Tagged: black comedy

LIFF 28 #4: The Executioner (El Verdugo, Spain 1963)

José Luis (Nino Manfredi, on the right in the foreground) tries to block out the noise of the jets when he and his partner collect a coffin from a flight from the US.

José Luis (Nino Manfredi, on the right in the foreground) tries to block out the noise of the jets when he and his partner collect a coffin from a flight from the US.

Sometimes considered the pinnacle of Luis García Berlanga’s work, The Executioner is a black comedy, a ‘farce’ and now an intriguing document  recording aspects of Franco’s Spain in the early 1960s – a period when Spain was beginning to slowly emerge from isolation and grapple with the modernising world of the rest of Western Europe as well as North America.

José Luis (Nino Manfredi) is an undertaker who wants to go to Germany to become a mechanic. One day his job takes him to a prison to pick up the body of an executed prisoner and he reluctantly finds himself having to visit the home (dingy rented rooms) of an executioner, on the verge of retirement, and his daughter the voluptuous Carmen. She, like José Luis, has found it difficult to keep a relationship going because of her father’s profession. But true love (and sexual desire) leads to the inevitable pregnancy and the couple must marry. Meanwhile, the executioner has the chance to rent a new apartment because of his official status. But he is due to retire – and will therefore lose the apartment. José Luis, in time-honoured fashion must apply for the job in order to ‘keep it in the family’ – and to keep the new roof over the heads of his wife, child and father-in-law. He prays he will never be needed to ‘perform’ – but the first job arrives and it is in La Palma, Mallorca.

As we noted with earlier films by Luis García Berlanga and Juan Antonio Bardem, Italian neo-realism was an important influence on oppositional Spanish filmmaking in the Franco era. This film is less neo-realist as such and more related to Italian comedies. It features both one of the best-known Italian actors of the commedia all’italiana in the form of Nino Manfredi and one of the great Italian cinematographers, Tonino Delli Colli, famous for his work with Leone, Polanski, Fellini, Louis Malle etc. Perhaps not surprisingly, The Executioner was shown at the Venice Film Festival in 1963 and won the FIPRESCI Prize. The Spanish government was trying to deflect attention from a death sentence pronounced on a communist leader in Spain and they faced the quandary that Berlanga both attracted much-needed artistic prestige to Spanish Cinema, but also embarrassed a government planning a political execution.

José Luis with his pregnant wife Carmen and his father-in-law tries to secure a new apartment.

José Luis with his pregnant wife Carmen and his father-in-law tries to secure a new apartment.

Aspects of The Executioner work as farce and that made me think of the later political farces of Dario Fo but it was another Italian connection that struck me quite vigorously. The central plot device whereby José Luis is forced to go after the executioner’s job to get the new apartment sets up a series of interactions with the public servants of Franco’s state. They all deal with the quandary that faces José Luis in an almost perfunctory way. They know he doesn’t want to do the job, but they’ll happily support his application so as to process their own paperwork. This exposure of rigid bureaucracy is similar to the even more fiendish bureaucratic contradictions found in Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Cuban satire Death of a Bureaucrat (1966) in which the problem is not one of finding an executioner but of getting permission to open a coffin because a man has been buried with his worker’s card and without the card his widow can’t claim a pension. Alea had trained in Rome in the 1950s. He’d also probably seen Berlanga’s film at a festival. Another later Italian connection is the Naples episode of De Sica’s Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963) in which Sophia Loren is a housewife who must be constantly producing children or the city will take away her family apartment. The plight of workers and their families is shared across Italy, Spain and Cuba despite their different political systems. What makes the Spanish case stand out is the much darker undertones that Berlanga suddenly brings to the fore in the closing sequence. The ‘comedy’ of José Luis being gradually persuaded to carry out his executioner duties for the first time is suddenly made shocking by the switch to a long shot of a cavernous large hall with bare white walls at the far end of which is a small black door (see image below). On the other side is the place of execution and José Luis is dragged across the hall and through the door, fortified by coffee and brandy and held by guards, judges and the priest – the symbols of the Francoist regime – kicking and screaming. The condemned man has already been taken through, relatively quietly. As one reviewer put it, Berlanga is able to show that the execution process affects the innocent working man more than the resigned condemned man.

The executioner in the second group is propelled towards the door, following the condemned man.

The executioner in the second group is propelled towards the door, following the condemned man.

When I started this post I was a little sceptical about the high status of the film but as I’ve had to think about specific scenes and how they fit together I’m beginning to appreciate how it all fits together. There are no superfluous scenes and Berlanga fits a great deal into the roughly 90 minutes running time. The wedding of José Luis and Carmen is, like that in That Happy Couple, a somewhat farcical affair. They are ushered in to follow a high society wedding and quickly married while all the trappings of the high-class wedding are being cleared away, even the candles are being snuffed out so that they are virtually in the dark. In nearly every incident the working class couple are being subjected to forms of humiliation or mockery/disdain/selfishness. But through it all they grin and bear it.

José Luis and Carmen are married in the near dark.

José Luis and Carmen are married in the near dark.

The closing scenes in Mallorca reveal a Spain beginning to ‘open up’ to the outside world with some kind of international event attracting the paparazzi, English tourists in the resorts and the ‘jet set’ in yachts in the harbour. Franco’s regime would carry on for another dozen years until his death and the eventual restoration of parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy. Censorship in the Spanish film industry would remain until the late 1970s but you feel that Berlanga (and Bardem) had managed somehow to show both Spanish audiences and the internal film audience that censorship could be overcome with creativity. Berlanga’s co-writers on this film were Rafael Azcona and Ennio Flaiano. The other two lead actors are Emma Penella as Carmen and José Isbert as her father.

There are numerous offers to watch The Executioner free online. I’ve no idea if any of them are legit. Here’s a good quality 1963 trailer with French subtitles:

Gone Girl (US 2014)

Amy (Rosamund Pike) and Nick (Ben Affleck)

Amy (Rosamund Pike) and Nick (Ben Affleck)

Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl was an immediate bestseller on its appearance in 2012, generating considerable discussion in mainstream and social media. Now she has written the screenplay for David Fincher’s film adaptation, her ideas about modern marriage and her presentation of an array of female characters – most of them perhaps unlikeable but nevertheless dominating the narrative – are again at the centre of public discourse.’Gone Girl the film’ is being hailed as one of the possible saviours of the 2014 box office in both the UK and US. It has also become the focus of a number of hostile reviews and claims that it is in some ways ‘anti-feminist’.

I decided to run a public event on Gone Girl on the basis of the initial interest in the novel. I’m not a David Fincher fan, though I respect his filmmaking skills. My reactions to his last two cinema features, The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo were not particularly positive. I’m aware that Fincher has many fans but I’m not really clear what it is that is supposed to distinguish his approach. His previous films have often been relatively expensive productions which haven’t always attracted audiences in the numbers that might be expected. Box Office Mojo suggests that Fincher’s second feature Se7en remains his most popular film so far (when adjusted for inflation). I wondered therefore if Gone Girl would be a box office winner and if Fincher’s style would suit the material. Given that most of Fincher’s films have been ‘action’ orientated, including the two with female leads (Aliens 3 and Panic Room) I did further wonder if Fincher was the most appropriate director for a film which is ostensibly about marriage.

Having watched the film twice (all 149 minutes of it!) in two days and discussed it with several regular local filmgoers, I’ve come to some conclusions. First, my overall opinion of David Fincher as a director hasn’t really changed. Gone Girl is well-made. It looks good, it moves at a good pace, the performances are very good and it provides genuine entertainment (although if you have read the book, the film narrative of course doesn’t offer the same level of surprise). For me, Gone Girl was a ‘clever’ book – and I mean that in a complimentary way. Gillian Flynn knows what she wants to do and she does it skilfully. It’s also a long book with many characters and several sub-plots. There is no way that everything in the book could arrive on screen – or that the central ideas in the book could be thoroughly explored in a film that wants to include all the exciting action. Fincher himself said this about the book in a Screendaily.com Interview (20/9/2014):

“The thing I thought was profound and has not been articulated in this way is that we construct a façade of ourselves, an image for people to deal with us and understand us and hopefully we learn from teachers, parents, siblings how to present the best version of ourselves.

“Then we go out into the world as adults and mate, couple and seduce people with this projection of ourselves. Often, completely oblivious to the fact that that person is doing that too, and there comes a point where one who enters into this contract says I can’t keep it up. I’m not interested in being the man of your dreams or the woman of your dreams anymore. I don’t know what to tell you. This movie was about the resentment that might engender.

“A marriage is hard and really hard under the glare of 10,000 watt magnified 24-hour a day news cycle. No one can survive it.”

I agree with him. This is an interesting observation and that should be at the core of the film. Unfortunately, I think it takes second place to the psychological thriller/noir mystery aspects of Fincher’s film. All the ingredients are there but they didn’t have the impact I expected. Overall, my small group discussing the film concluded that it was an entertaining film, but it didn’t really tell us much about marriage – and it didn’t project a sense of Fincher’s personal style (whatever that might be). It felt like it could have been made by any mainstream experienced Hollywood director.

I’ve purposefully not mentioned the plot so far since the film has been so heavily promoted. Let me just point out that it is a story about a married couple told throughout by each marriage partner in turn from the moment when the husband discovers that the wife is ‘missing’ with some evidence suggesting that she has been abducted. He is immediately under suspicion and a tabloid media storm ensues in which he is effectively accused of her murder. The narrative twist is that Amy (Rosamund Pike) tells her story through diary entries that start seven years previously when the couple first met – she disappears on their 5th wedding anniversary. Nick (Ben Affleck) tells his story starting from the day of her disappearance. Amy is an ‘unreliable narrator’ via her diary entries. Nick’s version is told in the third person in the sense that we watch him and his actions – but we also listen to what he says to the police and others.  A second and third part of the story are narrated in a similar style but with the time differences between the two narrations shifting. I won’t ‘spoil’ the narrative twists.

I suspect that our discussion group is not representative of the mainstream audience. Mark Kermode in the Observer offers a much better analysis of how the film might work with a popular audience. He links it to the popular/populist successes of Paul Verhoeven/Joe Eszterhas in the ‘erotic thriller’ stakes, naming Basic Instinct to go alongside Fatal Attraction and references to Hitchcock, Clouzot etc. I think he is probably right. I think he is also correct in this observation:

Shooting in handsome 6K digital widescreen, cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth keeps the visual tone cool and detached even as events heat up, eschewing the tics and flashes of yore. This is a picture-perfect world, presented with the untouched clarity of a crime scene, fine-tuned and framed by Fincher . . .

Gone Girl is a conventional American thriller that should please mainstream audiences. I think that in its presentation it comes across as more of Flynn’s film than Fincher’s. I’m not a fan of Ben Affleck but in some ways he was well cast and he played the role well. But he typifies a problem with American leading men. He’s so buffed up with bulging muscles in arms and thighs that he just doesn’t look or feel right for a man who seemingly does very little and eats badly. Rosamund Pike is just terrific in every way.

In the end the important debate about Gone Girl should be about the array of great roles in the film for female actors – and the debate about the importance or not of so many female characters who are presented in a ‘negative’ way. But then, apart from Nick’s sister Margo, the investigating detective Rhonda and the lawyer (played by Tyler Perry) almost every other character is there to be the subject of criticism. As a Guardian reader I’ve been taken aback by the ‘op ed’ pieces by Guardian journalists online and in the paper – they don’t seem to have seen many films and read this one in very black and white terms. I wish they would think a bit more before they submit copy.

Gone Girl won its first weekend in North America. Nothing is certain these days, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t still around in a few weeks time, going on to be Fincher’s biggest hit.

Sightseers (UK 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)