LFF 2019 Day Four: A Thief’s Daughter, The Sharks and The Orphanage (all 2019)

Day four of the London Film Festival is the first weekend, and so the first day on which I have bought myself tickets to more than two films — only three, mind, and with fairly generous spacing, so there’s no running from screen to screen today. Two of them are in Spanish (one is Catalan although mostly in Castilian, the other Uruguyuan) and two are coming of age stories (The Sharks and The Orphanage). Oh, and all three are directed by women of course.

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Criterion Sunday 134: Häxan (aka Witchcraft Through the Ages, 1922)

As a key text in the development of the horror film (not to mention the pseudo-documentary), I found this all a bit underwhelming really, even once you get past the early PowerPoint presentation section about the history of witchcraft. There’s some gorgeous stuff in it, and a sequence with a penitent elderly lady was clearly cribbed by Dreyer for his The Passion of Joan of Arc. But as a film it’s text-heavy and didactic while also never really getting particularly insightful about the underlying context for all of it (the patriarchal structures oppressing women in the mediæval era). Still, the director does have a coda linking these mediæval methods of control to his own times (“in 1921!” an aside says, as if the modern world could never countenance such superstition), and he essays a pretty camp tongue-flicking Satan.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the original version and its commentary, there’s a shorter 1968 re-edit narrated by William S. Burroughs with a jazz score. In another short piece, the director Benjamin Christensen introduces his film for a 1941 re-release, addressed to camera in a stentorian manner while wearing a white lab coat, in passing explaining the magic of silent over sound cinema. There are a few outtakes from the filming, more notes towards the finished project rather than actual scenes that have been excised. Finally, there’s a gallery of images from the film as well as the sources for Christensen’s own slideshow.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Benjamin Christensen; Cinematographer Johan Ankerstjerne; Starring Benjamin Christensen; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Wednesday 2 November 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1998).

Criterion Sunday 127: Gertrud (1964)

I’ve always loved this film, ever since first watching it, transfixed, on a 16mm print at a film society where I grew up. It has a transfixing power, specifically in the way the actors interpret their lines, the fugue-like oneiric monotone and constant off-screen gaze of the title character (Nina Pens Rode), moving about her world as if nothing exists — indeed, if she had passed through a wall like a ghost, I’d hardly be surprised. Every element is controlled, not just the acting and movement, but the placement of decor, the use of paintings as counterpoint to the discussion, the ripples on the pond as Gertrud and Erland speak (pathetic fallacy, I suppose, but not even that overdetermined), the lighting, just everything. It’s also uncompromisingly about a woman who rejects the men in her life — not least by barely ever even looking at them — and I don’t blame her.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Carl Theodor Dreyer (based on the play by Hjalmar Söderberg)l Cinematographer Henning Bendtsen; Starring Nina Pens Rode, Bendt Rothe, Ebbe Rode, Baard Owe; Length 116 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 23 June 1999 (also at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Sunday 6 July 2003, and at the BFI Southbank, London, Saturday 17 March 2012, as well as on VHS at home, Wellington, January 2001 and most recently on DVD at home, London, 3 December 2016).

Criterion Sunday 126: Ordet (aka The Word, 1955)

I’m never quite sure how to respond to the characters in this film, though over time I’ve come to accept it as a great and profound work (on my first viewing, in my early-20s, I was distinctly unimpressed, and it took seeing it on the cinema screen to appreciate its artistry). Everyone acts at times like a fool, at times with grace and acceptance; it’s religious, not in a simple way, but at a fundamental level — Ordet (which when translated means “the word”) seems hardly about creed so much as the underlying belief in the value and beauty of all life. And on the evidence here, Dreyer is surely, too, one of the greatest directors for use of lighting, somehow too coordinating effects of nature into his mise en scene.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Carl Theodor Dreyer (based on the play by Kaj Munk); Cinematographer Henning Bendtsen; Starring Preben Lerdorff Rye, Henrik Malberg, Birgitte Federspiel, Emil Hass Christensen; Length 126 minutes.

Seen at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 4 July 2003 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1999, and most recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 3 December 2016).

Criterion Sunday 125: Vredens dag (Day of Wrath, 1943)

Obviously a Danish film made in the 1940s and set in the 17th century about living under an oppressive regime intent on suppressing individuality, victimising women and blaming them for society’s ills couldn’t possibly have any modern relevance, but I suppose historical fashions come back around periodically. Dreyer is on his usual fine form, finding a core of empathy (if not always compassion) for all his characters, whether Anne (Lisbeth Movin), a young woman who has married the older Reverend Absalon (Thorkild Roose), and his grown son Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye) who falls for Anne. An opening sequence with the elderly Herlof’s Marte being chased down by the villagers and taking refuge at Anne’s home introduces the information that Anne’s mother was also a witch, and it is strongly implied that Absalon suppressed this fact in order to marry her (or perhaps the marriage was arranged to head off criticism of Anne’s mother; it’s never quite clarified). In any case, the accused witches clearly do actually profess some form of magic — and this was presumably a response to the position of women within their societies, not to mention the level of scientific understanding available — but that scarcely diminishes Dreyer’s harsh judgement of the town elders (shot like the old men in The Passion of Joan of Arc) for their treatment.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Carl Theodor Dreyer; Writers Dreyer, Poul Knudsen and Mogens Skot-Hansen (based on the play Anne Pedersdotter by Hans Wiers-Jenssen); Cinematographer Karl Andersson; Starring Lisbeth Movin, Thorkild Roose, Preben Lerdorff Rye; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Monday 23 June 2003 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1999, and most recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 3 December 2016).

Criterion Sunday 80: The Element of Crime (aka Forbrydelsens element, 1984)

I’ve never been a huge fan of Danish cinematic bad boy Lars von Trier, but this, his first feature film, is certainly made with a fair amount of energy and a bold (if dark) cinematic vision, taking its apparent cue from film noir thrillers, not to mention recycling some of Tarkovksy’s imagery. Stylistically, though, my overall feeling is that it’s more akin to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil of the following year, with all those fussy, busy details in all corners of the frame. The plot is in a sense fairly straightforward, as Detective Fisher (gruff-voiced Michael Elphick) is tracking down a serial killer using the methods of his mentor Osborne (Esmond Knight), in which he is aided by prostitute Kim (Meme Lai). Yet this plot is nested within layers of memory and obfuscation, attaining something of a dream-like trance state, emphasised by the line delivery of the actors, who move around almost as if underwater. The chief cue to this altered consciousness is the visual style, which is almost monochrome in its (usually red-tinged) intensity, like something Guy Maddin might make, tipping its hat at one level to silent film, but creating its own world of grainy distanciation — the characters may not actually be underwater, but they are certainly submerged in this grimy dark monochrome world. I can’t say it ever really coheres for me (and Meme Lai’s role requires little more than that she hang around and take off her clothes occasionally, though it’s a small part in any case), but there’s plenty here of interest to those who like an arty thriller with pretensions.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the trailer, the main extra of interest is the medium-length documentary Tranceformer: A Portrait of Lars von Trier (1997), directed by Stig Björkman (with help from Fredrik von Krusenstjerna), filmed around the time of von Trier’s The Kingdom (1994) and Breaking the Waves (1996). It’s rather an amusing jaunt through (von) Trier’s life from his upbringing by lefty liberal parents to his early schoolboy filmmaking attempts, through film school and his early film work, along the way self-aggrandisingly awarding himself the aristocratic ‘von’. The film features behind the scenes footage of his directing the two films (which has its own fascination), as well as talking head interviews with his colleagues and actors (and it’s particularly nice to see Katrin Cartlidge, who sadly died far too young), giving an impression of him as a man with plenty of phobias and quirks such that it’s surprising he can get any films made at all. Von Trier pops up periodically to talk us through his life and foibles, and there’s a warmth to the film’s portrait of him, so he never comes off too badly, beyond what he says about himself.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Lars von Trier; Writers von Trier and Niels Vørsel; Cinematographer Tom Elling; Starring Michael Elphick, Esmond Knight, Meme Lai, Jerold Wells; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 February 2016.

En chance til (A Second Chance, 2014)

There’s a lot of very intense thematic material in this Danish domestic drama (what the BBFC title card judiciously warns us are “bereavement themes”). It swiftly sets up the work life of Andreas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) as a cop, contrasting one of his cases — a thuggish heroin junkie who’s just relocated to his neighbourhood and has a maltreated baby and girlfriend in tow — with his almost-perfect home life alongside wife Anne (Maria Bonneville) and their tiny baby Alexander. Then horrible things happen, bad decisions are made, and tragic consequences are reaped, and well… it’s just not convincing, not the characters, and certainly not the choices they make. Andreas’s police partner Simon (Ulrich Thomsen) has his own generic and perfunctory character development, and comes in at the end to clear things up all too neatly. Sure, there are lots of lingering close-ups of furrowed eyes and harrowing music on the soundtrack to guide our feelings, so I could at least say there are some believable emotional arcs being expressed. It’s just that as a viewer I don’t feel any engagement or sympathy with Andreas or his wife or his partner, while the working of the plot suggests a madcap screwball comedy, not the stark grief-filled drama Susanne Bier and her screenwriter Anders Jensen have crafted. The contrast of Andreas’s life with that of the criminal family, along with a tacked-on coda, have the effect of pat moralising, and when the credits come up there’s a feeling you’ve been watching a TV social-issue-of-the-week movie. If you are a parent, it may be more emotionally engaging, but then again I can’t imagine a parent wanting to watch this film either, given the events it depicts.

A Second Chance film posterCREDITS
Director Susanne Bier; Writer Anders Thomas Jensen; Cinematographer Michael Snyman; Starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Maria Bonnevie, Ulrich Thomsen; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Hackney Picturehouse, London, Tuesday 24 March 2015.

Kapringen (A Hijacking, 2012)

With this little Danish film about piracy in the Indian Ocean, the natural point of comparison is last year’s Captain Phillips (which of course came out afterwards, but such being the way of these things, I saw it first). There’s no doubt they cover a similar subject, but for various rather obvious reasons the way they go about it is quite different. Where the bigger budget film uses spectacular shots of the container ship’s crews fighting off the pirates and then the struggle for power onboard, this film is more about the way that the hijacking situation affects a couple of characters. One is the ship’s cook, a young man with a wife and child back home, and the other is the CEO of the shipping company in Denmark.

The settings are the staff quarters of the ship where the cook (Pilou Asbæk) and his colleagues are being held, and the boardroom of the offices where the CEO works (Søren Malling), and the drama largely unfolds in crackling telephone communications between the CEO and the pirates’ negotiator (he gets rather aggrieved when identified as one of the pirates), Omar. The film interests itself in the subtly shifting power dynamics amongst these groups, as well as within them — between the CEO and his second-in-command, between the CEO and Omar, and between Omar and the cook. Some of this is done so subtly that it’s not even clear the power has shifted, and certainly the advice the CEO gets from hijacking experts is to draw things out and grind the pirates down over time. This of course, though it may be good for the company by minimising any financial loss, has its own set of effects both on public opinion (towards which the company’s board are rather sensitive) and to the captives who find themselves at sea for many gruelling months.

The camera holds close to the two main characters, with some handheld work but not too immersively queasy (this is no Breaking the Waves). It’s a character study more than anything else, and it wants to draw out how the drama on the high seas reaches into the personal life of a relatively entitled and protected man. The CEO is seen negotiating a financial deal at the start for vastly more money than the pirates demand, and if it’s a rather obvious parallelism, it never feels too hamfisted because it’s not overemphasised. There are certainly places where you feel that maybe the writing could be a bit less subtle, but it’s staking out a different emotional terrain. In any case, the excellent, naturalistic acting grounds the film and makes it easy to get wrapped up in.

A Hijacking film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Tobias Lindholm; Cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck; Starring Pilou Asbæk, Søren Malling; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 18 February 2014.

รับคำท้าจากพระเจ้า Only God Forgives (2013)

A note on the title: The title card of the film is in Thai, subtitled into English. None of the online sources give me a transliteration of this title, but if I were following the rather pedantic rules I’ve been using on this blog, I would give the title in Thai.


There are undeniably words and ideas that, if you read (or indeed write) a lot of film/literary criticism, you find yourself coming across more often than one might expect in the real world. It often comes down to finding an apt adjective to try and grasp a sense of a film’s style or mood, and if any ever film was reliant on style and mood then it’s this one. And the chief adjective that comes into my addled brain is “oneiric”.

I think it’s worth leading with that because when I start getting into a plot summary it will sound all so very banal, that I must stress that when it’s playing out it owes far more of a debt to European art cinema (and you can see from all the co-production credits that it quite literally has plenty of that) not to mention the more dream-like passages of David Lynch. But I like the word ‘oneiric’ because of its Ancient Greek derivation, and if there’s any story that has inspired Only God Forgives, it must surely be that of Oedipus; plenty of what happens in the film only really makes sense if you’re attuned to the mythic archetypes that Refn is fixated upon.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The protagonist of the piece is the laconic Julian (Ryan Gosling), the owner of a Muay Thai (kickboxing) gym, whose twisted brother gets himself killed. Their mother (a steely and platinum blonde Kristin Scott Thomas) demands vengeance, and things start getting messy, particularly when police lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) and his samurai-like blade gets involved. But if Gosling and Scott Thomas ethnocentrically head the credits list, it is in fact Pansringarm who carries the film, his implacable middle-aged detective, moving slowly and with great deliberation, functioning as the sort of avenging angel for these errant Westerners.

Other reviewers have done much better at unpicking some of the implications of cultural tourism in having a Danish director and US stars in the Thai setting (and I would point you to this piece on The Hooded Utilitarian I found while trying to Google the film’s correct Thai title). In short, though, these are interlopers in a culture they don’t fully understand and Refn isn’t interested in the usual narrative structures — famous (white) lead actor gets one over on the violently foolish locals. There’s quite a different story happening here, and it’s one with no clear winners.

If the film steers clear of the standard revenge film clichés, it comes a lot closer to being a risible arthouse exercise in style over substance — at times it’s like a pure channelling of the violent physicality and alienation of, say, Gaspar Noé (who is thanked in the credits). Certainly, Cliff Martinez’s droning score only seems to heighten the disconnect between the ravishing imagery and any emotional affect. Still, as you’ll see by the rating I’ve given the film, I don’t think it quite succumbs to the weight of all that portentous imagery, if only by the very vigour with which it is embraced. Almost every shot is saturated in neon reds and blues, as Julian drifts impassively through a seedy underworld of brothels, fight clubs and karaoke bars, presided over by the ever-watchful eyes of various monsters (the huge iconic demon on the wall at the boxing club, or the martial statue that haunts Julian’s dreams/waking life). Several of the conversations between the protagonist and his mother (not to mention a particularly grisly scene near the end) exist mostly in order to deepen the play of signifiers that Refn is so invested in: phallocentrism, castration complexes, the interplays between sex, birth and death — stuff that easily drifts into the pretentious.

What I’ve been trying to get across here, however inadequately, is that I would quite understand if other viewers were to find an arid, pretentious vision of revenge and parental attachment issues. I think the film can easily be taken that way, from its violent imagery, its hyperstylised colours and its almost narcoleptic forward momentum. And yet, if it perches on the edge of this very fine line, I prefer to think that it succeeds, compellingly pushing at the boundaries of morality in showing an impassive man who appears to have resigned responsibility for his life being confronted by an embodiment of divine judgement, retribution and maybe even forgiveness, though of all the divine qualities, that one is the most tenuous here.

Only God Forgives film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nicolas Winding Refn; Cinematographer Larry Smith; Starring Ryan Gosling, Vithaya Pansringarm, Kristin Scott Thomas; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Friday 2 August 2013.

Det Hemmelighedsfulde X (Sealed Orders aka The Mysterious X, 1914)

This series is inspired by the Movie Lottery blog, whose author is picking DVD titles from a hat in order to decide which films to watch. I’ve selected another one from the hat to watch and present my review below.


FILM REVIEW: Movie Lottery 6 || Director/Writer Benjamin Christensen | Cinematographer Emil Dinesen | Starring Benjamin Christensen, Karen Sandberg | Length 85 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), Thursday 13 June 2013 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Dansk Biografkompagni

It’s probably quite difficult to properly appreciate a film that is almost 100 years old (or it may be exactly 100 years old, as some sources list it as produced in 1913; however, I am taking the date from the Danish Film Institute DVD I own, as they seem like they’d be a trustworthy source on matters of Danish cinema). There are sequences here that seem deeply clichéd with such long hindsight, but must have been the height of cinematic sophistication at the time. Yet whatever its flaws, this is a wonderfully crafted piece of filmmaking.

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