Pola X (1999)

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 (#9) to watch, and present my review below.


I’ve been familiar with this film for many years, having bought the soundtrack CD quite some time ago. It’s by probably my favourite modern musical artist, Scott Walker, whose career seems every bit as shrouded in enigma as this film he was involved with as composer. Even in his 1960s pop heyday as a member of The Walker Brothers, Scott’s compositions have had an elegiac and melancholy air, and his ‘comeback’ album a few years prior to this movie was Tilt, a darkly opaque piece of work that makes even Pola X seem light by comparison. But it’s a family psychodrama with strong overtones of incest, so it’s not really light by many standards except those set by Walker’s music. The director, Leos Carax, was making his own comeback of sorts after the troubled production on his budget-stretching Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991), though one gets the sense that commercial success isn’t really a metric that much bothers Carax, and the amount of time between this film and his next (and most recent) one, Holy Motors (2012), was even longer.

The film starts out like any overstuffed heritage film, with a master shot of a large rural chateau, manicured lawns being watered by sprinklers, as a young man kickstarts his motorcycle and takes it up the long driveway. This is the home of the title character Pierre, played by Guillaume Depardieu (the film’s title being a contraction of the French name for the Herman Melville novel on which it is based), a blond-haired diplomat’s son and newly-published novelist who lives at the chateau with his controlling mother, Marie (Catherine Deneuve), and is engaged to the similarly blonde-haired Lucie, whom he is off to meet at the start. So far, so unremarkable: a contented life of golden people dressed in airy light-coloured clothes in lush surroundings, a life lived in privilege (even the bar where he meets up with his shady cousin Thibault is called Le Privilège) — except perhaps for that darkly portentous score, which hides something sinister in its outwardly lush string arrangements. Soon, details accrue that add to the portent: the oddly-tactile Marie caressing her son’s bare chest; a mysterious dream Pierre recounts to Lucie about a dark-haired woman; then the woman herself (Katerina Golubeva) who shows up in person at the cafe with his cousin, and again when Pierre takes a night-time drive. She tells him, in broken French (the actress herself is Russian) as they wander in the suffocating dark of the forest, that she is his sister Isabelle. It’s from this point that his life begins to unravel, as he moves with her to the city and encounters a bohemian world of artists, experimental musicians and squatters on the fringes of civilised existence.

Even in this summary I’ve omitted hints of the film’s gathering strangeness, for there’s a pre-credits prologue spoken by a wheezing old man over archival wartime footage, recounting a famous line from Hamlet, “The time is out of joint! O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right!” This setup hints at the self-consciously staged manipulativeness of the film’s story itself, and its oneiric quality is further suggested by having both lead female characters shown asleep at the start — at the end of that opening shot of the chateau, once Pierre has driven away, the camera ostentatiously cranes in and up to peer through a window near the roof, catching sight of a sleeping woman, matched by a similar shot of the sleeping Lucie being caressed by Pierre. That further developments happen in dreams and at night can hardly be by chance, such that Pierre’s later journey into a form of madness seems in keeping with the film’s pervasive sense of the uncanny, not too dissimilar to what one might expect in the films of David Lynch, for example. There are also some apparently unsimulated sex scenes, again taking place in the half-light and ending with a shot recalling Courbet’s famous painting L’Origine du monde (hint: don’t google it if you’re at work) — itself recalling the work of contemporaneous French filmmaker Bruno Dumont’s Humanité, released the same year.

All of this would seem to put Pola X in the same lineage as the rather more extreme cinema coming out of France at around this time from directors like Dumont, Catherine Breillat, Gaspar Noé and Philippe Grandrieux, a cinema focusing on the fleshy corporeality of bodies and the shock of breaking sexual taboos (known as the ‘New French Extremity’ it would seem, though I had not previously been aware of this term). Yet I’m not quite convinced that what’s seen in Carax’s film fits clearly in with these other directors’ works, mainly because it feels to me like Carax is more interested in playing with bourgeois narrative expectations, than in his characters as corporeal beings being acted upon. In keeping with the source text, there remains a sort of 19th century moralising to the way Pierre’s story unfolds and concludes, and the ‘extremes’, such as they are, seem to fit more into a fevered framework of mounting melodrama.

I like films which start mysteriously. The darkness that sets in here even seems to have carried on beyond the film, as both the actors playing these central characters (Depardieu and Golubeva) have since died in mysterious circumstances. There’s something grandiose and almost ethereal about this film, but that stays grounded in emotions which are resolutely human and carnal. It’s a difficult balancing act that could have easily been lost given all the sources of funding (a co-production involving four different countries) and the multiple drafts of the script (the “X” in the title evidently refers to the 10th version being used), but I think it comes off rather well and has a mystery that on further reflection only deepens into greater enigma and inscrutability.

Pola X film posterCREDITS
Director Leos Carax; Writers Carax and Jean-Pol Fargeau (based on the novel Pierre: or, The Ambiguities by Herman Melville); Cinematographer Eric Gautier; Starring Guillaume Depardieu, Katerina Golubeva Екатери́на Го́лубева, Catherine Deneuve; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 12 November 2013.

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

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.


I’m not sure that I ever saw this film at the cinema, but ever since I first saw it so many years ago, probably on VHS, it’s a film to which I’ve constantly returned. It’s not necessarily the period setting and the many historical details that get me, though I concede these are well co-ordinated, it’s that The Last of the Mohicans is a shameless (and why feel shame?), epic romantic melodrama that pulls all the right strings in me. Call it manipulative, but in the best way. So having picked this as a random film to watch, I shall try to do a little bit of justice to how I feel about it. The one thing I won’t be doing is comparing it to the source novel, for I’ve never read it and I may never get round to it: the space in my life reserved for caring about Uncas and Chingachgook and Nathaniel Hawkeye and Cora Munro is amply sated by re-watching this film, and by now I’d probably just assess the novel negatively in comparison.

When the film came out, I seem to recall it being a matter of wide discussion how much effort it — and particularly its lead actor, Daniel Day-Lewis — had gone to in researching the historical details. The usual stories that accompany your ‘method’ actors. Perhaps some of it was true, perhaps some of it was just feeding the legend. As it happens, I’m not a paid-up member of the cult of Mr Day-Lewis, which seems to bear similarity to that around Meryl Streep. He’s still a star actor, and however deep he goes into a role, he’s always that famous actor playing that famous role. Here, as Hawkeye, he is lanky and pale, an awkward misfit sticking out from his co-stars because he’s Daniel Day-Lewis, but that works perfectly for the character, who is not comfortably part of any culture.

Around him is marshalled all the pomp and brutality of the Seven Years’ War — surely one of the first truly ‘world wars’ — here fought between French and English on American soil, recruiting Native Americans of various tribes to each side’s cause. But pre-dating independence, there is no real patriotic side to support, so the story cannily focuses on Nathaniel ‘Hawkeye’ and his fellow poor frontiersfolk. Hawkeye, having been brought up by a Mohican father, Chingachgook (played by Russell Means), limns the divide between the two largely antagonistic cultures, and suffers recriminations from both sides. He is eyed suspiciously by the Huron when he goes to make peace with Magua, just as he is treated with barely-disguised condescension by Colonel Munro on the English side. Nevertheless, he prevails because his calling is always a greater one: the love he feels towards Colonel Munro’s daughter Cora (played by Madeleine Stowe), the duty of care towards his father and brother Uncas, his sparring with the petulant Major Duncan Hayward (Steven Waddington) — who is also in love with Cora — and his enmity towards the traitorous Magua (Wes Studi), whose object is the obliteration of the Munro family. All the film’s emotions are passionately felt and rousingly marshalled.

This is the end to which all of director Michael Mann’s skill is put, ensuring the film doesn’t slow down for anything so banal as mere exposition. Dialogues are never spoken between two characters when they can be declaimed. It’s not so much the exchange of facts as deeply-held feelings that are the subject of the characters’ interactions. What we do glean about the conflict is not spelled out and the film is all the better for that. For example, there’s an early role for Jared Harris on horseback imperiously demanding the subjection of the frontier dwellers to the English cause, and though he is a character set up so as to be openly mocked by Nathaniel, we get a sense of what’s at stake for the settlers. Or else there’s General Webb recounting the tactical situation on the front lines as part of an extended personal joke with his second-in-command at the expense of French sybaritic indolence. When the film does slow down for a quiet moment, the air is pregnant with the conflicts to come — a coach crossing a bridge between two warring worlds, a broken branch on the trail that leads to Hawkeye’s kidnapped sweetheart, or the water lapping listlessly at the crest of a massive waterfall (this latter moment being the least ‘realistic’, intercut as it is with stock footage of a roaring crescendo of water clearly not in the same space).

The chief co-conspirator to the film’s rousing romance is not so much the actors (though they are all excellent) as the musical soundtrack, composed largely by Trevor Jones with help from Randy Edelman. The string-laden theme takes its influences from traditional folk music, and in fact moves more purely into this idiom at the most heightened moments, taking on a urgent percussive quality, whenever Nathaniel is pursuing some perilous adventure — which means it’s heard often, particularly in the last half-hour of the film. The strings are yearning and evocative but never quite descend to gloopy sentimentality, even when the staging most suggests this quality — Nathaniel and Cora embracing one another in profile against the sunrise, for example.

The film is filled with excesses of this kind, little flourishes of pure melodrama and Boy’s Own adventure heroics. It’s against this background that it needs to be assessed, not as a naturalistic depiction of 18th century combat (though there is that) or the difficulty of living on the frontiers of such a dangerously young country (and that’s there too). I could affect ironic distance, but the film works too hard to break it down. It’s the kind of film you either wholeheartedly and passionately embrace, or you laugh off as inconsequential fluff. I trust, though, that I’ve made my own position clear.

CREDITS
Director Michael Mann; Writers Mann and Christopher Crowe (based on the novel by James Fenimore Cooper); Cinematographer Dante Spinotti; Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, Russell Means, Wes Studi, Steven Waddington; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Sunday 8 August 2013 (and on plenty of occasions previously).

Le quattro volte (2010)

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.


I’ve already reviewed one modern silent film this week (Blancanieves) and though this Italian oddity isn’t a silent film per se, it does nevertheless eschew verbal communication. Again, this isn’t unheard of in European art cinema — I recall the Hungarian film Hukkle (2002) doing likewise, and to a certain extent Tati’s Play Time (1967) — and may even make sense given the many sources of funding these films must negotiate to get made, where the alternative is a mess of different languages and actors (the classic “Europudding”). However, it does naturally put the focus on visual methods of storytelling, and at this Le quattro volte shows a great deal of inventiveness.

As the title suggests (it translates as “the four turns”), this is a film of four acts. From what I’ve read, the filmmaker’s inspiration was Pythagorean philosophy, specifically the idea of transmigration of souls (metempsychosis), from human to animal to plant to mineral. We are shown at the start an elderly and rheumatic goatherd in an Italian hillside village going about his daily business with great difficulty, while taking a sort of folk remedy (dust from the church floor) as medicine before going to bed. The second act focuses on a baby goat born in his flock, then on a tree cut down for a local celebration, and finally on its transformation into charcoal used for heating such houses as the one the goatherd lives in. The implication, of course, is that the goatherd’s soul has somehow been transferred to these different vessels, though (the film being without verbal communication) this is never quite so plainly stated.

Perhaps this is for the best: such metaphyical ideas never do come across well as dialogue. The joy of the film is in all the visual details, recording the goatherd’s everyday life, his interactions with other villagers (selling his milk door-to-door, getting the holy dust for his cough), and then the skittish nimbleness of the goats, and the village rituals which make use of the tree. Perhaps most fascinating of all is the sequence showing how charcoal is made, something I had never before given any thought to.

There’s some wry humour too, not unlike in Tati’s film. A procession in which the villagers reenact Christ’s procession with the cross to Calvary is played out in extreme long-shot, with several dressed up as Romans, and one kid who is running to catch them up is put off-guard by the goatherd’s dog. This long sequence of around ten minutes’ duration is in fact masterfully put together, arriving just as we have serious doubts over the old man’s health, and involves some expert animal wrangling (the dog trying to raise attention around the town, then threatening the kid, running up the road after the procession then back to cause a van to crash into the goat enclosure, thus freeing the goats).

The film unfolds at a stately pace, long enough to get lost in the images, which thankfully are carefully chosen and composed. As a portrait of quotidian life in a rural community, it’s fascinating. The metaphysical elements are there for those who wish to ponder such things — it gives the mind something to do in the slower sections — but are never insisted upon, and as such Le quattro volte is a beautifully balanced little film.

Le quattro volte film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Michelangelo Frammartino; Cinematographer Andrea Locatelli; Starring Giuseppe Fuda; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (TV), London, Sunday 14 July 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.

Continue reading “Det Hemmelighedsfulde X (Sealed Orders aka The Mysterious X, 1914)”

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

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 5 || Director Gil Junger | Writers Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith | Cinematographer Mark Irwin | Starring Julia Stiles, Heath Ledger, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Krumholtz, Allison Janney | Length 93 minutes | Seen at Manners Mall, Wellington, Sunday 6 June 1999 (and at home on DVD on numerous occasions, most recently Sunday 9 June 2013) || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Buena Vista Pictures

Unlike the previous films I’ve picked from a hat as part of my ‘Movie Lottery’ series, this is one I know pretty well, I think. I’ve watched it many times over the years, and have always enjoyed it, specifically for its likeable ensemble of young actors near the beginnings of their respective film careers. Thinking about it again with the aim of writing a review, I find myself perhaps a little more aware of where its strengths and weaknesses lie. The style, such as it is, leans heavily on the sounds and fashions of the 1990s, and in the end it really does depend on those acting performances, alongside the sparky script, which draws heavily from its trend-setting antecedent Clueless (1995), though here the teen translation is of Shakespeare (where that film took on Jane Austen).

The particular Shakespeare play in question, The Taming of the Shrew, is not one of his best and furnishes a rather silly plot, which the screenwriters have gamely followed through with. Newly arrived at Padua High School, Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) becomes infatuated with the coquettish Bianca (Larisa Oleynik), but her father prevents her from dating unless her older sister Kat (Julia Stiles) does too. So in order to go out with Bianca, Cameron must hook up her sister, for which purpose the school bad boy Patrick Verona suits well (Heath Ledger). The premise doesn’t always make a lot of sense, but here it helps to be adapting one of the Bard’s lesser achievements, so comparisons don’t come off badly for the film.

As mentioned, though, it’s the acting of the ensemble cast that carries the day. Continue reading “10 Things I Hate About You (1999)”

They’re a Weird Mob (1966)

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. PS I’m on holiday at the moment, so that’s why you won’t see any new releases on review this week!


FILM REVIEW: Movie Lottery 4 || Director Michael Powell | Writer Emeric Pressburger (as “Richard Imrie”) (based on the novel by John O’Grady, as “Nino Culotta”) | Cinematographer Arthur Grant | Starring Walter Chiari, Clare Dunne | Length 107 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), Thursday 23 May 2013 || My Rating 2 stars worth seeing


© Rank Organisation

The English director Michael Powell and the Hungarian emigré Emeric Pressburger are remembered for many fine films over their long career, and justly so (I particularly like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, 1943, though all film lovers should have their favourite), but this last collaboration is probably not one of them. Looking back almost 50 years later, it’s very much an historical curio from a time long gone, of a quite different Australia — for indeed, this is an Australian film and it is set in Sydney.

Continue reading “They’re a Weird Mob (1966)”

News from Home (1977)

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. As ever, you’ll notice my dust-gathering DVD collection includes a lot more European arthouse films. I’ve selected another one from the hat to watch and present my review below.


FILM REVIEW: Movie Lottery 3 || Director/Writer Chantal Akerman | Cinematographers Babette Mangolte and Jim Asbell | Length 85 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), Tuesday 21 May 2013 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Unité Trois

It’s difficult to put into words what’s ultimately affecting about this rather experimental film of the late-1970s, which I can only imagine would be even more affecting to a New Yorker or one who knows the city better. But to me, it’s like an updated city symphony film — those distinctly utopian 1920s visions of the city’s enthralling power — except that, being the 1970s, the city is rather more crumbling. Akerman both captures the spirit of this city, but also subtly imbues it with the darker traces of the intervening decades of the 20th century (and, with its final shot taking in the World Trade Center, also unwittingly wraps in the close of that century). To my mind, it is one of the great films about New York.

Continue reading “News from Home (1977)”

Nord (North, 1991)

This series, of which this is the second instalment, is inspired by the Movie Lottery blog, whose author is picking DVD titles from a hat in order to decide which films to watch. As ever, you’ll notice my dust-gathering DVD collection includes a lot more European arthouse films. I’ve selected another one from the hat to watch and present my review below.


FILM REVIEW: Movie Lottery 2 || Director/Writer Xavier Beauvois | Cinematographer Fabio Conversi | Starring Xavier Beauvois, Bernard Verley, Bulle Ogier | Length 92 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), Sunday 5 May 2013 || My Rating 2 stars worth seeing


© Forum Distribution

There’s a lot of empty space in this debut feature from the director Xavier Beauvois, who is most well-known for the contemplative monastic drama Des hommes et des dieux (Of Gods and Men, 2010). The contemplation in this early work is altogether less divinely-inspired, unless it’s by the deities of ancient Greece, who seem to preside over this drama of a family falling apart under the strains of the father’s alcoholism. The empty space is the setting of the title, in the grey industrial North of France, around Calais where the director himself grew up. It seems to suffuse every scene, not least because so many unfold in extreme long shot, with the actors as small presences against the terrain.

Continue reading “Nord (North, 1991)”

Így jöttem (My Way Home, 1964)

I only started this blog just over a month ago, but one of the sites I followed early on was Movie Lottery. The author on that site is using, well, a lottery in order to decide which films to watch, as a response to her having a large collection of unwatched movies. I too have many DVDs and boxsets I’ve bought over the years currently gathering dust, some of them I bought because I’d seen them and loved them, some are films I’ve not yet even seen. Therefore, I’m trying out her lottery method of getting through them: I’ve written the titles on slips of paper, put them in a hat, and on Saturday evening, I pulled one out at random. The difference is just that my DVDs include a lot more European arthouse films (purchased in those enthusiastic years when I was fresh out of a film studies major), as you may have guessed already from some of the bias in my reviews.

PS I’m always willing to try other ideas for getting more of a range of films reviewed on this site that aren’t new releases, so if you’ve got a good idea (or just some recommendations for films you’d like me to watch and, inevitably, review), let me know!


FILM REVIEW: Movie Lottery 1 || Director Miklós Jancsó | Writers Gyula Hernádi and Imre Vadász | Cinematographer Tamás Somló | Starring András Kozák, Sergey Nikonenko | Length 109 minutes | Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Monday 18 August 2003 (and at home on DVD, Saturday 27 April 2013) || My Rating 3 stars good


© Second Run

The Hungarian director Miklós Jancsó came to prominence for English-speaking viewers in the 1960s with films like this one, though more famously its follow-up Szegénylegények (The Round-Up, 1965), and even now, pushing into his 90s, is still active in his native land. However, those 60s and early-70s films are quite different from the few of his more recent films I’ve seen, and it may be their peculiar thematic focus on the way that punishment and oppression are doled out almost arbitrarily by those in power that endeared them to those febrile politically-engaged times. But cinematic fashions fade over time, and like Michelangelo Antonioni who inspired him, Jancsó has lost much of his mid-60s cachet, though his style has in turn more recently inspired his compatriot Béla Tarr. There’s no reason, though, why Jancsó’s way with steely-eyed widescreen power plays shouldn’t at least be of as much interest to the politically conscious as they are to those of a cinephiliac bent.

To those latter viewers (which I hope includes some of my present readership), what’s most striking about this imperial phase of Jancsó’s art — which My Way Home to some extent kicks off — is his way with the sinuous long-take tracking shot. It’s not just empty stylistics as it might be with many directors, but in his best works is used as a way of capturing character dynamics, and specifically the power relationships amongst them. There are some signs of this engagement even in this early work, as the unnamed central character (played by András Kozák), a 17-year-old Hungarian schoolboy, flees the Nazi-controlled front towards the end of World War II. Jancsó’s long-take long shot picks him out against the vastness of the landscape, moving in as he weaves around the trees, only for a new set of antagonists (Russians) to literally encroach from the sides of the frame to take him captive. This motif is repeated later in this film (and more prominently in subsequent films), and is only built upon, for it encapsulates the heart of his thematic dynamic: the arbitrariness of power.

Prominent too is the undulating Hungarian landscape, particularly its extensive plains, not least due to Jancsó’s use of the long shot, with human figures often reduced to specks framed by the vastness of nature. One particularly favoured technique is the helicopter shot, framing (often running) figures against the ground, flattening them and making them seem minuscule and helpless, another way of encoding power dynamics within the cinematic screen.

If this all seems like it could come across to the viewer as a little arid, especially when combined with the stark black-and-white imagery, then to a certain extent it is. Yet viewer identification with the protagonists isn’t eschewed to the extent it is in Jancsó’s later films, where there are often no readily identifiable individuals and where much of the meaning is telegraphed via frequently opaque symbolism. No, in My Way Home, there is at the heart a story of two young men from either side of conflict (the Hungarian youth I’ve already mentioned, and his Russian captor tasked in this bleak agrarian outpost with looking after a herd of cows). They do not speak the other’s language, yet come to trust and care for one another, in what is identifiably a human story. It ends up being a nice little film, at the edges of which brew the caustic criticisms of power that Jancsó would later come to focus on.