefully, you understand the tone of the movie. But sometimes it is easy to lose the control, visually. And my point of view is this: if a director makes just one really good film in his career, that’s enough. Then you can make mistakes. But imagine if every director would make just one good movie, how rich cinema would be!

Interview by Pamela Jahn

Watch the trailer:

A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews