Criterion Sunday 519: کلوزآپ ، نمای نزدیک Kluzap, Nema-ye Nazdik (Close-Up, 1990)

I do love the late Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s works, and this isn’t even my favourite of his. It is however, the film that, perhaps more even than his celebrated Koker trilogy (the first of which pre-dates this film), shows the power of his craft. Once again he approaches a real-life incident but loops in so many layers of storytelling that it’s unclear where documentary ends and fiction begins. Perhaps there is no truth, or perhaps it is all true: there’s a court sequence that seems like it must be unmediated reality but that itself feels like a construct (the grainier image hinting at some more ‘truthful’ technique, like that video-shot sequence at the end of Taste of Cherry, but then there’s also an abundance of very prominent camera equipment, lights and boom operators, that moves us away from cinéma vérité). There are also sequences which must surely be reconstructions, but the classical filmmaking style gives the impression of being there, such that you have to catch yourself occasionally. Is our lead character Hossein Sabzian a foolish figure, a grifter out to make a buck, or is he the one ultimately being conned? You could make an argument for any of these, and all are possible within Kiarostami’s film. Ultimately this is a film asking where the truth lies, and certainly in Close-Up — as perhaps, we are led to believe, in all filmmaking — there is truth and there are lies.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • This is an excellent release for those who love Kiarostami because you get an entire early feature film as a bonus extra, The Traveller (1974), which is claimed in some sources to be his debut feature although it appears from others to be his second film (the first was an hour long, which may be where the confusion lies). In any case, like many of his early short films, this focuses on kids and football. A boy in a small town loves it to the exclusion of his schoolwork and is focused on getting to see the national team play in the capital Tehran. Thereupon he embarks on a series of ruses (mostly of dubious morality) to get the money to go. You can see Kiarostami’s indebtedness to Italian neorealism here, but there’s a lot of what would later become his familiar style present also. It ends in an almost shockingly abrupt way, but it works, especially when we consider its production by a childhood education institute — though there’s nothing overtly didactic about the script (aside from an amusing scene where he’s trying to do some maths, then promptly skips his maths lesson).
  • Another extra is Close-Up, Long Shot (1996, dir. Moslem Mansouri/Mahmoud Chokrollahi), a 44 minute video-shot companion piece that revisits Hossein Sabzian some years after he’d been the focus of Close-Up. With his greying hair (he’d made a reference in the earlier film to dyeing it black) and time to reflect, he cuts a quite different figure from the slightly foolish and diffident man of Kiarostami’s film — suggesting yet another layer on top of those presented in Close-Up of how truth has been manipulated. Certainly Sabzian does feel here — and expresses it with some eloquence — as if he was the one being conned ultimately, and if his story isn’t exactly triumphant, he at least has his wits about him (though sadly he died 10 years later). The filmmakers of this documentary give a sense of his life and family, talking to his friends, and it’s an interesting extra piece of what was already a multi-faceted cinematic puzzle.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami عباس کیارستمی‎; Cinematographer Ali Reza Zarrindast زرین‌دست علیرضا; Starring Hossain Sabzian حسین سبزیان, Mohsen Makhmalbaf محسن مخملباف; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Tuesday 12 April 2022 (and earlier, probably at home on VHS, Wellington, early-2000s).

مسافر Mosafer (The Traveller, 1974)
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami عباس کیارستمی‎; Cinematographer Firooz Malekzadeh فیروز ملک‌زاده; Starring Hassan Darabi حسن دارابی; Length 71 minutes.

Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Monday 5 June 2017.

As Mil e uma Noites (Arabian Nights, 2015)

Every so often a film comes along that gets a great consensus of positive critical reviews, but which I just can’t connect with, and Miguel Gomes’s austerity epic Arabian Nights is one such. It’s split into three volumes, probably for commercial reasons, and clearly states at the start of each that it’s not an adaptation of the Arabic folk tale collection, but merely uses its structure for a story about the economic vicissitudes of modern Portugal. Over its 6+ hours it builds up an intriguing blend of documentary realism and fabulist mythmaking, flitting between past and present (often with little distinction between eras even in the same scenes) as between fact and fiction. Sheherezade (Crista Alfaiate) is present, particularly in the third volume, but Gomes allows for myriad lengthy diversions, starting with a shipyard strike, but also including first-person testimony by impoverished labourers, and ending with bird-trappers who capture chaffinches and then compete their bird songs against one another. When he does feature a more overtly mythical register (as in the courtroom scene of Volume 2, or the seaside romantic diversions that open Volume 3), costumed actors are integrated into the modern world in sometimes surprising ways. It’s not that I find it to be a bad film, but it often tested my patience, and Gomes’s openness to surprising digressions and random juxtapositions can be both beguiling as much as distancing (there’s a propensity in volume 2 for interpolating naked women into the narrative, as one example). Perhaps if I should see all three volumes together in one long sitting I should find more to pull me in, for surely there’s no shortage of epic ambition to the film, and it’s this — that such a freewheeling dissociative attempt to grapple with urgent political issues got made at all — that’s most inspiring to me in the end.

Arabian Nights Volume 1 film posterArabian Nights Volume 2 film posterArabian Nights Volume 3 film posterCREDITS
Director Miguel Gomes; Writers Telmo Churro, Gomes and Mariana Ricardo (inspired by the folk tale collection ألف ليلة و ليلة‎ Kitab ʾalf layla wa-layla); Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom สยมภู มุกดีพร้อม; Starring Crista Alfaiate; Length 382 minutes in three parts: Volume 1, O Inquieto (The Restless One), 125 minutes; Volume 2, O Desolado (The Desolate One), 132 minutes; Volume 3, O Encantado (The Enchanted One), 125 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 23 April 2016 [Volume 1] and Saturday 30 April 2016 [Volume 2], and at ICA, London, Tuesday 10 May 2016 [Volume 3].

Criterion Sunday 69: Le Testament d’Orphée (Testament of Orpheus, 1960)

Jean Cocteau’s final film is often apt to be dismissed when compared with his earlier mythologically-hued triumphs like Orpheus (1950) or Beauty and the Beast (1946), but that would be a mistake, because for me it feels like one of his most essential, if not personal, works — and not just because he takes the central role. Once again he reconfigures the Orpheus mythology, with Cocteau as a time-travelling poet, and the stars of his previous film (not to mention celebrity friends and admirers like Pablo Picasso and Jean-Pierre Léaud) showing up in cameos. He utilises all his favourite filmic tricks and tropes, with mirrors-as-portals and living statues and struggles against gravity and painted eyes, but most notably the ripped petals on a flowing leaping back into place thanks to reverse photography. Criticisms of it being self-indulgent may not be inaccurate, but they’re beside the point, for what else should this be if not self-indulgent. It’s a freewheeling, loosely-structured paean to poetic indulgence, and should be celebrated as such. It’s certainly a fitting end to Cocteau’s long and varied career.

Criterion Extras: There’s are some texts by Cocteau about the film, as well as a medium-length film La Villa Santo Sospir (1952), made at a prominent location in Testament, the home of one of Cocteau’s patrons, filled with his artworks. Cocteau tries out some of the techniques he would use in the later feature, particularly the reverse loops of flowers regaining their petals, as well as talking at length about his pieces of artwork for the home. It’s fascinating mainly as notes towards the later work, a film in miniature about Cocteau and his artwork.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean Cocteau; Cinematographer Roland Pontoizeau; Starring Jean Cocteau; Length 80 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 13 December 2015.

Gemma Bovery (2014)

You could make a case — and I wouldn’t be entirely unreceptive to your viewpoint — that this film is a regressive form of faux-naïf haute bourgeoise naffery. I’m pretty sure New Waves have formed in opposition to less provocation, and even if it isn’t quite the desultory cinéma de papa of the past (it has a female writer and director, for a start), it’s hardly challenging in the laidback literary allusions of the screenplay and its bucolic country town setting. There’s also a self-aware subtext revolving around the fitting of literary archetypes to (overtly constructed) characters that reminds me of another French film starring Fabrice Luchini, Dans la maison directed by François Ozon — though that film was more aggressive in pushing its meta-narrative, so if forced I’d generally prefer Anne Fontaine’s filmmaking to that of Ozon.

But already I feel I’m pushing back too strongly against a film which, broadly, I rather enjoyed. If it has that self-aware constructedness that may perhaps be traced to the involvement on the screenplay of former film critic (and Jacques Rivette collaborator) Pascal Bonitzer, it could also be said to critique a masculinist construction of feminine identity by having our central character Martin (Luchini) — and despite the film’s title, his is the point of view around which the film revolves — carefully watch and steer the narrative path of Gemma Arterton’s title character. Arterton is a fine actor who does great work with what is ultimately a purposely thin character, existing in that sort of Daisy Buchanan mould as an object of male lust and projected fantasies of femininity. That said, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it particularly challenging: Gemma is still largely a pawn to the (male-centred) narrative, and some of the comedy at the expense of Anglo-French relations can get a little strained (although there’s a very amusing smaller role for Elsa Zylberstein as a status-obsessed socialite). But as a testament to Arterton and Luchini’s excellent and subtle acting skills, Gemma Bovery does provide a pleasant divertissement.

Gemma Bovery film poster CREDITS
Director Anne Fontaine; Writers Pascal Bonitzer and Fontaine (based on the graphic novel by Posy Simmonds); Cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne; Starring Gemma Arterton, Fabrice Luchini, Jason Flemyng; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Wednesday 26 August 2015.

Återträffen (The Reunion, 2013)

At a certain level The Reunion poses itself as a documentary about artist (and director/writer/star) Anna Odell confronting her high school experience after 20 years, but it’s never clear to what extent any of this is true or accurate, preferring to stay aloof from such quotidian issues. It poses questions about our relationship to our own past and how we deal with emotional traumas over time, via a two-part meta-fictional framework. In the first part, Odell stages an account of a class reunion in which she arrives and disrupts the nostalgic hazy view the others have of their youthful camaraderie, in a style reminiscent of the awkward puncturing of complacent bourgeois values in Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen. The second, longer, part has her then confront the ‘real’ former classmates who were at the reunion to which she was not, in fact, invited. The film is stylistically of a piece for its entire running length, and the shot-reverse shot stagings of her interviews and awkward street encounters with her school colleagues (including one in which an actor who played a role in the first part is approached by the ‘real’ person the character was based upon) certainly distance it from straightforward documentation. It makes for an odd fictional exercise, in which the perpetually deer-in-the-headlights expression of Anna dominates and the audience is challenged to put themselves in her place, and in those of her classmates.

The Reunion film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Anna Odell; Cinematographer Ragna Jorming; Starring Anna Odell; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 11 July 2015.

British Silent Film Festival 2014

The Cinema Museum logo The regular presentation of Britain’s early filmed legacy this year took the form of a one-day conference followed by a day of screenings at Kennington’s Cinema Museum. There were four sessions, each presenting a feature film, and some shorts, with the final film of both late-morning and late-afternoon sessions being a feature directed by Hungarian émigré Géza von Bolváry and starring Britain’s 1920s screen darling Betty Balfour, respectively The Vagabond Queen and Bright Eyes (both 1929). Other highlights were a drama about a woman finding liberation through, ahem, secretarial work in The Twelve Pound Look (1920) and a sort of proto-kitchen sink drama about working-class East Enders, one of whose set finds love with a posh toff in The Right to Live (1921). Each of the sessions was accompanied by a different musician, respectively John Sweeney, Cyrus Gabrysch, Lily Henley, and Stephen Horne, all of whom did a wonderful job.

Continue reading “British Silent Film Festival 2014”

Éloge de l’amour (In Praise of Love, 2001)

With a bit of a break for Hélas pour moi (1993) and For Ever Mozart (1996), for the majority of the 1990s, Godard was engaged on his densely-textured multi-part video work Histoire(s) du cinéma. Given his devotion to that project (which I shall be reviewing later), it’s no surprise to find in this return to the narrative feature format, something of both that and his celluloid roots, both in terms of the textures as well as some of the themes. Éloge de l’amour is every bit as interesting and complex a work as his other late-period films and probably demands (certainly deserves) more attention than I was able to give it on my one sole viewing (so far), but it feels to me like a great film.

Those allusive textures I mentioned are most obviously in the last half-hour, shot on video and pushed towards an extreme colour balance, all thickly saturated blocky colours threatening to overwhelm the fragile human figures. But the first half too reminds us of Godard’s past, utilising starkly monochrome photography of Paris by night. If the style is not quite the same as back in those 1960s films with Raoul Coutard behind the camera — here it’s more contrasty, with deep inky blacks pressing in everywhere — it still feels redolent of that era. Filming in the street recalls his debut feature, while a scene by the river brings to mind a similar one in Bande à part. It’s a modern Paris but the filming renders it once more timeless.

That said, Godard the filmmaker is concerned above all with time, and as in many of his films, channels whatever are his current autobiographical obsessions. With Éloge, it’s his advancing age that is part of the backdrop. In fact, in many ways this film is more elegy than eulogy, its blend of textures and repeated classical music motifs drawing us back in time, with reminiscences of the French wartime resistance becoming part of the story (one commodified by Hollywood filmmaking — the ‘resistance’ here is as much Godard’s towards those methods of telling a story, as it is the wartime French). Love, which from the film’s title is ostensibly more important, is just one aspect of history and one that can so easily disappear into the shadows. Intertitles which flash up during the first part of the film are unclear as to what’s being eulogised: “DE L’AMOUR” or “DE QUELQUE CHOSE” (“of something” else). By the final video-shot part of the film, the intertitles are more interested in the passage of time — this section is set two years in the past, the “ARCHIVES”, “a long time ago”… “so long ago” — and the fact that the past utilises grainy colour video footage is even more a provocation.

The story itself is as opaque as ever in late-period Godard. There’s some sense that a writer (played by Bruno Putzulu) is trying to recall a love he shared, and is auditioning women to play parts in his story, but it’s all very obliquely presented. The ravishing black-and-white images show face-and-shoulders shots of the women speaking to camera with the writer’s voiceover questioning them, the writer in various settings of wealth and aspiration talking about the project, and night-time Paris with its tourist monuments in the background and its night-time workforce of cleaners and caretakers passing through. All these shots come in a flow of associative ideas, broken up by black leader suggesting images snatched from memory or from time itself.

I suspect audiences either go with Godard’s dense filmic poetry or actively resist his generalising and pretensions. He doesn’t make it particularly easy — for the American audiences, there are some challenging positions with regards to US hegemony and Hollywoodisation of history, which certainly come through as sore points when flicking through the critical commentary online — but his way with sound and images remains undimmed after all these years. He’s certainly grown crankier as a filmmaker, but the end result is a beautiful film that I believe stands up to repeat viewings and gives something of a sense of how it is to grow old within a medium that fetishises beauty and youth. It is something of a swansong.

Next Up: The most recent film of Godard’s I’ll be looking at is Notre musique (2004), which deals with violence and colonialism.

In Praise of Love film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographers Julien Hirsch and Christophe Pollock; Starring Bruno Putzulu; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 25 September 2013.

Dans la maison (In the House, 2012)

François Ozon has always been a safe middle-class director of safe middle-class fantasies, which is the opening for an excoriating review whereby I dismiss all his work out of hand as being unworthy of your time, this film no less than any other. Or at least that’s one version of this review, an exceedingly unkind and somewhat unfair one at that. Certainly, it wasn’t a million miles from my impression of the first film of his I saw, Sitcom (1998), which busied itself with a then-fashionable media satire using as its milieu a middle-class French suburban family. I do think Ozon, and Dans la maison, has more to offer though, while still retaining some of his familiar themes.

For this film is primarily about the stories we tell, or the stories we are told, and (as I rather inelegantly tried to do above in my first sentence), it opens up questions about the truth of what we’re being told and asks us to consider whose viewpoint is being depicted. It concerns itself with Germain Germain (whose double name seems to allude to Humbert Humbert, only one of many misdirects — or are they? — in the film), an English teacher at a boys’ high school (Lycée Gustave Flaubert, the first of many literary references) and his relationship with one of his new pupils, Claude, who is a markedly better storyteller than his monosyllabic classmates. For his first class test, to just describe their weekend, Claude turns in a story of his insinuating himself into a fellow pupil’s family home, which is creepy enough. However, as this same story develops over further assignments, it twists and turns, abetted by Germain who has become increasingly involved in the unfolding story, into something rather more elaborate, and rather more mutable.

There’s clearly an element of the director making his self-reflexive film about filmmaking, but which of these characters is the director and which the actor is constantly in flux. Germain starts out as the teacher he plays, in front of the blackboard elucidating narrative ploys to Claude in one-on-one coaching sessions, but a later shot has him circling with the camera around Claude, and finally Claude is the one in front of the blackboard teaching Germain. Literary references abound as well, with the creation of a narrative always at the forefront, as scenes of Germain reading Claude’s essays to his wife (an excellent Kristin Scott Thomas) are framed by library bookshelves, in her art gallery, in the cinema. All these different influences and texts (those of the art catalogues are amusingly mocked at one point) that encircle the film’s storytelling also hint at different paths the central story of Claude and his school friend’s family might take. The fact that this film’s setup (like Ozon’s first film Sitcom) recalls Pasolini’s Teorema (1968) is even explicitly referenced by Germain, further muddying the extent to which the film’s events are ‘real’ or ‘authored’.

In a way, it’s this explicitness about the ‘constructedness’ of the film’s narrative that somewhat drains the tension in the way it plays out, as successive twists can be chalked up to another little flourish of the filmmaker’s art. It’s never less than entertaining, it should be said, with some tightly constructed scenes, as well as fine performances from Fabrice Luchini as Germain, Scott Thomas and the young man playing Claude (Ernst Umhauer). It just ultimately never seems to offer the threat to the bourgeoisie that it at times promises.


CREDITS
Director/Writer François Ozon (based on the play El chico de la última fila [The Boy in the Last Row] by Juan Mayorga); Cinematographer Jérôme Alméras; Starring Fabrice Luchini, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ernst Umhauer; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Tuesday 2 April 2013.