The BFI has released a restored version of Jean Cocteau’s Orphée as part of their November ‘Fantastique: The Dream Worlds of French Cinema‘ season at BFI Southbank. The new print has been restored by CNC in France and looks good with crisp black & white cinematography from Nicholas Hayer. John Cocteau was a unique figure in French art culture and his limited number of films over a 35 year career from the 1920s are unlike anything else in French cinema. The Sight & Sound article by Virginie Sélavy in the November 2018 issue places Cocteau in context in its exploration of the fantastique in French cinema. He wasn’t part of any movement as such but the tradition of the fantastique – the uncanny in realistic situations – is very strong in French cinema.
The story of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is narrated by Cocteau over the credits and then re-enacted in the contemporary world somewhere in France. Orpheus (Jean Marais) is a famous poet who seemingly accidentally meets ‘the Princess’ (María Casares) who is also his ‘Death’ during an incident outside a café-bar (the Poet’s Café) in a small French community just outside Paris. She will ensnare him and seek to take him to the underworld. She will use Eurydice (Marie Déa) as a tool to break him. Death will be challenged by another character from the community of the dead, Heurtebise (François Périer). Along the way, Cocteau will have a lot of fun in presenting his material to the audience. What should we make of it all?
I deliberately watched the film without any prior research and my first observation was that the film was very difficult to place in the context of French cinema of the 1950s. The Academy ratio (1.37:1) for a film like this is not necessarily a guide (and what a shame the National Media Museum’s usually diligent projectionists didn’t mask the image, leaving the tabs open wide). Many films, especially outside North America carried on using Academy after 1953-4. I thought Orphée might be a 1959 film (Cocteau did make a second film reflecting on the first in 1960, so that might have triggered this thought – there is also Black Orpheus from 1959, an unconnected French film made in Brazil). The film opens with very quickly-paced scenes so that it is difficult to gaze around the image. Caught up in the action, it took me a little while to realise that the characters are mostly young and beautiful. The leads are played by actors in their thirties but there is a large group of younger people led by Juliette Gréco as ‘Aglaonice’ who was in her early twenties and in only her third film. She is the leader of what seems to be a ‘young women’s drinks club’ and she claims to be concerned about the danger faced by Eurydice. (The club represents the ‘Bacchantes’ of mythology, the female followers of Dionysus.) The representatives of authority such as the police inspector, hotel manager (IMDb suggests this is Jean-Pierre Melville) and the tribunal/judges in the underworld are all older but, apart from the postman, there are few older people or children around. I mention all of this only because it adds to the sense of this story presenting a group of young people who might feature in later 1950s films. The ‘mob’ that forms is a youth mob.
Cocteau films in deserted Paris streets and the underworld is represented by ruined buildings which serve to remind us of wartime. The most intriguing characters for me are Death’s two henchmen, dressed as quasi-fascist motorcycle riders wearing helmets, boots and sporting very tight wide leather belts or ‘waspies’. In fact, the use of costume throughout is striking and I thought about many influences on later films. I was taken by all the performances, except that of the central character of Orpheus as played by Jean Marais. I realise that I’ve seen Marais in a range of films across his long career, but not quite so ‘in the spotlight’ as he is here. Orpheus is presented as a vain and rather surly character and Marais appears stolid though potentially beautiful with a leonine head and powerful torso. At one point he poses with a sculpture in his garden. But when he speaks I thought his voice was comparatively weedy. He is supposed to be a famous poet, so perhaps Cocteau was deliberately challenging the stereotypes of poets as ‘fey’ or drunken (like the young poet who challenges Orpheus) or simply not strong and athletic.
If there is a specific artistic discourse in the film it’s possibly something about the need for poets to go through life-changing experiences to make better art but that sounds very heavy. I think Nick Lacey hit the spot on the way out of the screening when he said “I think Cocteau is just being playful”. And the film is playful and quite witty at times. When Orpheus and Heurtebise are on their way to the underworld they pass several lost souls, including a glazier still carrying his glass samples. “Doesn’t he know he’s dead?” asks Orpheus. “Ah, job-conditioning is so strong sometimes!” replies Heurtebise. Well, I laughed anyway. Other than that there is a great deal of play with mirrors and I’d be careful about cleaning mirrors when wearing rubber gloves! Enjoy!
Happy as Lazzaro was the joint winner of the script prize at Cannes this year. It’s due to arrive in the UK in the Spring of 2019, I think. I don’t usually book to see films like this which are sure to be released widely, but this screening was in the right place at the right time and the writer-director Alice Rohrwacher was present to introduce and discuss her film. Ms Rohrwacher is as entertaining a speaker as her films are life-affirming and very wonderful. There are no spoilers below but I hope I can whet your appetite for this glorious piece of film magic.
I’ve seen and enjoyed both of the director’s first two films and she appears to be most interested in characters who are in one sense ‘marginal’ but also ‘magical’ in that they attract attention, usually in a positive sense, at least for the underprivileged. Corpo Celeste (2011) focuses on a young girl who arrives back in Southern Italy after 10 years away and confronts her church and family at the time of her first communion. The Wonders (2014) also focuses on a young girl who is the most dynamic member of a group of migrant smallholders in the countryside around Viterbo in Central Italy. Happy as Lazzaro is set in the same region.
Lazzaro is a young man of 19 or 20 who lives in an isolated community – a village in the hills cut off from the world when a road bridge collapses. Around fifty people live in this isolated spot, working the land and producing cash crops for the landowner, a Marquesa known as the ‘Tobacco Queen’. Tobacco leaves and the other crops are transported to market with great difficulty every few months and life in the village goes on undisturbed. Lazzaro is almost angelic in appearance with wide open eyes and a ready smile. He will do anything for anybody and is consequently exploited by all the villagers, but he doesn’t seem to mind and since there is no wealth held by the villagers, it is only his time and energy that is used. But when the Marquesa comes to the village to stay in the crumbling villa for a few days, bringing her son Tancredi, roughly the same age as Lazzaro, the two develop an odd friendship with the naïve Lazzaro agreeing to Tancredi’s suggestions. When the ‘inciting incident’ takes place it is a long way into the narrative and, in the unusual structuring of events, this incident changes the feel and tone of the film completely.
I’m not going to spoil the narrative and I hope you can manage to see the film without any knowledge of what might happen, so that you can enjoy the full experience of what is a marvellous film. All I’ll say is that there are elements of what some might call ‘magic realism’ with the intervention of a wolf. Wolves have been ‘re-wilded’ in several parts of Europe but in Italy the original wolf population survived attempts at extermination and they now number around 500 along the ‘spine’ of the Apennines. This means that the wolf that appears could be ‘real’ or metaphorical and that’s perhaps the key to the fantastical elements in this film. In the Press Notes, Alice Rohrwacher tells us:
Lazzaro Felice is the story of a lesser sanctity, with no miracles, no powers or superpowers, without special effects. It is the sanctity of living in this world without thinking ill of anyone and simply believing in human beings. Because another way was possible, the way of goodness, which men have always ignored but which always reappears to question them. Like something that might have been but that we’ve never ever wanted.
Lazzaro is the figure of sanctity and what he eventually does is to expose exploitation and the new inequality in Italy between the urban rich and the rural poor, between those with material wealth and those without (including the migrant communities). The film doesn’t lecture us but instead initially entrances us and then reveals a harsh reality.
The film depends heavily on the central performance by the remarkable Adriano Tardiolo as Lazzaro. There seems to be a slight difference between the Press Notes and what Alice Rohrwacher told us in the Q&A, but I think it’s clear that Tardiolo is a young man discovered in a college in Orvieto with no acting experience and initially no real desire to appear in a film. It might be supposed that it was relatively straightforward to ask him to smile all the time and say very little, but I think there must be much more to it than that and the performance under Rohrwacher’s direction is absolutely convincing. During the Q&A a confident questioner told the director that she was drawing on the work of three famous Italian directors (which he named) and asked her to comment on why she chose them. She replied with a smile that she had been told by many people that she had drawn on a whole long list of famous Italian directors and proceeded to name several. Happy as Lazzaro is completely an Alice Rohwacher film but several scenes do remind us of the history of Italian cinema and in particular the impact of neo-realism in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The technical credits for the film also suggest a conscious attempt to remind us of an earlier period of cinema. The mostly female crew (including Hélène Louvart as cinematographer) were working with Super 16mm film. Alice Rohrwacher says this, “wasn’t made for reasons of style or nostalgia but out of enchantment with a fantastic technology that influences one’s method of working”. But she did decide to use a slightly cropped version of the 1.66:1 aspect ratio common as a widescreen compromise in European cinema. The film is listed as ‘1.63:1’ with the corners masked as rounded, suggesting a technique from silent cinema. The other intriguing aspect of the production is that tempesta, the main production company (of producer Carlo Cresto-Dina), used new production techniques:
. . . ‘EcoMuvi’, the protocol of environmental sustainability for the film industry created by tempesta. EcoMuvi, first in Europe, is a real“ production process” that can indicate the best solutions to achieve energy savings and environmental sustainability in film production. Not just compensation but anactive step-by-step procedure tomake films with lighter impact on our planet. Thanks to Ecomuvi 10 tons of CO2 were saved in pre-production and production.
Happy as Lazzaro gave me one of the most enjoyable and encouraging afternoons in a cinema that I experienced in a very long time. The trailer is careful not to spoil the narrative surprises.
When a film wins Oscars everyone writes about it. I’m not that bothered by Oscars but I’m glad that del Toro won something and I’m pleased the production design team got a gong. I loved the mix of songs in the film but I didn’t really notice the score – perhaps I will next time. Above all, however, I’m saddened that Sally Hawkins wasn’t rewarded. She is an extraordinary actor, capable of anything. I think that The Shape of Water is a love letter to cinema from a film lover who remembers the movies he watched with his grandmother. I’m not sure why The Story of Ruth (US 1960) is the film showing in the cinema when the creature stands in the stalls. It was a Fox film so the rights weren’t a problem. I’m assuming Guillermo saw it as a child. I watched Mr Ed on TV as a teenager so I was taken back too.
I guess most of you will know that the film is about a mute cleaner, Elisa Esposito (‘Esposito’ was originally a name given in Italy to abandoned children). She is looking for love and finds it with an amphibious man captured by US intelligence and threatened with vivisection in a search for ideas to prepare human physiology for the space race. 1962 is an interesting year to choose for the film’s time period. I’ve heard del Toro discussing why he chose it. At the height of the Cold War (the year of the Cuban missile crisis) and before the major breakthroughs on Civil Rights, those historical references are well used to underpin the narrative. The Cadillac showroom and the suburban family home reek of the immediate legacy of Eisenhower’s affluent, aspirational and conformist 1950s. The Cadillac also introduces teal as a key colour which emphasises the blue-green spectrum in the ‘facility’ where Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer) work as cleaners and where the creature (Doug Jones) is incarcerated. But I think that the selection of songs is the most intriguing. 1962 in the US is often considered to be in that dead period between the brief re-appearance of Elvis on his return from the army and the arrival of the Beatles in 1964. It wasn’t dead, but pop music wasn’t as dynamic and exciting as it had been and would soon become again. Pop music was for kids and The Shape of Water is for adults and especially for adults who feel they have lost out and for whom passion and romance seem better represented by the sound of Alice Faye in 1940s movies or Andy Williams as a ‘grown-up’ singer in 1959. Everything in the film seems to me to fit together perfectly. It’s a fantasy but it is perfectly coherent and ‘real’ in terms of its cultural references.
The classification for The Shape of Water is interesting. The US ‘R’ rating seems excessive to me but Guillermo del Toro has said that he wanted to make a film for adults. I was surprised by the film’s lack of prurience in showing a naked Sally Hawkins, but I’m sure she agreed to it because it is beautifully presented and completely in line with the character’s other actions. The film does have its moments of violence and I felt that the most violent actions were those with direct cultural references – such as the use of the electric cattle prod by Strickland (Michael Shannon) and arguably the most ‘difficult’ scene, the same character’s violence in making love to his wife. Perhaps an ‘R’ rating isn’t as excessive as I thought? On the other hand, the film has a ’15’ in the UK with 15/16 common across Europe (lower still in France) and the highest rating of 18 can be found in Russia and South Korea. I’m not sure what all of this means, except possibly that Guillermo del Toro has more of a European sensibility than a Hollywood one. I wish he’d make Spanish-language films again.
My constant referencing of del Toro doesn’t mean that I under-estimate the other creative contributions to the film. Vanessa Taylor was the co-writer and Dan Laustsen the cinematographer. All the design team deserve congratulations and Doug Jones and the VFX team create a wonderful creature based around the concept introduced in Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (US 1954). All these contributions are important but it is del Toro’s overall vision which holds the film together. I’ve no idea how the film is performing with younger audiences. Perhaps they prefer the fast action of superhero movies, but the slower pace of del Toro’s narratives is more to my taste.
I’m amazed to see that IMDb lists the estimated budget at $20 million. I would have guessed twice that amount (is it lower because there are no so-called ‘A list’ stars?). Even if it was $40 million, the film is heading for profit – and seemingly for an International Hit. North American box office has been less than stellar but overseas the film is starting to rack up good figures and it should reach at least $170 million in total worldwide. Another triumph for Canadian facilities I see, since the whole film was made in Ontario in 2016. Sally Hawkins must know quite a bit about filmmaking in Canada by now as she was in the Maritimes the year before shooting Maudie.
I realise that I haven’t acknowledged that The Shape of Water is a fantasy drama. I don’t like most pure fantasy films, but I love del Toro’s films because they speak about the ‘real world’ so elegantly.
The success of The Shape of Water has raised the possibility that Guillermo del Toro may be able to find a studio prepared to support him with the $35 – $40 million he needs to make his ‘darker’ version of Pinocchio set during the rise of fascism in Italy in the 1920s. It’s intended to be an animation for adults. It still seems unlikely that an American studio will come though with the money but it would be good if they did.
This is the first of the series to use a contemporary setting. It’s another early 1950s story but it has been transposed from California to present-day Woking in Surrey in the London ‘commuter belt’. There are some odd decisions here since the London commute is so different to the kind of journey Dick envisaged in the 1950s. I was surprised that this adaptation uses the same names for the characters and for the mysterious town of ‘Macon Heights’ – an unlikely English name.
The episode is adapted by the acclaimed film, TV and stage writer Jack Thorne and directed by one of his early collaborators, Tom Harper (Scouting For Boys 2009). It also has a strong cast led by Tim Spall and Tuppence Middleton. I was especially delighted to see Hayley Squires after her breakout appearance in I, Daniel Blake earlier this year. The odd nature of The Commuter partly derives from the sense of moving between a realist presentation of Woking station and then taking a journey not towards London, but out further into the fantasy countryside. This is because a woman (Tuppence Middleton) approaches Ed (Tim Spall) at the booking office and asks for a ticket to ‘Macon Heights’. When she is told no such station exists on the line, she argues that it does and then instantly disappears. Ed goes looking for this mysterious destination and stumbles across it. His strange experience is also related to his home life with his wife and son – presented again in a social realist environment. Thorne has remained faithful to Dick’s short story material and then extended the narrative to make much more of these links between the fantastical new town and Ed’s problems at home.
This is not science fiction as much as speculative fiction or indeed fantasy. It’s quite different to the first two episodes and Tom Harper uses different techniques (more associated with art films) to explore the fantasy elements. I also noted one aspect of ‘Macon Heights’ that reminded me strongly of The Truman Show (US 1998), Peter Weir’s film written by Andrew Niccol which is my favourite ‘Dickian’ film not from a PKD story. The Macon Heights scenes were seemingly shot at Poundbury in Dorset. This new town project is built on land owned by the Duchy of Cornwall and the eclectic mix of architectural styles is influenced by the views of Prince Charles – and subject to much criticism. It makes an intriguing setting for The Commuter – but the series producers didn’t solve the problem of the different railways systems in Surrey and Dorset. Overall though, this episode offered a different type of Dickian story, demonstrating the diversity of his ideas at the start of his writing career.
Here’s a good example of an ‘international film’. Siobhan Ward, an Irish writer of children’s books, has an idea for a story while she is dangerously ill. She agrees to write it as a novel but doesn’t live long enough and her British publisher commissions Patrick Ness, an American living in the UK, to write the novel. Ness then adapts the story for a film by a Spanish production company. The Spanish director and mainly Spanish crew make the film in Spain, the UK and the US/Canada with a cast that is mainly British and with all the exteriors shot in Lancashire. This English language film then becomes the biggest box office success in Spain in 2016 (possibly dubbed?). This is the background to A Monster Calls.
This is a fantasy film, not the kind of film I see very often – unless it is a foreign language film. I wanted to see A Monster Calls because it is directed by J. A. Bayona, whose first film was the wonderful El orfanato (The Orphanage, Spain 2007). There are some obvious connections between the two films, including an appearance by Geraldine Chaplin who links Bayona’s films to the history of child protagonists in films made under Franco’s censorship (Chaplin appears in Cria cuervos, made by her then partner Carlos Saura in 1976). Franco’s censorship allowed only certain kinds of films to be made and those with child stars were assumed (falsely) to be the least subversive. Ana Torrent was the child star in Cria cuervos as she was in The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). Along with the two Guillermo del Toro films The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), these are all films in which children engage with different forms of horror/fantasy – and always for an understanding of the adult world in which their stories explore metaphorical meanings. (Guillermo del Toro ‘presented’ El orfanato, but he is not involved in A Monster Calls.) A Monster Calls draws on a similar British/Irish tradition of children’s fantasy going back to Louis Carroll’s Alice and now found in numerous recent novels and stories (I haven’t seen any of them, but I’m sure you can make your own list). Conor (the brilliant Lewis MacDougall) is a 13 year-old boy whose mother (Felicity Jones) is seriously ill. Conor’s father (Toby Kebbell) has remarried and gone to live in Los Angeles, so Conor is effectively his mother’s carer. Sigourney Weaver plays his rather stern grandmother who takes over whenever things get too difficult, but Conor struggles to respond to her. For fairly obvious reasons, Conor is lonely and isolated at school and is bullied. Every night he has a nightmare which wakes him at a specific time. It is in one of these sleeping/waking moments that he first meets the ‘monster’, a fearsome ‘tree-man’ who steps forth from the yew tree across the valley. In the deep rumbling voice of Liam Neeson, the monster follows fairy tale traditions by announcing that he will tell Conor three tales on different nights and that Conor will then be required to respond with his own tale. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative if you don’t already know the story.
The director’s second film, The Impossible (Spain-US 2012) was an English language ‘action melodrama’ set during the 2004 tsunami in Thailand and he is clearly happy directing in English. The elements that he adds to the original story are an increased emphasis on Conor’s interest and skill in drawing/painting and also various references to the ‘monsters’ of classic movies. When his mother drags out a 16mm film projector, she laces up King Kong (1933) and Conor watches the trials of the monster with real concern. Later there is a brief glimpse of a model of the Frankenstein monster from 1930 (which might be a reference to The Spirit of the Beehive). I haven’t yet discovered why the shoot was based around the South Pennines, mainly on the Lancashire side but with some scenes shot in Marsden and Huddersfield in Yorkshire. This moorland landscape has a distinctive feel and it can be evocative of religious fervour and ‘dark’ goings on. On the Northern side of the region lies the glowering mass of Pendle, famed for the arrest and trial of the ‘Lancashire witches’ in the 17th century. I’ve seen some critics refer to the children’s novel (and film) The Iron Man (1985) by the poet Ted Hughes as having something in common with A Monster Calls. Hughes was from Mytholmroyd in the Calder Valley a little further south-east of Pendle. At one point, I thought Calderdale was the location used in A Monster Calls and I was reminded of another slightly ‘magical film’, My Summer of Love (2014) shot on the moors above Hebden Bridge. In truth, there isn’t that much use of landscape in A Monster Calls and the church and the yew tree on the hillside opposite Conor’s window are actually CGI models (presumably in a studio in Barcelona). Even so, the locations are carefully chosen so both the school and the hospital (and the level crossing on the preserved East Lancs Railway) have that feeling of being slightly behind the times, adding to the fantasy. The scenes shot in Blackpool at the Pleasure Beach and on North Pier seem to be deliberately ‘unconventional’ (i.e. the Tower and other landmark buildings don’t appear), either because the cinematographer isn’t aware of Blackpool images or because the intention is to downplay the ‘realism’ of the sequence.
Bayona also decided to make use of the graphic material in the original book (illustrations by Jim Kay) and I think these are very cleverly used in relation to the stories the monster tells. The discourse of drawing/painting and use of production design again links the film to El orfanato – something I felt immediately from the opening scenes. J. A. Bayona seems to have shifted his allegiance from Guillermo del Toro to Stephen Spielberg (his next film will be an instalment of the Jurassic World franchise) but A Monster Calls still retains a Spanish feel via the creative team, including DoP Oscar Faura and composer Fernando Velázquez. I’m reminded of the earlier major success by a Spanish-language director working in English when Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (Spain-US 2001) made over $200 million worldwide. Yet Amenábar’s subsequent English language films haven’t succeeded internationally and del Toro’s English language films haven’t always perhaps been as successful as they might have been (e.g. Crimson Peak in 2015). I fear that this may also be true of A Monster Calls. In Spain the film made €27 million when it was released in October. In the UK it opened wide on over 500 screens on 6 January with very good preview numbers and a strong but not spectacular opening weekend. In North America it opened on a handful of screens on December 23rd and went wide to 1500 screens on 6 January, but barely reached the UK opening total which had a third of the screens. This opening pattern matches that (on a smaller scale) of El orfanato. North America is weakest, Spain strongest and the UK in the middle. Since the film reportedly has a $43 million production budget, these figures are quite worrying. I’m not sure why the UK and US openings were left until January 6 when the school holidays were coming to an end.
There were a minority of negative reviews and I guess the film is darker than the usual fare for younger audiences. Sigourney Weaver has been singled out in some quarters. I thought she was fine (though it is difficult to see her as Felicity Jones’ mother). Numerous UK actors would have been a better ‘fit’. Felicity Jones is now a big draw and this might have been a perfect alternative attraction to her Star Wars lead – though it isn’t a role she would have chosen in order to boost her star power. If the film has a weakness, it is perhaps in the school sequences which I think could have been explored a little more without skewing the narrative too much. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian mentions Let the Right One In (Sweden 2008). There is a link certainly, but horror fans expecting something similar would be disappointed. I think A Monster Calls stands on its own merits and I would urge you to see it for the tone and the thematic of its story, the cinematography and production design (and the sensitive use of CGI) and the terrific performance by its young lead. The trailer is quite good and illustrates many of the film’s best qualities without giving everything away:
Nic Roeg was the subject of an interesting BBC 4 Arena documentary a few weeks ago and it seems like a good time to look at one of his films. Roeg is something of a forgotten auteur in the UK despite directing Don’t Look Now (1973), one of the most revered films in UK cinema history. He has several other significant titles in his list of directorial outings – as well as some very important credits as a cinematographer. However his films since 1980’s Bad Timing have not usually been well-received and his last success was probably The Witches (1990). Even so, I was shocked by the general response to Puffball, a film that isn’t perfect but certainly doesn’t deserve the opprobrium heaped upon it. In several ways it resembles Don’t Look Now and also has qualities that link it to Roeg’s earlier success Walkabout (1971). I suspect that some of the antipathy towards Puffball (which currently scores 4.3 on IMDB) derives from the original story by Fay Weldon, a story first written in 1980 that does seem ‘out of time’ in some ways and possibly just too ‘female’ for some male audiences (the adaptation was, however, by Weldon’s son Dan).
A puffball is a type of mushroom which can grow into a football-sized white sphere. The spores of this mushroom are formed inside the sphere which then splits when the spores are ready to be released. The resemblance of the puffball to the swollen stomach of a pregnant woman is clear and this is what the film’s narrative utilises as its central visual image. Written originally for an English rural setting, the film adaptation moves to rural Ireland – presumably for funding reasons (the budget comes from soft money funds in the UK, Ireland and Canada). The move doesn’t alter the story in any way except that the sense of rural magic/mythology becomes even more pronounced and for some may be seen as pandering to easy typing of rural Ireland.
Liffey (Kelly Reilly) is an architect and she and her fiancé Richard (Oscar Pearce) have bought an abandoned cottage with the intention of rebuilding it and creating a modern designer house. The cottage originally belonged to a farming family who live close by. Mabs (Miranda Richardson) and Tucker (William Houston) have three daughters and Mabs’ mother Molly (Rita Tushingham) lives in a large caravan parked in the farmyard. The cottage was originally Molly’s home. It isn’t until some way into the narrative that we learn that Molly lost a son in the fire that gutted the cottage. Mabs and Tucker want a fourth child – a boy and Liffey has somehow careered into an emotional narrative. The inciting incident in the narrative is the moment when Liffey and Richard make love on an ancient stone monument close by the cottage (said to be associated with the Norse God, Odin – and, yes, the Vikings did get to Ireland). A puffball grows close by. Liffey becomes pregnant but by now Richard has had to return to work in his office in New York. Liffey is alone apart from the Polish builders who come to work on the house during the day. When Liffey visits the local doctor about the pregnancy, word gets out to Mabs via her sister Carol (Tina Kellegher), the receptionist at the surgery.
I don’t need to ‘spoil’ any more of the plot. Mabs, Molly and Carol are prepared to go to any lengths to bring a boy into the family, including magic. Liffey is alone, working on her architectural drawings. The plot elements strongly resemble Don’t Look Now in which Donald Sutherland is a church restorer separated from his wife by a job that takes him abroad and Julie Christie is the mother who meets a woman with ‘second sight’ when she is distraught after the death of her son. Sutherland even turns up in Puffball (a function of Canadian funding?) as Liffey’s one-time boss, offering her a partnership if she will come back to work.
The criticisms of the film seem to be that the performances of this strong cast are too much in melodrama mode, that the sex scenes are ‘too strong’ (18 Certificate) and that the cinematography is too obvious/too crude/too cheap. The DP is Nigel Willoughby (whose first major credit was on Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters) but the style is immediately recognisable as Roeg’s from the opening landscape shots. There is that palpable sense of the environment being a character in the story (as in Walkabout). None of these seem like reasons to denigrate the film. Perhaps the key for some critics is Roeg’s decision to use traditional camera ‘tricks’ to illustrate the magical elements in the film and to compound this with shots that link the foetus in Liffey’s uterus with the spores in the puffball and to ‘replay’ the sexual act with images of a penis entering a vagina as seen ‘internally’. Some have complained that the effects are ‘cheap’, others that the sex is gratuitous. The sex is not gratuitous and needs to be represented in the way it has been to work with the narrative. Personally I like traditional camera tricks more than CGI. Overall, the negative reactions seem to me to be part of a British distaste for fantasy cinema and the excess of melodrama – strengths of British Cinema I would argue.
The Wikipedia page for the film suggests an estimated budget for the film of £7 million. I would be surprised if it was half that and a quarter might be more realistic. There is a small cast and a limited number of locations. Roeg has clearly been marginalised and at 87 he is perhaps unlikely to get too many more chances to make films. I’m certainly now willing to go back and look at some of his films again as I’m sure that he deserves more attention. I’m going to look at the documentary by David Thompson again as well.
Apart from co-productions, I think I’ve only seen one other Venezuelan film and that was at a festival. All credit then to Matchbox films, the distributor of the UK DVD released today, 27th April. In some ways very familiar, this is actually quite a complex and unusual film. Ostensibly a distinctly Hispanic Gothic ‘haunted house’ story, the title reveals that there is also a ‘time’ dimension which adds a further element to the mix.
The central character is Dulce (played by Ruddy Rodriguez), a mother with two young boys living with a man who is the father of the younger child. The narrative begins in 1981 when Dulce is arrested for the murder of her partner in circumstances she doesn’t really understand. Thirty years later she is released from prison but held under house arrest in the same old house. Where are her two sons? By constantly moving between 1981 and 2011 the story is gradually revealed. This ‘reveal’ also requires an ‘investigator’, here a young priest. Added to the Catholic discourse is a visit from a medium and a spirit guide drawn from Venezuela’s African and indigenous cultural mix. The priest will discover that the house has a history and that previous families who lived there also had problems.
At the beginning of the film I felt that there was something odd about the aesthetics of the film and for the first few minutes I wasn’t sure if this was meant to be Spain or Latin America (I hadn’t checked before sticking the DVD in the player). The haunted house and the female-centred family melodrama have been explored in several high profile Spanish films including El orfanato (2007) but I sensed rather than saw directly links to Mexican horror films like Kilómetro 31 (2006) or in the case of the spirit guide, aspects of Cuban cinema and Santería (a religious tradition found across Cuba and Venezuela). Another Cuban link and the first indication that confirmed Latin American cinema for me was the importance of baseball.
I can’t imagine that first time producer-writer-director Alejandro Hidalgo had much of a budget to play with but he handles the complex shifts in time and the repetition of sequences from different perspectives very well. The house itself is a great setting and although the pacing and use of music teeters on the edge of constant portentousness, he manages to keep control and deliver. Looking at the comments from various horror fansites the film has gone down well with its intended audiences. If I have a criticism it’s that I would like to have found out more about the early history of the house, but really the story is complex enough and the closing sequences spring some surprises and twists. I hope the film finds its audience in the UK.
Official trailer (US?):
This Hollywood film made mainly in the UK by novice director Rupert Sanders was Kristen Stewart’s second blockbuster lead following the Twilight films (and released between Nos 4 and 5 in that franchise). Neither an outright critical or audience ‘winner’ as such, the film still made nearly $400 million worldwide and was claimed as a major box office hit by its producers and Universal. It cost an estimated $170 million – which by my rule of thumb (a film needs to recoup around three times the production budget to move towards a profit for the producers) means its success was qualified. The questions that interest me are 1) how important was the casting and performance of Kristen Stewart as a factor in audience responses and 2) what are our expectations of narratives created on this scale and with these generic references. The relevant genres here are fantasy, action, war – but surprisingly little of ‘romance’. The source is the Snow White story but here taken back to the original Brothers Grimm story rather than Disney. The worldwide box office suggests that similar stories exist/appeal in non-European cultures (the film did well in East and South East Asia).
The obvious recent franchises which the film relates to are the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit/Game of Thrones fantasy worlds. I suspect that these are more ‘coherent’ fictional worlds – but I have very little knowledge of them so I’m happy to be corrected. Snow White has a certain kind of coherence of locations since many scenes were shot in the more rugged parts of the UK. The two main fantasy locations are the ‘Dark Forest’ and the ‘Fairy Kingdom’. Where the former appears as a generic devastated world full of clever CGI trickery, the latter reminded me very strongly of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke with several almost identical images – most strikingly in the case of the white hart. Miyazaki himself may have borrowed ideas from Western literature but it is the mode of presentation that seems so familiar here. (Guillermo del Toro’s fairies from Pan’s Labyrinth also pop up.) The castle, the focus for the film’s finale, is built on rocks pushing into the sea and though it is a CGI creation it is reminiscent of several such castles in parts of the UK or Northern Europe. I was also reminded of the battle at the end of El Cid (1961). Inside the castle the ‘mirror on the wall’ to which the Evil Queen addresses her famous question “Who is the fairest of them all?” appears to have learned a trick or two from Terminator 2 as it morphs into a molten metal figure. The strangest image for me was that of the Chinese fishing nets in the village of women. I have no idea what this was supposed to summon up but it took me back to Kerala in South India. If none of these intertextual references resonate with audiences perhaps the film’s setting will not seem disjointed – but of course they were leapt on by critics eager to suggest the ersatz qualities of the film.
The casting of a blockbuster like this is crucially important. Budgets of this size imply either a film dominated by cutting-edge technology or an international cast with recognisable stars. The script for the latter must enable some form of consistent performance across the variegated group of actors. Snow White falls somewhere between the two big budget models. The CGI is important, but so are the cast. Since at least the 1930s these kinds of large scale action pictures with historical/fantasy settings have tended towards the casting of British theatre-trained actors or other Anglophone actors with similar training. In 1938 the Australian Errol Flynn crossed swords with the South African Basil Rathbone in The Adventures of Robin Hood (with RADA-trained Claude Rains as King John). The current crop of superhero franchises is awash with the modern equivalents of these ‘Imperial actors’ – Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, James McAvoy, Tom Hiddleston etc. It isn’t surprising then that Snow White features the South African Charlize Theron and current action hero Australian Chris Hemsworth in two of the three leading roles. Theron is completely at home as the Evil Queen Ravenna. Hemsworth uses an accent I wasn’t able to fathom (he comes across as Mel Gibson channelling Sean Bean) but he too knows what he is doing. How then does Kristen Stewart fit in?
I’ve checked out all Ms Stewart’s roles since 2007 (i.e. her ‘adult’ roles) and she seems to have been cast solely in contemporary or ‘near contemporary’ roles (On the Road is set in the late 1940s). Besides the Twilight series there is only a minor role in Doug Liman’s Jumper which relates to fantasy and the main characters in Twilight relate, I think, to contemporary American teens. Snow White marks a break into a different kind of fantasy, dominated as I’ve suggested by a different acting style. Overall, I think Stewart makes the leap effectively but I do think her vocal delivery is a problem. It isn’t the accent as such, which I didn’t really notice, but the diction and projection. I realised that I had watched several of the other films with subtitles in order to catch her dialogue. On this occasion too there were moments when I couldn’t follow her dialogue. She tends to shorten sentences, to ‘swallow’ the ends of words etc. It’s a naturalistic mode and fits the portrayal of young people in contemporary America but in this kind of film, alongside not just the leads but also the band of renowned British/Irish character actors playing the (eight!) dwarves, it creates a disjuncture. My memory suggests that in Clouds of Sils Maria, Kristen Stewart begins to change her approach – but I must watch that film again. Partly I think it’s just a case of of playing a wider variety of roles. It is interesting though just how many young actors come out of Australia capable of appearing in American and British films with no problems and performing alongside both theatre-trained Brits and Americans. Kristen Stewart has an Australian mother – perhaps she can tap into home advice?
If there is a weakness in the film’s casting it isn’t Kristen Stewart but perhaps it is the lack of star-power in the supporting roles, specifically Ravenna’s brother Finn and ‘Prince William’, Snow White’s childhood playmate and the exiled Duke’s son. Neither actor plays their role badly but they don’t have the presence that a more distinctive figure might bring (although Sam Claflin as William is one of the lead performers in the Hunger Games franchise). On the other hand, truly distinctive performers such as Ray Winstone and Ian McShane are included in the controversial decision to use CGI techniques to present character actors as dwarves. McShane could have played Ravenna’s brother and Winstone could have played William’s father.
I think a great deal of the criticism of Kristen Stewart’s performance as Snow White is prompted by her success in Twilight and critics’ (and non-fan audiences’) antipathy to that franchise. It’s worth noting the other aspects of her performance that do contribute to the film. She moves athletically and convincingly enough in the action scenes, but also looks quite regal with her exposed neck and shoulders. Best of all is her portrayal of a Snow White with grimy fingernails and a wild look after a night in the Dark Forest. (The prominent front teeth in the image above contrast with theusual bland white choppers of Hollywood leads.)
IMDb lists Stewart’s salary for the film as $9.5 million. Presumably what the film’s producers are buying is Stewart’s Twilight audience. This prompts consideration of Tom Austin’s 2002 paper, ‘Gone With the Wind Plus Fangs‘: Genre, Taste and Distinction in the Assembly, Marketing and Reception of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (included in Genre and Contemporary Hollywood, ed. Steve Neale, London: bfi). Austin refers to Hollywood’s ‘commercial aesthetic of aggregation’ that produces a ‘dispersible text’. He identifies Coppola’s Dracula as the first in a cycle of blockbuster classic horror tales and suggests that it is constructed so that it can be marketed in different ways – as an auteur production by Coppola, a star vehicle for any of its four stars, a reworking of a popular myth, a literary adaptation, a horror film etc. Each of these options might appeal to a different audience.
Snow White and the Huntsman feels like a slightly different kind of ‘dispersible text’. It is also part of a looser contemporary cycle, this time of reworkings of fairy tales. If Stewart brings the Twilight audience of younger women, Hemsworth also has an audience – crucially more likely to include young males. Charlize Theron may not have a specific following as such, but as Ravenna she offers another interesting role for ‘older’ women (cf with Angelina Jolie in Maleficent or Meryl Streep in Into the Woods). Just as important perhaps is the array of CGI effects. Director Sanders comes out of TV advertising and he has certainly been able to create striking visual sequences working with Australian cinematographer Greig Fraser and designer Dominic Watkins. The cycle itself might also attract audiences. The real question is how well this aggregation works. I’ve already hinted that the visual style does seem to be too obviously ‘grabbing’ ideas from earlier films – and perhaps not integrating them fully. The low critics/users ratings on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes suggest that the sequel may have difficulty reaching the same size of audience again. Many of the pro and anti comments refer to Kristen Stewart’s performance. The prequel that has now been announced for 2016 replaces Stewart with Jessica Chastain and Emily Blunt (Theron and Hemsworth remain) and changes director to Cedric Nicolas Troyan, another novice director who was visual effects director on Snow White. This looks like a gamble to me. Losing Stewart and her fan audience means a big box office hole to fill.
The box office of the prequel will give some indication of how much Kristen Stewart was a ‘star attraction’ in Snow White and the Huntsman and it will be helpful in thinking about the development of Stewart’s star image in 2012.