Category: European Cinema

The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea (To thávma tis thálassas ton Sargassón Greece-Germany-Netherlands-Sweden, 2019)

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Lost in Mesolongi

As cinemas are not an option at the moment I’ve taken advantage of a free offer from MUBI and so am plunging through two films a day to catch up with its ‘one new film a day’ distribution pattern. I won’t see them all but the opening of The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea was promising enough to stick to the end though, generically, it was slightly misleading. The excellent Angeliki Papoulia plays Elisabeth who is busting terrorists in Athens only to be chucked to the backwater of Mesolongi, on the coast west of the capital. There she’s the chief of police and the narrative resumes 10 years on where she has become as corrupt as the cops she seemed to be evading at the start.

Her wayward cocaine-snorting, gun waving detective reminded me of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (US, 1992). The setting, in the marshes and lagoons of Mesolongi, reminded me of Marshland and the relative remoteness of the location is important. Here social rules become looser and police presence isn’t necessarily welcome. The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea goes further than Marshland as some characters seem to be losing their grip on reality somewhat; there are scenes re-enacted from the bible with no, as far as I can tell, link to the narrative. Director Syllas Tzoumerkas, who co-wrote the interesting Suntan (Greece-Germany, 2016), wrote the film with co-star Youla Boudali who plays Rita, the bullied sister of an egomaniac drug dealer (Christos Passalis oozing sleaze). Rita works in the eel-processing factory, detailed in gruesome documentary detail, which links the area to the Caribbean’s Sargasso Sea as that’s where the eels go to breed. Peter Bradshaw suggests the location is a metaphor for renewal though one of the comments below his post suggests it’s more to do with decay. The latter is more likely given the film’s ending.

Papoulia has appeared in three of Yorgos Lanthimos’ films that epitomise the current arthouse favourite ‘Greek weird cinema’. Lanthos’ films do nothing for me (see The Favourite) but I’ve nothing against ‘the weird’. However, as I couldn’t find even the most tenuous connection between the bible re-enactments going on, and the presence of Albanians also seemed to be significant, the film seemed half complete. Maybe it’s my own lack of religion that makes me blind to the allegory. However, the film is worth seeing if only for Papoulia’s ‘bad cop’; such a rare thing to see in a female character. Here’s a review of an earlier Tzoumerkas film, A Blast .

GFF20 #17: Lillian (Austria, 2019)

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On the road

This is director Andreas Horvath’s first fiction film (he also edited and composed the music) after making a number of documentaries. One of the fascinating aspects of the film, which was the best I saw at the Glasgow Film Festival, is the degree to which it is fictional. It’s based on a true story of a woman, Lillian Alling, who in the 1920s tried to walk from New York to Russia. She may have succeeded. Lillian is set now and, as far as I can tell, Horvath and his star, Patrycja Planik, improvised the narrative as they took their nine month journey across America. Horvath is credited with the film’s concept, using everyday encounters as the basis. Obviously these would have to be contrived as there was a film crew in tow (although it consisted only of five people). It works in a similar way to Borat (US-UK, 2006) where Sacha Baron-Cohen as the titular reporter traversed America showing up its absurdities. Horvath’s intention is to offer a snapshot of contemporray America. Hollywood Reporter states the film was ‘long-in-the-making’ and, if I remember rightly, there is a rodeo poster for 2013; in an interview Planik states shoot took nine months. Whatever the reason for the long gestation Horvath has produced a stunning piece of work if only in terms of the varying American landscapes we see; the cinematography is stunning. Planik is one of the Foley Artists (these produce the sounds we hear and are used in virtually all filmmaking) and the sounds of her walking are slightly high in mix throughout. Although Planik doesn’t show great range in the role, it is a superb performance in what must have been a gruelling shoot.

I think it’s safe to assume that most of the people Lillian comes across are playing themselves. For example, we see the Nebraskan Sheriff preparing for his day’s work when he gets a call about a ‘walker’ and he goes to investigate. He is both oppressive, searching the young woman, and paternal, giving her a coat for the cold nights. One exception is the role of the lecherous farmer who chases her through cornfields which was taken by the production manager, Chris Shaw.

We pass through Standing Rock where Native Americans are protesting against the environmental impacts of an oil pipeline and hear an inspiring speech. Lillian passes through everything implacably, never speaking or reacting much to her experiences.

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Going west

As she reaches the north west of the continent she finds a road called ‘Highway of Tears’ where a large number of young women (presumably abducted and killed) have disappeared over the years. It’s bucketing down with rain and Lillian plods on filmed from behind a window (or lens) which has so much water (tears) on it she can barely be seen. It is a highly poetic shot that captures the moment.

We’re never clear on the protagonist’s motivations, just as we don’t know what were the original Lillian’s. At the start she is trying to get work in hard core porn but as she’s overstayed her visa even that line of work is impossible for her. She’s advised to go back to Russia, ironically described as ‘the land of opportunity’, and decides to walk there after finding a map in a house she’s apparently broken into.

Without spoiling the ending, I will only say, at first, it seemed to be a serious misstep when we meet indigenous people at the Bering Straits and are regaled with an ancient story about treating the natural world with respect. Throughout the journey we hear, no doubt authentic, homey radio broadcasts talking about unseasonable weather and it’s clear that climate catastrophe looms over the film. When I linked the two, the ending ‘clicked’ and it works superbly to conclude the film. It’s a road movie where it’s the spectator that goes on a ‘learning journey’ not the characters; Lillian is a ‘cipher’ on which we can project our own feelings.

The Austrian Short Film Festival

‘The Art of Living’

The Hyde Park Picture House, supported by the University of Leeds and the Austrian Film Academy, hosted a selection of titles from the event (Österreichische Kurzfilmschau 2019). This was the third annual visit. The films are all nominees for the event’s film award. The programme screened in Leeds included:

Ars Moriendi Oder die Kunst des Lebens (The Art of Living, Kristina Schranz, Austria / Germany 2018). Running 29 minutes, in colour and 2.35:1 with English subtitles.
Rosemarie Achenbach is 93 years old. Time and again, she has found the strength to liberate herself: During World War II, she was trapped under rubble following an aerial bombardment, but survived. As a pastor’s wife, she was trapped by the expectations of patriarchal post-war society. After her husband’s death, she took her life into her own two hands. She completed her degree in philosophy and today she is writing her doctorate. She is writing about death, because “I am old enough for it”. This is both the portrait of a woman and the portrait of a century now past. Kristina Schranz’s title is well done. The subject, Rosemarie, was an impressive character. She celebrated her 93rd birthday in the course of the film with her children and grandchild. The cutting between home [personal] and the university [institution] worked well. And the framing of characters and scenes was finely done.

When Time Moves Faster (Austria/CA/GR 2016 7 minutes.
Amongst other things, the director’s, Anna Vasof, working method was influenced by pre-cinematic devices stemming from her fascination with the movement of photographic images. These only appear animated given our persistence of vision. Vasof cites the Zoetrope as an example of this phenomenon, a device that filled people of all ages with wonder at fairs of old. This work demonstrates Anna Vasof’s unbelievable pleasure in experimentation and simultaneously shares her delight in demonstrating the illusion enabled solely through the medium of cinema.

Excuse Me, I am looking for the table-tennis and my friend Entschildigung (Ich suche den Tishtennisraum und meine freundid, Austria/Germany … 2018). Running 23 minutes, in colour and 1.85:1 with English sub-titles
A film Bernhard Wenger about a couple on a wellness trip, where one partner disappears and the other isn’t sure whether he’s looking for her or himself. Within the bizarre world of the Alpine wellness resort, Aron begins a new chapter in his life. This had a rather dry humour and recurring tropes. I did think the ending could have been stronger.

Kids n Cats – Frizzle Frizz (Austria 2017). Running time 4 minutes, in colour and academy ratio.
The world of vain and self-absorbed characters gets flooded by gigantic insect legs. The director Patryk Senwicki offered a combination of stop motion and live action techniques filled with surrealist imagery and objects and accompanied by a song from a ménage à trois.


Der Sieg der Barmherzigkeit (Austria 2017), Running time 24 minutes, in colour, academy ratio and with English sub-titles.
Musicologist Mr. Szabo has dedicated himself to collecting archival material from the history of Austrian pop music. Due to an unfortunate coincidence, an original stage costume of a Viennese beat band from the 60s ended up in a charity clothing collection. To retrieve the rare piece, Szabo doesn’t shy away from a veritable break-in. His young, aspiring colleague Mr. Fitzthum helps him – not entirely voluntarily. Unlike Szabo he has a lot to lose: his job, his career and above all, his freedom.

Albert Meisl’s bizarre is tale full of dry humour. Szabo is a full blown eccentric. Fitzthum is a naïve victim of Szabo’s obsession. They are caught in a series of whimsical situations.
A good and varied selection of films. Previous years had more avant-garde examples but this year’s all fell into a recognisable genre.

The Operative (Germany- Israel-US-France 2019)

This was the title that I saw at the Kino International. This is one of the venues in the Berlinale, but it has a cachet of its own. It opened as the Deutsche Demokratische Republik ‘s prestige cinema in 1963. It has a spacious auditorium seating 551. The cinema is equipped with projection for 35mm, 70mm and 4K digital with Dolby Digital sound. It is an impressive building. The façade of the building carries especially designed sculptures of ‘every day socialist life’. One enters the sloping auditorium through extremely large oak panelled doors. Impressive drapes draw back to reveal the large screen, 17 by 9.2 metres. The title of the screening, part of the Berlinale ‘Out of Competition’ programme, was less impressive than the venue. An example of a sub-le Carré spy thriller. In fact several aspects of the plot reminded me of le Carré’s work and there was also a strong resemblance in the plot to the 2001 Spy Game (US).

Rachel (Diane Kruger – this is not the character’s real name) is a linguist looking for something out the ordinary. She is recruited by Thomas (Martin Freeman) as an operative for the Israeli Mossad. Because of her particular talents Rachel is assigned to Tehran undercover as an English teacher. The actual project is to sabotage the Iranian nuclear programme. Once embedded Rachel is given the target of a business man whose firm is involved in the nuclear programme. This is Farhad (Cas Anvar). But the headstrong Rachel goes beyond her brief and starts a sexual relationship with Farhad. When the full extent of Mossad’s plans dawn on Rachel she goes AWOL.

The film opens as Thomas receives a cryptic phone call: a coded message from Rachel signalling panic. Thomas is called in to a Mossad agency office in Austria. The story is told in a series of flashbacks as he is debriefed. These bring us up to the dénouement of the film.

The film is adapted from a novel by Yiftah Reicher Atir. He worked in the Israeli secret services so one assumes that the trade craft in the story is relatively accurate. However, the plotting in the script is increasingly implausible. At one point Rachel is involved by Mossad in an illegal border crossing. This does not make sense in terms of the project on which she is working. What it does serve is to colour her motivation and her actions at the climax of the movie.

The discussions in the Mossad office seem conventionally accurate as do the secret service operatives. Thomas though seems an odd recruit to the agency. When we arrive in Tehran the city scenes are alright but the character of the Iranians seems more in line with Western stereotypes than more realistic representation in film from Iran. What is more interesting is the representation of Mossad. These are not the conventional idealists protecting an embattled community from terrorism. They are exactly like the secret services of the western imperialists; brutal, violent, amoral and retaining their humanity solely for their fellow Israelis. This is where the film’s representation comes closer to le Carré.

Kruger and Freeman are both good in their parts, and the supporting actors are generally convincing. The production values of the film are good. The excellent cinematography by Kolja Brandt and both the editing by Hansjörg Weißbrich and the Production Design by Yoel Herzberg are well done. The title offers English, German, Hebrew and Farsi dialogue; there are English subtitles but at some points another character translates lines of dialogue. The film is both scripted and directed by Yoel Herzberg so I think he bears the main responsibility for both the weaknesses and the strengths of this movie.

It is clearly a mainstream genre production. So I would expect a proper British release for the title. In the International projection and sound systems the film looked and sounded good. It probably stands up enough to watch at a theatre.

The Ground Beneath My Feet / (Der Boden unter den Füßen , Austria 2018)

This title was a Berlinale Press Screening held in the Berlinale Palast; outside the Festival the Theater am Potsdamer Platz. This is has a vast auditorium seating 1600 people with two balconies. It is a sign of the size of the media coverage of the Berlinale that on a Saturday morning the auditorium looked more than half-full. There is a large screen, 17 by 8 metres and good quality 4K digital projection and Atmos sound.

This title was one in the Festival Competition. It was written and directed by Marie Kreutzer. She has had made some short film, television titles and two previous cinema features; neither seems to have received a British release.

This film shares some plot features with the earlier Toni Erdmann (2016). Fortunately for me, it played the comparable story not for idiosyncratic humour but full-blooded drama. Lola (Valerie Pachner) is a driven and rising star in a multi-national business consultancy. Several times in the film she flies off from her spare, clinical home apartment in Vienna to the latest site where the company is selling ‘downsizing’ to a troubled firm. In this case the site is Rostock, though we do not encounter any of the contemporary Russian robber-barons.

Lola is in charge of a new and nearly completed project. Her career is helped by her relationship with senior manager Elise (Mavie Hörbiger). But this advantage unravels because of the her family complications. Officially an orphan she has an elder sister Conny (Pia Hierzegger). Conny suffers from paranoid schizophrenia.

Lola finds that she cannot manage/help her sister in the disciplined manner in which she works. As she struggles to balance one life against another we also discover some of the troubled background of the sisters. This includes the reason why at work Lola passes for an ‘orphan’; emotionally this is partly true.

The study of the Machiavellian environment in which she works is well done. Her colleagues run the gamut from the ruthless career climbers to the naïve juniors. It is easy to see how these contrary characters will emerge as the contract reaches agreement.

 

If the workplace is somewhat conventional the hospital and mental institution which shelters Conny is more interesting and complex. As the production narrative develops the sister’s relationship becomes the most interesting facet. But Lola has left addressing this situation squarely to a very late stage.

The leads are very good: Valerie Pachner dominates the story and the screen. The sexual relationship between the two women is overt and convincing. The plot, as I suggest, is in many ways conventional but the resolution is not just predictable but worthy of attention. The title was shot on 35mm in a scope format and colour. The screening used a digital transfer to DCP which was well done and offered a good image and sound with English sub-titles. The camerawork is well done. The use of mid-shots and close-ups in confined work spaces often suggest the claustrophobia in the company. Whilst in Vienna, and outside the white and metallic apartment, open-air sequences enjoy excellent tracking shots which emphasize the sense of the title.

The screening at the Berlinale was organised by Picture Tree International. I did not find any titles from the company that I recognised from a British release. The home market is not that receptive to Austrian titles [or quite a few other European industries]. The production has enough drama and is a relatively mainstream offerings. We may well in due course see it in Britain.

Mary Shelley (UK-Luxembourg-Ireland 2018)

Elle Fanning as Mary, writing in her secret place – by her mother’s grave

This year celebrating women in cinema has many anniversaries to promote. One of the most important is the 200th anniversary of the writing of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstencraft Shelley. This film was surely conceived as a celebration of the bi-centenary. I’m a little surprised that there hasn’t been more of a promotional push for it. Or perhaps there has – perhaps in women’s magazines and websites/social media? It’s certainly an interesting second feature for director Haifaa Al-Mansour, following Wadjda in 2013, especially as 2018 is the year in which Saudi women have got the legal right to apply for a driving licence for the first time and cinemas are finally being opened in the Kingdom. Next year is the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, which is commemorated in Mike Leigh’s new film and which brings us to Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary’s husband and a radical poet who wrote a long poem ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ after hearing about the massacre. His inspirational words “Ye are many – they are few”, are still quoted today. Unfortunately, Peterloo and other events such as the Napoleonic Wars are not mentioned in the film, but it’s necessary to be aware of Percy’s radicalism alongside Mary’s amazing creativity. Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft (author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women), died a few days after her daughter was born and her story hangs heavy over Mary.

This is an independent film with funding from three countries. In practical terms, some of location work was in Luxembourg and much of the studio work and post-production was in Ireland. The BFI had a lesser role I suppose but the cast is primarily British apart from Elle Fanning as Mary. The history of the production begins with debutant Australian screenwriter Emma Jensen who received funding support from Screen NSW and Screen Australia and whose agent sold the project to an American producer, who in turn attached Al-Mansour (who had studied in Sydney). Elle Fanning was cast early and then HanWay (the UK company led by Jeremy Thomas) took over as producer and international sales agent.

Mary with her step-sister Claire (Bel Powley)

What kind of costume/heritage/historical biopic (as well as ‘romance’) does Mary Shelley turn out to be? It could be one of those traditional Hollywood studio biopics – except this isn’t a studio pic as such. Could it be one of those BBC-style costume pics or something more radical and modernist? For me, Elle Fanning does rather push it towards Hollywood, though the overall look and feel of the film make it appear more realist in the mode of BBC adaptations of 19th century novels. As Mary, Fanning is perhaps too tall, too healthy and too attractive. There is nothing wrong with her performance, but she stands out as a ‘star actor’. I’m assuming that the initial producer thought getting her on board would make finding financial backing easier and that’s probably correct. I am not criticising Ms Fanning who is undoubtedly a talented actor, but there are many young British actors – Florence Pugh for instance – who might have been considered. As it is, Pugh’s co-star in The Falling (UK 2014), Maisie Williams, is rather wasted in a minor role in Mary Shelley – her status as a star of Game of Thrones came too late perhaps? I think that one possible pointer to what kind of film Mary Shelley might have become is offered by Jane Campion’s film Bright Star (France-Australia-UK 2009) about the young John Keats and Fanny Brawne, a similar pairing of two ‘creative’ young lovers at roughly the same ‘moment’ in history as Mary and Percy. It’s an unfair comparison because Jane Campion, Ben Whishart and Abbie Cornish have more experience. It’s interesting though because both films originated in Australia. Campion chose a title that didn’t immediately suggest the costume biopic and Mary Shelley in fact began with the title A Storm In the Stars – there are at least two scenes in the film in which gazing at the night sky features prominently.

If Bright Star was set in rural Hampstead with flowers and butterflies and cottage gardens, Mary Shelley is signed as ‘gothic romance’ from the get-go. The beginnings of the industrial age are in the background (and so is the not-mentioned war). The key London locations are dark and gloomy St. Pancras and upper-class Bloomsbury, the former partly a studio construction, the latter a Dublin street? The film’s plot gives no indication of specific dates. I found this odd since these were two ‘real lives’ lived at a time when sudden death was not unusual. But perhaps it is just me who wants the clear historical context? As far as I can work out, the narrative begins in 1813, Mary meets Percy in 1814. In 1816 they spend the summer by Lake Geneva with Byron and Polidori and the short story idea for Frankenstein is first developed. The novel is published in 1818 and the narrative ends around 1819.

Mary and Claire with Shelley (Douglas Booth) are welcomed to the chateau by Lake Geneva by Byron (Tom Sturridge)

Elsa Lanchester as Mary with Douglas Walton as Shelley and Gavin Gordon as Byron in ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’

The film is presented as a romance and as an introduction to the origins of the Frankenstein story – thus the gothic romance. It should be a very dark and passionate story – and a very sexy one. I’m trying to imagine the production meetings and the arguments about how much to ‘push’ the more salacious possibilities of the story and how important a sense of repression/restraint might be. Although I enjoyed the film I do think it feels rather stifled in its attempts to reach its potential. The script is in tune with the current campaigns around ‘MeToo’ and sexual abuse and with the suppression of the true authors (Mary and Polidori) of stories passed off as the work of Shelley and Byron. That’s all fine but it loses some of its impact when Shelley (Douglas Booth) and Byron (Tom Sturridge) are poorly developed characters with no real substance. They came across to me like a pair of public school boys – privileged and cruel but not displaying any real talent. (By contrast, Stephen Dillane as Godwin, Mary’s father, seems just right.) The whole Lake Geneva sequence cried out for something like the appearance of Elsa Lanchester as Mary in the 1935 Bride of Frankenstein. 1816 was the ‘The Year Without a Summer’ in which crops failed and the skies were dark with rain – I don’t think enough of this is made in the film. I’m guessing that the budget limitations were partly to blame. Overall though I think the narrative just doesn’t have enough ‘passion’ and ‘wildness’, the key features of Romanticism.