The Case for Global Film

Discussing everything that isn't Hollywood (and a little that is).

Archive for December, 2012

Free Men (Les hommes libres, France 2011)

Posted by des1967 on 30 December 2012

Les Hommes Libres
There have been a number of French films over the last few years about World War Two which, even if they are not particularly good examples of the cinematic art, at least draw attention to important aspects of history which would otherwise not be known or not known particularly well. Days of Glory (Indigènes, Rachid Bouchareb2006) deals with the treatment of African colonial troops fighting in the Free French forces in the Second World War. The Army of Crime (L’armée du crimeRobert Guédiguian, 2009) – perhaps one of the more successful – looks at the events of the” l’affiche rouge” (“red poster”) affair in which the Nazis sought to present prominent resistance fighters in Paris as foreign criminals. The title was taken from the caption on a Nazi propaganda poster, which reads “Liberators? Liberation by the army of crime”.

The Round-up (La rafle, Roselyne Bosch, 2010) is a faithful retelling of the 1942 “Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup” and the events surrounding it where the Vichy authorities in Paris, going beyond what their Nazi masters demanded, rounded up 13,000 French Jews, including 4,000 children, and kept them in the Vélodrome d’Hiver (winter cycling track) until they were transported to French concentration camps and thence to their death in the camps in the East. (Some of the publicity suggested that this film was the first to bring this knowledge to a wide audience. In fact there were at least two French films portraying this event: Les Guichets du Louvre (The Gateways to the Louvre) (Michel Mitrani, 1974), and Mr. Klein (David Losey, 1976).

Free Men (Les hommes libres, Ismaël Ferroukhi, 2011) joins this list. It is set in and around Paris’s Muslim community and in particular the city’s Central Mosque. Jews and resistance members were being hidden in the Mosque’s cellars while, up above, this place of worship was frequently visited by German occupiers.

There are two prominent real-life characters in this little-known story. Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit is Rector of the Mosque, (played by  Anglo-French veteran, Michael Lonsdale); and Salim Halali, the gifted Algerian Jewish singer, passing as an Arab to escape deportation and living under the protection of the Mosque, (played by Israeli Palestinian actor, Mahmoud Shalaby). Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit is played as a courageous man but also a subtle diplomat, leading on the Wehrmacht officers with promises of an alliance with the Moroccan monarchy.

At the centre of the film is Younes, played by Tahar Rahim (who starred in Un prophète (Jacques Audiard, 2009)), whose character is based on a composite of several real-life individuals. Younes is a young apolitical Algerian black-marketeer, concerned only with himself and his family back home. He is forced to become an informer for the collaborationist police but, under the influence of his politicised cousin, he is gradually drawn into taking sides against the Nazis.

Younes’s metamorphosis into a militant in the resistance is slow and gradual. His first act of resistance is to deliver false identity papers to Jews living in hiding. He is too late to help the parents but he leads the two young children to the Mosque where they are taken in and given papers saying they are Muslims. The Germans begin to suspect the Mosque of both harbouring Jews and Resistance members and providing Jews with false paperwork saying they are Muslims.

So does it work as a film? Unfortunately good intentions don’t always make good films. The weak script and mise en scène undermine the humanist project of the film. In terms of genre, Free Men is perhaps a thriller but the moments of suspense and intrigue are few and far between. It’s probably best to think of it as a psychological drama, but without the tension you would expect from that genre.

One of the problems with the film is that it frequently initiates potentially interesting plot strands only to seemingly leave those ideas as non-sequiturs, with the result that the film wastes several opportunities for emotional impact. For example, Younes sees a young man coming out of Salim’s room. He is shocked and reacts badly but when he sees Salim again he apologises for his reaction. But that is it. It was hardly worthwhile to raise the question of Younes’s gayness if nothing was going to be done with it in the film. Likewise, Younes is attracted to Leila, a young woman in the mosque. We discover that far from being the submissive Muslim female, she is a leading member of the Algerian Communist Party who sees the resistance against the Nazis as a stage in the liberation of Algeria. She is arrested and Younes witnesses her being taken away. It’s not as if we’re expecting an all-guns-blazing rescue à la John Wayne but it’s frustrating that this narrative strand, once raised, is frittered away.

The film also suffers from its low budget (around €8 million) for a period piece. For example, the liberation of Paris – which many cinemagoers will be familiar with both from documentary footage as well as a number of fiction films – is evoked as well as it could be with a few dozen extras, lots of flags and, I think, three vehicles, one of which looked vaguely military.

My overall impression of the film is that it felt like an earnest TV movie. It is bland and inoffensive, qualities you wouldn’t normally associate with Resistance films. Usually when I watch such films (and I’m thinking in particular of Jean-Pierre Melville’s marvellous Army of Shadows (L’armée de l’ombre, 1969)), I have a kind of trepidation at the likely scenes of torture and degradation. We were spared these on the whole but at the expense of involvement in the drama. The only real suspense I recall in the film is the scene of the evacuation of those in hiding being led down through the tunnels to a boat on the Seine which leads them to relative safety in Algeria.

One of the strong points of the film was performance. Lonsdale is as good as he was in Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux, Xavier Beauvois, 2010). And Tahir showed he is a subtle and intense actor who is capable of demonstrating a range of emotions. The progression he makes from barely literate factory worker to full-fledged revolutionary is by far the most captivating aspect in an otherwise plodding screenplay

I should add that, despite a good familiarity with the Occupation and Resistance in World War 2 France, I was completely unaware of the role of the Paris Central Mosque and I have the film to thank for that. And I liked the North African music a lot.

Posted in French Cinema | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

The Killing III (Forbrydelsen III, Denmark 2012)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 30 December 2012

Sofie Gråbøl as Sarah Lund in uniform, with her hair down, at the beginning of The Killing III with (on the right) Sigurd Holmen le Dous and Nikolai Lie Kaas as   Asbjørn Juncker and Mathias Borch. On the left is Stig Hoffmeyer as Niels Reinhardt, one of the major characters in the story.

Sofie Gråbøl as Sarah Lund in uniform, with her hair down, at the beginning of The Killing III with (on the right) Sigurd Holmen le Dous and Nikolaj Lie Kaas as her partners, Asbjørn Juncker and Mathias Borch. On the left is Stig Hoffmeyer as Niels Reinhardt, one of the major characters in the story.

The third serial featuring police inspector Sarah Lund returns to the mix of elements of the first and for me represents a distinct improvement on The Killing II. Again it’s presented as 10 x 58 minutes episodes rather than the 20 episodes of the first outing. In the UK these have been transmitted as double episodes over five Saturday nights. I’ve found this too intense and we’ve watched the second weekly episode on the following Sunday evening – hooray for BBC iPlayer.

In retrospect, I think we can now see that The Killing II lost something by moving too far away from ‘family melodrama’. Its focus on the Danish armed forces and their role in Afghanistan didn’t allow the various narrative strands to cross-fertilise in quite the same way as in the first and third serials (even though there were both family issues and political intrigues). The three serials have all had the same mix of murder, families and politics but the balance of ingredients has shifted. In The Killing III there are as many as five ‘families’ or family situations. We learn something about parents and children in terms of ‘victim’, ‘perpetrator’, politician and both the main police officers. This allows the narrative to place Sarah Lund in almost impossible situations in which we are invited to consider her own relationship with her son as well as what her actions might mean in respect of the other families. I can’t think of any other film narrative with quite such a complex meshing of relationships.

Reinhardt in the offices of Zeeland with the family owner Robert Zeuthen (Anders W Berhelsen)

Reinhardt in the offices of Zeeland with the family company owner Robert Zeuthen (Anders W Berhelsen)

 

Story outline

[NO SPOILERS here if you haven't watched the serial yet.] The serial this time links very big business (a major shipping company with a large presence in the Danish economy) with a general election and a focus on the main party leaders. The central narrative concerns the abduction of the young daughter of a shipping magnate (played by Anders W. Berthelsen – who has starred in several Danish films released in the UK). Sarah Lund is once more brought back from a less demanding post to head the investigation of a series of murders that will turn out to be linked to the abduction. Sarah’s familiar problems with her mother and her son are still in evidence. This might explain why she treats her new sidekick Juncker, a very eager and determined young man, in an offhand way. She also finds herself having to deal with an old flame who she hasn’t seen since her days at police college. Mathias Borch (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) works for Special Branch (‘PET’ in Denmark) and his presence is explained by the importance of the shipping company Zeeland to the Danish government. The Prime Minister who is soon to face a General Election is keen to keep Zeeland in Denmark as a major employer (the company is a conglomerate with many interests). Later we will discover that the PM’s family is also involved in some way with the central story.

The Prime Minister, Kristian Kamper (Olaf Johanessen) and his advisor Karen Nebel (Trine Pallesen)

Prime Minister Kristian Kamper (Olaf Johanessen) and his advisor Karen Nebel (Trine Pallesen)

 

Nordic noir

The Killing has consistently deployed the main genre elements of the current cycle of Nordic noir. The female investigator is faced by male suspects and has to deal with the men who are her professional partners and bosses and also the majority of the political figures. In The Killing III there is a female political leader and, in an important role, a female political advisor. The writer Søren Sveistrup has been careful to make two of the other female leads less than perfect characters – but perhaps this means that their characters aren’t properly developed? Some of the themes of the third serial are very familiar from other Nordic noirs. The death which is eventually revealed as the inciting incident for the whole narrative concerns a young woman in care. The global perspective is limited in this case, but the narrative does manage to raise questions about Denmark’s open borders with Sweden and Germany and, through the shipping company, its links with issues globally. The first two serials involved journeys to Sweden. The climax of the third serial takes place in Norway. The politics of the third serial is ‘national’ and focuses on the Prime Minister. In some ways it pushes The Killing closer to Borgen with a focus on the pressure of party politics – and the leader’s family. Some blog comments have suggested that these machinations are less interesting than the local (mayoral) elections in The Killing I. I tend to agree with this and I think that the Special Branch involvement means that this third serial faces the problem of balancing the frustrations of the spy thriller type narrative – i.e. the truth can’t be allowed to ‘come out’ because of national security/paranoia of the rulers – and the requirements of the Nordic noir to critique social conditions and cultural changes in a liberal democracy. As a result, there seems to be an inevitability about the weight of expectation placed on the behaviour of Sarah Lund – as if her state of mind is indicative of the condition of Denmark.

Lund is in charge – whatever her partners might think

Lund is in charge – whatever her partners might think

 

Sarah Lund

The Killing turns out to be all about the state of Danish ‘public service’ and personal responsibilities expressed through the troubled social and working life of Sarah Lund. You do wonder if they might have called it Lund and made the comparison with Wallander more explicit. (In Germany the serial is titled Kommissarin Lund: Das Verbrechen or Inspector Lund: The Crime.) Lund is younger than Wallander, in her late thirties when the serials began in 2007, but she seems just as dysfunctional and as worn down by the job. Like Wallander with his daughter, Lund is a single parent making a less than good job of bringing up her son. Like Wallander too she is dogged in her pursuit of criminals and like him she makes mistakes, sometimes serious ones. Inevitably, the investigations are extended because of this – and the serial takes full advantage of the extra time to explore the frustrations of police procedures. But whereas Wallander operates in a generally peaceful small town in Southern Sweden, Lund operates from a base in Denmark’s capital city and is always under pressure from politicians and national police/security bosses. Again, where Wallander blusters, drinks too much and eats badly, Lund seemingly internalises everything. She doesn’t drink, smoke or listen to opera. Everything is bottled up, threatening to emerge in a violent eruption of some kind. In Killing III there is a moment of sudden ‘warm’ emotional release but it is over quickly. Inevitably, this repression builds up the narrative pressure on the last episode of the serial that ends with a climactic scene which for me works quite well – unlike the disappointing climax to Killing II.

Lund works well as a character. Although unknown in the UK before The Killing, Sofie Gråbøl has a strong star persona in Denmark which includes film, TV and stage work. She has just completed a month’s revival of her lead role in a stage adaptation of Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander at the Danish National Theatre in Copenhagen. As Lund she offers a powerful performance as a senior female police officer displaying total commitment, single-mindedness and stoicism in the face of failure. She has the occasional flash of insight and she is able to recognise the importance of tiny clues but she isn’t a ‘superwoman’ by any means. As a female hero she doesn’t have to be glamorous – though even in her jumpers and jeans she is an attractive figure and on the odd occasions when her hair is down and she is more relaxed she becomes positively beautiful.

The Killing has been remarkably well covered in the UK press. The audience for the BBC4 screenings is around 1 million – significantly larger than the cinema audience for most subtitled films. This is also the audience most likely to read the ‘quality press’. The Guardian ran a Killing blog with around 2,000 comments for each of the five weeks of broadcasts. It’s interesting to read the article by Patrick Kingsley, a young British journalist who has cashed in on the popularity of Danish TV drama with a book on Danish culture for Brits. The ‘reader’s comments’ on his short article are fascinating. They reveal very different views on Denmark’s democracy, its liberalism, equality and cultural homogeneity – and the allegations of racism and xenophobia.

Even though the serial is taken to be a ‘Danish’ production by the Danish psb (public service broadcaster) DR, it is in reality a co-production with ZDF, the German psb and it is also supported by Swedish and Norwegian broadcasters. According to Wikipedia, the serial (or at least one of the three serials) has been bought be 120 countries. Unlike most Nordic films that are usually confined to their own domestic cinema market, Nordic TV genre series are widely seen across the Nordic region and now, thanks to the ZDF sales team across the world. (For a detailed analysis of Nordic Films and TV see this report – available to download as a pdf.) This is truly global television on a scale to match Hollywood. Borgen 2 starts in the UK on January 5th – I can’t wait!

Posted in Danish Cinema, Global television, Melodrama, Nordic Cinema | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Sightseers (UK 2012)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 29 December 2012

Our beautiful North of England!

Our beautiful North of England!

Every year, it seems, UK critics and commentators pick out a small independent film and promote it. I do this myself to some extent, but I don’t have any influence. Sightseers has been picked out by Wendy Mitchell, Editor of Screen International, and by Sight & Sound, whose editor put the film on the cover of the November issue. It has even turned up on the ‘Top Films of the Year’ list of a Belgian critic polled by Cineuropa and the film has won prizes at three European festivals as well as a BIFA (British Independent Film Award) for its screenplay. Clearly there is something here that critics are responding to. I found the film to be an interesting exercise that somehow didn’t come together. The main disappointment for me was that it is billed as a black comedy but I didn’t find it funny. I do like traditional gothic horror films and Sightseers promises to be a modern gothic horror but doesn’t fulfil the promise.

Sightseers is an interesting mix – a road movie, a romance, a satire, a crime film and a comedy. The two central characters, Tina and Chris (played by the two principal writers Alice Lowe and Steve Oram), are 30-something social misfits. We don’t learn about Chris’s background until later on but he has acquired a caravan and a car big enough to haul it around the North of England. Tina is a dog counsellor and knitter who lives with her mother and she eagerly accepts Chris’s offer to become his muse as he travels seeking inspiration for a book he is planning.

The film is presented in ‘Scope and it does show some of the beauty of the Peak District, the Pennines, the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District. I’ve seen it compared to Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip, which traversed some of the same roads, but whereas Winterbottom and his cinematographer seemed to capture more than just pretty images, I didn’t feel the same about Sightseers. To be fair, this isn’t a film about landscapes. The scenery is meant to supply useful plot devices and to represent a certain kind of Englishness associated with the National Trust and the perhaps more middle-class tourists who visit the National Parks. On the other hand, Chris and Tina also despise other types of tourists or even locals. They are basically misanthropes who develop a taste for dispatching people who cross them/offend them in some way. A “ginger-faced man and an angry woman”, as the news reports describe them, make an unlikely pair of serial killers.

Sightseers is directed by Ben Wheatley who has already developed a strong reputation with critics for films he has written himself, Down Terrace (2009) and Kill List (2011). His background is partly in television (like Oram and Lowe) and that background in a certain kind of contemporary TV comedy maybe the reason why Sightseers is not to my taste. I’m too old to watch BBC3 and I have avoided programmes like Little Britain or The League of Gentleman. I have enjoyed comedy horror films where the violence seems to have a point but in this case it just seems cruel – which isn’t to say that Chris and Tina aren’t an intriguing couple and several of the romance elements are explored in novel ways. Wheatley is an astute filmmaker and he has a real future ahead of him. The interview listed below is well worth a listen.

The film’s critical status meant a wider distribution than most films with this kind of budget and genre mix – through the European ‘major’ StudioCanal. However, despite the generally very good reviews, audiences have not been large and I doubt that the film has gone much beyond the core horror fanbase and those who follow the more cultish end of the British independent film scene. Sightseers opened very strongly on 92 screens but then tailed off quite dramatically by its third weekend, suggesting that word of mouth was not so good. Nevertheless it has managed over £500,000 so far which is acceptable for a UK cinema release and bodes well for a subsequent life on DVD and online – where I expect it to attract repeat viewings by fans.

Interview with Ben Wheatley.

UK trailer (WARNING: Spoilers)

 

Posted in British Cinema, Comedies, Horror | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Girl (UK/Germany/South Africa 2012)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 29 December 2012

Toby Jones as Alfred Hitchcock and Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren

Toby Jones as Alfred Hitchcock and Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren

The first of the two recent Hitchcock films was broadcast on BBC2 on Boxing Day. Produced for HBO, The Girl focuses on the difficult relationship between Alfred Hitchcock and his new blonde star Tippi Hedren during the production of The Birds and Marnie during 1961-3. (The second film, Hitchcock, is released in the UK in February 2013 and deals with the making of Psycho in 1959.)

‘The Girl’ was the name Hitchcock (played in this case by Toby Jones) and his wife Alma (Imelda Staunton) gave to Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller). The script is by Gwyneth Hughes (an experienced UK TV writer) who drew on a book by Donald Spoto (Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and his Leading Ladies) which in turn refers to interviews given by Hedren herself. Hitchcock, a notorious prankster with a history of sexual repression, has been accused of ‘controlling’ Hedren and forcing her into situations in which he abused her with acts of psychological cruelty, sexual suggestion and possibly direct sexual assault. He had been married to Alma since 1926 and she is presented as partly complicit in casting Hedren, a former model with no previous feature roles, as ‘our girl’. Later in the narrative it is suggested that Alma was upset by her husband’s obsession with his star.

Tippi Hedren and Alfred Hitchcock in on the set of 'Marnie' (note that Hitchcock was slightly taller than Hedren, whereas Toby Jones is shorter than Sienna Miller)

Tippi Hedren and Alfred Hitchcock in on the set of ‘Marnie’ (note that Hitchcock was slightly taller than Hedren, whereas Toby Jones is shorter than Sienna Miller) (Image from the Ronald Grant Archive)

The lead performances in the film are fine but the actors face the problem that Hitchcock and Hedren were well-known public figures. Hitchcock is arguably the most famous film director of all time because he was visible on his TV show in the 1950s and also as promoter of his own films. Tippi Hedren starred in the two films, attracting both positive and negative responses. Despite excellent mimicry of Hitchcock’s vocal style and walk and the aid of prosthetics, Toby Jones doesn’t resemble the director and Sienna Miller doesn’t really try to become Tippi. (Miller is not unlike Hedren in appearance but her voice is quite different and she doesn’t have the same brittle quality that Hedren showed in her performances.) This is not a criticism of either actor, just a recognition of the difficulty of playing a ‘real person’ who is so well-known. The most successful biopics are often those where the actor strives to represent the personality more than the physical resemblance. For me the casting decisions on The Girl had a fatal impact on the representation of the relationship. I was already disturbed by the claims deriving from Spoto’s work. Hitchcock was clearly a man with an unusual personal history and his treatment of Hedren was almost certainly reprehensible. But Hitch and Alma are both dead while Tippi Hedren is still able to comment. She has confirmed the abusive behaviour in general terms but hasn’t herself given the details that form the central part of the film narrative’s appeal to some audiences. As a consequence, there is a form of audience frustration fuelled by the fact that Hitchcock fans are prone to see Hedren’s comments as a form of ‘payback’/revenge. Hitchcock kept Hedren to her contract after she refused to work on his next picture after Marnie. The comments on IMDB about The Girl seem to be mainly rage about Hitchcock’s behaviour or attacks on Hedren as a ‘bad actress’ who deserved to have her career ruined. Neither of these two positions seem to be useful on their own in discussing this film.

I think that there are at least two other stories covering the same events which could have been presented. The first would be the story about how Hitchcock produced great performances from an actor with limited experience. We do get to see a scene in The Girl which is illuminating. Hitchcock is shown demonstrating to Hedren how to lower her voice and how to do as little as possible in order to create the meaning that he wants. Director Julian Jarrold constructs this scene very well and it is convincing. But there isn’t enough material like this and the film fails to explain the film production process for the lay audience. The second possible story is the long marriage (in 1962 of 36 years) of ‘Alfie’ and Alma. Again there is a scene in which Alma joins Hitch in a screening room to watch rushes but it is never properly explained that Alma was herself a film editor and scriptwriter (as ‘Alma Reville’) who had her own career before she devoted herself to supporting her husband and his work. By the 1960s she was no longer credited but it was still the case that Hitchcock sought her approval on every major artistic decision. Alma knew about his methods and how he treated actors. I’d have preferred a story about what went on between the couple during their work with Tippi Hedren – focusing on the work as much as the troubled relationship with Hedren.

Although I wouldn’t call myself a Hitchcock fan as such, I have seen most of his films – and Marnie is possibly my favourite Hitchcock. I think Tippi Hedren is riveting to watch in her role as Marnie Edgar. It is disturbing to think that to produce that performance she was mistreated by Hitchcock as The Girl suggests. However, I didn’t really learn anything new from The Girl and it left me dissatisfied. Interestingly, though, it did end with a title suggesting that Marnie has now been recognised as Hitchcock’s last masterpiece. I would agree with that, but many others wouldn’t and in commercial terms films like Torn Curtain and Frenzy were probably more successful.

Although a HBO production, The Girl is essentially a UK film shot mainy in South Africa.

I’m now looking forward to Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren as Alfie and Alma in Hitchcock. I suspect it will be a different kind of film.

Here is the original screen test for Tippi Hedren that is treated rather differently in The Girl.

Posted in British Cinema, Directors, Global television, People, Stars | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

The Hunt (Jagten, Denmark/Sweden 2012)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 18 December 2012

Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) and his best friend Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen) in The Hunt.

It tells you something about contemporary film culture when Amour is a major UK release by Artificial Eye, furiously promoted and garlanded with awards and The Hunt, also a Cannes prizewinner in 2012, sneaks out on a much more limited release from a smaller distributor which seems to have done little to maximise its cinema box office. It’s not easy to find The Hunt, but you should look out for it as one of the films of the year.  Its Cannes prize was for Mads Mikkelsen as Best Actor and he was certainly a deserving winner. With his other stellar performance in A Royal Affair earlier this year, he is perhaps the leading European actor at the moment. Yet The Hunt is not a one man show. Everything about this film is first class. It begins with the script by Tobias Lindholm (who also writes for Borgen) based on a story by the director Thomas Vinterberg and runs through the direction of a fine ensemble cast and a remarkable performance by Annika Wedderkop (as the young child at the centre of the narrative) to the cinematography of Charlotte Bruus Christensen and indeed all the other technical credits.

In some ways, The Hunt is related to Vinterberg’s first international feature, Festen – the first Dogme film in 1998. The Hunt isn’t a Dogme film, though some of the vitality of the hand-held camerawork is still evident. The Hunt is much more ‘composed’ and it uses landscape and mise en scène in more expressive ways. In thematic terms, however, it does resemble Festen in suggesting a dark undercurrent in Danish social life. Festen was about the machinations of a wealthy family whereas The Hunt is a melodrama about a small community. The Hunt also moves beyond the ‘realism’ of Festen to explore a community in the forest which somewhere beneath the surface suggests a link to a traditional, almost fairytale world. This is an absorbing and enthralling example of storytelling at its best.

Vinterberg has said in interviews that the title ‘The Hunt’ is ‘banal’ but it is actually very clever in its multiple references. The narrative more or less begins and ends with a hunt by the local men of a small community somewhere in a Danish forest. (Not sure about Denmark, but in the UK the old French word forêt refers to an area in which the king hunted.) When a local youth reaches a certain age he is granted a shooting licence and has the privilege of shooting the first deer of the hunt. This ancient tradition forms part of the contradiction/contrast of liberal/modern and conservative/traditional in this community.

Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is in one sense part of the traditional world as a hunter, but also both part of the modern world as a teacher who is a victim of education re-organisation. He has lost his job after the closure of the local comprehensive school and he has been transferred to the kindergarten/nursery school. (We don’t know the reason for the school closure – perhaps it is a case of falling pupil numbers, but Vinterberg is careful to show a diverse community suggesting new arrivals.) But when his innocent friendly behaviour is misunderstood by a young child, Lucas becomes the hunted – assumed by even his closest friends to be a dangerous man who must be shunned and punished. References have been made to all the well-known ‘witch hunt’ films from Frankenstein through to The Crucible. This is a rural community in which we see only four communal meeting places – the nursery school, the supermarket, the church and the country club/hunting lodge – which though it is a private house seems also to be the centre for social activity. It’s interesting that Lucas is effectively ‘barred’ or at least unwelcome in the first three but that the last is a kind of haven. We don’t hear the back story which would explain how Lucas became close friends with the owner and his family, so that Markus, Lucas’s son has a godfather in the community.

The nursery headteacher Grethe (Susse Wold) and the child Klara (Annika Wedderkopp)

The nursery headteacher Grethe (Susse Wold) and the child Klara (Annika Wedderkopp)

It isn’t difficult to make visual connections between the village/town in this film and that in countless other films, including many Hollywood films. The script plays with gender roles and genre elements so that Lucas is a character who is divorced from his wife (who we never see – she remains a voice at the end of a phone) with whom he tussles for custody of his teenage son. The accusation is that he has behaved inappropriately with a young girl so that his accuser becomes the older woman in charge of the nursery. Not surprisingly, the mother of the child (and the wife of his best friend) turns on him immediately. The only woman who is, at least initially, sympathetic is Nadja, a migrant worker – an ‘incomer’ to the closed community – played by the Swedish actress Alexandra Rapaport. The men of the community are pushed into macho roles and the thuggish behaviour of the male staff in the supermarket is reminiscent of the builders in Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. The casting of Daniel Engstrup, a very tall and beefy actor, enables Vinterberg to organise scenes that remind us of Westerns – in which the lone hero is menaced by groups of physically strong men. But Vinterberg also undercuts this by first presenting the ‘hunters’ as flabby city types reluctant to skinny dip in the local lake in an annual ritual.

Mikkelsen as star

There is no doubt that, carefully crafted though the script and direction might be, it is the star image and acting prowess of Mads Mikkelsen that gives The Hunt its edge. Voted ‘the sexiest man in Denmark’ by a woman’s magazine, Mikkelsen’s strong star image combines a rugged and nonchalant masculinity with a sense of vulnerability. There is a similar mix of ‘laddishness’, intelligence and ‘attitude’. Visually these qualities are emphasised or downplayed mainly by altering hairstyles, stubble and dress, but also by the use of spectacles. In the Hunt, Mikkelsen is almost boyish with the floppy hair and delicate specs – again a reminder of the bookish David (Dustin Hoffman) in Straw Dogs. The way in which Mikkelsen as Lucas is beaten up by the men is also reminiscent of the beatings experienced by a young Clint Eastwood in Fistful of Dollars. But though there is a strong resemblance to Hollywood movies, the key sequence which perhaps emphasises ‘difference’ involves a trip to the supermarket when Lucas is confronted by the male group determined to keep him out. The script here presents a much more carefully thought through response rather than the explosion of violence that Hollywood might offer us.

If my analysis has suggested that The Hunt is straightforward in its narrative about the hunters and the hunted, I should stress that it is anything but. The narrative is seemingly ‘resolved’ but then continues with an epilogue a year later which raises questions again about ‘hunter’ an ‘hunted’ and puts some doubts in our minds about what we have seen. The film is indeed ‘open-ended’ and therefore potentially disturbing. It’s a must-see and stands up well to repeated viewings.

Posted in Danish Cinema, Melodrama, Nordic Cinema | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

After The Wedding (Efter brylluppet, Denmark 2006)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 17 December 2012

Sidse Babbet Knudsen and Mads Mikkelsen

Sidse Babett Knudsen and Mads Mikkelsen

After the Wedding is a full-blown melodrama with a heavyweight cast. It features several elements of what we now see as director Susanne Bier’s authorial style – the hand-held camera and big close-ups, the strong sense of colour pallete (blues and greens here) and a plot that involves a connection to aid work in India. Weddings in many cultures are events which do more to reveal the tensions in families than to celebrate the foundation of a new relationship. And so it is in this case. Mads Mikkelsen is Jacob, a Dane who has lived in India for the past twenty years or so and has established an orphanage project to help street children. He is invited back to Copenhagen to be interviewed by a hotel billionaire interested in making a large-scale charitable commitment. The man in question turns out to be Jørgen – played by Rolf Lassgård, the formidable Swedish actor and one of the few figures in Nordic cinema capable of matching Mikkelsen at full throttle.

Jørgen procrastinates and invites Jacob to his daughter Anna’s wedding. When Jacob arrives at the grand mansion in its extensive grounds he is shocked to see that Jørgen’s wife (and Anna’s mother) is Helene – played by Sidse Babett Knudsen, currently the Danish Prime Minister in Borgen. We can all probably guess what the revelation that follows will be and the fourth major player in the drama becomes Anna herself, well played by Stine Fischer Christensen. But this revelation is not actually the main narrative twist – the real question is why Jorgen has seemingly engineered a situation which can only cause trouble. I won’t reveal the answer but only say that in developing the narrative, Bier sets up some very interesting debates about entrepreneurship and global capitalism, foreign aid and charitable giving etc. alongside personal happiness and responsibilities and family commitments. This is an interesting mix which we don’t often find in a melodrama. We don’t, of course, get a neat answer and nor should we, but the discussion is valuable.

The film looks terrific and I found it to be an intriguing mix of the vitality of the Dogme-style camerawork (hand-held and minimally lit) and strong acting performances with the sumptuous melodrama mise en scène of the mansion interiors – most evident in Jørgen’s room full of the heads of animals he has shot (possibly a reference to Vincente Minelli’s Home From the Hill?). The Indian locations at the beginning and end of the film also add colour – and music. In that sense the film is certainly a melodrama, as it is with the various plot coincidences. The four actors are all capable of expressive performances with Lassgård particularly good in a boorish drunk scene and Mikkelsen very good at being sullen and aggrieved.

But as well as a satisfying melodrama, After the Wedding asks us to consider what we achieve in our lives. Is looking after your loved ones as important as helping thousands out of poverty? Does helping thousands mean atonement for actions that hurt a few? If you are ‘good’ but don’t help anyone, even those you love, as much as you would like to, does that make you a failure? From this you can move on to more philosophical questions. Is foreign aid ever a good idea? Is it more to assuage the guilt of the giver than to help those who ‘receive’ it?

After the Wedding was nominated for Best Foreign Language Oscar. Susanne Bier didn’t win but she only had to wait a few years until Haeven (2011)

Trailer:

Posted in Danish Cinema, Films by women, Melodrama, Nordic Cinema | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Argo (US 2012)

Posted by des1967 on 11 December 2012

argo-poster-header 
Argo is based on declassified information about a little-known episode during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1980. A group of Islamist students stormed the American embassy in Tehran and took its staff hostage for 444 days. The Iranians wanted the terminally ill Shah returned for trial from the US where he had been given asylum. US diplomats were ill-prepared for the waves of popular rage that crashed over the embassy walls, and which led to all US nationals inside being taken hostage. However, on the day of the occupation, six members of the staff managed to slip out unnoticed and found shelter in the Canadian ambassador’s residence. Argo tells the story of the CIA operation to smuggle these six diplomats out of Iran.

CIA ‘exfiltration’ expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes up with a plan for the group to pose as members of a Canadian film unit scouting locations for a science fiction film to be shot in Iran. In order to make the scheme convincing, it’s necessary to select an actual script (hence “Argo”), assemble a Hollywood production team and promote the planned film to the trade press. They generate documentation, storyboards and sundry media paraphernalia to convince the Iranian authorities that all is as it seems. Mendez enters Iran, posing as the film’s producer, and has to lead the group in their escape.

The film works fairly well as a thriller. One effective method of ratcheting up the tension was to have Iranian kids employed to sift through the paperwork the CIA had shredded before the embassy fell to see if they could find anything useful. We see at various stages the jigsaw coming together so that by the time the diplomats are heading to the airport, the authorities have a photograph of one of them. (I recall a similar technique used in an earlier political thriller from the 1980s – I can’t recall the name of the film but it may or may not have starred Robert Redford and if anyone is familiar with it please put me out of my misery! – which showed the a photograph of the hero, who was in danger, gradually crystallising from the pixels on the computer screen).

In terms of the drama, it would have been better had the film ended as the plane was leaving Iranian airspace and we would have been spared the sentimental backstory of the FBI agent and the commentaries at the end with the originals the characters are based on bringing us up to date with the characters’ stories – a dubious kind of plea for authenticity. (As often is the case in such films, there is a caption, “Based on a true story”, a special pleading that I find annoying). But as a genre piece, a hybrid of thriller, heist and caper movie, I found it quite successful. The cloak-and-dagger operation mounted by the CIA does make for an exciting film.

Another generic strand (or tone) in the film is comedy. Mendez recruits two Hollywood veterans, the affable makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman), designer of Mr Spock’s ears for Star Trek, and the grizzled old-school producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Their cynical humour (“You could teach a rhesus monkey to direct a film in a day,” Siegel states – a line which reminds me of Orson Welles’ daft statement about Citizen Kane that anyone could learn how to direct a film in a week) lightens the tension. Another such put-down of the Hollywood system occurs when Chambers asks Mendez when he first explains his plan. “You want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without actually doing anything? You’ll fit right in.” The conspirators take to greeting each other with the catch-phrase, based on the title, “Argofuckyourself”

And so I found that the film worked fairly effectively on these levels. However, what I found somewhat far more problematic was the film’s overall portrayal of the hostage crisis. It fails to convey the idea that the USA in general and the CIA in particular were hated by wide layers of the population and for good reason. The success of the Shah’s brutal dictatorial regime depended upon its support by Washington. Now It’s true that the film opens with a brief summary of Britain and America’s role in overthrowing the democratically-elected government of Dr Mosaddeq whose policy was to nationalise the oil. We are also shown footage of the Shah in a TV interview denying knowledge of the torture carried out by Savak, his secret police. And a CIA operative tells Mendez that when they were evacuating the Shah, the plane struggled to take off, such was the volume of stolen gold the Shah had taken onto the plane.

These serve to provide a veneer of objectivity to the film but what dominates throughout the rest of the film is something quite different. While the film invites us to empathise with the CIA hero and the diplomats and laugh at Hollywood’s antics, it also urges us view Iranians as the enemy. What struck me in particular was how the Iranian characters are not individualised in the film: they are seen just as “the mob”. We hear none of the debates taking place between different factions (including the secular left) that were taking place throughout the hostage crisis. The Iranian characters lack any real subjectivity.  In a couple of key scenes where we see Iranians on screen, we are not given sub-titles. This first occurs in the market where Mendez takes the group to meet the Culture Ministry officials and they run into some local people who shout at them aggressively. We can probably guess what they’re on about but it would be useful to hear what they had to say. Another occasion was while the Americans were facing the final terrifying hurdle of  the airport guards. While their officer does not play the clown  à la Sacha Baron-Cohen like so many middle-eastern villains in Hollywood films, most of the little he has been given to say remains untranslated.

Coming out at a time when Israel is openly threatening to bomb Iran, and the American media have ramped up their campaign of fear-mongering, the film can’t help but seem to play into the hands of the most reactionary elements in the US ruling class. And given its box-office success, it has already had millions of viewers flocking to theatres to hear the story of how innocent Americans were victimized by the jihad-crazed Iranians and the CIA came in to save the day.

This despite the fact that Ben Affleck and, in particular, George Clooney, who initiated the project and is co-producer, have campaigned for liberal, even leftist causes. They supported radical historian Howard Zinn and before his death they campaigned to get a TV series adapted from his major work off the ground.  (In Affleck and Matt Damon’s script for Good Will Hunting, they have the arrogant young genius played by Damon sneer at his Boston psychiatrist for “surrounding yourself with all the wrong fuckin’ books. You wanna read a real history book, read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. That book’ll fuckin’ knock you on your ass”). Clooney and Affleck seem oblivious to the fact that the film, whether they like it or not, has become part of the effort by the most reactionary elements in the American ruling class to drag the US into a war with Iran.

Is Affleck so desperate for a box office hit and a return to his star status which has been frittered away over the years in mediocre work that he blinds himself to the possible political effects of the film? Or is there something about the culture of Hollywood that makes so many artists vulnerable to pressures and moods and social forces that they may only be partially aware of?

The extract below takes place near the end of the film as the American diplomats have to negotiate the hurdle of the airport guards:

Posted in American Independents | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

Open Hearts (Elsker Dig For Evigt, Denmark 2002)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 9 December 2012

Mads Mikkelsen and Sonja Richter in 'Open Hearts'

Mads Mikkelsen and Sonja Richter in ‘Open Hearts’

I’m looking forward to seeing Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt, a festival prizewinner starring Mads Mikkelsen. It’s Mikkelsen’s second major performance of the year, following A Royal Affair, one of my top films released in the UK in 2012. Vinterberg has not really had a success in the UK since Festen back in 1998. I confess that I haven’t seen the films that he made during the 2000s but the arrival of The Hunt has prompted me to go back and review the impact of the Dogme movement led by Vinterberg and Lars von Trier. I want to consider what it means 15 years on from the first Dogme film and how much it has influenced the current resurgence of Danish film and TV.

Festen was officially ‘Dogme #1′ – the first title to receive the certificate used as a title card for each Dogme film. Open Hearts was ‘Dogme #28′. According to this useful Dogme ’95 page, the certificates were dropped after ‘Dogme #31′ in the same year – but the same website lists another 70 or so films that claim to be following the ‘Vow of Chastity’ conjured up by von Trier and Vinterberg in 1995 – the internationally celebrated centenary of the cinema. Whether or not filmmaking needed to be ‘re-invented’, von Trier and Vinterberg spoke some sense amongst the blather with which they promoted their Dogme idea. They managed to make the whole Dogme debate into one which encouraged lots of further discussion and inspired dozens of low-budget filmmakers, many of them first-time directors. They also made, with their Danish colleagues, several entertaining and interesting films. Crucially, they also put Denmark, one of the pioneers in filmmaking in the 1910s, back on the international map and opened up opportunities for Danish writers, directors and actors.

Open Hearts is interesting for several reasons. It stars Mads Mikkelsen and was directed by Susanne Bier. Already a successful director in Denmark with The One and Only (1999), Bier has gone on to make several prize-winning films that have captured the attention of specialised cinema audiences worldwide. Keith has written about In a Better World (Haeven), which won the Best Foreign language Oscar in 2011, and I know that Rona is a fan. In this 2002 film Susanne Bier approaches a Dogme project much as Lone Scherfig did in Italian for Beginners (2000). Scherfig’s film turned out like a kind of romcom and Open Hearts has a similar generic familiarity without resorting to obvious genre formulas. The frame is 1:1.37, the camerawork is handheld and presented in clear sharp images – apart from the occasional night-time shot where the grain shows without powerful lighting. The film actually opens with a double Dogme conceit. The Vow of Chastity forbids ‘optical effects’, so Bier uses an infra-red camera to track through a city centre at night. At the same time, we hear seemingly non-diegetic music – another forbidden choice in a Dogme film. But then we realise that the young woman we see in the first shot filmed without infra-red is actually listening to an MP3 player through earphones. Following this little ‘play’ with the rules, the ensuing drama sticks close to the Dogme idea and delivers a riveting domestic drama, a form of realist melodrama. (There is one rule that is broken though – Bier occasionally uses a Super 8mm camera to show what characters might be thinking about in the middle of a conversation.)

The young woman in the opening sequence is Cecilie (Sonja Richter) who is about to meet her fiancé Joachim (Nikolaj Lie Kaas – currently playing Sarah Lund’s partner in The Killing 3). She’s a restaurant chef and he’s a postgraduate student about to set off on another exciting overseas field trip. After a night of passion she drives him to his departure point where a terrible accident occurs and he is seriously injured – and paralysed from the neck down. The woman responsible for the accident is Marie (Paprika Steen) and in classic melodrama coincidence, her husband Niels (Mikkelsen) is a surgeon at the hospital where Joachim is taken. Niels finds himself comforting Cecilie – and falling for her. Desperate to help Nikolaj, Cecilie finds herself rejected as he tries to come to terms with what has happened. I won’t spoil more of the plot – it should be clear from just this brief outline that the drama has lots of possibilities, especially when we realise that the young teenage daughter of Marie and Niels also has a role to play in a developing family melodrama. There is a neat conflation of several familiar narratives – the whirlwind romance in unusual circumstances, the marriage drama and, slightly less familiar, the ‘facing quadriplegia’ drama (cf The Sea Inside).

The Dogme approach in one sense ‘reduces’ cinema since it bans a whole range of cinematic devices. On the other hand it enhances the most important features – a tightly-written script and the direction of actors. The results can be, as they are here, raw and powerful emotions with a high degree of credibility. There are relatively few locations and no use of ‘special’ mise en scène ideas – though audiences can certainly ‘read’ symbolism into decisions to locate scenes in, for example, a kitchen or a furniture store.. Everything rests on what the actors say to each other and how they say it. ‘Realist melodrama’ of this kind is often startling because it seems to signify ‘honesty’/’authenticity’ – i.e. it constructs these concepts using just script, performance and basic camera operations. This ‘honesty’ is both shocking and sometimes very funny in a dark way. This is exemplified by a sequence in which Joachim in his angry reaction to his situation and his concern about Cecilie’s love, turns on the older nurse who has been assigned to his personal care. He uses the most obscene and personally offensive language he can think of, but later we see further exchanges which suggest that she gives as good as she gets and that Joachim is becoming less aggressive. (The nurse is played by Birthe Neumann, the mother from Festen.) The script is by Anders Thomas Jensen, who is now one of the leading scriptwriters in Denmark. In 2002 he already had two Dogme films to his name and since then he has worked extensively with Susanne Bier as well as on Lars von Trier projects.

I enjoyed Open Hearts very much and I recommend it as an antidote to sentimental Hollywood films with some of the same ingredients. Susanne Bier was already an established director when she made Open Hearts, so this shows that the Dogme approach is something that isn’t just good for relatively new directors, but that it can add something to the work of experienced directors as well. I think that in this case, the simplicity of the Dogme approach highlights the acting talent in Denmark as well as the strong script and excellent direction.

Some more Susanne Bier films to follow, I hope, and then The Hunt.

Further resources

Interesting short profile of the director from the DGA (Directors’ Guild of America website)

Useful analysis of the film’s narrative and form. (Beware that this includes more spoilers than the outline above.)

Posted in Danish Cinema, Films by women, Melodrama, Nordic Cinema, Romance | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

 
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