NZIFF 2021: Titane (2021)

The closing night film of the New Zealand International Film Festival ended up being the Cannes Palme d’Or winner Titane, which is certainly a very bold and disturbing film to be winning major awards but there’s something to that. I was never quite sure if I really loved it while it was going on, but I do know that it was surprising and confrontational, and quite baroquely stylish, with an excellent performance from newcomer Agathe Rousselle and grizzled veteran Vincent Lindon.


Watching this Cannes prize-winning film most strongly reminds me of the work of Claire Denis. The influence of David Cronenberg is perhaps most obvious in its body horror genre trappings, but for me Denis is the influence that seems clearest to me, and partly that’s a matter of tone. The one time I’ve seen Denis discuss her film at a live Q&A was after a screening of Bastards, which also stars Vincent Lindon and is set in a twilight world riven with anger (at least in my recollection), and reading interviews with this film’s director Julia Ducournau reminds me of the way Denis would confront her critics, never seemingly more engaged than when she was outraged by an angry comment.

Clearly there’s a lot that audiences and critics are divided over with Titane, and some of the criticism is probably quite at odds with what Ducournau intended, but it seems at heart to be about human connection. Along the way it dispenses with trite psychologising — we see Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) briefly as a child, but any relationship she has with her parents is very much only indirectly implied, and the reasons for her turning to murder are never really delved into — in favour of a heady immersion into a stylised world of machines and flesh. This isn’t the romantic abstraction of, say, Ex Machina, but instead a very fleshy world of scars and body transformation, which hints at a trans subtext (though the filmmaker denies that) and certainly speaks to gender fluidity, an in-your-face be-queer-do-crimes vibe. That said, when she comes into contact with Vincent Lindon’s firefighter, the film changes perceptibly to being one about acceptance and love despite everything — and there’s a lot there for his character to blindly accept.

The filmmaking is fearless when it comes to bodies, and that much is certainly evident from Ducournau’s debut feature Raw, but it’s also very much within a genre framework where this kind of horror is a little bit abstracted from the emotional reality (a scene with a knitting needle lands very differently in, say, Happening) without entirely relinquishing that primal response. That can make twists like Alexia’s relationship with the car make a certain amount of poetic sense, but her relationship with Vincent seems pretty profound too, and he is great in what must have been a challenging role. The textures of the colours and images, the propulsive music and relentlessness of the endeavour carries it, along with a fair amount of jet black humour. I’m not even sure if it’s a great film, but it feels pretty special.

Titane (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Julia Ducournau; Cinematographer Ruben Impens; Starring Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 21 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Earwig (2021)

I don’t like to focus on disappointing films when I’m doing my round-ups, but Lucile Hadžihalilović is one of the more interesting directors of the last few decades (even if her similarly controversialist husband Gaspar Noé tends to be the better known). She’s only made a handful of features, so it’s with sadness that I report I didn’t much like her newest (English-language) feature film. Still, it has all the elements of her style, so undoubtedly there will be big fans of it out there; after all, if Wes Anderson can have people hanging on his every twee set design detail, then there’s no reason why the same can’t be said for Lucile Hadžihalilović (though one suspects part of the problem is the darkness of her vision).


I’ll give it to the Lucile Hadžihalilović cinematic universe that it is at least thematically consistent. There’s a vision at work which seems to link it to her two other feature films, Evolution (2015) and Innocence (2004), filled as it is with early- to mid-20th century fustiness, chiaroscuro tonality, throbbing soundtracks and corporeal strangeness that hints at something Cronenbergian. The atmosphere, in other words, is on point and deeply evocative. There’s not even any dialogue for the first 15 minutes, and when it does enter it has the whispered resonance of thickly Belgian-accented ASMR. A girl (Romane Hemelaers) is cared for by her… father… I think, Albert (Paul Hilton). Her dentures melt and need to be refrozen and refitted each day. A strange man on the other end of the telephone wants something. And then there’s a waitress at a local bar (Romola Garai) injured in a fight with another mysterious stranger. There are elements of a story here, but they never seem to cohere in any way that feels satisfying. Perhaps that’s the point, perhaps one just needs to give into the feeling of it all, and some may well enjoy it at that level, but the whole thing just felt too opaque to really enjoy.

Earwig (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Lucile Hadžihalilović; Writers Hadžihalilović, Geoff Cox and Brian Catling; Cinematographer Jonathan Ricquebourg; Starring Paul Hilton, Romane Hemelaers, Romola Garai; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at the Roxy, Wellington, Sunday 14 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 483: Repulsion (1965)

This is a dark, atmospheric horror film, or perhaps more a psychological terror film, because much of the pain and panic we see is inside Catherine Deneuve’s heroine Carole. She seems traumatised by something, and while it’s not something that we ever see or is ever explained, it seems fairly clear that it goes back some way into her past, causing her to move through the world as if in a fugue state. That’s what the film’s camera is attempting to capture, along with a jarring score, that constantly fixates on small details that take on something greater, something horrific in the way that it all cuts together. And while nothing particularly shocking happens outwardly — though there are some deeply unpleasant men (even if a lot of their behaviour is just that of 60s London) — the accretion of details mount up to something tense, putting us inside Carole’s mind, inflicted by a constant state of terror. As an English-language outing from its director (Roman Polanski, who would go on to greater renown and of course infamy) it has a peculiar focus and a power that follows on from his (Polish language) debut Knife in the Water.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roman Polanski; Writers Polanski, Gérard Brach and David Stone; Cinematographer Gilbert Taylor; Starring Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, Yvonne Furneaux, John Fraser; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 28 November 2021.

A Quiet Place Part II (2020)

Okay, last week I did Netflix, which I could do several more weeks of content about (but I won’t), so this week I’m turning to recently released films that I have seen in an actual cinema. Maybe you can too where you are living, or maybe you can’t, or maybe you can and just don’t want to. These are all valid options. But I still love the cinema experience. Anyway, I haven’t reviewed the original A Quiet Place (2018) on this site (because I just watched it a few hours before I went into the cinema for the sequel), but it is better, so keep that in mind, if you haven’t seen either.


This sequel had its early-2020 release delayed for reasons that only make more prescient its central theme about the survival of a family after a deadly year of living under constant threat of death. However, compared to the first film, by opening out the narrative into a larger world featuring other people and communities also surviving the threat, it loses some of the qualities that made the first so taut a thriller. For a start, and for a film with the premise it has and the title it has, it’s a lot more talky, to the extent where you wonder if the screenwriters renegotiated a contract where they were paid by the word, because while the first was largely signed and had maybe a few terse sentences tops, this one has long stretches of chatting. And while Emily Blunt is still the matriarch of this family unit, Millicent Simmonds as her deaf daughter Regan becomes a more central character overall to the film, which is probably the right decision. However, opening the world out leads to even more moments of wondering why characters are acting the way they do, in ways that don’t seem to make a lot of sense. Overall, it feels like a lesser film compared to the original, though not without some fine set-pieces.

A Quiet Place Part II (2020)CREDITS
Director/Writer John Krasinski; Cinematographer Polly Morgan; Starring Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, Cillian Murphy, Noah Jupe; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at the Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 5 June 2021.

Criterion Sunday 437: Vampyr – Der Traum des Allan Gray (Vampyr, 1932)

I can imagine this film at the time seeming quite quaint and old-fashioned. It very much still feels like a silent film: most of the exposition is done via text-heavy images of book pages like a silent film’s intertitles and there’s very little in the way of spoken dialogue. It also, even for the period, feels rather slow with a minimum of plot drama; much of the film revolves around the atmospherics that Dreyer and his production designer and cinematographer are able to evoke. It is the very cinematic expression of the uncanny/unheimlich, as many of the images are filmed with a heavy grain, almost washed out and shot through veils, like the title character’s dream (which is after all the subtitle of the full German original title). It’s a morbid, imagistic and fantastic dream or nightmare, a reverie of the waking dead, and vampirism just seems like part of the heavy folk stylistics being conjured here, only added to by the heavy somnabulistic movements of the amateur aristocratic socialite (Nicolas de Gunzberg, credited as Julian West) in the lead role. Certainly the vampirism doesn’t seem to connote the blood-sucking of capitalists as it can in more modern interpretations, but instead evokes the sense of an ancient rural curse and restless vengeful spirits. It’s all very mysterious and beautiful, whatever inspires the horror, and while it doesn’t conjure the same kind of frightfulness as modern works, it has its own sense of the uncanny.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Carl Theodor Dreyer; Writers Christen Jul and Dreyer (based on the collection of short stories In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu); Cinematographer Rudolph Maté; Starring Nicolas de Gunzberg [as “Julian West”], Maurice Schutz, Sybille Schmitz, Rena Mandel; Length 73 minutes.

Seen at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Sunday 29 June 2003 and at the BFI Southbank, London, Monday 19 March 2012 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Sunday 13 June 2021).

Mr. Wrong (aka Dark of the Night, 1984)

Stepping back in time, NZ hasn’t been making feature films for all that long. There were certainly earlier examples, but much of the modern industry didn’t begin until the late-70s, so this 1984 horror thriller (of sorts, though it also has comedic elements) directed by a woman is therefore a rather early example of their cinematic endeavours.


I can’t deny there’s sometimes a certain cringe factor when looking back at old New Zealand films; the industry, like the homes and the fashions we see on screen, was a lot less polished back then, and sometimes indeed the acting and direction on some of those titles feel like the work of people still learning the ropes in an industry still in its relative infancy (though enthusiastic amateurishness has its charms too). Thankfully such is not the case with Mr. Wrong (that full stop is in the on-screen title), though as the filmmakers pointed out in a Q&A after the film, it didn’t have a very marketable title (the film got a different, rather unmemorable, title for its US release: Dark of the Night).

It’s a haunted thriller in a Hitchcockian mode (apparently he was originally going to adapt the same story before he died), though being made by a group of women filmmakers mean there’s definitely a feminist slant on it that you suspect would never have made it through if Hitch had been making the film. Partly that comes down to the ending (not the story’s original ending, though I shan’t say any more), and partly it’s just that all the men in the piece are indeed very wrong, whether overtly aggressive, hectoring or just condescending in a gently sexist way. Even the love interest, a certain Mr Wright (Danny Mulheron) — yes that is his name — has a habit of turning up at all the wrong moments and scaring our heroine Meg (Heather Bolton). As all these classic horror scenarios of lurking strangers in dark creaking homes and on rainy mountain roads play out, Meg continually tries to persuade herself she’s overreacting, always apologising to these creepy guys, and in part that’s because she doesn’t initially realise or accept that she’s in a ghost story, but also it’s a little bit because she’s been conditioned to be deferent and submissive, a quality she only slowly starts to shed as the film progresses. That’s probably where the feminism primarily lies, but it works as a subtly chilling ghostly thriller, and even has a few laughs in it. Well worth checking out.

Mr. Wrong film posterCREDITS
Director Gaylene Preston; Writers Geoff Murphy, Preston and Graeme Tetley (based on a short story by Elizabeth Jane Howard); Cinematographer Thomas Burstyn; Starring Heather Bolton, David Letch, Perry Piercy, Danny Mulheron; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Monday 7 December 2020.

Shadow in the Cloud (2020)

Moving onto another quite different NZ film from the documentary I reviewed yesterday, there’s this. Roseanne Liang is a NZ-born and raised director who made an interesting debut (which I shall cover later in the week) and went on a few years later — presumably it took time to bring the project together — to make this utterly ridiculous B-movie action horror thriller, which I really enjoyed but certainly pulled down mixed reviews.


I saw the trailer for this and it seemed like something I’d definitely not want to watch. After all, I’m hardly the biggest fan of the lead actor (though she’s been in some good films), and it looked silly. Well, it is silly. It is beyond absurd. But the thing about starting from a place of absurdity is that you can pretty much do anything, and this film goes to places other films don’t, or at least not since that classic era of weird off-the-wall B-movies (the 50s? maybe the 70s). It takes its low-budget constrictions and spins them off into all kinds of things in its taut running time: an intense horror-inflected chamber psychodrama; a film about toxic masculinity in war; an emotional story of domestic abuse and motherhood; an alien film; a WW2 fighter film; the kind of action film where characters climb across the outside of a moving plane; and a bunch of other stuff, although I feel that this much is in the trailer if you’re attentive. And somehow, despite the involvement of screenwriter M*x L*nd*s (who I can only assume contributed the misogyny, though that’s one of the film’s themes, and it’s pretty clear that it’s very much set against it), it all seems to work somehow — or at least it does for me. I can imagine other people finding this just downright bad, but I think it might be some kind of masterpiece. It certainly deserves a release on one of those psychotronic video labels in maybe 50 years as an undiscovered classic.

Shadow in the Cloud film posterCREDITS
Director Roseanne Liang; Writers Max Landis and Liang; Cinematographer Kit Fraser; Starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Taylor John Smith, Nick Robinson; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at the Light House Cuba, Wellington, Tuesday 16 February 2021.

Criterion Sunday 395: 他人の顔 Tanin no Kao (The Face of Another, 1966)

This black-and-white science-fiction fits into that genre of masked men exploring the depths of their morality that we got from both Hollywood (in for example 1933’s The Invisible Man), and from arthouse films like Eyes Without a Face at the start of the decade. This Japanese work certainly seems aware of those, along with an unexpected hommage to La Jetée with a series of evocative still images, and indeed I think it’s Marker’s science-fiction which looms the largest in some of the bleak atmospherics of this film. A man has had some horrible facial disfiguration as a result of an unspecific industrial accident and continues to work for his company with a full face wrapping, until a doctor suggests a face transplant (shades of Face/Off there). Needless to say, along with losing his sense of identity, our protagonist (played by Tatsuya Nakadai) seems to be slowly shedding any sense of groundedness in human morality, which makes for increasingly awkward interactions and threat. The director uses a full panoply of techniques, including some fantastic framing and staging of scenes with multiple characters, a lot of set design involving mirrors and glass walls, and at a formal level, structuring repeated scenes that play out both before and after his face transplant. It all burns away at a constant chilly intensity and makes for an unsettling experience.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hiroshi Teshigahara 勅使河原宏; Writer Kobo Abe 安部公房 (based on his novel); Cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa 瀬川浩; Starring Tatsuya Nakadai 仲代達矢, Machiko Kyo 京マチ子, Mikijiro Hira 平幹二朗, Eiji Okada 岡田英次, Kyoko Kishida 岸田今日子; Length 124 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 21 January 2021.

Criterion Sunday 394: 砂の女 Suna no Onna (Woman in the Dunes aka Woman of the Dunes, 1964)

It’s remarkable to me that this film resulted in two Oscar nominations, given the kind of pabulum that usually translates to success in the mainstream awards shows. Still, perhaps it just jelled with something in the era that was looking for works of art that expanded the mind and challenged one’s consciousness of how things are. In part I suspect the film’s success is to do with how fruitful and open the metaphorical and allegorical readings can be, given the film’s minimalism in terms of plot. Even at two-and-a-half hours, there’s very little to recount at that level: a man who is a schoolteacher in Tokyo (Eiji Okada, his character unnamed until the very end of the film) takes a few days’ off to go looking for rare insects out by the sea, but finds himself kidnapped by villagers who put him down a big hole in the sand dunes to help a woman living there alone (Kyoko Kishida, also unnamed). Her only activity seems to be digging out the sand that builds up every single day and which threatens her home and her life, an evidently Sisyphean task with no apparent end. For his part he goes through all the stages of dealing with his situation, eventually sort of settling into some rationalised existence.

Now, whether you want to see this as a metaphor for post-war Japanese society, or indeed for the human condition in some more vaguer sense, or for the exploitation of human resources under capital (there’s also a side-plot about the sand being used as cheap and illegal building materials in the outside world), or perhaps you can see the hole as being a sort of feminine lair, or about traditional folk wisdom versus the rigorous scientific approach of the man — all these readings seem to be in there. The film is filled with beautiful shimmering monochrome surfaces, capturing sand implacable in its movement, bodies moving with a sort of eroticism under the grains of sand, sweat and fear moving towards a calmer zen. It also seems to me to be something of a horror film, with the woman as a wraith-like figure, possibly supernatural, and again there are shots and suggestions that seem to support that too. In any case, it’s a masterful film that derives much of its power from its simple and charged set-up, so endlessly reconfigurable.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hiroshi Teshigahara 勅使河原宏; Writer Kobo Abe 安部公房 (based on his novel); Cinematographer Hiroshi Segawa 瀬川浩; Starring Eiji Okada 岡田英次, Kyoko Kishida 岸田今日子; Length 147 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 26 May 1999 (and most recently on DVD at home, Wellington, Thursday 28 January 2021).

The Lighthouse (2019)

While I was compiling my favourite films of 2020 list, I realised that there were still some titles I hadn’t posted full reviews of, so I’m going to try and knock the rest of those out this week. I’m going to start with a distinctive 2019 film that took its time getting to the UK, which is probably why I forgot to post a review of it. Still, it remains strikingly vivid in my mind.


I’ve not seen a Robert Eggers film before, but he’s certainly a stylist. It’s a film that hints strongly at a certain period without ever being specific, but then it moves between heavyweight historical grime, supernatural horror and something even rather mythic — and without giving away anything in my review, this becomes fairly explicit by the last shot. I came to this via Robert Pattinson (a very fine actor), whose accent also hints strongly at geography without ever quite landing on any one place (which may well be a conscious decision) but the one thing you can’t say about either of the leads (Pattinson or Willem Defoe) is that they’re afraid to commit. This in many ways is most reminiscent — in that commitment, in its blend of history and fantasy, but perhaps above all in the sheer unrelenting grimy muddy mulch of the film — of Hard to Be a God, and both pretty far out in performances. I’m not sure what it all adds up to, but I did rather admire it nonetheless (and discovering it was at least partly shot and funded by Canada, makes a lot more tonal sense to me).

The Lighthouse film posterCREDITS
Director Robert Eggers; Writers Robert Eggers and Max Eggers; Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke; Starring Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 26 January 2020.