Two more documentaries about China from director Wang Bing, that unearth certain difficult periods in China’s history, most notably the re-education camps instituted by Mao in the 1950s.
This week here I’m doing a themed week of Australian films, mostly documentaries, but I’m starting it with this important and perhaps under-recognised 1989 drama that distills a particular vision of (white) Australia in the recent past. The 1990s would turn out to be a successful decade for Australian cinema, both at home and abroad, and the same cinematographer worked on another prominent film made by women a few years later that I’ve also reviewed on my blog, The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992). If you want a primer on women in Australian cinema, by the way, you could do a lot worse than this Senses of Cinema dossier, which includes an essay on Celia which properly contextualises my own remarks below as being on the lower end of amateurish.
This Australian film from the late-1980s certainly builds up a curious atmosphere, not quite horror but inhabiting a strange and (to the film’s young protagonist, played by Rebecca Smart) at times terrifying world in between lived reality and paranoid fantasy, based on fears stoked up by the adults — these being around both the ‘Red menace’ of Communists, but also the government’s attempts to eradicate the rabbit population by introducing myxomatosis. It’s not a million miles from the allegorical territory of The Babadook (again without the specifically horror genre elements, aside from a few brief monstrous dream rabbits), but rooted more firmly in a 1950s milieu of conservative culture. Celia’s cherished grandmother turns out to have had Communist sympathies, and her neighbours are local organisers, so this brings them into conflict with her regressive father (Nicholas Eadie). A parallel storyline about Celia’s pet rabbit becoming a threat to state security (enforced by her uncle, the local police chief) strangely manages to bring together some of these fraught family dynamics. Overall, it sustains a striking atmosphere of cultural dread, aptly filtered through the experiences of a young girl.
Director/Writer Ann Turner; Cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson; Starring Rebecca Smart, Nicholas Eadie; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 8 January 2019.
British cinema is in constant dialogue with the heritage industry, and there is no shortage of films set in the past — with particularly popular eras being during World War II and the 1950s (as seen here), the Victorian age, or the Tudors. Plenty of women have turned their hand to this heritage, finding further interest in underseen representations (particularly in recent years): Amma Assante put a Black British perspective into the 18th century in Belle, while this film’s conservative small town 1950s setting adds a lesbian romance.
If there’s one thing I’ve gained growing up, it’s a tolerance for fairly desultory period movies, especially ones set in gloomy parts of the UK. This one is set in Scotland in 1952, which is more or less exactly when Carol (2015) was set, but this takes rather a different, let’s say more traditional arc. The two central women (Holliday Grainger’s Lydia, and Anna Paquin’s Dr Jean Markham) find each other and then, in time-honoured fashion, unleash all the ire and judgement that a small close-minded town can muster — and, in the final act, this feels like rather too much. I liked the set-up, and I particularly liked both central performances, even if Anna Paquin has a patchy Scottish accent and spends much of the film looking anguished. There’s also some rather iffy bee CGI towards the end, extending a metaphor which doesn’t entirely hold together. Basically I wanted to like this well-mounted film more than I ended up doing, but it has its moments.
Director Annabel Jankel; Writers Henrietta Ashworth and Jessica Ashworth (based on the novel by Fiona Shaw); Cinematographer Bartosz Nalazek; Starring Holliday Grainger, Anna Paquin; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Saturday 20 July 2019.
Algeria, even more than many of its North African neighbours, has been a subject of a lot of filmmaking, thanks to the Wars of Independence from France that tore the country apart in the 1950s and 1960s, a cause that galvanised a generation of French politically-engaged filmmakers who came of age in the New Wave and were receptive to the radical student politics of May 1968. The struggle is most famously covered in The Battle of Algiers (1966), but there are relatively few films told from the Algerian side. One such film, a work garlanded with plenty of awards and which is often found on lists of the greatest Arab cinema, is the one I cover below.
A grand, sweeping, widescreen epic of Algerian liberation from colonialist oppression which covers several decades up to the wars of independence in the 1950s. The film primarily follows a village farmer called Ahmed (Yorgo Voyagis, a Greek actor), who leaves his village for the larger local city with a family, and suffers various privations, especially during World War II. Their lives are almost entirely cut off from Europe, so the wars of France against Germany seem like nothing more than an opportunity to replace their despised colonial masters. Still, they are sucked in, and return to famine and typhoid, at which point a man arrives, banished to this remote outpost, and quickly starts to foment further revolutionary consciousness amongst the people. This is a new restoration commissioned by the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival and which hopefully will bring this Palme d’Or-winning Algerian film back to wider prominence. The director’s preferred cut is 157 minutes, and has some of that sweeping, epic, desert quality of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), as well as a potent message of fighting against brutal oppression, but it remains always grounded in the small-scale story of Ahmed and his family.
Director Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina محمد الأخضر حمينة; Writers Rachid Boudjedra رشيد بوجدرة Tewfik Fares توفيق فارس and Lakhdar-Hamina; Cinematographer Marcello Gatti; Starring Yorgo Voyagis Γιώργος Βογιατζής, Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina; Length 157 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Friday 29 June 2018.
Partir (Leaving, 2009)
Somehow, French films never seem quite as French as they could be until they have Kristin Scott Thomas in them, and so this film feels very French. It has all your classic themes of a slow-boiling relationship drama, not least adulterous passions leading to an explosion of violence and anger. Characters circle around each other, playing a talky psychological game about love, divorce, the ungrateful kids, and the threat of losing everything (or at least one’s access to a thoroughly bourgeois lifestyle). It’s fascinating to me how it is that Scott Thomas is such a fixture of this kind of French cinema, but she is, still, a very good actor.
Director Catherine Corsini; Writers Corsini and Gaëlle Macé; Cinematographers Agnès Godard; Starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Sergi López, Yvan Attal; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 April 2019.
Un amour impossible (An Impossible Love, 2018) [France/Belgium]
After making the 1970-set romance La Belle saison (2015), Corsini returns with a film that steps back a few decades but spans multiple generations. It starts with a young woman who has a passionate affair with a man; he’s charming and then he leaves, and at this point already the type seems familiar, from film as from life (not my own life; I do try to be better than that). But she keeps trying to reconnect with him despite his abandoning her while she was pregnant, and he comes back into their lives for brief moments over the following years, until things take a darker turn. However, even at this point it’s never about the darkness, as about this bond between mother and daughter, and the way that it’s seen by the mother (although the film as a whole is narrated by the daughter).
Virginie Efira’s performance as Rachel is really great, because so much is just on her looking, expressively, and even when she’s supposed to be in her 70s or something (towards the end) and the ageing makeup is alright but she’s hardly convincing as someone that age, it doesn’t really matter, because it all rests in that interaction between her and her daughter Chantal. In the end, then, it’s a character study of someone who loves too deeply, placed in a situation just as much by a society that rewards taking a man’s name as by this feckless man himself (although he is clearly at fault, and an awful man besides), who pursues something — a connection, a patrimony, an idea of the ideal family — that ends up hurting her daughter more than her.
Basically, there’s a lot going on in the film, a lot of barely-buried emotion, which never overwhelms the story, or becomes melodramatic or cloying, but is always there.
Director Catherine Corsini; Writers Corsini and Laurette Polmanss (based on the novel by Christine Angot); Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie; Starring Virginie Efira, Niels Schneider; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Monday 7 January 2019.
There’s a lot of gorgeous style to this film, all high-contrast black-and-white starkness, an almost documentary-like sense of its Sicilian landscapes, not to mention the evocative faces of its protagonists. It’s a period story made in the 60s about a post-war gangster and rebel laid low by the forces of the law and the mafia, but it feels like it’s made contemporaneously, and the director has a solid control of his actors. I found the narrative difficult to get hold of, as it jumps back and forth in time fairly liberally, while the titular figure is rarely actually seen except when dead. I wanted to like this a lot more than I did, but perhaps it just needs the right frame of mind and the right screening to fall into place.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Francesco Rosi; Writers Rosi, Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Enzo Provenzale and Franco Solinas; Cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo; Starring Salvo Randone, Frank Wolff; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 16 September 2018.
I’d seen this before when I was younger, but perhaps I was an idiot, because I remember almost nothing about this film, and yet it is so very striking. It feels like finally, after years of flirting, Fassbinder completely nails the Sirkian aesthetic, in all its garish heady blend of colours and framing and little satirical nudges about Germany society in the 1970s. It’s a story of corrupt small town politicians and developers, and of course it’s also about sex and desire too. It’s a venal world, and apparently little is going to change that, but Armin Mueller-Stahl’s bureaucrat tries his best all the same. Every successive shot is a masterclass in lighting, all saturated colours and a strange blue highlight used for Mueller-Stahl’s eyes whenever he’s in his office. It’s a gorgeous film about — what else — but moral turpitude and the baseness of the human spirit.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder; Writers Fassbinder, Pea Fröhlich and Peter Märthesheimer; Cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger; Starring Barbara Sukowa, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Mario Adorf; Length 113 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 1 April 2018 (and before that on VHS in the university library, Wellington, March 2000).
One of Fassbinder’s final films (indeed, the last to be released in his lifetime), this is a dreamlike reverie of soft black-and-white, specifically an hommage to a presumed golden era of Hollywood (and Nazi-era) filmmaking, flashbacks to which are all starry-eyed lights and slinky fashion. The star of these films is the title character (Rosel Zech), who a decade after World War II is struggling to get work and struggling to keep her fragile sense of identity. She meets a sports reporter (Hilmar Thate) who doesn’t know who she is, and strikes up an affair, during which he discovers she’s being drugged by a rapacious doctor (Annemarie Düringer), and resolves to try and free her. These genre elements though are largely interwoven into a story that’s about the dangerous addiction not just to morphine but to fame itself, with a subtle through line of satire that is difficult to laugh at given the suffocating atmosphere of much of the film. It’s a more admirable piece than one I genuinely love, but thus is often the way with Fassbinder.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder; Writers Fassbinder, Pea Fröhlich and Peter Märthesheimer; Cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger; Starring Rosel Zech, Hilmar Thate, Cornelia Froboess, Annemarie Düringer; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 March 2018 (and before that on VHS at the university library, Wellington, April 2000).
She’s an attractive woman, Hanna Schygulla is (as the title character), and that’s only one of the things she uses to get ahead in the post-World War II mess of West Germany. Maria’s dogged pursuit of her goals, flirting with other men before returning to her pre-War husband (who returns unexpectedly even after she’d given up on him), makes her a potent symbol of Germany in the period, and this film thus functions as something of an allegory. Certainly those closing scenes, soundtracked by the insistent voice of a football commentator narrating a successful German game, drives that home. It may not be Fassbinder’s most flashy film, not the one perhaps with the greatest cult credentials, but it’s a wonderfully resonant piece, I think, underpinned by a great central performance by Schygulla.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder; Writers Peter Märthesheimer and Pea Fröhlich; Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus; Starring Hanna Schygulla, Klaus Löwitsch, Ivan Desny; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 18 March 2018 (and before that on VHS at home, Wellington, November 1997, and at university, Wellington, March 2000).
This biopic (of sorts) about Miles Davis is clearly a labour of love for director, writer, producer and star Don Cheadle, but it’s only intermittently successful as a film. Cheadle is excellent, though quite how much he captures of the famously prickly Davis is certainly debatable, but the real issue is the way it makes Ewan McGregor’s Scottish music journo the way into the story. McGregor is largely pointless, and indeed spends a lot of the time on the sidelines distracting attention by repeating inane profanities. Perhaps he’s there, though, to allow Davis someone on whom to unleash his violent temper, for he had a rather more disturbing tendency for spousal abuse, little of which we see here except for one music-led sequence with his first wife Frances (a powerful Emayatzy Corinealdi, probably the film’s best performance). That said, it’s far from a hagiography, and while it comes with the imprimatur of the musician’s estate, it also doesn’t downplay his irritable, violent and self-destructive sides. Indeed, much of the film is taken up with a boisterous (and freewheelingly invented) chase sequence as Davis tries to track down some purloined master tapes from his late-1970s ‘comeback’ (he dropped out of the business for five years), though flashbacks to the first flush of his late-1940s and 1950s success recur throughout. I wanted to like this a lot more than I ended up doing, but it’s a noble attempt to capture something of this jazz legend.
Director Don Cheadle; Writers Steven Baigelman and Don Cheadle; Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer; Starring Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Friday 22 April 2016.