Criterion Sunday 134: Häxan (aka Witchcraft Through the Ages, 1922)

As a key text in the development of the horror film (not to mention the pseudo-documentary), I found this all a bit underwhelming really, even once you get past the early PowerPoint presentation section about the history of witchcraft. There’s some gorgeous stuff in it, and a sequence with a penitent elderly lady was clearly cribbed by Dreyer for his The Passion of Joan of Arc. But as a film it’s text-heavy and didactic while also never really getting particularly insightful about the underlying context for all of it (the patriarchal structures oppressing women in the mediæval era). Still, the director does have a coda linking these mediæval methods of control to his own times (“in 1921!” an aside says, as if the modern world could never countenance such superstition), and he essays a pretty camp tongue-flicking Satan.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the original version and its commentary, there’s a shorter 1968 re-edit narrated by William S. Burroughs with a jazz score. In another short piece, the director Benjamin Christensen introduces his film for a 1941 re-release, addressed to camera in a stentorian manner while wearing a white lab coat, in passing explaining the magic of silent over sound cinema. There are a few outtakes from the filming, more notes towards the finished project rather than actual scenes that have been excised. Finally, there’s a gallery of images from the film as well as the sources for Christensen’s own slideshow.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Benjamin Christensen | Cinematographer Johan Ankerstjerne | Starring Benjamin Christensen | Length 107 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Wednesday 2 November 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1998)

Criterion Sunday 128: Carl Th. Dreyer: Min metier (Carl Th. Dreyer: My Metier, 1995)

Dreyer is an interesting director and had a fascinating life after a fashion, but he’s never really been cool and this documentary does little to remedy that. It’s informative, it has interviews with surviving collaborators, and its formal strategy appears to consist of filming them in high-contrast black-and-white to fit in with the film footage. Hardly deserving of its own Criterion spine number, one feels.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Torben Skjødt Jensen | Writers/Cinematographers Torben Skjødt Jensen and Prami Larsen | Length 94 minutes || Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 20 June 2003 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 3 December 2016)

Criterion Sunday 127: Gertrud (1964)

I’ve always loved this film, ever since first watching it, transfixed, on a 16mm print at a film society. It has a transfixing power, specifically in the way the actors interpret their lines, the fugue-like oneiric monotone and constant off-screen gaze of the title character (Nina Pens Rode), moving about her world as if nothing exists — indeed, if she had passed through a wall like a ghost, I’d hardly be surprised. Every element is controlled, not just the acting and movement, but the placement of decor, the use of paintings as counterpoint to the discussion, the ripples on the pond as Gertrud and Erland speak (pathetic fallacy, I suppose, but not even that overdetermined), the lighting, just everything. It’s also uncompromisingly about a woman who rejects the men in her life — not least by barely ever even looking at them — and I don’t blame her.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Carl Theodor Dreyer (based on the play by Hjalmar Söderberg) | Cinematographer Henning Bendtsen | Starring Nina Pens Rode, Bendt Rothe, Ebbe Rode, Baard Owe | Length 116 minutes || Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 23 June 1999 (also the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Sunday 6 July 2003, and the BFI Southbank, London, Saturday 17 March 2012, as well as on VHS at home, Wellington, January 2001 and most recently on DVD, home, 3 December 2016)

Criterion Sunday 126: Ordet (aka The Word, 1955)

I’m never quite sure how to respond to the characters in this film, though over time I’ve come to accept it as a great and profound work (on my first viewing, in my early-20s, I was distinctly unimpressed, and it took seeing it on the cinema screen to appreciate its artistry). Everyone acts at times like a fool, at times with grace and acceptance; it’s religious, not in a simple way, but at a fundamental level — Ordet (which when translated means “the word”) seems hardly about creed so much as the underlying belief in the value and beauty of all life. And on the evidence here, Dreyer is surely, too, one of the greatest directors for use of lighting, somehow too coordinating effects of nature into his mise en scene.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Carl Theodor Dreyer (based on the play by Kaj Munk) | Cinematographer Henning Bendtsen | Starring Preben Lerdorff Rye, Henrik Malberg, Birgitte Federspiel, Emil Hass Christensen | Length 126 minutes || Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 4 July 2003 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1999, and most recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 3 December 2016)

Criterion Sunday 125: Vredens dag (Day of Wrath, 1943)

Obviously a Danish film made in the 1940s and set in the 17th century about living under an oppressive regime intent on suppressing individuality, victimising women and blaming them for society’s ills couldn’t possibly have any modern relevance, but I suppose historical fashions come back around periodically. Dreyer is on his usual fine form, finding a core of empathy (if not always compassion) for all his characters, whether Anne (Lisbeth Movin), a young woman who has married the older Reverend Absalon (Thorkild Roose), and his grown son Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye) who falls for Anne. An opening sequence with the elderly Herlof’s Marte being chased down by the villagers and taking refuge at Anne’s home introduces the information that Anne’s mother was also a witch, and it is strongly implied that Absalon suppressed this fact in order to marry her (or perhaps the marriage was arranged to head off criticism of Anne’s mother; it’s never quite clarified). In any case, the accused witches clearly do actually profess some form of magic — and this was presumably a response to the position of women within their societies, not to mention the level of scientific understanding available — but that scarcely diminishes Dreyer’s harsh judgement of the town elders (shot like the old men in The Passion of Joan of Arc) for their treatment.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Carl Theodor Dreyer | Writers Carl Theodor Dreyer, Poul Knudsen and Mogens Skot-Hansen (based on the play Anne Pedersdotter by Hans Wiers-Jenssen) | Cinematographer Karl Andersson | Starring Lisbeth Movin, Thorkild Roose, Preben Lerdorff Rye | Length 100 minutes || Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Monday 23 June 2003 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1999, and most recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 3 December 2016)

Criterion Sunday 80: The Element of Crime (aka Forbrydelsens element, 1984)

I’ve never been a huge fan of Danish cinematic bad boy Lars von Trier, but this, his first feature film, is certainly made with a fair amount of energy and a bold (if dark) cinematic vision, taking its apparent cue from film noir thrillers, not to mention recycling some of Tarkovksy’s imagery. Stylistically, though, my overall feeling is that it’s more akin to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil of the following year, with all those fussy, busy details in all corners of the frame. The plot is in a sense fairly straightforward, as Detective Fisher (gruff-voiced Michael Elphick) is tracking down a serial killer using the methods of his mentor Osborne (Esmond Knight), in which he is aided by prostitute Kim (Meme Lai). Yet this plot is nested within layers of memory and obfuscation, attaining something of a dream-like trance state, emphasised by the line delivery of the actors, who move around almost as if underwater. The chief cue to this altered consciousness is the visual style, which is almost monochrome in its (usually red-tinged) intensity, like something Guy Maddin might make, tipping its hat at one level to silent film, but creating its own world of grainy distanciation — the characters may not actually be underwater, but they are certainly submerged in this grimy dark monochrome world. I can’t say it ever really coheres for me (and Meme Lai’s role requires little more than that she hang around and take off her clothes occasionally, though it’s a small part in any case), but there’s plenty here of interest to those who like an arty thriller with pretensions.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the trailer, the main extra of interest is the medium-length documentary Tranceformer: A Portrait of Lars von Trier (1997), directed by Stig Björkman (with help from Fredrik von Krusenstjerna), filmed around the time of von Trier’s The Kingdom (1994) and Breaking the Waves (1996). It’s rather an amusing jaunt through (von) Trier’s life from his upbringing by lefty liberal parents to his early schoolboy filmmaking attempts, through film school and his early film work, along the way self-aggrandisingly awarding himself the aristocratic ‘von’. The film features behind the scenes footage of his directing the two films (which has its own fascination), as well as talking head interviews with his colleagues and actors (and it’s particularly nice to see Katrin Cartlidge, who sadly died far too young), giving an impression of him as a man with plenty of phobias and quirks such that it’s surprising he can get any films made at all. Von Trier pops up periodically to talk us through his life and foibles, and there’s a warmth to the film’s portrait of him, so he never comes off too badly, beyond what he says about himself.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Lars von Trier | Writers Lars von Trier and Niels Vørsel | Cinematographer Tom Elling | Starring Michael Elphick, Esmond Knight, Meme Lai, Jerold Wells | Length 103 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 February 2016

The Neon Demon (2016)

There is no shortage of films that deal with the subject of the artificiality of Los Angeles (one of them even features this movie’s star Elle Fanning), or the nasty insidiousness attendant on the objectification of women within the creative industries (think Showgirls). And then there are films that go for a heightened atmosphere, with dialogue which would be almost risible were it not for the acting being pitched at such an icily aloof plateau, and the images being so artful and gorgeously composed that it all seems of a piece with the allegorical (perhaps Orphic) subject matter (frankly, Refn’s last film Only God Forgives went for that register too). Oh, and there are even horror films about vampiric sexuality (in a sense most vampire movies are about sex, though Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day was sort of working in a similar place).

Needless to say, I was thinking about lots of films while watching The Neon Demon, because it’s very much a film about making films — photographers do not come out at all well here and that’s surely a directorial self-critique. However, it works too as a further development of the lushly misanthropic style of Refn’s previous film, married to a throbbing Cliff Martinez electronic score that only further emphasises the strangeness of the many liminal, blank spaces the film sets itself in. By the end, Jena Malone’s make-up artist Ruby has more or less taken over the film from Fanning’s ingenue model Jesse, a narrative shift the film marks with a sort of Crowley-like magickal ritual transference involving much neon and mirrors (the demon of the title, one presumes), but then much of the film works more at an allegorical level (even Malick’s Knight of Cups seems naturalistic compared to this). It’s unsettling, certainly, not least for what it says about Refn’s view of women’s relationships with one another (there’s a disturbing lesbian/necrophiliac theme to emphasise this), but then everyone in this world is a parasite (not least the characters briefly essayed by Keanu Reeves and Christina Hendricks), and all sexuality is violent, it seems to posit.

I’m almost willing to talk myself out of liking it but for the sustained atmosphere and excellent performances — if heightened hyperstylised camp is your thing that is.


The Neon Demon (2016)

ADVANCE SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Nicolas Winding Refn | Writers Nicolas Winding Refn, Polly Stenham and Mary Laws | Cinematographer Natasha Braier | Starring Elle Fanning, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee | Length 117 minutes || Seen at Soho Hotel, London, Wednesday 1 June 2016

Motley’s Law (2015)

This is another of several recent fascinating documentaries which touches on the evolving situation in the Middle East, specifically the slow rebuilding of Afghanistan, via an American woman who works as a lawyer there for part of the year. As with any documentary, choosing your subject wisely is half the work, and Kimberley Motley jumps off the screen as a big personality, and the fact of being the only foreign lawyer working within the Afghan justice system is certainly an unusual selling point for the story. In the end, it really is a film largely about her, as it contrasts her work in Afghanistan with her family life back home in the USA, and increasingly is about the challenges she faces juggling these commitments. She’s no social justice warrior, or someone out to make a point about US involvement in the Middle East — though there’s an unintended irony about security as her husband’s own story takes a shocking turn — she just needs to make money to support her family life. Indeed, one gets the sense that this is a defining story of a generation, looking for opportunities and seizing upon them despite the risks. These risks start to overwhelm her story towards the end, though Motley remains indefatigable in the face of them, even as the Danish documentarians who’ve made the film are seen becoming increasingly fearful.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Nicole N. Horanyi | Cinematographer Henrik Bohn Ipsen | Length 85 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Tuesday 12 April 2016

Speed Sisters (2015)

There has been no shortage of excellent documentaries in recent years, as the rise to prominence of festivals like the UK’s Sheffield Doc/Fest or Canada’s Hot Docs can testify. Many of these new voices have been those of women filmmakers, gratifying within an industrial context which so often marginalises them. In watching Speed Sisters, I think, for example, of the work of Kim Loginotto, whose films like Gaea Girls (2000) have used a subculture as a way of examining wider issues within a society. And while it’s probably easy to dismiss such documentaries as light-hearted — it’s been the kind of criticism most often applied to any filmmaking or artistic creation by women over the, well, millennia really — I think there’s more value to them than is sometimes admitted. (And yes, can you tell I’ve been looking up reviews online and getting grumpy at them?)

Undoubtedly the context of this film, which deals with a Palestinian women’s motor racing team, is one with quite a bit of history and politics to unpack, so any attempt to broach such issues — the fraught relationship between Israel and Palestine not least — is going to seem flimsy to some viewers. But it’s so valuable for those such as me who are not familiar with the area to get a sense of what it’s to live, work — and race — in Palestine, a place overwhelmed by physical manifestations of state control, yet one nevertheless in which people do live their lives with a degree of freedom and vivacity that must seem surprising if it’s only the news headlines you’re reading.

The protagonists of Speed Sisters come from various backgrounds — though, given the expense entailed in the sport they’re engaged in, mostly middle-class (hardly rich, if you see some of the cars they ride, but at least with prospects) — and the documentary is canny in teasing out some of the tensions, notably between the highly-motivated Marah, whose single-mindedness and success at racing makes her sometimes unwilling to deal with the setbacks she encounters, and the self-consciously glamorous Betty, who in coming from a family of racers is Marah’s de facto chief rival for racing success but also far more aware of her media presence and image. The team is rounded out by Mona, an older woman who largely races for fun, Noor, who enjoys the speed but seems to keep forgetting the direction she needs to be going, and their captain Maysoon, barely holding these egos together while working a day job in a little clothes shop. These are thumbnail sketches the film builds up of its chief characters — and given the film’s creation over a number of years, I assume there have been personnel changes in that time that aren’t attentively followed. Indeed, presenting the precise sporting context is probably the weakest aspect of the film: it gives a great sense of what these racing meets are like and the skills involved in handling the cars, but the details of the competition itself (or indeed which race in which season is happening) passes in a blur, and seems less to the point.

The wonder, the joy of the film, is in seeing the women all live their lives amongst these racing meets. It’s a film about the women’s interactions with their family and the men in their lives (all of whom, from the head of the racing Federation down to the fans and the families, largely seem supportive and generous). It’s a film about their friendships and occasionally fractious relationships with one another. But most of all it’s about the way they navigate the very present borders and controls imposed on their lives, in trying for example to find spaces and roads on which to practice, and the dangers inherent in that, which so often they breezily laugh off (watching Maysoon chat away during her daily commute through a checkpoint in Ramallah, moaning about the traffic and the distracting smell of tear gas while there seem to be active clashes happening nearby, is just one eye-opening example). It’s a film that’s not specifically about racing, really, but about people — ordinary people, if obviously interesting and charismatic ones — trying to live in a place where that sometimes seems difficult.


Speed Sisters (2015)

ADVANCED SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Amber Fares | Cinematographer Lucy Martens | Length 78 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Tuesday 8 March 2016

En chance til (A Second Chance, 2014)

There’s a lot of very intense thematic material in this Danish domestic drama (what the BBFC title card judiciously warns us are “bereavement themes”). It swiftly sets up the work life of Andreas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) as a cop, contrasting one of his cases — a thuggish heroin junkie who’s just relocated to his neighbourhood and has a maltreated baby and girlfriend in tow — with his almost-perfect home life alongside wife Anne (Maria Bonneville) and their tiny baby Alexander. Then horrible things happen, bad decisions are made, and tragic consequences are reaped, and well… it’s just not convincing, not the characters, and certainly not the choices they make. Andreas’s police partner Simon (Ulrich Thomsen) has his own generic and perfunctory character development, and comes in at the end to clear things up all too neatly. Sure, there are lots of lingering close-ups of furrowed eyes and harrowing music on the soundtrack to guide our feelings, so I could at least say there are some believable emotional arcs being expressed. It’s just that as a viewer I don’t feel any engagement or sympathy with Andreas or his wife or his partner, while the working of the plot suggests a madcap screwball comedy, not the stark grief-filled drama Susanne Bier and her screenwriter Anders Jensen have crafted. The contrast of Andreas’s life with that of the criminal family, along with a tacked-on coda, have the effect of pat moralising, and when the credits come up there’s a feeling you’ve been watching a TV social-issue-of-the-week movie. If you are a parent, it may be more emotionally engaging, but then again I can’t imagine a parent wanting to watch this film either, given the events it depicts.


© Nordisk Film

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Susanne Bier | Writer Anders Thomas Jensen | Cinematographer Michael Snyman | Starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Maria Bonnevie, Ulrich Thomsen | Length 105 minutes || Seen at Hackney Picturehouse, London, Tuesday 24 March 2015