Jean Renoir’s restored Boudu sauvé des eaux (Boudu Saved from Drowning, 1932) can be seen in UK cinemas from December 17, distributed by Park Cirucs. Celebrated actor Michel Simon plays a tramp who, after being rescued by a Parisian bookseller, causes mayhem in his bourgeois household. The restoration was carried out through the digitalisation of the original nitrate negative image and a ‘safety’ print. A previously missing scene, probably censored for its provocative content, was restored, allowing presentation of a more complete version of the film.
Two holidays: a week at the seaside; and 24 hours in Paris. Tati’s best-loved film, which made him famous; and his magnum opus, which ruined him. Through each, Monsieur Hulot wanders bemused, creating disorder, and shyly paying court to a comely young lady whose demure elegance sets her apart from the high-spirited fun-seekers. But in the years between the two, how the world has changed…
Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953) has been a perfect and delicate source of joy for six decades. It is risky to praise it, lest one seem to trumpet gentle charms that are better left to be discovered. I think of Evelyn Waugh’s words on P.G. Wodehouse: ‘[His] idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own.’ The delight of Hulot’s idyll gains poignancy from an undertone of melancholy.
Tati re-edited Les vacances twice after its initial release. Hulotians who are accustomed to the 1978 version will welcome the opportunity to see the original 1953 version, seven minutes longer, which is included on a second disc of the 2010 BFI reissue.
Playtime (1967), by contrast, is notorious as a folly and a commercial disaster - but how richly it repays attention. It does not give itself easily: it demands concentration, and its emotional dividends are ambiguous. The screen is often full of small-scale action, with no obvious focus, and no clear narrative line. There will be smiles but few laughs. Yet it is unique as a beautiful, subtle, wry meditation on human physical presence in the modern world. If it were to be remade, I can imagine it as a ballet. It awakens the viewer to the extraordinary expressive variety in the movement of people - and indeed of things, for Tati’s miraculous ability to conjure visual humour and poetry from the objects that surround us is as strong here as anywhere in his work.
It is impossible to watch Tati’s films without thinking that they, and in particular his character Hulot, ‘stand for’ something, embody some set of values or some life-aesthetic. But it is not easy, nor perhaps desirable, to define what that is. Hulot is gentle, courteous, kindly, old-fashioned. He is curious about, but challenged by, the new. And Tati’s first two films, Jour de fête (1949) and Les vacances, are surely paeans to modest traditional French ways. But despite the strong vein of sentimental conservatism in Tati’s work, it would be wrong to make a simple inversion and see the next two, Mon oncle (1958) and Playtime, as reactionary critiques of the modern world. Certainly these films show Hulot as puzzled by and alienated in the modern built environment, which plays tricks on him and frustrates his aims. But they are also two of the most joyous and visionary realisations in art of the new beauty, the beautiful newness, that can be found in the urban world. The domestic spaces of Mon oncle still look like design classics today. And ‘Tativille’, the French Cinecittà that he designed and constructed for Playtime in 1964-5 on the outskirts of Paris, was actually a pioneering development, pre-empting and even influencing the futuristic remodelling of French cities. (Only in 1961 were building restrictions in Paris relaxed to allow high-rise planning, and the results were not seen until the latter part of the decade.)
What Tati shows us is the element of comic misrule in our interactions with each other and our surroundings - and how this makes our world more habitable. Chance, mischief, improvisation, serendipity: these, rather than planning, discipline, obedience, authority, are the forces of the universe that help us to find our place in our negotiation between the natural and the constructed world.
‘You can’t hide anymore,’ says a haggard-looking guy, poking around in the sand with a whip. ‘They’ll find you even underground.’
What’s he talking about? It’s not clear but it doesn’t bode well.
This is the opening of Come and See, a 1985 film looking at the bloody Nazi invasion of Belarus from a child’s perspective. I’ve just been watching the opening scene on YouTube. It’s gripping and portentous.
I was sent back to this classic by a new animated film, Horse Glue, from a British director, Stephen Irwin. The film began life as two separate films, Horse and Glue, although watching the narratives together it’s easy to see how they complement and reflect each other. Put simply, one half is a fairy story concerning a little boy lost in the woods, and the other is something less personal, hinting at international rather than individual conflict. The unifying element is violence.
This might sound like an unrelentingly grim experience but I can’t overemphasise the visual and aural flair deployed to create the film’s haunting, disconcerting atmosphere. It really is a beautiful film to watch and the twin narratives are nicely poised to capture the ambiguous and disconcerting (rather than literal or reductive) cruelty of a fairy tale. Irwin pulled similar narrative tricks and achieved similarly affecting results in his 2007 animation, The Black Dog’s Progress, which, like Horse Glue, featured an excellent soundtrack by Sorenious Bonk.
Going back to the guy and the sand and his statement, ‘You can’t hide anymore’. Maybe he is talking about the end of childhood, of innocence. Maybe he means there is a time when the dirtiest truths of the adult world must pop out from behind the glorious balloons and parades. Have a look at Horse Glue, maybe you’ll see what I mean.
Almost two decades after a spate of vandalism, violence and murder turned a localised musical subculture-within-a-subculture into a bogey tale of extreme music begetting extreme acts, two American filmmakers set out to meet the progenitors of Norwegian black metal music and those who still seek to mythologise them. The resulting documentary is neatly made, but frustratingly anaemic, so keen to avoid editorialising and judgement that it ends up lacking in clarity, tension and even coherence.
The central story is one already familiar to any extreme music fan. Three bands - Darkthrone, Mayhem and one-man outfit Burzum - are among those at the crux of Norway’s black metal explosion in the late 1980s and early 1990s, gaining notoriety both for their nihilistic, deliberately DIY sound and raw visual aesthetic, somewhere between Xeroxed punk collage and Grand Guignol. The brutal suicide of Mayhem’s first singer, Dead, is a note of real horror among the posturing. Burzum’s Count Grisnackh, the alias-within-an-alias of 19-year-old Varg Vikernes, burns down a number of historic wooden churches; this sparks sensationally reported copycat crimes, which are blamed on ‘Satanists’. The tension culminates in the stabbing of Mayhem founder and record shop owner Øystein Aarseth (known as Euronymous) by Vikernes, an event he willingly recounts from the high-security prison in Trondheim, from which he was released earlier this year after a 21-year sentence.
Told via interviews with Vikernes, Darkthone’s drummer Gylve Nagell, aka Fenriz, and members of Immortal, Mayhem, Emperor and Satyricon, it is still a strange, chilling story of how rage can bubble under the most prosperous, peaceful society. It is easy to see why it appealed to Aites and Ewell, but why did they feel the need to tell it again? One reason the directors have cited is musical, talking in interviews of their discovery of BM via a record-store friend in quite revelatory terms, yet this is not a very musical film. Extracts of the featured bands are used in the background, but the soundtrack also leans heavily on electronica from Múm and Boards of Canada, and there is scant live footage or extended musical examples. Given that Aites and Ewell wanted to avoid didactic or critical voices, more musical content would have been welcome - not least because, well, black metal is an extraordinary sound. Its sheer jagged ugliness; its alienated interiority and chaotic, teeming noisescapes are revelatory when you first hear them. One rarely feels that excitement from Until the Light Takes Us, and from Fenriz, its most prominent and articulate interviewee - a musician, first and foremost, who seems frustrated to be talking about scene politics and black metal identity. I felt I learned as much about him and bandmate Nocturno Culto - whose absence from this film isn’t remarked upon - in their own film release, The Misanthrope (2007), where they don’t say much at all. There is also little sense of how black metal has developed since the 1990s, with thriving communities and labels in both Europe and the US.
We spend more time with what’s politely called, in the film’s publicity literature, the ‘complex and largely misunderstood beliefs and principles’ of black metal - or more accurately, of Varg Vikernes. For me, this is where Until the Light Takes Us becomes most problematic, albeit bleakly absurd at times, as Vikernes is still, so many years later, at pains to point out that his church-burning was not motivated by Satanic beliefs, but rather his anger at the Christian ‘invasion’ of Norway many hundreds of years ago. This argument is no more complex or misunderstood than it was when he made it in the 1998 documentary Satan Rides the Media, although in that film we do get more of a glimpse of the conformist Christian culture against which the black metallers rebelled.
While some of us will join the dots between his professed ‘heathenism’ and far-right ideology, it’s interesting that not only do the filmmakers omit any overt right-wing rhetoric from Vikernes, but there’s no acknowledgement that, during his time in prison, his world view developed from a sort of Tolkienish paganism to neo-Nazism - other than, perhaps, Fenriz’s tactful mention of Vikernes’s ‘politics’. If Aites and Ewell do, as they’ve stated, wish the audience to make up their own minds, it would be helpful to let them know more explicitly what those politics are. It probably would not have been hard to elicit them from the man himself, alongside his more palatable diatribes against McDonald’s and NATO.
Black metal’s preoccupation with identity and origin myths has made and can still make it a tidy vehicle for nationalist politics. Skirting around this connection - which many black metal musicians do not adhere to, a further tension between art and ideology that’s surely of interest to the viewer - leaves a strange gap at the heart of the film. However, Aites and Ewell do explore another kind of conflict, perhaps one they are more comfortable with: the reappropriation of black metal aesthetics in art. This is where the directors’ hands-off approach works best, as they follow artist Bjarne Melgaard’s fascination with black metal through painting, film and installation work. Melgaard’s slightly vampiric approach is coolly observed, as he asks Frost from Satyricon to appear in a piece of gruesome performance art. We see a nonplussed Fenriz at Melgaard’s Stockholm show, while Frost seems pleased at the artistic validation, staging what looks like a re-enactment of Dead’s suicide at an Italian gallery while a track from Sunn O)))’s Black One (itself a reappropration of black metal) grinds in the background. Black metal’s journey from a localised music cult to ‘edgy’ art reference point is well-drawn, and here I also sense a kind of self-awareness in Aites and Ewell, in relation to their own role as filmmakers and observers. This kind of rigour could have been put to good use elsewhere in Until the Light Takes Us.
Mathieu Amalric takes the show on the road as actor, writer and director in burlesque comedy On Tour, this year’s surprise double-award winner at Cannes. Taking inspiration from French novelist and performer Colette’s musings in her 1913 text The Other Side of the Music-Hall, Amalric found the modern-day equivalent of wit, showmanship and hedonism in the stars of the US ‘new burlesque’ scene, some of whom he invited to play themselves in the film.
Amalric takes on the role of Joachim, a French former television presenter who has fled to the US leaving a string of debts, a broken marriage and two young sons behind. He returns to his homeland to produce an American dance troupe’s tour, promising performers Roky Roulette, Mimi Le Meaux, Kitten on the Keys, Dirty Martini, Evie Lovelle and Julie Atlas Muz all the excitement and exoticism of France, but delivering only characterless chain hotels and a non-stop schedule around portal towns such as La Rochelle, shown in all their out-of-season glory.
This is the first time the new burlesque movement has been given the big screen treatment in a fictional film. With the big characters, the diversity of the performers and the post-feminist values that underpin the work of many in the field, the scene offers a fertile ground for story-telling. But although the film’s opening scene, in which some of the performers attach false eyelashes and nipple tassels in their changing room, promises an insight into life on the road, the script soon reduces the troupe to Champagne-swilling brats and turns into a study of the troubled Joachim who, it transpires, has ulterior motives for tempting them to Europe.
This is not wholly a bad idea. Joachim, an argumentative, chain-smoking ball of nerves, is played with breathtaking intensity by a moustachioed Amalric. His incompetent attempts both to keep up the momentum of the tour and to rectify his relationship with his sons are expertly bittersweet. There are many reasons, for example, why he shouldn’t deposit the boys at a kiddies’ play area in a hospital so he can beg his cancer-stricken friend for a favour - but the most poignant is that they’re nearly teenagers.
The problematic element of focusing on Joachim’s journey lies in the elliptical love story between him and Mimi, a blonde bombshell whose wistful glances and unexplained tears mark her out as the ‘troubled one’ of the troupe. Despite Joachim pouring vitriol on her profession and asking her scornfully if she plans ‘to jiggle [her] whole life’, they share a few meaningful moments and they reach some kind of mutual redemption at the end. But their relationship is unconvincing, mainly because Mimi’s delivery is deliberate and her acting reserved (perhaps as a result of her being a woman playing her burlesque alter ego playing herself).
More’s the shame because on stage she’s a revelation. Amalric staged the shows for real, filling the beautiful regional theatres - picked out with loving attention by the camera - with audiences and filming the performances and wing-side scenes while the shows were going on. Short-changed with brittle dialogue, it is on stage that the troupe really shines, with the witty performances, combined with a rocking soundtrack of R&B and brassy orchestrals, giving a tantalising hint at what the film could have been had Amalric proved himself as good a filmmaker as he is an actor.
Monsters is a new science-fiction film that straddles the divide between several genres: the Japanese kaij? eiga (giant monster) genre that started with Godzilla in 1954, preceded in the West by King Kong (1933); alien invasion movies that lead to the devastation of parts of the globe; travelogue films featuring photo-journalists; and it has a touch of romance to boot. The fact that Monsters weaves all these strands together in a comprehensive and complementary way is an achievement in itself. The fact that director Gareth Edwards accomplished that while location-scouting on the hoof in a country he was unfamiliar with, working with a cast of untrained actors, who improvised many of their lines, and designing terrific special effects, makes this one of the most assured and impressive feature debuts in recent years.
When asked about the movie, Edwards talks about creating a world where the advent of a creature like Godzilla is treated like a 9/11 event, one that has changed the world, initially in a shocking way, then has become background noise as the West gets on with its life, with occasional sound-bites on the news to remind middle-class viewers that the war against terror is still going on. Creating a monster movie with links to contemporary society isn’t a new idea: at a stretch King Kong can be seen as the start of Western guilt over imperialism, while Godzilla certainly reflects 1950s concerns about the advent of the nuclear age and so on. In recent years, monster/alien invasion movies have seen a renaissance, heralded by the camcorder cinéma vérité of Cloverfield (2008), which recalls the modernity of capturing terrorist events on camera phone and the reportage of the Gulf Wars on low-light adaptive TV cameras - the unreal/virtual quality of TV reporting leading Jean Baudrillard to describe it as the ‘Gulf War that did not take place’ - and mixed the giant lizards of Godzilla, Gorgo (1961), Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) et al. with the spectacle of modern disaster movies. District 9 (2009) took that attempt to make an alien invasion seem ‘real’ one stage further, by presenting half of the movie as a documentary about events that have already taken place, though it returned to traditional narrative filmmaking for its final act.
With a miniature budget, Edwards can’t compete with Cloverfield or District 9, and indeed both films cast a large shadow that draws inevitable comparisons. So rather than going for the spectacle and high drama of his predecessors, the director uses the backdrop of a quarantined Mexico, still partially infested with aliens, as the setting for a slightly old-fashioned drama that recalls the films of Frank Capra as a gentle romance unfolds between a mismatched and slightly antagonistic couple. It also draws on the familiar post-20th-century tale of an indentured photo-journalist reporting from a war zone and the improvised, semi-illegal filming of Michael Winterbottom’s In this World (2002), where refugees from a war zone play fictionalised versions of themselves, in footage that sneaks under the radar of the authorities. By asking real people who live in Mexico real questions about their lives (replacing the off-camera questions about real life with inserted fake questions about aliens) the director constructs a semi-truth that blurs fact and fiction on screen and would probably delight Baudrillard in its confident creation of a world that is both real, familiar and evocative of current concerns about the ‘war on terror’/immigration and also virtual and obviously fake.
Gareth Edwards started as a special effects designer and the effects in this movie range from the outré - 40-foot bio-luminescent squid floating above the streets of a Texan border town - to the completely invisible - the superimposition of posters warning about the quarantine and invasion on walls in real locations - the latter so realistic that it comes as a shock to find out they were computer-generated, as the viewer doesn’t even expect this aspect of the filmmaking to be CGI. The most impressive example of these kinds of effects previously came in The Truman Show (1998) where again some elements of the film are obviously CGI - a zoom onto the surface of ‘the moon’ to reveal a TV studio behind - and others are invisible and unexpected - in this case, the addition of extra storeys to the squat buildings of the town where the film was shot. Like Peter Weir, Edwards mixes satire, media commentary, excellent direction and sympathetic performances to create a science-fiction film that sums up the decade prior to its release in memorable microcosm.
Monsters isn’t a perfect film, the plot, like the characters, meanders a little and the final scene where the two protagonists are menaced up close by a giant alien squid in an abandoned gas station seems a little conventional and forced (although the final shot of that scene is transcendent) compared to what’s gone before. However, Monsters is the finest and most thought-provoking alien invasion movie since the excellent District 9, and it uses its small budget in absolutely exemplary fashion, easily outshining movies costing five times its amount, such as the similar but creatively bankrupt and risible Skyline, also released this year. With a circular plot that makes viewers want to watch the film again, not only for the possible conclusion to the narrative they might have missed the first time round, but also to absorb more of the excellent background details, this film shows the emergence of a major new British talent and its December release date lets it just slip into lists of 2010’s best films.
In comedy, there is a mode known as the ‘high-low switch’, which goes something like this: it is always funny if you talk about noble, high-minded cultural concepts in a moronic, gutter-level fashion; or its converse: talk about silly or puerile nonsense in inappropriately elevated, humourless terms. This was the conceit behind much of Monty Python, especially the television shows, and it’s stretched razor-thin in Rare Exports: A Christmas Story. Jalmari Helander’s film takes a central genius/stupid idea, that the original Father Christmas has been uncovered by an archaeological dig, and that we’d all better watch out… and films it with all the elaborate camerawork, brooding orchestral score and portentous performances of a Spielberg epic, never breaking style or tipping a wink to the audience that this could be taken anything other than very seriously indeed. The result is an odd beast, halfway between seasonal kiddy flick and nasty-hearted horror film. It has a child lead and the lighting, feel, and pace of Hollywood product, but queers the pitch with four-letter profanity, dead reindeer and full frontal male nudity. This tonal weirdness is the film’s most distinguishing feature, an elaborate Finnish deadpan gag, which has been maintained and developed through two shorts (Rare Exports Inc. and Rare Exports: The Official Safety Instructions) made by the same cast and crew.
Those shorts (available on YouTube if you’re curious) took the form of infomercials for a firm responsible for the hunting, capture and training of real Christmas elves for the international market. The feature tells the back story, with young Pietari (Onni Tommila) coming to suspect the horrible truth, that the explosions set off by a nearby American dig have not merely mobilised the local wolves, as his single parent dad Rauno (Jorma Tommila) suspects, but have unleashed something more sinister. When the reindeer herds that provide a living for the village are slaughtered by beasts unknown, Rauno sets traps for the wolves, and sets off for the dig to get revenge, not knowing that his trap has captured a whole new possible source of income, if anyone can survive to collect it…
Rare Exports promises to be delirious fun, and largely delivers. It does commit a massive cardinal sin of exploitation, in that, nearing its climax, it flags up a monster that then does not run amok, which is a let-down, but otherwise rarely puts a foot wrong. The cast, who worked fine within the two shorts, are clearly a bit stretched by the range required by the 77 minutes of the feature, but look authentically rugged and frostbitten. There are no female characters of note, and it’s a very burly and blokish film. Gore hounds might be disappointed that much of the promised slaughter is kept off screen, but ah well… like I say, it’s an odd beast. I feel indulgent towards Rare Exports, partly because it so perfectly apes the look and feel of the Lucas/Spielberg studio productions of my youth and twists them into the unhealthy humour of my adulthood, and partly because the spectacle of hundreds of naked old men being herded like wolves up a snowy mountainside is not one I’ll forget in a hurry. Essentially another anti-cute yuletide bauble for the Bah humbug brigade. Hang it on yer tree besides Christmas Evil, Bad Santa and Gremlins. God bless us every one.
To call a film ‘magical’ or ‘enchanting’ often brands it as exotic whimsy or childish fantasy. But Apichatpong Weerasethakul‘s seventh feature requires that we use those adjectives more literally: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is powered by an animist magic that is genuinely mysterious, the more so for being woven into a narrative of everyday life and death.
Boonmee, played with quiet melancholy by non-professional Thanapat Saisaymar, is dying of kidney failure, and haunted by the lives he thinks he might have lived in the past. As the film begins, he is visited by a sister-in-law, Jen, and young nephew, Tong, at his remote farm in north-eastern Thailand, a region where Weerasethakul has concentrated much of his filmmaking. Boonmee is aware of his failing health, yet still active - or stubborn - enough to supervise the farm workers, setting up his dialysis equipment in a tamarind grove, and to spend time with his visiting relatives. The relationships between Boonmee, Jen and Tong are subtly drawn, as is the dynamic between Boonmee and Jaai, the Lao worker who acts as his nurse, and these interactions, set against the rhythms of domesticity and work, and the separate but interlinked live/work patterns of bees, buffalo and omnipresent insects, are in themselves highly involving.
But Uncle Boonmee is more than an elegiac rural drama. It is also a ghost story, a fable and a meditation on memory and place. Tone and style vary, mirroring the shifts between real and supernatural that come to feel logical. The naturalistic scenes of Boonmee and his family start to include the ghost of his wife, Huay, who fades in and out of the picture with eerie calm. Boonmee’s son, Boonsong, now a ‘monkey ghost’ in a gorilla suit with red, flashing eyes, also arrives at dinner and tells the story of his transmigration from human to simian. The main narrative is interrupted by a mythical tale that seems taken from another film altogether, about a princess, a slave and a talking, amorous catfish; its fairy tale atmosphere is derailed by a brilliantly odd interspecies sex scene. Finally, Boonmee’s death takes place in an extraordinary, almost psychedelic sequence whereby he and his family trek through a mountain cave heavy with stalactites in which, he explains, he senses he was born into his first life.
As in his Tropical Malady (2004), Weerasethakul brings plants and animals to vivid life, his skilful observation of nature an important counterpart to Uncle Boonmee‘s more esoteric elements. In an early scene, the family sit outside at a dinner table lit by one small lamp, the presence of the jungle crowding in on them. In the cave where Boonmee dies, glow-worms hang from the walls and tiny fish swarm in the pools, coexistent but alien, the natural proliferation of life-forms resonating with the theme of multiple lifetimes. The military history of the region - occupied for two decades by the Thai army, who carried out frequent attacks against suspected communists - is part of the unquiet, haunted backdrop, too: in one recollection of a very real past life, Boonmee mentions his own spell in the army, and the ‘commies’ he killed.
Weerasethakul’s deep connection with the locality of Uncle Boonmee results from his long-term Primitive project, which includes the short films A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (2009) and Phantoms of Nabua (2009) and has closely involved local people. Does this longer film serve not only as the final work in the sequence, but also as a resolution to the previous films’ exploration of the post-conflict trauma of a place and its people? Its gentle atmosphere suggests so, yet a downbeat coda, in which we see Boonmee’s funeral - in a temple twinkling with neon shrines - followed by Tong (now a Buddhist monk) and Jen in a hotel and karaoke bar, is interestingly devoid of comfort. Tong’s religious vocation appears somewhat casual, and away from the peaceful countryside Jen, who is physically disabled, seems isolated and vulnerable. It is as if Weerasethakul, having interrogated so thoroughly the memories and energy of Nabua and its surroundings, needs to remind us that we can be as easily haunted or displaced in an anonymous town as in the wilderness. Into this setting he introduces one last reincarnatory twist that, to some, will seem needlessly self-referential. For me, Weerasethakul’s stepping back from his own film in its last minutes only serves to reinforce the surety of his vision and the magic of what has gone before.
A young woman takes the problem of Hong Kong’s corrupt property developers and sky-rocketing rents into her own hands in this vicious black comedy.
In a series of rather mawkish flashbacks seen through the eyes of a child, the working-class, long-time residents of Hong Kong’s harbour-side apartment blocks are driven out of their homes by triad gangs working on behalf of ruthless developers after the 1997 handover. Twenty years later, these same locations are now far out of the reach of ordinary Hong Kongers and instead house adulterous, golf-playing yuppies, nihilistic, hedonistic teenagers and other caricatures of modern, moneyed China.
Enter Cheng Lai-sheung (played by rising megastar Josie Ho), a hard-working former inhabitant of a harbour-side block, who dreams of looking out over the same view that she grew up with. To live her dream, she becomes as cold-blooded as the water snake placed through her best friend’s door when she was a child, hacking and slashing her way through the new block’s inhabitants until the asking price on her future home finally takes a tumble.
It’s an engaging premise and in a manner that should be familiar to anyone well-versed in contemporary Hong Kong or South Korean genre cinema, Dream Home lurches from moments of blood-curdling tweeness to some outrageously gory and sadistic set-pieces that steer the film and Josie Ho’s character into the deeper waters of refreshing moral ambiguity - or is that total insanity?
Whether Dream Home is a slasher film with a strong vein of socio-economic commentary running through its core, or a political satire with a slasher film trying to hack its way out from the inside is ultimately hard to decide. I’d also wonder if there are deeper levels of Hong Kong references and in-jokes that will be lost on Western audiences. Even without such inside knowledge, however, this is an undeniably enjoyable, if at times emotionally unstable, film, which reminds us that however imbalanced the housing situation over here, it can always be a lot worse.
Don’t be surprised to see a heavily toned-down US remake, perhaps starring Kristen Stewart, looming, like a shiny new Hong Kong skyscraper, just over the horizon.
Watch a clip from Dream Home:
Juraj Herz, director of the acclaimed and creepy The Cremator, wants us to look upon Morgiana (1972) as a stylistic exercise. And certainly the aspect of the film that first hits is the disturbing, crazy-house visuals, a combination of fisheye lurch and decadent, Klimt-inspired design, with psychedelic colour experiments and shots taken from the point of view of a Siamese cat. Add in the sinister, seductive score and the extreme, silent-movie theatrics of lead actress Iva Janzurová, and the stylistic richness of the film might tend to overwhelm any content.
In fact, that content was surgically removed at the demand of the Czech censors who, in the years following the Prague Spring, were particularly sensitive. The film as it stands documents, or dreams, the melodramatic and murderous battle between two sisters (both played by Janzurová, normally a comedy actress), but Herz’s original plan, derived from the source novel by Alexander Grin, was to reveal halfway through the film that only one sister exists. A case of multiple personality disorder was apparently too disturbing for the state to accept, so the plot twist was deleted before filming was allowed. (MPD has been diagnosed almost exclusively in America, so perhaps the communist state could not accept the implication of it crossing the iron curtain?)
From Herz’s point of view, this undercut the whole point of the film, but he was forced to proceed anyway. He entertained himself by coming up with crazy visual ideas, although with the doubling of the main actress the shoot was already arduous enough. Should I have told you this? Does knowing that its author believes it to be senseless prejudice you against investigating the film’s meaning? I don’t think it should: the film pretty openly declares itself a piece of fin-de-siècle pop-art extravagance from the off. The warring sisters theme often invites comparisons with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), although The Dark Mirror (1946) and A Stolen Life (1946) more directly anticipate the use of one actress in two roles. Whatever the Western influence might be, melodrama is the keynote of Iva Iva Janzurová’s performances, Herz’s approach and the operatic tone set for the whole movie.
If the film’s intended meaning was killed by censorship, so that only the casting hints at Herz’s duality theme, can we divine our own meanings from the kaleidoscopic whirl of images? I think perhaps we can, but they are always going to be provisional and incomplete. Rather than risk encoding any subversive message into this work, the filmmaker has satisfied himself with an echoing void, surrounded by beautiful colours and striking scenes. Whatever we yell into this chasm will echo back to us, distorted and fragmented, and that will have to be our meaning.