Criterion Sunday 560: White Material (2009)

Part of what I think is difficult to take in about this film, at least on a first viewing, is that so much of it happens off-screen when we aren’t (or the central character, Maria Vial, played by Isabelle Huppert, isn’t) looking. By which I mean the violence that drives it, that claims several central characters, that drives a wedge between Vial and her coffee plantation business, as well as her family (Christophe Lambert as estranged husband and Nicolas Duvauchelle as deranged son). Partly that’s because she’s never reliably looking the right way to witness it, so intent on downplaying and ignoring the rising tide of anti-colonial violence taking place, the efforts to push out white landowners; she’s too immured in a rapidly vanishing system of rule to even seem to notice the threats to her existence, because it is her home after a fashion, the only life she’s known. And so while I think this film is filled with bold contrasts and strong drama, a lot of it just seems to seep in around the edges, until eventually it starts to overwhelm even La Huppert, who as an actor — as much as a character — feels like an indomitable spirit. She’s hardly a hero, but she just keeps trying to make things happen and she doesn’t know how to relent.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s an interesting little short film made by Denis, filmed from her point of view on a camcorder of some sort, of her taking this film to the Écrans Noirs film festival in Yaoundé, Cameroon, and having to deal with the outdated technology and limited screening conditions available there. Indeed, the whole story builds to a bit of a punchline, almost.
  • There’s also a short deleted scene of Maria finding a certain person (no spoilers, eh) dead near the end, but presumably this was just too direct for Denis’ method.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Claire Denis; Writers Denis and Marie NDiaye; Cinematographer Yves Cape; Starring Isabelle Huppert, Christophe Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Isaach de Bankolé, Michel Subor; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 31 July 2022.

Nous (We, 2021)

I have a lot of time for Alice Diop’s films, since first seeing her documentary On Call (2016) at the London Film Festival. She seems to make films about people in French society — all people, not just those of African heritage, though as her subjects are often working people, there’s no lack of ethnic diversity. Mubi has a little season of her films, including this one, On Call and a few others she’s made over the years; well worth checking out if you subscribe to that service.


Maybe I just watch too much of what currently gets pumped into our cinemas, but I like a film (a documentary in this case) which is willing to let its scenes play out, not force-feed us information. Of course, there’s a canny directorial nous at work here, an autobiographical underlying thread that pulls us as firmly as the RER B line which links the film’s suburban subjects to the metropolitan centre of Paris. What starts as a series of portraits of the surrounds of Paris (perhaps just Drancy to Paris’s northwest; I don’t know enough about France to be sure, but I believe it’s a variety of scenes along the line) becomes intertwined with fragments of filmmaker Alice Diop’s life, her mother and father and her childhood, clips of old home movies and her voiceover. We even eventually see her on screen, suitably distanced with cameras and mics and assistants moving elements of the background, that suggest a deeper level to the practice here, a hint of the manipulations underlying observational documentary, and that the people we see — crossing all kinds of racial and class lines — aren’t quite as randomly chosen as maybe it might seem. But that never becomes the film itself, as more clever-clever filmmakers might once have done: this is still, whatever else, very much a portrait of modern Paris, about people and the lives they lead, and it has all the rich depths of life lived in the shadow of a metropolis.

Nous (2021)CREDITS
Director/Writer Alice Diop; Cinematographers Clement Alline, Sarah Blum and Sylvain Verdet; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), Wellington, Thursday 30 June 2021.

Criterion Sunday 542: Antichrist (2009)

I know that Lars von Trier wants us to hate his movies, because he wants us to have that authentic visceral reaction to them, whether it be love or hate. That seems fairly clear both from his pronouncements as from the films themselves, and therefore I want to respond by saying I found his film — surely one of the films that most potently distils everything that he wants to assault the viewer with — as merely middling. However, I cannot lie: I disliked it a lot. Not that it wasn’t acted with great power by both Gainsbourg and Dafoe, who are pretty much the only humans we see for much of the film (aside from their infant son who dies in the prologue and whose death hangs over the entire psychodramatic dynamic that ensues). Not that it wasn’t filmed with customary elegance by Anthony Dod Mantle. Not that there weren’t elements that worked well and could be appreciated. But just that constant assault of images and ideas that serve no purpose other than to evoke grand emotions. Well, I’m glad people can embrace those and I don’t doubt that it’s all very intentionally done. I could dispassionately render a critique on its artistry. But I feel like a more honest response — and perhaps the one that Trier would prefer — is just: f*ck that guy. I didn’t hate his film, and maybe even one day I can come to it with understanding, but I don’t have to watch it again, and I’m glad about that.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Lars von Trier; Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle; Starring Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 18 June 2022.

Criterion Sunday 534: L’Enfance-nue (aka Naked Childhood, 1968)

This film was Maurice Pialat’s debut feature, made when he was already well into his 40s, though it’s a film about childhood. And while it’s set in the contemporary France Pialat was working in, during the late-1960s, it feels like a slightly provincial world, a little bit stuck in time. Like its famous precursor by Truffaut ten years earlier that (more or less) kicked off the Nouvelle Vague, The 400 Blows, this is about a difficult young kid — François (Michel Terrazon) — who doesn’t seem to have a place in the world. Unlike that earlier film, young François’s dislocation is literalised by having him passed around foster families. He’s not always angry, and there are moments of warmth and even familial affection of sorts, but one of the strengths of the film is not making it all about the kid, who almost seems to be in the background a lot of the time, making his outsider status part of the film’s formal strategy, which builds up in little snatched moments, almost a collage of scenes that build towards a life. There’s something confident here that you imagine might derive from Pialat coming to filmmaking relatively late in life, and there’s a tenderness too at times.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Maurice Pialat; Writers Arlette Langmann and Pialat; Cinematographer Claude Beausoleil; Starring Michel Terrazon, Marie-Louise Thierry, René Thierry; Length 83 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 12 May 2022.

Criterion Sunday 527: La Graine et le mulet (The Secret of the Grain aka Couscous, 2007)

Made before director Abdellatif Kechiche fully leaned into being a lecherous old man director, this — like his more famous 2013 film Blue Is the Warmest Colour (even if that gets a little overwhelmed by some lengthy interludes) — has a heart that is based in a small immigrant community, on the lives of people who don’t have very much and struggle to get what they can in life. It follows Slimane (Habib Boufares) whose work on the docks is coming to an end and who needs to find something else. His life and his large family are all introduced via lengthy scenes where we get to spend time with each of them, and it’s a fine way to introduce a complicated and messy family. Eventually it all leads to a big explosion of melodrama, but Kechiche handles even that with a fine sense of balance, even if everything seems to be left hanging unresolved at the end. But perhaps the film is better for that, and we can perhaps choose to imagine a healing for the fractious double-family created by Slimane, with on the one hand the many children he had with his ex-wife (the lauded chef of the couscous and mullet dish to which the original French title refers) and on the other his younger partner and her daughter (newcomer Hafsia Herzi), ostracised by the other half of the family. The film largely keeps all these characters and broiling events under control as Slimane moves slowly towards opening his own restaurant showcasing the titular meal/grain and gets some fine performances from its local and presumably largely non-actor cast.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Abdellatif Kechicheعبد اللطيف كشيش; Writers Kechiche and Ghalia Lacroix غالية لاكروا; Cinematographer Lubomir Bakchev Любомир Бакчев; Starring Habib Boufares
حبيب بوفارس, Hafsia Herzi حفصية حرزي, Bouraouïa Marzouk بوراوية مرزوق; Length 154 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 17 April 2022.

Criterion Sunday 522: Il deserto rosso (Red Desert, 1964)

This may be Antonioni’s most inscrutable film for me, and watching it again I get the feeling that it may be one I need to see on the big screen to get into. Certainly I am always in awe of Antonioni’s control over framing and the way he places people within landscapes, moving through and weaving into and out of the frame, dominated often by buildings, here enormous crumbling industrial edifices belching smoke into the sky. Monica Vitti is suitably totemic herself, entering and exiting in a green coat, these block colours (green, red, blue, yellow) setting themselves off from the dull grey of the rest of the landscapes we see. It’s a film about industry in a sense, and about the modern world, but it’s never so straightforward as to have a plot exactly. There’s Vitti and then there’s Richard Harris’s character Corrado, and there’s a relationship of sorts between them, but quite what it all means is never discussed, quite where it’s all going is never clear, if there’s a start and an end these feel fairly arbitrary, because what we mostly have here is the movement and the deserted atmosphere evoked by the title.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michelangelo Antonioni; Writers Antonioni and Tonino Guerra; Cinematographer Carlo Di Palma; Starring Monica Vitti, Richard Harris, Carlo Chionetti; Length 117 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 2 April 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 1998).

Global Cinema 34: Chad – Grigris (2013)

Not ostensibly a major player in world cinema, Chad is probably the African country I’ve seen more films from, solely due to the work of Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, who has carved out a distinctive an ongoing voice for himself representing the country. Works like Daratt and A Screaming Man made his name, and he’s also made work in France (with 2017’s A Season in France). His latest film was made last year, Lingui: The Sacred Bonds (set again in his native country).


Flag - ChadRepublic of Chad (جمهورية تشاد aka République du Tchad)
population 16,245,000 | capital N’Djamena (951k) | largest cities N’Djamena, Moundou (137k), Abéché (98k), Sarh (97k), Kélo (58k) | area 1,284,000 km2 | religion Islam (52%), Christianity (44%) | official language Arabic (اَلْعَرَبِيَّةُ), French (français) | major ethnicity Sara (27%), Arab (13%), Kanembu (9%) | currency Central African CFA franc (FCFA) [XAF] | internet .td

A country which stretches from the arid Saharan north, through an arid Sahel belt in the centre to fertile savannah in the south. It is indeed named after the lake which is the second-largest wetland on the continent (though may have shrunk by up to 95% between the 1960s and 1990s), itself named from a Kanuri word meaning “large expanse of water”. Some of the most important archaeological sites are located in Chad and habitation became denser from the 7th millennium BCE. As a crossroad of civlisations, the earliest known were the Sao, but the Kanem Empire took over around 800 CE and lasted the longest, though the Bagirmi and Wadai emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries, and each raided for slaves from the south. French colonial expansion took hold in the late-19th century and by 1920 they had taken it in as a colony, part of French Equatorial Africa (with what are now CAR, the Republic of Congo and Gabon). Even compared with their other colonies, modernisation was slow and education was neglected, as France treated it merely as a source of cheap labour for the cotton industry. After WW2 it became an overseas territory and had an assembly, in which the largest party was the PPT (Chadian Progressive Party), and upon independence on 11 August 1960, the leader of the PPT became the first Prime Minister, François Tombalbaye. His autocratic rule sparked a northern insurgency and civil war, with Hissène Habry taking the capital in 1979 (several years after the deposition of Tombalbaye). Libya tried to use the fragile balance of power to take control (in the so-called Toyota War), but were repelled in 1987. Habré consolidated his dictatorship but was overthrown by his deputy Idriss Déby in 1990 (both died in 2021, the former from COVID while imprisoned in Senegal for war crimes, the latter in combat while fighting an insurgency). A transitional military government under his son Mahamat Déby is currently in power.

As a country blighted by civil wars and insurgencies, as well as chronic underinvestment while a colony of France, understandably cinema has not progressed quickly in the country. The first film made there appears to have been a 1958 John Huston film, and the earliest indigenous work documentary short films made by Edouard Sailly in the 1960s. The few cinemas which existed closed down due to civil war, but some stabilisation post-1990 allowed filmmakers like Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (the country’s best-known internationally) and Issa Serge Coelo to make a name. As of 2011, there is apparently only a single cinema in the country.


Grigris (2013)

This is a stylish film from a director who has very much proved himself in his filmmaking, but it’s also one that is truly built around a riveting central performance (in this case from Souleymane Démé). The title character is a studio photographer by day (his dad’s trade) and a dancer in nightclubs by night. He loves the dancing, and even though his legs are paralysed, he makes such effective and spectacular use of them in his dance routines, but it’s a not a film about overcoming physical limitations, it’s about what happens when you need to make choices beyond your control. He falls in with some dodgy guys and ends up doing a bit of smuggling to make money and that’s when things start to unravel a bit. It all moves at a deliberate, slow pace but it’s never unclear about what’s going on or who’s motivated by what, and it all ends in a spectacular scene that I shan’t go into obviously but, well, just don’t mess with village women in Chad I guess.

Grigris (2013)CREDITS
Director/Writer Mahamat-Saleh Haroun محمد الصالح هارون; Cinematographer Antoine Héberlé; Starring Souleymane Démé, Mariam Monory; Length 101 minutes.

Seen at home (Mubi streaming), Wellington, Tuesday 2 March 2021.

Criterion Sunday 513: L’Heure d’été (Summer Hours, 2008)

I am an enormous fan of Olivier Assayas’s films, which is why I’m willing to entertain the fact that I must have missed something to this. After all, outwardly it feels like any number of middlebrow films about families exposing the fractures in their interrelationships as they squabble over an estate. Actually, “squabble” is rather too active a verb for what plays out as a series of gentle disappointments and misunderstandings, and indeed perhaps it’s the subtlety which elevates it, for this is a film about people coming to terms with what they had hoped for their futures and what actually transpires. There’s also a strong theme in there about our subjective responses to art and the value it has in daily life, along with some fairly pointed remarks about how lifeless items look when placed in a museum context, which is both expected and also bold given this is part financed by the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Still, at the heart is that familiar family drama of a bunch of privileged kids coming together at the fancy estate of their recently deceased mother to talk about what to do; Binoche has top-billing but it’s Charles Berling who holds things together as the linchpin of the family (and the only one living in and committed to France). I suspect I’ll find more to like with this film as I allow it to sit with me, but for now it feels underpowered.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Olivier Assayas; Cinematographer Eric Gautier; Starring Charles Berling; Juliette Binoche, Jérémie Renier, Édith Scob; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 20 February 2022.

Criterion Sunday 512: Vivre sa vie: film en douze tableaux (aka My Life to Live, 1962)

I have of course seen this Godard film many times before (and written about it far more eloquently in the past than I can muster now) but it may be my favourite of Godard’s oeuvre. It limns the concerns of the contemporary 1960s world to something self-consciously archaic in cinema, using intertitles (the chapter headings for this most structural of films, composed as the subtitle says, in 12 tableaux), gorgeous black-and-white close-ups of Anna Karina’s face (not to mention the back of her head), and of course those images of Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. But beyond that, it’s a film that deals with his eternal theme of capitalism, using the figure of Karina’s Nana as a way into a morally murky world. Nobody really ends up in a good place — shades of Breathless at the end — but the story of Nana’s falling into prostitution as a line of work and then into love (not a line of work) is almost sidelined by an aesthetic interest in the image. Indeed it’s very easy to miss the film’s ostensible plot, but also very easy (and equally pleasurable) just to look at the film as a series of tableaux vivants.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Anna Karina; Length 83 minutes.

Seen at university library (VHS), Wellington, October 1998 and June 2000 (later on DVD at home, London, Wednesday 14 August 2013, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Monday 7 February 2022).

Criterion Sunday 511: Juventude em Marcha (Colossal Youth, 2006)

I’m not sure is this is the best of Pedro Costa’s three films grouped together as the “Fontainhas trilogy” after the Lisbon slum/shanty town where they take place, but after spending so much time with these characters in this place, its quiet reflectiveness feels the richest, perhaps because of that time spent. Costa too has developed his video aesthetic that he began with In Vanda’s Room, recapturing some of the painterly contrast that was at play in the first of the three (Ossos) but without the conventions of the narrative. The characters are still slouching around going nowhere, interspersed with the tall and elegant elderly man Ventura narrating a letter to someone long gone it seems. and there’s not much in the way of plot to speak of, but it swaps out the crumbling buildings of the previous films for the new apartments built in their place, which have a sort of antiseptic quality, though there’s still plenty enough places for Costa to find his crepuscular shadows. I can’t really explain too much why I like it, but it’s an experience that just needs to sort of wash over you, and at that level I find it rewarding.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Pedro Costa; Cinematographers Costa and Leonardo Simões; Starring Ventura, Vanda Duarte; Length 156 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 12 March 2022 (and I’m fairly sure I saw it a cinema in London, probably the ICA, back in around 2007, but I don’t have a record of it).