Surprisingly, this is Neil Jordan’s first cinema film since Byzantium in 2012. He seems to have spent the intervening years working on two TV series and writing a couple of novels. It’s always good to see him back on the big screen and Greta shares some of the same elements as Byzantium, though the genre base has shifted from vampires to psychological horror with distinctive gothic touches. The principal characters are again played by talented female actors having a lot of fun. As Nick suggested after the screening, Greta is perhaps best described as ‘classy schlock’. I certainly found it entertaining and there might be something else there which a second viewing might illuminate – or not!
The premise is straightforward. Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a young woman down from university in Massachusetts and now waitressing in an upmarket restaurant in New York at a difficult time in her life after her mother’s death and her father’s distant behaviour. She has a flatmate Erica (Maika Monroe) who appears to be a follower of ‘wellness’ regimes and the like. One day Frances finds an expensive handbag on the subway and takes it in person to the strange little house owned by Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert). Erica had warned her not to meet Greta, but initially Frances doesn’t mind the company of someone she sees as a lonely older woman and a social relationship begins. She learns that Greta is missing her own daughter’s company. But the initial companionship won’t last long. Greta is not someone you want to let into your life . . .
Greta is an unsettling film to watch. Although set in New York, the film was shot in Toronto and Dublin and Greta’s house and the restaurant where Frances works are odd locations. The film is shot beautifully by Seamus McGarvey (and presented from a 4K DCP in Bradford) and edited by Nick Emerson – a pair of Northern Irishmen to go with Sligo-born Neil Jordan. The music is by Javier Navarrete who composed for Byzantium and earlier for Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish films Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. Nick was particularly taken by the sound design by Stefan Henrix. Sound is still and ‘understudied’ aspect of film narratives and on a first viewing/listening I find it difficult to analyse any sequence in detail. What I did notice in Greta was that apart from the very obvious music cueing of certain sequences (which works well I think) there is also a harshness and jarring effect coming through the combination of cinematography, editing and sound effects. From the limited amount of promotional material on the film that I’ve seen, Jordan (who co-wrote the script with Ray Wright, one-time collaborator with both George A. Romero and Wes Craven) wanted to look back to 1980s/90s thrillers like Fatal Attraction. What he seems to have achieved is a strange mix of that earlier period of thrillers sliding into horror with some modern concerns and characters. In this respect the casting of Moretz as the ‘up and coming’ young actor, pitted against Huppert seems a good choice. And while the mise en scène seems to look back, the use of modern phone technologies is well integrated in the narrative.
Once Greta’s behaviour teeters over into the clearly dangerous Jordan cranks up the pace, scrambling through the gears and the last third of the film is highly conventional but presented with real panache and one or two clever turns. It also includes an oddly humorous gruesome moment perhaps inspired by the Korean team working on the effects. Neil Jordan fans will also enjoy the brief appearance of Stephen Rea, the actor who most of all reminds us of Jordan’s early successes.
Greta has received very mixed reviews and similarly mixed responses from audiences. I think it works because Moretz takes her role seriously and plays it for real and Huppert is her usual marvellous self revelling in playing Liszt on the piano and dancing round the strange little room she inhabits. She’s made well over 100 films but I suspect she remembers some similar roles and characters she played for Chabrol. There are holes in the plot and you need to suspend belief but Jordan and his team create genuine excitement throughout the final section. I’m not going to show the trailer as it gives too much away. See it for the performances of the three women.
Level 16 is an SF thriller, directed by Danishka Esterhazy. SF/science fiction/horror is one of the strengths of Anglophone Canadian cinema and since I’m keen to see SF and Canadian films, especially by women, it seemed an obvious choice for me to book. What I hadn’t realised was that this screening was at the beginning of the first full day of ‘FrightFest’ as a festival within the main festival. Sitting on the front row (numbered seating instead of the usual unreserved) in a jam-packed GFT1 was a new experience. I’ve never seen so many cinemagoers in black T-shirts together before. This was all generally good fun but the announcements and promos and a short film extended the running time of the slot considerably. When I finally escaped the theatre I discovered that I had 1 minute before my next (2 hours plus) feature. That’s not good!
Level 16 was preceded by a short video welcome/introduction by Danishka Esterhazy on a recording (she’s currently shooting in Hawaii) and she told us that this was a film inspired to some extent by her own schooling. She must have had a grim time. The film is set in the very near future or alternative present and focuses on a group of teenage girls in a mysterious boarding school. They are never allowed out of their windowless rooms on the grounds that the air/light outside will damage their skin. Each day they are put through rituals of learning about appropriate behaviour for young ladies, but not much conventional academic learning. They wear long concealing dresses and take medication each day (described as vitamins). They are taught via TV screens, old ‘public service’ films and Hollywood classics. Each girl is named after a classic Hollywood beauty and the two central characters are ‘Vivien’ and ‘Sophia’. The only two adults they see most of the time are the tall, glamorous blonde Miss Brixil and the seemingly kindly Dr Miro. But if they are punished, the girls are taken away by black-clad ‘guards’ and put in ‘solitary’. If they are obedient the girls gradually progress to the next ‘level’ and when they reach ‘Level 16’ they believe that prospective adoptive parents/employers are going to select them to live in beautiful homes. These visitors come to see the girls who are presented in a drug-induced sleep. However, it is inevitable that one day a girl is going to rebel and avoid the medication. Once she realises what is happening will she be able to convince the others who, after years of indoctrination and drug regimes are likely to be resistant? Is it possible for the girls to act collectively given their histories?
The ‘prison break’ or POW escape offers another genre repertoire from which to draw alongside the girls school, horror and SF repertoires, but it means that the pacing and tone of the narrative changes significantly in the final section. Up until the last five minutes I thought the film worked well but I found the ending rushed and unconvincing. However, the large audience of ‘fright fans’ seemed to be appreciative. Certainly, it is an intelligent film which uses its limited budget effectively. The performances from the four principal actors, all experienced in Canadian TV and film, are very effective. I was intrigued to read about Danishka Esterhazy’s background as a member of the Winnipeg Film Group and her frustration to try to get this film made as set out in an interview on the SYFY Wire website. The long struggle took around ten years with familiar problems in finding funding for this ‘feminist dystopian thriller’ with a whole catalogue of sexist assumptions about what should be in a film like this and how the girls should be presented. In the meantime, Esterhazy made other features that were more attractive to funders, including as she describes it:
a Brontë novel, but set in Canada. Which I thought was like, ‘You think my sci-fi film’s weird, my Canadian Brontë film is really weird!’
That Brontë reference is also an indicator of the kind of research Esterhazy undertook since Level 16 benefits from a study of Victorian etiquette books and ideas about how young women should behave. I think that Level 16 would be an interesting film to show to students, because of the way it confounds that array of assumptions (e.g. teenage girls won’t watch SF, women don’t direct SF, there needs to be a romance etc.). It also offers a useful comparison with more traditional SF films on similar topics such as the two Stepford Wives films and something like Never Let Me Go (UK-US 2010) with its much higher cultural status. The success of The Handmaid’s Tale on TV probably helps as well.
The White Reindeer is a weird amalgam of Finnish folklore and what appears to my untutored eyes to be ethnographic filmmaking. However, a quick glance along the casts’ filmographies shows that most of the cast are actors and their adeptness in the frozen north with reindeer and skis is obviously born of their culture. The glimpses of Sami life are probably the most fascinating aspect of the film from the reindeer races, the weddings and reindeer herding. Director Erik Blomberg (who also coproduced, co-wrote and photographed!) brings visual flare to what must have been a tough shoot. Only occasionally is the mise en scene compromised; for example, at the climax there are already ski-tracks visible – presumably from previous takes.
The narrative, a mythic tale designed to demonise (literally) sexually voracious women, is less than gripping. The startling images make up for the lack and Bergstrom seemed to me to use the top of the frame for more action than is usual. This gave a sense of the immense landscape; one exceptionally spectacular shot was of a herd of reindeer flowing into the distance (below).
In addition, the transition scene – the cursed woman turns into a white reindeer – uses negative effectively. The soundtrack, which I take to be Finnish/Sami folksongs, adds to the eerie otherworldliness of the images though the sound was compromised by distortion in the bass (cinema’s fault – the Vue, Leeds – not the film’s). The White Reindeer was, for me, eye-opening drama in which the milieux is more important than the narrative.
This film opened the Cannes Film Festival Critics Week in 2017. It also received scripting support from the Sundance Festival. It has finally found its way into UK distribution via Altitude and I’m very pleased to have had the opportunity to see it. The festival links suggest an art film, but this is also a film that draws on popular film genres such as romance, horror and fantasy. Inevitably, it’s the kind of film that has received rave reviews and also some very negative ones – but here’s why it is definitely worth seeing.
The starting point for writer-directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza was a terrible event in 1993 which had an impact on most Sicilians. It involved the Mafia and led to much soul-searching across the population. But instead of attempting to tell the story in a realist, procedural manner, the filmmakers (from Palermo) decided to create a form of fantasy/ghost story because that seemed to be a more appropriate way of representing the impact of the events.
The narrative begins as children leave the elementary school in a village in the hills of Central Sicily. A rather beautiful young boy wanders into the woods and is followed by a girl from his class. She hides behind a tree watching him playing with a large colourful butterfly which rests on his hand. Around the girl’s feet a creature is snuffling, a mustelid of some kind (mink, pine marten?). Whatever it is, this is an animal usually very wary of humans. We seem to be in a fantasy situation. A little later the girl is frightened by an angry black dog. Hansel and Gretel in the woods? We will eventually discover that these thirteen year-olds are Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez) and Luna (Julia Jedlikowska). Their day ends when Giuseppe, after showing his show-jumping skills on his horse at a remote stables, suddenly disappears. As Luna sits on a rock gazing into the distance, waiting for Giuseppe to emerge from the stables, we see behind her and slightly out of focus what appears to be a police car taking the boy away. When Luna goes to his house, she can’t find any reason why Giuseppe has disappeared.
I won’t spoil the narrative development. I’ll only note that while the rest of the village, including Luna’s parents and the village school, remain silent about the disappearance, Luna and her friend Loredana are determined to find him. Luna is a highly intelligent girl, a talented artist and someone who has the ability to investigate the disappearance in her dreams/nightmares as much as in her waking hours. In the still above she creates what might be an image from her dreams. The drawing reminded me of a recent Spanish-British film, A Monster Calls (Spain-UK-US 2016), though in Luna’s case she wants to rescue Giuseppe from his captors and not summon them. The director of A Monster Calls is J. A. Bayona, whose career took off with promotion by Guillermo del Toro and it is del Toro who is arguably the key reference here with the young girl, the fairy underworld and the all too human horrors of Spanish fascism in Pan’s Labyrinth (Spain-Mexico 2006). There are a number of generic ‘fairy tale’ touches in Sicilian Ghost Story with a pet owl, a falcon and Luna’s rather grim mother (the Swiss actor Sabine Timoteo). One reviewer has described the overall look of the film as ‘gothic and oneiric’ [dreamlike], which feels like a good call. Luna’s red coat (and red jumper) have also been seen as a nod to Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now set in Venice – but ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ seems a better bet.
Luna’s searches, whether ‘real’ or dreamlike are accompanied by winds and especially by underwater scenes in a nearby lake. I thought the cinematography by Luca Bigazzi was excellent – and so it should be since he has been responsible for the look of many well-known Italian films by Paulo Sorrentino and other celebrated directors. Music and sound design is important too with a variety of sound effects enhancing the dreamlike qualities of Luna’s search. I’ve noted that there have been criticisms of the film. Some have complained that the dividing line between reality and fantasy is never clear, but that seems an odd argument since it is presumably the point of the narrative that the experience of the disappearance and its aftermath is difficult to understand and represent as a real event. The real events took place in 1993-5 but the film doesn’t mark this too carefully and it probably makes mistakes in presenting the period settings as eagle-eyed audiences have noted. I suspect the film’s ending will also cause problems for some audiences, but not for me. Overall I found the film to be an imaginative attempt to deal with a major social issue in ways which allowed me to think differently about how communities and individuals within them might respond to terrible events.
This is a tough film which disturbs but which has at its centre an extraordinary performance from Julia Jedlikowska in her first role. The narrative is fuelled by the determination of a single character to keep searching despite the collective hostility of an entire community, most of whose members are too frightened to take action themselves. Luna’s friend Loredana is a reliable friend but without Luna’s devotion to Giuseppe, she will eventually find that time will heal. But I’m wondering what will happen to Luna.
There is an interesting review of the film here.