Down Terrace

Down Terrace

Format: Cinema

Release date: 30 July 2010

Venues: ICA Cinema (London) and selected key cities

Distributor: Metrodome

Director: Ben Wheatley

Writer: Robin Hill, Ben Wheatley

Cast: Julia Deakin, Robert Hill, Robin Hill, Mark Kempner, Michael Smiley

UK 2009

89 mins

Bill and his son Karl are members of a seemingly normal family living in a terraced house within a nondescript suburb of Brighton. Following an acquittal from an unspecified court case, the two return home to the familiar staple of chores to be completed, tension between the family’s women to defuse and their own tempestuous relationship to address. Beneath this surface, however, lies a far more sinister and interesting truth; the members of this family are career criminals, and are now on a blood hunt for whoever grassed them up.

Welcome to Down Terrace, the feature debut from Ben Wheatley. Far from being merely an episode of The Sopranos directed by Mike Leigh as many reviews have suggested, the film is a fascinating look at the mechanics of a family, focusing on the little things that at once enthrall and irritate, exposing harboured truths and the ties that bind people together. Blazing arguments are abruptly ended by bursts of perfectly timed humour and assumptions about characters are turned on their head at the least predictable moments. Wheatley’s script, co-written with star Robin Hill, is a brilliantly original take on the familiar British crime genre, infusing each character with depth and compassion. We care deeply for each of these characters, which increases s the impact of their irrationally violent reactions towards others. A particular scene of pure visual humour resulting from a sudden action from Karl typifies this perfectly.

It comes as no surprise that Robert Hill (Bill) and Robin Hill (Karl) are real-life father and son, sharing a painfully realistic chemistry that’s as heart-wrenching as darkly amusing. An ex-hippie and regular drug user, Bill is prone to twisted philosophical musings that are highly enjoyable, and at times it’s difficult not to sympathise with the familial and professional weight on his shoulders. Karl is also blessed with some unfortunate situations to challenge his ever-shredded nerves, not least an ex-girlfriend who turns up at the door bearing his child. While plot devices such as this could possibly be viewed as contrived, they perfectly highlight the domestic pressures that bear on the family to the same extent as their illegal exploits.

Featuring a host of familiar faces from cult British comedy, such as Julia Deakin and Michael Smiley, combined with non-professional actors, the film is undoubtedly a lo-fi affair, though at no point is it hindered by its budgetary constraints. More so, the claustrophobic atmosphere is largely achieved through the film’s almost singular setting of the family home (the Hills’ real-life home, no less), and a sense of realism is attained through the use of minimal crew and equipment.

In a genre that boasts as many forgettable flops as Michael Caine or Bob Hoskins classics, it’s refreshing to see a film that finds something original to say without relying on clichéd one-liners or stock characters. Down Terrace has already proven itself to be a hit across the festival circuit, winning Best UK Feature at last year’s Raindance among others.

The Raindance Film Festival runs from September 29 to October 10 in London. More details on the Raindance webiste.

James Merchant



Format: Cinema

Release date: 30 July 2010

Venues: Cineworld Fulham Road, Curzon Soho (London) and nationwide

Distributor: Optimum

Director: Joann Sfar

Writer: Joann Sfar (adapted from his graphic novel)

Original title: Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque)

Cast: Eric Elmosnino, Lucy Gordon, Laetitia Casta, Doug Jones, Anna Mouglalis

France/USA 2010

130 mins

Like that other French national institution Edith Piaf, Serge Gainsbourg is known as little more than a one-hit wonder in Britain. Although recent re-issues have gone some way to boosting his reputation here, he still seems to be rated only by serious music fans and Jarvis Cocker. I wonder whether Joann Sfar’s biopic Gainsbourg, packed with so many incredible songs, will find new fans for the singer-songwriter who died in 1991, or (as is more likely) appeal solely to those already in the know. It has to be said that such films seem to be made by fans for fans - surely a David Hasselhoff biopic would only have a market in Germany. This, of course, can lead to a somewhat uncritical approach to the subject matter, and Sfar certainly seems guilty of this.

The musical biopic is perhaps the most rigid of genres, complete with its own strange, idiosyncratic rules. Perhaps this is because until recently it included mostly made-for-TV movies, such as Summer Dreams - The Story of the Beach Boys (1990) or The Karen Carpenter Story (1989). With the exception of Todd Haynes’s Dylan and Bowie innovations (which divided audiences), the rules of the biopic seem unbreakable and Gainsbourg does not challenge them.

A musical biopic is not about what is going to happen (we usually know that), it’s about how it will happen or how it is going to be portrayed. So we sit through The Doors thinking, when is he going to flash his penis? In the Joe Meek film Telstar, we wonder, when is he going to kill his landlady? It is a genre that singularly lacks suspense. In the case of Gainsbourg - as 62 years are condensed into just over two hours - we might also wonder what is going to be left out. Will we see him sleep with Bardot? (yes) Will we see him win Eurovision (no) or make lewd propositions to Whitney Houston? (sadly, no). It’s just a waiting game.

A successful biopic depends first and foremost on the performances. These films rarely (never?) win awards for direction or writing but almost always win for acting. Recent acting Oscars have gone to Ray and La Vie en Rose while Walk the Line got a win and a nomination (losing the best male lead award to its near-cousin, the literary biopic Capote). The key is the central performance, and Gainsbourg scores full marks here. Eric Elmosnino is not only an uncanny lookalike (although I suspect prosthetic ears), but has perfected Serge’s mannerisms and movement - that perpetual slightly drunk swagger. He walks the line between charming and lewd with great skill. As with Ray and La Vie en Rose, the film itself may be average, but the central performance is outstanding.

All good biopics also need a strangely accurate performance from a talented child-actor - a portrait of the artist as a young man. Kacey Mottet Klein’s young Gainsbourg (or Lucien Ginsburg as he was known then) is a revelation. The charming little Jewish boy surviving in wartime France seems worthy of his own film. In addition, we also need a cast of instantly recognisable lookalikes in the supporting roles. Laetitia Casta’s Bardot is pretty impressive; Lucy Gordon’s Jane Birkin has straight hair and a mini-dress but doesn’t really look like her. It might seem superficial, but in this genre this is important. Many a John Lennon film has been marred by low-quality Beatles - a real distraction.

One of the strangest quirks of the genre is the soundtrack: the cast must also sing. It would be somehow inauthentic to mime to original recordings. Elmosnino’s Gainsbourg impersonation is again of the highest standard but it was Lucy Gordon’s perfectly breathy Jane Birkin that had me checking the credits at the end (yes, the songs were actually performed by the actress, who committed suicide shortly after the film was finished). Of course, it helps that the songs are great, and I enjoyed seeing the lyrics translated in the subtitles (so it’s not about lollipops!!!) and realising what a good lyricist he was.

And finally we need a convincing ‘rosebud’ - the key to understanding who he/she is. Here the key seems to be Gainsbourg’s insecurity about his strong Semitic features. Although he seems quintessentially French to the English, he was the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. This anxiety manifests itself as a Nazi propaganda poster chasing him down the street and an enormous caricature puppet (all nose and ears) that appears at all the wrong times.

Gainsbourg ticks all the boxes, and despite a few innovations it is a pretty traditional biopic. The pleasures of watching a musical biopic are equivalent to watching Stars in their Eyes. But if that TV show were to have a Gainsbourg special with Serge, Brigitte Bardot, Jane Birkin, France Gall and Juliette Greco impersonators (and no Matthew Kelly) I’d definitely watch it, and I’d phone in a vote for Lucy Gordon’s version of ‘Le canari est sur le balcon’.

Paul Huckerby



Format: Cinema

Release date: 16 July 2010

Venues: Nationwide

Distributor: Warner Brothers

Director: Christopher Nolan

Writer: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine

USA/UK 2010

148 mins

As Christopher Nolan’s Inception is all about dreams and the persistence of memory, it’s entirely fitting that my feelings about the film changed as time elapsed after it ended. Immediately after leaving the cinema, my overall impression was that I loved the experience and wanted to watch (at the least the beginning of) the film again, preferably in an IMAX cinema. However, after a couple of days’ reflection, while I still would happily recommend the film as one of the best blockbusters I’ve seen this year, the flaws of the movie became increasingly apparent.

One of the main themes of the film is the seductive nature of subconscious fantasies, and indeed the world(s) the film presents are often beguiling, and the audience enjoys being immersed in them as much as some of the characters do on screen. However, while Inception is laced with great (if familiar) ideas, their strength and novelty diminish as the film progresses.

The plot of the film, which presumably is set in the near-future - although only the concept of the technology, which allows people to share their dreams, is futuristic, not its rendering, which looks like a 1980s child’s toy - is about corporate espionage, with characters entering the minds of CEOs to steal secrets and subvert their future decision-making. Corporate espionage was fairly common in late 20th-century speculative fiction, but hasn’t really taken off in the cinema outside of films such as Cypher (2002) and Largo Winch (2008), which both deserved greater attention but slipped under the radar of many genre fans. Indeed, in a world where corporate interests have greater power than national ones, it’s surprising that, in contrast to cyberpunk fiction in print, films such as Blade Runner (1982) and The Matrix (1999) have focused more on protagonists struggling to define their humanity under the onslaught of technology rather than on man versus (evil) corporations. Perhaps as big-budget films are financed by corporations, filmmakers might be worried about biting the hands that feed them.

Inception is basically a cross between The Matrix (1999) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), with a touch of Ocean’s Eleven (1960/2001) thrown in. Like The Matrix, it presents us with imaginary worlds that allow the protagonists to perform heroic deeds, kill bad guys with no consequences (as they’re not real) and manipulate the world around them on a practically quantum level - such elements as gravity and architecture being vulnerable to manipulation. A Nightmare on Elm Street lends the idea of a nemesis from beyond the grave, who can trap our heroes in the dream world, leading to their (brain) death in the real one. Ocean’s Eleven and the briefly resurrected heist movies of the last decade lend the idea of a group with different attributes who team up to perform a scam/break-in for financial reward. In fact, this is pretty much a magpie’s nest of a film, including imagery from MC Escher prints and James Bond movies, with echoes of other films that have similar plots from Total Recall (1990) to Dark City (1998).

However, director Christopher Nolan just about pulls it off. The various characters in the movie are well cast and not so two-dimensional that you don’t enjoy their company, even if only really the lead character Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) has anything to lose (and that’s somewhat debatable too). This is cinema as spectacle, and having honed their art on the 21st-century Batman films, Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister are exemplary creators of films that feature great locations, intriguing set pieces and plenty of things blowing up. The film is constantly exciting, entertaining and impressively mounted. The cast, featuring a trio of veterans from the director’s first Batman film (Watanabe, Caine, Murphy) alongside relative newcomers to the action genre (Page, Gordon-Levitt and Hardy) are all extremely engaging, to the extent that the attraction of the ensemble alone makes the idea of a sequel welcome, albeit one that would focus more on character development.

The slickness of the first third of the film, cut to a relentless Hans Zimmer score as if it was a trailer, is initially off-putting, suggesting another Michael Bay-style experience. It’s a film that never lets you think about the ideas it’s presenting while it cuts from one beautifully constructed scene to another. As we enter the dream worlds within worlds within worlds, the initial complexity of the various narratives running concurrently makes you occasional want Christopher Lloyd to come along with a blackboard and explain what’s going on. However, while the narrative seems overly complex at times, in the style of the more baffling entries in the Mission: Impossible franchise (which this film also evokes, both in terms of a team of spies and the impersonation of one character by another), the plot is actually quite simple. In fact, this is storytelling on the level of computer games, with different scenarios - city-based car chase, Bond-esque Alpine battle, terrorists in a lush hotel - starring the same characters taking place at the same time rather than in sequence as in most other movies. This is entertainment for people with attention-deficit disorder, and it makes Hollywood appear one step behind computer games, which already provide changes of genre or location twice a minute in products such as Pix’n Rush or WarioWare.

In the late 1980s, I saw a terrific animated short called Rarg about a dream world where the inhabitants become aware of the nature of their existence and their impending doom when the dreamer wakes up. They travel into our world and do everything they can to stop this happening - they turn off his alarm clock, fluff his pillows, put earplugs in his ears - but haven’t taken account of the consequences of what might happen if he just started dreaming about something else. In the 23 minutes of that film, the writer-director came up with a tighter and more memorable scenario about dream worlds than Nolan does in two and half hours of Inception, which makes you wish the latter had allowed more collaborators in at the scripting level.

Inception isn’t nearly as dumbed down as many of its peers and is the first ‘virtual worlds’ blockbuster that’s been attempted that is, in many ways, as good as the original Matrix. This being a film about dream worlds means Nolan can create any scenario he wants for the characters to visit, but that’s a double-edged sword. An early scene has a dream ‘architect’ played by Ellen Page bend the landscape she and DiCaprio are walking in through 180 degrees so that the land also becomes the sky (a scene that has been recreated, albeit differently, for the film’s poster). Later on, as all the oneironauts are trapped under gunfire for the first time, one character says to another (who is using a machine gun), ‘You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger’, and blasts away at the bad guys with a grenade launcher. However, unlike the protagonists of The Matrix, these heroes don’t choose to fly (except when the entire building is in free fall) or shoot impossible weapons, and so the film, having teased us with the idea of impossible worlds, rarely presents them again, except for one further use of Escher’s endless staircase.

Perhaps this is both the film’s blessing and its curse: Nolan’s cinematic success has allowed him to make a multi-million-dollar movie where he can basically put anything he or his characters can dream of on screen, but he and they come up against the limits of their own imagination. If other movies hadn’t already tackled this subject - Dark City, perhaps, most provocatively so - then this film would be a ground-breaking masterpiece. However, as a compilation of the best bits of the last 30 years of action cinema strung together, it’s merely a good, entertaining film.

Alex Fitch


George A Romero’s 1977 Martin offers a remarkably ambiguous, playful, disturbing and original take on the vampire. It has just been released by Arrow Video as a two-disc collector’s edition, including the Italian cut of the film (believed to have been re-edited by Dario Argento and missing some scenes from the US version), which is reviewed below.

Comic Review by Adam Cadwell
For more information on Adam Cadwell, go to his website.

Antonio das Mortes

Antonio das Mortes

Format: DVD

Release date: 31 May 2010

Distributor: Mr Bongo Films

Director: Glauber Rocha

Writer: Glauber Rocha

Original title: O Drag&#227o da Maldade contra o Santo Guerreiro

Cast: Mauricio do Valle, Odete Lara, Othon Bastos, Joffre Soares, Lorival Pariz

France/Brazil/West Germany 1969

100 mins

Antonio das Mortes, or O Drag&#227o da Maldade contra o Santo Guerreiro (The Dragon of Evil against the Saint Warrior) is the final instalment in a trilogy of films by the self-appointed leader of the 60s Brazilian Cinema Novo movement, Glauber Rocha. Written as well as directed by Rocha, all three films centre around the figure of the cangaceiro, a holy bandit hero or mystic outlaw, which Rocha likens to Saint George the Dragon-Slayer. In contrast to the first two films, in Antonio das Mortes the central protagonist is not the saint, but the dragon; the ‘cangaceiro killer’ of the film’s title, Antonio das Mortes. The story follows Antonio as he is hired by a tyrannical landowner to kill Coriana, the last of the cangaceiros. Antonio and Coriana face each other in a machete duel and, after the fatal blow is struck, all-out chaos ensues.

‘A camera in the hand, and an idea in the head’ was how Rocha defined Cinema Novo, and it perfectly describes the poetical/political guerrilla filmmaking of Antonio das Mortes. The luxuries of classical narrative cinema are stripped clear. Everything is shot on location and in available light; the camera is largely hand-held, or fixed to a tripod to give a detached, blank perspective; the soundtrack fades roughly and abruptly in and out; and the effects (gun shots, knife wounds, etc) are purposefully cheap and hard to take seriously. Antonio das Mortes (and Cinema Novo more generally) is little concerned with fleshed-out characters and naturalistic drama, and occupies itself instead with the rapid flow of ideas, icons, and associations. The characters in the story aren’t really characters, but rather symbols or devices within the film’s dialectical economy. There are no personalities vying for our empathy, just archetypes and actions, the meaning (or host of meanings) of which we are left to interpret on our own.

The most striking thing about Antonio das Mortes is its tremendous energy and confidence. All of the performances (and ‘performances’ is definitely the right word) explode with intensity, certainty and enthusiasm; and this is the case as much in the chaotic crowd scenes, as in the tighter, more choreographed dialogue scenes. The direction from Rocha is excellent, retaining a tight and richly philosophical narrative, while giving his actors an immense amount of freedom. The pastiche mythology of Rocha’s script is inspiring, highly original stuff too. It would seem for example - given that we are encouraged to sympathise with Antonio’s position - that Antonio and Coriana, as characters, are not representatives of good and evil per say, but rather representatives of essential eternally opposed forces that govern the universe (male and female, rich and poor, strong and weak, light and dark, etc). The film has a strong folkloric quality that is redolent of Sergei Paradjanov’s The Legend of the Suram Fortress and it is stylistically just as impressive.

For all its intellectual and stylistic panache, however, Antonio das Mortes can also be slightly dense, esoteric and dry. The bulk of the exposition about cangaceiros and other character types is given in scrolling titles at the beginning of the film, and the audience is then expected to keep up, which it is often not easy to do. Similarly, there is constant reference to and comment on Brazilian politics of the 1960s, which will probably mean little to modern audiences. The way Rocha uses the drama purely as a means through which to expound his dialectical philosophy results in a film where there is no empathy, no great feeling, no appeal to the heart. This may not be the point of Antonio das Mortes, but compare the film to Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou, which does something similar. In Godard’s film - in the star personas of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina - an old, human warmth manages to seep through the general fragmentation and pastiche. The actors are clearly performing, are clearly parts of Godard’s philosophical toolkit, and yet they retain their personality. They have a certain meaning (or host of meanings) in other words, and yet at the same time we love them; and thus the film affects us more deeply and on more levels. This maybe hints at the limitations of Cinema Novo as a cinema that thinks too much. Cinema is surely born out of more than just ‘a camera in the hand, and an idea in the head’? Surely it also requires a beating heart in the chest?

David Warwick



Format: Cinema

Release date: 23 July 2010

Venues: Nationwide

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Vincenzo Natali

Writers: Vincenzo Natali, Antoinette Terry Bryant, Doug Taylor

Cast: Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley, Delphine Chanéac, David Hewlett, Abigail Chu

Canada 2009

104 mins

While Vincenzo Natali’s four feature films have a few things in common - a single word title, small casts featuring David Hewlett and being situated in the environs of the fantasy/science fiction genre - they couldn’t be more different in terms of (high concept) plot. Cube features six characters with partial amnesia enclosed in a futuristic death trap. Cypher is a Philip K Dick-style spy thriller about shifting identities and corporate espionage. Nothing is a two-hander set in a house surrounded by an encroaching white void. His new film Splice is an update of the Frankenstein story through the lens of modern fears of genetic modification. Compared to Nothing, or even Cube, you’d think Splice would be an easy sell to the financiers. However, while the film has proved to be a reasonable box office and critical success in the US, Natali revealed in his video introduction at Sci-Fi London that getting funding for the movie was arduous until executive producer Guillermo del Toro came on board.

Having seen the film I can imagine why. The story is familiar enough: ambitious scientists Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) decide to disregard their company’s instructions not to go rushing ahead with a gene-splicing project that has already yielded satisfactory results and end up creating a dangerous human-animal hybrid. Variants of the story have turned up in a number of films over the last quarter-century such as The Fly (1986), Species (1995) and Alien Resurrection (1997). Each of these have suggested that a creature with mixed human/non-human DNA will have a skewed sexuality, but as Splice adds elements of bestiality, incest and paedophilia to this, it is easy to see why any financier who initially read the script might have got cold feet. Of course, it is precisely these elements that make The Fly superior to the exploitative ‘T&A’ of a movie like Species and Splice an intriguing and relatively daring film. Perhaps it’s something to do with Canadian sensibilities - too much introspection on long winter nights - but Canadian cinema often presents some of the most fascinating explorations of human sexuality on screen, not only in the films of David Cronenberg, but also in those of Guy Maddin and Robert Lepage, and with Splice, Vincenzo Natali has added another notable genre film to that list.

In the TV mini-series Frankenstein: The True Story (1973), writer Christopher Isherwood was one of the first authors to suggest that if a human scientist tried to create augmented life, the creature might turn out to be handsome rather than horrific - visually, if not morally. In Splice, the creature starts off as a cute alien pet, but soon grows into a beautiful young woman (albeit with a prehensile tail and reptilian eyes). This creature, whose androgyny turns out to be important to the plot, becomes an object of desire for both its creators, one of whom is also a genetic parent, and the film explores some of the perverse possibilities of post-human relationships. This section of the film ultimately unbalances the whole project as the shifting attitudes and desires of the creature’s makers are dealt with a little too quickly while the final act is too similar to a dozen other movies.

In spite of its few shortcomings, the film has much to commend it and its ideas are adeptly fleshed out by an excellent cast. Sarah Polley is an idiosyncratic actress with a number of terrific SF/horror performances under her belt - Dawn of the Dead (2004), eXistenZ (1999), Last Night (1998) - and she is equally good here. Adrien Brody preceded Splice with the Dario Argento film Giallo (2009), which continued the director’s downward slide into DVD bargain bins, and while good actors often sleepwalk through genre films, Brody is well used here. His casting against type as an action hero in Predators (2010), not to mention his role in the underrated time travel film The Jacket (2005), shows that science fiction is a genre that suits his brooding demeanour and haunted looks.

While Splice was not the massive hit in the US that ‘geek’ websites predicted, it has the potential to move Natali out of his reputation as a niche director of speculative fiction. While Cube, for example, arrived a little too early to benefit from the success of the similarly themed Saw (2004) and its endless stream of sequels, Splice is intriguing and subversive enough to get the director the larger recognition he deserves. Natali is currently rumoured to be attached to adaptations of a couple of lauded but challenging science fiction classics - William Gibson’s Neuromancer and JG Ballard’s High Rise - and if anyone can tackle thought-provoking SF and do so on a relatively low budget, he’s certainly the man for the job.

Alex Fitch

Profound Desires of the Gods

Profound Desires of the Gods

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 21 June 2010

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Shôhei Imamura

Writer: Keiji Hasebe, Shôhei Imamura

Original title: Kamigami no Fukaki Yokubo

Cast: Rentarô Mikuni, Choichiro Kawarazaki, Kazuo Kitamura, Hideko Okiyama

Japan 1968

172 mins

Speaking in an interview in 1985 (first published in Positif and republished in the DVD booklet), Japanese director Shôhei Imamura presented himself as something of a dissident among his contemporaries. He criticised Ozu’s ‘aesthetic’ approach and Ôshima’s reliance on trends to dictate his films’ subject matter. For Imamura, cinema presented another possibility beyond visual or technical mastery: an opportunity to shoot the truth. The presentation and unravelling of human nature was his motivation, not stylistics: ‘If my films are messy, it is probably due to the fact that I don’t like too perfect a cinema’.

Profound Desires of the Gods (1968) is certainly a messy film. Three hours in length, with a shoot that took 12 months longer than expected, Imamura’s masterwork is a mysterious and meandering epic; interesting and insightful but equally bewildering and mystifying. Close-up shots are few and far between. For the first two hours, the film is primarily composed of static long shots, its human protagonists becoming distant bodies in a wide and sweeping landscape. The viewer is left, somewhat baffled, to unearth the complicated relationships between these figures: a strange assembly of frustrated men and wild banshee women, who inhabit a fictitious island, Furage, in the Okinawa region of Southern Japan (which was then under American administration).

Explanations are gradually pieced together through snatched conversations and an elderly island inhabitant who acts as narrator through a series of folkloric songs. The lyrics tell the creation story of the island, which was formed through an incestuous sexual relationship between a divine brother and sister, whose actions incurred the wrath of the ruling god. The viewer slowly realises that this ancient myth is playing out for real within the dysfunctional Futori family, the ‘oldest on the island’. Mocked and vilified by the other islanders, this strange clan is locked in a spiral of penance and shame for their incestuous behaviour. The guilt and the role held by women find similarities with Genesis (and snakes are a recurrent symbol in the film); the male god was innocent until he decided that he needed a female to complete himself, but the woman acts as a temptress and symbol of sexual desire, resulting in the fall of man. Indeed, the two female characters (daughter and granddaughter of the Futori family) possess a feral sexuality that brings out uncontrollable, savage desire among the leading men. In Profound Desires of the Gods, sex is a primitive and unstoppable force that motivates humankind. Imamura was fascinated by anthropology and seemed to view humankind more in terms of zoological social structures than in terms of intellectual progression. Speaking in the same 1985 interview, he stated: ‘I am convinced…that despite successive external influences, the basic human qualities of a society will never change.’

So, the fate of Furage is bound up in the Futoris’ actions, and as an engineer arrives from mainland Japan to aid the island’s nascent sugar cane industry, it becomes increasingly clear that this dynasty holds the key to change. The grandson is chosen as the engineer’s assistant but the other family members either refuse or are unable to comply. The Futoris deter the engineer from bringing change by sabotage and seduction. The resulting, sometimes farcical, tussle between the rational plans of the engineer and the animalistic chaos of the Futoris stands as an allegory for the Westernisation and modernisation of traditional Japan. There is one particularly great scene where the engineer stands, sun-dazed and exhausted on the seashore, mumbling deliriously about Coca Cola. And while that may sound a little unsubtle, Imamura does not present a simplistic view about whether a traditional or commercial society is better; indeed, the primitive superstitions that cast a shadow over the lives of the islanders are presented as restrictive and destructive. As the battle between capitalism and traditional society strengthens and the love story between brother and sister deepens, the film begins to pick up pace, building to a tense climax: a welcome crescendo after several sprawling hours!

Profound Desires of the Gods is a complex film: sometimes infuriating in its mess but consistently magical in its strangeness. And, oddly, for a filmmaker so studiously disinterested in aesthetics, it is also very beautiful. Shot in an otherworldly palette of peaches, browns, turquoises, burnt oranges and tropical greens, the natural world of Japan provides a suitably extraordinary backdrop to this lavish, melodramatic epic.

Eleanor McKeown