Tagged: psychological thriller

LFF 2020 #4: A Common Crime (Un crimen común, Argentina-Brazil-Switz 2020)

Cecilia and Juan

I watched this film without much preparation. I knew the title and I had read that it had links to that important and deep-rooted issue of ‘disappearances’ in Argentina. But I did expect that the main focus would be the crime and its investigation in some way. It isn’t. Instead it’s a narrative about someone who almost unknowingly becomes part of the crime scenario and who then suffers the consequences. The film is presented in Academy ratio. The only reason for this as far as I can see is that it represents the increasing sense of entrapment felt by the central character Cecilia.

This is an intelligent and very well-made film with a stunning central performance by Elisa Carricajo, who is well-known in the theatre in Argentina. Much of the cast comprises non-professional actors and the technical credits are very impressive especially sound design, editing and cinematography. The writer-director Francisco Márquez was very clear about his intentions in the Q&A that followed the screening. The ‘common crime’ here refers to both the ‘institutional violence’ of the Argentinian police (which Márquez argues amounts to daily deaths of young men in custody or on the street) and to the ‘blind eye’ of the Argentinian middle class when it comes to action to stop this violence – which perpetuates the history of ‘disappearing’ those deemed as dangerous by the authorities. These disappeared are nearly all young men living in poverty conditions.

Cecilia visits Nebe whose house is approached through a maze of narrow alleyways

It’s very difficult to comment on the narrative without spoiling it for future audiences so I’ll just outline a couple of events and characters without going into too many details. Cecilia is a sociology teacher in a local university (a very low-key institution, but perhaps that just reflects the low budget of the film?). She is in the process of applying for a more senior job at the university which is one of the pressures on her, although everyone expects her to get the job. She lives in a small single-story dwelling with her small son Juan who must be 10 or 11? Her childcare is shared with the boy’s father who seems to have him a couple of days a week. Cecilia doesn’t seem like much of a cook and she also employs a cleaner cum housekeeper Nebe. This gives her a little extra time to prepare her lectures. It’s a while since I’ve been presented with quotes from Althusser and later on a pair of her ex-students ask her advice on preparing an abstract for a paper. They seem to be an encouraging pair of academic rebels who adopt a Gramscian approach – hurrah! Cecilia’s reaction to their request for advice is interesting.

The central incident comes one night when Cecilia is alone in the house, awake during a storm when she hears someone pounding on her door and crying for help. Peering through the blinds, she sees a figure who might be Nebe’s grown-up son Kevin who Cecilia had met briefly a couple of days earlier. But it’s the middle of the night and Cecilia is frightened. She goes back to bed without opening the door. Later it is revealed that Kevin has ‘disappeared’. Cecilia visits Nebe in what is considered as the ‘rough’ part of town, reassuring Nebe that she will pay her while she takes time off and campaigns to find her son, but not mentioning the night-time incident.

From this point on, Cecilia begins a downward spiral as the failure to help her visitor in the night begins to prey on her. The second half of the film depends very much on Elisa Carricajo’s excellent performance and the subtle sound design. I also feel that the costumes she is given to wear seem particularly unflattering and it’s interesting to see her smoking. I don’t know what the smoking levels in Argentina are like now but in a UK context, a teacher smoking is someone who might be considered as ‘under stress’. The script rather conveniently prevents any later scenes of her teaching – which is where I would expect the stress to become more obvious. But I was shocked by Cecilia’s behaviour at a friend’s dinner table.

I think there are a number of films which similarly deal with middle-class angst about ‘not doing the proper thing’, sometimes a question of morality and sometimes an almost criminal act. In that sense this film is generic. In the second half of the film the director also uses some familiar devices from psychological horror stories. Most of these are used in subtle ways through editing and sound effects but some – the shower curtain ripped open to reveal nothing, a toy racetrack with cars still running in an empty house – are perhaps too familiar. Listening to the director and appreciating his approach it is clear he was attempting a more profound statement about the issue in Argentina and the film aims for a level of social realism. He had some success with a previous film also raising questions about ‘disappearances’ and his worked has been bracketed with that of Lucretia Martlel’s The Headless Woman (2008). I’m not sure how much I enjoyed Un crimen común, but I admire its production. However, I think it might be a tough sell to distributors and I think audiences would need some preparation if they are not to be disappointed because of expectations about a crime fiction thriller.

The trailer below (with English subs) reveals a little more of the plot and illustrates Cecilia’s decline.

Beast (UK 2017)

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On the edge

Writer-director Michael Pearce’s feature debut has enough variants on a theme to engage and is blessed by Jessie Buckley (also in her first feature) as the protagonist. Although there is a serial killer ‘on the loose’, Pearce doesn’t play it as a straight thriller; the initial narrative conflict is occasioned by Moll’s (Buckley) burgeoning relationship with Johnny Flynn’s Pascal; the name may sound posh but he isn’t. The main focus is on social class disparity and prejudice; Flynn portrays the brooding character well, he clearly has some ‘dark secrets’, as he sensibly disregards bourgeois convention. The real star of the film, though, is Buckley.

I last saw her, she hails from Ireland, in Wild Rose where she played a Glaswegian ex-con trying to balance bringing up two children with a hedonist desire to be a country singer. In Beast she is a repressed bourgeois daughter of a domineering mother (Geraldine James channelling nastiness with great skill) in Jersey. In her short feature film career Buckley has shown chameleon-like qualities; it’s not just she looks different, she is different. She also had a supporting role in Judy (UK-US, 2019) where she was similarly virtually unrecognisable (unless you knew it was her). Imdb lists no less five features for her this year, though that, of course, won’t be happening now. She’s definitely one to watch because she’s brilliant.

Buckley subtly portrays the bludgeoned, buttoned-up Moll, who’s being positioned to be the main carer for her Dad who has dementia, as someone with rebellion just beneath the surface. Moll was home schooled due to bullying and there was a violent incident when she wasn’t the victim; she has ‘dark secrets’ too. The director is excellent in portraying the supercilious ‘golf club’ set: when Pascal turns up to a ‘do’ in black jeans Moll’s sister-in-law, Polly (Shannon Tarbet), says, with reference to the clothing ‘faux pas’, “You know what they’re like here.” It’s a great line showing the way bourgeois rules are seen to be separate from the people who adhere to them. Polly is as shallow as the rest of them.

Pearce’s direction is also interesting; he’s not averse to expressionist angles and sound of the sea, in particular, is used with great effect. As the narrative progresses the almost inevitable alignment, as far as the bourgeois conformists are concerned, between the serial killer and Pascal occurs: the question is, “how well do we know people we’ve recently met even if they have become lovers?” Despite this there’s enough in the ending to avoid cliche ensuring that Pearce is a talent to watch too.

Greta (Ireland-US-South Korea 2018)

At first Frances and Greta get along fine . . .

Surprisingly, this is Neil Jordan’s first cinema film since Byzantium in 2012. He seems to have spent the intervening years working on two TV series and writing a couple of novels. It’s always good to see him back on the big screen and Greta shares some of the same elements as Byzantium, though the genre base has shifted from vampires to psychological horror with distinctive gothic touches. The principal characters are again played by talented female actors having a lot of fun. As Nick suggested after the screening, Greta is perhaps best described as ‘classy schlock’. I certainly found it entertaining and there might be something else there which a second viewing might illuminate – or not!

The premise is straightforward. Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a young woman down from university in Massachusetts and now waitressing in an upmarket restaurant in New York at a difficult time in her life after her mother’s death and her father’s distant behaviour. She has a flatmate Erica (Maika Monroe) who appears to be a follower of ‘wellness’ regimes and the like. One day Frances finds an expensive handbag on the subway and takes it in person to the strange little house owned by Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert). Erica had warned her not to meet Greta, but initially Frances doesn’t mind the company of someone she sees as a lonely older woman and a social relationship begins. She learns that Greta is missing her own daughter’s company. But the initial companionship won’t last long. Greta is not someone you want to let into your life . . .

Frances with her flatmate Erica. What is Erica’s role in the narrative going to be?

Greta is an unsettling film to watch. Although set in New York, the film was shot in Toronto and Dublin and Greta’s house and the restaurant where Frances works are odd locations. The film is shot beautifully by Seamus McGarvey (and presented from a 4K DCP in Bradford) and edited by Nick Emerson – a pair of Northern Irishmen to go with Sligo-born Neil Jordan. The music is by Javier Navarrete who composed for Byzantium and earlier for Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish films Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. Nick was particularly taken by the sound design by Stefan Henrix. Sound is still and ‘understudied’ aspect of film narratives and on a first viewing/listening I find it difficult to analyse any sequence in detail. What I did notice in Greta was that apart from the very obvious music cueing of certain sequences (which works well I think) there is also a harshness and jarring effect coming through the combination of cinematography, editing and sound effects. From the limited amount of promotional material on the film that I’ve seen, Jordan (who co-wrote the script with Ray Wright, one-time collaborator with both George A. Romero and Wes Craven) wanted to look back to 1980s/90s thrillers like Fatal Attraction. What he seems to have achieved is a strange mix of that earlier period of thrillers sliding into horror with some modern concerns and characters. In this respect the casting of Moretz as the ‘up and coming’ young actor, pitted against Huppert seems a good choice. And while the mise en scène seems to look back, the use of modern phone technologies is well integrated in the narrative.

Domesticity seems an unlikely outcome for this relationship

Once Greta’s behaviour teeters over into the clearly dangerous Jordan cranks up the pace, scrambling through the gears and the last third of the film is highly conventional but presented with real panache and one or two clever turns. It also includes an oddly humorous gruesome moment perhaps inspired by the Korean team working on the effects. Neil Jordan fans will also enjoy the brief appearance of Stephen Rea, the actor who most of all reminds us of Jordan’s early successes.

Greta has received very mixed reviews and similarly mixed responses from audiences. I think it works because Moretz takes her role seriously and plays it for real and Huppert is her usual marvellous self revelling in playing Liszt on the piano and dancing round the strange little room she inhabits. She’s made well over 100 films but I suspect she remembers some similar roles and characters she played for Chabrol. There are holes in the plot and you need to suspend belief but Jordan and his team create genuine excitement throughout the final section. I’m not going to show the trailer as it gives too much away. See it for the performances of the three women.

Burning (Beoning, South Korea 2018)

The trio sitting outside Jong-su’s old farmhouse, Ben has brought the wine

Burning is the first high-profile foreign language film release in the UK this year (it arrives with 27 international festival awards including the Critics Prize at Cannes). It opened on just 34 screens and so I had to make a 2 hour train trip to Sheffield to see it. Picturehouses in Bradford haven’t, as far as I’m aware, shown any foreign language films yet this year. Fortunately for me, not only was Burning a riveting watch but I could stay on and see one of the films touring under the Japan Foundation banner later in the day. Well done Showroom for putting these on.

I tried to avoid reading about Burning before the screening. All I knew was that it was loosely based on a story by Haruki Murakami. I had noted and then forgotten that director Lee Chang-dong was responsible for the fabulous film Poetry that I greatly enjoyed in 2011. The new film focuses on three central characters. Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is a young man in his twenties doing casual work when he meets Hae-mi (Jun Jong-seo) who claims she was at school with him ten years ago. She’s since had plastic surgery she tells him. “I’m pretty now. You once called me ugly.” The pair appear to bond immediately but Hae-mi is about to go on an adventure holiday in Africa. She asks Jong-su to look after her cat and he complies diligently. But when Hae-mi returns she is accompanied by a wealthy man she met in Nairobi, ‘Ben’ (Steven Yuen), a few years older. The trio begin an uncomfortable relationship. I won’t detail any more plot spoilers because the narrative transforms slowly into a form of mystery thriller in its second half.

Jong-su runs on the lanes around his village

Jong-su is the central character and he is in every scene so he is effectively the narrator. Perhaps unsurprisingly we learn that at college he studied creative writing and that he wants to write a novel – but as yet he doesn’t know what the story will be. His family is ‘fragmented’. His mother left home many years ago and his father has ‘anger issues’ and is about to be convicted of assault. His sister has also gone so Jong-su is on his own in the farmhouse on the outskirts of Paju City some 90 minutes north of Seoul and close to the border with North Korea. Although I haven’t read the Murakami short story, I did recognise something of the tone of his writing and the sense of loneliness and alienation. Murakami is also well-known for his interest in Western literature and the relationship between Jong-su and Ben is reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith with Ben as a ‘Tom Ripley’ character (though in Highsmith, Ripley tends to be the central character). When Ben asks Jong-su which writer he admires, he replies William Faulkner, which doesn’t augur well.

Jong-su also tells Hae-mi that Ben and his wealthy friends are ‘Gatsbys’. This comment points to an analytical subtext. We don’t know how Ben earns the money which pays for his swish apartment in Seoul and his Porsche. The actor Steven Yuen is Korean-American and seen to great effect in Sorry to Bother You (US 2018) and various US TV series. One reviewer suggests that Yuen speaks ‘perfect’ Korean and no doubt for local audiences there are minor details like this that make the characters much richer symbols. At one point Jong-su visits a large Catholic church. I couldn’t work out why but this is another example of a clue about a character’s background which might only be apparent to a Korean audience. Jong-su is no mug, but his demeanour suggests that he is seemingly not ‘with it’. With his mouth hanging open and a bemused/bewildered look at times, he openly states that the world is a mystery to him, but this masks his intelligence and determination. According to Wikipedia, Yoo Ah-in, the most experienced of the actors playing the leads, is something of a ‘youth icon’ in Korea. Jun Jong-seo gives an amazing performance as Hae-mi, especially since this is her first film role.

A boy watches a derelict greenhouse burn. Is this a dream?

Burning is 148 minutes long. This is not unusual for South Korean films and I was fully engaged for the whole film – in fact, I was surprised when the film ended, I thought that there might be more. (Having said that, the ending is perfectly fine, I just wasn’t expecting it.) It does seem to be a problem for some American audiences as revealed in IMDb User comments. These call the film slow and boring. They couldn’t be more wrong. The narrative moves slowly but it does so with increasing mystery and tension. The cinematography by Hong Kyung-pyo is excellent, as you might expect from someone who has worked consistently with some of the best South Korean directors. The opening shot of the film is a close-up of the door (of a truck or a container) with just a glimpse of a view down the street on the right-hand side of the screen from where Jong-su appears. Now I think about it, it is an ironic ‘pre-echo’ of the last sequence in the film. I enjoyed the film’s score as well and I noted in the credits that it includes something from Miles Davis’ score for Louis Malle’s Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud (Lift To The Scaffold, France 1958).

You might reasonably ask why the film is titled ‘Burning’. The Murakami story is titled ‘Barn Burning’ and at one point Ben tells Jong-su that he has a secret hobby that involves burning derelict greenhouses. Jong-su dreams about a burning greenhouse. The dream is not heavily signalled and other ‘events’ in the film may also be dreams. It’s one of those narratives in which the ‘reader’ can never be sure of the ‘truth’ of statements. That may irritate some readers and intrigue others. It all worked for me and if you are lucky enough to live within a reasonable distance of one of the few cinemas showing the film, I’d strongly recommend making the trip. West Yorkshire fans – it’s coming to Square Chapel in Halifax on 16-19 February.

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:

The Vanishing (Spoorloos, Netherlands-France-West Germany 1988)

Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) and Rex (Gene Bervoets) when they first arrive at the rest-stop

Confession time – when I booked for this film at the Leeds International Film Festival, I thought it was Vanishing Point (US 1971)! It’s all part of the fun of festivals. Sometimes you go to a screening just because you are already at the cinema and you don’t have to be anywhere else. In this case, I’m glad I made the mistake as I enjoyed the film which I didn’t see on its release. I did eventually remember something about both this film and its Hollywood remake by the same Dutch director – but with a stupid change to the film’s resolution.

The Vanishing is a psychological thriller built around an initial frightening occurrence and then a mystery with a psychological underpinning. I’ve seen comments that this is a very scary/frightening film. I’m not sure it is ‘scary’ but it is disturbing, entertaining and intriguing and the ending is definitely not to be revealed in case there are others like me who haven’t already seen it. The Vanishing has been re-released in the UK as part of the BFI Thriller touring season and there is a little mystery attached to the release. In 1990, the first UK release was given a ’12’ certificate. A year later the video was certificated as ’15’ and all subsequent releases have been ’15’s. The new DCP release for cinemas is 13 seconds longer than the 1990 release (the video timings have all differed by a minute or two). Is there something in those 13 seconds of real significance? It is unusual for a film to be re-classified upwards in this way.

The film narrative begins with a young couple looking forward to cycling in France during the time of the Tour de France. They drive down from Amsterdam with their bikes on the roof. They seem deeply in love but soon have a tiff before quickly making up. At a rest-stop near the city of Nîmes in Languedoc they become separated when Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) goes to the shop to buy drinks and doesn’t return. Rex (Gene Bervoets) soon becomes frantic but he can’t get the police to do anything immediately and Saskia seems to have just disappeared.

Raymonde (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu)

In the second part of the film the narrative seemingly moves forward and Rex has moved into a new relationship. But he can’t forget Saskia and he still makes visits back to Nîmes looking for traces of her. During this period we are introduced to Raymonde (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) who we suspect might be the cause of Saskia’s disappearance or might at least know something about it. Much of the narrative information we get comes from what appear to be flashbacks. Eventually Raymonde and Rex will meet but I won’t reveal any more if you are going to watch the film for the first time.

The Vanishing sets up several interesting psychological challenges. The original novel by Tim Krabbé had the title The Golden Egg and this seems to refer to a dream that Rex has some time after Saskia’s disappearance and which he tells an interviewer is the same dream that Saskia had the night before she disappeared. In the dream the couple are together in outer space inside a golden egg. Rex has an obsession about finding Saskia which mirrors Raymonde’s darker obsession. Cycling and chess are two of Tim Krabbé’s interests and both feature in the film, the first as background and the second symbolically in the psychological struggle between Rex and Raymonde. Many films are said to draw on Hitchcock but I think The Vanishing has a real claim to do so effectively. Strangers on a Train and Marnie are two different titles that seem to share some elements with Krabbé’s novel and the film by George Sluizer.

Rex and Raymonde are playing a game which feeds both their obsessions – but Raymonde knows more than Rex

Sluizer was born in France but as far as I can see spent his working life in the Netherlands. I was struck by this co-production which indeed did seem both French and Dutch with an interesting language exchange involving Saskia trying to speak French. The two locations feel different and so do the actors. Raymonde reminded me of characters in several French films, not just with his mysterious obsession, but also because of the insights into his childhood and his relationship with his family. We learn a lot less about Rex’s background. This means there are ‘holes’ in the plot. For instance, why is no one concerned about Saskia’s disappearance – doesn’t she have parents, siblings? That would complicate things of course. Raymonde’s family (two daughters) serves a double function. First, it enables him to develop some techniques and test out ideas on his wife and daughters in a seemingly innocent way and secondly his status as a loving family man to some extent diverts suspicion from him as a sociopath. All three lead actors are very good but I was fascinated by Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu and surprised that I haven’t seen him in other films.

Jeff Bridges as the Raymonde character and Kiefer Sutherland and Sandra Bullock as the couple feature in the remake which flopped. When will they ever learn? Never of course, because on some occasions it works (The Ring/Ringu?) and makes a lot of money. Keeping the same director means nothing if the producers have specific ideas for the American market. The Dutch original seems like a valid re-release for the UK and I hope a lot of young people are disturbed by the film (and have fun with it too).