I’m doing a week focusing on ‘very long’ (3hr+) films, but most of these have been made by men, perhaps overeager to flex their cinematic clout or show off their stamina (amongst other things). However, there have been plenty of directors working in television who have pulled off longer-form work in the guise of mini-series and multi-part episodic drama. One such figure, working in the documentary form, is Molly Dineen, who like a British Frederick Wiseman, has been profiling institutions and work throughout her career. Her longest films are The Ark (1993) and In the Company of Men (1995), which respectively look at London’s zoo and the British Army (as deployed in Northern Ireland), but she also has a number of shorter works to her name. Her most recent film, Being Blacker (2018) is one I haven’t yet caught up with, but everything else I talk about below. All of these have been released by the BFI on the three-part DVD set The Molly Dineen Collection, which is well worth tracking down.
As my week of African cinema draws to a close, one final documentary, which for a change touches on a successful instance of 19th century resistance to the European coloniser. It was made by the Ethiopian-American filmmaker Haile Gerima, much of whose work has been made in the United States, as a leading proponent of what has come to be known as the “LA Rebellion” of African and African-American filmmakers working and studying at UCLA.
This is essentially a documentary about an important battle, about the way that battle shaped a country and, to a certain degree, a continent, but it’s also at least in part about who gets to tell these stories. After all, one of the most interesting aspects of the film is its resistance to typical documentary conventions. Instead of the authoritative figure of a scholar or critic seen as a talking head and lecturing the audience, instead filmmaker Haile Gerima gives these words to a variety of Ethiopians. Sure one of them could be an academic (he’s seated at home and wearing a suit), but others appear to be people in the street, farmers or peasants, from all walks of life, though there are no on-screen titles so it’s unclear.
The point is: this story belongs to everyone in Ethiopia, because it’s a story of resistance against the tide of European colonisers forcibly trying to annexe vast swathes of Africa during the 19th century. This is a story of a battle fought by the Ethiopian leader Menelik II against the Italians in 1896, who like the rest of Europe’s powers were involved in carving up Africa for profit (leading to the so-called “scramble for Africa”). Ethiopia’s successful resistance meant that it was one of the very few places on the continent not colonised at that time (it succumbed briefly later during WW2), giving it a totemic place in the burgeoning Pan-African movement.
Gerima’s film therefore narrates his film through these people who know parts of the historical tale and context, but also through images (artworks, carvings, other visual representations of the Battle of Adwa and the events surrounding it) and, vitally, through folk songs. There are many layers of interpretation swirling around her, overlaid on one another, not complicating the history but rather rendering it richer and perhaps better suggesting its importance.
Director Haile Gerima ፕሮፌሰር ኃይሌ ገሪማ; Cinematographer Augustin Cubano; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 8 August 2019.
This compendium of short films by the American experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage spans the range of his life, from his earliest works to after his diagnosis with the cancer which would claim his life in 2003. It was joined by a second volume some years later (as spine numbers 517 and 518), meaning this early instalment was retrospectively retitled as “Volume One” at that time. I present thoughts on some of the films below.
Desistfilm (1954) is my introduction to Brakhage’s work, like some kind of hepped-up beatnik film about a house party set to a hard-edged droning soundtrack, as people’s relationships break down. Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959) takes glimpses of early married life, but edits them together with fades to black in flickering light and comes across as nothing so much as a Lynchian dystopia of nightmares, with negative-image graphic sex interpolated. It doesn’t exactly paint a pleasant portrait of marriage.
Brakhage’s most famous work, though, probably remains Dog Star Man, made in four parts with a prelude (so: five separate short films). As a whole it’s a fevered rush of images, or at least that’s the sense that Part IV conjures, though the Prelude sets up the basic imagery of the title, where the “man” is both Brakhage himself, and also his newborn baby, and the “star” seems more like a solar plexus of body imagery and film manipulation effects. It’s all quite affecting in its way, but perplexing too. Part I has the most sustained sense of narrative, as Brakhage journeys futilely up (or along, depending on the camera angle) a snowy slope like a deranged Sisyphean hunter figure with his dog. Part II introduces the baby imagery more fully, with this and the remaining parts being relatively shorter.
Possibly the most distinctive film, both integrated into his oeuvre but also standing apart by virtue of its extreme subject matter, is The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971). I don’t really know how to ‘rate’ this, but for all that the subject matter may be gruesome (footage taken during actual autopsies), I found it difficult to take my eyes off the screen, because to do so would seem somehow disrespectful to what Brakhage is filming here: the very substance of physical being itself. I suppose at a metaphorical level this could be construed as another film about the technical aspects of filmmaking — editing and deconstructing — but yet it’s really, really not: it’s the literalisation of some kind of metaphysical consciousness that doesn’t simply reduce once-living beings to cadavers, but finds some kind of transcendent purity in our essential form. This is supported by the formal means Brakhage uses, the occasionally occluded camera angles, the complete lack of sound, the structure moving us gently from coroners measuring things into the more macabre material. I wouldn’t call it disturbing exactly, though not everyone would wish to sit through it, but it certainly makes all other filmed images seem a little unnecessary.
At the other end of the spectrum of life, Window Water Baby Moving (1959) films Brakhage’s wife giving birth to their baby daughter (or is that a spoiler?). It has a lyrical quality to it, to the colours and textures, that carries it through the bloody and painful aspects of what’s taking place, seeming to communicate at least something of what’s special to it. From the same year, Cat’s Cradle is riven with blood red textures, of sensuality perhaps or something more eerie… and a cat. Family figures in a later film, Kindering (1987), in which odd contorted images of children playing in their backyard create a strange, slightly creepy effect. With I… Dreaming (1988), he again hints at a dark loneliness, something that seems to have been taken up by Lynch when I think about the spaces of void (or I believe that’s the word he writes most often over his film here), but it doesn’t entirely work for me.
There are a few films which continue to explore the textures of filmed matter. In Mothlight (1963), the light of the camera passes directly through the biological material of a moth and its world, creating patterns and textures directly on the film. Returning to similar ideas, The Garden of Earthly Delights uses plant ephemera, and sort of achieves something of the same effect.
Sometimes the experimentalism of Brakhage’s films comes from the sense of the editing, but in The Wold Shadow (1972), it feels more like he’s experimenting with effects in the camera, or using a static image of trees in a forest as a base for improvisation on the theme of colour and light. It’s fascinating. More perplexing is The Stars Are Beautiful (1981), in which Brakhage recounts various creation myths relating to the stars, while his children (I am guessing) clip a chicken’s wings. I guess those birds won’t be getting anywhere near the stars.
There are also a large number of colour films, painted and collaged, but the first on the set (1987’s The Dante Quartet) isn’t my favourite. However, it has (unsurprisingly, Dante-esque) headings to its sections. Somewhat a precursor to that is Night Music (1986), thirty seconds of colour, big and bold. Meanwhile, the colours just seem a little more dissipated in Glaze of Cathexis (1990), though it’s the film of his which sounds most like the name of a black metal band (yes, it turns out someone has taken it for such), while Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse (1990) sounds like the title of that band’s first album. Once again, it does some lovely things with colour and light, as you’d expect. A few years later, Study in Color and Black and White (1993) is more dark than colour, more black than white.
Having watched a series of Brakhage’s short experiments with light and colour hand-painted directly onto film, the 10+ minute running length of Untitled (For Marilyn) (1992) suggests it might somehow be wearyingly epic by comparison, and yet this ended up being the one I most loved (alongside Lovesong). It has the textures, the colours, the feeling. It’s the whole package, and is dedicated to his wife. Black Ice (1994) is another of his films which, when watched alongside some sludgy doomy metal (as I was doing, given most of these films are silent), starts to feel like a crack in the cosmos, through which snippets of light and colour seem to make their way. Cosmic shapes appear in Stellar (1993) as well, extensions of Brakhage’s work with painting on film, and perhaps these are just suggested by the title, but there is a sort of harmony of the spheres to it all.
In Crack Glass Eulogy (1991), after a long run of his colour and light films, seeing filmed images seems rather a novelty. It has a spare, haunting, elegiac quality, like night vision, like surveillance. By the end of the decade, though, in The Dark Tower (1999), the darkness threatens to overwhelm everything else, perhaps suggestive of his failing vision. Likewise Comingled Containers (1996, which Criterion’s sleeve notes correct to “commingled”) feels like a blend of photography (water imagery) and the filmmaker’s manipulations of light and colour in a way that is rather more productive than some of Brakhage’s other works, but with a similar undertow of darkness.
The final film on the set is the most recent one, Lovesong (2001), made only a couple of years before Brakhage’s death from cancer. What I like most about this film is that it feels like a pure expression of paint on film. It seems so fresh, wet and glistening on the surface of the celluloid. It’s a film that has hundreds if not thousands of individual artworks, any one of which could be framed, but together seem beautiful and mysterious, like so much of Brakhage’s work.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Cinematography Stan Brakhage.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 February, Sunday 4 March and Sunday 11 March 2018.
The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971) | Length 32 minutes [Rosenbaum 1000]
Cat’s Cradle (1959) | Length 7 minutes.
Window Water Baby Moving (1959) | Length 13 minutes.
Mothlight (1963) | Length 4 minutes.
Eye Myth (1967) | Length 1 minute.
The Wold Shadow (1972) | Length 3 minutes.
The Garden of Earthly Delights (1981) | Length 2 minutes.
The Stars Are Beautiful (1974) | Length 19 minutes.
Glaze of Cathexis (1990) | Length 3 minutes.
Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse (1990) | Length 9 minutes.
Untitled (For Marilyn) (1992) | Length 11 minutes.
Black Ice (1994) | Length 2 minutes.
Study in Color and Black and White (1993) | Length 2 minutes.
Stellar (1993) | Length 3 minutes.
Crack Glass Eulogy (1991) | Length 7 minutes.
The Dark Tower (1999) | Length 3 minutes.
Comingled Containers (1996) | Length 3 minutes.
Lovesong (2001) | Length 11 minutes.
It’s very easy, I think, to imagine all of Lynne Ramsay’s films as being suffused with bleakness, especially when you cast your eye over any given plot summary. Ratcatcher, after all, starts with a classic bit of misdirect as Ryan, a cherubic young boy being dragged off by his mother to see his dad, spots his friend James (William Eadie) playing by the canal, and so hides from his mum and goes down to James, where they get in a play fight and Ryan drowns while James runs off in confusion and guilt. Almost as quickly, then, we realise that it’s James who is the centre of the film, a gaunt angular boy who even at the best of times seems to be carrying the woes of the world. Other characters are hardly having less of a time of it than James, not least Margaret (Leanne Mullen), the slightly older girl he meets, who is callously exploited by the older boys around them, but who forms a quite playful friendship with James. And therein I think is a lot of Ramsay’s storytelling power, in contrasting the bleakness of the narrative and the setting (a dour early-70s Glasgow during a binmen’s strike), with moments of pure escapism and fantasy, or the occasional respite of innocent play. The key recurring motif is of James in a field of long grass as he imagines the perfect home the family will move to, away from the decay and the rot and the dereliction. Somehow this balances the Bressonian sense of doom, or a grim fatality reminiscent of many Russian filmmakers, leaving an indelible impression of the debut feature of one of Britain’s finest working filmmakers.
- Ramsay’s three earlier short films are included, best of all being Gasman (1998), a really fine bit of storytelling done in 15 minutes, a fractured family story set at Christmas against a background (familiar from her other short films) of an impoverished Scottish milieu. It’s seen through the eyes of the kids — low camera angles, lots of telling details caught by the camera — who are confused by new developments in their emotionally distant father’s life. Bleak, but great.
- Alongside it are Kill the Day (1996) — which has a nice sense of fractured time, bleak shards of a story and a reverie-like atmosphere that would find fruition in the feature — and Small Deaths (1996) — a little collection of vignettes from a young girl’s life suggestive of the pain of growing up and becoming socialised into a world of violence.
- There’s a 20-minute video interview with Ramsay, as she talks through her (at that point, fairly brief) career and the inception of Ratcatcher from story to production, and notably the casting of her young non-professional actors.
- Finally, there’s a gallery of still photographs taken during production, which further emphasise the sort of aesthetic Ramsay was aiming for, based as much in photography as in film.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Lynne Ramsay; Cinematographer Alwin Küchler; Starring William Eadie; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 27 July 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 27 January 2019).
There’s a certain type of film that gets characterised as your typical Criterion release, though in truth they do keep their slate of releases relatively varied from long-established ‘classics’, to slow arthouse films to more recent releases and documentaries. However, even amongst these, an anthology of music videos by a single band is rather unusual, so I’m not really sure how to review it per se. It should be fairly clear that if you don’t like the music of the Beastie Boys, you probably won’t get much from Criterion spine number 100, though some of the productions (which are mostly directed by the sadly departed Adam Yauch aka MCA aka Nathanial Hörnblowér, the latter of which is his directing credit) have a sort of lo-fi amateur energy.
Chief amongst these, and perhaps typical of much of their output, is the one which opens the set “Intergalactic”. It’s a genre pastiche which utilises cheap props and cardboard sets intercut with our three rapping heroes in close-up. The genre here is the monster movie (it’s your usual giant robot vs giant octopus scenario), but when they do genre pastiches it’s usually the low-budget end which gets satirised, meaning the amateurish effects are part of the formal charm of the films. My favourite is probably “Body Movin'”, a 60s-style heist spoof that has the style that Austin Powers was going for, but funnier and frankly more interesting than that franchise, and some great sets and laugh-out-loud moments. Most people, though, will at least recall “Sabotage”, the Spike Jonze-directed cop film pastiche that still ranks amongst their (and his) finest works.
The rest of the videos vary from cut-ups of archival footage (for example, “Ricky’s Theme” or “Something’s Got to Give”) to straight-to-camera fisheye-lens setups of rapping, though “Three MCs and One DJ” mixes it up a little by having the three Beastie Boys frozen in their studio for an amusing minute-long prologue until their DJ arrives. One thing that becomes clear (and is probably the reason for the omission of some of the more famous late-80s cuts) is the maturation of the group from goofing-around frat-boy types with crude sexual humour to being rather more reflective about social issues (the last video on the set, “Alive” from 1999, even includes lyrics addressing the economic situation).
And if, like us, you’re watching them all from start to finish, you’ll probably move on to watching their other videos on YouTube, in which case check out the 30-minute long “Fight for Your Right Revisited”, which packs in a huge variety of celebrity cameos, and plenty of the sense of humour you’ll have picked up on from the 18 videos on the Criterion set.
Criterion Extras: Almost all the videos have multiple remixes which can be played over the videos, and some include alternate takes and angles. There’s an extended short film of “Intergalactic” which presents the monster movie plot without the music track (which doesn’t really help). Finally, and perhaps most usefully, there are lyrics subtitles for all the videos so you can keep up with what the boys are rapping about.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Evan Barnard (“Root Down”, 1995), Adam Bernstein (“Hey Ladies”, 1989), Spike Jonze (“Sabotage” and “Sure Shot”, 1994), Tamra Davis (“Netty’s Girl”, 1992), David Perez Shadi (“Gratitude”, 1993), and Adam Yauch [as “Nathanial Hörnblowér”] (“Holy Snappers”, 1981; “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun”, “Shadrach” and “Shake Your Rump”, 1989; “Pass the Mic”, “Something’s Got to Give” and “So What’cha Want”, 1992; “Ricky’s Theme”, 1994; “Body Movin'” and “Intergalactic”, 1998; “Alive” and “Three MCs and One DJ”, 1999).
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Saturday 4 June 2016.
It must be easy to take against this film, after all it has pretty much no likeable characters. The title character, Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), is a sociopathic grifter in the 1950s, taking advantage of opportunities to inveigle himself into the company of the wealthy, upper-class New York set, sponsored to fly out to Italy by the father of dissolute Ivy Leaguer Dickie (Jude Law), who is living la dolce vita with his girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow), playing jazz and mooching from seaside resort to bustling city. Dickie is an entitled asshole, friendly to a point, with friends (like Freddie, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) who are even worse. And along the way, Ripley manages to win the attentions of Cate Blanchett’s heiress Meredith by pretending to be Dickie, which leads to some almost-screwball situations (the comedy premise somewhat attenated by the resulting murders). Only Marge manages to be in any way pleasant, but she’s as much a product of her upbringing as Dickie, though she comes to see through Ripley’s dissimulations. Still, it may run long, but it’s all acted extremely well, with Jude Law particularly rising to Dickie’s arrogant golden boy, and John Seale’s cinematography looks great, though you can’t really fail with locations like Venice. Matt Damon plays Ripley very inscrutably, and the filmmakers toy with a gay subtext though they thankfully stop short of having it explain Ripley’s sociopathy. It’s a strong psychological thriller, and among Minghella’s finer films.
Director/Writer Anthony Minghella (based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith); Cinematographer John Seale; Starring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman; Length 138 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 29 August 2015.
Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in April which I didn’t review in full. It includes a couple of films I actually saw in March but had thought I’d write up in their own posts (I didn’t).
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015, USA)
The Book of Life (2014, USA)
En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence) (2014, Sweden/Norway/Germany/France)
Insurgent (aka The Divergent Series: Insurgent) (2015, USA)
Notting Hill (1999, UK)
Pitch Perfect (2012, USA)
Premium Rush (2012, USA)
Wild Card (2015, USA)
I recently spent over a year reading Marcel Proust’s sweeping novel (so long mainly because I was doing it in the 10-15 minutes I had on a tube train every morning and occasionally on the way home, but also because it is a novel of fantastically dense and complex sentences which resist easy consumption). It may have taken me some time to read, but it certainly has a cumulative emotional effect as we are introduced at length to an array of society characters who flit in and out of the author’s life over the course of the novel’s seven volumes, but it’s an effect you can also get pretty well from this film adaptation by Chilean-born director Raúl Ruiz. It takes its title from the last of the novel’s volumes though it flits around to take in scenes from elsewhere: Ruiz’s method in his films has always felt a bit magpie-like and it’s a method well-suited to Proust’s dense and allusive text. Many people may be familiar with Proust’s famous image of the madeleine dipped in tea provoking in the grown man a rush of childhood memories (probably because it occurs only a few pages into the novel), but it’s one of the major themes of his work, and an idea to which he returns in many forms (like the little phrase in Vinteuil’s sonata, for example). Ruiz repeatedly invokes that sense of nostalgia with numerous flashbacks prompted by the author’s experiences at dinner parties and social gatherings (he is incidentally played here by the Italian Marcello Mazzarella, cutting an appropriately bland and retiring figure, and voiced by Patrice Chéreau). This serves to illustrate well one of Proust’s central themes — of the way that our past and present selves and experiences are always in dialogue — something only further heightened by scenes where younger actors step in to scenes featuring their older, decrepit incarnations. One of the questions a potential viewer may pose is of whether it will work for those unfamiliar with Proust’s work, and I think it does (I saw it for the first time having read very little of the novel). It’s a film of carefully-tuned performances by a coterie of French acting talent (and John Malkovich) enlivened by the director’s playful style, which passes by easily despite the film’s length. For all the hubris in taking on such an adaptation, it largely works, and does so very well.
Director Raúl Ruiz [as “Raoul Ruiz”]; Writers Ruiz and Gilles Taurand (based on the novel À la recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust); Cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich; Starring Marcello Mazzarella, Emmanuelle Béart, Pascal Greggory, Vincent Pérez, Catherine Deneuve; Length 162 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Tuesday 18 July 2000 (and at home on DVD since, most recently in London, Wednesday 6 August 2014).
If you’ve been brought up on the action-oriented three-act-structured cinema of the classical Hollywood tradition with its star systems and psychological characterisation, then moving into the world of avant-garde European auteurism — with its loose sense of narrative structure and causation, and its use of non-professional actors — can sometimes prove difficult. I must say that I’ve been trying to watch films like this one for years with middling success, and the sense not that the films are bad as that I am not equal to enjoying them.
There’s a prominent strand of late-20th century cinema in Europe that I would characterise in terms of its relation to concepts of ennui and boredom, whether that’s at the level of subject matter (Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura springs to mind) or formal methods. Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, like their French compatriot Jacques Rivette to a certain extent, seem to fall into this latter camp, toying (if “toying” is indeed the most apposite word) with the aesthetics of duration — long takes and extended pauses — which can easily lead to accusations of boredom on the part of audiences and critics. I don’t mean, therefore, to come across as smugly superior when I say that there’s plenty of this cinematic tradition that I really enjoy — there’s no real reason why you should expect to like it, and I get the sense that these films and the filmmakers that make them don’t really seek anyone’s approval — but for those in the mood for something that unfolds at an almost catatonically unhurried pace, then Straub-Huillet are for you, and Sicilia! ranks among their more accessible works.
Not the least of the factors at play in this assessment is the film’s relatively short running time of just over an hour, though that’s not to say it’s exactly fast-moving. There are in fact only a handful of different scenes in the film, taking place in different (sometimes picturesque) locations, making it all feel a bit like a travelogue — and while it’s not in any sense a documentary, it does have traits in common with that style. At the heart of the film is a series of dialogues motivated by the travels of the central character (played by non-professional Gianni Buscarino), who says he has returned from New York after 15 years to visit his hometown in Sicily. We see him first, back to the camera, sitting on the docks where he has arrived, talking to a poor man selling oranges, in the course of which is discussed the different diet in Sicily. He is then seen talking to strangers on a train, at home with his mother discussing his childhood and her relationship with his absent father, and then finally on the steps of a church in his hometown conversing with a knife-grinder. The dialogues touch, I suppose, on what it is to be Sicilian and to live on the island, though more broadly it is about being an outsider to one’s own culture and sense of identity.
More immediately obvious, the film is ravishingly shot in highly-contrasted black-and-white by veteran cinematographer William Lubtchansky. Any given image could be taken from the film and framed, particularly the still lifes that punctuate the conversations, or the long takes of the countryside (in silence from a train window, or panning across the protagonist’s Sicilian hometown and back again from a hilltop vantage point), which act as a sort of extended visual chapter break at various points throughout the film. Shots of the rugged faces of these non-professional actors are held at length after they’ve finished talking, as Straub and Huillet hold out for some kind of feeling of closure to the dialogues. That and the pauses in the actors’ speeches form the most consistent aspect of the directors’ stylisation, which suggests a further level of dislocation in the central character’s journey, giving the film a kind of dream-like quality.
It is certainly difficult to describe just what makes the film enjoyable and fascinating, and it would be far easier to lay into it for being bloody-mindedly difficult and painfully slow, were I of that opinion. Instead I think the camera holds its subjects in a fascinated gaze that is as revelatory (after a fashion) as it is beautiful. I like the sense of awkwardness and otherworldliness that the acting style imparts, and the unrushed unfolding of the drama. It won’t be to everyone’s tastes I concede, but it’s an hour-long insight into a quite different way of making films.
Directors/Writers Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub (based on the novel Conversazione in Sicilia by Elio Vittorini); Cinematographer William Lubtchansky; Starring Gianni Buscarino; Length 64 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 24 January 2014.
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.
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.