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 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.
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.
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 . . .
‘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.
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.
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.
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).
From the 1960 Highsmith novel with the same English language title, This Sweet Sickness is a 1977 film by Claude Miller starring Gérard Depardieu and Miou-Moui. It’s perhaps the most delirious narrative of all the screenings in this Highsmith season, ending in a full-blown fantasy sequence.
David (Gérard Depardieu) is an accountant at a company in Central France. A typical Highsmith anti-hero, he ‘lives a lie’ – each weekend heading for Chamonix in the French Alps where he claims he is visiting his parents in a nursing home. In fact they are dead and he is secretly building/furnishing a chalet for his childhood sweetheart Lise (Dominique Laffin). Unfortunately she married someone else when David was away for two years (military service?) and is now pregnant with her first child. The film’s French title translates as ‘Tell Him/Her, I love Him/Her” which is intriguing and seems more informative that Highsmith’s original English title. This is because David himself is being pursued by Juliette (Miou-Miou) – and she in turn is being chased by David’s colleague François (Christian Clavier) who is attempting to cheat on his wife.
Claude Miller directed the film and co-wrote the screenplay with Luc Béraud. While keeping the central characters and the opening narrative close to Highsmith’s story (i.e. the book’s plot as reported on Wikipedia), Miller changed the second half in several ways. Not surprisingly perhaps, Highsmith did not like the adaptation. Miller, who died in 2012 just before his last film Thérèse Desqueyroux was shown at Cannes, was influenced by François Truffaut. Under Truffaut’s guidance he directed his first feature in 1976, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that aspects of Dites-lui que je l’aime seem to refer to Truffaut’s own interest in Hitchcock. At the beginning of the film David visits a cinema, sitting in front of Juliette who has recently moved into the same lodging-house. The screening is Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and a cut takes us straight from the auditorium to Joan Fontaine on the screen as the new Mrs de Winter exploring Manderley, the de Winter house. Juliette will eventually explore David’s chalet in Chamonix and if you know Rebecca you won’t be surprised at the chalet’s destruction in Dites-lui que je l’aime.
Claude Miller’s film is indeed ‘filmic’ and there are several interesting images/sequences. A photo in the chalet from the 1950s shows David and Lise as children. It sits below the kite (named ‘Fergus’) that they used to fly together. Outside the chalet a boy and girl, roughly the age of the children in the photo, are playing a game of ‘Grandmother’s Footsteps’. Where have they come from? The chalet is quite isolated in the hills. David comes out and shoos them away. Later in the film he sees another pair of children playing the same game. Are these children real or a figment of David’s obsessive imagination? In David’s bedroom at the chalet, a print on the wall shows a young woman looking out at the viewer. I think this might be Vermeer’s ‘A Lady Standing at a Virginal’ – or something similar (I think she was the other way round)? I thought that the scenes outside the chalet in the snow were reminiscent of the final scenes of Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste (1960).
In 1977 Gérard Depardieu was well on the way to becoming the pre-eminent French film star – a status he had obtained by the early 1980s. I watched him only a few weeks ago in 1900 (Novecento) (1976) which was shot only a couple of years earlier and he seems to have put on a lot of weight in just two years. In the image at the top of this post, he still displays a youthful sensitivity and charm (the glasses remind me of James Dean), but at the same time he hints at the brutality and wildness he is capable of. This was all part of Depardieu’s star persona and would come to the fore when he toured the US in 1990 to promote Green Card. In Dites-lui que je l’aime he slaps, punches and throws both men and women and throws wine or water in their faces. This film is unusual for Highsmith because, apart from Carol (UK-US-France 2015), it is the only one to my knowledge to involve two leading female characters, one of whom (Juliette) is nearly as active an agent as David himself. There is a sense in which Highsmith might be seen as misogynistic in terms of her female characters, but here she is perhaps better seen as misanthropic. I did find the violence dished out by David quite shocking – possibly because he flared up so quickly and was out of control before his victims were aware of what was happening. One of the main victims is Juliette – who dishes out her own form of emotional violence. Depardieu and Miou-Miou had ‘form’ in this kind of emotional drama, in Les valseuses (1974), a film that also includes Isabelle Huppert and Brigitte Fossey, both of whom have appeared in the ‘Adapting Highsmith’ films.
In trying to classify this film, I can’t help thinking that it is a bit like ‘Truffaut-Hitcock on speed’ – it’s a psychological thriller, crime melodrama and emotional romance rolled into one. The performances of Depardieu, Miou-Miou and Claude Piéplu (who plays David’s eccentric neighbour) carry the energy that this mixture of repertoires suggests and I think this was perhaps the most enjoyable of the adaptations I’ve seen.
I must note (for Keith’s benefit) that the film was projected as 1.66:1, the standard European format for the period and that the digital copy we saw seemed to have been copied from a video source which hadn’t been properly ‘de-interlaced’ so that the image ‘feathered’ every now and again. But I confess that I found the film narrative to be riveting and I soon forgot about the image quality. I watched this in one of the smallest screens at HOME which was nearly full. The last HOME screening in the season is this coming Thursday and since it’s directed by Claude Chabrol I’ll be there early to get a good seat. Can’t wait, this has been an excellent season.
The Here After is a début feature from Magnus von Horn, a Swede who attended the famous Łódź film school in Poland where he teamed up with a Polish student, Mariusz Wlodarski. After several prize-winning short films and a documentary, The Here After produced by Wlodarski with a partly Polish crew was an official co-production, shot in Sweden, in Swedish. The film, like many other European films, tapped into the regional film fund of Film i Väst and the credits also suggest some form of support from the National Film and TV School in the UK and the French film school Fémis. The Swedish production company involved is Zentropa International, one of many ventures associated with Lars von Trier who started the Danish Zentropa with his colleague Peter Aalbæk in 1992. Zentropa is now 50% owned by Nordisk and ranks as the biggest Scandinavian producer. With this kind of muscle it isn’t surprising that The Here After screened in Cannes and that it has received a release in Poland, Scandinavia and UK with France due in May.
Von Horn has adopted the strategy of telling us nothing about the characters or the situation and forcing us to learn as much as we can as the action unfolds. We see a young man, John (played by a well-known young Swedish pop singer, Ulrik Munther) who appears to be being released from some kind of secure institution. His father has come to collect him and drives him home to a farm where we meet his younger brother, his grandfather and the family dog. John’s mother is never mentioned. There is a great deal of tension between John and the three other family members but his situation doesn’t become clear until he returns to school and an extremely hostile reception from the other students. What has he done? We will eventually find out, but again not directly, only through piecing together what’s said and following the action. John will make a new friend in Malin, a girl who is new to the school and doesn’t know the history (but who is inquisitive). Otherwise, virtually everyone is suspicious if not aggressively hostile.
At first, I felt quite hostile towards the film, partly because von Horn adopts a visual style with lots of shallow focus and which along with other devices such as shooting through windows/doors, often in long takes, helps to distance the audience from the narrative. I understand that this expresses John’s state of mind but it isn’t easy to watch. I was surprised to discover afterwards that the film was shot by Łukasz Żal, the Polish cinematographer who was one of the two contributors to the look of Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013), one of the most astounding visual treats of the last few years. Much is made on the film’s website about the meeting of Scandinavia aesthetics and Polish emotional intensity:
“An over-aesthetic Scandinavian world clashes in the film with Polish sensitivity, creating a new Polish-Swedish quality in world cinema.”
“Łukasz Żal’s cinematography, enclosed in the sombre, sophisticated visual layer of the movie, enables the transition of the pain which accompanies the main character of ‘The Here After’ into an aesthetic experience. The world where John is doomed to live is meticulously scrutinised by the director. Von Horn and Żal have managed to wrap the bitter story in a soft, poetic form, giving rise to a remarkable sensitivity and a coherent cinematic language.” (See http://www.the-here-after.com)
There is a danger here of getting just a little too precious. As far as I can work out, the images are either drained of colour or it is particularly gloomy in Sweden in March (or May? – I couldn’t quite read the calendar on the wall). Either way, this is a world of predominantly blues, greys and greens. I think that I did eventually manage to gain some kind of entry into John’s world and the struggle may well have been worthwhile to experience ‘poetry’ and ‘sensitivity’. But I’m not sure that is what I wanted or expected from the film. I want here to speculate on issues of genre and representation. The Here After signs itself as an art film and as such has succeeded in getting widespread support. But I was also reminded of two other relatively recent films with similar narrative elements. The Swedish film Flocken (2015) has a similar visual style, a not dissimilar location and concerns a younger school student ostracised in her small community because she accuses a boy of sexually assaulting her. Flocken has not got a UK distributor and I wonder if it is thought too generic and not sufficiently ‘arthouse’? Another film which has something of the tone of The Here After is Lenny Abrahamson’s What Richard Did (Ireland 2012). This latter film did get a release and Abrahamson has become a very successful director straddling arthouse and mainstream ‘quality film’. All three films share a narrative in which a teenager does something that ‘shocks’ a relatively small tightly-knit community, leading to disturbing group behaviour and the sense that the various social institutions involved are less effective than they should be – implying perhaps some kind of metaphorical statement about a failing society. I think this is potentially a genre topic and relates to a wide range of films that play with morality, group behaviour and sensitivity around youth and adolescence. Back in the 1960s this would have been classed as a ‘social problem film’ in the UK. Then the narrative would have been expected to deliver an authority figure who would ‘solve’ the problem, but in these recent films a lack of narrative resolution has almost become conventional.
The Here After takes place in an unspecified region, although both the director and the young lead are from Halland county in Western Sweden. It seems to me that there are several films which portray life for adolescents outside Sweden’s main cities as tedious and dull. One of the best known is Lukas Moodysson’s Fucking Åmål (Sweden 1998). The original title of the film is the cry of teenage girls bored to death with living in Åmål. (The film was sweetly re-titled Show Me Love for release in the US and UK.) The Here After focuses on the more violent behaviour of teenage boys, but also on the way in which some of them are supported by parents for whom group solidarity is more important than any form of moral behaviour or social justice. Like What Richard Did, The Here After is based on/inspired by a news story. Even if there is a ‘truth’ in such a narrative, it still seems to me that there is a danger of ‘typing’ small town Scandinavia as particularly dismal in terms of social relations. Perhaps there is some Swedish scholarship on these kinds of films?
The Here After has received almost universal acclaim – though not too many screenings. It opened on just 10 screens and on its first weekend took only £330 per screen. None of the reviews I’ve read seemed interested in the kinds of sociological questions I wanted to ask. If this is meant to be Sweden, the judicial system and the rehabilitation of offenders seems out of kilter somehow. Of the various reviews, Jonathan Romney makes the most telling point when he describes Ulrik Munther as ‘delicately handsome’ and suggests that his pop star profile is well exploited (at least in a Swedish cinema market context). But too many reviews simply see von Horn as a diligent student of Michael Haneke. I was impressed by Munther’s performance and I certainly appreciated the way tension was built up but I would have liked more in terms of narrative development and more for the audience to chew on.
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.
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.
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.
Overall I think that Los ojos de Julia disappoints. It’s not that it is a bad film as such but it doesn’t have the richness and complexity of El orfanato. The comparisons are valid partly because of Belén Rueda’s central role and partly because of Guillermo del Toro’s implicit recommendation (as producer). It’s a couple of weeks since I saw the film and it hasn’t really resonated with me beyond the screening. On the other hand I did find it compelling over 112 minutes.
It’s not the same kind of film as El orfanato although there are similarities. Belén Rueda plays Julia, a woman whose sister appears to have committed suicide because she can no longer cope with the prospect of total blindness as the result of a degenerative genetic disease. Julia herself is also prone to the disease but when she visits her sister’s house she is not prepared to accept the suicide and she decides to investigate (along with her husband played by Lluís Homar – well-known in the UK for his performances for Almodóvar, including as a blind man in Broken Embraces.) Julia is convinced that there is someone watching the house – and watching her. The plot is purely generic in that it requires the protagonist to wish to be in the ‘old dark house’ even when she knows that the stress will hasten the degeneration of her sight. So everything that you might expect to appear as a thriller/horror convention does indeed pop up. I don’t really have problems with this – perhaps because I don’t watch so many Hollywood films with similar scenarios. What more can you ask for than for a film like this to make you jump and then leave you on the edge of your seat?
The performances are generally very good and the sets and cinematography/lighting are excellent. The weakness is really the script. (Guillem Morales wrote and directed the film.) It seems to have several plot holes and some of the actions of some characters seem implausible. Some audiences seem to have problems with the ending and the symbolism of ‘Julia’s eyes’ (which I won’t explain as it would spoil the plot surprises). The ending didn’t bother me but I would have liked more of the relationship between Julia and her husband – something which served El orfanato well with the equivalent characters. El orfanato has a strong thematic around the ‘missing dead’ of the Franco period. Los ojos de Julia also has an underlying theme – about the people we don’t see, those who for various reasons are invisible to most of us. This obviously also refers to the concept of loss of sight or visual impairment. Unfortunately I don’t think this is woven through the narrative as effectively as the theme in the earlier film.
In institutional terms, Los ojos de Julia is another example of a classy Spanish horror thriller with careful production design funded via several Spanish TV companies with the support of Studio Canal and its long-term Hollywood partner Universal. It would make an interesting case study for genre analysis in linking the psychological horror film (i.e. with both ‘internal’ and external terrors for the protagonist) with the thriller format exemplified by Wait Until Dark.
The UK trailer:
Usually when I go to see a film I have a good idea about what it’s going to be like from advanced publicity, reviews etc. All I knew about Animal Kingdom was that it was about a family of bank robbers in modern-day Melbourne (the exact period is a little vague), has an ensemble cast in which the only actor well-known outside Australia was Guy Pearce, had appeared to some acclaim at Sundance and received 8/10 in the Guardian’s summary of reviews. I expected a superior heist-action film and the opening credits, with a montage of unfocused security-camera stills of bank robberies in progress, reinforced this expectation. There was certainly some pretty violent action but, unlike, say, Goodfellas or Heat, it was in short sharp bursts. It turned out to be less a crime-action film, more a gripping psychological thriller. Despite the positive reviews, the early-evening screening I attended was almost empty which is a pity.
Outline – not too many spoilers
Joshua’s mother dies of a heroin overdose and the hapless 17-year-old contacts his grandmother to arrange the funeral. For years his mother had kept him away from her violent criminal brothers but the grandmother welcomes him into the home. The Cody brothers are considering getting out of the bank-robbing business as the police are all over them. The brothers are Darren, the youngest, who is making money in the drug trade in partnership with a crooked cop; Craig, the middle son, who is none too bright but highly excitable, no doubt because he frequently samples the merchandise from his trade; and the oldest, Andrew, who is nicknamed Pope, a psychopathic criminal who is being sought by the police. The brains behind the gang belong to Barry, a family associate who advises Pope to get out of bank-robbing. His preferred option is the stock market but even the grubbier drugs business seems a better bet than carrying on in the old way. Pope doesn’t own nor would he have a clue how to operate a computer to become a stock-broker and considers the drug business as being for sissies. (This exchange reminded me of the one between Stringer Bell in The Wire who wants to move more into ‘legitimate’ business while gang boss Avon Barksdale just wants to be a gangster). Heading the family is the clawingly sentimental but quite vicious mother, Janine Cody. Janine at first seems to be the family skivvy but when her sons are in danger she comes more and more to the fore and becomes a key player in the developing narrative.
The police execute Barry in cold blood and Pope decrees revenge. After more or less forcing Joshua (known as “J”) to go out and steal a car for the job, Pope and his brothers go out and kill two policemen at random. Local detective Leckie (Guy Pearce) enters the story at this point and realises that the way to pin the killing on the Codys is through J. The rest of the film is taken up with the psychological pressure that Pope, aided by a crooked lawyer, exerts on his siblings and nephew, paralleled with Leckie’s hope of bringing J over to his side.
The opening of the film sets the tone. We see J sitting on the sofa watching a game show on television with his mother asleep by his side. She is not in fact sleeping but dead and he has already called the paramedics. The fact that he continues to watch TV could suggest callousness but I think that would be a misreading. He is, in a sense, the protagonist of the film but, at first, a fairly passive one. Director David Michôd gives him a voiceover in the early part of the film, seemingly for expositional reasons. Despite script-writing guru Robert Kee’s dictum that voiceovers are a contentious device for exposition, I find them quite useful when done effectively, for example in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity and Terence Malick’s Badlands. In fact I thought we might be in for the kind of naïve voiceover we find in that film from Sissy Spacek’s character. J’s is much more dispassionate, cool and calm despite the strange family environment he finds when he moves to his grandmother’s. The voiceover finishes (from memory) after about twenty minutes but it does frame the basic lesson – all criminals come apart – which is fleshed out over the next hour and a half.
Perhaps the best things about the film were the performances. Guy Pearce had a supporting role which he plays with quiet effectiveness but there were, arguably, three standout performances. The first was James Frecheville as J. It was a misleading performance, at first quiet and introverted, not quite allowing us to see where he stands with his family’s activities, first suggesting that nothing much was going on inside his head but later suggesting a sense of shock at the crazy world he has entered. When these activities start to infiltrate his life beyond the family he becomes a more active agent in the drama.
The performances of both Jackie Weever (Janine) and Ben Mendelsohn (Pope) share, in their different ways, a certain kind of creepiness. The character of Janine (for which Jackie Weaver was nominated in the recent Oscars as the Best Supporting Actress) shares certain features with previous fictional criminal mothers such as Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly) in Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949) (whose son, played by James Cagney, was of course Cody Jarrett – any significance?); Billie Whitelaw as Violet, mother of the ultra-violent twins in The Krays (d. Peter Medak, 1990); and Livia Soprano (Nancy Marchand). The latter prefigures Janine in the way Livia is happy to plot the death of her son as Janine is happy to sacrifice her grandson but unlike the latter she is passionately (almost oedipally – kissing them passionately on the lips) fond of her sons. When they go to jail she displays her ruthlessness and power. Her performance is at its most effective when she is silent, her eyes almost giving her entire performance. A mistress of manipulation, behind her benign smile there is coldness with which she sketches what must happen to J to save her sons, all the while keeping the grandmotherly expression on her face. A chilling performance.
Ben Mendelsohn’s tactile performance as Pope was unsettling from the start. He’s off his medication and is a figure of dangerous unpredictability and ominous impulse. It is not just in the way the character seems at any moment to hit out at whoever displeased him but the way, for example, that he pretends to be a sort of father figure, particularly to the youngest brother Darrell, encouraging him to come out as gay, telling he doesn’t mind but menacingly so as to increase his control over his weak younger brother. One unsettling moment foreshadows Pope’s later horrific treatment of Debbie, J’s 16-year-old-girlfriend. She falls asleep as J is out of the room and carries her into the bedroom, his hands lingering on her legs until J arrives.
One aspect of the film that was at one point causing me problems was the pacing of the narrative. At first, when J arrives at the Codys, I found it difficult to distinguish between the brothers and their associate Barry. Fairly quickly the character of Barry establishes itself, especially as Pope’s entrance is held back. It might have been more effective for Barry to be left a bit longer as a counterweight to Pope so that the death of a potential protector for Josh highlights his vulnerability more dramatically. Later, when the police seemed to be making headway in the case and the killers’ arrest and conviction seemed inevitable, I felt the narrative sagged a little. However, a final act opened up with Janine’s role becoming major and our sympathy for J and anxiety on his behalf (and on behalf of his girlfriend Debbie and her family) being ratcheted up. It slackened off after the trial to be revamped by a triumphant Janine confronting Detective Guy in the supermarket and an explosive ending (which, although I half-guessed was about to happen, nevertheless was a shock.
Finally, much of the atmosphere in the film was conveyed by the music and cinematography. Antony Partos’s austere score was dark, melancholic, tense and menacing. I think I need a further viewing to absorb the mise en scene and cinematography but I was left with an impression of frequent (over-frequent?) slow motion sequences, slow zooms and noirish lighting which combined to create a mood of tragic inevitability.
Here’s the trailer: