Format: Cinema

Screening on: 6 May 2007

Time: 3pm

Venue: The Barbican, London

With hammered dulcimer score performed by Geoff Smith

Also available on DVD

Distributor: Tartan Video

Release date: 24 September 2007

Director: Benjamin Christensen

Original title Häxan

Cast Maren Pedersen, Clara Pontoppidan, Elith Pio

Denmark/Sweden 1922

104 minutes

This legendary silent film, much admired by the Surrealists, is a spellbinding brew of ingredients that don’t naturally mix, at least not in modern cinema. Combining the scholarly and the outlandish, the fact-based and the supernatural, Häxan is simultaneously a documentary on witchcraft and a collection of wildly fanciful visions. Banned or censored in many countries on its release in 1922 for its candid depiction of nudity, sexuality and torture as well as for its strong anti-clerical tone, the film has retained a sulphurous aura to this day.

We have to remember that at the time the film was made there were no clear boundaries between documentary and fiction. In the yet uncharted waters of the nascent film art, the aim of director Benjamin Christensen was to make an educational, informative film that would also have artistic value. Christensen himself embodies the paradoxical position of the film, poised between objective and subjective, rational and irrational. The director is the first-person narrator in the titles and as such he is the voice of rationality that coolly comments on the mass delusion that gripped ancient, barbaric times. But in an intriguing personality split, Christensen – who started his film career as an actor – also plays the lewd, tongue-wagging Devil that represents the violent, uncontrollable irruption of the irrational in the human mind.

The factual content of the film was very important to the director, and this is obvious in the detailed, realistic depictions of medieval daily life and dress and of the torture instruments used at the witch trials. He had even hoped that scholars would write the ‘script’ for the film but his request was rejected by academics who thought that cinema was not a suitable vehicle for serious study. Christensen therefore did his own research, drawing on medieval woodcuts, illustrations and treaties, in particular Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), a witch hunter’s manual written in 1487 by two Dominican monks.

Through the meticulous recreation of the past Christensen wanted to educate his audience about the consequences of superstitious and intolerant beliefs, demonstrating how they led to the persecution of anyone seen as different – in this case, the very old, the very ugly, beggars and cripples. These beliefs were stirred up and influenced by the Church and Christensen starkly denounces the responsibility of the Christian clergy for the burning of 8 million people at the stake (although the scholar Casper Tybjerg explains on the Criterion DVD that the figure is in fact closer to 50 000). In one of the titles Christensen explains that the ‘witch madness’ was like a ‘spiritual plague’ that followed wherever the monks of the Inquisition went: the monks were not the remedy as they claimed, they were the disease.

Christensen’s position is explicitly rationalist and he contrasts obscurantist medieval superstitions with enlightened contemporary society: ‘The belief in evil spirits, sorcery, and witchcraft is the result of naí­Â¯ve notions about the mystery of the universe’, reads one of the titles of the first section. Emphasizing the point, we later see two pioneer medical students accused of being witches because they have stolen bodies in the cemetery, which they were planning to open in order to learn more about how disease affects the human body.

Yet, for all the rationalist posturing it is the representation of the supernatural that makes Häxan so memorable. Christensen clearly relishes bringing to life the fears and horrors that lurk in the human mind. The masterful use of light and shadows, the actors’ rugged features, the red and blue tints that lend the black and white images an otherworldly quality all contribute to infuse the film with a pungent, macabre atmosphere. At times it is as if paintings by Goya, Bruegel or Bosch had been magically animated. The scene of the witches flying through the air above the sleepy town remains not only impressive in terms of special effects but strikingly poetic while the unholy scenes of the Sabbath, with their orgiastic excess, uprooted trees and sinister blue tint have a truly nightmarish beauty.

Christensen is least persuasive when he takes us back to the rational, modern world and attempts to demonstrate Professor Charcot’s theory that the phenomena associated with witchcraft were caused by hysteria. While he convincingly connects witchcraft to sexual repression in the medieval section, he doesn’t seem able to make a similar link with so-called ‘hysteria’ in the modern world. We see women affected by somnambulism and kleptomania but Christensen seems unable to engage with their troubled minds. As a result, while the medieval depictions of a monk being willingly flagellated for lusting after a young ‘witch’ or of a whole convent of nuns overcome by uncontrollable delirium are heady, potent sequences, the modern somnambulist and kleptomaniac are little more than dull, superficial case studies. It is as if Christensen’s attempt to remain within the strict boundaries of rationality in the last chapter had killed off his capacity for imagining the unspeakable corners of the human subconscious.

What’s more, blinded by his rationalist stance, Christensen is unable to see that Charcot’s pseudo-scientific diagnostic of ‘hysteria’ is just as extravagant as the previous witchcraft accusations – and just as misogynistic: women are no longer dangerous heretics to be burned at the stake but deranged patients who need to be treated in institutions. Granted, Christensen’s lack of perceptiveness is mitigated by the fact that he was after all a man of his time and couldn’t possibly have guessed that decades later hysteria would be widely discredited as a valid medical diagnosis by scientists and feminists alike. Paradoxically, this means that the film can now be seen as an unwitting denunciation of rationalist certainties: what was held as true in the Middle-Ages was reviled as superstitious drivel in the nineteenth century, but what passed for science in the nineteenth century has now been repudiated as unfounded nonsense. While this is obviously not what Christensen had in mind, it adds a piquant new layer to the film’s complex mix of fact and fiction.

Fifty years after its original release, Häxan remains a fascinating film for its alien beauty, its singular blend of the real and the supernatural and its intelligent investigation of the psychological mechanisms behind the witch hunt mania. In that, it is a timeless work, which just like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, applies far beyond its explicit (or implicit – McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt in Miller’s play) subject matter. Watching The Crucible performed last year was a powerful reminder of how relevant its dissection of the phenomenon is to our own times. Häxan sounds as stark a warning: the monks it depicts are convinced that they are protecting Christianity from evil; believing that they are fighting on the side of good against the terrifying threat of darkness posed by the ‘witches’, they feel entirely justified in their use of torture, brutality and deceit to extract confessions. See the parallels with our troubled times yet?

Virginie Sélavy


Joe Strummer

Format: Cinema

Release date: 18 May 2007

Distributor Vertigo Films

Director: Julien Temple

UK/Ireland 2007

123 minutes

Joe Strummer always cut an incongruous figure as a punk. While the rest of the self-styled last gang in town were suitably weaselly and malnourished (Jones and Topper) or remote (Simonon), Strummer, well-built, full of face and with a mockney accent that belied his boarding school past, seemed too old, too worldly-wise for such a nihilistic movement. Not for him the anguished howl of alienation and misanthropy that Johnny Rotten embodied so well. Nor did his band stick to the DIY, three-chord aesthetic propounded by Sniffin’ Glue that seemed such an important tenet of punk, preferring instead to venture into reggae and ska. No, Strummer’s vision of punk was different, educational and multi-cultural, and at its worst had a proselytizing tendency uncomfortably close to that of Bono, and a po-facedness that’s mirrored in the legions of bands they spawned, from the Manics to the Libertines.

Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten is Julien Temple’s beautifully assembled love letter to his dead friend. Born John Graham Mellor in Ankara, Turkey to a foreign-service diplomat father, Strummer lived in various countries before being deposited in an English boarding school with his older brother David. Temple brilliantly evokes the cool austerity of the 50s and the vibrancy of the 60s with a collage of home movies and vintage footage, ending in the tragedy of David’s flirtation with fascism, his descent into depression and his suicide in 1970. We’re left to imagine the impression his brother’s death must have left on the young John Mellor, now calling himself Woody after his hero Woody Guthrie, as we follow him first to art school and then, following an incident with an artwork composed entirely of used tampons, to Newport, South Wales where, sporting decidedly non-punk flowing locks, he forms his first band.

Back in London in 1974 Strummer becomes involved in the squat scene of the time and Temple demonstrates how the political ideas of community and social justice, essentially hippy ideals from the sixties, that would come to define him were developed. After forming the 101’ers, Strummer is picked out by Svengali Bernie Rhodes to join a new band called The Clash and the film picks up pace, with grainy footage of amphetamine-fuelled gigs and the smell of ambition barely disguised as punk ethos, Strummer throwing everything into his new role. Topper Headon pops up to recount how he joined the band, complaining that he left his wife in the morning with long hair and flares and returned in the evening with a punk cut and zips. As a lesson in how punk changed everything overnight it’s perfect. The Clash bandwagon rolls ever faster, a vehicle for Strummer’s struggle for justice, decency and righteousness. Whether it’s protecting the kids from the bouncers, support slots for Grandmaster Flash (he’s booed off), or triple albums called ‘Sandinista’, Strummer walks it like he talks it.

Inevitably it can’t last. Drugs and drink and constant touring conspire to turn The Clash into a parody of the rock bands that, just three years earlier, they’d set out to destroy. Topper writes Rock The Casbah and is shortly afterwards dismissed for his addiction to heroin. Mick Jones writes ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go?’ (shown here live with Mick singing ‘It’s always Joe, Joe, Joe’, should you have ever wondered where Doherty and Barat got the idea for ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’ from) and shortly afterwards receives his own Clash communiqué from Strummer. ‘Are you discouraged by the rock’n’roll business?’, an interviewer asks Mick Jones. ‘It’s no worse than any other prostitution business’, he replies.

After The Clash fall apart Strummer is portrayed as a walking ghost, seeking consolation in the bottle. In one of the film’s funniest anecdotes (and there are a few) Strummer says: ‘I knew I had to cut down on the drinking. Just then the phone rang. It was The Pogues. They wanted to know if I could go on tour with them.’ Slowly though we see him pick up the pieces and eventually form The Mescaleros. We sense a man finding his purpose again, or at least determining what is important. The circle is completed when Mick Jones joins Strummer on stage for a benefit for London’s firemen. Ten days later he dies peacefully on his couch at home, reading The Observer.

Temple tells the story with no little skill, compensating for a lack of footage in the early and later years by mixing in sound snippets from Strummer’s BBC World Service radio show and animations of Strummer’s own cartoons. Perhaps his best trick though is a recreation of one of the Strummerville campfires that had become Strummer’s main focus in the last few years of his life, and which live on as a charitable foundation run by his family and by Temple himself. Gathered around the flames somewhere high above London, drinks in hand, Strummer’s family, friends and fellow artists talk openly and with affection about the man they knew, providing the film with an emotional heart and Temple with a wealth of material. It’s this warmth, from the director down, that is the film’s real strength, and yet paradoxically you catch yourself wondering how another director might tell the story. Occasionally we catch glimpses of a Joe that doesn’t quite tally with the other eulogies – the naked ambition on forming The Clash that led him to snub his former friends, an emotional Topper Headon recounting how Strummer had slept with his girlfriend on tour – and you wonder what else there might be. Temple puts it out there, but there’s a sense that the picture being painted is more of a memorial than a warts-and-all portrait.

Whether or not this is true, you come away from the cinema inspired by Joe Strummer the man. A generous, passionate, larger-than-life character who lived his life in the only way he knew how, fighting for people, for multi-culturalism, for rock’n’roll and for the politics of the left. A man who cried when he read that the American army had written ‘Rock The Casbah’ on a warhead destined for Iraq. If he never quite cut it as a punk, well, maybe he was more than that. After all, as John Cooper-Clarke says, ‘Punks were just hippies with zips’.

Sean Price


The Bothersome Man

Format: Cinema

Release date: 25 May 2007

Distributor ICA

Director: Jens Lien

Original title: Den Brysomme Mannen

Cast: Trond Fausa Aurvag, Petronella Barker, Birgitte Larsen

Norway 2006

90 minutes

A man steps down from a rattling bus at a rundown gas station in the centre of a deserted volcanic wasteland. He is expected. In a nearby city an apartment waits for him, a job, a whole new life. But something is wrong here. The inhabitants of the city seem happy, content with their lot. But the food tastes of nothing, the alcohol is ineffective, the music bland, the décor uniform and drab. Even sex is joyless.

The opening scenes of Jens Lien’s debut feature The Bothersome Man tick all the boxes in the now-familiar category marked ‘surreal/ existentialist’. A lone stranger. A world familiar, but not quite like our own. Plenty of empty silences, meaningful glances and quiet desperation. Scattered touches of delicate whimsy, and a handful of random absurdity (in this case, two men playing badminton in an open field). A lot of none-too-subtle social commentary.

The film is obviously intended as a Kafkaesque allegory on middle-class Scandinavian culture, and hammers its point home with numbing regularity. The characters, bemused hero Andreas notwithstanding, are uniformly dull and lifeless. They are obsessed with interior design, any hint of emotion or imagination terrifies them. Even when Andreas thinks he’s found real love, with blonde office junior Ingeborg, it turns out she’s just an empty vessel like all the rest.

The main problem the filmmakers face is that it’s very difficult to make a film about joyless people in a joyless world and still make the film, well, enjoyable. When virtually all your characters are dour and plastic, how is an audience supposed to relate? Even poor Andreas has no context in which to display his personality. He’s presented as the archetypal everyman, trying to make his way in an uncertain and unpredictable world. Trond Fausa Aurvag plays the character just a notch above unconscious, blinking warily at the steadily unfolding drama in which he has become an unwilling central player. The other actors essay their parts perfectly, but it’s hard to tell how talented they are when the characters are all essentially the same: cold, loveless, lifeless.

The final act of the film brings some spark to the proceedings. Following an abortive subway suicide attempt (in this world it’s impossible to die), Andreas overhears the distant and beautiful sound of music. He discovers a hole in the wall of an abandoned cellar, from which strange and emotive sounds and smells regularly emanate. He attempts to break through, but his efforts are impeded by the mysterious city authorities.

The suicide sequence is by far the strongest in the film. There have been shocking images before – a man impaled on railings, his intestines hanging out; Andreas cutting off his own finger, only to find it mysteriously re-grown. But when he jumps under the train, the film takes off in a new and temporarily riveting direction. Andreas is smashed, battered, dragged along and torn to shreds, all the while conscious and aware of what’s happening to him. And it’s all presented in horrifyingly vivid detail, every bone snap and crunch clearly audible. For a moment the film begins to resemble Miike Takashi’s Audition, another sly comment on middle-class mores which descended into surprising and disturbing violence.

But The Bothersome Man entirely lacks the earlier film’s integrity, or its intelligence. It’s hard to tell if Lien or screenwriter Per Schreiner realise quite how narrow and offensive the premise of their film is. This is a world in which the majority of people live drab, empty lives which mean absolutely nothing. They don’t enjoy the benefits they are given, they are small-minded, petty individuals with nothing to recommend them. The women, particularly, are trouble: self-centred, treacherous, beautiful but empty, unable to connect on any kind of human level. Is this how Lien and Schreiner view the world? Do they see themselves as Andreas, ‘real’ souls trapped in this prison of fakery?

There isn’t an ounce of subtlety in The Bothersome Man. It is a film as anhedonic and soulless as its characters, dripping with patronising superiority. What strength the film has lies in its ability to shock, but such moments are fleeting and purely physical. There is nothing here we haven’t seen before, or needed to see again.

Tom Huddleston


The Night of the Sunflowers

Format: Cinema

Release date: 11 May 2007

Distributor Yume Pictures

Director: Jorge Sí¡nchez-Cabezudo

Original title: La Noche de los girasoles

Cast: Carmelo Gí­Â³mez, Judith Diakhate, Cesí¡reo Estébanez

Spain 2006

123 minutes

La Noche de los girasoles (Night of the Sunflowers) starts with two separate stories that are interwoven: the discovery of a cave that may or may not drastically change the fortunes of a small northern Spanish village, and the murder of a girl found in some nearby sunflower fields. Both storylines act as a catalyst for what subsequently takes place and are merged together through the arrival of speleologist Esteban (Carmelo Gí­Â³mez) and his girlfriend Gabi (Judith Diakhate) in the village. The film is told in six chapters that each expand as well as cast further light on the story. Each chapter starts further back in time than the previous one and ends further ahead, thus moving the story forward. Each chapter also has a new protagonist, often introduced towards the end of the preceding section, who is linked to the story in a coincidental way.

The first feature by young Spanish director Jorge Sí¡nchez-Cabezudo, it is one of those films that feel like they were constructed on a drawing board before they were actually written in order to make sure that, as the puzzle unravels, all angles are covered. The last ten years have seen a proliferation of such films: Se7en, The Game, Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to name but a few. However, those movies only used their elaborate construction and multiple twists and turns for no other reason than to cover up their own hollowness whereas La Noche de los girasoles is a far more sophisticated and mature film. By telling the story backwards Sí¡nchez-Cabezudo manages to convince us first of all that all these coincidences could plausibly occur – which is no mean feat considering how many there are. What’s more, by combining this with a construction in six chapters that each have their own titles, he very successfully manages to engage you in what are essentially six gripping and very different short stories, ranging in tone from the Taviani Brothers to Claude Chabrol and ending in a scene that can only be seen as a tribute to Ví­Â­ctor Erice’s Spirit Of the Beehive.

The main achievement here is how well it all works, how effortless the construction seems and how it gives Sí¡nchez-Cabezudo the chance to spin lovely side stories that give you a genuine sense of life in a little rural Spanish village. It feels like Sí¡nchez-Cabezudo really knows the environment he describes and although his choice of characters might be a tad predictable (travelling salesman, village idiots and policemen) he manages to flesh them out to be much more than just stereotypes.

Kim Nicolajsen



Format: Cinema

Release date: 25 May 2007

Distributor Revolver

Director: Ray Lawrence

Based on: ‘So Much Water So Close to Home’ by Raymond Carver

Cast: Laura Linney, Gabriel Byrne, Deborra-Lee Furness

Australia 2006

123 minutes

Five years after the widely praised Lantana, Ray Lawrence returns with an adaptation of a short story by American writer Raymond Carver, ‘So Much Water So Close to Home’ – which Robert Altman had also adapted earlier in Short Cuts. Lawrence relocates the story to the outback of his native Australia, more precisely to Jindabyne, a small town in the mountainous wilderness of the southwest.

Jindabyne opens with the murder of a young Aboriginal woman before introducing the protagonists of the story, Irish mechanic Stuart, his pals Carl, Rocco and Billy, and his wife Claire. At the weekend the four men go on their long-awaited annual fishing trip in the mountains. But on the first day Stuart discovers the body of the murdered woman in the river. Without any deliberation, they simply tie the body to a tree so that it won’t drift away and carry on fishing. When they report the murder to the police on their return two days later, their actions are met with disgust in town and provoke anger in the Aboriginal community. Profoundly disturbed by her husband’s behaviour, Claire makes misguided attempts to reach out to the murdered woman’s family.

Jindabyne has been fairly well-received by festival audiences and critics and there is no denying that it is a well-crafted film, the intertwined themes of moral choice and family life being dealt with in a mature, sober way. The disintegration of Claire and Stuart’s marriage is well observed, the incident bringing back to the surface old resentments and repressed feelings from their past history. Claire’s uneasiness, caused partly by her suspicion that her husband harbours somewhat shameful feelings in relation to the dead girl, is convincingly drawn. The thriller part is well handled, the killer remaining mysterious and terribly familiar at the same time, with no easy resolution.

And yet some extremely misjudged decisions make Jindabyne a rather unpalatable experience. While there is a real effort to be true to Carver’s style and convey the characters’ emotions through acts and situations rather than through words, that effort is thoroughly ruined by the awful yodelling pseudo-spiritual singing on the soundtrack. Blasted in our ears while we are treated to images of spectacular scenery, it is obviously meant to let us know that at that point we should be feeling in awe of the stunning wilderness that unfolds before our eyes. The same strategy is repeated at the end, and the traditional Aboriginal ceremony is turned to mawkish caricature by the lengthy, over-emotional a cappella singing. This is a rather unsubtle, irksome and un-Carver-like way to try and tell the audience how they should feel.

And then there’s the race angle, which plays no part in the original story. Lawrence clearly tries to use the plot to say something about the treatment of Aboriginal people in his country. But Claire’s misplaced, drippy race guilt provides no insight into this theme, and does nothing but represent a self-obsessed white perspective. She goes to a private ceremony even though she is not wanted there in order to assuage her own bad conscience. And although what Stuart has done is irreparably insulting for the Aboriginal people, there is an intimation that some kind of reconciliation between Claire and her husband might be possible. In the middle of the Aboriginal ceremony, what interests the director most is not the Aboriginals’ sense of loss but what is going to happen to the white couple’s relationship.

This may be a well-meaning film but its po-faced worthiness, its lack of sophistication in its handling of the race issue and its incapacity to see beyond an all-white point of view make it an altogether unpleasant experience. Better to save your cash to go and see Ten Canoes next month, an Aboriginal folk tale starring only Aboriginal actors, which offers a much more complex – and humorous – take on the issue.

Virginie Sélavy


The Caiman

Format: Cinema

Release date: 6 April 2007

Distributor Optimum

Director: Nanni Moretti

Original title: Il Caimano

Cast: Silvio Orlando, Margherita Buy, Jasmine Trinca, Nanni Moretti

France/Italy 2006

112 minutes

The Caiman, Nanni Moretti’s follow-up to 2001’s The Son’s Room, is both a scathing political indictment of Silvio Berlusconi, and a bittersweet, nostalgic film about loss; the two are deeply intertwined in the Italy of the last decades.

Bruce Bonomo (Silvio Orlando) is a washed-up film-maker who achieved a certain notoriety as a producer of ‘genre’ films: in other words, B-movies such as Smutty Boots, Mocassin Assasins, Masciste v. Freud, and the infamous Cataracts, the bomb that ended his career a decade earlier. Handed a screenplay at a retrospective of his films by an anonymous young woman, Bonomo desperately seizes on the project as a way to breathe life into his own faltering existence: not only is his career a disaster but his marriage to Paola (Margherita Buy) is also falling apart. Bruce devotes himself to making The Caiman with Teresa (Jasmine Trinca), the unknown scriptwriter, failing to realise that her film is in fact a damning satire about Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s wealthiest man and former prime minister.

The arc of Berlusconi’s career in politics is traced throughout the film, itself structured as a series of vignettes, of films within a film: the over-lapping of Teresa’s script with Bonomo’s imagination, interwoven with the disintegration of his family life and the actual making of the fictional Caiman. Three different actors play Berlusconi during the course of the film, the first brilliantly realised by the impeccable Elio de Capitani. His scenes are the most mocking of Berlusconi and his reputation as an embezzler and a womanizer, a caricature who delivered populism to the masses through his media empire.

Berlusconi, whose campaign for prime minister in 1994 is criticised in the film as little more than an attempt to escape jail for fraud and tax evasion, sold himself to the electorate as an alternative to communism, exploiting the fear that the left would sweep the elections. The inter-play between the left and right in Italian politics is a crucial current running through The Caiman. Bonomo is initially dismayed to realise that he is making a ‘lefty political film’; Bonomo’s films were themselves a rally against ‘intellectualism’, populist critiques of the ‘dictatorship of auteur cinema’. He admits that he voted for Berlusconi, and it’s here that the bitterness and loss of innocence lie: the betrayal by a figure who promised Italy change, but instead became a politician better known for his face lifts and hair transplants, his tight control over Italian media and, as a result, the political spectrum.

There are paradoxes in The Caiman that add an intriguing depth to the narrative, and offer an insight into the making of the film. Bonomo and Teresa’s film is rejected by RAI, Italy’s main network (arguably under Berlusconi’s indirect control) as a ‘film not born out of urgent need’. Playing himself in the film, Moretti initially rejects the role of Berlusconi; he throws doubt on the project, arguing against telling a story that is public knowledge. Teresa is the foil, adamant that The Caiman must be made: the film is a history of contemporary Italy, and that history is Berlusconi. In the end, after another actor walks away from The Caiman for a role in a more lucrative, commercial film, Moretti does take on Berlusconi, portraying him as a chilling, arrogant politician, utterly above the law; it is the film’s most personal and gripping attack on the politician. Unlike Bonomo, Nanni Moretti is a successful film-maker, himself an ‘auteur’ and a darling of Italian cinema, and perhaps one of Italy’s few film-makers capable of making such a film.

Acerbically funny, often charming, The Caiman is a film successful in its parts, rather than as a whole. The brilliant, subtly acted performances are unquestionably the film’s strength. It is the mix of family drama and political satire that never seems quite balanced, the one detracting from the other. Released shortly before the 2006 election, which Berlusconi lost to Romano Prodi, The Caiman is nonetheless an evocative look at a country mired in disillusionment.

Sarah Cronin

Bad Timing

Bad Timing
Bad Timing

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 26 January 2015

Distributor Network Distributing

Director: Nicolas Roeg

Cast: Art Garfunkel, Theresa Russell, Harvey Keitel

UK 1980

123 minutes

British director Nicolas Roeg was hardly unaccustomed to controversy. Throughout the 1970s, his work had regularly elicited vehement reactions. Roeg’s 1970 debut Performance (co-directed with Donald Cammell) was shelved by Warner Bros for two years while the suits worked out what to do with his psychosexual gangster meltdown. And then, three years later, Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland’s controversial humping in Don’t Look Now brought the censors out in hives. But even seasoned provocateur Roeg was shocked by the fallout to Bad Timing.

The film’s distributor, Rank, labelled it ‘a sick film made by sick people for sick people’ before begrudgingly releasing it in October 1980. It was a reckless damning. The truth is that Bad Timing, billed as ‘a terrifying love story’, is an uncomfortable experience filled with pain, obsession and bitterness. And, with its alienated characters, fractured timeframe and plenty of sex, quintessential Roeg cinema.

On paper, Bad Timing is a simple enough story set in cold-war Vienna. Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel) is a straight-laced university lecturer who embarks on a passionate affair with Milena Flaherty (Theresa Russell), a ravishing pleasure-seeking siren. Their relationship starts to implode when Alex is assigned by the US government to investigate Stefan Vognic (Denholm Elliott), Milena’s Czech husband. Inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel) is called in to piece together the events that have led to Milena fighting for her life in hospital after a suicide attempt. Through Roeg’s radical editing style, their love story is diced up, turned in on itself and played out as a romance in reverse. Graphic shots of overdosed Milena in surgery are intercut with scenes from the couple’s shared history. The result is a rich and complex mosaic of experience, details and identity.

Fate is at the heart of all the director’s films. And none more so than with Bad Timing. There is a claustrophobic sense of inevitability to Alex and Milena’s relationship. On meeting him for the first time at a party, she even says: ‘If we’re going to meet, it might as well be now.’ The characters are on an unstoppable course, swerving towards emotional oblivion. In Don’t Look Now, the inescapable climax was John Baxter’s predestined date with violent destiny dressed in a red duffel coat; here, it is the absolute disintegration of a couple. The sensation is like a looped dream. The viewer can’t help but want to reorganise the edited scraps in a desperate bid to change the unavoidable outcome in some way.

Another reoccurring theme is that of chaos versus order. In Performance, straight-laced hood Chas (James Fox) comes undone in the disordered world of drug-addled Turner (Mick Jagger). For all his hip talk and professor swagger, Bad Timing‘s Alex is similarly pedestrian. He is unable to control the elemental force that is Milena and seems out of his depth in her wayward lifestyle. It is a doomed partnership: he wants to marry and own her; she wants to enjoy the moment. Alex lectures on voyeurism to his students: ‘We are constantly in isolation, watching, spying on everyone and everything around us… I prefer to label myself an observer.’ At times, he is nothing but a jealous boy, peeping on Milena; Roeg playfully pokes at this when Alex, sat in the back of a truck in Morocco, struggles to peer through the dusty window at Milena sat up front with two lecherous men.

The Vienna setting of Bad Timing is crucial. Alex and Milena are both US citizens in a foreign land. They don’t belong there. All Roeg’s characters are visitors to another land: whether the Baxters in Venice in Don’t Look Now; Walkabout‘s English children in the Australian outback; Eastender Chas in Turner’s Notting Hill drug den in Performance; and, most literally, David Bowie as a marooned extraterrestrial in The Man Who Fell To Earth. They are all separated from their natural environment, trying to find a way home.

The tragic reality of Alex and Milena’s affair is beautifully hinted at in the opening scene. As Tom Waits sings ‘An Invitation to the Blues’ (‘She’s a moving violation from her conk down to her toes…’) on the soundtrack, Milena stands in a gallery, studying Klimt’s painting, The Kiss. At first, the artwork appears to be a study of an amorous clinch. But closer inspection reveals a chilling undercurrent: the man in the painting is passionately kissing the woman but his lover’s cheek is slightly turned, a disengaged gaze in her eyes. Klimt captures this fleeting moment forever. And in that suspended beat, the couple have never been further apart.

Like Klimt, Roeg is fascinated by these momentary incidentals. In his films, the edge of the frame, the split second is where the truth is hidden, or briefly held. This can be nothing more than a humorous aside: as in the scene where Alex meets with a tea-drinking diplomat to discuss the legalities of divorce in a foreign land. Roeg’s camera glimpses a bowl of heart-shaped sugar cubes: a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cry for sweet love perhaps. But Roeg also uses these flashes for unsettling purposes. And he does so with devastating effect early on in Bad Timing.

Alex is stood talking to a nurse in the hospital corridor, while a team of surgeons try to revive Milena. Netusil is led by the night duty officer past Alex. The two characters have not yet been introduced: they are strangers. Alex briefly looks up at Netusil and in that fraction, Netusil winks directly at him. It is nothing but, at the same time, everything. A link is made between the two: they are now somehow complicit in the events about to unfold. It is random, dazzling and confrontational. Just like the film.

Bad Timing is also available on DVD released by Network in May 2007 when this review was first published.

Ben Cobb


The Masque of the Red Death

Format: DVD

Release date: 30 April 2007

Distributor Optimum

Director: Roger Corman

Cast: Vincent Price, Hazel Court, Jane Asher

USA 1964

85 minutes

The king of the exploitation B-movie, Roger Corman is known for films such as Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), The Man with X-Ray Eyes (1963) and The Trip (1967) and even boasts of shooting one film in just two days and one night, Little Shop of Horrors (1960). A prolific filmmaker, he made over fifty films in sixteen years, often focusing on the latest fads and youth cults, from bikers to beatniks to hippies, mostly for the poverty row studio American International Pictures. Always fast to find an expanding market or newly popular genres, he even suggested to Martin Scorsese (whose career he helped launch, along with Francis Ford Coppola and an endless list of others) that Mean Streets (1973) should be a blaxploitation film, a gangster version of Shaft.

Following Hammer studios’ cheap but successful horror series, which started in 1957 with The Curse of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher), Corman produced and directed his own horror films, similarly shot in colour. Replacing Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker with Edgar Allen Poe he made seven films based on Poe stories between 1960 and 1964. The Masque of the Red Death is actually based on two, very loosely adapted, Poe stories. It was probably chosen for its gruesome title rather than for the story itself – a short three-page outline requiring much filling out. Prince Prospero and his courtiers are hiding out in his castle while the dreaded Red Death (Poe’s invention) ravages the countryside (and the peasants) before it visits the masquerade party in person. The film shows what the courtiers get up to while they are waiting and possibly, unlike Poe, why they deserve what’s coming to them. The second story, ‘Hop-Frog’, concerning a dwarf’s revenge, is more closely followed.

Like the Hammer films The Masque of the Red Death was filmed in the UK with a largely British cast (including Paul McCartney’s then girlfriend Jane Asher) and, of course, Vincent Price as Prince Prospero. It was shot over a leisurely (for Corman) five weeks and with one of his larger budgets. As always Corman stretched his resources as far as they would go. The only things that look cheap are the special effects and the plague make-up but that’s probably more due to it being made in 1964. It is a great-looking film shot in garish Pathécolor by Nicolas Roeg. The richly coloured costumes and huge elaborate castle sets (mostly borrowed from Becket (Peter Glenville, 1964) are shown off with the film’s many long-tracking shots. And the animated hand dealing tarots for the end titles is perhaps my favourite part. The heavy stylisation is perfectly matched by Vincent Price’s wonderfully hammy performance – spouting lines like, ‘the knowledge of terror is vouchsafed only to the precious few’ as only he can. There are some great details such as the pendulum shaped like an executioner’s axe. However, despite a few jumps – Prince Prospero waking suddenly or a prisoner leering through the bars as strings suddenly screech – there is very little that’s frightening in the film. It is occasionally creepy: Esmeralda, the little dancer, is played by a child dubbed by an adult, which always seems disturbing to me.

As with all Corman films there are moments of shoddiness (the ‘invisible’ cuts as the Red Death waves his cloak over the camera) and high camp (the ridiculous dance of death) and even a great ‘trip’ sequence. But the main problem with the film is the story’s lack of focus – the padding overwhelming what little story there is. Much of the film is given to the antics of Prospero and his courtiers, whose idea of being decadent is dressing up and pretending to be animals, or to Prospero preaching Satanism to his peasant girl captive (Jane Asher). The Masque of the Red Death was remade as a two minute animation short in 2000 and this seems a more suitable length.

Roger Corman has made some great films on some tiny budgets (and some bad ones too) but despite having more time and money The Masque of the Red Death is not one of his very best. It lacks the black humour of A Bucket of Blood (and that film’s great parody of beatniks) and the cult appeal of The Wild Angels (1966) with its rock’n’roll proclamations (‘We want to be free, to do what we want to do’ etc).. Neither does it have the historical interest of The Trip (1967) or even the blatant ridiculousness of The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957). With its embodiment of death roaming through a plague-ravaged land The Masque of the Red Death is often compared to The Seventh Seal, but even more so than Bergman’s film it is too silly to be taken seriously (and not silly enough to be fun).

Paul Huckerby


The Seashell and the Clergyman

Format: Cinema

Screening on: 13 April 2007

Venue: Union Chapel, London

With score performed by Minima

Director: Germaine Dulac

Writer: Antonin Artaud

Original title: La coquille et le clergyman

Cast: Alex Allin, Genica Athanasiou, Lucien Bataille

France 1928

41 minutes

The Seashell and the Clergyman is now commonly recognized as the first surrealist film of the 1920s and 30s, and yet, despite such avant-garde credentials, and the fact that a female director directed the film, most people still consider Luis Buí±uel’s Un Chien Andalou the pre-eminent surrealist film of its time.

There are reasons for this and they are not simply to do with Buí±uel’s later canonical status, nor with a sexist leaning towards male filmmakers. The Seashell and the Clergyman is first and foremost an exercise in visual lyricism and although it has the pre-requisite surrealist sub-narrative, or rather sub-conscious language of lust, morality, hypocrisy and desire, its narrative is and remains entirely meaningless. This is to say that although the visual lyricism is clearly pre-occupied with images of dreams, complete with fantastic fantasies of dozens of chambermaid-clad concubines and splashing water, in the end there is no sense of time or action having occurred: there is effectively no discernible beginning, middle or end, which would explain what’s happened. What we do get is a fragmented series of scenarios, which appear to incorporate symbolic vessels being handled, broken and transported by our clergyman, a tremendous amount of raised eyebrows in close-up, and – to my own personal relief – some nicely turned-out choreographed ladies in 1920s hats, gloves and shoes.

Interestingly, Antonin Artaud, who wrote the script, was allegedly so displeased with Dulac’s realization of his scenario, that he sought to prevent its screening. Angry with the ways in which the film’s anti-clericalism (a priest runs around manifesting a lustful passion that he fails to satiate) is undermined rather than accentuated by the director’s visual lyricism, Artaud perhaps realized what others have failed to since – namely that lyricism in the service of surrealism tends to undermine its political subversiveness.

All the more amusing that the British censor of the time banned it with the legendary words ‘If this film has a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable’, a phrase which has since almost become more famous than the film. These words are also clearly what the musical score to the film, as played beautifully by Minima in the Union Chapel performance, in many ways has forgotten. Minima, who formed in 2006, excel in performing new soundtracks to silent films with a line-up of drums, bass, guitar and cello. As they proudly state on their website: they have no laptops or backing tapes, a statement which is clearly meant to authenticate their musical abilities while making them also somehow more intuitively in sync with the performance as it occurs; an admirable mode of operating – at least in principle.

Nevertheless, in the case of the Dulac film, rather than stress the fragmentation of the narrative and the bizarre, potentially subversive quality of the imagery, Minima chose to incorporate harmonious leit-motifs, romantically accentuating certain moments in the film and adding decidedly dramatic effects through key moments of vigor in the score. At the end, if one can call it such, the music builds up to a climactic moment complete with a sweeping refrain. In doing so, Minima, whilst clearly in control of their chosen medium, also slot themselves firmly into recent trends of taking silent films and modernizing them by adding a score, which guides rather than confuses an audience, which above all, must not be bored. This in effect says to viewers, relax, what you are watching is not as difficult as you may think even though – yes, surprise – it contains no sound. The effect, in this case, is to make a potentially provocative, and wonderfully incomprehensible piece of filmmaking into a nicely wrought exercise in aesthetic refinement. Dulac would have appreciated the film being screened today but whether she meant it to be wrapped up in the romance of Minima’s well-intended score is another matter.



Knife in the Water

Format: Cinema

Screening on: 5 May 2007

Time: 3:30pm

Venue: The Barbican, London

Director: Roman Polanski

Original title: Ní­Â³z w wodzie

Cast: Leon Niemczyk, Jolanta Umecka, Zygmunt Malanowicz

Poland 1962

94 minutes

Showing as part of the Roman Polanski season at the Barbican, the Polish director’s first feature is a landmark of sixties cinema, an outstanding debut that more than holds its own among the New Wave masterpieces of the time. Already evident there are the unnerving sense of menace and the scalpel-sharp psychological dissections that he would later develop in such masterpieces as Repulsion and Chinatown – which are also included in the programme.

Knife in the Water is a minimalist classic, a tight, bare, existential thriller low on budget but high on imagination. Andrzej and Krystyna, a well-off couple, are on their way to a lake for a boat trip when they almost run over a hitch-hiker. They give him a lift and invite him to join them on their excursion. Once on the boat in the middle of the vast lake, Andrzej begins to play a perverse power game with the young drifter. Tensions simmer as he orders the young man about, daring him to take risks, and the feeling of danger becomes more palpable when the young man reveals he carries a large knife. As the two men clash over and over again, the escalation of macho bravado leads to an increasingly volatile situation.

Polanski’s brilliant direction infuses exceptional depth and intensity into the simple set-up. The claustrophobic shots that enclose the three characters convey a sense of menace and doom that is emphasised by the stark black and white images and the moody jazz score. The film offers no hope: although the two men seem to be opposed in age and social standing, they are essentially the same, as a disillusioned Krystyna points out. From Polanski’s dark view of mankind emerges an impressively subtle psychological study that concludes with marvellous ambiguity. A lean and mean, misanthropic gem.

Virginie Sélavy

Also showing as part of the Roman Polanski season: Repulsion (May 12), Cul-De-Sac (May 19), Chinatown (May 26), The Pianist (June 2).