פרינסס Princess (2014)

UK Jewish Film Festival logoThis screening at the UK Jewish Film Festival was introduced by a programmer, reading from the festival brochure.


This recent Israeli film makes a fascinating companion piece to The Diary of a Teenage Girl, released earlier this year. I loved that film intensely, but there’s definitely another side to that film’s coming-of-age story. Whereas Diary hardly depicted a healthy set of relationships (whether between the protagonist Minnie and her mother, Minnie and her mother’s boyfriend, or between the two adults), the film via its narrator seemed intent on locating some kind of power within these, however tenuous. In Princess, Adar (Shira Haas) is also alienated from her studies and starting to show interest in a wider society, particularly latching on to the androgynous Alan (Adar Zohar Hametz), but the persistent attentions of her mother’s boyfriend Michael (Ori Pfeffer), which begin innocuously and even playfully, are by several orders creepier and more difficult for her to repel than in the US film. Still, for all its similarities in set-up (and even the actors have a broad physical resemblance; at many junctures I could imagine Kristen Wiig in the same role as played here by Keren Mor), this is a quite different film in tone. There’s a persistent thread within the film of gender-fluid identities, recalling the French films of Céline Sciamma. Alan and Adar are filmed at times interchangeably, such that you’re not entirely sure at the start of the scene who we’re watching, given their broadly similar shape and hairstyle. Meanwhile, Michael teases each with gender-swapped names (he uses “Prince” for Adar). There’s a languid narrative and filmic style, as the film builds its characters incrementally, only slowly introducing the full of extent of Michael’s abusive relationship with the younger characters, and the way that Alma isolates herself from this. There may be no easy way forward for Adar, and no easy way for the film to conclude, the nurturing relationship between her and Alan does at least provide some small window of hope.

Princess posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Tali Shalom Ezer טלי שלום עזר; Cinematographer Radek Ładczuk; Starring Shira Haas שירה האס‎, Keren Mor קרן מור‎, Ori Pfeffer אורי פפר, Adar Zohar Hanetz אדר זהר נץ; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at Everyman Hampstead, London, Wednesday 11 November 2015.

Đập cánh giữa không trung (Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere, 2014)

BFI London Film Festival This film was presented at the London Film Festival. There was no introduction or Q&A.


It may be a co-production between many different countries, while the title may be a little unwieldy, but this Vietnamese film is a serious and stylish take on one, relatively poor, young woman’s life. The lead character is Huyen (Thuy Anh Nguyen), who lives in a little apartment by a railway line, just about making ends meet when she gets pregnant to her somewhat deadbeat boyfriend. Her resulting indecision about whether or how to get an abortion is partly what the title is alluding to, not to mention her boyfriend’s addiction to cockfighting that becomes one of the film’s key metaphors. Huyen’s repeated attempts to go through with the procedure never quite seem to work out for various reasons, and when she gets involved with sex work in order to pay her bills, her feelings alter subtly again when she meets up with a concerned client. One gets the sense at times that perhaps not all of this plotting is entirely believable if taken as naturalistic, but the film’s style pushes beyond that into a more dream-like world. The cinematography is beautiful and lush, though the film’s female first-time director never quite fetishises the poverty of the lead characters (as some other films are wont to do in this kind of setting). There’s a sense of eroticism throughout, as well, although this is sometimes resisted by Huyen as a character. The film ends on an unresolved note — an increasingly common practice these days I fell — but this works well within the narrative which the film has constructed. Definitely a filmmaker to keep an eye on, and a film well worth checking out.

Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Hoàng Điệp Nguyễn; Cinematographer Quang Minh Pham; Starring Thùy Anh Nguyễn; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Ritzy, London, Saturday 17 October 2015.

Fidelio, l’odyssée d’Alice (Fidelio: Alice’s Odyssey, aka Fidelio: Alice’s Journey, 2014)

There is, I think, a deceptive forwardness to this film: it’s about the woman of the film’s title (Ariane Labed) who works as a ship’s engineer and is torn between her dependable Danish artist boyfriend Felix, landside, and an old flame, Gaël (Melvil Poupaud), a dashing ship’s captain, while on the sea. The ship’s name then, also part of the title (Fidelio), suggests already the key theme of fidelity, while the drama is presented without a great deal of fuss, and unfolds as one might expect, along with the kind of graphic sex scenes to which you might think censors would have given a higher classification. But it’s not prurient or exploitative, and the fact of her job being what it is and the way she takes pleasure from sex seem like aspects of a narrative which would have been cheered about in a film of 10 or 15 years ago (it shares some kinship with the films of Catherine Breillat in these respects), and which even here are worth acknowledging. That the film requires Labed to be a believable ship’s engineer is somewhat the least of her acting challenges in this film, as instead she needs to negotiate the tricky emotional terrain of having relationships with two men without making this seem like some flighty affectation. In any case, she does so admirably well, making for a fascinating psychodrama.

Fidelio: Alice's Journey film posterCREDITS
Director Lucie Borleteau; Writers Borleteau, Clara Bourreau and Mathilde Boisseleau; Cinematographer Simon Beaufils; Starring Ariane Labed, Melvil Poupaud; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 6 October 2015.

პატარძლები Patardzlebi (Brides, 2014)

London Georgian Film Festival logo
With the London Film Festival just getting underway, I present short reviews of the four films I saw at the London Georgian Film Festival last week.


This is another story of recent Georgian history, but from the unusual viewpoint of a woman whose partner (and father of her kids) is in jail. We never find out why but from the other stories mentioned, it’s likely his 10 year sentence is for something petty and minor. The film focuses in on the face of actor Mari Kitia, who does excellent, understated work in this slow and deliberate drama. Much of the film takes place at the prison, starting with a perfunctory wedding ceremony, required so she can visit her husband, and ending with an almost domestic day she gets to spend with him in the prison grounds. It’s a slight movie, but with powerful moments and a great central performance.

Brides film posterFILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Georgian Film Festival
Director/Writer Tinatin Kajrishvili თინათინ ყაჯრიშვილი; Cinematographer Goga Devdariani გოგა დევდარიანი; Starring Mari Kitia მარი კიტია; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Monday 5 October 2015.

도희야 Dohui-ya (A Girl at My Door, 2014)

For an 18-rated film this is an odd experience, not least because it avoids entirely the kinds of things you expect in 18-rated Korean films. Largely that’s because most Korean films that get a Western release are horror movies or otherwise extreme depictions of violence and revenge. A Girl at My Door has plenty to offer that’s disturbing (why else would it have an 18) but it’s not due to body horror or violence, it’s more down to the basic stuff of human interrelationships. Young-nam (Doona Bae) arrives in a small coastal town to take up the post of police chief; the reason for her posting remains mysterious, though there’s a hint at some wrongdoing in her previous role. She takes a place near to where young girl Do-hee (Sae-ron Kim) lives, and witnesses the girl being terrorised by her drunken father (Sae-byeok Song) and grandmother, so she steps in, over time taking on an almost maternal role to Do-hee. It all ambles along in an unhurried way, building up a picture of this community and the various relationships within it, folding in immigrants working there illegally, a measure of racism, sexism and homophobia, all the familiar stuff of small town drama. The kicker is the child abuse allegations and this is where things get really complex, but there’s a hint this may be less an issue of pædophilia as pædophobia, and importing a real sense of unease to the situation. There are hints in the setting of something like Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, but the character drama is much more internalised and controlled, with excellent performances from both of the leads.

A Girl at My Door film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer July Jung 정주리; Cinematographer Kim Hyun-seok 김현석; Starring Bae Doona 배두나, Kim Sae-ron 김새론, Song Sae-byeok 송새벽; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Friday 25 September 2015.

Buttercup Bill (2014)

Released to UK cinemas in the same week as Miss Julie, I reckon these two films make an interesting, if somewhat dispiriting, double-bill. Stylistically they couldn’t be more different, but they’re both films about a creeping sense of (male) sexual violence that permeates the life of a woman, in this case Pernilla (Remy Bennett, one of the film’s co-writer/directors). It’s good that the film gained a release, as in many ways it feels equally akin to the experimental textures of Josephine Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, another story of psychosexual dread in a liminal setting. Here we have the humid climes of Louisiana, and the characters’ vices seem conveyed right from the off by their parched, raw voices, constantly dragging on cigarettes or downing booze. The dread I mentioned is for much of the film kept in abeyance, a recurring hint towards some childhood trauma involving an unseen dead girl called Flora. Following the funeral, Pernilla goes to see Patrick (Evan Louison), the brother-like figure with whom they grew up, and they rekindle a relationship that gradually becomes more dysfunctional and perverse. In many ways it’s the atmospherics of the location, the Christian imagery of the set design, and the gorgeous cinematography which convey this mood rather than anything inherently prurient in the camerawork (excepting perhaps a trip to a strip club), but I get the sense of an assured direction from newcomers Richard-Froozan and Bennett. Definitely filmmakers worth keeping an eye on.

Buttercup Bill film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Émilie Richard-Froozan and Remy Bennett; Cinematographer Ryan Foregger; Starring Remy Bennett, Evan Louison; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 10 September 2015.

La Famille Bélier (The Bélier Family, 2014)

Comedy, it is often said, doesn’t travel very well. I understand (from googling it) that this film, in which a young woman (Louane Emera) breaks away from her deaf family to pursue her passion for singing in Paris, has been very successful in France, though the article I found placed it in the august company of a whole bunch of other incredibly successful French comedies that I’ve never heard of. Still, perhaps that’s a particularly condescending way of writing it off; I’m sure there’s plenty here for Francophiles and fans of heartwarming feel-good comedy alike. Lartigau’s film is definitely sweet, with a streak of unabashed sentimentality, and has all the elements of a broad mainstream success in any country: a name star for the poster (Karin Viard in this case, as the mother Gigi); a teenage reality TV singing sensation (Emera); a deft hook for the screenplay (her mother, father and brother are all deaf, and yet she is a singer! to think!); and the tender gravitas in the musical oeuvre of a (presumably) big-name French singer to tug at the heartstrings in the finale (Michel Sardou). Look, clearly I just cannot shake off my sarcasm when I’m talking about this film, because there are so many elements to it that just make me want to roll my eyes when I call them to mind, but in truth, La Famille Bélier is a likeable concoction with visual flair (thanks to veteran DoP Romain Winding) and some fine performances, particularly from the dad (François Damiens), as a farmer with local political aspirations, who needs to break through the close-mindedness of his fellow community members. I can’t help but sense a slightly paternalistic attitude towards the family’s deafness — it’s unclear why they shouldn’t be able to get along without their daughter to translate — but the conceit pays off with a strong emotional punch in the film’s big Paris audition finale. It’s no masterpiece, but it shows some promise.

The Bélier Family film poster CREDITS
Director Éric Lartigau; Writers Victoria Bedos, Stanislas Carré de Malberg, Thomas Bidegain and Lartigau; Cinematographer Romain Winding; Starring Louane Emera, Karin Viard, François Damiens; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Tuesday 15 September 2015.

Miss Julie (2014)

It’s impossible to watch this adaptation of August Strindberg’s 1888 play without being aware of its stage-bound origins. There’s something very theatrical about its presentation, including that it has only three actors in it (other people are heard but never seen), and yet it’s never less than gorgeous to look at. There’s a classical simplicity to the framings that gives maximum exposure to the acting, and all of the actors do some of their finest screen work (though quite whether Colin Farrell will ever win me over, I’m not sure). That said, it’s a pretty exhausting watch, perhaps because of Strindberg’s writing, which immures the characters in a deadening and dreadful inevitability, as they — well, certainly the women (Jessica Chastain as the title character, and Samantha Morton as her household’s cook, Kathleen) — struggle towards self-destruction, helped along by the conniving of Farrell’s aspirational servant John. I suppose it all must reveal something about a certain pathology on the part of Strindberg and his era that he seems to will his female characters towards death (I understand it was inspired by Darwinism), but then he loops in the toxic effects of class stratification — Kathleen and John are a couple, both in the employ of the Count and his daughter Julie, in whose presence John becomes a shuffling, obsequious servant — and perhaps, after all, there’s something more to it. I suspect it will play well to those who are already great fans of the play, and even as I write this I can’t help but wonder if the elements that conspire to make it a tough watch couldn’t in fact be construed in its favour? Chacun à son goût.

Miss Julie film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Liv Ullmann (based on the play Fröken Julie by August Strindberg); Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman; Starring Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Wednesday 9 September 2015.

President (2014)

The Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf has relocated to nearby Georgia to make this film, a political allegory, set in an unspecified country ruled by an elderly military-garbed dictator president (Mikheil Gomaishvili). Apparent unrest has driven his family to fly out of the country on their private plane, though his grandson Dachi (Orvelashvili) prefers to stay, and as they return from the airport to the presidential palace, suddenly the revolutionary forces become evident and the president must go on the run. There’s relatively little I can say about it, as the story is fairly linear and tracks the president on his journey to escape notice and find a safe haven away from his angry people. However, that’s not to say it’s bad or lacks artistry, for every frame shows the evidence of an exemplary technical crew, while the insight at the film’s heart, though fairly straightforward (the dictator must learn what it is to be one of his own citizens), has plenty of moral power. This indeed is one of the traits of the Iranian cinema that Makhmalbaf has come from, to distill these rather complicated moral issues down to a relatively simple premise. It’s also an unusual perspective to take the viewpoint of the deposed leader rather than his struggling citizens, but it works rather well. It’s not that Makhmalbaf is on his side — no doubt he’s endured similar regimes — but it’s a bold move to situate a degree of empathy with the cruel and unjust. What results is a strong film, and, not incidentally, Georgia certainly has some beautiful scenery and striking architecture, all of which is captured very well by the local crew.

Pedantic Note on the Title: Most advertising and press material refer to the film as The President but the film’s title card omits the definite article, so that’s what I’m using here.

President film posterCREDITS
Director Mohsen Makhmalbaf محسن مخملباف‎; Writers Makhmalbaf and Marziyeh Meshkiny مرضیه مشکینی‎; Cinematographer Konstantine-Mindia Esadze მინდია (კონსტანტინე) ესაძე; Starring Mikheil Gomiashvili მიხეილ გომიაშვილი, Dachi Orvelashvili დაჩი ორველაშვილი; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Sunday 30 August 2015.

Song One (2014)

There’s no doubt in my mind that where and how you watch a film can materially affect one’s appreciation of it, whether at the cinema or at home, with a large or small audience, a receptive or a hostile audience, in a community centre, a church or in a foreign country: all kinds of factors can weigh in. For me, a good film to watch on an inflight entertainment system can be markedly different from what I’d choose on land. I’ve enjoyed some pretty questionable movies when miles up in the sky, quite often fluffy romcoms. And while it may not fall into that generic category, I’m not convinced that seeing Song One on terra firma would improve my estimation of it. It shares elements with the altogether glossier and bigger budget Begin Again, overlaid with an illness framework — in this case, that anthropologist Franny’s (Anne Hathaway’s) brother has been hit by a car and is in intensive care. She comes from Morocco to be by his bedside with their mother Karen (Mary Steenburgen), and from there falls into the company of his favourite musician James (Johnny Flynn), who plays the same kind of folky indie rock that Begin Again dabbled in. Sadly Johnny Flynn is no Mark Ruffalo, nor even Adam Levine, and doesn’t exactly radiate screen charisma, though I daresay that’s the point. Hathaway is always watchable, and there’s an admirable improvised feel to the scenes — certainly, it seems there are a lot of children of Joe Swanberg around in the US independent cinema at the moment. Franny’s quest to use her ethnographical skills to record the world in all its sensory nature and bring it to her brother’s bedside has some of the same obsessiveness that Ruffalo’s character deployed as a producer in Begin Again, and at times threatens to tip into unbearably twee (there are gramophones and vintage keyboards!), yet somehow it’s grounded by Steenburgen’s performance as a liberal, free-spirited mother with a penchant for Paris in the 70s. I could talk myself out of liking it pretty easily, but somehow it worked for me. At least, when I was in the air above Europe desperately looking forward to returning to the comfort of home. The poster says “a moment can change everything”, but a venue can change a film.

Song One film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kate Barker-Froyland; Cinematographer John Guleserian; Starring Anne Hathaway, Johnny Flynn, Mary Steenburgen; Length 86 minutes.
Seen on a plane from Istanbul to London, Wednesday 9 September 2015.