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.


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.

The plot is a fairly straightforward one. As war is declared, Lieutenant van Hauen (played by the director, Benjamin Christensen, most famous for Häxan) is called up to command a battleship and is handed sealed orders by his father, Rear Admiral van Hauen. However, these orders are intercepted by an enemy spy who has inveigled the affections of van Hauen’s wife (played by Karen Sandberg). And here’s where the high melodrama kicks in: Lt van Hauen is accused of treason, so his wife and blond-curled son must race against the clock to save him from the firing squad. In the course of this, there’s a bit of to-and-fro regarding a mysterious “X” (as in “marks the spot”, one imagines) that the spy has left on a document, the decoding of which leads to the smoking gun evidence.

It’s all run through with brio, although I must confess I did get a bit lost in the plot at points. What Christensen has, though, is a sure sense of visual style. There’s a particularly breathtaking shot of figures moving up a hill to a windmill, filmed into the sun so that everything is in ghostly, mysterious silhouette (you can see the image in the ‘poster’ attached to this review), but this is just one shot amongst many others of similar worth. Christensen’s cinematographer Emil Dinesen doesn’t seem to have any other credits, which is all the more surprising given the inventiveness shown in many of the beautiful and richly contrasted black-and-white set-ups.

Indeed, for every scene of hokey melodrama or frankly silly plotting (the army intercepts the spy’s secret communication by shooting his carrier pigeon), there’s some real visual — cinematic — intelligence on display, to surprise you at what a debut director less than 20 years into the medium’s history could come up with. The interruption of a vital communications link by the spies is illustrated by showing the words of a phone message being scrawled in bright, shining letters along telegraph wires, just prior to it being blown up (cut to the Rear Admiral, looking with shock at his now-silent phone). Mrs van Hauen’s fevered dreams fixating on the meaning of this “X” are economically conveyed by the image being drawn slowly over her sleeping figure, another early use of special effects by drawing directly onto the film. There are also early attempts at building suspense through cross-cutting between different storylines, which work rather well in the context of the period.

There’s still the matter of that labyrinthine plot, and I did find my attention wandering at times. Yet there’s enough here to make for a fascinating film, quite aside from its great age.


CREDITS
Director/Writer Benjamin Christensen; Cinematographer Emil Dinesen; Starring Benjamin Christensen, Karen Sandberg; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 13 June 2013.

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.


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. Gordon-Levitt, coming from his breakthrough role on television’s Third Rock from the Sun, has an easygoing charm which is matched by a similarly young Heath Ledger (whose pretty face never quite carries off the dangerous reputation he is supposed to have, but then that’s in keeping with the brightly upbeat look of the piece). Oleynik as Bianca is appropriately vacuous and self-obsessed (though her character arc thankfully moves a little forward from this over the course of the film), while Stiles as the ‘shrew’ is here no doubt indebted to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, being a late-90s vision of feminist empowerment (via a bit of shouty girl punk rock; there are on-trend namechecks given to Bikini Kill and the Raincoats, though the soundtrack is rather more fixated on power pop in that peculiarly ska-inspired niche of the era).

While these pretty young teen actors are fine at following through the central romantic plot, their stories are at heart a bit dull. Therefore an essential element of the film is the supporting cast, providing the comic relief, and poking fun at the silly romantic conceits of the central storyline. David Krumholtz is excellent as a geeky AV nerd, who at the outset gets to deliver the genre’s requisite scene where the high school’s various subcultures are pointed out. The other key figures bringing the kids’ highflown romantic ideas down to earth are all adults: Allison Janney as the school’s sarcastic guidance counsellor; Daryl Mitchell as the English teacher; and Larry Miller as Kat and Bianca’s controlling (but loving) dad. All three do an excellent job at invigorating the film.

The performances and those brightly-coloured 90s fashions aside, there’s some nice featuring of the Seattle locations, but otherwise the film’s style is fairly pedestrian. It’s an enjoyable confection of a film that puts itself above others in this crowded teen film genre by virtue of a sharp script, well-delivered by the youthful cast.


CREDITS
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 Cinema, Wellington, Sunday 6 June 1999 (and on DVD at home, London, on numerous occasions, most recently Sunday 9 June 2013).

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!


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.

By all accounts it was a very popular film the year it came out, and no wonder, for on the one hand it was based on a best-selling novel, and moreover there were only 15 features made in the country during that entire decade. In essays about Australian cinema appearing in The Oxford History of World Cinema (ed. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith) and The Cinema Book (ed. Pam Cook), the film is singled out as a notable production preceding the flourishing of Australian cinema talent the following decade. It also attracts academic discussions as a key Australian film of its era (such as this one in the Australian online film journal Senses of Cinema).

That said, for a casual viewer who is an outsider to Australian culture, it’s still a very likeable comedy of, well, being an outsider. As a tale focused around an Italian immigrant to Australia (Nino, played by Italian comedic actor Walter Chiari), the perspective of the outsider is one embedded in the film. Just as he is, so are we introduced to this strange country (with some, thankfully brief, obligatory flipping of the image to indicate ‘Down Under’) and its strange language and customs. This indeed provides most of the humour in the first half, as Nino stumbles through a series of encounters with Australians (a taxi driver, a man in a pub, a group of builders) and their colourful use of Antipodean slang. He eventually takes a job as one of the builders, and gains their trust and respect.

It’s all fairly basic stuff, illustrating what is at heart a chauvinist culture — “it’s a man’s world, sweetheart” the film’s final song cheerfully informs us as all the characters, male and female, crack open beers — though there is a (rather perfunctory) sub-plot of Nino finding love with business-like Kay Kelly (played by Clare Dunn), certainly no stooge of the men around her. The gender relations may not be particularly surprising for a film of this era, but it is at least quite sweet-natured about immigrants. Sure, there’s a lot of mildly derogatory slang (by all means correct my spelling, but “aye-tie” seems to be the most frequent one for Italians, though there are some uses of “dago” too), but there’s little actual discrimination against Nino, and the only really bitterly racist character is ridiculed as a drunkard who’s already shunned by his compatriots. There’s also a nice conversation near the end with Kay’s gruff and suspicious dad (Chips Rafferty, apparently an icon of blokey Australian-ness), where they are brought together in understanding by a picture of the Pope, of all people.

As a good-natured and well-meaning view of how one imagines the majority Australian culture of the 1960s liked to see themselves, it’s a pleasant enough ride. It doesn’t condescend to the labourers who are, after all, central characters in the story, and — at least with respect to immigrants from Europe — it shows an affably (if at times gruffly) welcoming people.


CREDITS
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), London, Thursday 23 May 2013.

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.


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.

I say “experimental” above due to the form the film takes: lengthy shots observing New York City — largely Manhattan — from various vantage points (street corners, subway platforms, cars), over which the Belgian director Chantal Akerman reads letters that she received from her mother during the two years she lived in the city. It all starts slowly, with quiet and largely empty images of buildings and streets, abandoned lots in the early morning. At length, the first letter is read out, and Akerman’s mother is pleased to have received correspondence, has sent $20 for her, wonders if she has the correct address, hopes to hear back, sends her love and that of Akerman’s father.

This is how the film proceeds, the shots of the city slowly gaining more people as the camera moves a little, first a slow pan around the entrance to the subway with its ticket gates and concession stands, before a long take looking out from a moving train. Likewise, those letters with their wheedling, needy tone (it’s been two weeks and no letter from you; please send a photo) and accretion of the details of bourgeois family life back home, continue to pile on. Accompanying all this — mostly in the background, but occasionally and eventually drowning out the letter reading — are the sounds of the city, a careful orchestration of musique concrète (the sound was recorded separately from the image track).

As with Akerman’s film before this one, her masterpiece Jeanne Dielman (1975), there is a clarity of vision to her cinematographer Babette Mangolte’s camera. The strong vertical lines of the city dominate: its tall buildings and signage that line a street leading away to the horizon, or the columns that divide the screen in a long central section filmed at the shabby Times Square subway station. There’s a fascination to watching these native New Yorkers just move about on the streets and the subways, as the camera wants to be among them. Yet those long takes always make you conscious of a certain desperation to the camera’s gaze, which is sometimes met by those of the passers-by being filmed. There is a progression of sorts from the street corners to the subway to a car and a train, and in the final shot, once more empty of people, a boat heading away from Manhattan, watching its skyline slowly resolve itself into the grey smog.

The steady watchfulness of the camera is juxtaposed with the letters being read, in French, expressing Akerman’s mother’s sorrow at her daughter’s distance, fear of the dangers of the city, hope for her success and happiness. Between the image and the sound track lies a film about exile and dislocation, but one that’s never heavy-handed; you could easily read into it some of Akerman’s personal history (her mother was in Auschwitz during the war) but that’s never mentioned or insisted upon. It’s like the film’s images of New York City, which bear the marks of its mid-century decline.

And that’s what I like about News from Home in so many ways, that rather than flashy surfaces, it feels more like a film of what’s underneath, backgrounds and history (whether of the place or the people who move through that place). Maybe that’s a lot of meaning to load on what is after all a series of unflashy long takes of a city on grainy 70s film stock — picture postcards after a fashion — but the film is affecting in that way. And as I said, it’s difficult to put into words.


CREDITS
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman; Cinematographers Babette Mangolte and Jim Asbell; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 21 May 2013.

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.


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.

Nord is essentially a two-hander between father (Bernard Verley) and son, played by the director as a directionless 18-year-old (though Beauvois was about five years older when he made the film). Bulle Ogier is one of the great character actors of French cinema, though she is a curiously distant presence here, seen feeding her disabled daughter or watching TV with the family, her character only really making an impact thanks to one brief yet disturbing scene.

The distance may of course be related to the reticence of the camera to get too close to these characters’ faces, meaning their emotions are mostly conveyed through body language and gesture, though there’s no shortage of this. Quiet stretches of silence — such as the family in their living room, arrayed across the screen and looking past the camera at an unseen television set — are increasingly punctuated by distemperate outburts, as the father is sucked into addiction. He is an implacable presence, grimly focused with a hard unforgiving face. His work at a local chemist’s, from whom we see him surreptitiously pocket some pure alcohol at the film’s start, appears precarious as his absences are increasingly problematic for his manager to cover. Meanwhile, the resulting strain on the family’s home life seems to be affecting the son’s schoolwork, for which he shows scant interest. However, as the film progresses, it more and more seems as if he is the one who is best placed to pull through the other side of the family crisis.

The film progresses with long periods of quietness, the characters adrift, and the slow bubbling up of deeper emotions is carefully controlled in an impressive manner by Beauvois as a young first-time director. The staging of the family scenes at home, for example, perceptibly shifts after the father goes into rehab, with the sombre TV-watching zombies of earlier replaced by a warmly-lit family meal. There’s even a rare close-up when son goes to meet father, and he seems to soften a little. It’s in these little moments that the film is at its best for me, and makes it a worthwhile watch if you can track it down.


CREDITS
Director/Writer Xavier Beauvois; Cinematographer Fabio Conversi; Starring Xavier Beauvois, Bernard Verley, Bulle Ogier; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 5 May 2013.

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!


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.


My Way Home film posterCREDITS
Director Miklós Jancsó; Writers Gyula Hernádi and Imre Vadász; Cinematographer Tamás Somló; Starring András Kozák, Sergey Nikonenko Серге́й Никоненко; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Monday 18 August 2003 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 27 April 2013).