NZIFF 2021: Earwig (2021)

I don’t like to focus on disappointing films when I’m doing my round-ups, but Lucile Hadžihalilović is one of the more interesting directors of the last few decades (even if her similarly controversialist husband Gaspar Noé tends to be the better known). She’s only made a handful of features, so it’s with sadness that I report I didn’t much like her newest (English-language) feature film. Still, it has all the elements of her style, so undoubtedly there will be big fans of it out there; after all, if Wes Anderson can have people hanging on his every twee set design detail, then there’s no reason why the same can’t be said for Lucile Hadžihalilović (though one suspects part of the problem is the darkness of her vision).


I’ll give it to the Lucile Hadžihalilović cinematic universe that it is at least thematically consistent. There’s a vision at work which seems to link it to her two other feature films, Evolution (2015) and Innocence (2004), filled as it is with early- to mid-20th century fustiness, chiaroscuro tonality, throbbing soundtracks and corporeal strangeness that hints at something Cronenbergian. The atmosphere, in other words, is on point and deeply evocative. There’s not even any dialogue for the first 15 minutes, and when it does enter it has the whispered resonance of thickly Belgian-accented ASMR. A girl (Romane Hemelaers) is cared for by her… father… I think, Albert (Paul Hilton). Her dentures melt and need to be refrozen and refitted each day. A strange man on the other end of the telephone wants something. And then there’s a waitress at a local bar (Romola Garai) injured in a fight with another mysterious stranger. There are elements of a story here, but they never seem to cohere in any way that feels satisfying. Perhaps that’s the point, perhaps one just needs to give into the feeling of it all, and some may well enjoy it at that level, but the whole thing just felt too opaque to really enjoy.

Earwig (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Lucile Hadžihalilović; Writers Hadžihalilović, Geoff Cox and Brian Catling; Cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg; Starring Paul Hilton, Romane Hemelaers, Romola Garai; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at the Roxy, Wellington, Sunday 14 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 484: Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

I’ve seen this film before, though it took me a long time between first reading about it (when I was first getting into film in the late-90s) to actually getting to see it (in 2007, by the time I’d moved to London, at the NFT). I loved it back then yet in thinking about rewatching it, what stuck in my head was the boring quotidian rituals that Jeanne goes through robotically at home. And indeed the first half of the film is largely just this: her doing the chores, at great length. However, Akerman and cinematographer Babette Mangolte frame and light her home as carefully as a video art installation in a gallery, and there’s still something hypnotic about her actions. Even her welcoming a client into the home is part of the everyday ordinariness — sex work is neither glamourised nor ridiculed, it’s just part of the ritual of her life.

But for all its peculiar fascination, this is just a set up for the drama that takes place when, having become used to Jeanne’s rituals, things start to fall apart. She has a long (for the film) chat with an unseen neighbour outside her door, and then a second client seems to put her off her rhythms. This quickly leads to the rituals of her life, the chores and the busywork she does to keep the home tidy for her and her son, starting to unravel a bit. There’s an obvious feminist message about the toll that this work takes on women’s lives, though for all that happens, it’s not clear that Jeanne ends up in a bad place. That final shot, of her in the dark, the weight of her life seemingly somehow lifted, makes it feel like she has been freed of something, though I concede that perhaps everyone has a different reaction to it. That’s part of the film’s beauty, in allowing those readings, because it does still feel like an open text, that hints at things without playing its hand, and it’s another role for Delphine Seyrig (after Last Year at Marienbad, which preceded this by a few titles in the Criterion Collection) in which her character’s reality seems open to question.

In short, this is a film filled with wonder and misery, which is very much about everyday life, about the mundanity of it all but also about the choices we all make every day in every moment of our lives.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman; Cinematographer Babette Mangolte; Starring Delphine Seyrig; Length 201 minutes.

Seen at the NFT (now the British Film Institute), London, Wednesday 21 March 2007 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Friday 3 December 2021).

Global Cinema 21: Bolivia – When the Bull Cried (2017)

It should be clear by now that I don’t choose what I consider the most representative or famous titles from their country. Partly, it’s about what is easily available for me to watch, but I also seek out films directed by women and people of colour. There isn’t a huge amount of Bolivian cinema, but almost certainly there are better known titles than this Belgian-Bolivian co-production documentary, though I feel it certainly captures something specific about Bolivian life, at least in the mountainous mining communities.


Bolivian flagPlurinational State of Bolivia
population 11,428,000 | capital Sucre (259k) [constitutional/judicial], La Paz (765k) [executive/legislative] | largest cities Santa Cruz de la Sierra (1.5m), El Alto (849k), La Paz, Cochabamba (631k), Oruro (265k) | area 1,098,581 km2 | religion Roman Catholicism (70%), Protestantism (17%) | official language Spanish (Español boliviano), Aymara, Quechua (Runasimi), Guarani and many others | major ethnicity Mestizo (68%), native Bolivian (20%) | currency Boliviano (Bs) [BOB] | internet .bo

A landlocked South American country, with two capital cities (though the seat of government is located in La Paz), neither of which is the largest. It ranges from peaks in the west to eastern lowlands within the Amazon Basin. The name comes from Simón Bolívar and the country originally called the Republic of Bolívar; the modern name was adopted in 1825. The country was first occupied several millennia BCE, before the Aymara arrived. It wasn’t until the first millennium CE that the population cohered into cities, and it became a regional power as the Tiwanaku (or Tiahuanaco) empire. This empire crumbled due to a lack of food production, and by the mid-2nd millennium the Incan empire moved in. Spanish conquest began in 1524 and didn’t take long to complete, after which point the colonial power exploited silver via mining (tin took greater importance by the 20th century), though the brutal slave conditions led to an indigenous uprising, which coalesced into a struggle for independence in the early 19th century. Marshal Sucre led a military campaign that resulted in the Republic being declared in 1825. A number of wars took place between neighbouring powers on the continent for the ensuing few decades, and the country successively lost a lot of territory, including access to the sea. Periods of military dictatorship ceded to democracy in the 1990s, though there has been further instability since then. There is an elected President.

Bolivia has produced feature films since the 1920s, many of which have been documentaries. There was a New Bolivian Cinema in the 1960s, in parallel to Brazil and Argentina’s movements the same decade, and social realism continues to be a feature of modern, digital filmmaking practice.


Cuando el toro lloró (When the Bull Cried, 2017)

The title suggests something a little bit poetic about life in the Bolivian mountains amongst a small mining village. The film is dominated by images of rocks being cracked open by elderly women looking for tin, and of men going down into the miasma of the mountain, some of whom don’t return, as the women regretfully note. The traditions and customs are seen, protection sought for the dangerous work many in the community do, and the film ends with a gory animal sacrifice, the pulsating heart seen burning on a flame being despatched to El Tio, the deity worshipped around these parts. It’s an evocative film, albeit a slight one, running at just over an hour.

When the Bull Cried film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Karen Vazquez Guadarrama and Bart Goossens; Cinematographer Guadarrama; Length 67 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Thursday 1 October 2020.

Global Cinema 17: Belgium – Tomorrow We Move (2004)

Aside perhaps from Agnès Varda (who was born in the suburbs of Brussels but spent most of her life in France), the country’s most famous filmmaker may be Chantal Akerman. The film I’m using of hers today is a French-Belgian co-production (which as far as co-producing nations go, is a fairly common combination, as the Flemish/Dutch-language cinema is largely separate) and is actually set in Paris, but I think Akerman always honoured a certain spirit of her Belgian roots, while always making films that were ultimately her own.


Belgian flagKingdom of Belgium (België/Belgique)
population 11,493,000 | capital Brussels (Brussel/Bruxelles) (179k, but 1.2m in the wider capital region) | largest cities Antwerp (523k), Ghent (260k), Charleroi (202k), Liège (197k), Brussels | area 30,689 km2 | religion Christianity (63%), none (29%) | official language Dutch, French, German | major ethnicity no information | currency Euro (€) [EUR] | internet .be

A West European country bordered by France, Netherlands, Germany and Luxembourg, it is the 6th most densely populated country in Europe and is divided into three largely autonomous regions: the Flemish in the north (60% of the country’s population speaks Flemish Dutch), Wallonia in the south (French-speaking) and the Brussels-Capital Region (where French is dominant). The name comes from the Latin word used by Julius Caesar. There is evidence of prehistoric settlement, but the Belgae were the inhabitants of Northern Gaul during the Roman era; when this collapsed, it came under Merovingian rule, and the Frankish lands evolved into the Carolingian Empire. In the 9th century, the Treaty of Verdun more or less created the boundaries of modern Belgium as the Middle Kingdom, later Lotharingia, ruled by the Holy Roman Emperor. A succession of European rulers eventually led to the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1814, and an independent Belgium was declared in 1830. The installation of King Leopold I on 21 July 1831 is celebrated as the National Day. The late-19th century saw imperial expansion in the Congo under Leopold II, the brutality of which quickly became an issue that led to the Belgian state to take over control. Germany invaded in WWI and WWII, and the collaborationist Leopold III was forced to abdicate. There is still a monarch and a parliamentary democracy, but political institutions are complex due to the linguistic and cultural divisions in the country.

Likewise, there are essentially two cinemas in Belgium: Flemish/Dutch-speaking and Walloon/French-speaking. The first public screening was in 1896, and the first studio founded in 1910, though the first real attempts at cinema came in the 1930s. Subsidisation in the 1960s led to a new generation of filmmakers, though modern Belgian cinema became best known in the 1990s with films by the Dardenne brothers and black comedies like Man Bites Dog.


Demain on déménage (Tomorrow We Move, 2004)

It’s fair to say that mother and daughter relationships loom large in Akerman’s work and here again we have one such, in a broadly comic vein. A mother moves in with her daughter in Paris, but they need more space so are on the market for a new flat. Rooms are ritually aired of their mustiness, fridges are opened, furnishings are moved around, little jigs are done (it’s almost a musical) and there’s a surpassing neurotic tendency to these characters’ behaviour, as befits screwball. But then again there are moments of pathos and sadness every so often and one is reminded of Akerman’s own story.

Tomorrow We Move film posterCREDITS
Director Chantal Akerman; Writers Akerman and Eric de Kuyper; Cinematographer Sabine Lancelin; Starring Sylvie Testud, Aurore Clément, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Natacha Régnier; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 14 July 2016.

La Belle at the Movies (2015)

Talking about Belgian films, all of which have been co-productions this week on my blog, you inevitably can’t avoid the legacy of colonialism, especially in Africa. Like much European involvement on that continent, the history of the Belgian Congo is not perhaps one of the more fondly recalled projects of imperial Belgium, but of course at least one of the consequences is a film culture that (when it existed) was primarily for white people. This film has an Italian crew and British/Belgian financial backing, and tells an interesting story, although it doesn’t appear to be easily available to watch anywhere.


A documentary about film culture in Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC (that city being the “La Belle” of the title), though it’s the apparent lack of film culture — no cinemas, no posters advertising movies — which initially drew the (Italian) director’s interest. So we start with buildings which used to be cinemas, and as she gets further into the subject, we start to get a bit of history of this country, and how under Mobutu Sese Seko and his “Zairianisation” project, the imposition of traditional values meant that there was a decline in what was perceived to be a foreign colonialist art form (many of the city’s cinemas were segregated to the white Belgians). There’s an interesting sidebar in the popularity of cowboy movies, and interviews with some men who continue to dress up that way, while film culture is reduced to roadside stalls selling pirated movies as well as fairly ad hoc community initiatives to screen videos, which is the closest the city comes to the idea of the cinema. Along the way there’s a solid sense of a city, its people and (some of) its turbulent 20th century history that makes this a fascinating work.

La Belle at the Movies film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Cecilia Zoppelletto; Cinematographer Paolo Camata; Length 67 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 21 April 2018.

In der Dämmerstunde Berlin de l’aube à la nuit (1980)

As part of my Belgian week, which has quickly become more about Belgian co-productions made and set in other countries, we move to Berlin in the late-1970s with this strange document of a vanished era, not widely available (screened in 16mm at the Deptford Cinema when I saw it), but capturing a real feeling for a place. The bilingual title hints at its dual origins, and the filmmaker is Belgian, which gives it that outsider’s-view feel.


This strange piece of celluloid feels like a time capsule from a different place, an irretrievable time, the alien landscape of Berlin in the late-1970s, with the Wall very much in evidence, train journeys that just end abruptly even as we see the track stretching out ahead of the camera, and little walks around town that the filmmaker takes (the back of her head becomes very familiar), what I suppose we would today call psychogeography. Occasionally we hear voices from those talking about post-war Germany, from a Jewish bookseller determined to return to the country which treated him so badly, and from old ladies talking about Hitler. But for the most part this is a densely-textured journey film, broken up by quotes and snatches of opera, and the presence of a clanking 16mm cinema projector at the back of the room where I saw it, seemed to lend it an almost spiritual quality, of a black-and-white document stolen from history.

CREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Annik Leroy; Length 67 minutes.
Seen at Deptford Cinema, London, Saturday 23 March 2019.

Baden Baden (2016)

Another Franco-Belgian co-production is this excellent film about a young woman returning to her home (also the director’s home, Strasbourg) to sort out her life. It’s not a coming of age, exactly, because the protagonist is in her 20s, but it definitely deals with a similar sort of malaise and aimlessness. That shouldn’t make it particularly compelling but I really liked it.


Trading on all those classic elements of the cinema of self-indulgent continental introspection — a young woman returns home to her ailing grandmother to tidy up shattered plans, creating new messes to tidy, and reopening some fresh wounds — but it’s done with such verve, such control of the medium, and such fine performances in the lead roles that what initially sounds like it might be drab and unengaging is really compelling. Sure, Ana’s life may or may not be going anywhere (whose is?) but right from that first extended shot of her driving a star to a film set only to be bawled out by the producer, it shows a sure sense of what is cinematic. There are ways I’m reminded of British film Adult Life Skills in its themes, but here put across with at times an elegiac grace — little dreamlike interstices, a careful regard for small details, holding the shot just a little longer than is comfortable at times. It’s also got plenty of downbeat humour, no little thanks to its lead actor, Salomé Richard. (I didn’t even mention her delightful DIY determination to remodel her gran’s bathroom, which the titular use of a famous spa town may obliquely be referring to?)

Baden Baden film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Rachel Lang; Cinematographer Fiona Braillon; Starring Salomé Richard, Claude Gensac, Swann Arlaud, Zabou Breitman; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Tuesday 27 September 2016.

Un divan à New York (A Couch in New York, 1996)

Chantal Akerman is a filmmaker very much from Belgium and linked with that country, but this Franco-German-Belgian co-production isn’t even set in any of those places, which certainly makes it unusual. European films about America and its people are rarely particularly successful, I don’t think, and this romcom (not a genre most associated with Akerman, though she often veered quite close to it) is surely very odd. It’s on Mubi right now, and worth having a look at.


I’m not honestly sure what exactly I can say about Chantal Akerman’s romcom, given just how far it is outside her usual style and themes (though I suppose Tomorrow We Move had a story of comedic edge to it, even if it was about mothers and daughters, which you somewhat more expect with Akerman). It’s set mostly in New York City, with a bit in Paris, as William Hurt and Juliette Binoche’s characters swap apartments, and he is exposed to a rather bijou but artfully squalid Parisian flat (complete with overly passionate boyfriends stomping in and smacking him around), while she gets a plush, grand apartment in a block with a concierge, where his patients (for he is a psychoanalyst) just wander in and demand therapy. This, primarily, is where I suppose the comedy happens, in these encounters where it turns out Binoche’s character is ‘curing’ everyone, leading him to return and seek therapy from her himself. It’s all a little bit arch, and stretches credulity, but such is the generic framework of the romcom. It doesn’t really work, quite, at least not in the usual ways, but Binoche remains a delightful screen presence as ever.

A Couch in New York film posterCREDITS
Director Chantal Akerman; Writers Akerman and Jean-Louis Benoît; Cinematographer Dietrich Lohmann; Starring Juliette Binoche, William Hurt; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 17 January 2019.

Sud (South, 1999)

A lot of people are talking about history at the moment; it seems to be a popular topic of discussion in online communities. Apparently statues are unquestionably a very important source of historical context and understanding to, I guess, some people, I don’t know, but apart from those, and apart from books, films can be a source of understanding of historical situations, as well as places and people, intangible things that are perhaps best conveyed via images and sound, things that film does well. I’m going to do a week of various historical films and documentaries, and while today’s is not strictly speaking about history (the specific incident is very recent history), in a way it’s about something that’s been ongoing for decades if not centuries, about the way that attitudes towards history — corrosive feelings of grievance, a lack of understanding in some cases — can inform present-day actions.


I suppose it’s fair to say that Chantal Akerman doesn’t do issues-driven documentaries quite the same way that others do. Sud is about the murder of a Black man in the American south (James Byrd), but it’s first of all a film about a place (Jasper TX) — its streets, shops, sounds and people — as Akerman’s camera tracks along from a car (long lateral car-bound tracking shots to take in a sense of a place are familiar from her other documentaries like D’est), or as she listens to residents. And then there’s a move into details of this specific case, which happened shortly before she arrived, and we get more details from a local reporter and from the town’s Sheriff, just as we see the funeral too. But all along her documentary is keen to return to the roads, the ones that mark this town out and give it a specificity, but also ones that are the site of ongoing racial violence, confined not just to the past but continuing into the present, haunted by white supremacism and racism.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman; Cinematographer Rémon Fromont; Length 71 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 3 January 2019.

Battles (2015)

This Friday sees the UK release of war film 1917, so I’m looking at some war-themed films, though not all exactly in the ‘war film’ genre. Today, for example, is a fascinating and beautifully-shot documentary that is more about the visible presence of a history of war within the landscape, sometimes in quite subtle ways.


There’s such a range of documentaries in the world, it’s sad to think that some people might link the form solely with talking heads and archival footage. This strange Belgian piece (with many other countries co-producing) manages to sustain its enigmatic tone throughout its whole 90 minutes and four sections, such that it’s hard precisely to say what’s going on, just that all of it is related to the (sometimes unusual) ways in which a 20th century history of war has manifested itself throughout continental Europe. There’s a woman who sits in her flat in the morning eating breakfast, then puts on a military uniform and travels to the woods to some of kind of training facility — or maybe it’s just an elaborate ‘escape room’-type game for people with too much money — where she translates another instructor’s barked orders into English. There’s another where a man sits in his home basking in the dappled light coming through the windows before at length we discover it’s a former bunker. And then there is the inflatable weaponry. It’s all inscrutably presented, even a little comical at times, but it’s never boring thanks to the careful editing and very precise and lustrous framing of each shot.

Battles film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Isabelle Tollenaere; Cinematographer Frédéric Noirhomme; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Tuesday 17 April 2018.