Format: Cinema

Release date: 6 March 2009

Venues: BFI IMAX, Odeon Leicester Square (London) and nationwide

Distributor Paramount

Director: Zack Snyder

Writers: David Hayter and Alex Tse

Based on the graphic novel by: Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore (uncredited)

Cast: Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson, Carla Gugino, Matt Frewer

USA 2009

163 minutes

While Watchmen hasn’t received the same amount of publicity as last year’s The Dark Knight, it has generated a level of anticipation unprecedented for comic book adaptations in recent years. After all, we’re talking about the ‘Citizen Kane of graphic novels’. Even the sober journalists of The Guardian Film Blog don’t seem to be immune and a recent roundup of early reviews of the film flirts with applying the Orson Welles comparison to the movie adaptation too.

I don’t intend to harp on about the fidelity of the film to the book as it has to stand on its own merits and based on these, Watchmen the movie is fairly average. Zack Snyder is an accomplished visual director, which was demonstrated to an even greater extent in his earlier 300 (2006), but is not the best director of actors. Paradoxically, the strongest aspect of the film is the plot, but its original author, Alan Moore, has had his name removed from the credits. As presented on screen, the story, set in 1985, is relatively simple. After an ageing vigilante is murdered, members of the superhero community worry that there might be a ‘cape killer’ loose on the streets while the world around them faces nuclear Armageddon. Recent attempts to bring Watchmen to the screen included revisionist takes that intended to relocate it to the post 9/11 world. Snyder sticks to the original period, and the 80s seem a particularly appropriate decade for the film, as it was an era that was book-ended by the first great superhero films Superman II (1980) and Batman (1989). The influence of those two films are writ large in the characterisation here, with Patrick Wilson’s Dan Dreiberg / Nite Owl played emphatically as a cross between Christopher Reeve’s nebbish Clark Kent and Michael Keaton’s introspective Bruce Wayne.

The 80s were a kitsch decade, in which gaudy outfits, neon lights and synthesised jazz didn’t seem too incongruous. This is something that Snyder recreates well, helped by comic book artist Dave Gibbons’s original drawings. Snyder also captures the violent 80s aesthetic of urban decay and riots, although not as well as Terry Gilliam did in Brazil at the time the original comic was published (in the history of great unmade superhero films, Gilliam’s Watchmen is neck and neck with Orson Welles’s Batman…). But the 80s aesthetic doesn’t always work well. One of the film’s most important emotional moments – the sex scene between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre – is shot and directed like something out of 9 킽 Weeks (1986) and is the weakest, cheesiest scene in the movie. The use of music makes things worse, the soundtrack mixing Philip Glass with Nena Kerner and Simon and Garfunkel. In the hands of a director with a better understanding of the possibilities of music as a counterpoint to action, this scattershot approach could have worked well – after all Quentin Tarantino has based his career on it – but in Watchmen the juxtaposition of ‘The Sound of Silence’ with a funeral scene and ‘Hallelujah’ with the Nite Owl/Silk Spectre coupling ranges from mawkish to downright embarrassing.

Snyder is a director who excels at stylised ultra-violence and his accomplishments in this field in both 300 and his remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004) led to his being hired for the Watchmen project. The high body count in 300 was tempered by painterly visuals that gave the film an almost abstract and otherworldly quality. Here the breaking of bones, spurting blood and entrails hanging from a ceiling seem excessive for a superhero movie. Alan Moore’s Watchmen may be known as a superhero comic for adults, but that reputation is based on its writing and structure, not on gratuitous violence. With much of the ironies and subtleties of the original graphic novel removed from the film, Snyder’s Watchmen is not much more than yet another superhero movie, and as such, its potential audience is largely adolescents. Yet, by upping the violence on screen, the director has excluded that audience from cinemas (unless they live in Ireland, the Baltic States or New Zealand, where it has a lower rating).

At the risk of damning the film with faint praise, it’s as good as the third films in the Batman and Superman franchises – mixing hysterical visuals with faux gravitas and absurd situations. The character that most resembles an early 80s reject, Jackie Earle Haley’s Walter Kovacs / Rorschach, is surprisingly the most engaging and likeable character. He may be an amoral and violent psychopath but he has the no-nonsense charm and gravely voice of mid-career Clint Eastwood. For all the debate about fidelity to the original graphic novel, it is Alan Moore’s unwilling input that rescues the film and stops it from being as bad as it could have been and often threatens to be. Watchmen the film is loud, kitsch, violent and flashy, like the decade it’s set in. For those reasons, it’s an enjoyable 1980s superhero film. But no way is it the Citizen Kane of superhero movies.

Alex Fitch

Watchmen can be seen on the BFI IMAX’s 20-metre high screen from March 7 to April 2. More details on the BFI IMAX website.

Read our comic strip on the Watchmen film adaptation in the new print issue of Electric Sheep. The spring issue focuses on Tainted Love to celebrate the release of the sweet and bloody pre-teen vampire romance Let the Right One In, with articles on incestuous cinematic siblings, Franí§ois Ozon‘s tales of tortuous relationships, destructive passion in Nic Roeg‘s Bad Timing, Julio Medem‘s ambiguous lovers and nihilistic tenderness from Kôji Wakamatsu. Also in this issue: Interview with Pascal Laugier (Martyrs), Berlin squat cinema, screen vamps, the Polish New Wave that never existed and much more!


American Teen

Format: Cinema

Release date: 6 March 2009

Venues: Cineworld Wandsworth, Vue Shepherd’s Bush (London) and key cities

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Nanette Burstein

Writer: Nanette Burstein

Cast: Hannah Bailey, Jake Tusing, Colin Clemens, Mitch Reinholt, Megan Krizmanich

USA 2008

95 mins

Nanette Burstein’s 2002 documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture took a riveting look at the rise and fall of the legendary Paramount producer Robert Evans, who was responsible for some of the biggest movies to come out of Hollywood during the 70s. For her latest film, Burstein has shifted her focus from the rich and famous to the altogether more banal lives of suburban teens. The subjects in American Teen are five high school students from Warsaw, Indiana, and the film’s Breakfast Club-style poster is the first indication that Burstein’s documentary owes a debt to John Hughes – which for many film-goers might be no bad thing.

The stereotypes are all here: The Rebel (Hannah Bailey), The Geek (Jake Tusing), The Jock (Colin Clemens), The Heartthrob (Mitch Reinholt) and The Princess (Megan Krizmanich). Burstein’s team tracked the 17-year-olds throughout their senior year, and the result is an entertaining, and sometimes painful, reminder of the agonies of adolescence. Of the five students, the most compelling are easily Hannah/The Rebel and Jake/The Geek. Hannah gets dumped, works on her art, plays in a band, hooks up with The Heartthrob and gets dumped again when his friends dismiss his ‘outsider’ girlfriend. She’s desperate to get out of the small, narrow-minded town and move to California after graduation. Jake, cursed with acne, braces and a near-total lack of social skills, is desperate for a girlfriend. Watching the film, you wish you could pull Hannah and Jake aside and tell them that the geeks and the rebels are the ones who end up starting companies like Facebook and becoming filmmakers.

But the other students have their own problems too: Colin’s a star basketball player on a struggling team, and while his popularity is in little doubt, the pressure on him to secure a scholarship is intense – it’s his only hope of being able to make it into college when his dad, who has a sideline in Elvis impersonation, can’t afford the tuition. It’s a lot harder to have sympathy for Megan, the poor little rich kid who wants to please her surgeon father by making it into Notre Dame, his alma mater. But by scratching below the surface, Burstein reveals that even The Princess has had her share of tough breaks.

There’s always going to be an audience for this kind of teen biopic, if the popularity of Gossip Girl and the resuscitation of 90201 is anything to go by. American Teen may not have the immediacy of Frederick Wiseman’s classic cinema verité documentary High School (1968), and in some ways it feels less realistic than Antonio Campos’s fictional Afterschool (2008), one of the highlights of last year’s London Film Festival. But Nanette Burstein’s documentary is a fun, engaging look at a bunch of kids stumbling over the universal pitfalls that all teenagers struggle with.

Sarah Cronin

American Teen is also screening at the Birds Eye View Film Festival on Saturday 7 March at the ICA. More information on the Birds Eye View website. Read our preview of the retrospective strand of Birds Eye View on screen vamps in the new print issue of Electric Sheep. Our spring issue focuses on Tainted Love to celebrate the release of the sweet and bloody pre-teen vampire romance Let the Right One In, with articles on incestuous cinematic siblings, Franí§ois Ozon‘s tales of tortuous relationships, destructive passion in Nic Roeg‘s Bad Timing, Julio Medem‘s ambiguous lovers and nihilistic tenderness from Kôji Wakamatsu. Also in this issue: Interview with Pascal Laugier (Martyrs), Berlin squat cinema, the Polish New Wave that never existed and comic strip on the Watchmen film adaptation + much more!


Il Divo

Format: Cinema

Release date: 20 March 2009

Venues: Curzons Mayfair and Soho, Renoir (London) and key cities

Distributor: Artificial Eye

Director: Paolo Sorrentinon

Writer: Paolo Sorrentino

Cast: Toni Servillo, Anna Bonaiuto, Giulio Bosetti, Flavio Bucci

Italy 2008

117 mins

Il Divo, which translates as ‘The Divine’, is just one of the nicknames given to Giulio Andreotti, who was Prime Minister of Italy seven times between 1972 and 1992. The others, including ‘The Man of Darkness’, ‘The Black Pope’ and ‘Beelzebub’, give a good indication of Andreotti’s notoriety. Tried on several occasions for murder, corruption and Mafia involvement, he escaped conviction each time due to a lack of evidence. Director Paolo Sorrentino borrows the aesthetics of a crime movie – for example, the Reservoir Dogs-style slow motion shot where, on the day of their appointment, the members of the seventh Andreotti government walk down the corridors of power – but he does not try to uncover the truth behind the accusations; instead, Sorrentino chooses to focus on the cloak of ambiguity that Andreotti wove for himself. This distance between style and content is ironic, and it is central to Sorrentino’s films.

In order to portray a character with Andreotti’s supreme level of self-control, you need an actor of equivalent status. Toni Servillo is that actor. Sorrentino is careful not to judge Andreotti through the development of the plot, but Servillo’s characterisation tells a different story. Before shooting, Sorrentino prepared piles of footage of the real Andreotti for the star of his acclaimed 2004 feature The Consequences of Love, but Servillo chose not to watch it, preferring instead to play the character as written in the script. Servillo portrays Andreotti with remarkable precision through movements so small that they have to be measured in millimetres, conveying Andreotti’s impressive impassivity. This, coupled with his protruding ears, hunchback and long white fingers – all exaggerated characteristics of the real Andreotti – recalls Murnau’s Nosferatu, implying that Sorrentino sees Andreotti as a vampire who fed on the blood of Italy.

In keeping with the ironic style Sorrentino has developed, the formal beauty of the film and the music are often used to undermine the emotion of a scene or to create incongruous contrasts. Framing Andreotti in extremely deep shots, accompanying the images with a cosmopolitan soundtrack that takes in classical, electronica, indie and pop music, Sorrentino uses the cinematography and the score to mock the politician subtly, constantly undercutting his idea of himself and of all the power he has amassed.

Sorrentino has previously said that ‘life is tragic enough and irony is the best antidote’. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that in a film full of actual Andreotti quotations, the most resonant line should be, ‘Irony is the best defence against death’, an Andreotti-style aphorism invented by Sorrentino and delivered by Servillo with a pan so dead it is as if it has been encased in concrete then dropped in the ocean to ‘sleep with the fishes’.

Alexander Pashby



Format: Cinema

Release date: 13 March 2009

Venues: Cineworld Haymarket, Empire Leicester Square, Odeon Covent Garden (London) and nationwide

Distributor: Vertigo Films

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

Writer: Brock Norman Brock

Cast: Tom Hardy, Kelly Adams, Katy Barker, Edward Bennett-Coles

UK 2009

92 mins

Bronson is an odd film: compelling in places, ineffectual in parts, it has a number of powerful scenes, but is full of loose ends and strange omissions, with an unconvincing artistic apotheosis at its climax. Most of its problems, though, are pretty much inevitable given the real life story that Pusher-man Nicolas Winding Refn and co-writer Brock Norman Brock are trying to document. Charles Bronson (born Michael Peterson) has spent 34 years out of a 57-year life behind bars, 30 years of which in solitary confinement. His criminal career consists of little more than a couple of unspectacular robberies, but the time served is down to some idiosyncratic character traits, such as: a) a tendency to beat the holy crap out of anyone around him at any time for ill-defined reasons; b) a complete failure on his part to comprehend why this could be a problem.

Whilst the details of his career as ‘Britain’s most violent prisoner’ are lurid enough to fuel any Brit gangsta flick, the shape of his existence defies any conventional narrative treatment. There is no grand character arc, no rise and fall: ‘bloke gets banged up… stays there’ does not really lend itself to a three-act structure, and a life in solitary offers a limited number of roles for the supporting cast. Nicolas Winding Refn attempts to surmount these problems through aggressive stylisation. We are part of a shadowy audience watching Bronson, an unreliable narrator in variety hall make-up, tell his story. And whilst the settings and dialogue of his tale are authentically grimy, everything else is decidedly non-naturalistic. The performances are mannered, the photography is archly composed, the soundtrack consists of lush classical and synth pop music. Bronson resembles a cross between Andrew Dominik’s 2000 Chopper and Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (DP Larry Smith worked on Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, and on this evidence was paying attention), and is too narrowly restricted to that glib description to prove wholly satisfactory. Its attempts to portray Bronson as an artist without a canvas deprived of his liberty by a cold and uncomprehending world are decidedly undermined by its own depiction of the man as a living train wreck.

The film’s worth mainly lies with its version of Bronson as a terrifying, unpredictable and ludicrous individual utterly lacking in self-awareness, a rebel without a clue, a kidnapper without demands. Tom Hardy is terrific in the part, and the sequences showing his brief period of freedom in 1988 are fantastic, tense and weirdly hysterical. He stomps around Luton in a three-piece brown suit, like a human special effect, fists and body permanently clenched, baffled by even the most mundane domestic interaction. Many of the film’s most vital scenes come from this section. But he was free for only 68 days, and we are soon imprisoned with him again. What a life.

Mark Stafford

Not Quite Hollywood

Road Games (Not Quite Hollywood)

Format: DVD

Release date: 30 March 2009

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Mark Hartley

Australia 2009

102 mins

Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! is music promo director Mark Hartley’s affectionate no-holds-barred-pedal-to-the-metal salute to Ozploitation cinema, charting its rise in the late 60s, fall in the late 80s, and recent resurgence with the likes of Wolf Creek (2005). It rounds up an impressive roll-call of talking heads from the scene, who, in true Aussie style, are refreshingly blunt about their experiences and each other, intercutting them with a generous helping of clips from the films. It’s great fun: Hartley seems to be terrified of boring his audience and packs out his 102 minutes with insane stunts, montages of naked Sheilas, automotive carnage and explosions, and countless outrageous stories, all edited to a zippy sprint. The archive footage of Dennis Hopper scrambling for his life from his burning stunt double would justify your time and money on its own.

The film is divided into three sections, sex, horror and action, and the movies can also usefully be divided into three types: familiar late night/video library classics (The Long Weekend, 1978, Patrick, 1978, Turkey Shoot, 1982, Road Games, 1981, and of course Mad Max, 1979); films that you can safely avoid (Oz sex comedies of the 70s look just as toe-curlingly god-awful as British sex comedies of the 70s, which is some kind of achievement); and – this is where Not Quite Hollywood really scores – the numerous neglected, lost and largely forgotten films which the documentary makes you desperately want to see. As well as having a high population density of insane stuntmen, the country was also clearly never lacking in spectacular outback scenery or 70mm lenses to shoot it with, and from the clips included here alone, the likes of Fair Game and Dead End Drive-In (both 1986) all look glorious.

If I must quibble, I’d say that the pacy style of the film excludes any real discussion of the social context, aesthetics or especially the grisly sexual politics of Ozploitation cinema; which is sorely needed, especially when the inevitable Quentin Tarantino keeps popping up enthusing about one woman-bashing scene after another. Hartley’s default setting is breathless, shameless celebration over analysis, and Not Quite Hollywood often seems to actively avoid deciding whether the films are actually any damn good or not (though I think it’s a pretty safe bet that 1987’s Howling 3: The Marsupials sucks koala cock). Apparently, the director has launched his own line of Ozploitation DVDs, so any viewers wishing to familiarise themselves with some authentic Australian sleaze will soon be able to judge for themselves. Happy hunting.

Mark Stafford

Not Quite Hollywood and Turkey Shoot are screening on Saturday 7 March at the Prince Charles Cinema in London as part of FrightFest Spring Awakening Day. More information on the Prince Charles website.


Gushing Prayer

Wild Japan: Sex in Japanese Cinema of the 60s and 70s

1-30 December 2008

BFI Southbank, London

BFI website

Among the rare delights offered by the Wild Japan season that ran at the BFI Southbank last December, three films stood out for their boldness, ambition and originality. Kan Mukai’s 1969 Blue Film Woman (Burû fuirumu no onna) was a delirious mix of grotesque horror, stylised sex, psychedelic visuals and 60s exuberance. The story centres on the family of a ruined stockbroker forced to acquiesce to the demands of the loan shark he is indebted to, a repulsive man called Uchiyama, who requests sexual favours from the wife as payment. After having his way with her, Uchiyama takes her to his house where he lets her be raped by his monstrous idiot son; her suffering ends tragically when she is run over by a car on her way home. Mariko, the daughter, takes up employment as a go-go dancer in a nightclub to provide for her father and herself. After he commits suicide, she becomes a call girl and records her sexual encounters with a group of wealthy businessmen, using the films to bring them down in revenge for the ruin of her family.

The plot takes a sinuous, unexpected path, and Uchiyama’s comeuppance is meted out not by Mariko but by his own son in a shockingly brilliant twist. Mariko aims higher, focusing not so much on the sleazy loan shark who is simply a middleman, but on the legitimate businessmen at the very top who think nothing of destroying whole families through their reckless actions (sound familiar?), an idea emphasised by shots of the enormous stock exchange building towering over people on the streets below. Add to the implied social criticism the rich, horrific inventiveness of the scenes involving the blubbering maniacal son, throw in the swirly sounds and stroboscopic lights of a hip, late 60s Tokyo nightclub, and you have one of the most unpredictable and pleasurable films of the Wild Japan season.

For this writer, however, the unquestionable highlight of the programme was the pair of films from the independent Wakamatsu Pro company, including Kôji Wakamatsu’s Secret Acts behind Walls (Kabe no naka no himegoto, 1965), and Gushing Prayer: A 15-Year-Old Prostitute (Funshutsu kigan: 15-sai no baishunfu, 1971), written and directed by Wakamatsu’s long-time collaborator Masao Adachi. Both films were made as pinku eiga (pink film), a genre of soft-core porn that emerged in Japanese cinema in the early 60s. Wakamatsu and Adachi found in the erotic film industry an alternative distribution network that allowed them to get their uncompromising work shown. Sharing the same radical spirit and aesthetics, fascinating, articulate and beautifully filmed, Secret Acts behind Walls and Gushing Prayer are closer to European art films than to Western sexploitation of the same period. For both Wakamatsu and Adachi, sex is a crucial indicator of social relationships and as such, is political. Through their characters’ sexual encounters, the directors probe the state of post-war Japan, the repressive hypocrisies of its patriarchal society and the bitter aftermath of the student leftist protests.

Filmed in black and white, Secret Acts behind Walls opens with bleak shots of concrete blocks of flats before closing in on a couple in bed, injecting drugs, the woman caressing her lover’s keloid scar, calling him ‘an emblem of Hiroshima, of Japan, an anti-war emblem’. This confrontational opening is followed by a tightly framed study of the oppressive lives led by a number of the block’s residents. The couple are revealed to be disillusioned lovers whose youthful ideals have come to nothing. In the opposite building, a young student is driven mad by sexual frustration while his attractive sister has her first relationship with a man. Obsessions and dissatisfactions heat up slowly, bringing the characters together in a violent dénouement.

The sex acts are constantly associated with political and social events. The central couple read newspapers in bed, the man fondling his lover’s breast while reading an article about the Vietnam war. Their initial passion was linked to their shared beliefs in pacifism and their involvement in the student movement: in a flashback, they are seen making love in front of a poster of Stalin. He is now a stockbroker who makes money from the war, and she is an alienated housewife struggling to escape the confines of the small flat she shares with her husband, disenchanted by her lover’s increasingly cool, cynical detachment. He has no qualms about his current employment and seems happy to call their affair – and possibly their former activism – a ‘momentary passion’, in somewhat callous disregard to the momentous sacrifice she made to what she believed was their eternal love (she chose to get sterilised because his irradiation meant they could not have children). A sense of profound despair hangs over the residents, born of an awareness of the changes that could have been but never materialised, and of the characters’ resulting imprisonment in a claustrophobic present that offers no hope for the future and no solace in the past.

The opening of Adachi’s Gushing Prayer is as startling as that of Secret Acts behind Walls, framing the body of the vacant-eyed teenage Yasuko lying on the floor in a series of close-ups as she is fondled by two boys who ask her, together with another girl sitting nearby, what she can feel as they touch her. The four teenagers spend the film debating sex and their attitude towards it with the kind of dogmatic intensity and moral rigidity displayed by revolutionary students in other Japanese films of the same period. To establish whether Yasuko has betrayed their rules by sleeping with an adult (their teacher), and whether this means she is a prostitute, they decide she should begin taking payment to perform sex acts with strangers. What follows is a succession of bizarre, random, dispassionate couplings that are observed and discussed by the rest of the group. When Yasuko says she is four months pregnant, the group decide she should keep the child. Having managed to finally escape the overbearing attention of her friends, she ponders the words ‘prostitute’ and ‘mother’ in an effort to find her identity, but in a patriarchal society that restricts women to those two roles, her only way out seems to be suicide. This is emphasised by the soundtrack: throughout the film, disembodied voices read the suicide notes of teenage girls, grimly hinting at where Yasuko’s sexual exploration might lead.

Just as in Secret Acts behind Walls, sex is a social transaction and a political act. The film explores how what one does with one’s body, especially when female, defines their relationship to their community or society, and how that community may try and claim ownership of the body, controlling its perceptions and desires. The four teenage friends constitute a small, marginal social group trying to construct their own set of rules, different from the ones that prevail in what they dismissively call ‘the adult world’. In that sense they are social revolutionaries, akin to the rebellious students of the post-war years, and the genius of the film is to explore politics obliquely through the characters’ teenage anxieties and sexual experimentation. More cerebral and verbose than Secret Acts behind Walls, with a looser, rambling, experimental style that allows for the unfettered investigation of ideas, Gushing Prayer offers just as searing a depiction of a suffocating society with nothing to offer to its defeated youth.

Virginie Sélavy

Traité de bave et d’éternité

Traite de bave et d'eternite
Traite de bave et d'eternite

Format: DVD

Distributor: Re:Voir

Available in the UK from Close-Up

Director: Isidore Isou

Writer: Isidore Isou

Cast: Isidore Isou, Marcel Achard, Blanchette Brunoy, Jean-Louis Barrault, Blaise Cendrars, Jean Cocteau

France 1951

120 mins

Conceived and directed by Isidore Isou, the founder of the proto-Situationist art movement Lettrisme, Traité de bave et d’éternité (Venom and Eternity, 1951) is an extraordinarily antagonistic, 58-year-old, avant-garde, anti-cinema relic. A howling, white hot, meteor of resistance.

Traité de bave et d’éternité screens at London’s Romanian Cultural Centre on 29 August 2014. This will be a rare opportunity to see the film on the big screen and in 35 mm. Admission is free but booking is essential at bookings@

Although seldom seen in cinemas or galleries, Isou’s film appears to these eyes to be a keystone of 20th- and early 21st-century artists’ film, and an antecedent of the nouvelle vague – specifically Godard.

Over the course of a relentless two hours and three minutes we see footage of Daniel, a tedious character – a narcissist, or dandy if you prefer, played by Isou himself – strutting around boulevard Saint-Germain, expounding nineteen to the dozen on his radical theories for a new form of art cinema. These shots are intercut with every conceivable technique and gimmick now associated with avant-garde film but then suggestive of laboratory mishap or amateurism rather than auteurism. By way of example, Isou plumps for the use of found or appropriated footage – military and gymnastic exercises, fishing boats at work, skiing, naval pomp; direct film – scratching, bleaching of celluloid; asynchronous audio; interruptive bursts in the time-space continuum, more akin to haphazard quantum leaps than jump cuts; total blackness; mind-numbing repetition; upside down camera shots and so on.

It is also a film unafraid to shift its monocular vision onto nothingness and to momentarily hold back the dynamism. There are crisp and stern shots of the mundane – the interior of an apartment, quotidian life. Semi-static portrait shots of miscellaneous sound poets like François Dufrêne and other post-war avant-garde bad boys are completely reminiscent of Warhol in their exquisite blandness.

Despite the constant presence of speech on the audio track this is not a literary film, or at least if it is, it is the equivalent of the frenzied defacement of a literary object. Much like Guy Debord and the Situationist International’s détournement of magazine imagery. This is of course a physical film, a crackpot, yet nonetheless strategic exercise in testing the materiality of cinema; the mutability of cameras, celluloid, editing block and razor blade. It is also an exercise in negation, but as much as it’s a negation of cinematic convention it is also a negation of normative art film technique and it is certainly a composed affront to the slime in the bourgeois eyes and ears of cinephiles circa 1950, and possibly to cinephiles circa 2009. It would appear Isou and cohorts simply didn’t care and the film is all the more refreshing for this insouciance. However, perhaps on a more sombre level, Traité de bave et d’éternité could be perceived as a rather melancholy film ruminating on the torturously irreconcilable schism between the aural and the optical, between the spoken and the seen, a film, perhaps, about the confounding milky weakness of language. Either way it is a must-see cinematic object.

Richard Thomas

The Jean-Pierre Melville Collection

Le Doulos

Format: DVD

Release date: 2 March 2009

Distributor: Optimum Home Entertainment

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

Titles: L’Armée des ombres, Le Doulos, Léon Morin, prêtre, Le Cercle rouge, Bob le flambeur, Un flic

Cast: Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret, Yves Montand

France 1956-1972

Across the 13 movies he made until his death aged 55 in 1973, Jean-Pierre Melville created a world that has been rarely matched in the history of cinema – for its pessimism. No one ever really smiles in Melville’s movies. Indeed, his characters rarely display any emotion other than a kind of clenched-jawed resignation. Few people escape the downward spiral of their destiny. Music and colour are almost entirely absent, not least in the films that he actually shot in colour. Dialogue is used sparingly and even then purely as a motor for the plot. It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that he found himself on the ‘approved’ list of filmmakers that the French New Wave directors acknowledged as an influence, but the uncluttered purity of his vision means that his films will never date. With the notable exception of 1956’s Bob le flambeur, which spends its first 40 minutes exploring and documenting the criminal demi-monde of Paris’ Montmartre, his gangster movies could be set in any city in the world at any time since the 1920s.

Melville started making films at the end of a period that seems quaintly remote today, a time when the Parisian intellectual elite were open and effusive in their reverence for American pop culture. Melville took this reverence further than most, changing his surname from Grumbach in tribute to Herman Melville and constantly wearing either a private eye’s fedora or a Stetson in homage to the Howard Hawks and John Ford movies that he loved.

Roughly speaking, his films can be split into two groups: the more personal and reflective Second World War Occupation films (Melville was a member of the French Resistance) and the gangster pictures for which he is today most famous. The latter took his obsession with Americana to extremes, boiling down the traditional tropes of film noir until they became little more than a series of fetishes – trilbys and handguns, betrayal and belted mackintoshes. His greatest works – the loose trilogy of Alain Delon pictures that started with 1967’s Le Samourai, through Le Cercle rouge and his final film, Un flic – are remarkable for their emotional and visual murkiness. He famously described his vision for Un flic as being ‘to make a colour film in black and white, in which there is only one tiny detail to remind us that we really are watching a film in colour’.

Amidst this almost Spartan vision, though, Melville also proved himself the master of the gripping set-piece, something which undoubtedly led to the commercial success of his films from Bob le flambeur onwards. Le Cercle rouge is based around the robbery of an upscale jewellery shop, while Un flic actually features two separate heist sequences. Like, say, Dashiell Hammett’s novels, Melville’s pared-down style was actually the result of a supreme craftsman jettisoning anything unnecessary to the motion of his movies – so if you just want Melville’s films to be entertainment, they’re certainly that. But if you also want them to be art, you’ll be well rewarded.

Pat Long

Throughout August and September 2017, BFI Southbank in London presents a comprehensive two month season dedicated to Jean-Pierre Melville, to mark his centenary year.
To enjoy 2 tickets for the price of 1 on all screenings in this season simply quote MELVILLE241 online, in person or over the phone 020 7928 3232. For more information and to book tickets online, visit
BFI website


Carnival of Souls

Format: DVD

Release date: 23 February 2009

Distributor: Network

Director: Herk Harvey

Writer: John Clifford

Cast: Candace Hilligoss, Frances Feist, Sidney Berger, Stan Levitt, Art Ellison

USA 1962

75 mins

Two cars, one black, the other white, wait at traffic lights. One of the passengers goads the other driver into a race. The lights change and both cars lurch forward. They jostle, pulling tightly together before crossing a bridge. Speeding toward the other side, one of the vehicles nudges the other, pushing it through the crash barrier and into the river. Three hours later a survivor, Mary Henry, drags herself out of the dirty water and up onto a sandbank. She can barely stand, still lost in the current she has just emerged from, the voices of those who have rushed to help her muffled by her catatonic state. So begins Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962).

Self-financed and made with local talent, Harvey’s film is a true cinematic oddity: a one-off hit for its director, Carnival of Souls is not quite a fully-fledged horror film. Its imagery and style push it more toward art-house or underground cinema, albeit one tainted by too many episodes of The Twilight Zone. The narrative unfolds like a funereal dream, a bizarre juxtaposition of a mundane life splintered with moments of the uncanny. Such qualities have earned it seminal status in the horror canon, and its storyline and imagery have reverberated throughout the genre – George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1978), Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder (1990), and the recent series of Final Destination films are just a few that borrow from Harvey’s film.

Following her emergence from the river, Mary becomes increasingly isolated from those around her. Her distance and, at times, antagonistic interaction with men suggests sexual repression whilst positioning the many male characters she encounters – her lecherous neighbour, the priest for whom she works, the doctor and other incidental characters – as either sexual predators or further suppressors of her fragile psychology. Out of these only one is truly suspect, the ominously named ‘The Man’: played by the director himself, this suited, pale-faced ghost haunts Mary throughout the film. As a figment of her imagination, this spectre manifests all of Mary’s repressed fears of the opposite sex, personifying them as a dark and malevolent force she cannot communicate with, touch or understand. This sense of repression is consolidated by the film’s saturation in water imagery: the lingering close-ups of the river, the bath which Mary takes and the water fountain she drinks from, salt-water bathing at the abandoned pavilion and finally an image of The Man submerged in filthy water, his eyes wide open and unblinking.

Originally distributed by Herts-Lion, Carnival of Souls was edited down in order for it to fit into their drive-in double-bill circuit. Scenes of character exposition and the background history of the film’s antagonistic location, the abandoned Pavilion, were all cut to reduce the running time. Network’s release restores these ‘lost’ scenes and, although not adding significantly to the experience of the film, they do lend a perverse sense of reality to this dream-like film and act as further signposts to Mary’s progressively delusional state.

In addition to these scenes, the DVD features a commentary from Kim Newman and Stephen Jones and a booklet, also written by Newman. The commentary is conversational and spiked with moments of erudite analysis as much as with production trivia and humour, making it a valuable insight into a film that has somehow managed to escape in-depth critical analysis.

From the very start to its unpredictable ending, Carnival of Souls is a startlingly dark and atmospheric film. As either horror cinema, art-house experiment or study of an increasingly deranged mind, its narrative has currents that run far deeper than the drive-in exploitation it was often double-billed with. Herein lays Harvey’s legacy, a template of plot, images, characters and subtexts for cinema’s rich and horrific dreams.

James Rose



Format: DVD

Release date: 16 March 2009

Distributor: Peccadillo Pictures

Director: Royston Tan

Writers: Royston Tan, Liam Yeo

Cast: Xiao Liu Yuan, Kim Young-jun

Singapore 2005

95 mins

In the opening scene of 4:30, Royston Tan’s 2005 feature, a boy wearing little more than a white vest and shorts sits alone on a stairwell at night, cradling a CD player in his lap. The sense of heat and humidity is palpable, while the lyrics we hear on the soundtrack set the tone for the rest of the film: ‘sadness and sorrow surround me… everyday I’m praying for the loneliness to be chased away’.

Fans of Tan’s previous movie, 15 – a stylised, violent look at teenage gangs in the Singapore suburbs – may be surprised by the direction that the filmmaker took for his follow-up feature. Gone are the video game aesthetics, the frenetic pacing, jump cuts and heavy use of distorted angles; Tan instead uses long scenes, single takes and carefully composed cinematography to convey the powerful sense of emotional distance that pervades this near-wordless film. The result is a haunting meditation on solitude that is at times achingly heartbreaking to watch.

Eleven-year-old Xiao Wu (played by the impressive Xiao Liu Wan) has been left behind in his Singapore home with a Korean relative (Kim Young-jun), while his mother is in Beijing on a seemingly endless business trip. On the cusp of adolescence, Xiao Wu is fascinated by his depressed, suicidal uncle. Every morning, the boy’s alarm goes off at 4:30 (the loneliest hour, according to Tan), and every morning he prowls around his uncle’s room, spying on him while he sleeps sprawled across his bed. Wu fantasises about having a father figure, but unable to speak the same language, his wordless overtures go mostly unnoticed in the face of his uncle’s overwhelming, mysterious sorrow. Gradually, the boy’s playfulness is eroded, leaving him immersed in his own painful loneliness.

While there are moments of humour throughout the film, Tan’s focus on distance is all-consuming. The formal cinematography emphasises Wu’s sense of alienation, with the nephew and uncle often seen reflected in mirrored surfaces, giving a physical dimension to their solitude. Even the 70s-era furniture and colours (a green hue bathes much of the film) evoke a nostalgia for the past, distancing the film from brash, modern-day Singapore. While 4:30 shares some stylistic and thematic elements with films such as Tsai Ming-liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006), this is a far more accessible and engaging work, thanks in large part to the successful combination of remarkable characters and a style based on long takes.

Tan has teased powerful performances from his two leads, who were mostly kept apart during the making of the film to avoid any real-life intimacy creeping into their on-screen relationship. The emotional depth and intensity embodied by Xiao and Kim, expressed almost entirely in their eyes and body language, make a fairly slight plot compelling. There’s no happy ending: the mother doesn’t return, and in the end Xiao Wu is left completely alone. All he has learnt from his uncle about adulthood is sorrow and loneliness.

Sarah Cronin