I was uncertain about whether to even go to this film in our local French film festival (I’ve barely engaged with Céline Dion’s music, though I greatly enjoyed Carl Wilson’s 33 1/3 book Let’s Talk about Love), but it turned out to be a highlight. It’s bonkers, let’s be clear, it is a gonzo piece of filmmaking, largely due to the writer/director’s casting of herself, starting with playing Dion in childhood (no younger stand-ins for this biopic). It’s also fictionalised, as I can’t imagine Dion ever giving her blessing to a film about her, certainly not this one, but it feels consistent with Dion’s own persona to be this far out. It’s good fun, though I can easily imagine someone hating it as much as I enjoyed it.
There is something self-indulgent about directing and writing a film about a Canadian pop culture icon and then casting yourself as the lead, but I have to applaud it. The move of then having you, a fully middle-aged woman, playing her as a child as well is the stuff of nightmares, but luckily that section only lasts a short while. Given the (lightly fictionalised) biopic nature of this — Aline Dieu is actually a stand-in for Céline Dion, as is clear from the very opening credits — it has a slightly episodic feel to it, as her life and career is rushed through. Nonetheless, it manages to hit all the requisite emotional crescendos, particularly around her large but supportive family (particularly her doting mother and father), her relationship with her much older manager, and her rather quirky looks — a sort of unkempt gawkiness that the actor/director/writer Valérie Lemercier captures well, without quite looking like the original (but that’s fine; it’s fictionalised after all). I’ve come across Dion in a number of pop cultural contexts, and she always comes across as an appealing personality to me, including in this film, so I really should actually engage with her music at some point in my life. In the meantime, for those of you who don’t really know her songs at all (like me), I can say that the film affected me despite that.
Director Valérie Lemercier; Writers Brigitte Buc and Lemercier; Cinematographer Laurent Dailland; Starring Valérie Lemercier, Sylvain Marcel, Danielle Fichaud; Length 128 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 20 June 2021.
Clearly Guy Maddin had been working up to a full-blown pastiche on silent films for quite a while at this point, and it’s a style that has largely defined a lot of his subsequent work: expressionist pools of darkness; rapid cross-cutting; fragments of frames as if rescued from decay; and bonkers storylines with incredulous, exclamative (!!) intertitles aplenty. To the extent that this has become his stock-in-trade, I didn’t even recall having seen this at the London Film Festival back when it came out, but reading up on it, I see that a number of its original presentations were accompanied by a live narrator in Japanese benshi style (whether this is how I saw it in 2007 is lost to my memory, but I don’t think so). In any case, it has an expressive beauty and it’s fun even if it still feels ultimately like a pastiche-y farce about weird parental manipulation of orphan kids, polymorphous sexuality and death — all of which is by way of saying, it feels very Canadian.
- Chief among the bonuses are two 2008 short films that Guy Maddin made to go with this feature film. One is “It’s My Mother’s Birthday Today”, which deals with one of the cast members, but in a typically Maddinesque impressionistic — er, actually expressionist, I guess? — kinda way. It’s a blur of images and feelings that tend towards the dark.
- The other short film is “Footsteps”, and if you’re going to do DVD bonus featurettes about the making of your film, this is about as good as they can really be. It’s Guy Maddin showing how the sound effects were made, by the working collective of the title, but filmed as a Maddinesque short film — and, like anything by Maddin, I’m not exactly convinced of how truthful it is, either. However, it is fun and funny, and it gives a good sense of the rather absurdist work of a foley artist.
- There’s also a deleted scene which runs for a few minutes but which was probably excised wisely as I don’t recall very much about it having seen it a mere hour or two ago, but it was intended to up the ‘queer’ factor of a film which already plays enough with gender identities.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Guy Maddin; Writers Maddin and George Toles; Cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke; Starring Gretchen Krich, Maya Lawson, Isabella Rossellini; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at NFT, London, Saturday 20 October 2007 (and most recently on DVD at home, Wellington, Sunday 20 June 2021).
It’s difficult now to approach this film without at least some awareness of the posthumous allegations that have so tarnished the name of the film’s director, but a film isn’t a work by a single person, and this remains a poignant and affecting story of growing up in the cold, icy middle of nowhere (well, near the Québec town of Asbestos, so I gather). You don’t need to know the history of the place or the strike of 1949 that would become so important to Québécois history (and again, I am rather reliant on Wikipedia for this, as obviously none of this was known to me, not being Canadian), in order to get a sense of the feeling of post-war 40s provincial Canada. If it does nothing else it provides a distinct sense of how little there is to do for young kids growing up, where the unveiling of the local shop’s nativity display is a major event (the shop being run by the titular character, who looks after his nephew Benoît like a son). This is largely how the film proceeds, with little vignettes of life, moments of liveliness and humour amongst the snow drifts and the evident tedium. There’s a distinctly 1970s vibe to filmmaking (all those zoom shots) but this isn’t the slick New Hollywood, but a more indigenous vibe that feels homegrown and a little bit amateur, but in an engrossing way that pulls you in. And while Benoît (Jacques Gagnon) is a bit of a blank slate as a character (which is more realistic to these kind of teenage protagonists), the lives of those around him become the focus, as well as the landscape of this remote place.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Claude Jutra; Writers Jutra and Clément Perron; Cinematographer Michel Brault; Starring Jacques Gagnon, Lyne Champagne, Jean Duceppe, Olivette Thibault; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 11 June 2021.
This may well be a masterpiece of piercing bourgeois complacency and for some people it clearly is, but I think I just have trouble connecting with the carnivalesque sense of polymorphous perversity. It almost feels more coherent than his 1971 W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, though it’s still a blend of elements (including some very unsettling footage of WW2 atrocities being uncovered, although ones committed by the Soviet forces being brought to light by Nazis). The rest of the film involves a lot of people debasing themselves for various causes, and surely that’s the point of the film — starting with the valorisation of virginity presented as an American style talent contest, and moving through both women and men debasing themselves, being humiliated, acting out and generally being pariahs, and all in the name of the film’s satirical targets. I find it wearying where others revel in its warped sensibilities, though I imagine that making the likes of me feel a bit worn out is probably an achievement the film should be perfectly happy with.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Dušan Makavejev; Cinematographer Pierre Lhomme; Starring Carole Laure, Anna Prucnal, Pierre Clémenti; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 17 January 2021.
While I was compiling my favourite films of 2020 list, I realised that there were still some titles I hadn’t posted full reviews of, so I’m going to try and knock the rest of those out this week. I’m going to start with a distinctive 2019 film that took its time getting to the UK, which is probably why I forgot to post a review of it. Still, it remains strikingly vivid in my mind.
I’ve not seen a Robert Eggers film before, but he’s certainly a stylist. It’s a film that hints strongly at a certain period without ever being specific, but then it moves between heavyweight historical grime, supernatural horror and something even rather mythic — and without giving away anything in my review, this becomes fairly explicit by the last shot. I came to this via Robert Pattinson (a very fine actor), whose accent also hints strongly at geography without ever quite landing on any one place (which may well be a conscious decision) but the one thing you can’t say about either of the leads (Pattinson or Willem Defoe) is that they’re afraid to commit. This in many ways is most reminiscent — in that commitment, in its blend of history and fantasy, but perhaps above all in the sheer unrelenting grimy muddy mulch of the film — of Hard to Be a God, and both pretty far out in performances. I’m not sure what it all adds up to, but I did rather admire it nonetheless (and discovering it was at least partly shot and funded by Canada, makes a lot more tonal sense to me).
Director Robert Eggers; Writers Robert Eggers and Max Eggers; Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke; Starring Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 26 January 2020.
Of course I suppose if you look at the date (a 2018 film based on a 2015 stage play), this wouldn’t count as ‘new’ exactly, but these days sometimes you have to wait years to see things, ironic perhaps in an age of streaming media. I’m still waiting for 2019 films by some of my favourite filmmakers, so two years is hardly unusual. In the end, I watched this for free as part of a digital release by the Seventh Row website, who have all kinds of supplementary materials, and it’s a film that’s worth thinking about.
There’s something underlying this drama that definitely feels theatrical, and given its roots in a play that makes sense. Still, for all that, it feels cinematic in the way it’s told, with expressive use of light and colours and of staged sequences (somewhere between hallucinations and dreams, or perhaps fantasies, being the inner life of the central character). The theme is familiar, dealing with the relationship between a grown woman and her mother, who at the start of the film has just died unexpectedly, leaving a certain amount of mourning and then a reentanglement with her legacy by the central character Cassandra. The twist is that Cassandra is played by two different actors, standing side by side in each scene, wearing the same (or similar) clothes and making the same gestures. After that initial period of discombobulation (where one wonders if they’re in a relationship, which of course they are, after a fashion), it settles down to being a very effective way to hint at the internal conflicts she’s going through without resorting to a voiceover or some other stilted technique. And the performances by both actors (also the writers of the original play, and collaborators on this screenplay) are excellent, which is crucial in making it work of course.
Director Patricia Rozema; Writers Rozema, Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava (based on the play by Nostbakken and Sadava); Cinematographer Catherine Lutes; Starring Amy Nostbakken, Norah Sadava; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at home (Vimeo streaming), London, Sunday 4 October 2020.
The topic of resistance includes not only stories about revolutionaries but the stories of their legacy and influence, particularly on their children. These two films are about two such children, who may have grown up either surrounded by conflict and in the often painful absence of their parents (as in the Palestinian story of What Walaa Wants) or, at the other extreme, in complete ignorance of their parents and revolutionary activities, having begun a new life in exile away from those traumas (as with the Iranian daughter of revolutionaries living in Germany, in Born in Evin). Neither film can be entirely satisfactory, because it feels like two people grappling with uncertainty about how to exist in the world, given these backgrounds, but both are illuminating about the generational nature of resistance and trauma.
Continue reading “Two Films about the Personal Legacy of Revolutionary Activity: What Walaa Wants (2018) and Born in Evin (2019)”
Hello and belated greetings to a new week. I got back from holiday and had my first day at work yesterday (Monday) so I failed to put a post up. Now I’m working from home, and may be for a while. This week’s theme is ‘films available on Netflix’ (and probably all directed by women). Maybe in future weeks I will cover other online streaming services. “But why now?” I hear you ask. “Why would you do a themed week about films available to watch online?” Well, I shall leave that for you to guess. I’m going to start with one of the most impressive little indie films from the last year, with a resonant title.
This isn’t a particularly showy film, though it does some things that other films make a big deal about. For a start, it’s shot like a Dardenne brothers film, in these long sinuous handheld shots, moving with people almost continuously, with very few perceptible cuts. However, the subject matter isn’t particularly aggrandising, as instead it deals with the aftermath of domestic violence, about one (professional, middle-class) woman, Aila (played by one of the directors, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers), helping out Rosie (Violet Nelson), a poorer, pregnant woman she finds standing barefoot in the rain with a bruised face. Both are of First Nations origins, although that doesn’t necessarily help them get along — class seems to be the more evident dividing line, and Rosie finds it difficult to feel comfortable in the situation. The film is about trying to find some truth in these circumstances, of how difficult it is for those who are abused to accept help, and how difficult it is for those who want to give it, to accept that it may not always be wanted. The film journeys into a lot of difficult emotional terrain, and I think it’s a credit to the film that nothing is resolved easily. However, there’s a grace to it, and a sustaining power of just witnessing peoples’ lives and perhaps learning what it is to be helpful in such circumstances.
Directors/Writers Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn; Cinematographer Norm Li; Starring Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Violet Nelson; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Sunday 1 December 2019.
My Asian diaspora film week is drawing to a close and I just belatedly remembered the films of Mina Shum, her three most well known of which I only recently caught up with. Although born in Hong Kong, she has lived and worked in Canada almost her whole life, and resists the “Chinese-Canadian director” label, which is quite understandable. Obviously I wish that my little themed week were able to present with more rigour all the different ways it’s possible to work and present identity, but really it’s just a bunch of films I quite like that are made by or deal with ideas of being identified as Asian outside of that part of the world. In several of Shum’s films, and all the ones here, one for the last three decades, she’s worked notably with Canadian actor Sandra Oh, who’s been having something of a career lift recently, though she’s been doing great work in films for years (I’ve reviewed 1998’s Last Night on my blog already, for example).
Continue reading “Three Films by Mina Shum with Sandra Oh”
I had this idea that I watched this film with my stepbrothers when I was a kid, but if I did I certainly didn’t get it at the time (nor do I remember any of it upon rewatching so I may just be imagining it). However, as a result, I’ve probably spent more of my life than is reasonable believing I wasn’t really ‘into’ David Cronenberg’s brand of body horror combined with media satire. That said, I’ve seen plenty of his films since, and I’ve liked most of them quite a lot, but yet still retained some core of that original belief, perhaps modified somewhat into some idea that he’s just an outré auteur who panders to horror-soaked fanboys’ wet dreams… and clearly — look, you all know this already — but I’m wrong.
Videodrome looks from the outside as something nasty and exploitative, but it feels more like an advance warning from a Nostradamus of the early-1980s about everything we have in our culture now. The technology may look a little clunky but the effects still hold up really well. It’s the kind of film that you probably need to rewatch a number of times to figure out its particular configuration of the televisual exploitation of sleaze, sex, sexual violence and depravity, the way that links to notions of masculine performance (James Woods, who nowadays probably really is that guy he’s playing here, hallucinates a literal vagina opening across much of his torso), added to which there’s the fetishisation of videotapes. There are also so many layers of hallucinatory dream life that it stops being clear what’s real and what’s just in the head of Max/Nicki/Prof O’Blivion/Cronenberg/whoever else might be imagining this stuff.
In short, it opened up my head like Barry Convex’s in this film, and I don’t know if I can be the same again. The 1980s was the decade of Cronenberg, no doubt.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer David Cronenberg; Cinematographer Mark Irwin; Starring James Woods, Debbie Harry, Sonja Smits; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 6 May 2019.