Carol (2015)

There’s always been plenty for film fans to fetishise about their favourite medium, whether the unstable nitrate stock used in early cinema (I seem to recall David Fincher’s Se7en was initially released on some kind of ‘silver nitrate’-enhanced print), the threading up of 8mm home movie footage, or the epic splendour of 70mm. In this modern digital age, just seeing a film on 35mm celluloid is enough of a treat for plenty of film fans, and the fact that some screenings of Carol have been on this antiquated stock has been enough to get many excited. Resistant as I’ve been to this level of film stock fetishisation, the cinematography of Ed Lachman (who used 16mm cameras when shooting) does come across particularly nicely, and there is a sort of cultish mystique to seeing Carol projected on film stock, though it still works fine on digital too. No, scratch that, it works great, because I’ve seen the film three times already in the last week, and I continue to want to go and see it. I love Carol, certainly more than any other film this year, possibly more than any film this decade.

As for explaining why, it’s not just the film, and it’s not just the period clothes and settings — although those are, it has to be said, fantastic. There’s seldom been so powerful an advertisement for the joys of sipping gin martinis in plush hotel bars, or lighting up a cigarette, for that matter. That grainy film stock really gives a tactility to this evoked world, just as it seems to make it impossibly distant. Director Todd Haynes emphasises this by frequently shooting his actors through glass, often fogged up or dirty, using reflections which fade away into darkness or into the film grain. Carol, more than anything else perhaps, is a seance with something unattainable — whether the texture of the historical past, or the ineffability of rendering something so fragile as love on screen. But in acknowledging this distance, it also heightens the emotion of evoking it.

Still, all this would be for nothing without the performances. Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet does her best to hold herself in check despite a sort of giddiness to her youthful acceptance of the world at times, and you can see those emotions fighting within her, especially evident in that opening scene which the movie at length loops back to. Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird, though, is acting in almost a different world, yet her connection to Therese remains palpable, other characters seeming to fade away in their exchange of glances. Blanchett modulates her voice, giving an almost neutral flatness to some of her line readings, though it’s in her eyes and the curl of her lips that the real heavy lifting is done. And then there’s Sarah Paulson as Carol’s best friend Abby, who surely remains the best supporting actor around. Abby’s exchange with Carol somewhere in the middle of the film — “Tell me you know what you’re doing.” “I don’t. I never have.” — pretty much destroys me every time and feels like the film’s emotional core (that and Carol’s “living against my grain” in the custody hearing).

I’m unequal to telling you all the ways I love this film. I haven’t even really conveyed the story, but it’s fairly straightforward in some ways (two people fall in love). Still, there are moments here that are as rich in magic as any other film I know (although I’ve already seen a number of critics resisting the film’s charms, so I can’t claim these effects are universal). Still, it works for me, and perhaps yes there is a level of fetishisation to it. Maybe I’ll go see it again tonight, or tomorrow, while I can, before it disappears forever, lingering only in distant, impossible memories.

Carol film posterCREDITS
Director Todd Haynes; Writer Phyllis Nagy (based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith); Cinematographer Edward Lachman; Starring Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central [35mm], London, Monday 30 November 2015; Hackney Picturehouse, London, Tuesday 1 December 2015; and Cineworld West India Quay, London, Tuesday 8 December 2015 (so far).

Knight of Cups (2015)

By now we surely all know what to expect from a Malick film, and if you’ve seen To the Wonder or any of his output of the last 10 years or so, Knight of Cups won’t present any new narrative challenges. But for those who haven’t been keeping up and look at the cast list thinking this could be good should bear in mind that there is no plot to speak of; rather one could say there’s a series of questions that we as viewers and Christian Bale as the screenwriter protagonist Rick, seek answers to. The title and the film’s structure is taken from the Tarot deck, and we are in a sense led through a reading for Rick’s title character. The film is dominated by Bale; all the other actors are very much in the background, glimpsed in passing, as fragments of the conversation Rick is having with himself, into which Malick’s camera seems to inveigle itself. As ever, the camera floats around, lingering behind Bale’s shoulder or viewing him and those he interacts with from a low-angle, bound to the earth, looking up at the sky. There’s no dialogue to speak of: if we see two characters interacting, their words are faded out, to be replaced by an interior monologue, whether of one of the other characters or of Rick — this aspect of Malick’s filmmaking has been in place since almost his beginnings. So, narratively it’s dense and it’s opaque and it’s difficult to get drawn into, but it does allow for some moments of beauty and fascination. Yet the associative editing (two years in post-production, we’ll recall) leads the film out on obscure tangents. At this point terms like ‘self-indulgent’ and ‘pretentious’ seem entirely unequal to what Malick is doing, though they’ll no doubt be trumpeted by plenty of critics. For myself, I don’t find this work as successful as his earlier To the Wonder, largely because Bale’s Rick seems so empty a character, not unlike the protagonist of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (2010). Yet, after all, the issues that Rick is grappling with are fundamental ones: how to re-connect with others after the death of his brother and the havoc this event, only elliptically alluded to, has wrought on his remaining family (other brother Barry, Wes Bentley, and father Joseph, Brian Dennehy) and his relationship with ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett).

Knight of Cups film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Terrence Malick; Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki; Starring Christian Bale, Wes Bentley, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at Omnia, Rouen, Sunday 6 December 2015.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

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.

The Talented Mr. Ripley film posterCREDITS
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.

Blue Jasmine (2013)

I should like to apologise that my output for the next few weeks is likely to be erratic, as I have family in town and have fewer opportunities for film-watching. I shall be attempting to keep my Godard director focus going, though it may be rather sporadic, even though I’m down to the last few films…


The narrative that tells of a revered filmmaker’s ‘long-awaited return to form’ is a familiar one with plenty of history in film reviewing — it crops up from time to time with respect to Jean-Luc Godard, whose work I’ve been focusing on over the last month — but nowhere is it more commonly heard than with whatever the latest Woody Allen flick is. He churns them out at such a rate even now he’s in his 70s, that inevitably there’s one every few years that is heralded as a return. The critical consensus, it appears, is that Blue Jasmine is one such, seeing Woody return to the States, albeit to the West coast city of San Francisco. I, however, remain solidly unconvinced, though I concede it is a well-made film at least.

On the matter of it being a ‘return to form’, I cannot really comment. I haven’t seen much that Woody’s put out in the last 10-15 years, though I’ve occasionally been tempted. That’s not to say I am some kind of resolutely anti-Allen grump hating on his every endeavour. I enjoyed Everyone Says I Love You (1996) quite a bit, and his early funny stuff is still rather watchable. That said, he has a mean, misanthropic streak in him. I remember it clearly in Deconstructing Harry (1997), an unflattering portrait of the artist, and it’s clear here too. It’s not a matter of happy endings or comedy, it’s a matter of an all-consuming malaise that seems to infect all his characters, a profoundly cynical Weltanschauung that all but overwhelms the very fragile comedies he constructs.

At the heart of Blue Jasmine is Jeanette, more commonly called Jasmine, a widowed New York socialite fallen on hard times, who has come to San Francisco to live with her sister as a desperate measure to reinvent herself, so she says, and because she is quite broke. Both of these reasons are ones we as viewers come to have some doubts about over the course of the film, but what I do not doubt is the excellence of Cate Blanchett’s performance in this role. She is required to affect evidence of profound mental turmoil — the kind of thing that Gena Rowlands did in her husband John Cassavetes‘s films, or that is reminiscent of protagonists in films by Douglas Sirk and Nick Ray in the 1950s, domestic characters driven into dementia by the pressures of the modern world. It’s always a tricky balancing act to pull off, but Blanchett does very well at it.

I am, however, less convinced by the way Allen orchestrates her fine performance. There always seem to be little jokes made at Jasmine’s expense — and there’s plenty of laughter in the auditorium throughout the film, it’s just rarely the uninhibited laughter of gag comedy, but the awkward and pained laughter at someone else’s profound distress. At least, that’s how it seems to me. Allen almost seems to be having fun with Jasmine’s difficulties, and much though she may be the kind of entitled upper-middle-class neurotic New Yorker with whom I should have no sympathies, it’s still troubling to watch her struggle through her situation. There are, as ever, other good actors too — Sally Hawkins as Jasmine’s sister Ginger and Alec Baldwin as her ex-husband Hal are only the most prominent — but their characters are such attenuated screenwriterly conceits that they don’t really seem to live and breathe. They certainly don’t convince as Californians: few of the characters are anything but New York through-and-through, though Ginger’s boyfriends stretch the geography as far as New Jersey, and Bobby Cannavale in particular (playing Chili), with his slicked-back hair, white vest and 50s style, suggests a pastiche of A Steetcar Named Desire (a play to which the plot also has some similarities). Probably most interesting of the lot, though, is Andrew Dice Clay’s brief turn as Ginger’s ex-husband Augie — still a Jersey type, but somehow more believable in his barely-repressed anger at the way his life has turned out — and perhaps the actor’s own drift into semi-obscurity from the heights of his late-80s fame gives his resurrection here a little more pathos.

It’s all put together with the bygone charm of the traditionalist, from its jazz-inflected opening notes and the warm hues of Javier Aguirresarobe’s cinematography, to the clean framing and restrained camerawork. The structure rather effectively interweaves the present storyline in San Francisco with Jasmine’s New York life. And yet, still am I made to feel uneasy by Allen’s jaundiced view of the world, which always has such brittle characters so unequal (or perhaps unmatched) to their environments. Still, I suspect those who already know they love Woody will find a lot to enjoy here. For myself, it’s all a bit too mannered.

Blue Jasmine film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Woody Allen; Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe; Starring Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Wednesday 2 October 2013.