Winter Sleep (Kis Uykusa, Turkey-France-Germany 2014) – theatrical or cinematic?

Winter-Sleep

One of the characters in this film uses the word ‘awesome’ twice: it was my response after my first viewing of the film. The film is a worthy follow-on to Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s earlier masterpiece Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Bir zamanlar Anadolu’da, 2011), though it is also rather different. This is rich and complex work of art. I feel that I need to think about it more and maybe view it again before I can write adequately about it.

I did, though, read the review in Sight & Sound (December 2014): rather lukewarm I thought. Referring to Ceylan’s love of Chekhov Jonathan Romney writes

Understandably, then that it should feel theatrical;..

He comments on one recurring aspect of the film:

But for much of the time, the characters do little except talk at length, in darkened rooms. [which he describes as ‘long, stagey discussions’].

He is right about the length, there is one such scene which runs for about 30m minutes. Such scenes, he thinks

feel like transcribed chapters of a novel.

Like fine theatre the film has great settings, excellent staging and seriously fine acting. But then much of cinema is, like theatre, a performance art. But it is a different art. In fact we talk not about staging but mise en scène. Among other things these sequences are beautifully lit. The rooms in which the characters talk are full of suggestive props and furnishings. But most importantly these images are presented via the camera lens.

Several of these scenes commence with a long shot in long take. And long shots and long takes recur in the scenes but are intercut with close ups, large close-ups, changing camera angles, reverse camera angles, pans and tilts. The camera changes our perception of the characters’ interactions and with close-up shows that they are doing a lot more than just talk: with often delicate but often powerful gestures, body movements and expressions. In the scene between Aydin and Nihal [a husband and wife] that Romney picks out there is also a mirror shot, this brings a notable new perspective at this point.

Likewise the sound is not live but recorded. The dialogue is clear and much of the soundtrack is natural sound. However segments of the film are set up by a solo piano. And the design in scenes of conversation uses noise, tone and timbre in a way that is rigorous and evocative.

Ceylon’s films feature intelligent and stimulating use of image and sound, and this film offers just that. If you have not seen it yet, seek out a cinema with it in the programme. Don’t wait for the Blu-Ray or Television airing – this film deserves a theatrical setting. Both of my viewings were at the Hyde Park Picture House which enjoys a classical auditorium: this is the way to get the full pleasure of this film.

Yorkshire Short Film Competition

Cushy

Cushy

The Leeds International Film Festival Short City included this opportunity for filmmakers working in ‘Gods Own County’. As you might expect the audience included a fair number of the filmmakers and their friends. Despite, or maybe because of their investment they were a very responsive audience.

The Man Who Thought a Hat Was His Wife was the winner of the Spotlight competition at Leeds City College of Art [films of five minutes or under]. The film was developed from a ‘true story’ involving ‘visual agnosia’. It is a film about bereavement. In this case emotionally loaded objects stand in for the lost one. The treatment offered a touch of surrealism. The style and detail were very effective as was the sense of the character’s feelings.

Cushy – 11 minutes. This was set in the Doncaster prison. The protagonist, Vernon, an inmate, talked the audience through his situation with a cocky and at times ‘in your face’ manner. But other currents were at work less obviously: the film leads up to a pair of visitors for the innate. The visit shed a rather different light on Vernon and hi situation. This is a powerful and very effective film: and on area, offending and imprisonment, that receive less attention.

The Devil on Each Shoulder - 18 minutes. This was a fairly bizarre tale. It included a sorry protagonist, the model devils of the title, and an oddball packaged box. The film was developed or inspired by a number from Velvet Underground. I never developed any sympathy with the characters, though I quite liked the devils: and the pixilation and puppetry were effective. However, the audience at the screening found the film fairly funny.

Children of the Holocaust – Suzanne’s story – 5 minutes. The film was funded by the BBC so it enjoyed quality resourcing. Suzanne’s story was of a child who, because of a brave neighbour, survived the Nazi round-up in Paris, whilst her parents did not. There have been a number of films that translate the memories of survivors into visual images. This film was extremely effective. The animation was finely done and treated the story with an absence of despair.

Hunting for Hockney – 3 minutes. The film is as the title, seeking out David Hockney’s Yorkshire home, though the context is recent bereavement. The animation is excellent and captures the colours and style that is found in much of the painters work.

Scrap – 17 minutes. Set in a scrap yard with a protagonist wearing a cardboard box on his [?] head. The film was clearly offering comment on the contemporary world. But the surreal treatment did not work for me. And I also found the film rather repetitive, though that is part of the treatment.

Rare – 14 minutes. The film was about teenage affections and misunderstandings. The young performers were effective as was the use of settings and changes, semi-rural West Yorkshire. I thought some of the style overplayed effects, especially with some of the soundtrack. The film makes a point about relationships which is credible, as is the treatment of teen situations.

The Last Smallholder – 9 minutes. The last of small farms raising livestock owned and run by Carson Lee. His character seems to embody familiar Yorkshire characteristics. The film shows a warm interest in his work and situation. And the filming of his livestock and acreage was very effective.

Don’t Forget Your Hat 15 minutes. A tale, set to ‘On Ilkla Moor Baht’, of a rambler who encounters more than he expected. The situation soon became recognisable as was also the likely outcome. But the story was told in a stylish manner with lots of effective detail and edits. The film is fairly sardonic, a nice note to end the programme.

We then had a presentation with the Competition Jury. They selected Cushy as the winner, a worthy choice, and the film was also the Audience Choice. There was also a Special Mention for Rare. I thought there were three possible contenders that stood out, but this film did include stand-out performance by a young tyro.

Leviathan (Russia 2014)

The Leviathan trapped in the bay . . .

The Leviathan trapped in the bay . . .

Leviathan is certainly a beautifully-made film with excellent performances, great cinematography and a richly-layered narrative. But I’m not sure whether I’ve completely grasped it on a first viewing. Perhaps I was over-tired but I did sense the narrative intensity slow around the mid-point. I also noted some missing connections – again perhaps I simply didn’t see them. I suspect that my fears will prove groundless after a second or third viewing.

There has already been a great deal written about a film which is currently vying with Pawlikowski’s Ida (review coming here soon) for top European film of the year. I’ll try not to cover the same ground but I need first to introduce the background to the story. Director Andrey Zvyagintsev and his co-writer Oleg Negin got the story idea from an American news report about a man in the Mid-West. The set-up is both universal and very Russian. The film’s title refers to both the sea monster of the Book of Job and Hobbes’ book on the philosophy of the ‘contract’ between the state and the individual. The only thing I can remember about Hobbes is his description of life as “nasty, brutish and short”. I think I saw recently that Russia is one of the few places where life expectancy for men was for a period falling – largely because of excessive vodka drinking. The man at the centre of Leviathan is Kolia (Alexey Serebryakov). He has built a house and a workshop on a headland overlooking a bay on the coast in the Murmansk Oblast (that’s northern Russia’s Arctic coast – or the Barents Sea). Now it appears that the corrupt local mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov) has successfully conspired to seize the house and its land. The legal process is nearing completion. Kolia’s last resort is to send for Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovitchenkov), his former ‘junior’ officer in the Russian Army and now a slick Moscow lawyer. Dmitri’s arrival has unexpected consequences for Kolia and his little family – his young teenage son Roma and his second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova).

Kolia's house

Kolia’s house

The three things that struck me most about the film were the sense of place, mainly achieved through the ‘Scope cinematography, the attention given to the church and the eroticism of Lilya as the woman caught in the middle of what is essentially a male narrative. I haven’t seen the director’s earlier films but I do have a DVD of The Return which I’m now determined to watch. Even so the Russian landscape (and local culture) seemed familiar partly because I’d seen the short documentaries shot in the Murmansk region that were shown at the Bradford Film Festival earlier this year and partly because similar landscapes are found in Northern Norway. I presume that Leviathan is set in summer since there are only small pockets of snow – but it still means that the land has a hard and cold beauty rather than the lushness of summer further south.

Hobbes always struck me as offering the bleakest possible view of humanity and forms of governance – in which survival is only possible because the majority agree to surrender all power to a single strong ruler in order to avoid civil war. Russia seems to be a society that has never escaped from the grip of this kind of pessimistic view of the world – apart from brief periods. Hobbes also included the strong connection between the church and the absolute ruler. One of the features of Leviathan the film, is the role played by the Orthodox church leader (a bishop?). This character makes two important appearances in the narrative and seems only interested in consolidating his own power. But director Zvyagintsev also offers us a priest whose activities include feeding the poor.

Kolia (Alexey Serebryakov) and Lilya (Elena Lyadova)

Kolia (Alexey Serebryakov) and Lilya (Elena Lyadova)

The film’s narrative offers us a man who fights for his family and his home. He is irascible and prone to lose his temper but he is passionate about his beliefs. He’s up against a system that is presented as absurd in its adherence to procedures when decisions have already been taken by corrupted officials. This is neatly visualised in a pair of scenes. In the first, one of three women on the bench of the local court reads through a judgement at breakneck speed confirming that Kolia’s appeals are worthless and in another in the Mayor’s office, under a portrait of Putin, local officials are berated by the Mayor and reminded of what they need to do to protect their corrupt local power base. Much has been made of the fact that the film is supported by state funding/recognition but that it appears to be condemnatory. This is a good example of how films can be read differently by different people in different circumstances. Zvyagintsev has made various statements about the film’s themes and these have been interpreted in almost completely opposed ways. There is far too much going on in the film to make any kind of glib interpretation. It is important to note that the key moment in the narrative is perhaps the ‘shooting party’, a birthday celebration and another excuse for serious drinking. This includes some interesting ‘commentary’ (‘jokes’) on Russian gun culture, the legacy of military service and attitudes towards Russia’s leaders of past and present. It also provokes the incident which triggers the excess of the family melodrama. This returns us to the roles of women in the film. I almost feel like I need to see the film again before I can say anything about the female roles and it does seem to me that everything I’ve read about the film has come from men.

I wonder if I’m trying to read the women in the film as pragmatic – concerned with family, work, love, sex etc. rather than power? Do the women who agree to support the mayor do so because it makes life more tolerable and allows them to do the more important things? If you start to feel that getting on with life instead of resisting corrupt power is the only way, what does that mean? At this point I realise that most of the UK population don’t go out of their way to resist the corrupt power of the financial-political élite who rule in the UK. Somebody suggested to me recently that Leviathan was the most depressing film that they’d seen for a long time. I have to disagree. It made me think and when I think, I’m still alive. I’m not depressed. I would recommend Leviathan to anyone who feels the same way.

LFF 28 #9: Titli (India 2014)

The natural light effect in the brothers' home with (from left) Vikram (Ranvir Shorey), Titli (Shashank Arora) and Pradeep (Amit Sial)

The natural light effect in the brothers’ home with (from left) Vikram (Ranvir Shorey), Titli (Shashank Arora) and Pradeep (Amit Sial)

Titli is another important film in the gradual emergence of an ‘Independent Indian Cinema’. It represented the new strain of Indian cinema at Cannes this year and is still waiting for a release in India after festival screenings around the world. I was excited to see the film at the Leeds Festival – but disappointed in my quick scan of the audience around me by the absence of the local South Asian audience. We struggle to see Indian independents in UK cinemas and often they appear fleetingly in arthouse rather than multiplex cinemas. Titli is a debut (fiction feature) directorial outing for Kanu Behl, a graduate of the Satyajit Ray Film Institute in Kolkata. He himself is Punjabi and in the 1990s he grew up in Delhi with his parents – both actors, writers and directors. In 2007 he began an association with film festival workshops and Titli has been developed as part of a NFDC (National Film Development Corporation) Screenwriters’ Laboratory. Behl worked with Dibakar Banerjee on Oye Lucky!, Lucky Oye! in 2008 and Banerjee is the producer on Titli, making the film the first part of a partnership between his own production company and the mainstream production house Yash Raj Films – best known for Bollywood spectaculars. Banerjee is one of the leading figures in ‘Independent Hindi Cinema’ and took his place alongside Anurag Kashyap as a director on the compendium film project Bombay Talkies.

‘Titli’ means ‘Butterfly’ in Hindi and as a name for the lead character in the film, the youngest of three brothers, it is one of the reasons why he is teased and treated as naive. But Titli has plans to escape his all male family in a Delhi colony. While his elderly father (played by the director’s father) stays in the background, his two older brothers run a racket based on violent car-jackings in conjunction with a corrupt local police chief. Played by newcomer Shashank Arora, Titli is physically weaker, but, we suspect, a little brighter, than his brothers. The eldest brother Vikram, played by Ranvir Shorey (a comic actor in the other performances I’ve seen) is a terrifying brute here with the actor having piled on extra flab. Titli wants to escape and the rest of the family want enough capital to start a legitimate ‘cover’ business. But when the latest car-jacking goes wrong, losing everyone’s cash, Titli is chosen to be the means of recovery – by marrying him off to a young woman who could also be used in the family ‘business’. But the chosen bride (a suspiciously pretty young woman from a seemingly more established family) has plans of her own and she and Titli share a desire to escape. That’s enough spoilers. The script is well thought through and with good performances all round and lively camerawork, Titli is very successful. I’ve seen festival reviews which refer to violence ‘off-screen’ but I found that what was ‘on-screen’ was quite violent enough. I think that the preferred term for characters like Vikram is ‘a goon’ and he uses a hammer as a weapon of choice. This kind of violence is mainstream in India so I clench my teeth and sometimes close my eyes.

Titli on his scooter with his wife Neelu (Shivani Raghuvanshi)

Titli on his scooter with his wife Neelu (Shivani Raghuvanshi)

I want to recommend Omar’s review of the film on his new blog at Movie Mahal. He suggests that Titli marries the crime film and the traditional Hindi family melodrama – but of course here removes the mother figure. The new wife comes into an entirely masculine home (which production designers made even more claustrophobic by altering the rooms in the ‘on location’ dwelling). The second woman who exerts some external control over the family is Vikram’s divorced wife who demands her dues and causes further financial pressure. As well as this mixing of genres, Omar also notes the possible mixing of filming styles with elements of neo-realism feeding into the action sequences. I’ve seen references to improvised dialogue for many scenes and also the suggestion that the film was shot on 16mm to achieve a grittier feel. Neo-realism does move a narrative forward on the basis of simple but devastating problems associated with lack of money but what is important in Titli is perhaps that Titli the character is something of a fantasist/dreamer and that he has to recognise that he needs to become more realistic in his ambitions. His fantasies are based on the latest scam to involve India’s urban growth – the control of parking franchises in the new tower blocks seemingly rising everywhere in Delhi.

Films like Titli are conventional in the Western sense, i.e. they are recognisable as generic mixes which don’t utilise the specific conventions of the Bollywood (or Tamil/Telugu) masala film. There are no dance routines or ‘item girls’ but otherwise they are associated with the mainstream. I hope that the UK distribution arms of Yash Raj, Studio 18, UTV and Eros can get them into UK cinemas on a more consistent basis.