Annette (2021)

It’s that period between Christmas and New Year so it’s time for me to post up reviews of my other favourite films of the year, as most of them will be making it into my best of the year list. One recent release is the latest film from Leos Carax, which has plenty of people hating it, and other passionate fans. I’ve never really been into Sparks, though Edgar Wright’s documentary earlier in the year helped me to get my bearings, but I enjoy their arch orchestral pop music and it fits very nicely into this grand folly of a film. That’s exactly the kind of film Carax makes, though, when he does turn his hand to it (his last was 2012’s equally absurd, equally grand, equally green Holy Motors), so I’m not complaining. There are long stretches where it doesn’t work, even is a little bit dull (I find myself unable to warm to Adam Driver’s character for example), but right from that bravura coup de cinéma opening sequence, when the film does spark, it really has no equal in the rest of cinema.


This certainly reads from the reviews as if it’s a love it or hate it sort of film, and I can see why, but that’s always been the case with Leos Carax’s films I feel. That said, its curious blend of self-awareness and anti-naturalism starts right from the opening number (“So May We Start?”), so you should get a good sense pretty quickly if it’s not for you, but it feels to me a bit like La La Land if that film had properly committed to the emotions. Both films have a sort of emptiness to them at their core, too, but this feels like a stylistic choice, about two people who want some meaning in life but can’t ever get beyond the surface level, never doing much more than saying what they think they should feel rather than actually feeling it. And so having a child who’s a puppet feels like a perfect expression of this abyss (“A-B-Y-S-S”, Henry even spells it out). It’s a film filled with affect, beautiful shots that seem bravura (early on we get Henry’s hands coming in from the side of the frame threateningly towards Ann’s neck before veering into an embrace almost imperceptibly) that turn out to be cleverly foreshadowing, a bold use of colour (green, usually), and those Sparks songs which just grind the themes down until they feel a little bit fresh. Look, I can’t pretend it all worked, but (Adam Driver aside) it’s exactly the kind of thing I love to see on the screen, an ideal showcase for a grand folly of self-indulgence.

Annette (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Leos Carax; Writers Ron Mael and Russell Mael; Cinematographer Caroline Champetier; Starring Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg, Devyn McDowell; Length 140 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 2 October 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Earwig (2021)

I don’t like to focus on disappointing films when I’m doing my round-ups, but Lucile Hadžihalilović is one of the more interesting directors of the last few decades (even if her similarly controversialist husband Gaspar Noé tends to be the better known). She’s only made a handful of features, so it’s with sadness that I report I didn’t much like her newest (English-language) feature film. Still, it has all the elements of her style, so undoubtedly there will be big fans of it out there; after all, if Wes Anderson can have people hanging on his every twee set design detail, then there’s no reason why the same can’t be said for Lucile Hadžihalilović (though one suspects part of the problem is the darkness of her vision).


I’ll give it to the Lucile Hadžihalilović cinematic universe that it is at least thematically consistent. There’s a vision at work which seems to link it to her two other feature films, Evolution (2015) and Innocence (2004), filled as it is with early- to mid-20th century fustiness, chiaroscuro tonality, throbbing soundtracks and corporeal strangeness that hints at something Cronenbergian. The atmosphere, in other words, is on point and deeply evocative. There’s not even any dialogue for the first 15 minutes, and when it does enter it has the whispered resonance of thickly Belgian-accented ASMR. A girl (Romane Hemelaers) is cared for by her… father… I think, Albert (Paul Hilton). Her dentures melt and need to be refrozen and refitted each day. A strange man on the other end of the telephone wants something. And then there’s a waitress at a local bar (Romola Garai) injured in a fight with another mysterious stranger. There are elements of a story here, but they never seem to cohere in any way that feels satisfying. Perhaps that’s the point, perhaps one just needs to give into the feeling of it all, and some may well enjoy it at that level, but the whole thing just felt too opaque to really enjoy.

Earwig (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Lucile Hadžihalilović; Writers Hadžihalilović, Geoff Cox and Brian Catling; Cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg; Starring Paul Hilton, Romane Hemelaers, Romola Garai; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at the Roxy, Wellington, Sunday 14 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Lingui, les liens sacrés (Lingui: The Sacred Bonds, 2021)

Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival also presented a number of new films by established directors (auteurs if you will) and one of my favourites of this millennium so far has been Chad’s Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, who directed Daratt and The Screaming Man amongst others. He has worked in France with stars recently, but his latest film returns to N’Djamena, specifically about a young woman seeking an abortion (one of the recurrent themes of films at this year’s festival, as of recent years, as this issue becomes increasingly politicised by regimes around the world). Anyway, it may not be his best film, but it’s as good as any other filmmaking on show.


It is indeed possible to sum this film up pretty pithily as an abortion drama set in Chad, from Chad’s pre-eminent director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun. But as others in that sub-genre attest, such dramas are as much about tracing the cultural (and often class or race-based) specifics of its setting, and Lingui builds up a fascinating picture of a community of people in a country where the practice is banned, though clearly fairly easy to obtain if you have a lot of money. There’s a lot that the film exposes in the way of bleakness and corruption, but to focus on that would be to ignore the strong and generative support that is created within the community from sometimes unlikely sources. And while the mother is clearly angry at her daughter for having got into this situation at first, as the film goes on her character starts to become more accepting and understanding, reopening ties with her estranged family and, not incidentally, her daughter. It would all be heartwarming stuff if not for the underlying drama, but it’s beautifully told as you would expect from Haroun.

Lingui, les liens sacrés (Lingui: The Sacred Bonds, 2021)CREDITS
Director/Writer Mahamat-Saleh Haroun محمد الصالح هارون;
Cinematographer Mathieu Giombini; Starring Achouackh Abakar Souleymane أباكار سليمان, Rihane Khalil Alio ريهان خليل آليو; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at City Gallery, Wellington, Wednesday 10 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 484: Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

I’ve seen this film before, though it took me a long time between first reading about it (when I was first getting into film in the late-90s) to actually getting to see it (in 2007, by the time I’d moved to London, at the NFT). I loved it back then yet in thinking about rewatching it, what stuck in my head was the boring quotidian rituals that Jeanne goes through robotically at home. And indeed the first half of the film is largely just this: her doing the chores, at great length. However, Akerman and cinematographer Babette Mangolte frame and light her home as carefully as a video art installation in a gallery, and there’s still something hypnotic about her actions. Even her welcoming a client into the home is part of the everyday ordinariness — sex work is neither glamourised nor ridiculed, it’s just part of the ritual of her life.

But for all its peculiar fascination, this is just a set up for the drama that takes place when, having become used to Jeanne’s rituals, things start to fall apart. She has a long (for the film) chat with an unseen neighbour outside her door, and then a second client seems to put her off her rhythms. This quickly leads to the rituals of her life, the chores and the busywork she does to keep the home tidy for her and her son, starting to unravel a bit. There’s an obvious feminist message about the toll that this work takes on women’s lives, though for all that happens, it’s not clear that Jeanne ends up in a bad place. That final shot, of her in the dark, the weight of her life seemingly somehow lifted, makes it feel like she has been freed of something, though I concede that perhaps everyone has a different reaction to it. That’s part of the film’s beauty, in allowing those readings, because it does still feel like an open text, that hints at things without playing its hand, and it’s another role for Delphine Seyrig (after Last Year at Marienbad, which preceded this by a few titles in the Criterion Collection) in which her character’s reality seems open to question.

In short, this is a film filled with wonder and misery, which is very much about everyday life, about the mundanity of it all but also about the choices we all make every day in every moment of our lives.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman; Cinematographer Babette Mangolte; Starring Delphine Seyrig; Length 201 minutes.

Seen at the NFT (now the British Film Institute), London, Wednesday 21 March 2007 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Friday 3 December 2021).

Police (Night Shift, 2020)

Like any town with more than a handful of cinemas (though barely more than a handful), there are a range of smaller film festivals being organised to show films that otherwise wouldn’t make it to a big screen, and such is the way in Wellington, where recently there was a French Film Festival. It showed a handful of classics (like Breathless) but most of the programme was dedicated to recent films, and I saw a few so that’s what I’ll be focusing on this week. I’ll start with the latest film de Anne Fontaine, the Luxembourger who’s not my favourite filmmaker but who does solid work.


This film is called Police in the original, but the title is shown reflected from right to left, and that very much cues you up to what to expect: it’s about the police, sure, but… are they the good guys? The title is a bold move, though, given there’s a Pialat film of the same name, and, look, I’ve been guilty in the past of seeing that Anne Fontaine directorial credit and being a bit dismissive, but I’ve never really hated any of her films I’ve seen (even Adore aka Perfect Mothers), and I appreciate her spin on fairly well-worn tropes, even if ultimately it all ends up feeling just a little… off somehow. Still, she’s assembled a fine cast of big names. Efira! Sy! Another couple of guys, who feel pretty honest to their characters, and she’s telling a story of morality intersecting with one’s work. It goes where it goes, and it doesn’t explain everything for the viewer; certain outcomes are hinted at, but there’s no expectation of change and I’m not sure Fontaine is even trying to redeem these guys, just give some perspective. I’m not suddenly, as a result, going to start loving cops as film subjects, but this feels like solid character work.

Police (Night Shift, 2020)CREDITS
Director Anne Fontaine; Writers Claire Barré and Fontaine (based on the novel by Hugo Boris); Cinematographer Yves Angelo; Starring Virginie Efira, Omar Sy, Gregory Gadebois; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Wednesday 16 June 2021.

Global Cinema 21: Bolivia – When the Bull Cried (2017)

It should be clear by now that I don’t choose what I consider the most representative or famous titles from their country. Partly, it’s about what is easily available for me to watch, but I also seek out films directed by women and people of colour. There isn’t a huge amount of Bolivian cinema, but almost certainly there are better known titles than this Belgian-Bolivian co-production documentary, though I feel it certainly captures something specific about Bolivian life, at least in the mountainous mining communities.


Bolivian flagPlurinational State of Bolivia
population 11,428,000 | capital Sucre (259k) [constitutional/judicial], La Paz (765k) [executive/legislative] | largest cities Santa Cruz de la Sierra (1.5m), El Alto (849k), La Paz, Cochabamba (631k), Oruro (265k) | area 1,098,581 km2 | religion Roman Catholicism (70%), Protestantism (17%) | official language Spanish (Español boliviano), Aymara, Quechua (Runasimi), Guarani and many others | major ethnicity Mestizo (68%), native Bolivian (20%) | currency Boliviano (Bs) [BOB] | internet .bo

A landlocked South American country, with two capital cities (though the seat of government is located in La Paz), neither of which is the largest. It ranges from peaks in the west to eastern lowlands within the Amazon Basin. The name comes from Simón Bolívar and the country originally called the Republic of Bolívar; the modern name was adopted in 1825. The country was first occupied several millennia BCE, before the Aymara arrived. It wasn’t until the first millennium CE that the population cohered into cities, and it became a regional power as the Tiwanaku (or Tiahuanaco) empire. This empire crumbled due to a lack of food production, and by the mid-2nd millennium the Incan empire moved in. Spanish conquest began in 1524 and didn’t take long to complete, after which point the colonial power exploited silver via mining (tin took greater importance by the 20th century), though the brutal slave conditions led to an indigenous uprising, which coalesced into a struggle for independence in the early 19th century. Marshal Sucre led a military campaign that resulted in the Republic being declared in 1825. A number of wars took place between neighbouring powers on the continent for the ensuing few decades, and the country successively lost a lot of territory, including access to the sea. Periods of military dictatorship ceded to democracy in the 1990s, though there has been further instability since then. There is an elected President.

Bolivia has produced feature films since the 1920s, many of which have been documentaries. There was a New Bolivian Cinema in the 1960s, in parallel to Brazil and Argentina’s movements the same decade, and social realism continues to be a feature of modern, digital filmmaking practice.


Cuando el toro lloró (When the Bull Cried, 2017)

The title suggests something a little bit poetic about life in the Bolivian mountains amongst a small mining village. The film is dominated by images of rocks being cracked open by elderly women looking for tin, and of men going down into the miasma of the mountain, some of whom don’t return, as the women regretfully note. The traditions and customs are seen, protection sought for the dangerous work many in the community do, and the film ends with a gory animal sacrifice, the pulsating heart seen burning on a flame being despatched to El Tio, the deity worshipped around these parts. It’s an evocative film, albeit a slight one, running at just over an hour.

When the Bull Cried film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Karen Vazquez Guadarrama and Bart Goossens; Cinematographer Guadarrama; Length 67 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Thursday 1 October 2020.

Two Short Reviews of 1970 Films by Czech Women: Fruit of Paradise and The Murder of Mr Devil

In my Czech film week, I’ve already covered one Věra Chytilová film, and I’ll have more to come, but the unifying person for these two films is the writer of both, Ester Krumbachová. Each is strange, perhaps comic (more broadly so in her own directorial effort), and probably have some deep coded meanings within the context they were made, but as you’ll see from my pretty short reviews (I wasn’t lying about that), they can be pretty difficult to decode. That said, I’d definitely want to watch both again.


Ovoce stromů rajských jíme (Fruit of Paradise, 1970) [Czechoslovakia/Belgium]

A boldly, rapturously incomprehensible film, presenting the Adam and Eve origin story overlaid with visual effects (the opening sequence), saturated yet bleached in its colour palette, with spirited performances. But as to what is actually happening, I couldn’t really say. That said, it was fascinating nonetheless.

Fruit of Paradise film posterCREDITS
Director Věra Chytilová; Writers Chytilová and Ester Krumbachová; Cinematographer Jaroslav Kučera; Starring Karel Novák, Jitka Nováková; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 9 November 2016.


Vražda ing. Čerta (The Murder of Mr Devil, 1970) [Czechoslovakia]

An enjoyable satire on romance and marriage by a director whose collaboration with Věra Chytilová I think helps to place her humour. Mr Devil (Vladimír Menšík) is, quite clearly, a terrible person, and his gluttony is quickly (and somewhat repetitively) established. In some ways there’s not a lot to the film but it doesn’t much care for your bourgeois hang-ups.

The Murder of Mr Devil film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ester Krumbachová; Cinematographer Jiří Macák; Starring Jiřina Bohdalová, Vladimír Menšík; Length 77 minutes.
Seen at Watershed, Bristol, Saturday 27 July 2019.

La Belle at the Movies (2015)

Talking about Belgian films, all of which have been co-productions this week on my blog, you inevitably can’t avoid the legacy of colonialism, especially in Africa. Like much European involvement on that continent, the history of the Belgian Congo is not perhaps one of the more fondly recalled projects of imperial Belgium, but of course at least one of the consequences is a film culture that (when it existed) was primarily for white people. This film has an Italian crew and British/Belgian financial backing, and tells an interesting story, although it doesn’t appear to be easily available to watch anywhere.


A documentary about film culture in Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC (that city being the “La Belle” of the title), though it’s the apparent lack of film culture — no cinemas, no posters advertising movies — which initially drew the (Italian) director’s interest. So we start with buildings which used to be cinemas, and as she gets further into the subject, we start to get a bit of history of this country, and how under Mobutu Sese Seko and his “Zairianisation” project, the imposition of traditional values meant that there was a decline in what was perceived to be a foreign colonialist art form (many of the city’s cinemas were segregated to the white Belgians). There’s an interesting sidebar in the popularity of cowboy movies, and interviews with some men who continue to dress up that way, while film culture is reduced to roadside stalls selling pirated movies as well as fairly ad hoc community initiatives to screen videos, which is the closest the city comes to the idea of the cinema. Along the way there’s a solid sense of a city, its people and (some of) its turbulent 20th century history that makes this a fascinating work.

La Belle at the Movies film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Cecilia Zoppelletto; Cinematographer Paolo Camata; Length 67 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 21 April 2018.

In der Dämmerstunde Berlin de l’aube à la nuit (1980)

As part of my Belgian week, which has quickly become more about Belgian co-productions made and set in other countries, we move to Berlin in the late-1970s with this strange document of a vanished era, not widely available (screened in 16mm at the Deptford Cinema when I saw it), but capturing a real feeling for a place. The bilingual title hints at its dual origins, and the filmmaker is Belgian, which gives it that outsider’s-view feel.


This strange piece of celluloid feels like a time capsule from a different place, an irretrievable time, the alien landscape of Berlin in the late-1970s, with the Wall very much in evidence, train journeys that just end abruptly even as we see the track stretching out ahead of the camera, and little walks around town that the filmmaker takes (the back of her head becomes very familiar), what I suppose we would today call psychogeography. Occasionally we hear voices from those talking about post-war Germany, from a Jewish bookseller determined to return to the country which treated him so badly, and from old ladies talking about Hitler. But for the most part this is a densely-textured journey film, broken up by quotes and snatches of opera, and the presence of a clanking 16mm cinema projector at the back of the room where I saw it, seemed to lend it an almost spiritual quality, of a black-and-white document stolen from history.

CREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Annik Leroy; Length 67 minutes.
Seen at Deptford Cinema, London, Saturday 23 March 2019.

Baden Baden (2016)

Another Franco-Belgian co-production is this excellent film about a young woman returning to her home (also the director’s home, Strasbourg) to sort out her life. It’s not a coming of age, exactly, because the protagonist is in her 20s, but it definitely deals with a similar sort of malaise and aimlessness. That shouldn’t make it particularly compelling but I really liked it.


Trading on all those classic elements of the cinema of self-indulgent continental introspection — a young woman returns home to her ailing grandmother to tidy up shattered plans, creating new messes to tidy, and reopening some fresh wounds — but it’s done with such verve, such control of the medium, and such fine performances in the lead roles that what initially sounds like it might be drab and unengaging is really compelling. Sure, Ana’s life may or may not be going anywhere (whose is?) but right from that first extended shot of her driving a star to a film set only to be bawled out by the producer, it shows a sure sense of what is cinematic. There are ways I’m reminded of British film Adult Life Skills in its themes, but here put across with at times an elegiac grace — little dreamlike interstices, a careful regard for small details, holding the shot just a little longer than is comfortable at times. It’s also got plenty of downbeat humour, no little thanks to its lead actor, Salomé Richard. (I didn’t even mention her delightful DIY determination to remodel her gran’s bathroom, which the titular use of a famous spa town may obliquely be referring to?)

Baden Baden film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Rachel Lang; Cinematographer Fiona Braillon; Starring Salomé Richard, Claude Gensac, Swann Arlaud, Zabou Breitman; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Tuesday 27 September 2016.