The Case for Global Film

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

Posts Tagged ‘Arthouse’

Riddles of the Sphinx (UK, 1977)

Posted by nicklacey on 18 November 2013

Mundane and important

Mundane and important


Whilst studying Film/Literature, at Warwick University in the early 1980s, we had an opportunity to see, in 16mm, Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen’s Riddles of the Sphinx and I vividly remember one shot from the film and that I liked it. Now the BFI have re-released the film, along with Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons made by the wife-husband pair three years earlier, in a dual format edition. So here’s a great opportunity to revisit the fertile time of the ’70s when Marxist politics were to fore. Not that Marx has been shown to be wrong, or irrelevant, of course just that he has seemed to have gone out of ‘fashion’ in academia (I observe that as an outsider so may be wrong). I notice that economics students in Manchester are campaigning to get Marx back on their curriculum; it’s remarkable that he’s not especially in the light of the free-market driven financial collapse.

I got Riddles on rental but, as I liked the film again and the package was so generous, including a booklet, that I’ve bought the er ‘limited edition’ (I believe that refers to the Blu-ray disc). What’s particularly interesting is how the film now as much an historical document showing, as it does, slices (or rather ’round bits’) of life from the ’70s. The ’round bits’ refers to the bulk of the film that has six (I think) scenes where a rostrum camera pans slowly as the action happens in front of it. What’s seen appears to be controlled as much by the technology as the directors; the framing isn’t aesthetically pleasing and so draws attention to the material nature of what we’re seeing. As does a sequence where we see the very grainy footage of an old film of Egyptian monuments (the only passage of the film that tested by patience). The film’s not just ‘historical’ in what it shows but also in how it shows it utilising modernist techniques to ‘estrange’ the spectator.

The narrative follows the life of a mother, whose husband (probably not ‘just’ a partner in the ’70s) has left her with their young daughter. Each ‘slice’ focuses on a different event such as starting work, socialising in the work canteen and shopping. The latter slice, in an early version of the late capitalist hell, shopping malls, is particularly interesting to look at. These are mundane events, the antithesis of Hollywood, but integral to our lives and, particularly, the lives of women.

Mulvey and Wollen are better known as film theorists than film-makers and theirs was a fascinating project to turn theory, particularly the ‘male gaze’ and ‘counter cinema’ respectively, into film. The ’70s were a fertile time for such experimentation and it was good to see the BFI, which funded this film, recently backing the intellectually adventurous Stuart Hall Project. With feminism making a long-needed comeback, Hollywood giving up on thought-provoking cinema, the time is right for new ways of creating meaning in film.

The shot I remembered over 30-years later, by the way, was when the stately pan suddenly began moving on top of a vehicle.

Posted in Avant-garde cinema, British Cinema | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Holy Motors (France-Germany, 2012)

Posted by nicklacey on 4 February 2013

Eva Mendes visits from Hollywood

Eva Mendes visits from Hollywood

I managed to miss all Leos Carax’s 90s films, not intentionally, so my bafflement with Holy Motors wasn’t surprising as it’s a personal reflection upon cinema. I didn’t even realise that Carax was playing the character in an early scene who opens a door, disguised as a hotel wall, with a finger that is part-key. On the other side there is a cinema packed with an audience. This audience is the first thing we see in the film; I think they all had their eyes closed (Philip French says they are dead). They appear to be (not) watching an early scientific film by Eitenne-Jules Marey.

The debt to David Lynch of ‘Carax’ ‘s hotel room is rooting us clearly in surreal cinema. We meet Alex (Denis Levant, who always plays an Alex in Carax’s films) who goes from appointment to appointment, in a limousine, playing different roles, which appear to be real. But we know they aren’t because we are watching a film…but are they meant to be real in the film? Maybe some of them are but probably not. Irritated by this? Don’t watch it!

I clued into Holy Motors being about cinema, as Alex finds himself in different genres, and the film certainly fulfills the surrealist imperative to annoy. It’s supremely arthouse, as your brain needs to be switched on, and includes visually dazzling sequences; particularly the green screen special effects scene when the characters are dressed for motion capture.

It doesn’t all work, the ‘merde’ character is particularly annoying, but there are more ‘hits’ than ‘misses’; Levant, however, is terrific throughout. I also enjoyed Kylie Minogue’s cameo as a gamine Jean Seberg figure shot in an abandoned apartment store the looked like it belonged in Blade Runner with its grandiose architecture and mannikin parts strewn around. Edith Scob, from Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960), plays Alex’s impossibly slim and elegant chauffeur… The references go on… and on.

Postmodern fluff or more than the sum of its playful parts? The final scene is truly absurd (I thought wonderful) and I’m sure it enraged many who were annoyed by the film. I’m not sure whether this is a profound film, a silly film, or neither; I need to see it again but I think, if I had caught the film in the cinema, it would have gotten into my 2012 top ten. Sight & Sound‘s October issue has plenty of useful contextualisation.

Posted in French Cinema | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Garage (Ireland 2007)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 25 January 2013

Pat Sortt as Josie in the bar with Carmel (Anne-Marie Duff in the orange top)

Pat Shortt as Josie in the bar with Carmel (Anne-Marie Duff in the orange top)

The recent release of What Richard Did by Lenny Abrahamson (reviewed here) has prompted me to go back to look at his earlier release from 2007. Both this and his 2004 first feature Adam and Paul were on my radar but I hadn’t found time to watch them. I’m glad now that I finally made the effort.

Garage is set in an unnamed small town in rural Ireland (it seems to have been shot in several different parts of the country, but mainly in the ‘West Midlands’) and its central character is Josie (Pat Shortt), a 40 year-old man who ‘runs’  filling station/garage situated outside a small town on the main road. In reality he is mainly the caretaker as business is slack and we never see Josie actually serve anyone. He’s employed by one of his old schoolmates who is now an entrepreneur in the town and he lives a fairly solitary life, bedding down in a backroom of the garage. Josie is considered as a little ‘slow’ by the local community – but he is cheerful and friendly and most of the locals don’t make fun of him or abuse his trust. The one lout who does bully him in the bar is the exception. Josie’s life begins to change when his boss decides that there is more passing trade and that the garage should stay open longer. Consequently  Josie is joined by an ‘assistant’, a shy and gawky 15 year-old, David. Well-played by Ryan O’Connor, David is a ‘blow-in’ to the small community and therefore initially an ‘outsider’ like Josie in social terms. He’s intelligent and sometimes a bit spiky – a ‘normal’ adolescent – but he gets on with Josie and they become friends. This friendship leads Josie into contacts with the other local teens and perhaps makes him reflect on his loneliness. Indirectly, David’s presence will lead to a series of tragic events.

My first thoughts about the film were that this was a low-budget European art film. There are no genre indications as such except towards the setting of the small town and its possibilities for drama. The town and the handful of local inhabitants are presented in a realist manner and my thoughts turned towards the Dardenne Brothers – but Garage doesn’t have quite the same intensity. A review I read mentioned Bresson. There is gentle humour in the initial representation of Josie’s mundane daily rituals and his contact with various characters. There is also a sense of the relative tranquility of rural Ireland and the potential for some kind of magic in the evening light – although the skies that Josie so enjoys seemed foreboding to me with their scudding clouds. Gradually however, we realise that happy though Josie appears to be in his own little world, he still seeks the possibility of intimacy in a relationship. Eventually too, we realise that Abrahamson is using Peter Robertson’s beautiful cinematography to compose shots very carefully and to look for various forms of symbolism in the mise en scène. The film is slow and nearly always calm. Pat Shortt’s performance is exceptional. He was first a comedian specialising in physical comedy and he uses the skills of a physical comedian to create a distinctive gait for his character, as well as an appropriate voice. His performance also has a resonance since he is well-known in Ireland for a comedy series set in the same kind of location as that in Garage.

I was a little surprised to read in the Press Pack this quote from Lenny Abrahamson:

“Josie is really a contemporary village idiot character but the Irish village doesn’t have any place for him anymore.”

I’m not sure I would use that term to describe a character in a contemporary drama. Of course, I know what he means but it does raise what might be the uncomfortable question at the centre of the film. If this is a realist depiction of Irish rural life, it suggests that there is no modern infrastructure to replace the traditional village community in what is usually seen as one of the more affluent and ‘developed’ societies in Europe. On the other hand, as events transpire, we might argue that the ‘regulation’ of contemporary society is what really makes Josie suffer – that and economic developments. The town’s residents who know Josie and tolerate him don’t really listen to him or help him with his problems. They are just glad that he seems happy. I was interested to read the range of IMDb comments. They include many Irish commentators, but also other Europeans. While most clearly liked the film and thought it praiseworthy, there are a couple of gainsayers, including one who argues that it isn’t a very good representation of a character with mild learning difficulties and another who argues that the residents are too morose and that the rural Irish are more likely to moan and get angry about their lot. These are fair points but as an arthouse film Garage works very well. The excellent production is enhanced by the presence of George Costigan in a small but vital role and Anne-Marie Duff as Carmel (who could probably act as a focus for another story). I can see why the film won one of the Cannes prizes and why Abrahamson and his collaborators are seen as one of Ireland’s most important filmmaking teams.

The final shot of this rather good trailer offers an example of the very effective lighting and composition:

Posted in Irish Cinema | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Sleeping Beauty (Australia, 2011)

Posted by nicklacey on 6 March 2012

She is a business transaction

In the movie previous to this, Emily Browning played Babydoll in Sucker Punch (US-Can, 2011) and is maybe in danger of being typecast as a vacant, sexy being (I don’t know whether that was her character in the film but the name suggests as much). Glancing at the current issue of Elle I noticed that the feature on Alexa Chung called her ‘Britain’s premiere clotheshorse’; well, full marks for honesty I suppose but it’s another example of the dehumanisation of women that is symptomatic of the tide that’s pushing back the gains of the 1960s-70s feminists.

Lucy, played by Browning, is certainly dehumanised as we see her work as a waitress, a guinea pig for experiments and, mostly, as a prostitute. She’s a ‘working girl’ funding her studies, a method that no doubt will increase more with fees going up to £9k in the UK this year. She’s entirely vacuous, that’s not to say she’s stupid but, until the end, seems incapable of expressing any feeling. She’s like the postmodern beings that inhabit Cronenberg’s Crash (Can-UK, 1996) where sex has no meaning because the characters have lost contact with their humanity.

George Monbiot writes of how Ayn Rand’s psychotic philosophy is becoming increasingly influential in the UK: selfishness is the only good. That may sound absurd but then we hear the suggestion that the 50% tax rate for the rich should be abolished; the poor sods, how do they manage? I don’t understand why tax is a ‘burden’; it is a necessity. As we become increasingly defined by what we buy, or what labels we wear, we will lose our humanity; we should not forget that we are citizens not consumers.

Sleeping Beauty allows us to see Lucy subject herself to ever more bizarre encounters that culminate in featuring her body as a fetish for old men who can no longer ‘get it up’. They have lost their humanity, having drowned in their wealth. All this is portrayed in an exceedingly distanced, and distinctly unerotic, fashion that demands hard work from the viewer. I thought it was making a good point but there are surely better ways of saying the same thing.

It was writer-director Julia Leigh’s first feature, she’s also a novelist. The film was made under the mentoring of Jane Campion.

Posted in Australian Cinema | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Shame (UK-Canada, 2011)

Posted by nicklacey on 15 January 2012

A rare moment of connection

I first came across Michael Fassbender in Hunger, directed like Shame by Steve McQueen. His performance, as hunger-striker Bobby Sands, was extraordinary. His promise has been cemented in numerous films since ranging from X-Men First Class to Fish Tank (UK-Neth, 2009). His performance in Shame is also brilliant; he reminds me of Daniel Day-Lewis in the way he totally immerses himself into the role.

Shame is very much an actors’ film; Carey Mulligan and Nicole Beharie are also standout. This is not simply because they are required to go ‘out on a limb’ in their portrayal, particularly Fassbender and Mulligan, of emotionally raw behaviour but also as McQueen’s shooting style regularly features long takes with an immobile camera. There are no edits where the actors can hide. These long takes don’t come across as virtuoso but appropriate to the scene where the relationship between the characters is absolutely paramount.

Fassbender plays a sex addict who, when not using porn or prostitutes, is trying to pick up women merely to have sex with. He is incapable of relating to a woman in any other way which leaves him a hollow man. McQueen has stated that he wanted to show that sex addiction is a malaise and not something that can be laddishly celebrated. He certainly succeeds, particularly in the climactic montage of sex with two prostitutes. The close ups of the grinding, with the rapidly edited montage, coupled with Fassbender’s agonised performance, show the sex not merely to be loveless but also empty of any significance. For a film that has a lot of sex in it, I can’t think of a less sexy film except maybe Cronenberg’s Crash, Can-UK, 1996; a tribute to the filmmakers’ ability to realise their project.

Well done to Showcase cinemas for programming (in Gildersome – Leeds)  the film; though there were only about a dozen watching in an opening night showing. It won’t get a positive ‘word of mouth’ from those desiring smut or those after entertainment on a Friday evening. Prime Minister Cameron was wittering last week about how the British film industry should focus on commercial projects thereby demonstrating both his ignorance of the film industry (where ‘nobody knows anything’) and his philistinism. The Tories have never taken film seriously as an art form, maybe because arthouse cinema, when it gets political, tends to criticise the status quo. This criticism doesn’t matter to them when it occurs in galleries or theatres, with their limited audiences, but film potentially can reach much further. However, I doubt that he need worry because of the conservatism of cinema-going audiences, who see film only as entertainment. The arthouse crowd are a minority and many of them will also frequent galleries and theatres. It is vital that films like Shame continue to be made because they broaden the experience of people who like to be challenged.

Posted in British Cinema | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Melancholia (Denmark-Sweden-France-Germany-Italy, 2011)

Posted by nicklacey on 30 October 2011

Weighed down by convention

Lars von Trier’s need to provoke ended badly for him at Cannes this year when he professed sympathy for Hitler. He isn’t a Nazi, as he said, and it’s best to let his films do his talking. The fracas was a distraction from Melancholia and Kirsten Dunst, winner of the best actress award.

Melancholia is far more straightforward than his last film, Antichrist, but shares an opening that’s awash with beautiful super-slow motion images. This, in effect a prelude, tells us the narrative to come and emphasises the film’s about the depressive Justine’s (Dunst) state of mind. This expressionist sequence, revisited to an extent at the end, is in stark contrast the part one (‘Justine’) which focuses on her wedding party. Von Trier’s pricking of bourgeois rituals, and hypocrisy, takes us back to Festen (Denmark, 1998), directed by Tomas Vinterberg, the first of the Dogme95 films. Dogme95 was anti-Hollywood, swearing a ‘vow of chastity’ in only using, for example, natural lighting, handheld camera and definitely no special effects. Von Trier was co-author, along with Vinterberg, of the manifesto but has long since departed from its tenets. However, this section utilises Dogme95′s trademark febrile camera and jump cuts.

Part two, ‘Claire’, focuses on Justine’s sister’s attempts to help the latter out of her depression. Science fiction enters the narrative as the planet Melancholia is approaching Earth, though we are promised it will merely ‘fly by’ and everyone will be saved. The symbolism is clear for all and generates a quite brilliant climax.

However, and maybe this is a result of seeing the film after the immaculately directed We Need to Talk About Kevin, von Trier’s direction of the first part simply comes across as sloppy and lazy. Whilst Vinterberg’s similar direction worked brilliantly in Festen, the contrast with the the prelude and the later sections, where we are viewing an expressionist landscape, is just too great a contrast.

There are many references in the film; the above image, with Wagner’s Liebestod dominant on the soundtrack, reminded me of Bunuel-Dali’s Un Chien Andalou (France, 1929) and Hamlet’s  Ophelia tangentially appears in an image of Justine floating on a river and a painting of the scene is shown. Chien Andalou is about an ‘amour fou’ and Ophelia goes mad because of love. The name Justine reminds up of Marquis de Sade’s character, the ‘good sister’ suggesting that she is one with knowledge unlike the ‘sane’ Claire. In addition, the mansion, and its gardens, reference Last Year in Marienbad (France 1961), Alain Resnais’ engimatic film, which might be about a love affair that never happened. If nothing else, von Trier is cineliterate.

That said, this is a film of tremendous imagination that, at its best, touches brilliance.

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

We Need to Talk About Kevin (UK-US, 2011)

Posted by nicklacey on 28 October 2011

Alienating parenting

This is the best film I’ve seen that’s been released this year. Fabulous source material (I’ve not read the book so was happily unaware of the dénouement), brilliant performances by Tilda Swinton and the succession of Kevins, an encapsulating sound design that unsettles and utterly brilliant direction. And I didn’t mention Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography or Jonny Greenwood’s music. The set design too . . . Lynne Ramsay managed to pull all this off with a budget of $7m! See interview.

It’s nearly 10 years since her second film, Morvern Callar, was released and Ramsay’s inability to get her third film made for so long is a sad testament to the state of film-making generally, and in the UK in particular.  In addition we lost her version of The Lovely Bones along the way. Ramsay is a brilliant director because she tells the story through rich visuals and doesn’t simply rely on performance and script. Throughout the film the colour red is a motif (whether it be present as a teddy or a kettle or whatever) haunting the frame and preparing us for the climax. The clowns on the doctor’s wall, as the mother tries to find out what’s wrong with her son, mock her with their sinister expressions of laughter. I could go on . . .

My habit of reading very little about a film before seeing it paid off with Kevin as I didn’t know what he did (that he did something is obvious). So I could see the film, and this is also how the book is structured, as being about a mother who cannot bond with her son; no fault is apportioned for this. Uncomfortably I suspect most parents can remember moments when their children’s behaviour seemed monstrous to them and in this resides the power of Lionel Shriver’s novel. I won’t spoil the climax but knowledge of this changes the way the mother-son relationship is perceived as it would seem to offering an explanation of events rather than being about parenting a ‘difficult’ child.

I need to see the film again to fully appreciate the richness of the mise en scène and the CinemaScope framing. Ramsay brings an arthouse sensibility to the melodramatic mise en scène of Ophuls and Ray, using the home as a place of entrapment and alienation but allowing long takes to play out rather than moving quickly on for the LCD (lowest common denominator) audience (or should that be ADHD?).

One criticism is the casting of usually excellent John C Reilly whose ‘downtrodden’ persona infects his performance as Kevin’s dad who’s oblivious to his wife’s problems. He simply comes across as a dumb male rather than one who’s being manipulated by his son.

Will someone with the ability to greenlight a film project tell Lynne Ramsay she can do whatever she wants for her next film. I think she could be the greatest British director we’ve ever seen.

Posted in British Cinema, Films by women, Melodrama | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

London Film Festival 2011 #1: Shame (UK 2011)

Posted by Rona on 17 October 2011

Living in-between: Brandon (Fassbender) waits in 'Shame'

(NB No intentional spoilers – but this does discuss the film in detail)

A film about sex addiction? Given the way in which cinema can be all about fetishising what we see and the way we see it, Shame represents a bold piece of filmmaking but maybe not as you would think. The early publicity inevitably uses that easy shorthand of sex addiction. The film does more, including (but not exclusively) how it alters the action of looking by the way it is made as well as the content of the piece.

Set in New York and starring McQueen’s muse, Michael Fassbender, it follows a man (Brandon) who has the capacity for seduction and the an obsessive compulsion towards all forms of sexual encounters, ones which do not necessitate the intimacy of a full relationship. The arrival of his sister, Sissy, disrupts his carefully organised and guarded world.

Shot using film, the first composition suggests the same kind of textual depth that McQueen achieved in his first feature, Hunger – visceral in its recreation of place and time and simultaneously calling attention to the beauty of the image. However, this film gives way to a very different aesthetic, with striking blues and whites of the typical WASPish New York apartment joining to create an overriding tone of desaturated flatness. Meanwhile, New York itself glitters in the background in several scenes – a stereotype of its symbolic value as the place of all desires. (Something that will be developed in other ways). Early scenes have some resonance towards American Psycho in their evocation of the emptiness of that highly-paid, corporate existence.

Co-written by McQueen with British TV and film writer, Abi Morgan (very well-known in the U.K., most recently for The Hour and the upcoming Margaret Thatcher story film The Iron Lady) there is (a McQ trademark?) avoidance of dialogue for long sequences – relying on Fassbender’s capacity to move through an extraordinary range of emotions (and the performance’s quality testifies to the way in which McQueen is clearly Fassbender’s muse) – and it avoids trite explanations of background and psychological motivations. (Abi Morgan spoke at a festival event about creating “maximum impact with minimum words”). These could be a form of French New Wave characters – glamorous and attractive at times, inscrutable and dark at others. We experience them from the outside in this dispursive rather than concentrative narrative structure.

The theme of alienation plays through the whole film – the central figure struggles with a fear of intimacy that we are familiar with (a modern parallel with Soderbergh’s Graham in sex, lies and videotape and both films share the awkward interactions and missed connections of floundering associations. However, Soderbergh’s film was very certainly about something – sex and lying. In saying what McQueen’s is about, I think we have to start with the way in which the film embraces the experiential level rather than the simply thematic – which seems contradictory given its anti-realist narrative aesthetics (see the trailer below for some feel of this).

This might explain why the odd critic may have commented on being bored whilst watching – isn’t that maybe the point of some of it? McQueen’s mastery of the visual image subtly but relentlessly removes that traditional screen dynamic for sexual imagery so that the true, achingly banal and despairingly repetitive nature of these transactions is viscerally apparent. This is not necessarily new – there are numerous examples of interrupting the audience’s gaze. American Psycho (to return to the earlier example) chooses to go to parody and excess as its means of subverting the glamour (a technique, of course, that relies heavily on audience reading). However, by blurring focus, altering depth of field, holding long on discomforting close-ups (a face, a back of a neck), McQueen does not so much ‘subvert’ or ‘challenge’ typical spectatorship positions – rather he seems to have started from elsewhere. The striking human-ness of some of the flesh is what immediately stands out, the beautiful ordinariness of a face – compared to the dehumanised, virtual forms populating Brandon’s gaze (sometimes physically present, sometimes on screen). In addition, the emotional punch is helped by the symbolic use of the spaces of the city – the way in which the ‘in-between-ness’ of characters’ lives (the streets, the apartment lobby, the subway) is a powerful metaphor for their inner states (the loneliness of the long-distance porn surfer).

Sure – the alienation of modern living is no new theme. But, as in his first feature, McQueen’s filmmaking doesn’t worry about ‘saying’ something original – he just drops you directly into the melting pot to experience those people’s lives through the medium of an artistically stunning image. The intellectual engagement is fully there once we reflect on our discomfort. Discomfort because – as someone noted in a discussion with Abi Morgan at the festival – this is not a film ‘about’ sex addiction, just as Hunger was not ‘about’ a terrorist. I’m going to finish this idea by going off on a tangent to the choice of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (e.g. the famous Aria) as part of the soundtrack (the sound design is another technical achievement). It uses Glenn Gould’s recording which means the music includes his distinctive hum, well-known as part of the texture of his interpretations. Alongside those clean, baroque melodies (so representative of control and purification) the voice of a driven, obsessive, messy human runs along complementing rather than detracting from the music. Elsewhere, Brandon’s sister, Sissy, sings the blues – using an unexpected classic to do so. So, without being ‘about’ anything or one small section of society (sex addicts) – this film rather shows us how people are complicated, how real intimacy can be so unbearably difficult. Not a new theme you might think. But how I enjoyed the power with which that old tune was revoiced by McQueen, Morgan and the others not least by the depth of feeling those beautiful surface images could create.

Posted in British Cinema, Festivals and Conferences | Tagged: , , , | 4 Comments »


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