The 33 (aka Los 33, 2015)

It feels like there are two distinct films within this relatively big-budget Chilean/Colombian co-production, based on the real-life mining disaster at Copiapó in 2010 in which 33 miners were trapped underground. One is a film of excellent cinematography in underground chambers, of fine acting by the ensemble cast, depicting the lives of ordinary people in an extraordinary situation. It does a really good job, in particular, of capturing these men’s weary lined faces as they assess their chances, and of their families above ground (mostly wives and children) hoping and praying for their survival. That’s a good film.

And then there’s the film as it’s scripted, replete with disaster clichés, spoken in heavily-accented English, and — perhaps suggesting some of the commercial focus of the filmmakers — even setting up a triumphal US involvement towards the end (though thankfully backing off from giving too great a value to that). This is the film in which the engineer played by Gabriel Byrne (of all people; mostly the cast are Latino) points at a 3D rendering of the mine overlaid with a graphic of the Empire State Building (two of them in fact) to represent the size of the obstacle. This film is not nearly as successful. People shake their heads (Byrne again) and say “we need to face the TRUTH dammit” while others (the Minister of Mining, played by Rodrigo Santoro) say “No I believe en mi corazón that they’re still alive, and now let me go listen to a touching old woman’s song” (yes, I’m paraphrasing obviously, but not much).

On balance, I think the good film wins out in the end, but only just. It’s beautifully filmed, and the tension is solidly crafted — it would be all but unbearable if we didn’t know the real-life outcome. Perhaps on reflection, it’s the cast speaking in English I object to the most, but there’s still plenty to like, and Banderas is a dependable linchpin for the unfolding drama.

The 33 (aka Los 33, 2015)CREDITS
Director Patricia Riggen; Writers Mikko Alanne, Craig Borten and Michael Thomas (based on the book Deep Down Dark by Héctor Tobar); Cinematographer Checco Varese; Starring Antonio Banderas, Lou Diamond Phillips, Rodrigo Santoro, Juliette Binoche, Gabriel Byrne; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Tuesday 2 February 2016.

Criterion Sunday 55: The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)

Maybe I’m missing the emotionally devastating power of this film (or at least, that’s the kind of description I imagine was applied to it when it was first released), or perhaps it just doesn’t stand up over time particularly well, or maybe I’m the wrong generation to appreciate it properly. I really don’t know what explains it, but for me, this handsomely-mounted, big-budget Hollywood epic of the 1980s with some pretty big name stars (at least by today’s standards; Day-Lewis and Binoche were still early in their careers back then) doesn’t seem to connect with its characters. To an extent changes in filmmaking taste may be a factor: hearing these actors from a range of European countries (England, France and Sweden for the central trio) affect Czech accents can seem a little jarring to today’s tastes, perhaps. But there’s also a sort of studied artfulness to the sex scenes: it has an 18 certificate, but you wonder if it would still merit that nowadays. There’s nothing particularly explicit or shocking: Day-Lewis and Olin play characters who live bohemian lives (it is Prague, after all), whose sexual libertinism swiftly comes into conflict with the new Soviet-imposed Communist ideals, as the tanks roll in to crush their freedom. Still, as shot by Bergman’s frequent cinematographer Sven Nykvist, it is beautiful to look at — it’s difficult to imagine Prague or the Czech countryside being difficult to imbue with charm, but Nykvist succeeds admirably well. I haven’t read the novel, but one imagines the idea that life and sex are fleeting pleasures that must be embraced and enjoyed — seemingly the meaning of the ‘lightness’ in the title — may work work better on the page. Certainly there the characters benefit from not having belaboured accents, though I will at least own that we’d miss the shaggy charm of their dog, Karenin.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Philip Kaufman; Writers Jean-Claude Carrière and Kaufman (based on the novel Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí by Milan Kundera); Cinematographer Sven Nykvist; Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin; Length 171 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 20 September 2015.

Sils Maria (Clouds of Sils Maria, 2014)

Aside from the pre-scheduled Criterion posts, there’s been slim pickings on this blog in recent weeks as I’ve been on holiday in the States and Canada, which means I’ve largely not been seeing films. However, I did catch up with one while over there. UPDATE: It has since been added to the Criterion Collection, so you see just how far I’ve strayed.


I’ve always had the sense from the infiltration of celebrity gossip into news coverage that Kristen Stewart has been underrated as an actor, apparently on the basis of, I don’t know, her lack of a sunny Californian disposition? It’s obviously a shallow criticism, as even if you’d only been aware of her since her turn in Twilight (2008), she’s already proved her acting mettle many times (my favourite being the 2010 musical biopic The Runaways). Clearly French director Olivier Assayas has been attentive, as he’s cast her alongside acting heavyweight Juliette Binoche, and Stewart very much holds her own (though perhaps it helps that Binoche is called upon to deliver much of her performance in English). It’s a classic self-reflexive European narrative about actors and acting, about ageing and egos and a sort of psychic transference between the older (Binoche) and younger generations (Stewart, as well as Chloë Grace Moretz in a small role). Stewart plays Valentine, the harried but largely unflappable PA to Binoche’s Maria, a well-known theatrical actor who is travelling to Zürich to deliver a tribute to the (now-deceased) director who discovered her when she was a teenager. There’s something about the way it all unfolds with its narrative ellipses, its teasing character linkages and its self-reflexivity about the craft of acting and cinema, not to mention the mountainous Swiss setting (the film’s title is taken from a notable cloud formation), which reminds me of the Swiss auteur Alain Tanner and a 1960s/70s tradition of this kind of story. Clouds of Sils Maria hints at the boundaries between the real and the fictive in a playful, literary and engaged way, but leaves us on a questioning note, unsure of exactly how much has changed for its title character and those women around her.

Clouds of Sils Maria film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Olivier Assayas; Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux; Starring Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at Cineplex Forum, Montréal, Wednesday 15 April 2015.

Camille Claudel 1915 (2013)

Bruno Dumont has a certain directorial style that he’s developed from his debut, La Vie de Jésus (The Life of Jesus, 1997), focusing on the corporeality and mortality of a central character, and through them channelling an immanent sense of divinity, often employing long steady unflinching takes of his actors. I greatly admired that debut and its even more expansive follow-up, Humanité (Humanity, 1999), and the idea of casting Juliette Binoche in this, his latest film, seems a natural fit to the kinds of themes he explores. Binoche, after all, seems to specialise in films which just watch her face as she goes through mental anguish and turmoil. There’s certainly plenty of that here, where she plays the title character, a sculptor who has been confined to a psychiatric asylum in rural France.

The character and story of Claudel is a real one, and though she had spent two years of her life in the asylum by the time the film starts (and it is set over just a handful of days), she would spend the rest of her life in this place. This is part of the tragedy that Binoche’s expressive face conveys, and there’s little enough dialogue over the film’s running time, being mostly focused on her internal struggle. Binoche is of course very good at these roles, and she gets into character as the wan but hardly browbeaten Claudel impressively, so it’s perhaps more I as the audience who has trouble enduring this kind of chamber piece. After all, truth be told, I haven’t been a fan of her more famous earlier roles in the same vein either (think Trois couleurs: Bleu 20 years ago for example).

Complicating the scenario further is Dumont’s use of real psychiatric patients, most of them in quite an extreme state of mental disarray (in contrast to Claudel, who seems lucid by contrast; she can at least hold a conversation). These actors are marshalled like decoration, clamouring around Binoche and giving the whole enterprise a vaguely exploitative air, though I suppose one could equally well say that it all heightens the pathos of Claudel’s situation. Those playing the staff of the asylum (doctors and orderlies) all have a sort of inexpressive naturalness to them, coming across like Robert Bresson’s use of untrained non-actors (whom he called ‘models’).

Perhaps it’s only fair to say that one’s liking for this film may depend on how much one enjoys Binoche’s solo performances. She comes across as a kind of ‘holy fool’ figure, resisting the forces of orthodoxy that the asylum (and her brother) imposes, and though the film is impressively focused, I can’t say I enjoyed it exactly.

Camille Claudel 1915 film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Bruno Dumont; Cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaines; Starring Juliette Binoche; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Tuesday 15 October 2013.

Copie conforme (Certified Copy, 2010)

There’s a playful quality to all of Abbas Kiarostami’s films, but playful in the formal sense — of an artist grappling with and pushing at the boundaries of narrative, of how things are represented on screen and how those images are interpreted by the viewer. These are philosophical concerns, ontological questions about the nature of reality, which I cannot pretend to be an expert in. And if the idea of a philosophical cinema seems a little dry, well there are times in Copie conforme when it does seem that way, although I wouldn’t want to suggest this characterises Kiarostami’s filmmaking as a whole. I liked his most recent film Like Someone in Love, and his Iranian features are wonderful. However with this, his first non-Iranian feature film — it’s set in Italy and is in English, French and Italian — I find my attention wandering.

The structure of the film remains interesting. It follows James, an author played by opera singer William Shimell, who meets an antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche) while promoting his book in Italy. She drives him out to a pretty spot in the countryside while they chat. When they stop for a coffee, the lady serving them mistakes them for a married couple, which they play along with for a bit, but after leaving, the line between play and reality becomes blurred. Given that James’s book is entitled Certified Copy and it’s about the idea that the copy of a work of art can be just as valuable if not more so than the original, so the play between reality and fiction in their personal lives becomes a focus for the film. In fact, hints of this married status permeate the film from the outset — some of the ways that James acts around Binoche’s character (who is unnamed) suggest a deeper connection, and yet at the start they clearly do not know one another: he signs her book before going up to speak while she and her son take their seats in the audience.

This set-up is intriguing, but it makes the actors’ lives difficult, and I’m not convinced they really overcome this need to try to play multiple different characters at the same time. The more into the husband character that James gets, the more aggressively domineering, patronising and snippy he gets, though at times earlier on he shows hints of this rudeness, while Binoche must flit almost schizophrenically between coquettish and angry, and all shades of emotion in between. By the end, it can be a little tiring to follow their trajectory. That said, I think Shimell (as the untrained actor) and Binoche do a fine job with what they have to work with.

There are plenty of antecedents for this kind of film, and having recently re-watched (and reviewed) Richard Linklater‘s trilogy of Before films, those are the ones I have most in mind, especially given the match of French leading lady with an Anglophone counterpart, not to mention similarities in certain aspects of their characters. Things get a lot darker for the couple here, making Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (Voyage to Italy, 1954) another point of comparison. There’s plenty too in the dialogue between characters that feels recognisable, but it’s oddly stilted. However, there is a nice stretch late in the film where James slips into French almost imperceptibly, implying once more that he’s become a different character.

It wouldn’t really be fair to linger on the comparisons with other films though, for Kiarostami is his own filmmaker and imbues proceedings with a strong authorial presence. Many of his favourite themes and motifs are familiar, and the film looks beautiful thanks to the collaboration with cinematographer Luca Bigazzi. It’s just that as another experiment in narrative form, it feels a little arid. I may well feel differently about this film in a number of years; perhaps you will find me revisiting it with warmth. For now, I recommend it only advisedly.

Certified Copy film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami عباس کیارستمی‎; Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi; Starring Juliette Binoche, William Shimell; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 9 July 2013.