Day six and another four film day. I’ve actually managed to stay awake for all 16 of the films I’ve seen so far, but this writing them up at the end of the evening is the worst part. Still, I must put my thoughts down or I’ll forget these films, so here are some more reviews. Today I’ve visited Japan, South Korea, Tunisia (again) and Georgia.
It’s fair to say that, even from her very first film and certainly up until today, Catherine Breillat has been a rather troublesome and controversial figure, increasingly as much for her confrontational views as for her movies (for example, comments minimising the Weinstein allegations, and dismissing the #MeToo reckoning, though these appear to have been in the context of an ill-tempered run-in with Asia Argento). Indeed, Breillat doesn’t exactly fit very neatly into feminist critiques of film, or at least you get the sense that she’d certainly resist that kind of reading. For all that, she’s made some excoriating films, and none more so, I think, than À ma sœur! (released in the US as Fat Girl; apparently Breillat likes the English-language title better, but it certainly seems to change the focus of the film).
This is a work that for all its dark subject matter is really about sisterhood, and while this may suggest a sentimental point of view — and there are some lovely, supportive scenes between the two sisters Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) and Elena (Roxane Mesquida) — Breillat was of course never going to be content to leave it at that. Instead there are some almighty power plays going on between the two (and equally between the two sisters and their parents, who are fairly detached from their daughters’ emotional states). On a family holiday, Elena falls for a handsome older Italian law student, Fernando (Libero De Rienzo), while Anaïs looks on, pouring scorn on Elena’s gullibility (when she speaks up at all) and apparently fully cognisant of where it’s all leading. All of this unfolds in long sinuous takes, whose gliding grace only seems to intensify the emotion underpinning the relationships. When Fernando wants sex, we barely get a chance to look away from his disingenuous flattery and cajolement, alternately tender and piqued, until he gets his way. In the context of all this, the ending then seems to take the film in an even darker direction, albeit with a strangely defiant final freeze frame reminiscent of The 400 Blows — not that I’d anticipate Breillat following up with an entire series about Anaïs (as Truffaut did with his character), though one can but imagine where her life takes her at this point.
Sometimes Breillat’s dark imagination, the way she plays out these sexual power dynamics (often between young women and older men) can make her films feel unsatisfactory, but in this one she seems to find a way of bringing out the humanity underlying the nastiness. The film could be dismissed as exploitational or emotionally vampiric perhaps, but it never loses sight of the people at the heart of these characters, and their capacity for enduring and reconfiguring disappointment and trauma, at which both the leads excel.
- There’s a 5 minute behind the scenes making of featurette, which shows Breillat directing and shooting some scenes, along with a few brief interviews.
- Two interviews with Breillat are included, one at the Berlin premiere, where she gets into some of the dramas of the film, and the other in which she discusses her working methods, the actors, and the alternative ending — of which there’s footage included.
- The French and US trailers are included, which have much the same soundscape, though of course the French one includes dialogue from the film where the US one does not. The US trailer also does that thing of basically recapping the entire movie and even includes the final shot of the film.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Catherine Breillat; Cinematographer Yorgos Arvanitis Γιώργος Αρβανίτης; Starring Anaïs Reboux, Roxane Mesquida, Libero De Rienzo, Arsinée Khanjian Արսինէ Խանճեան; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Monday 16 July 2001 (then later on VHS at home, Wellington, January 2003, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 10 July 2019).
This week here I’m doing a themed week of Australian films, mostly documentaries, but I’m starting it with this important and perhaps under-recognised 1989 drama that distills a particular vision of (white) Australia in the recent past. The 1990s would turn out to be a successful decade for Australian cinema, both at home and abroad, and the same cinematographer worked on another prominent film made by women a few years later that I’ve also reviewed on my blog, The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992). If you want a primer on women in Australian cinema, by the way, you could do a lot worse than this Senses of Cinema dossier, which includes an essay on Celia which properly contextualises my own remarks below as being on the lower end of amateurish.
This Australian film from the late-1980s certainly builds up a curious atmosphere, not quite horror but inhabiting a strange and (to the film’s young protagonist, played by Rebecca Smart) at times terrifying world in between lived reality and paranoid fantasy, based on fears stoked up by the adults — these being around both the ‘Red menace’ of Communists, but also the government’s attempts to eradicate the rabbit population by introducing myxomatosis. It’s not a million miles from the allegorical territory of The Babadook (again without the specifically horror genre elements, aside from a few brief monstrous dream rabbits), but rooted more firmly in a 1950s milieu of conservative culture. Celia’s cherished grandmother turns out to have had Communist sympathies, and her neighbours are local organisers, so this brings them into conflict with her regressive father (Nicholas Eadie). A parallel storyline about Celia’s pet rabbit becoming a threat to state security (enforced by her uncle, the local police chief) strangely manages to bring together some of these fraught family dynamics. Overall, it sustains a striking atmosphere of cultural dread, aptly filtered through the experiences of a young girl.
Director/Writer Ann Turner; Cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson; Starring Rebecca Smart, Nicholas Eadie; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 8 January 2019.
I was first exposed to Annemarie Jacir’s films via Wajib at the London Film Festival in 2017, but I’ve since caught up with her first two feature films. She was born in Bethlehem in 1974, but left to study in the United States. She has written poetry, but is now primarily known for her filmmaking, and is at the vanguard of Palestinian film culture, which I can only imagine is a precarious enterprise in itself (after all, her films gain their funding from many different sources from several different continents, making their co-production credits pretty extensive). Moreover, her work deals with the status of the displaced, whether historically (as in When I Saw You) or in a contemporary setting, and sometimes more directly confronts how it is to live under a state of occupation.
There have been a number of recent films that capture something of the terror and fluctuating emotions of being young with remarkable facility, and this is very much one of those. It uses tight close-ups on its child protagonist Sun (Choi Soo-in), as she stands waiting to be picked for a game of dodgeball. Everything is held in her eyes, and almost immediately, even before the end of that sequence (in which she is picked last), you know exactly who she is and where she fits into the school’s hierarchy. Sun is constantly trying to project cheerfulness and for a while, when she befriends a new student Ji-ah (Seol Hye-in), things look to be changing for her, and then schoolyard politics start to reassert themselves, the mean girls come by, and everything is levelled again. However, it’s never moralistic or sentimental, and it conveys with an economy of language what’s going on with Sun. She isn’t constantly broadcasting to the world (like say the protagonist of Eighth Grade) but that’s largely because her family is poor and can’t afford the technology or advantages the other kids have, and that clearly is feeding into her exclusion from the social cliques. And because it’s a Korean film, sharing food also becomes a meaningful exchange between characters, charting some of their emotional bonding (or otherwise) in subtle ways. This is a lovely, at times heartbreaking, film with an immensely good central performance and some lovely camerawork.
Director/Writer Yoon Ga-eun 윤가은; Cinematographers Min Jun-won 민준원 and Kim Ji-hyun 김지현; Starring Choi Soo-in 최수인, Seol Hye-in 설혜인; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Korean Cultural Centre, London, Thursday 2 May 2019.
A fairly sweet and innocuous film about childhood, set in 1950s Sweden, and it feels very… Swedish? The title refers to the young protagonist’s dog, as well as his reveries at night, while looking into the stars, about Soviet space travelling dog Laika. It’s at once sentimentally nostalgic yet without the cloying sweetness you might get in an American film with the same theme. As a film, it just sort of pleasantly washes over you, and nobody in the film seems too horrible, which is its own reward when you’ve been watching documentaries all weekend about genocidal imperialist aggression (as I had been, but that’s another review I suppose).
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Lasse Hallström; Writers Hallström, Brasse Brännström and Per Berglund (based on a novel by Reidar Jönsson); Cinematographer Jörgen Persson; Starring Anton Glazelius, Melinda Kinnaman; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 5 November 2017.
I really like this spare, fugue-like elegy for the dispossessed in all its overtly Malickian sensibilities. Perhaps seeing it at a film festival when it was released, before a lot of other filmmakers had jumped on that particular ride (and the one who made this had very much jumped off), was more surprising but there’s still beauty and warmth, in those magic light colours of a place where the South meets the rust belt, and the feeling in the non-professional actors. A really vivid take on the coming of age that does most of its thematic work in little vignettes of community life and almost throwaway dialogue, preferring stretches of contemplative reflection of quiet desuetude.
Criterion Extras: Besides a trailer, there’s also quite a few interesting extras, most notably two student short films by Green, Pleasant Grove (1997) and Physical Pinball (1998). Both share quite a few similarities with George Washington, which lifts the first’s story of a boy with a stray dog who can’t take it home as a little detail for George. While this first one is a sweet slow little film that sets up some ideas that would be progressed by the feature, the second feels more fully rounded. It’s about a father-daughter relationship (both actors would return for the feature), and has a nice sense of how out of his depth the father is after his wife has passed.
Along with these is A Day with the Boys (1969), a short by actor Clu Gulager, a wordless film with a hazy nostalgic tone, all slo-mo running set to plaintive trumpet (very much of its era), jazzed up with all kinds of visual touches. It all turns a bit Lord of the Flies, as I suppose many days with the boys will, but it’s a diverting mood piece.
Aside from this there’s a Charlie Rose interview with a (very young!) David Gordon Green, which covers a few of his influences, not to mention some insights about how he cast and shot the film, though it is quite short. A deleted scene of a town hall meeting imparts a sense of some of Green’s verité reference points, as the camera does quick zooms and pans in the style of those fly-on-the-wall documentaries from the 60s. Finally, there’s a short piece interviewing its child stars a year after release in 2001, as they expound on how it was to make the film, and some of their aspirations.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer David Gordon Green; Cinematographer Tim Orr; Starring Candace Evanofski, Donald Holden; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Friday 20 July 2001 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 7 May 2017).
A late film by Yasujiro Ozu which is set amongst a small group of neighbours in a Tokyo suburb and treats childhood with a light, comic touch. The plot, such as it is, has the kids of one family refusing to speak after being scolded by their father (Chishu Ryu) for going round to a neighbour’s home to watch sumo wrestling on TV. In a fit of pique after being refused this modern convenience — their father inveighs against its stupefying effect — the kids reject the language of their parents and what they see as all the stupid meaningless banalities of conversation like “hello”, “goodbye”, “thank you” and of course “good morning”. Meanwhile, gossip spreads amongst the neighbours when the local residents’ association dues haven’t been paid, as first one and the another member of this tight-knit community is suspected of having absconded with the cash. It may depict a long-vanished world in which doors are always open and people can pop round to one another’s home to chat, but at the heart is the tension brought about by the modern consumerist world and its increasing technologisation. The gossip centres largely on the purchase of a washing machine, while the TV also seems to divide the families. Things never get too dark –- everyone converses with a fixed and ready smile, even when you suspect they’re pretty angry, and indeed entire conversations proceed with a surface level of the kind of banality that the kids hate, even as other feelings are being expressed. The comedy is provided by the kids, and for all Ozu’s austere reputation, there’s a recurring farting game that consistently goes wrong for one of the kids.
Criterion Extras: Another very basic edition, with only the written notes and nothing on the disc, though it’s as fine a transfer as ever of this rare Ozu colour film. (However, since this review was written there’s been a new Blu-ray release with more extras so I shall update at some point when I watch it.)
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Kogo Noda 野田高梧 and Ozu; Cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta 厚田雄春; Starring Haruko Sugimura 杉村春子, Chishu Ryu 笠智衆; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at my mother’s flat (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 15 March 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.
The BFI have been doing sterling work this past month putting on a retrospective of the works of Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, so I took a chance to see this key early film of his. It bears many of the hallmarks of his mature directorial work, particularly his great masterpiece A City of Sadness (1989). Both films deal with the tumultuous political events affecting China’s relationship to Taiwan during the mid-20th century, refracting it through one family, though this earlier film is perhaps more attentive to the domestic drama. Undoubtedly there’s plenty happening behind the scenes, though its political commentary is more subtly done. It’s primarily a coming of age story dealing with Ah-ha (or Ah-hsiao, a stand-in for the filmmaker, played by Yu An-shun as he gets older), though the most dynamic presence within the family is the grandmother (Tang Ju-yun). She is convinced the family will be returning soon to the mainland, as evoked by the cheap wicker furniture the family have for their home, as they had always assumed their relocation would be temporary. It spans a couple of decades, as family members grow older and die, and deals in an almost deceptively calm way with the passage of time and of youth, as Ah-ha moves from studious child to rebellious teen.
Director Hou Hsiao-hsien 侯孝賢; Writers Chu T’ien-wen 朱天文 and Hou; Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bin 李屏賓; Starring Yu An-shun 游安順, Tang Ju-yun 唐如韞; Length 138 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Friday 18 September 2015.