Nocturnal Animals (US 2016)

Still life? Amy Adams as Susan seems like a statue in her art gallery, posed at the opening of her new exhibition next to one of the naked women hired to act as exhibits.

Still life? Amy Adams as Susan seems like a statue in her art gallery, posed at the opening of her new exhibition next to one of the naked female dancers hired to act as exhibits.

This film has been roundly praised in some quarters but I’m not sure I’m so enthusiastic about it. Director Tom Ford, who was responsible for the similarly acclaimed A Single Man (2009), is best known as a designer, starting in ‘interior architecture’ and moving on to fashion before making A Single Man. That film’s been sitting unwatched on my hard drive recorder for a while and I’ve noticed that some critics have argued it was more about style than substance. Nocturnal Animals has generated some similar comments and I’m afraid that’s my reaction too.

‘Nocturnal Animals’ is the title of a ‘story within a story’ – a form of mise en abîme which also occurs in cinema when fictional characters might stage a play/make a film which in turn reflects on the lives of the fictional filmmakers. In this case, ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is a first novel, written by Edward, a man in his late 40s, and posted as a manuscript to his ex-wife. She is Susan Morrow, a college lecturer, now a woman with a family and married to Arnold, a surgeon. The lead character in ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is Tony, a maths professor who becomes the victim of an altercation with three men on a remote road at night in Maine which also threatens Tony’s wife and teenage daughter. Susan starts to read the novel and can’t stop. The author of the ‘framing novel’ entitled Tony and Susan was Austin Wright, a Cincinnatti Professor of English. It was his last novel, published in 1993 and he died in 2003. Although the novel received praise from critics on publication and was sold for a possible film adaptation, it didn’t sell books in the expected numbers and it wasn’t until it was seen as successful in the UK that it was re-published in the US in 2010. At this stage, Tom Ford was able to work on an adaptation, seemingly creating his own adapted screenplay with some significant differences to the original novel.

The film itself is now also called Nocturnal Animals and this title is presented as referring to Susan during her time with Edward. It also seems to refer to her now as she reads Edward’s manuscript over one weekend when she can’t sleep (and the novel is dedicated to her on the first page of the manuscript). The major difference between Wright’s novel and Ford’s film, however, is a change of setting, including the occupations of Susan and her husband. In the film, Susan (as played by Amy Adams) is a high-profile gallery operator focusing on modern art and her husband Armie Hammer is some kind of ‘money man’ who is clearly spending a weekend away with a mistress when supposedly on business. This is the weekend when Susan reads the manuscript. The manuscript has also changed a setting with the highway altercation now in the wastes of West Texas (where there is no mobile phone signal).

The gallery sequences are filmed with great attention to interior design, lighting etc. and if you like this kind of thing no doubt you will find it interesting – I don’t enjoy this clinical, hard design style. Worse, an actor as engaging as Amy Adams seems imprisoned in the set with all the life drained from her. I like Amy Adams and I like Jake Gyllenhaal, but both seem miscast here, although Gyllenhaal, who plays ‘Tony’ in the manuscript story does OK in that role. The film has three parts, the ‘now’ of Susan over the weekend, the ‘telling’ of the story she reads and her flashbacks to her time together with Edward (also Gyllenhaal). These flashbacks aren’t really credible. I haven’t read the novel, but various reviews suggest that Susan and Edward broke up 25 or 20 years ago, after grad school, which would put them in their late 40s. In the film, Susan appears to have been married to the Armie Hammer character for at least 19 years because she has a daughter at college. Hammer is not even 30 but playing Susan’s husband, whereas Adams is 41 and Gyllenhaal 35. It’s a stretch to ask Amy Adams to play 25 and Hammer is completely wrong (unless I’ve misunderstood the plot).

West Texas, the setting for the novel Susan reads

West Texas, the setting for the novel Susan reads

The most interesting part of the film is the West Texas story which features a standout performance by Michael Shannon as the local detective who investigates what happened and cajoles Tony into an unwise adventure. This narrative is realised as a genre piece recalling both the hard-boiled noir of Jim Thompson and various horror stories and crime stories. It’s beautifully photographed by Seamus McGarvey who handles all three narratives very well in visual terms.

From what I’ve read about the novel, I can imagine that it works well. I calculate that Wright must have imagined the ‘now’ of his story as the early 1990s, meaning that Edward and Susan were in graduate school in the late 1960s. I think that would make a difference to the story. Again, Tony in the novel’s story, as a maths professor who is intellectual rather than instinctive, reminds me of the Dustin Hoffman character in Straw Dogs – though he doesn’t have Hoffman’s resilience as depicted by Peckinpah. I do wonder, though, whether Wright was influenced by Straw Dogs or Gordon Williams’ original novel. Tony’s purpose in sending the manuscript to Susan is as a kind of revenge – putting Susan through the torment that he felt when she left him all those years ago. As she reads the story Susan sees herself as the wife and mother in the car (and the mother is played by Isla Fisher, looking so similar to Amy Adams that some audiences have been confused). But also important is that Austin Wright, an academic literature scholar, writes a novel in which a maths professor with literary ambitions sends a genre novel to a college lecturer – a revenge scenario couched in the framework of literary theory/praxis. None of this works when Susan is represented as an art ‘gallerist’. I found her character emotionally stiff and therefore the interconnections just didn’t work for me. The other puzzles are firstly why Ford casts four British actors, three of them as art world denizens – is it something about Brit Art? There is a Damien Hirst piece in the film and also something by Jeff Koons and I suppose the ‘now’ sequences in the film might be seen as some kind of satire on the art world. But I’m not up to analysing that. I recommend an article from ‘Flavorwire‘ for an informed lowdown on this aspect of Nocturnal Animals. There is one other aspect of the film that I haven’t mentioned – Laura Linney’s role as Susan’s bourgeois mother who tells her daughter not to follow the course of her ambitions after graduate school. I’m not sure if she is a character from the novel or one of Ford’s inventions, but she works to repress poor Susan still further.

I realise I’ve spent over 1,000 words on a film I didn’t really like, but I guess that means it is of some interest. I think I’ll now have to read the original novel to see whether my hypothesis was correct – i.e. that it works more effectively. I can also then resolve some of the conflicting points about the characters that appear in reviews.

(Nocturnal Animals was screened in Screen 14 at the Vue, Leeds, The Light – not sure when this screen was added but as a small ’boutique’ screen it is quite different to the larger screens originally built for Ster Century and it has a screen shaped for ‘Scope)

Fidel Castro 1926 to 2016

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The great leader of the Cuban Revolution and an iconic figure for progressives will be mourned by many. As in life, in death he divides people. The most extreme being the rather nasty celebrations in Miami. Whilst in Cuba the majority of citizens recognise both the loss and his great contribution. The media coverage so far has been predictably inadequate. The BBC echoes the political establishment whilst Sky News could not even gets the dates of the US boycott correct. Even Al Jazeera suggested Cuba “brought the world to the brink of nuclear war”: actually it was the USA in the recurring war-mongering mode. In the UK the best comment has been on the RT Channel (113 on Freeview].

Whatever the failings of the Post-revolution society under Fidel it did liberate the Cuban people from US neo-colonial exploitation and was a beacon for other National Liberation struggles round the world. Hence tributes have been pouring in from the oppressed peoples and nations. Certainly there are few other leaders in the second half of the 20th century who maintained such a resolute resistance to US imperialism and neo-colonialism.

There were many progressive aspects of the Cuban Revolution, notably the work of Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos / The Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) founded immediately after the revolution in 1959.

At ICAIC Julio García Espinosa produced the key manifest ‘For an Imperfect Cinema’ (1969). And numerous films in the early stages illustrated how relevant this was. A key film would be, Memorias del Subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment, 1968) directed by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea. A later and equally fine film by Alea is La última cena (The Last Supper, 1976). I particularly like Humberto Solás’ Lucía (1968). Then there are the newsreels and documentaries of Santiago Alvarez: notably Now (1965) and 79 Springs / 79 primaveras, Cuba 1969. And there is the rarely seen work of Sarah Gómez including her final film De Cierta Manera (One Way or Another, 1974). Of more recent films there is the fine La vida es silbar (Life is to Whistle, 1998) directed by Fernando Pérez. This was part of a season of then recent Cuban films programmed at the National Media Museum. My colleague Roy Stafford was involved and introduced several of the films.

Alongside the films went the vibrant and politically alive poster art work. And a number of films were graced by the modernist scores of Leo Brouwer. The cultural and educational aspects of ICAIC are best presented in the excellent and inspiring For the First Time (Por primera vez, 1967), which made a fine introduction to a screening  of Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936).

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The progressive work from the Cuban film movement is part of the anti-colonial cinema in Latin America. Cuba provided a base for the Festival to celebrate New Latin American Cinema. They also supported progressive filmmakers of the continent as with Patricio Guzman’s three-part La batalla de Chile / The Battle of Chile (1975-1979).

A number of influences fed into the film work at ICAIC. But a key model for them was the classic Soviet Montage. We are nearly in 2017 and the centenary of the Great Proletarian Revolution. So the radical Cuban films offer excellent accompaniment to re-visiting the masterworks from the 1920s.

Toni Erdmann (Germany 2016)

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This was the closing film of the Leeds International Film Festival. It is one of three titles competing for the European Parliament’s LUX Prize. [It won the prize.] The other two contenders are My Life as a Courgette (Ma vie de courgette ,Switzerland-France and a late addition to the LIFF programme) and As I Open My Eyes (A piene j’ouvre de yeux, France, Tunisia, Belgium, UAR). All three films should receive distribution across the EU, which still includes the UK. The aim of this is to support and publicise  ‘quality’ films that address important social and political issues and contribute to building a European identity. The Selection Committee of professionals appointed by the Parliament select a winning title. However, there is also an Audience Award and UK citizens are still able to vote in this. Toni Erdmann is a strong contender as it has received good reviews and is an impressive film that certainly addresses important issues. It is at times very funny, though increasingly I found the humour overpowered by the sadness of the situation and central relationship

The film centres on a father and daughter, Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) and Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller). The title character is imported into this relationship by the father.

Ines works for a consultancy firm, presumably venture capitalists. She is the lead person in discussion with Romanian ministers about privatising the country’s oil industry: i.e. downsizing. She is part of the highly paid jet set, moving round for the company. Currently she is based in Bucharest and her father comes to visit her there.

Over a period of weeks we watch both their personal relationship and also aspects of Ines’ work. The latter involves company executives, working acquaintances with whom she socialises in expensive bars and restaurants; and people in the Romanian industry. Her father also meets them. He has a tendency, established in the opening sequences of the film, to play at practical jokes. So he is an ironic and slightly bizarre addition to this privileged circle.

We see a certain amount of the wheeling and dealing, both in the firm where Ines works and between that company and the Romanian government. Only once do we see the actual working people who are pawns in this financial play: this is on a visit to an oil platform. It is clear that for the workers the alternatives of state or private exploitation are equally injurious.

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The director of the film, Maren Ade, is quoted in the Festival Catalogue on the characters as ‘comedians’,

“because comedians often have their alter egos, . . . “

Les Grignoux in an extensive review of the film, [which includes nearly all the plotline], picked up on this and discusses the two protagonists in these terms:

“The humour provides a key to interpreting the film, however, and digging slightly deeper beneath the surface quickly reveals the similarities between the contrasting couple of the father and the daughter and two traditional circus characters: Auguste and the whiteface clown.” [In a LUX information pack].

Whilst I’m not fully convinced, this does provide an interesting angle on the film. And in the later stages Ines surprises us by following her father’s penchant for jokes. Up until this point the film has tended to be realist, with sequences often running on in an extended fashion. From this point I found the film’s ending closer to the surreal as the filmmaker sought to offer a resolution.

The film is well produced with some fine cinematography, though this aspect along with the sound and music is subordinated to the working of the relationship and settings.

It is an absorbing though also quite long film. I was engaged and impressed throughout it length. But I was not completely convinced by the way that the changing relationship between father and daughter was handled. Also the back stories to the characters are not that clear and I was aware of this during the film. Much of the action take place in Bucharest but the film apparently opens in Germany, but where is not clear. And Winfried seems to work as a part-time music teacher but in Bucharest he seems to have access to an amount of spending money. And there are characters in Bucharest and other family members who are important important in the film but the focus on the main pair means these are often sketchy as people.

Definitely worth seeing but prepare for two and half hours of viewing. The film is in colour and offers a mixture of German, English and Romanian dialogue, with English sub-titles.

Cézanne et moi (France 2016)

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Guillaume Gallienne (left) as Paul Cézanne and Guillaume Canet as Émile Zola

This biopic about the post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne and the novelist Émile Zola is part of the ’24th French Film Festival’ with screenings across a range of venues in Scotland and England between November 3rd and December 7th. Primarily a Scottish affair, this festival makes us in England very envious, but also grateful for the opportunity to catch one or two titles. Cézanne et moi played at Hebden Bridge Picture House which also screened The Red Turtle (La tortue rouge).

French cinema deals with ‘heritage’ topics much like British cinema with adaptations of literary texts and historical dramas and this biopic fits the pattern of 19th century dramas – strong on surface realism and ‘authenticity’. It is beautifully photographed by the experienced Jean-Marie Dreujou and writer-director Danièle Thompson has assembled a mainly female creative team who do an excellent job on set design, costumes, make-up etc. Thompson herself has a long track record as a scriptwriter and this is her sixth directing role after some fifty years in the industry. Her earlier scripts for historical dramas include La reine Margot (1994) and a well-received TV adaptation of Stendahl’s Le rouge et le noir (1997). My overall impression is that this latest film is a conventional biopic in terms of its structure.

I went into the screening with relatively little knowledge of the details of the lives of either Cézanne or Zola and though I recognised the names of many of the other characters, I could not claim any real knowledge of the ‘community’ of artists or writers in 19th century France. As a result, I was engaged by the film mainly because I was learning about these interesting artists (and as far as I can see the film is historically accurate, though some manipulation of dates her and there may have been necessary to create a satisfactory narrative structure). On the other hand, I did struggle to recognise characters and with more prior knowledge I might have got more out of the ways in which the differences between the two men are presented. In the simplest terms, Zola suffered from the early death of his engineer father and struggled for money as a young man but eventually became a best-selling writer and a wealthy man. By contrast, Cézanne’s family was wealthy and he received an allowance as a young man before inheriting the family fortune in later life, yet he struggled to sell his paintings during his lifetime and it was not until after his death that his genius was fully recognised by the artists of the early 20th century.

The casting decision about the two leads intrigued me. Cézanne is played by Guillaume Gallienne who is billed as a member of the Comédie-Française. Although I have seen him before in some of his many film roles, this still makes me think of him as first a theatre player. Guillaume Canet who plays Zola is, I would argue, a French film star (and director). In this film, though both players were very good, I did feel that Gallienne ‘inhabited’ Cézanne as a character, whereas Canet did seem to ‘acting’ in his performance. These were just my impressions and they may have more to do with the nature of Cézanne and Zola as characters. The film’s title implies that the narrative offers Zola’s view of Cézanne. I’m not sure the narration has that emphasis, though it is certainly Cézanne who is the principal focus in the latter stages. But then, it often seems that the process of painting is more amenable to representation on screen than that of writing. But it does mean that we learn more about Cézanne’s attempts to capture the landscapes of Provence, portraits and still life compositions – whereas we see little of Zola’s inspiration for his realist/naturalist novels.

Zola and Cézanne first met as boys in Provence in the early 1850s when Zola’s father was an engineer on a large dam. They were re-united in Paris as young men and remained friends until the late 1880s and the publication of Zola’s novel L’œuvre in 1886 which tells the story of an artist who struggles to paint the great picture which will be seen as worthy of his genius. The suggestion is that Cézanne found the character to be too close to his own experience and that it implied he had failed as an artist. Thompson moves between the various periods of the relationship between the two men and I do wonder if a tighter focus would have made for a more effective narrative (with possibly more about Zola’s work).

Despite its focus on the two men, Danièle Thompson also develops the roles for the women in their lives and I enjoyed the performances of Déborah François as Hortense, Sabine Azéma as Cézanne’s mother and Alice Pol as Zola’s wife Alexandrine. As yet there isn’t a trailer with English subs, but you can get some sense of the visual style of the film and the central performances in this bande annonce: