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some sort, of her taking this film to the Écrans Noirs film festival in Yaoundé, Cameroon, and having to deal with the outdated technology and limited screening conditions available there.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.

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 537: Ansiktet (The Magician, 1958)

I know this will come as a great surprise to all adherents of the cinema of Ingmar Bergman, but this is a film about faith, about the failures and disappointments of organised religion but also about the supernatural, using a Christ-like central figure to channel doubts about the divine. Added to this, it is, as is perhaps rather more underappreciated when it comes to Bergman, essentially a comedy, albeit one with a body count by the end, though everyone just seems to shrug that off (but maybe that’s more a sign of the times). No this is in many respects a bawdy, silly romp but with added occultism (and a touch of horror, too), as Max von Sydow’s apparently mute mesmerist Albert Vogler travels around towns with his little magical sideshow. But… is there more to his powers? The scepticism of one small town he enters, particularly of Gunnar Björnstrand’s physician Vergerus, open up these questions, to which von Sydow’s baleful eyes do a lot of answering. It’s pretty good, made during Bergman’s imperial (and rather more comedic) phase, well worth watching especially if you think it’ll be too dour.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer; Starring Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, Ingrid Thulin, Naima Wifstrand, Bengt Ekerot, Bibi Andersson; Length 101 minutes.

Seen at the Embassy, Wellington, Monday 18 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 506: Dillinger è morto (Dillinger Is Dead, 1969)

I watched this a week ago and it’s lucky that it stays with me because I completely forgot to write it up at the time. In a way it’s like a movie perfectly suited to our pandemic times, albeit made decades ago. Our lead character is, of all things, a designer of gas masks (Michel Piccoli) — and certainly the question of living our lives in masks comes up, along with a sense of alienation that grows from that. He comes home to his wife (Anita Pallenberg), but his dissatisfaction is evident in both her and the meal that’s waiting for him, so he starts to cook another. Things move on from there, but the film is an accretion of details in a vaguely absurdist style that heightens his sense of disconnectedness from the world, and the revolver he finds wrapped up in newspaper clippings about the titular Chicago gangster only fuels that sense of disappointment with life. I suppose it could be said to satirically represent a man’s desire for a new life, even if it ultimately feels very masculine in the way he believes he can move out of his present circumstances (there’s a lot of performatively macho swaggering, and Piccoli bears his hairy chest once again after Le Mépris a few years earlier). There are certainly some ideas here that feel prescient, and a claustrophobic sense of space and time as he moves around his apartment, though I found it stylistically very much of its era in a way that was difficult to fully embrace.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Marco Ferreri; Writers Ferreri and Sergio Bazzini; Cinematographer Mario Vulpiani; Starring Michel Piccoli, Anita Pallenberg, Annie Girardot; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 10 February 2022.

Annette (2021)

It’s that period between Christmas and New Year so it’s time for me to post up reviews of my other favourite films of the year, as most of them will be making it into my best of the year list. One recent release is the latest film from Leos Carax, which has plenty of people hating it, and other passionate fans. I’ve never really been into Sparks, though Edgar Wright’s documentary earlier in the year helped me to get my bearings, but I enjoy their arch orchestral pop music and it fits very nicely into this grand folly of a film. That’s exactly the kind of film Carax makes, though, when he does turn his hand to it (his last was 2012’s equally absurd, equally grand, equally green Holy Motors), so I’m not complaining. There are long stretches where it doesn’t work, even is a little bit dull (I find myself unable to warm to Adam Driver’s character for example), but right from that bravura coup de cinéma opening sequence, when the film does spark, it really has no equal in the rest of cinema.


This certainly reads from the reviews as if it’s a love it or hate it sort of film, and I can see why, but that’s always been the case with Leos Carax’s films I feel. That said, its curious blend of self-awareness and anti-naturalism starts right from the opening number (“So May We Start?”), so you should get a good sense pretty quickly if it’s not for you, but it feels to me a bit like La La Land if that film had properly committed to the emotions. Both films have a sort of emptiness to them at their core, too, but this feels like a stylistic choice, about two people who want some meaning in life but can’t ever get beyond the surface level, never doing much more than saying what they think they should feel rather than actually feeling it. And so having a child who’s a puppet feels like a perfect expression of this abyss (“A-B-Y-S-S”, Henry even spells it out). It’s a film filled with affect, beautiful shots that seem bravura (early on we get Henry’s hands coming in from the side of the frame threateningly towards Ann’s neck before veering into an embrace almost imperceptibly) that turn out to be cleverly foreshadowing, a bold use of colour (green, usually), and those Sparks songs which just grind the themes down until they feel a little bit fresh. Look, I can’t pretend it all worked, but (Adam Driver aside) it’s exactly the kind of thing I love to see on the screen, an ideal showcase for a grand folly of self-indulgence.

Annette (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Leos Carax; Writers Ron Mael and Russell Mael; Cinematographer Caroline Champetier; Starring Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg, Devyn McDowell; Length 140 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 2 October 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Разжимая кулаки Razzhimaya Kulaki (Unclenching the Fists, 2021)

This tough little Russian film screening at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival won a prize at Cannes thanks to Andrea Arnold’s jury, and I think there’s a lot to commend it, even if I didn’t fully connect with it. I think there’s a lot going on that could resonate pretty powerfully for those who tune into its specific vibe — though it’s a fairly bleak one.


The more I think about this film in retrospect the more I have some respect for what it’s trying to do, but certainly while it was playing out, I found it quite a tough watch. This is not so much because of what we see on screen, but the fact that it centres on Ada, a character who is largely hollowed out by childhood trauma. As the source of this pain becomes clearer (and I gather from other reviews that this is much less oblique to native audiences, who will be more aware of the Beslan school siege of 2004), it also makes the behaviour of other characters a little more explicable, like her controlling dad (Alik Karayev) or her hyperactive younger brother (Soslan Khugayev). But it doesn’t change the fact that the lead actor (Milana Aguzarova) has to convey a character who is withdrawn from the world and often frustratingly passive in her dealings with other people, meaning there’s not much for a viewer to latch onto and so this story set in an impoverished part of North Ossetia just ended up washing over me. However, as I said, I do think the story its telling is quite complex and interesting and may work better on a second viewing.

Razzhimaya Kulaki (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kira Kovalenko Киры Коваленко; Cinematographer Pavel Fomintsev; Starring Milana Aguzarova Милана Агузарова, Alik Karayev Алик Караев, Soslan Khogayev Сослан Хугаев; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at the Roxy, Wellington, Wednesday 17 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: Memoria (2021)

Some films are made for film festivals, and none more so than any given new film by Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Some of them have becoming (surprisingly) modest arthouse hits, like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and Memoria is very much in a similar mould, with lush jungle terrains (here in Colombia) and a slow, mysterious narrative that seems to promise both naturalism and also science-fiction and fantasy at times. The central investigation may recall Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, in being based around a mysterious sonic fragment, but there’s little else that recalls mainstream narrative cinema, and Tilda Swinton is looking strangely ordinary here as she searches for… something.


Apichatpong Weerasethakul proves that even making a film largely in English and set in Colombia, he’s still able to make exactly the kinds of films he makes, which is to say slow, somnolent and oblique. As with Cemetery of Splendour I nodded off a little at times (to be fair that one was a film about people with some kind of sleeping sickness), but it felt like part of the artistic process, a durational one, about a woman who seems to be searching for the source of a mysterious sound. That search takes her to various specialists (real or imagined?), and to a small village in the mountains, and those shots of ruins and lush vegetation seem very much of a piece with his most famous works. I think in many ways Memoria extends those themes, with some surprising additions that never exactly serve to make clear what’s been going on, but instead intensify and deepen the mystery. But that’s often the way. This had me fascinated and I loved the slow rhythms of it, but it danced nimbly away from explaining itself. Undoubtedly both this and the pacing will madden many of its potential viewers, but it’s an experience in being open to the possibilities of narrative.

Memoria (2021) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Apichatpong Weerasethakul อภิชาติพงศ์ วีระเศรษฐกุล; Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom สยมภู มุกดีพร้อม; Starring Tilda Swinton, Jeanne Balibar, Elkin Díaz; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Thursday 18 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: شیطان وجود ندارد Sheytan Vojud Nadarad (There Is No Evil, 2020)

After last week’s review of the Iranian film Hit the Road at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, the festival screened another quite different film from the same country, the kind of thing that doesn’t get screened in its home country due to some pretty direct criticisms of the regime. It’s long, depressing, and in several parts, but pretty great all the same.


I feel like if you’re going to do an issues-driven drama based on contemporary society — and this one is about the death penalty — then this is the way to do it. It’s not unclear what the filmmaker’s point of view is — it’s clear enough, indeed, that he’s had to endure prison sentences and bans on filmmaking over the last few years — and he goes in pretty hard on his own country’s use of the death penalty, though despite being made in Iran and featuring its cities and countryside rather beautifully, it’s a story that could be told anywhere that the death penalty exists.

Like a lot of Iranian films, the focus is very much on the moral quandary of those involved in it, which range the gamut from bland acceptance to turmoil. The first segment lulls us in with a very quotidian story of a middle-class family that could be in any western country and whose bickering and patterns of life are entirely relatable, before a stinging twist at the end. Indeed, having booked to see the film a month ago, it wasn’t until the end of the first story that it became clear to me what the structuring conceit of this film was.

The second and fourth stories seem to be continuations of one another — in the earlier one, a young military conscript rebels against the requirement that he get involved in an execution, while in the last an older man who did the same when he was a kid and ran away to the countryside, comes to terms with the choices he made in terms of his family. The film indeed is very interested in moral choices that aren’t made in a vacuum, but take place in terms of ensuring one’s own freedoms, one’s own family and work, and the extent to which we should or should not accept capital punishment if it’s just a means to get food into mouths or to live the life you want (given that the person being executed is just going to killed by someone else).

It’s not necessarily an easy subject, but the filmmaking is clear and flows beautifully, with solid performances across the board. It is entirely deserving of its awards, and one can only hope that the filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof can continue to make films.

Sheytan Vojud Nadarad (There Is No Evil, 2020)CREDITS
Director/Writer Mohammad Rasoulof محمد رسول‌اف;
Cinematographer Ashkan Ashkani اشکان اشکانی; Starring Ehsan Mirhosseini احسان میرحسینی, Kaveh Ahangar کاوه آهنگر, Mahtab Servati هتاب ثروتی, Baran Rasoulof باران رسول‌اف; Length 150 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Wellington, Thursday 11 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.

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).