Tagged: Austrian cinema

GFF20 #17: Lillian (Austria, 2019)

0x2C269AA3DCE2C808454D9A68CC259A5F

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.

lillian2

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.

Lourdes (Austria-France-Germany 2009)

Christine (Sylvie Testud) is a pilgrim visiting Lourdes, cared for by Maria (Léa Seydoux)

This 2009 film was made by much the same creative team and crew as the recent Little Joe, but the outcome seems to have found more favour among critics and audiences. The film is currently streaming on MUBI in the UK and is being shown in some cinemas to complement the release of Little Joe. Director Jessica Hausner chose to produce a French language film with the established French actor Sylvie Testud in the lead, supported by a young Léa Seydoux. As the title implies the narrative covers a pilgrimage to Lourdes. This is an organised visit led by members of the Order of Malta. The party comprises a mixed group of people, some in wheelchairs and others with less obvious afflictions as well as carers and the men and women of the order. Christine (Sylvie Testud) is in a wheelchair and Maria (Léa Seydoux) is her designated carer provided by the order and usually dressed in an elaborate nurse’s costume. The film’s dialogue is in French. I don’t think we ever discover where the pilgrims come from though several have names that sound Germanic rather than French.

Christine in her wheelchair and sporting her distinctive red hat passes a gift shop.

The pilgrims are on a four day visit which will include visits to the ‘waters’ and to several services of healing as well as more social activities. The group’s leader is the rather fierce Cécile from the order who issues strict instructions about protocol and behaviour. It becomes apparent early on that Christine is not particularly pious and she states that she enjoys pilgrimages mainly as a chance to get away and see somewhere new. She appreciates the organisation because it would be difficult to travel on her own. She has developed a form of multiple sclerosis and is rendered paraplegic, unable to use her limbs. I don’t know enough about this disease to judge but I’m not sure the representation of disease symptoms is meant to be clinically accurate. Christine has no difficulty socialising but Maria needs to help her eat and drink. Christine is placed in a room with an older woman who appears to see the pilgrimage as a chance to find meaning in her life. In this sub-plot, Christine might become a ’cause’ or a ‘project’ for her – leading to potential conflict with Maria, a volunteer ‘Malteser’ who takes her job seriously but who is also distracted by thoughts of what else she could be doing – going skiing?

The group wait patiently to enter the next holy site

Hausner’s approach to her story is governed by a sense of distance and an observational stance in the early parts of the film. She represents Lourdes itself much as it might appear in a documentary as members of the group queue up to experience the waters and visit sacred places. The dispassionate camera also records the stalls selling souvenirs and religious icons. Once we have become familiar with the specific group of pilgrims and the helpers, the sometimes static camera offers us wide shots. These are especially evident in the formal services and social gatherings, allowing us to note the different forms of behaviour of the pilgrims, including some competitive moves to get closer to the celebrant who is offering blessings etc. The narrative begins to resemble a comedy of manners which includes both the pilgrims and the carers. We also learn that there is a prize for ‘best pilgrim’ and that the main hope is that somebody will experience a ‘miracle’ which leads to partial or complete recovery from their affliction.

Director Jessica Hausner visited Lourdes several time and received permission to shoot from the local bishop

I’m not sure if spoilers apply with a ten year-old film on some form of re-release but you can probably guess what happens and who it happens to. (If you don’t want to know, don’t watch the trailer below.) Hausner treats the miracle moment much as she does the rest of the narrative. I’m not a believer in miracles as such but, as the doctor who is required to examine those who claim miracle cures points out, some conditions can be relieved temporarily and patients can go into remission at any point. Even so some of the behaviour that follows seems unlikely but it enables the director to play out a number of scenarios. Those with physical afflictions can still seek out moments of romance, petty jealousies can become apparent and rather un-Christian thoughts such as “why him or her and not me?” etc. The group has its own cleric in tow who has to answer these kinds of questions. I did notice one element of Martin Gschlacht’s cinematography which features several shots that at first appear to be badly composed but quickly reveal that they are actually very careful compositions. On a couple of occasions we follow Christine as she enters a room and then from a distance we see her half-obscured by a pillar or a doorway. In another case a static view looking towards a congregation obscures some of the characters at the edge of the frame who are in effect cut in two. I take this to be an indication that the narrative is privileging some characters and excluding others – much as the institutional practices that award prizes to pilgrims.

I’m not sure if you have to be a Catholic or indeed a Christian to understand all the subtle meanings in this narrative. I found it interesting and engaging and I suspect that the Vatican thought that it was good to have another Lourdes story even if the narrative is at times quite effective at critiquing some of the institutional issues associated with pilgrimages. This view is supported by statements in the detailed Press Notes. Sylvie Testud is very good in the central role and Léa Seydoux is effective in what is a difficult role.

Little Joe (Austria-UK-Germany 2019)

Chris (Ben Whishaw) and Alice (Emily Beecham) in the laboratory greenhouse

Little Joe was funded by a range of European public funding agencies and is now distributed in the UK by the British Film Institute. Its profile within the European film world is based on its Austrian director Jessica Hausner’s previous Cannes screenings and its Cannes 2019 Best Actor prize for Emily Beecham. But apart from a handful of critics, the film audience has not taken to it – at the time of writing it has a 5.9 score on IMDb. I think the problem is that the film falls into a contemporary bear-trap – the sense for audiences that an arthouse director is making a genre film but not carrying through the expectations they have for that specific genre. It’s a different version of the problem which also affects The Lighthouse.

‘Little Joe’ is the name given by a senior ‘plant breeder’ to a new plant she has created as part of a project to develop a house plant that will produce excessive amounts of pollen and a very distinctive smell.  The project team believe that inhaling the smell will be calming and will promote ‘happiness’ – thus tying in to the latest ‘wellness’ craze, though nobody mentions that in a film shot in 2018. The plant name refers to Alice Woodard’s son, Joe a young teenager who she fears she may be neglecting. As well as the central narrative about the plant, a parallel narrative explores Alice’s relationship with Joe (she is a single parent, her estranged (?) husband lives out in the wilds, in the fells). Alice is visiting a psychotherapist (Lindsay Duncan) to deal with her anxieties about parenting.

Joe and Alice with another takeaway meal

The genre narrative here is seen to belong to either horror or science fiction/speculative fiction and most critics and audiences seem to have assumed that this is a re-imagined version of the famous Body Snatchers novel (1955) by Jack Finney which has been adapted four times by Hollywood. Although I read this suggestion before I saw Little Joe, I forgot about it completely and instead thought about a range of other horror/SF narratives. Two Ira Levin novels sprang to mind, both of which later became Hollywood hits – Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Stepford Wives (1974). These may seem peculiar references but the key element is the fear that all of us feel when we think that somebody we know well still looks the same, but that they seem now to be somebody else. This sense of paranoia makes for a quiet but devastating psychological thriller. I was pleased to discover that the writer-director (with co-writer Géraldine Bajard) was aiming precisely for this:

. . . our concern was to create an atmosphere within the scenes that allows the audience to question the integrity of the characters involved.

We wanted to offer different ways of interpreting what is happening: the so-called changes in people can either be explained by their psycho­logical state of mind, or by the pollen they have inhaled. Or alternatively, those ‘changes’ do not exist at all and are only imagined by Bella [the first of the breeders to notice something] or Alice. (from the Press Notes)

The issue for audiences here appears to be that, first, the narrative moves at a glacial pace and there isn’t as much ‘plot’ as we would expect from a genre horror/SF film and second that because we know the story we can predict the next event. I don’t buy this, partly because I’m quite happy to accept the arthouse approach. Hausner herself offers a conversation in the Press Notes with a neuroscientist to suggest that the basis of her narrative is at least plausible. Plants do contain chemicals which humans choose to ingest in various ways and which we accept as behaviour-changing and mood-altering (cannabis and nicotine are just two examples). The horror factor in this narrative is terrifying because the film doesn’t have a clear resolution. In all the Invasion of the Bodysnatcher films at least we know that the pod people are replacing humans. In this film we never know if it is actually dangerous to inhale the pollen. Have we changed? Or, because we are happy, do we just not notice?

The film’s colour palette is presumably created with this red of the mature plant as a starting point

My gripe with the film is not with the ideas, the arthouse pacing or the complex relationship to genre, but with the aesthetics of the film. The costumes are designed by the director’s sister Tanja who has worked on Jessica Hausner’s previous films and those of the Austrian auteur Ulrich Seidl. I found them ugly especially in their cut and in the clashing pastel shades designed for the overall colour palette of the film. But I can see that they help to create the sterile world of the plant breeders. They are matched by the camerawork of Martin Gschlacht and Hausner’s decision to use some of the avant-garde Japanese music of Teiji Ito (1932-1981). Ito is credited with melding traditional music from noh and kabuki theatrical forms with American avant-garde music. Hausner came across his work because of his collaborations with Maya Deren (who he married at the end of her life). This music has been one of the most disturbing/irritating aspects of the film for some audiences, especially those expecting a conventional horror/SF score (even though conventional scores for such genre films do sometimes use unusual musical forms). Finally, it is important to add to the aesthetic mix, the acting styles that Hausner has urged some of her well-known actors to adopt. I find it difficult to describe this style other than to say that it feels stilted and unnatural. I did wonder if any of it was associated with this being Hausner’s first film in English, but I would have expected the actors to have overcome any issues with the script. It must be deliberate and is most apparent in scenes which would otherwise carry emotional force such as those between Alice and Chris (Ben Whishaw) and between Alice and her son and his girlfriend.

There were times watching Little Joe when I was strongly reminded of Peter Strickland’s In Fabric. That film has the same sense of ‘timelessness’ – but it also has plenty of humour, violence, horror, sex and passion, all absent in Little Joe. I sound as if I am damning Little Joe, but actually I did find it intriguing and always interesting. I’m not sure why Emily Beecham won her acting award. Perhaps it was because she gave Jessica Hausner precisely the performance the director wanted? I do wonder if I’ve fallen into the trap of ‘seeing’ Alice only through a ‘male gaze’? It’s interesting that the three other female roles of the psychotherapist, the former lead plant breeder, Bella (Kerry Fox) and Joe’s girlfriend Selma (Jessie Mae Alonzo) are all characters with more vitality and emotion reflected in their costumes and acting than that of Alice.

The production, with its Austrian, British, German and French funding was shot mainly in Liverpool and North West England, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands (for the plant breeding). I have seen comments from critics complaining about ‘another Euro-pudding’ but I think the different locations add something to the ‘otherworldliness’ of the narrative. If you go in to Little Joe thinking that you will see a horror or SF genre film I expect you will be disappointed. You might enjoy it more as an art film exploring a specific set of ideas. I’m now going to try to watch Jessica Hausner’s earlier success Lourdes (Austria-France-Germany 2009) which has just popped up on MUBI in the UK. I’m expecting a similar arthouse approach but without the genre narratives.

HomeSick (Germany-Austria 2015)

Esther Maria Pietsch as Jessica Klug practicing on her electric cello

This German-language ‘psychological thriller’ draws on the familiar world of Polanski films such as Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Tenant (1976) and Repulsion (1963). It opens with a short sequence which teases us with a possible ending. I won’t reveal its content. We then flashback to the moment when Jessica, an ambitious young cello player, moves into a spacious unfurnished apartment in an old traditional Berlin apartment building with her boyfriend Lorenz. After an impromptu celebration with friends who helped them move in with some furniture, Jessica and Lorenz have a private party which proves too loud for their new neighbour upstairs, Hilde. Almost immediately, we know that Hilde is a disturbing figure and we wonder if life for Jessica will mirror that of Rosemary in Polanski’s thriller. Jessica is home most of the time, practising on her electric cello which she monitors through headphones. Hilde, we see, can look down into Jessica’s apartment which doesn’t have curtains or blinds.

Jessica doesn’t have time to think too much about her neighbours. First, she and Lorenz have to entertain her parents – her miserly father is paying half the rent. Then she discovers that she has won a very prestigious prize and is to be the sole German representative at a music competition in Moscow. She must spend the next few weeks in intense study so that she can play her piece not just with accuracy but with real emotion. Apart from her trips to see her music teacher, she is alone in the apartment during the day. The last thing she needs is the feeling that someone is watching her or somehow undermining her concentration . . .

Tatja Seibt is Jessica’s neighbour Hilde (photo © Christian Trieloff)

‘HomeSick’ is an interesting and quite precise title that needs the precise presentation of the upper-case ‘S’. It’s an interesting example of an arthouse film playing a very careful game with genre conventions. (It first appeared at the Berlinale.) I think it works well for several reasons. Esther Maria Pietsch is particularly good as Jessica. She presents a young woman who is attractive but not ‘pretty’. She has a real physical presence that suggests determination and a stubbornness not to be daunted by what she sees as ‘strange’ goings-on. This makes it more unnerving when she does show signs of vulnerability. Austrian writer-director Jakob M. Erwa and his DoP Christian Trieloff make the most of a well-chosen apartment block which almost becomes another character. Shot in ‘Scope, the rooms look immense with high ceilings and the lack of carpets, curtains and wall coverings allows sounds to penetrate the apartment and bounce off surfaces. Music is important whether it is diegetic in the form of Jessica’s playing or non-diegetic as a thriller/horror score by Christofer Frank. (The music school where Jessica plays for her teacher is another rather spooky building with empty corridors.) The director did his own casting so he must take credit for choosing Tatja Seibt as Hilde who works very well as Jessica’s perceived tormentor. Matthias Lier as Lorenz has the other main role as the sympathetic Lorenz who in reality can have little bearing on what is essentially Jessica’s story.

I’d recommend HomeSick to anyone who wants to see a well-made thriller with real intelligence and a strong central performance. Some of the promotional material suggests a Michael Haneke influence. I’m not sure about that but I do wonder if the director draws on aspects of J-horror in a film like Dark Water (Japan 2002). HomeSick isn’t a horror film as such but it does negotiate that boundary between thriller and horror expertly. Perhaps that early scene in which Jessica’s parents come for dinner soon after the young couple move into their apartment is more important than first seems the case?

HomeSick is released on DVD and online in the UK on February 12th via Matchbox Films.

UK trailer:

Ich seh, Ich seh (Goodnight Mommy, Austria 2015)

The boys on the trampoline – a skyline long shot

The boys on the trampoline – a skyline long shot

Ich seh, Ich seh finally arrives in the UK as Goodnight Mommy after opening at the Venice Film Festival in 2014 and getting a release in several major territories in 2015. It hasn’t got much of a UK release (25 screens) with little promotion that I’ve seen from Vertigo. Yet, here is a beautifully-crafted film which surely has the potential to be a cult success. Its problem, perhaps, is a visual aesthetic that suggests art cinema and a number of narrative devices and generic tropes that suggest horror or psychological thriller. Inevitably, because it is Austrian, critics have made references to Michael Haneke and to potential metaphors about a Nazi past – possibly because the opening includes a colour film extract from what might be footage of the Von Trapp family singers. More importantly though, the film is produced by the other Austrian auteur, Ulrich Seidl and the co-directors and co-writers are Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz – Seidl’s nephew and partner. Franz has worked on Seidl’s films such as Import/Export (Austria 2007) and the Paradise trilogy (Austria 2012-13). Already it is clear that some horror fans are delighted with the film and others dismiss it – and at the same time, some audiences have problems with the clinical presentation. John Patterson in the Guardian uses The Babadook (Australia 2014) as a reference point – I’m not sure the tone of the two films is similar, but certainly there are some elements that are shared.

The mother looks through the blinds . . .

The mother looks through the blinds . . .

Outline (No spoilers)

The film relies on audience interpretations, playing with ‘reveals’ of narrative information – so many of the reviews risk spoiling the narrative. I’ll simply describe some of the things we see. Two boys of around 10 years old are playing in the countryside. Lukas and Elias are near identical twins, although one appears slightly smaller/skinnier than the other. They eventually return to a modern and stylish house on the edge of the forest. Their mother has her face heavily bandaged as if she has had cosmetic surgery or has been in an accident. She seems to treat the boys quite coldly with firm discipline. The boys react with disobedience and they begin to suspect that this woman is not their mother or that she has changed. A narrative of conflict develops. The film has only a few other marginal characters who visit the house and the boys take a trip into the nearest town, otherwise the action is confined to the house, the forest and the surrounding countryside. There is a resolution to the conflict and, in narrative terms, the film is a generic horror film/psychological thriller with possible narrative twists.

A reminder of 'Lord of the Flies'?

A reminder of ‘Lord of the Flies’?

Commentary

For me, the film draws on several classical tales and some well-known horror films. The scenario is in some ways reminiscent of The Others (Spain/US 2001)/The Innocents with a mother figure and children. The physical resemblance between the boys did confuse me and the fact that they are blond, ‘pretty’, intelligent and athletic/strong made me think of the Village of the Damned (UK 1961). When they wore home-made masks I thought about the out of control boys in Lord of the Flies. None of these film references imply anything beyond the fact that the visual style creates an atmosphere, a tone that is unsettling and that the presence of children in a scenario like this can easily shift from the domestic to the disturbing. I’m not sure about the suggested metaphors about Austria’s past, but certain images – of the forest, hide and seek in a field of maze, burning stubble after harvesting wheat (is burning stubble allowed in Austria?), a deserted town street, a dark lake etc. – do have a sense of foreboding or at least a hint of something that could go wrong. It is the expert handling of these images and the creation of ‘disturbance’ that works so well in the film. Later the conflict between the mother and the boys intensifies and becomes violent. I watched one sequence through my fingers because I’m squeamish, but I didn’t find the violence to be gratuitous.

I admired the film for both its craftsmanship and its creativity but I’m still not sure about its narrative. I was still puzzling over what might have happened hours later. There is already a complex internet discourse about what actually happens in the narrative and what is implied as having happened earlier. I would recommend the film and I wish it was getting more exposure.

Breathing (Atmen, Austria, 2011)

Trying to live

Roman (Thomas Schubert) is allowed out of a juvenile institution on ‘day release’; his job is at a morgue. So far so melodrama, especially as Roman is almost as emotionless as a corpse. We follow his faltering steps into the ‘real world’ as he tries to find a compass in a society that treats him with contempt; we don’t learn of his crime until well into the film.

The narrative progresses slowly, routinely; typically arthouse as it demands our patience as we wonder whether it’s better to actually live a life rather than watch someone else live theirs. However, it repays patience with intense drama, when Roman is sent to pick up a corpse in the street whilst a distraught wife is still clinging onto hope that her husband’s still alive, an an emotional payoff at the end when… well, I shan’t spoil it.

Death remains a taboo in western society; consumerism is driven in part by a desire to deny it: cosmetics for everyone. Breathing confronts death, particularly in the scene where the morgue attendants have to prepare a corpse of an old woman who has died at home. We get to see what we don’t wish to see as the deceased body is carefully attended to by men who, hitherto, have been generally unlikeable. It’s a particularly powerful scene.

It’s written and directed by Karl Markovics, who played the lead in the terrific The Counterfeiters (Aus-Ger, 2007) and I’m looking forward to his next film.