For most of the past week, my blog has been focusing on the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, with a roster of mighty melodramas, but in the modern era directors like Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu have found box office success (both in Mexico and in the United States, where many of them work now) in a variety of genres, though often still tending towards the dark and thorny. None has gained quite as much fervid festival acclaim (not to mention exasperated brickbats) than Carlos Reygadas, who unlike his contemporaries has remained in Mexico to make his films, rich with religious symbolism, copious sex and an austerely formal camera style. He made his name with Japón (2001, which is on the Criterion Collection now), and followed with the divisive Battle in Heaven (2005, below), with its Bressonian approach to non-actors combined with rather more florid content than Bresson would ever have countenanced. 2007’s Silent Light is to my mind his finest picture in terms of reconciling his themes and formal style, dealing with a Mennonite community, but Post Tenebras Lux (2012) has many admirers. His most recent film (Our Time) is also his longest, and is reviewed below.
Another of those films I first saw back in the 90s and enjoyed at the time, as it fit into that dark satirical space where you could laugh at the mind-blowing conceit of it all — documentarians cross the line into complicity with their (murderous) subject in what is presented as a documentary. Oh how we loved the ‘mockumentary’ that decade. So meta! So intelligently mocking! Well, anyway, I’m not sure it holds up, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m not on the wavelength of Belgian humour. I’m not in my 20s anymore is the key I think; I’m not so willing to laugh at rape and murder, however absurd, however ironically distanced. I don’t judge those who do, and I don’t think I’m better than any, it just doesn’t tickle me in quite the same way. It doesn’t help too that the pseudo-documentary style has become so familiar in intervening years. That all said, given the low budget, it’s made with a lot of style, and the performances are all solid. There are even some really good gags. I just find its satirical intent is clear within 10 minutes so the rest is largely padding.
Criterion Extras: Chief among the extras is the student short by the filmmakers with a similar low-budget style, Pas de C4 pour Daniel-Daniel (No C4 for Daniel-Daniel, 1987), styled as an extended trailer for an action movie, replete with all the hoary clichés of that genre. It’s fitfully amusing but maybe Belgian humour just goes above my head, or maybe their satire (which involves a blackface character as a manservant) is too subtle. There’s also a video interview with the filmmakers upon the feature film’s release, in which they goof around, and also a small gallery of stills from the production.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde; Writers Belvaux, Bonzel, Poelvoorde and Vincent Tavier; Cinematographer Bonzel; Starring Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s house (DVD), London, Sunday 16 July 2017 (and years earlier on VHS in Wellington).
Horror movies at their best allegorise traumatic experiences and Raw — or Grave in its original French title, which means something more like “serious”, and is a phrase thrown around a few times during the film in reference to lead character Justine’s changes — takes on that transition to university with aplomb. It is, to be sure, rather more disturbing than my own time as a first year but it captures something of that desire to fit in and also be a part of a larger group. Here the students are aspiring vets largely isolated at the edge of a small town, somewhere removed from society, running amok at parties in between scenes of lab dissection. There are other elements thrown in — the exploration of sexuality, most notably — which add further resonance to the film, as Garance Marillier’s Justine is led on by her older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf). In this particular intersection of sex and gore, the film is reminiscent of Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (though with less Vincent Gallo, thankfully). It looks great, it has a carefully chosen soundtrack, and there are some great trippy shots. Also, can I just add that I love the poster. It’s been all over the London underground for the last month or so, and it’s just the right balance of unsettling and suggestive without being graphic.
Director/Writer Julia Ducournau; Cinematographer Ruben Impens; Starring Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Naït Oufella; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Saturday 15 April 2017.
The title of this Proust adaptation — centred around Simon (Stanislas Merhar, the Marcel character) and his beloved Ariane (Sylvie Testud, based on Albertine) — suggests it is about the woman. But… who is the real captive here? Well, depending on your temperament, possibly not the audience. I’m being unfair, though: I love Akerman’s films, and this one hinges around male obsession and jealousy. It’s very much about him failing to control, and failing to understand, Ariane — or indeed, women in general… or other people in general maybe. He’s a difficult character to watch, and a real jerk in his quiet, devotional way. Lots of long takes add to the atmosphere nicely, even if I’ll always prefer Akerman’s documentaries over her arthouse genre exercises (as I think of this and Almayer’s Folly, no doubt unfairly).
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman (based on La Prisonnière by Marcel Proust); Cinematographer Sabine Lancelin; Starring Sylvie Testud, Stanislas Merhar; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 6 January 2017.
Ramping up to the final weekend, I had my first day of four films on Friday 14 October. All were at least interesting, and some were excellent. All four featured their directors doing a Q&A, though time constraints meant I sadly couldn’t stay for the first one (and the one I’d most have wanted to listen to).
La Permanence (On Call) (2016, France, dir. Alice Diop)
There’s a very simple setup to this documentary: a consulting room at a Parisian hospital visited by a stream of refugees seeking medical attention, one of the few places they can receive such care. The doctor on call patiently deals with the people he sees (supported by a psychiatrist), but the team clearly have access to only limited resources (they even run out of prescription pads at one point). The camera films one side of the table or the other, but it’s the faces that dominate, and we see some return in happier circumstances than their original visit, but this is by no means always the case. It’s clear sighted and quietly powerful about the troubles people have experienced, and the further bureaucratic hoops we require them to jump through.
Le Fils de Joseph (The Son of Joseph) (2016, France/Belgium, dir./wr. Eugène Green, DOP Raphaël O’Byrne)
This latest film is stylistically of a piece with Green’s other work that I’ve seen — which is to say, denaturalised acting, deadpan delivery, frontal framings, aiming for an exaltation of the text over any kind of actorly psychology. If you’re on-board with his project there’s plenty to like here, and a lot that’s quite funny too (my favourite was the utterly self-regarding young author at the start, and Maria de Madeiros’s literary critic tottering into a police standoff clutching a champagne flute). It’s about a young man without a father who is searching for one, manages to loop in a fugitive-on-the-run storyline, and then overlays a Christian allegory as the structuring device. The literary world doesn’t come out looking great, but plenty of the individual shots in the film do.
Dao Khanong (By the Time It Gets Dark) (2016, Thailand/France/Netherlands/Qatar, dir./wr. Anocha Suwichakornpong, DOP Ming-Kai Leung)
When you structure your film to have the logic of a waking dream or a memory flashback — and in this the film shares a lot of the same power as last year’s Cemetery of Splendour by fellow Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul — it can have the unfortunate effect of lulling a viewer who is watching it at one of those awkward times of the evening into a bit of a doze (I’m talking about me). I therefore had the uneasy feeling of not really knowing what was happening and wondering if there was something crucial I had missed in the few minutes I had my eyes shut, but at length I realised that no, this is just the film, and the effect is entirely intentional. It also points up the absurdity of assigning films star ratings, because it looks like I’ve given it a low score, but actually this is probably the film I’d most like to revisit. It has a tricksy looping structure which replays some scenes with different actors, which seems to present its characters’ stories alongside fragments of their memory, dramatic recreations and even music videos, to further confound any easy narrative understanding. There is, though, an intellect at work, questioning historical representation, the play of memory, the ethics of filmmaking, and any number of other subjects. In short, for all its gently undulating rhythms (the sound design emphasises the low hum of machinery, fans, or blowing wind throughout), it represents some pretty exciting filmmaking.
Zin’naariya! (The Wedding Ring) (2016, Niger, dir./wr. Rahmatou Keïta)
Like Laos the other day, Niger is another country you don’t see many films from, given its lack of a film industry, or indeed much in the way of a film culture. So it’s all the more reason to celebrate that not only has a film been made there, it’s directed by a woman, it looks gorgeous, and it was entirely funded by African money. A young woman (played by the director’s daughter) has returned from studying in France, lovelorn over the boyfriend she met there who himself has returned to his homeplace. She retains hopes of marrying him, as her family use whatever means they can to help bring them together — although this largely involves a local mystic who reads the patterns in shells. In truth the story moves along at a fairly unhurried pace, but the actors (not least the lead) do a great job in making the film watchable, and the camera can’t help but find light and colour wherever it looks in this small tightly-knit community. The focus is on the women in the community above all, and their laughter and wisdom keeps the film moving through some slower patches.
Day Three was Friday 7 October, and I saw two films, before getting on a train to Manchester for the weekend. This does sadly mean I missed a director Q&A with the director and two leads of Divines.
Réparer les vivants (Heal the Living) (2016, France/Belgium, dir. Katell Quillévéré, wr. Quillévéré/Gilles Taurand, DOP Tom Harari)
I found this affecting in all kinds of ways, but maybe I’ve just been hanging out for a really great film from this film festival and am seeing what I want to see (it can happen at festivals). That said, I don’t think the cinematic quality of the opening scenes can be denied: lulling you in to a bunch of guys going out early to catch some waves, splashing about, having a good time and then… the film goes in other directions. This happens a few times: new characters are introduced, and you have to figure out how they’ll fit in. It’s a film filled with people not making decisions, putting off telling people things, not being active but just reacting to events that happen to them, and, ultimately, accepting their fate. There’s also a bit of surgery (a lot of the film is set at hospitals) but it’s nicely handled, and anyway this is a film about emotional journeys as much as anything. I think it’s a great film, right now.
Divines (2016, France/Qatar, dir./wr. Houda Benyamina, DOP Julien Poupard)
Here’s what’s great about Divines: it looks beautiful, and the lead actors, especially Oulaya Amamra, are brilliant. Amamra was in a shorter film called Mariam earlier this year that I really liked, and she’s on fire in this. As a film, it has elements that remind me of Bande de filles (Girlhood), and does similar things that I disliked in that film (and in Dheepan too for that matter) in terms of, shall we say, the deployment of generic tropes. So for me it’s… not entirely successful. But I wish its filmmakers and its actors all the best.
There is, it seems to me, a strong tradition in French cinema for the kind of atmospherics created by this film of Alice Winocour (who also co-wrote festival favourite Mustang). It properly puts itself inside the head of its protagonist Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts), a soldier on leave due to post-traumatic stress, who takes up a security job to keep him busy. There are textures that remind me of aspects of Claire Denis‘s or Philippe Grandrieux’s works, a sort of low-key threatening feeling that’s constantly in the background. For much of the film it’s very difficult to be sure if this is all just in Vincent’s head, or if it represents an actual danger to those he’s in charge of protecting — Jessie (Diane Kruger), the wife of a foreign businessman, and her son. The tone is expertly mediated through an evocative sound design and electronic score that keeps the mood tense even when little appears to be happening narratively on-screen. It’s an open-ended film with a mysterious resolution that seems to come more from the emotional state of its protagonist than from anything in the diegetic world of the film, and despite what some have written, it never quite follows the well-trodden path of multiple Hollywood action thrillers covering the same kind of themes. Certainly for those such as myself who have not been the biggest fans of Schoenaerts’ acting work (admittedly I’ve only seen films of his in English), this is a welcome surprise and an intelligent, absorbing thriller.
Director Alice Winocour; Writers Winocour and Jean-Stéphane Bron; Cinematographer Georges Lechaptois; Starring Matthias Schoenaerts, Diane Kruger; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Wednesday 30 March 2016.
It didn’t exactly make a large splash on release, but that’s a pity because this is a very welcome documentary about ageing Muslim women who had moved from Morocco to Belgium when they were young, and are easing themselves back into society after married lives spent largely shut away (the title is the familiar promise of better things ahead when they die). The documentary certainly pays attention to its most colourful character in the extroverted singer and performer Tata Milouda, but in fact there’s a tight-knit group of women at the film’s heart, and eventually we get to know most of them, particularly Mina who takes on narration duties. We see them attending Milouda’s gigs, taking language classes in a local cultural centre, making day trips around Belgium and eventually travelling to New York. It doesn’t delve into prejudice or racism so much (one certainly expects a lot more of it when they undertake their US trip), but rather focuses on the practicalities and rewards of living life in the present, along the way giving voice and representation to a group who are often unfairly demonised by Western media.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Hadja Lahbib; Cinematographers Yannick Dolivo, Vincent Hufty, Jonas Canon and Cyrille Blaise; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Thursday 21 January 2016.
Re-watching Akerman’s œuvre over the last few years with the help of film collective À Nos Amours has been instructive in tracing some of the repeated themes and motifs of her work. A lot of those can be found again in this final film of hers, which returns once more to her mother Natalia as subject, a presence who has haunted so many of Chantal’s films, even as she hasn’t often appeared. Compared to some of her more recent work, there’s a warmth and playfulness to the conversations between Akerman mère and fille which make it positively comical for stretches of its running time. And yet this is a film about loss and death, both that of Natalia (who died at the end of 2014) and, inevitably, sadly, Chantal herself. That sense of finality is played out in the metaphor that opens and closes the film, of a strong wind buffeting the fragile signs of life in a barren landscape (presumably Israel), which finally dies out. But it’s equally brought to mind by the spectral resonances here of all her film work. There are long lateral tracking shots taken from a car of this dusty environment (recalling D’est), shots taken through net curtains (Là-bas), and plenty of long, often empty, fixed shots through doorways (Hôtel Monterey). The domestic space in which most of the film takes place, Natalia’s Brussels flat, recalls too Chantal’s most famous early works, particularly Jeanne Dielman (1975), and her earliest, 1968’s short film Saute ma ville. The kitchen of that first film — in the Akerman family home when Chantal was aged 18 — still oddly resembles the one where Natalia sits and eats her breakfast here even though it’s a different home, while of course Jeanne Dielman’s methodical household tidying is clearly based on Natalia. For all that it’s freighted with this latent emotional baggage, it’s only ever captivating to watch these images (at least, such was my experience), both those shot in the family home (home no longer, as the title testifies) and on a laptop from Chantal’s travels — an implicit critique surely of all those recent narratives that try to lay the blame at technology’s door for some social failing of human connection. But death remains painful and powerful and the final stretches are difficult to watch, as Akerman’s mercurial 50 years of filmmaking cuts to black.
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Chantal Akerman; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Friday 30 October 2015.
It’s not been uncommon over the last couple of decades for French films to mine a disturbing terrain of imagery and emotion, but the problem I’ve had with directors like Gaspar Noé and Bruno Dumont is quite often that their cinema of transgression tends to rely on nasty, bloody, vicious things like rape, torture and murder. But perhaps, the slender œuvre of Lucile Hadzihalilovic suggests, nothing is quite so transgressive as life. After a wait of over ten years since her last film Innocence comes Evolution (already a fondness for titles which work in both English and French), which has something of a similar trajectory in dealing with that liminal stage in which children move into being teenagers. Hadzihalilovic has a way of converting societal expectations around protecting children from the adult world into something more tangibly oppressive: where in Innocence it was the girls’ boarding school, where new students entered in a coffin, here it’s an isolated island town with only boys (of whom Max Brebant is the protagonist) being looked after by mother figures, who seem to be participants in some kind of communal procreative rite backed up by a medicalised procedure to ensure their sons never become men. It’s this medical aspect which is most disturbing, suggesting eugenics and involving some kind of invasive surgical experimentation. At the same time, there’s a blurred boundary around gender identity and procreation: we never see any men, the women on the island don’t appear to have sexual organs, and the surgical procedures call into question exactly who is gestating the foetuses and how they are being brought to term. Of course none of this is intended to make literal sense — throughout the film, there’s an eeriness to the lighting and colours that imparts a distinctly oneiric quality, especially combined with the non-expressive acting, its female leads apparently chosen for the blank mask-like faces (particularly that of Roxane Duran as Stella, a nurse with a strange connection to Max’s character). And so the story has more of a timeless, mythical quality, much like the director’s first film. I can only hope there won’t be another 11 year wait for the next one.
Director Lucile Hadžihalilović; Writers Hadžihalilović and Alanté Kavaïté; Cinematographer Manuel Dacosse; Starring Max Brebant, Roxane Duran; Length 81 minutes.
Seen at Vue West End, London, Tuesday 13 October 2015.