Apparently writer-director Johannes Nyholm asked journalists not to reveal the plot in their coverage of the film however it is very difficult to write about the film without giving away details so go and see the film (though it’s not due to be released in the UK until February) before you read this as spoilers abound.
This is the second film I’ve seen recently that deals with parental grief at the loss of a child; the other was The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium-Netherlands, 2012). The latter dealt with the trauma in a realist fashion using melodrama to articulate the emotional pain. The milieux of that film, a country band, gave plenty of opportunity for music, which was superbly done. Koko-di Koko-da uses horror as a vehicle to articulate grief; early in the film a character references Freddie from The Nightmare on Elm Street series as a clue to understand the recurring (apparently) dream narratives the protagonists suffer. There’s also an element of Run Lola Run (Lola rennt, Germany 1998) in the repeating narrative; whilst Lola relived her trauma three times, the six experienced here felt excessive until the denouement. Koko-di uses an arthouse narrative technique where the end of the film throws into focus what’s gone before and there’s an epiphany. I won’t spoil what that is.
The ghouls are Grimm fairy tale type characters that are truly unsettling; they appear to be products of Nyholm’s imagination but have a convincing ‘collective consciousness’ quality to them. They are brilliant bogeymen. Of course, these tales are primarily aimed at children but the context here is entirely adult as the nightmare of a child’s death is brilliantly staged at the start. The bulk of the film is three years later when the couple are camping and end up in the woods. The cyclical nature, the vicious circle, of grief is brilliantly articulated by the repetition of their nightmare. In The Broken Circle Breakdown the narrative is a spiral down and expresses anger at the American ban of gene cell therapy, which may have saved the child. Hence, the American music context of the film: Johan Heldenbergh’s Didier loves the country but rails against Bush’s relgious convictions that prevent research.
Koko-di isn’t situated in a particular time and place, though the Nordic woods are particularly spooky with the bleached-out light, and is more effective for it. The pain has a universal quality that intensifies the nightmare and it’s clear that suffering the death of a child is likely to get you waking up screaming.
In Fabric is easily recognisable as a Peter Strickland film. Few directors have such a ‘personal style’. This fourth feature is perhaps the most removed from the first film, Katalin Varga (UK-Romania-Hungary, 2009) and closer to the other two, Berberian Sound Studio (UK-Germany, 2012) and The Duke of Burgundy (UK-Hungary, 2014). It is the first of Strickland’s films to be set in the UK and this perhaps makes the film ‘feel’ different.
Strickland’s films are absurdist and include elements of horror and comedy and the kind of erotica associated with European exploitation films. They also feature avant-garde soundtracks, on this occasion from Cavern of Anti-Matter based in Berlin. Some audiences find the films impenetratable, some find them comic and others are morally outraged. In this one there are numerous vaginal symbols and an anatomically correct mannequin with synthetic pubic hair – which gets a credit for the designer of the hair, much like the ‘human toilet consultant’ on The Duke of Burgundy.
A brief plot outline (no spoilers)
Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is a bank teller in ‘Thames Valley-upon Thames’ (Strickland is associated with Reading). She is divorced from her husband and lives with her teenage son Vince and whose older girlfriend Gwen (Gwendoline Christie) often ‘stays over’. Sheila starts trying to date again and buys a striking red dress in a sale from the local department store, Dentley & Soper (some customers of the John Lewis store in Reading – originally Heelas – will wonder what went on there!). Sheila makes a bad decision! The dress has a life of its own. The narrative follows what happens to those who attempt to ‘own’ and wear the dress.
The story is set in an indeterminate period of the recent past when life was still ‘analogue’. Sheila answers a ‘lonely hearts’ ad in a newspaper and nobody uses mobile phones. The mise en scène generally evokes the 1970s-90s. Although the European touches are still there, this time they take second place to a set of British signifiers which point to ‘horror anthology series’ such as the Amicus films of the 1970s or TV series such as Tales of the Unexpected from the 1980s. In Fabric offers two or possibly three stories associated with the red dress. The European elements include the strange sales assistants at the department store who are dressed in what one reviewer described as ‘Victorian mourning outfits’ and who speak in an almost unintelligible formal language. These women (and the male manager) indulge in various dubious activities in the store’s cellar, accessed by a dumb waiter. I did enjoy the store’s old-fashioned vacuum tube system for sending payments to its accounts office. I was reminded of how shops functioned in the 1950s. I note that the effects team on the production all appeared to be Hungarian. The other European horror element comes from Dario Argento’s gialli.
It took me a while to work out which role Sidse Babett Knudsen plays in the film since she is credited first in the cast list on screen. I wondered if this was a joke (she starred in the previous film, The Duke of Burgundy). Eventually I realised that she was the model in the store catalogue wearing the ‘Ambassadorial Function Dress’ in ‘Artery Red’. It is this attention to detail that remains a joy in Strickland’s films. As well as the great design, Strickland has a strong cast. Marianne Jean-Baptiste best known for her role in Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies and Hayley Squires from Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake might seem like odd choices but their casting works well. Romanian actor Fatma Mohamed appeared in Strickland’s two previous films and she gives In Fabric its most distinctive character. Most of the rest of the cast is from British TV and the supporting casts of British films.
What to make of all this? Perhaps because of the specific genre elements, this may have been more accessible to audiences than the three earlier films. The people behind me in the cinema laughed and gasped and seemed to be having a good time. In the credits I noted that Ben Wheatley was an executive producer. I don’t know how much, if any, influence he had on the film. I heard someone in the cinema mention Wheatley’s Sightseers (UK 2012) when they read the credit. I’ve only seen Sightseers of Wheatley’s films and because, I didn’t really enjoy it, I haven’t looked for the others. Perhaps this is why I found In Fabric felt different from Strickland’s earlier films? (I realise now two of In Fabric‘s cast have appeared in Wheatley’s films.)
Peter Strickland is a talented filmmaker and I will seek out his next film. In Fabric should be out on DVD in the UK as well as on VOD from Curzon.
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.