Tag Archives: fairy tale

The Harvest

The Harvest
The Harvest

Director: John McNaughton

Writer: Stephen Lancellotti

Cast: Samantha Morton, Michael Shannon, Natasha Calis, Charlie Tahan

USA 2013

104 mins

Children in peril and dysfunctional families were a running thread throughout Film4 FrightFest this year, and like another heavyweight of the festival, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, John McNaughton’s The Harvest involved monstrous motherly love, self-reliant children and dark secrets in the basement. After a 13-year absence from big screens, the director of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer proves here that he remains a master at plumbing the depths of twisted human behaviour.

A fairy tale of sorts (McNaughton said in the Q&A afterwards that the film’s structure was loosely based on ‘Hansel and Gretel’), The Harvest centres on a doctor, Katherine (Samantha Morton), overprotective mother to a sick child (Charlie Tahan), for whom she obsessively cares with her husband and former nurse Richard (Michael Shannon) in a country house. But when Maryann (Natasha Calis), a recently orphaned girl, moves into the area and befriends the wheelchair-bound Andy, she dangerously upsets the fragile balance of the family and forces its secrets out.

Samantha Morton is extraordinary as the woman turned ogress by hurt, alternately tender and terrifying, while Michael Shannon is remarkably nuanced as the weak husband complicit in his wife’s terrible decisions. Together they form a horribly believable couple bound by tragedy and guilt, capable of anything to protect their family, with only Maryann standing up to them.

The story assuredly simmers until the pace quickens and the tale turns increasingly disturbing. McNaughton skilfully toys with the audience, leading us in one direction before making a sharp turn into entirely unexpected territory, revealing a truth far darker and a love more perverted than could have been imagined.

Set among beautiful autumnal woods, the film, like its title, gives a deceptive appearance of bucolic melancholy, only belatedly revealing its full horror. A slow-burn that stubbornly follows its own path, it is an impressively mature and weighty return to cinema for John McNaughton.

This review is part of our Film4 FrightFest 2014 coverage.

Pamela Jahn

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Camera Obscura: The Walerian Borowczyk Collection

Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 8 September 2014

Distributor: Arrow Academy

Director: Walerian Borowczyk

Writer: Walerian Borowczyk

Based on the poem by: Juliusz S?;owacki

Cast: Ligia Branice, Michel Simon, Georges Wilson

France 1971

92 mins

Walerian Borowczyk’s medieval tragedy fools audiences into expecting one of the erotic films for which the director later became infamous. In the opening sequence of Blanche, the title character is seen emerging, completely naked, from her bath. The camera’s lascivious eye sets the scene for a tale of forbidden desire, but Blanche herself is as pure as her name (French for ‘white’). For the rest of the film she always appears, nun-like, in long gowns and modest caps that hide all but her hands and face. Young, beautiful, and married to an elderly baron, Blanche must flee the attentions of other men, starting with Bartolomeo, the notorious young page of a visiting king.

With its elegant costumes and set design, Blanche could be described as a historical drama, but the film’s sophistication exceeds conventional models. Borowczyk’s background in fine arts allows him to bring an additional layer of authenticity to the film by drawing on the representational style of the Middle Ages. Shots, composition and framing pay homage to medieval landscape and religious painting. Windows, doors and alcoves dramatically divide interior shots. Exterior long shots emphasise the harmonious juxtaposition of hilltop, pasture and road, with grazing animals and passing cavalcades reduced to minute decorative detail. The film also employs an animal symbolism characteristic of the period. The king arrives with a monkey on his shoulder, a disquieting emblem of insinuating, irrepressible sexuality that has free run of the castle, hiding away only to pop up unexpectedly throughout the film. In contrast, Blanche’s gentle, vulnerable innocence is mirrored by the caged white dove in her bedroom. Tempering the film’s loyalty to a medieval aesthetic, Borowczyk introduces self-reflexive techniques, such as disorientating point-of-view shots, which situate the film within a current of modern cinematic experimentation.

Daniel Bird, who is responsible for the restoration of Borowczyk’s films, says that Blanche (1972) inspired Terry Gilliam’s vision of the Middle Ages in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). I would suggest that Blanche itself appears to have been inspired by Jacques Demy’s Peau d’â;ne (Donkey Skin, 1970), a camp fairy tale about a princess (Catherine Deneuve) who must run away from home when her father decides he wants to marry her. The baron in Blanche is played by Michel Simon, who made his name in 1930s French poetic realist films like Boudu sauvé; des eaux (Boudu Saved from Drowning), L’Atalante and Le quai des brumes (Port of Shadows). He was in his late seventies when he appeared in Blanche opposite Ligia Branice, Borowczyk’s wife; as the baron is old enough to be her father, an early shot of him kissing Blanche on the mouth appears incestuous, echoing the theme of Demy’s film. Jacques Perrin, the young actor who played Prince Charming in Peau d’â;ne, reappears in Blanche as Bartolomeo, another role in which he ultimately defends the heroine’s honour.

The baron justly describes his wife as ‘a saintly woman, above all suspicion’, but halfway through the film he suddenly loses his trust in her. As he becomes irrationally hostile towards Blanche, we may assume that the old man is suffering from dementia. His condition seems to infect the film’s narrative, which loses its grip on the thread of logical coherence. Still, Borowczyk has woven such a mesmerising tapestry that the audience can’t help but continue to watch as it slowly, senselessly unravels.

Alison Frank