Born in Argentina in 1966, Lucrecia Martel had a typically Catholic upbringing for the region, albeit such that she only enrolled in an ultra-Catholic school in order to study ancient languages. There she excelled in science and had intended further study in zoology, and even dabbled in farming, but was drawn into more practical studies in consideration of making a living, and bit by bit was drawn into filmmaking, in which occupation she was largely self-taught. She made short films and some documentaries for television during the 1990s, and has made only four feature films for cinema, but already in that time she has proven a keen eye for framing, and a laconic way of drawing out a story. Indeed, after bursting onto the international scene with La Ciénaga in 2001, she has been a model for successive Latin American women directors, if not for an entire strand of arthouse film production. Her films are not immediately accessible, and perhaps that explains her slow output (and the dizzying array of producers and sources of money her films sometimes list), but she also crafts them all very deliberately so perhaps the waits are worthwhile.
In my post about The Mafu Cage, I mentioned writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, who has also written a book about the Rape Revenge film. This recent French outing fits into that particular sub-genre, which sort of lurks off to the side of the horror film, its films often nasty and exploitative, which can be varied as to the way they treat the moral quandary at their heart.
This is definitely one of those films that feels like it’s in dialogue with retro trends. Like The Guest and its ilk from the US, it seems to be reimagining the 80s exploitation flick, with a helping of French cinéma du look values, while also in those bold title cards and twisted sexual politics calling back to Baise-moi (2000) and films by Gaspar Noé, et al., which attacked with glee certain notions of gendered violence. But if you are willing to accept its larger than life formal qualities — a saturated sun-drenched Mexican setting, its rape-revenge premise, the superhuman survival qualities of its four characters (a woman and three nasty, predatory men), and all the fake blood that exists in the world (that hadn’t already been used by Raw the year before) — it’s quite a ride. Its central character of Jen (Matilda Lutz) starts out as the kind of cipher for female sexuality you might find in a Michael Bay heroine, but soon comes to find a stoic resilience to pain that sets up the final two-thirds of the film, though beyond that there’s hardly much characterisation: this is a very simple concept, executed (as it were) very well.
Director/Writer Coralie Fargeat; Cinematographer Robrecht Heyvaert; Starring Matilda Lutz, Kevin Janssens, Vincent Colombe, Guillaume Bouchède; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 12 May 2018.
For most of the past week, my blog has been focusing on the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, with a roster of mighty melodramas, but in the modern era directors like Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu have found box office success (both in Mexico and in the United States, where many of them work now) in a variety of genres, though often still tending towards the dark and thorny. None has gained quite as much fervid festival acclaim (not to mention exasperated brickbats) than Carlos Reygadas, who unlike his contemporaries has remained in Mexico to make his films, rich with religious symbolism, copious sex and an austerely formal camera style. He made his name with Japón (2001, which is on the Criterion Collection now), and followed with the divisive Battle in Heaven (2005, below), with its Bressonian approach to non-actors combined with rather more florid content than Bresson would ever have countenanced. 2007’s Silent Light is to my mind his finest picture in terms of reconciling his themes and formal style, dealing with a Mennonite community, but Post Tenebras Lux (2012) has many admirers. His most recent film (Our Time) is also his longest, and is reviewed below.
I wrote about this Mexican film, which I saw at last year’s London Film Festival, in my round-up of my favourite LFF films, and it also made #13 in my favourite films of 2018. Now it’s getting a proper cinematic release in the UK, so if you haven’t seen it, please do.
At the level of plot, almost nothing really happens in this film — a young woman called Eve (Gabriela Cartol) works as a hotel cleaner, and moves around its spaces almost anonymously. Guests ignore her, and those who do seek her help and show appreciation — like a rich Argentinean woman who asks Eve to look after her baby for a few minutes while she’s in the shower, then proceeds to offer her lucrative work in Buenos Aires — disappear from her life with ease. She joins a work educational scheme that is summarily cancelled by the union. At length, she shares a few laughs with co-workers, but even they let her down in the end. Yet while in content it could be grim and unrelenting, it’s really not — and a lot of that is down to the central performance. Eve just wants to be noticed and appreciated, it seems, but she’s enigmatic and reserved, and if it weren’t for the lead actor, maybe even we wouldn’t notice her. It’s a compelling character study, and a fine debut feature.
Director Lila Avilés; Writers Avilés and Juan Carlos Marquéz; Cinematographer Carlos Rossini; Starring Gabriela Cartol, Teresa Sánchez; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Thursday 18 October 2018.
Mexican cinema was responsible for a glorious run of full-blooded melodramas in the 1940s, and I’ve already covered a few in recent posts, including Another Dawn (1943) with Andrea Palma and Twilight (1945) with Gloria Marín, both directed by Julio Bracho, and the wonderful Dolores del Río in La otra (1945). I mention the female leads because it’s the women who really define this period in cinema, and before we move on to Ninón Sevilla, it’s worth mentioning my favourite restoration at the 2018 London Film Festival, Emilio Fernández’s Enamorada (1946), which stars the glorious María Félix, who not only dominates the film but steals every single frame she’s in, a definite highlight of the era.
Ninón Sevilla as Violeta comes across a bit like Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls (1995), and like that film this is a melodramatic ride through the sleazy underworld of a (Mexican) city. Still, director Emilio Fernández shows a great deal of sympathy and generosity towards his nightclub dancers forced into street work thanks to the dangerous and violent vicissitudes of low-class gangsters like Rodolfo (Rodolfo Acosta). He is introduced in the opening scenes and, without any dialogue required, his character is perfectly set up: big suit, concerned about appearances, cheap with his barber but flashy with his money, he struts out into this underworld with the brio of a man who is clearly not only going to fall but ensure that he pulls down with him as many others as he can. Throughout, the grimy sweaty reality of inner city life is stressed, the vast plumes of smoke from the steam trains that pass by crowd the frame like a bleak Turner painting (and like a lot of red-light districts, this one is tucked up alongside railway lines). The women of this film aren’t victims of their own sin, but very much that of the men around them, who are violent and, with a few exceptions, thuggish brutes. If anyone here survives, it’s only by the slenderest margins, but those margins are what the film is all about.
Director/Writer Emilio Fernández; Cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa; Starring Ninón Sevilla, Tito Junco, Rodolfo Acosta; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Tuesday 2 July 2019.
On my regular Women Filmmakers’ Wednesday slot, I don’t have any specific women in Mexican cinema to focus on, as there haven’t been a huge number over the years (far more as actors than in the major roles behind the camera), but there have been an increasing number of documentaries of interest. Both the ones I focus on below sit somewhere between narrative and documentary, blending observational techniques with a more poetic sensibility.
We’re now deep into the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, though I can’t tell you much about the director himself. He was from a large family, was sister to Andrea Palma (seen in 1934’s The Woman of the Port and in Another Dawn below) and a cousin to Dolores del Río (whom we saw in La otra). He was involved with modern theatre in Mexico City in the 1930s and then moved into writing and directing between the 1940s-1970s, though he had trouble with the censors later in his career. He passed away in 1978.
This opens as a grand melodrama of two sisters — one a mousy manicurist trying to eke out a meagre living (expected by her boss to work extra on the side in a rather more personal manner than she wants), the other living the high life as the newly-widowed wife to a millionaire — but quickly starts to loop in grander themes of crime and punishment. Both sisters are played by Dolores del Río (mostly in shot-countershot or using stand-ins, but there’s a split-screen for at least one brief scene), and though they start out with distinct identities, things start to converge for what I shall obliquely refer to as ‘plot reasons’ (and shan’t divulge). The director and cinematographer have a keen eye for interesting framings — not least in a scene shot through a convex mirror, or another climactic scene which lays vast shadows of prison bars over chiaroscuro depths — and the costume designer is no slouch either, especially for a hairpiece which is an entire black bird, its wings outstretched across del Río’s hair, or the prominent jutting shoulder pads worn by Victor Junco’s smarmy Fernando (even in his dressing gown). It all builds towards a grand emotional climax in which the sins of one sister come back to haunt the other.
Director Roberto Gavaldón; Writers Rian James, Gavaldón, José Revueltas and Jack Wagner; Cinematographer Alex Phillips; Starring Dolores del Río, Victor Junco; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Tuesday 2 July 2019.
I’m doing a week of Mexican films on my blog, starting with the Golden Age of Mexican cinema and building to some more modern films in advance of the UK cinematic release of The Chambermaid (somewhat less melodramatic than these early films, but still very attentive to the social structure).
Despite the taut running time, this feels like a slightly underwritten film. That may partly be due to it being an early sound film, and so still an art form trying to figure out its conventions, but there are long sequences that feel repetitious, even if the intention is to build the melodramatic potential of a plot that isn’t short on soap operatic detail. Andrea Palma is the titular character, Rosario, a woman with a dusky Dietrich-like allure (you can’t avoid that image of her that adorns the poster; it’s almost iconic in the golden age of Mexican cinema), but she is spurned by an unfaithful boyfriend and her father dies trying to protect her honour. Without him she is clearly unwelcome; during these early scenes set in the city, there’s a particularly memorable trio of judgmental older women in her apartment block, who gather around the camera and conspire against Rosario and her father. Needless to say she soon leaves town and, with few options open to her, finds work at the port of Veracruz in a convivial establishment. For a film of this period it’s all fairly clear what’s going on, though a very late twist takes the tale in unexpectedly dark directions. What really makes the film, though, apart from Palma’s excellent performance, is the direction. Russian emigré Boytler may experiment with any number of scene transitions (wipes in every direction, up and down, irises, and lots of lap dissolves), but he has an effective way with overlapping images suggesting memories and premonitions, and coordinates some excellent cinematography replete with expressionist lighting (largely the work of another emigré, the Canadian DoP Alex Phillips, whose credit will show up on several other films of the era). For a film that tells a story of setback piling on setback ultimately leading to tragedy, there’s a feeling not of oppressive gloom but rather a kind of poetic realism (familiar with some contemporary French cinema). This may not be entirely successful, but it’s a fascinating gem from early Mexican cinema.
Directors Arcady Boytler Аркадий Бойтлер and Raphael J. Sevilla; Writer Raphael J. Sevilla (based on the novel Le Port by Guy de Maupassant); Cinematographer Alex Phillips; Starring Andrea Palma, Domingo Soler; Length 76 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Tuesday 16 July 2019.
I’m not a ‘real’ film critic, I just bash away reviews here on the internet for my own amusement, and that of a small handful of readers, who I imagine are only intermittently engaged even then. So when I don’t like a film as much as I feel I’m supposed to by the ‘real’ film critics, I tend to get self-deprecating and assume there’s something wrong with me. You, for example, may love the taut, tense atmosphere established in the brooding first hour of Sicario, beginning with its portentous explanation of the title (something about the Hebrew scriptures, I’ve kinda forgotten, but the film poster says it means “hitman” in Spanish). You may find the apparent moral complexities of the scenario set on the US-Mexican border deeply involving, in which those running the operations (Josh Brolin’s Matt, in league with Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro) have a shadowy identity unknown even to our nominal hero, the quiet and studious FBI agent Kate (Emily Blunt). I don’t want to put you off going to see the film, and it does have its strengths, hence my tentatively positive review. I’m on the level about the atmosphere, for example — it really is very well set up by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (whose mindfuck Enemy was most recently on UK screens), with a laconic script and plenty of long-shots suggesting at times that we’re watching surveillance footage. We see Kate in action with her FBI team at the outset, uncovering a home filled with dead drug mules (somewhat in the grisly style of Se7en) and rigged with explosive devices, and from there, scarcely rattled, she is swiftly co-opted into Matt’s team via a series of unseen (to her) high-level meetings.
It’s just that, for all the efficacy of its portentous tone, none of the insights seem particularly believable, though the key to that I suspect is that audiences want to believe that the US government operates shadowy black-ops teams who — and here be spoilers, albeit without any names, as these are explanations the film doesn’t indulge until about halfway through — co-opt Colombian drug cartel hitmen to help take control of the Mexican drug trade so as to better… I don’t know, assassinate all the bad guys? In that sense, it all feels a bit 80s. By the time the film gets to its denouement, its titular hitman is as potent a symbol of pure imperialist ideology as anyone out of a Tarantino flick; he might as well be wearing shades and quoting scripture. Certainly the moral complexities seem to evaporate in a haze of Mexican dust and dead bodies, as certain members of the audience emit nervous (or perhaps triumphant, depending on where you’re watching) laughter at key scenes of torture and bloodshed. Meanwhile our apparent hero Kate, despite being an FBI agent, entirely lacks agency within the film, and the times she does attempt to step up, she’s quickly rebutted by violence and intimidation. In this way, it certainly reveals patterns of male violence and controlling behaviour as well as some rather confrontational attitudes towards immigration, but then so did Touch of Evil, a film with which Sicario certainly shares a setting and a few moral grey areas, with Kate and her legal-trained FBI buddy the audience’s stand-in for Charlton Heston. Still, if you’re going to stand up to such a towering work of cinema then Sicario does pretty well all told. Just be prepared for a lot of guys, guns and nasty business.
Director Denis Villeneuve; Writer Taylor Sheridan; Cinematographer Roger Deakins; Starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 23 September 2015.