Bar Bahar (In Between, 2016)

A story of three Arab-Israeli women who live together in Tel Aviv, this at its best feels effortless and modern. The linchpin is Leila (Mouna Hawa), a lawyer and party animal who has a blithe abandon to living her life which is delightful to watch. Salma (Sana Jammelieh) is her lesbian housemate, an aspiring DJ who takes work in a bar and hides her sexuality from her traditional (Christian) parents. They take in Nour (Shaden Kanboura) as a houseguest, a cousin’s friend who wears a headscarf and has a more traditional Muslim family. Thus is the set-up for the rest of the film, and it’s a venerable one at that, mined for plenty of films and especially television sitcoms. I really wanted it to be more upbeat, but plenty of stuff happens to the three that’s not exactly cheerful (thanks, traditional religious cultures and the patriarchy), and it moves towards a very much downbeat denouement, as the three regroup — not without hope, but at least a little knocked back. Still, picking up on one of the most commonly cited comparisons (Girls), I’d happily watch an entire TV series about these women because their lives seem set to continue apace.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: International Women’s Day
Director/Writer Maysaloun Hamoud | Cinematographer Itay Gross | Starring Mouna Hawa, Shaden Kanboura, Sana Jammelieh | Length 96 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Wednesday 8 March 2017

Panj e asr (At Five in the Afternoon, 2003)

It’s fair to say that Samira Makhmalbaf is very much her own filmmaker (despite working with her more famous father, Mohsen), and it’s evident from this feature that she has an exceptional control over her actors, not to mention the visual style. There are numerous shots which have great beauty and formal rigour. Of course, that would be nothing were it not for her script, which puts across one woman’s life (Nogreh, played by Agheleh Rezaie) in ‘liberated’ Afghanistan. Without being overtly magical it puts across an almost dreamlike reality; without being politically angry it puts across an astute argument for change (its protagonist has dreams of becoming President); and without being strident (not that there’d be anything wrong with that), it makes a clear case for the promotion of women’s rights across the region. It’s at heart a humanist and warm film about a situation that’s anything but.


FILM REVIEW
Director Samira Makhmalbaf | Writers Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Samira Makhmalbaf | Cinematographers Ebrahim Ghafori and Samira Makhmalbaf | Starring Agheleh Rezaie | Length 107 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 7 February 2017

Criterion Sunday 133: Spoorloos (The Vanishing, 1988)

Watching this film for a second time (albeit decades after my first viewing), I find it a curious experience. Obviously I knew the outcome but in a sense the film never really tries to hide it — you may not know the specifics, but it’s clear from the outset who the bad guy is, and once he’s selected his target, it’s broadly clear what happens to that person. The drama is in the details of the crime, and the single-mindedness of purpose of each of the three men wrapped up in this drama: our bad guy (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), our victim’s boyfriend (Gene Bervoets), and our director (George Sluizer). It prefigures some of what Michael Haneke would go on to do in the 1990s onwards, cynically manipulating audience expectation in quite a nasty way. I don’t like Haneke’s films but I have at least a respect for the craft, and so it is here.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director George Sluizer | Writers George Sluizer and Tim Krabbé (based on Krabbé’s novel Het Gouden Ei, “The Golden Egg”) | Cinematographer Toni Kuhn | Starring Gene Bervoets, Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Johanna ter Steege | Length 107 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, May 2000 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 20 November 2016)

Aquarius (2016)

For a film that’s been controversial in its native country (though I gather it’s more to do with politics external to the film itself), and for one with an 18 certificate, this isn’t quite what I expected. Primarily it’s that the tone is so unhurried, and lacking in melodrama. It’s a quiet film that takes its time to observe the elderly Clara as she lives her life by the beach in an upscale area of Recife. Recounting the plot (her desire to stay where she is leads to conflict with the building’s owners, who want to redevelop the site) suggests a kind of film that this really isn’t. Through this pleasant miasmatic haze of beachfront living there are periodic little breaks — tiny brief shots that jolt the audience: a body being disinterred, a baby which has messed itself being cleaned, some graphic sex — but these are just hints at the direction perhaps a flashier more insecure director might have gone. This is a character study, and a very fine one.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Kleber Mendonça Filho | Cinematographers Pedro Sotero and Fabricio Tadeu | Starring Sônia Braga | Length 140 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Wednesday 29 March 2017

Comment Yukong déplaça les montagnes (How Yukong Moved the Mountains, 1976)

A sweeping documentary achievement (though one suspects it’s one that would be a multi-part television series were it made today), veteran documentarian Joris Ivens and his partner Marceline Loridan spent many years filming in China in the early-1970s to cover the Cultural Revolution. There are 12 parts, several of them feature-length, and several which are short films (for example, “The Football Incident” — which can be found on YouTube — runs at only 20 minutes, and there are a couple of under-half hour pieces about the circus and opera in Beijing), and needless to say I watched it over a period of weeks when I could steal some time.

For all that its aims could be broadly stated as propagandistic in nature — or at least, not exactly out of step with Chinese government policy of the era — it still captures some wonderful material touching on people’s lives being lived in the period. Much of it is filmed along the Eastern coastal stretch of China, from the oilfields in the north-east to a couple of pieces about Shanghai (one touching on the work of a city pharmacy, and another just an impressionistic sense of the city as a whole), to a fishing village somewhere in between those two, as well as the short films about the Peking Opera and Circus. (There are a couple of pendant 1977 short films about ethnic minorities in the north-west, The Uyghurs and The Kazakhs, which are boxed up with the French DVD release.)

Ivens’s camera is often in motion, moving around its subjects, as they talk to each other in meetings, gather at lunchtimes to debate how best they can meet their work targets and improve their engagement with one another, and sometimes speak directly to camera. Largely eschewing subtitles (except in a sung scene from the opera), instead we get a man and a woman’s voice (in English or French depending on the version watched) either commenting on the scene or translating the words heard, presumably intended to reflect the two filmmakers. The colours are rich and the camerawork fluid: what is presented is clearly the best of the Cultural Revolution in action, though it does largely stick to workers (in the oilfield, in shops, in factories, making dolls and, the shortest of the films, a university professor grappling with the new dialectic method).

For me, the two most striking things were firstly the constant engagement with dialectics: in the classroom scene, even the teachers admit their fallibility and try to engage with the students as equals; the professor laughingly admits he has had difficulties; and in the factories there are constant discussions about how to best and most fairly resolve collective work disagreements. Secondly, the role of women is celebrated and given equal time (the final of the films is “One Woman, One Family” which focuses a single woman in her factory work, where she is a leading union organiser, and her family life — though it does take in some of her co-workers arguing that maybe she shouldn’t be at the centre, because many others do equally valuable work). Throughout all the episodes, it is made clear that — in the ideal revolutionary world being shown — women are every bit as effective as their male comrades. There’s an all-woman fishing boat crew, while women take visible and leading roles in the factories’ work (less so the oilfields).

It’s a broad canvas, and not entirely exempt from criticism — would that the revolutionary unity depicted in the film were either sustained or borne out by history — but it’s a beautiful, moving film about the work and lives of ordinary people.


FILM REVIEW
Directors Joris Ivens and Marceline Loridan Ivens | Cinematographer Joris Ivens | Length 763 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 25 March 2017

Criterion Sunday 129: Le Trou (1960)

I was thinking I’d already seen a film like this one in the Criterion Collection before I came to write it up here and realised I’d seen this film before, years ago. That said, the prison escape thriller is hardly an exotic genre, and some of the procedural matter-of-factness and the way it dwells on little repeated details is very reminiscent of thrillers of the era like Rififi, which likewise focus on elaborate carefully-orchestrated plans made in luminous black-and-white. It all passes very swiftly, as there are plenty of long sequences that are gripping because of all the things you imagine could go wrong. The fact it’s cast with mostly non-professional actors (including one of the chaps involved in the escape upon which the original novel was based) is all the more surprising given they all give the feeling of being seasoned pros — the guy in the poster is a ringer for Sterling Hayden, which is probably why I thought I must have seen him before in something. (The only real professional actor was in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Lola, so he is easy to spot, being quite photogenic.) No, this is fine filmmaking at a very granular level, building up character through the tiny accretion of details.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Becker | Writers Jacques Becker, José Giovanni and Jean Aurel (based on the novel by Giovanni) | Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet | Starring Michel Constantin, Jean Keraudy, Philippe Leroy, Raymond Meunier, Marc Michel | Length 132 minutes || Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 11 October 2000 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 9 October 2016)

Grave (Raw, 2016)

Horror movies at their best allegorise traumatic experiences and Raw — or Grave in its original French title, which means something more like “serious”, and is a phrase thrown around a few times during the film in reference to lead character Justine’s changes — takes on that transition to university with aplomb. It is, to be sure, rather more disturbing than my own time as a first year but it captures something of that desire to fit in and also be a part of a larger group. Here the students are aspiring vets largely isolated at the edge of a small town, somewhere removed from society, running amok at parties in between scenes of lab dissection. There are other elements thrown in — the exploration of sexuality, most notably — which add further resonance to the film, as Garance Marillier’s Justine is led on by her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf). In this particular intersection of sex and gore, the film is reminiscent of Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (though with less Vincent Gallo, thankfully). It looks great, it has a carefully chosen soundtrack, and there are some great trippy shots.

Also, can I just add that I love the poster. It’s been all over the London underground for the last month or so, and it’s just the right balance of unsettling and suggestive without being graphic.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Julia Ducournau | Cinematographer Ruben Impens | Starring Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Naït Oufella | Length 99 minutes || Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Saturday 15 April 2017

Criterion Sunday 117: Le Journal d’une femme de chambre (Diary of a Chambermaid, 1964)

Less of a black comedy than some of Buñuel’s other French films, this is more a portrait of the upper-classes during the 1930s as seen by the maid of the title (played well by Jeanne Moreau). There’s perversity of course and, as you’d expect from Buñuel, a feckless priest, but this film touches more on the spectre of fascism, with the casual anti-Semitism of the rural peasantry and incipient nationalist fervour always in the background. Fine widescreen monochrome lensing gives a bourgeois finish to a troubling tale.

As an aside, it was also interesting for me to watch this right after Nelly Kaplan’s La Fiancée du Pirate (1969), as that feels in retrospect like a satirical extension of the psychosexual undertow of this film, and if you get a chance to see it, do.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel | Writers Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière | Cinematographer Roger Fellous | Starring Jeanne Moreau, Michel Piccoli, Françoise Lugagne, Georges Géret | Length 97 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 September 2016

Circumstance (2011)

I know there’s a great respect and love for film in Iran, because there are so many Iranian-set films made entirely outside the country by diasporan Iranian actors, writers, directors and producers (this one, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and Under the Shadow are just three that come to mind from recent years). I’m never sure how accurate these are to the experience of living there, but they generally function as allegories in any case — here we have love between two women trying to blossom under patriarchal surveillance. There’s a hint of Mustang to it (another film about the patriarchal limits of desire made by a largely expatriate crew to its country), but it’s somewhat less successful. The actors handle their material well, and putting attractive young women against saturated colours makes for a good-looking film, but there’s a sense in which it feels unfulfilling (though of course that’s also, I suppose, thematically apropos). Maybe I just wanted a happier ending for the central couple.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Maryam Keshavarz | Cinematographer Brian Rigney Hubbard | Starring Nikohl Boosheri, Sarah Kazemy, Reza Sixo Safai | Length 107 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 7 February 2017

Criterion Sunday 115: Du rififi chez les hommes (Rififi, 1955)

This film is generally acclaimed as a classic of the heist genre and justifiably so. Indeed, there are some pretty clear reasons, chief among them the impressive way in which an extended, almost silent, sequence of the gang breaking into a safe is handled. Nevertheless, for all writer/director/star Jules Dassin’s nous behind the camera — and indeed in front of it, decked out as he is in a stylish bowtie (why can’t gangsters have that kind of style anymore?) — the film devolves into a morality play for its last half that feels a little backwards looking. Again, it’s all classic genre stuff nowadays: the criminal gang divided amongst themselves, fractured not just by the investigations of the police but by internecine squabbling over the lucre. Still, the style and the performances of Rififi carry it ably.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jules Dassin | Writers Auguste Le Breton, Jules Dassin and René Wheeler (based on the novel by Le Breton) | Cinematographer Philippe Agostini | Starring Jean Servais, Robert Manuel, Carl Möhner, Jules Dassin | Length 115 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (streaming), London, Thursday 4 August 2015