Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt
It’s hard not to draw parallels between Melancholia and The Tree of Life, this year’s other contender for the ‘Cosmic Opera’ Academy Award. The similarities are superficial, to do with look and sound rather than intention, but I can imagine both films alienating some audiences in the same way: if you found Terrence Malick’s vision of the world’s creation, soundtracked by the emotive, devotional compositions of Gorecki and Tavener, overwrought, you are likely to find Lars von Trier’s take on its destruction - a haunting series of surreal opening tableaux set to the Prelude of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde - equally so.
Both directors use these lush, near-psychedelic sequences to frame stories about the family; but, while Malick’s is essentially redemptive, von Trier’s is, as you might expect, so much darker as to be almost Tree of Life‘s bleak reverse. In Melancholia, a dysfunctional upper-class family awaits and then experiences the end of the world, courtesy of a rogue planet (the Melancholia of the title) that collides with Earth. In the way that von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) co-opted aspects of the horror genre, Melancholia nods to disaster movies, but - like Antichrist - does so both knowingly and somewhat clumsily, which will move some viewers to ask, as so often with von Trier, whether the director is on some level toying with his audience and laughing at their expectations of genre and story.
I’m not sure this is the case here. Melancholia‘s take on the End Times is more in line with Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice (1986) or Doris Lessing’s lengthy novel, The Four-Gated City, in that it’s not the approaching disaster itself that’s the point, but how a small group of individuals anticipate, discuss and respond to it. Because it’s von Trier, there is a grim humour at work, but that doesn’t mean he’s unsympathetic or sneery. Take, for example, the film’s first chapter after its Wagnerian intro, which documents the lavish but excruciating stately-home wedding reception of Justine (Kirsten Dunst), organised by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). We expect large family gatherings on film to be tense, but Justine’s depression, which is severe, disabling and barely held in check, makes this a particularly painful one to watch. Yet depression also seems to stand her in good stead when, shortly after her failed wedding, the planet Melancholia draws near. While Claire panics, her sister responds with equanimity - she’s not afraid of annihilation. In fact, the threat of the planet’s approach seems to draw her out of a catatonic episode. Again, there’s a dark irony here, as when Justine scorns Claire’s desperate ideas for a ‘final’ gesture before the planet hits - but it is not at the expense of the characters.
There are classy but rather clichéd performances from Kiefer Sutherland (as Claire’s scientist husband), Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt (as the sisters’ inadequate parents), but the central relationship of the two sisters is well observed, allowing space for Gainsbourg’s more ‘sane’ sibling, who is at turns frustrated, controlling and kind. Von Trier is candid about his own experience of depression, and it probably does take a depressive to portray the condition like this, in all its crippling, self-aggrandising, planet-sized horror. Dunst rises to the challenge well, and she and Gainsbourg work hard to transcend some of the plot’s holes and clunky moments of dialogue.
Opinions on whether they succeed or not will be as polarised as those concerning the monumental music and visionary opening scenes. But this is not supposed to be an attractive film, despite the beautiful country house setting and elegant actors; and von Trier’s suggestion that the idea of being crushed by an alien land mass might actually seem preferable to being suffocated by your family and destroyed by your own psyche rings with a certain bleak sincerity - even if it is, in fact, the awful false logic of depression.
In rain-drenched pre-millennium Shibuya, Tokyo, a grotesque discovery is made, the dissected corpse of a woman, her limbs and torso bizarrely mixed with parts of a shop dummy, in a derelict apartment normally used by prostitutes. A detective (Miki Mizuno) begins to investigate.
We cut back to the life of Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka), dutiful wife of a fastidious, obsessive novelist. Her existence revolves entirely about subservience to his whims, placing his slippers for his return home just so, subject to a brutal harangue when she purchases the wrong soap. She has friends, but no real purpose or life of her own. She longs to do something before she is 30, and takes up a part-time job in a supermarket, where she is spotted by a modelling agent, and before long finds herself manoeuvred into posing for soft porn. This awakens something in her that she barely seems in control of, and she begins a double life. The slippers are still placed just so, but her daytime hours become consumed with satisfying her increasingly raging libido. She drifts, wide-eyed, into the Maruyama-cho love hotel district, and into the orbit of Mitsuko (Makoto Togashi), who becomes her mentor in the world of prostitution. A wild slide into the weirder shores of degradation and humiliation follows, going back again and again to a certain derelict apartment…
Sion Sono’s Guilty of Romance is an extraordinary film, one that’s difficult to unpack and decipher. It could be read as a right-wing patriarchal tract warning women that indulging in lust is a surefire path to hell. Except that Izumi’s husband is depicted as a cold, hypocritical gobshite, and a lot of the lusty transgressive stuff sure looks like fun. It’s largely a women’s film; the detective and all the major characters are female, and their desires push the story forward; they all look incredible and are given great scenes and dialogue; the men are mainly just, well, dicks. Despite the title, romance here is in short supply. Izumi’s husband (Kandji Tsuda) writes passionate scenes for his novels but displays no real erotic desire towards his wife. Izumi wants mainly to be wanted, but under Mitsuko’s tutelage tries to channel her desires through financial transaction. Mitsuko is revealed to be a professor of literature at a local college and gives a few intellectual justifications for her chosen path (‘Every word has flesh, the word’s meaning is its body,’ she Cronenbergs). But we aren’t sure that she believes this stuff, as the bitter relationship with her mother (Hisako Ohkata) is revealed and another Freudian minefield is opened up. Everybody’s value systems seem to be built on quicksand and given the perverse bloody mess that results, Izumi’s simple desire for sex begins to look relatively healthy.
It’s beautifully shot and composed, with chapter headings and courtly classical music that brought Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon to mind. But I couldn’t help feeling that the film went off the rails in its last hour. After setting up Izumi’s strict and strange relationship with her husband for the first half of the film Sono oddly has him disappear from the story for much of the second half, as if his function in the narrative was over for a while (crucially, we never witness his reaction to her breaking his precious routine). And while Mitsuko’s caustic conversation with her mother is a comedic high point, the final series of Norman Bates-style twisted family revelations seemed imported from a different film, and, frankly, left me baffled. I’m not sure that Guilty of Romance needed its murder mystery element at all. It’s as if Sono did not trust that the core dynamic, the spiralling relationship between Izumi and Mitsuko, was ‘extreme’ enough and would hold our attention without this giallo gloss.
Still, after catching this and the director’s previous film Cold Fish I’m convinced of the man’s talent, if not his ability to control it. This is the third part of a thematically linked ‘hate trilogy’ (Love Exposure was the first), and going off the rails seems to be what his fans expect. It’s a film I primarily watched with my jaw in my lap wondering what the hell I was going to witness next. It’s a long weird trip, but I’m not sure entirely what to take away from it, apart from a warning to avoid creepy-looking blokes in white coats and black bowlers, but I kinda knew that already.
Writers: Jean-Claude Carrière, Jean-Emmanuel Conil, Jacques Deray
Cast: Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, Maurice Ronet, Jane Birkin
The pristine swimming pool of a glamorous couple’s private villa in the French Riviera is the focus of Jacques Deray’s 1969 tale of lust, co-dependency and revenge. Of ample size and stylish design, it’s where lovers Jean-Paul (Alain Delon) and Marianne (Romy Schneider) fool around during a long hot summer, far from the madding crowd of St Tropez. It’s also where Jean-Paul challenges Marianne’s ex-lover Harry (Maurice Ronet) to a symbolic swimming race, and where the film reaches its shocking and deadly climax.
Even outside of the pool and sea, water – or lack of it – is a strong motif throughout the film. Jean-Paul is told he’s a ‘Pisces, with Aquarius rising, you were born to be loved’, while his decision to start drinking again after a teetotal patch will prove fatal. And when one character is killed, there is a noticeable lack of tears at their passing.
Harry’s nubile teenage daughter Penelope (Jane Birkin), whose arrival with her father brings Jean-Paul and Marianne’s peaceful holiday ‘à deux’ to an end, isn’t seduced by the chlorinated blue of the pool. She’d rather idle around in modish thigh-skimming dresses, ignoring her father, who she claims is only interested in her now she’s old enough to be mistaken for his girlfriend. Better still, she likes swimming in the sea. And when Jean-Paul - who is not indifferent to her doe eyes and sky-high legs – takes her there for a night-time swim, he crosses the unspoken line of decency forever.
Deray does a deft job in capturing the hedonism and abandon of the period, where good looks and chic clothes conceal dark feelings that lurk beneath the surface, helped by a toe-tapping soundtrack by Michel Legrand. Legrand is a name often associated with the French New Wave, as is Maurice Ronet, who plays smooth-talking music producer Harry, but La piscine‘s connection with the movement ends there. Instead, with its smoulderingly attractive cast and focus on relationships, it owes more to American film noir and psychological thrillers of the previous two decades, as is especially clear after the pivotal murder scene – which is sudden, clumsy and disturbing.
While it may seem stilted to some, the lackadaisical pace of the film has the dual advantage of both reflecting the holiday-makers’ idle summer and allowing the unspoken erotic tension to reach a Hitchcockian crisis point. When the pace is broken by a lively and impromptu shindig, held at the villa by Harry and his rent-a-crowd of hipsters and kohl-eyed beauties, it comes as a relief to the viewer but has devastating consequences for the characters, who use it as an excuse to turn feelings into actions.
The film’s real strength lies in its ending which, although implausible by today’s standards of law and order, comes as a genuine surprise and shows the price you might have to pay to get simple domesticity.
Three horny young high-schoolers find a local woman through a website who appears willing to take them all on at the same time. Ignoring their own qualms, they set out one night only to wind up drugged, abducted and taken to preacher Abin Cooper’s notorious fundamentalist church community, who are, it emerges, bent on ridding the world of homosexuals and perverts, one at a time. But a traffic accident earlier in the evening means that first the cops, and then the FBI get involved. Between the well-armed apocalyptic god-botherers and the trigger-happy Feds, it’s anybody’s guess as to who will survive…
Part horror movie, siege drama and political screed, Kevin Smith’s Red State is an unsubtle broadside blow delivered at the likes of Kansas’s Westboro Baptist Church, taking in federal incompetence and post-9/11 national security along the way. It benefits from great performances. John Goodman is great as a conflicted G-man trying to do the right thing as it all goes to hell. Melissa Leo convinces alarmingly as a mother and genuine believer in the End Times desperate to go to her reward and happy to take her children with her. And Michael Parks is fantastic as Abin Cooper, genuinely charismatic, and delivering his homespun message in an entrancing sing-song burr that almost hides the poisonous garbage he’s spouting.
Smith always seemed to be a filmmaker who missed the ‘show, don’t tell’ module of the screenwriting course. He could put together foul-mouthed dialogue like no one else, but wanted it to do all the work, and never seemed that interested in making cinema. Red State has a visual style, abandoning the usual meat and potatoes camera set-ups for something more fluid, hand-held and intimate. There is, especially in the first hour, a palpable sense of threat and unease unknown in the rest of his work. For once the screen isn’t full of surrogate Smiths riffing on pop culture, but living, breathing people with wider concerns. He can’t maintain it, of course: the last reel is pure info dump delivered by people who wouldn’t be talking like this; the Federal superiors seem to be a dope smoker’s idea of what such people would be like. There are jagged tonal shifts and dramatic dead ends. It’s messy, but it’s thrilling, creepy and continually does things you don’t expect. Smith claims that he’s retiring as a director, which, on this evidence, is a pity. For the first time in years I’m interested in what he’s going to do next.
Writers: Dario Argento, Luigi Collo, Dardano Sacchetti, Bryan Edgar Wallace (uncredited)
Original title:Il gatto a nove code
Cast: James Franciscus, Karl Malden, Catherine Spaak, Pier Paolo Capponi, Horst Frank
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) was a massive hit, making twice its budget back in Italy alone, so it’s unsurprising Dario Argento made a follow-up within a year and would make his third film, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, another six months later. The Cat O’Nine Tails starts with a similar premise: a vulnerable man - this time blind, rather than trapped behind glass - is the only witness to a murder when a laboratory break-in leads to the death of a security guard.
Bird, Cat and Flies‘ lead protagonists were American TV actors Tony Musante, James Fransiscus and Michael Brandon respectively, Bird‘s lead actress (and former ‘Bond girl’) Suzy Kendall is British, while Cat‘s witness (who ends up as Fransiscus’s sidekick when he starts investigating the crimes) is Czech-American film star Karl Malden, whose post-Argento career would mainly be on television. The casting of Americans as the leads shows the director’s international aspirations - understandably, following the popularity of Leone’s Westerns with American leads, who would be dubbed into Italian for the local releases. Cat in particular is a slick thriller in the American mould, Argento keeping his own stylistic flourishes to a minimum compared to the other films in the ‘trilogy’, and including an exemplary car chase and cross-cutting between scenes in the style of American spy shows such as Man in a Suitcase and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Other international affectations include a climactic rooftop chase that recalls Hitchcock’s Vertigo and a Morricone score similar to the music of Lalo Schifrin, as well as references to Edgar Allan Poe, who would inform much of Argento’s work. The opening credits of Four Flies on Grey Velvet would make this explicit - a beating heart against a black background - and here we have grave-robbing, someone trapped in a locked tomb, and rats menacing a bound child. German cinema also gets a look in, with an uncredited rewrite by ‘Krimi’ scribe Bryan Edgar Wallace and Teutonic star Horst Frank.
Argento may have also looked to the work of Michelangelo Antonioni - another Italian director working with English-speaking actors at the time - as many of Cat‘s twists and turns recall the obsessive nature of the photographer investigating a crime in that director’s Blow-Up, made five years earlier. In contrast with the frustrating endings of Blow-Up and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Argento and his three collaborators provide The Cat o’Nine Tails with a satisfying conclusion: the killer tries to convince Malden’s character that he murdered his little girl and should be executed at his hands in revenge, which recalls the beginnings of the previous and next film by the director.
The fact that all three of Argento’s films made in 1970-71 contain an animal in their title suggests that at some point during production of his second film, he or the producers decided to brand them as a trilogy. But although the titles of Bird and Flies refer to clues that lead to the discovery of the killer, The Cat o’Nine Tails doesn’t feature a cat anywhere on screen or in the foley recording, nor does it feature the 17th-century torture device. One explanation of the title is that it refers to the number of suspects that Franciscus investigates, while I prefer the idea that it suggests the multiple chromosomal combinations that get discussed in a scene about the genetic psychopathy of the killer. Either way, since the title has no reference to the plot, this suggests it was added to the film late in production, to tie it to its predecessor and thematic sequel, which Argento would have already started work on before Cat arrived in cinemas.
Cast: Robert Kerman, Carl Gabriel Yorke, Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen, Luca Barbareschi, Salvatore Basile, Ricardo Fuentes
The year is 1978 and a respected group of American documentary-makers led by Alan Yates (Gabriel Yorke) have disappeared in the Columbian jungle while attempting to film the cannibal tribesmen reputed to live there. Professor Monroe (Robert Kerman) is dispatched to find out what’s happened to them. He makes arduous progress through the land and its peoples, finally making contact with the feared Yamamomo, or ‘Tree People’, who reveal to him the grisly remains of Yates’s crew, and several cans of undeveloped film, which he manages to take back to New York. The TV executives who financed the documentary are desperate to broadcast it as ‘the green inferno’ but the more Monroe hears about Yates and his methods the less he likes it, and when we finally see the footage our worst suspicions are confirmed. It’s a horrifying catalogue of rape, mutilation and murder in which the film crew burn down a village, kill livestock, and essentially stop at nothing to achieve ever more sensational footage, goading the ‘Tree People’ into brutal vengeance that they remain determined to capture on film even as their friends and lovers are slaughtered in front of them. It can’t be screened. ‘Who are the real cannibals?’ Monroe ponders as he walks out onto the NY streets…
Context is everything. I first saw Ruggero Deodato’s film by chance rather than design one morning around 20 years ago, hung over and feeling none too clever in Alex B’s Lewisham flat. Alex is a musician, writer and inveterate gore-hound. It was a hand-labelled VHS tape of recent acquisition, a bootleg Japanese forbidden artefact, banned by the Video Recordings Act of 1982, which bizarrely left all of the violence and unsimulated animal cruelty (1) intact, but used an optical blurring effect over any shots revealing genitalia. I’d seen a Lucio Fulci film or two and thought I knew what I was in for. I was wrong. The film was, in my fragile state, utterly psychologically toxic; the nihilistic tone, brutal imagery and ugly portrayal of human nature didn’t leave me after the tape had played out and I’d found my way home, and would bother me for a long time after. It was probably my most extreme reaction to a film since the joy I had watching Star Wars at the age of seven.
2011: I encounter Cannibal again, but this time at the Cine-Excess V (‘the politics and aesthetics of excess’) conference. Deodato is one of the guests and will receive an honorary doctorate from Brunel University at the Italian Cultural Institute as part of the event. I’m waiting for a screening of his 1976 film Live Like A Cop, Die Like a Man(2) when one of the directors of the Institute refers to Deodato as ‘Il Maestro’, with evident respect. Over the weekend dozens of academics will present papers on ‘Cine-torrent: Remediating Cult Images in Online Communities’ and ‘Bad Sisters in Prison: Excesses and Gender Politics in 1970s Exploitation’ and the like (3). Cannibal Holocaust itself is shown in a brand new print at the Odeon Covent Garden. I’m sitting next to a nice bloke from Cardiff who has driven here for the film, he thinks of Cannibal as a classic. A much loved trip he is delighted to revisit on the big screen in the presence of its maker. I ask if it’s his Toy Story 2 and he happily agrees. That bootleg VHS nasty has become a revered totem of the golden age of exploitation, no longer forbidden contraband, now name-dropped as the first ‘found footage’ film, made long before The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield. Watching it again is a strange and numbing affair. I’m not overwhelmed this time. I’m taking notes.
It’s a film of bone-deep misanthropic anger whose targets are the sensationalist media and the careless exploitation of the Third World. But it undermines and contradicts itself in various ways. I’m sure these contradictions serve to confirm its status as morally repugnant hackwork to many, but I think they also give the film an irksome power it wouldn’t otherwise possess. If it made more sense it would doubtless lose its nightmarish edge.
For instance the moralising tussles between Monroe and the TV execs (4) seem absurd in the context of Cannibal Holocaust‘s excesses, its relish in putting everything on screen. Real animal mutilation and stock footage of actual executions are mixed in with the faked rape, forced tribal abortion, rape, dismemberment, rape, cannibalism, ritual murder and rape. You’re attacking the news media for its excesses and you’re showing us this? And while Deodato’s sympathies are mainly with the tribespeople, they still function as the film’s bogeymen, go uncredited and appear largely as an undifferentiated mass in various shades of mud, their status as victims made questionable as they commit savage ritual after savage ritual, invariably against defenceless women. Monroe is given to us as the moral centre of the film, in that he tries to treat the natives with respect for their customs, and fights with the TV company over funding and screening these atrocities, yet even he doesn’t seem to care much that it took the killing of a few Shamataris to ingratiate his group with the ‘Tree People’.
The film’s biggest dichotomy, though, is one between style and story. ‘Realism’ is emphasised throughout, there is no studio work, it’s all shot on real locations. It begins with a news report about the missing crew; documentary footage and footage from ‘the green inferno’ is wound in and out of the narrative. The found footage that dominates the second half of the film uses fogged, scratched and wrongly exposed film (even a sly shot where a camera is adjusted for the wrong diaphragm), all to achieve a remarkable verisimilitude. But this documentary ‘realism’ has to battle with an increasing sense of unreality about the behaviour of the Americans; they are so uncaring, stupid, disrespectful, and in the end, flat-out evil that they become absurd. The hard-won ‘realism’ scrapes against this over-the-top suicidal obnoxiousness, creating a trippy doublethink that underlies the final slaughter.
The new edit leaves the genitalia unsmudged, but optically fudges over scenes of real animal death, which are now totally unacceptable. As to whether the rest of the film is acceptable, or of worth, well, it’s still extraordinary, made an age before irony conquered all when exploitation films meant it. Its edges have been a little blunted by time; Riz Ortolani’s fine, strange soundtrack of inappropriate syn-drums, doomy chords and syrupy strings, and the style of the ‘TV’ sequences have dated. And the occasional flat performance and line of clunky dialogue now stick out more than I remember in a film straining for ‘realism’. But the smart structure, the skill of the filmmakers, the disturbing idea behind that last reel, where the urge to film takes precedence over self-preservation or humanity, all give the film a power that lifts it above most depravity shows of that era. There are resonances here that reach back to Peeping Tom, forward to Man Bites Dog and Four Lions. Its furious contradictions and lack of control mean that it remains troubling, a magnetic north indicating how far a film can go. It’s a misanthropic, misogynistic, gratuitously offensive piece of crap. It’s a seminal transgressive masterpiece. It is what it is.
1 Deodato probably regrets the scenes of animal abuse he incorporated in Cannibal Holocaust and Ultimo Mondo Cannibale (1976), mainly, one feels, because he’s sick of answering questions about it… ‘Everyone asks about animals… If you grow up on a farm, none of this is unusual… If I only showed the Americans killing other humans it would have no impact, they had to kill animals to be killers… We’ve been inured to real death… In the US they give a child a rabbit, ‘aw sweet bunny’, then the kid goes to school, kills 15 other kids, goes back to the bunny, sings ‘aw, sweet bunny’ Etc, etc… It wasn’t a trope he invented, it was there in the Mondo movies of the 60s and Umberto Lenzi’s Deep River Savages (1972), but outside of cult circles, those films have vanished from public sight. Cannibal Holocaust‘s profile means that Deodato’s still dodging flack.
2 If you were looking for a more nuanced insight into the human condition from Deodato outside of his misanthropic masterwork, Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man wasn’t it. The film opens with an astonishing, perilous bike chase through Rome that raises hopes for something special, but it is, for the most part, crass, witless, sexist and fatally lacking in any kind of tension or credibility. It details the efforts of two ‘Special Force’ cops (Marc Porel and Ray Lovelock as Fred and Tony) to take down crime boss Pasquini using frankly random methods (burning the cars outside one of his clubs, sleeping with his nympho niece) while fending off his thugs’ assassination attempts. A case was made at Cine Excess that Live Like a Cop was Deodato’s reaction to Italy’s ‘Years of Lead’, a period of violent political and social unrest. If so, it’s unfortunate that it most reminded me of The Bullshitters, TV’s ‘The Comic Strip presents’ parody of The Professionals, right down to the nylon underwear and homoeroticism. Fred and Tony are arseholes, from beginning to end (best encapsulated in the moment when they laugh at the idea that getting their maid’s daughter pregnant might be considered their problem), but they aren’t significantly better or worse than anybody else on screen. The result is a bit of a shrug.
3 It really is an odd event, fans of the word ‘contiguity’ should make a date. Iain Robert Smith’s presentation on International Guerillas (1990), a long-lost ‘masala’ movie from Turkey, wherein three squabbling brothers unite to go and kill Salman Rushdie, was an eye-opener…
4 A female TV executive on audiences: ‘The more you rape their senses the happier they are!’ Well, that’s Bargain Hunt for you…
Cine-Excess V took place from 26 to 28 May 2011 at the Odeon Covent Garden, London. For more information please go to the Cine-Excess website.
Masaki Kobayashi, most often celebrated in the west for Kwaidan, his ghost story omnibus film, more typically made films of violent conflict reflecting his pacifist convictions. This is not as easy as it sounds.
Doing what little he could to resist Japanese militarism as a soldier in WWII, as a filmmaker Kobayashi threw himself into demonstrating the futility of armed struggle. In movies like Samurai Rebellion (1967) and 1962’s Seppuku (just released in the UK on DVD under its more common Western title, Harakiri), the director plays a cunning game, building up a cauldron of seething dramatic tension that finally explodes in a bloody climax, satisfying the demands of a genre audience who require chanbara swordplay, yet resulting in no beneficial effects, for anybody.
Crucially, Kobayashi isn’t opposed to the enjoyment of violent movies, so he doesn’t see any need to destroy audience involvement or render the battle scenes overly unpleasant with excessive gore, or unexciting via distanciation effects. His fights are stunning spectacles and absolutely thrilling to behold, especially after the hours of slow-mounting pressure that build up to them. For tales of defeat, in which not even the memory of a heroic effort will go recorded by history, these movies are surprisingly pleasurable, even at their grimmest.
What Kobayashi is opposed to, and very strongly, is the whole samurai tradition, and its continuing celebration in Japanese cinema. While some filmmakers, notably Kurosawa, were almost wholly approving of the idea of the noble warrior class, and others seem to have been largely agnostic on the subject, seeing it as purely a commercial genre element to be exploited, Kobayashi is devoted, in his period films, to destroying the pernicious myth of an honourable tradition of chivalrous combat and feudal rule. He does so mercilessly, though the tradition, here aptly embodied by an empty suit of armour, always remains at the film’s end, undefeatable. It’s a surprise to see that Shinobu Hashimoto, who adapted Yasuhiko Takiguchi’s novel, also worked on Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai.
This slow, savage destruction of the mythic code of the samurai is delivered via a series of flashbacks, embedded in the action to produce an illusion of indirection - in fact, the story moves as directly and ruthlessly as a sword thrust. But the ingenious structure allows an incremental build-up of tension, the weaving of several narrative lines, and a final, cataclysmic coming together of all that’s been set up, resulting in a highly cathartic outburst of action.
Along with Kobayashi’s eschewing of delicacy and ellipsis, there’s an avoidance of humour, except for the very blackest sort, embodied by Tatsuya Nakadai’s sepulchral performance. The film is deliberately heavy and sombre and truly downbeat, yet it never feels weighed down, depressing or turgid: because it’s an embodiment of the true cinematic urge, the evocation of ideas with image and sound, delivered with passion and anger by a fearless and resourceful filmmaker.
See the original before Takashi Miike’s version of the same story hits UK screens in October.
Cast: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt
With the resurgence of the super spy as seen in the popularity of the Bourne franchise and the Daniel Craig reboot of the perennial 007 series, it is only right that the corrective bucket of cold water be applied. David Cornwell, who took the pseudonym John le Carré under Foreign Office rules, has made a career of writing against Ian Fleming’s fantasy creation, again and again insisting on a reality of betrayal, banality and English skies, grey with waiting rain. Cinematically, he has been best served by directors who were foreign to the particularly English post-war crisis that he explores - Sidney Lumet, Martin Ritt, Fred Schepisi and Fernando Meirelles - and this tradition continues with Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
In a way, Alfredson’s film is not only an adaptation of the novel, but also a remake of the popular television series that made Alec Guinness synonymous with George Smiley, le Carré’s enigmatic bureaucratic spy master. Taking this role is Gary Oldman in his meatiest part for decades. Oldman brings a sense of hidden danger and tightly repressed rage to Smiley. It is a perfectly measured performance, which, in its restraint, allows the ample cast, drawn from the cream of British male acting talent, to provide the fireworks around him. He is the eye of the storm that imperceptibly directs the storm. Mark Strong, Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbacht are the three up-and-coming young Turks, and Colin Firth, Toby Jones and John Hurt are the old guard. If anything there is too much talent, and Ciaran Hinds and Stephen Graham (both fantastic actors), for example, have very little to do but fill places at the table.
The sense of place and time is perfect: a pre-swinging London, rain-drenched and as cold as the war being fought. Alfredson has an eye for the telling detail: Smiley eating his Wimpy burger with a knife and fork, the rundown hotels and the looming post-war office buildings with the orange wallpaper. Staying true to the spirit of the book, Tinker is the anti-Bourne. There might be a shooting but there won’t be a shoot-out; there are paper chases rather than car chases. One of the most exciting scenes in the film involves the movement of a file through an office building. Guns are signed for, pocketed, but perhaps never fired. It often comes down to men in rooms talking, men in parks talking, men on airstrips talking. The story is complicated but screenwriter Peter Straughan allows it to unfold with its byzantine complexity intact, probably assuming most of the audience will already know the plot from the series or the book. There are very few genuine twists, the film aiming more for a grinding inevitability, a weary despairing admission that what you always feared was true.
Perhaps the film’s most daring innovation is its rebranding of Cold War homosexuality. Whereas previously being gay in a Cold War context (especially in the aftermath of Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess) was seen as tantamount to being a traitor, here sexuality is something that must be hidden or itself betrayed. Aside from one explicitly gay character, there is an underlying bromance of sorts, which adds an emotional sting to the eventual revelations of betrayal.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy had its world premiere at the 68th Venice Film Festival where Electric Sheep saw it.
What makes good kids turn bad? Bad parenting? Degenerate youth culture? This isn’t just a 21st-century debate: Peter Jackson’s 1950s-set film Heavenly Creatures (1994) tells the true story of a teenage girl named Pauline who murders her mother with the help of her best friend Juliette (Kate Winslet, in her debut film role). The title sequence underlines this incongruity, opening with archive travelogue footage of Christchurch, New Zealand, while a cheerful voice-over narrator identifies places of learning and worship, streets and parks, where citizens go about their perfect lives. The screaming begins just before the narration ends, and there is a switch to a point-of-view shot of the protagonists running through a forest. The girls emerge, covered in blood, and Pauline cries, ‘It’s Mummy! She’s terribly hurt’.
Although the film opens with a flash-forward to its ending, for viewers who don’t know the story behind the film there are few clues to identify the girls as potential murderers. Pauline’s lower-middle-class family must take in lodgers to make ends meet, but her parents are loving and she seems well-adjusted. Juliette’s parents are less attached to her: affluent professionals, they are happy to leave her alone for months at a time, even while she is recuperating from chronic lung problems. If you had to guess which of the girls’ mothers had retribution coming to her, you would expect it to be Juliette’s flighty, glamorous ‘Mummy’, not Pauline’s reliable, careworn one.
After the film’s opening, the only foreshadowing of violence is in the girls’ elaborate fantasy world. Through dress-up, letters, stories, and sculpture, they create and inhabit the characters of a mediaeval royal family, complete with a bloodthirsty wayward son. This fantasy world appears to seep into reality when Pauline encounters adults who annoy her: she imagines them being impaled or sliced in two by one of the clay figurines come to life. There are also several scenes in the film that literally recreate the world through the girls’ eyes, complete with castles, unicorns and giant butterflies.
Though it makes sense in light of Peter Jackson’s later fantastic bent as director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, at the time it may have seemed strange to infuse a true story with so much of the imaginary. As Pauline’s own diaries sealed the murder case against her, it is fitting that the girls’ inner world should form a central part of the film. Heavenly Creatures is arguably more enjoyable precisely because none of it takes place in a courtroom. Instead, the film focuses on its compelling portrait of adolescence, showing the girls as they are pulled by childish energy and imagination on the one hand and, on the other, increasing autonomy and sexual desire.
Why did a normal transition lead to tragedy in this case? The parents’ squeamish response to their daughters’ sexuality? The girls’ solipsistic impulsiveness? The film sympathises with every character, but provides no clear answers.
History is sometimes written by neither the winners nor the losers, but by the invisible transcribers and administrators - like Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge in Downfall (2006), or autopsy attendant Mario Cornejo in Pablo Larraín’s bleak, disturbing Post Mortem.
This third feature film from the young Chilean director revisits the 1970s Santiago of Tony Manero (2007), his story of a Saturday Night Fever-obsessed loner, but sets the scene some years earlier, in the midst of the 1973 military coup that installed Augusto Pinochet as the country’s leader. The films are superficially alike: the solitary Mario is played by Alfredo Castro, who, as ageing Travolta lookalike Raúl, provided Tony Manero‘s dark heart; once again, cinematographer Sergio Armstrong gives a grainy, deliberately faded hue to the various shabby settings. But where Tony Manero, with its story of talent contests and disco fans, offers some moments of release - we respond to rhythm and sound, dance and music, however twisted and clichéd - Post Mortem is unrelentingly, often distressingly, slow and even static.
Larraín’s restraint isn’t just a stylistic affectation, though. It is entirely appropriate, creating an atmosphere of quiet horror and incipient crisis, and reflecting the morbid, flat world of his new protagonist. Mario, who describes himself as a ‘functionary’, is surrounded by death: his job is to type up autopsy reports at the local morgue. His neighbour, Nancy (Antonia Zegers), is a cabaret dancer with whom he develops a sexual obsession that turns into a vague affair. She is painfully thin, whether through poverty or anorexia isn’t clear. In the background of this, far from the screen, the momentous events of a revolution are occurring and, as Nancy’s family of socialist activists disappear overnight, Mario is called upon to transcribe at the autopsy of ousted president Salvador Allende and finds his department swamped with dead and dying victims of the military, slumped on and toppling off over-stacked trolleys. It is made clear that he now works for the new regime.
In other hands, these events might be the catalyst for heroic acts, or feelings of resistance, or at least some kind of sympathetic character development. But Mario moves among the corpses with morose detachment, impervious to his colleague Sandra’s distress, his main preoccupation still Nancy, who tries to elicit his help in hiding her from the authorities. As the city locks down into the fearful silence of dictatorship, Larraín keeps the action tightly focused on his small cast, closing in on a claustrophobic, macabre ending that works as a neat summary of all the deprivation and cruelty that has led up to it.
While it’s hardly a dialogue-led film, some omissions and errors in Post Mortem‘s subtitling will perhaps prompt non-Spanish-speaking viewers to concentrate most on the film’s considerable visual impact. But there is a sense anyway that language fails in crisis, leaving us little choice but to focus on the very fact of the body: its needs, its responses, and the ease with which it can be damaged and obliterated by others. The only criticism of Larraín’s confident and brutal minimalism might therefore be that it’s hard to see where he could go next with this subject matter, and perhaps with this cast and crew; but I will be watching whatever he and Alfredo Castro do next, however harsh.
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