Spencer (2021)

Following up the reviews of my favourite films of 2022 (full list here). This isn’t the only film on my list to have been comprehensively talked out already. You don’t need another review of it, you got everything you needed about a year ago. But it wasn’t released in NZ until into 2022, and despite all my many reservations, I really enjoyed it. Not because of any fondness for its subject, but because of the way it was done, the atmosphere it evoked. So here we go, another review.


This film is a whole vibe, and either you get with it or you don’t, I somewhat suspect. I did, but I can understand people who go the other way. In terms of its felicity to ‘real life’, well I think that’s a fraught question at least; I’ve seen some people marvel at the accuracy of Kristen Stewart’s performance. I’m not enough of a devoted royal watcher to really know how much she captured Diana, but I don’t really see her specifically in Stewart’s portrayal. But this is as much a story about a woman in a particular situation, imagining how it might go down; it’s a fable and a fantasy, it’s shot in a hazy, gauzy, pastel-hued way yet somehow also manages to channel gothic horror. But Stewart’s Diana is trapped from the start, a doomed woman, even if around her the royal family seem nothing so much as zombies, not least Charles (Jack Farthing) and Her Majesty, who have the deadest of eyes. So she only has her head to delve further into; she gets visions of Anne Boleyn and increasingly dissociative fragments of an alternate reality, which we know is not her own because she’s giddy and happy, moving down endless corridors like Kubrick’s The Shining, cautiously at first perhaps, but with an increasing abandon as the film progresses. Against my best instincts — because I really do not like or want to hear about the British royal family — it manages to be a beautiful film, and an excellent performance as ever by Stewart who goes in fully and bodily to the whole thing. Whether it captures Diana per se, I can’t say, but it captures something fleeting, somehow both archly camp and deeply felt, about an impossible life.

Spencer (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Pablo Larraín; Writer Steven Knight; Cinematographer Claire Mathon; Starring Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, Jack Farthing, Sean Harris, Sally Hawkins; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at the Penthouse, Wellington, Sunday 6 February 2022.

Criterion Sunday 598: Welt am Draht (World on a Wire, 1973)

Rainer Werner Fassbinder made this as a two-part mini-series of German television, hence the inordinate length. As a filmmaker, he was always reliable for turning in tightly edited works, but he made a few longer form television works that have their own rhythms and intensity. This is science-fiction, but it’s the kind that uses modernist buildings to signify a vaguely futuristic world like Alphaville (and both have roles for Eddie Constantine; a surprise to see him because the Godard film seems like an eternity away, but was actually only eight years before this film). The themes are to do with artificial intelligence, alternative realities, people who are programmed creations living without free will, and about the madness that it induces — and it’s very much more the madness that Fassbinder is interested in than in the set design of his world or in CGI effects or whatever later films might want to focus on. It meanders a bit towards the end, but it’s fascinating, a twisting, turning journey which really lands some of those twists.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder; Writers Fritz Müller-Scherz and Fassbinder (based on the novel Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye); Cinematographers Michael Ballhaus and Ulrich Prinz; Starring Klaus Löwitsch, Mascha Rabben, Karl-Heinz Vosgerau, Barbara Valentin, Adrian Hoven; Length 212 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 23 December 2022.

Criterion Sunday 597: Tiny Furniture (2010)

There’s probably a lot of reasons that people (in 2014) feel a bit conflicted towards Lena Dunham and her work. She grew up in New York City, the daughter of an artist (Laurie Simmons, who appears here as her mother Siri, a photographer of miniature furniture — hence the film’s title). She went to a liberal arts college in Ohio, as indeed does her character in this film, Aura. She first found prominence making videos which she posted on YouTube, and we see that Aura has done something similar here (while deriving a small amount of giddy validation in that a guy she’s met at a party is also internet-famous in this niche way). Indeed, strands of fiction and autobiography weave through her work, both here and in her HBO television series Girls. So it’s no wonder that some people have it in for her. For myself, I really enjoy her deadpan comic style, which eases over all too imperceptibly into a bleak commentary on growing up in such a mediated world. If at times her characters exhibit unhealthy levels of neuroses (albeit not far removed from the kind exhibited by certain other famous New York filmmakers), there’s also a pretty self-aware and critical assessment of herself and her life, as Aura throws tantrums and bemoans her ennui, even as her entitled British friend Charlotte (Jemima Kirke) drags her along to any number of parties and social gatherings. In the way of early-20-something existence, nothing really seems to resolve itself, but the way it’s depicted has the ring of truthfulness to it, even if filtered through a rather rarefied lifestyle and background.

(Written on 16 December 2014; I wonder how much of the media landscape will have changed by the time this gets posted.)

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is her debut feature Creative Nonfiction (2009), and although it runs at just under an hour in length, this definitely sets up a lot of what would become classic Lena Dunham content: introspective, messy, open to exposing herself both emotionally and physically. It’s clearly made under the influence of the so-called ‘mumblecore’ movement, which by the late 2000s was fairly well developed as a community of filmmakers, though it’s also evidently made under the influence of no money at all, and just shooting on the fly for a student project, so that it’s watchable at all is to its credit. Still, as you might expect, it feels fairly half-formed and amateurish, albeit to my mind in a good, enjoyable way (though clearly not to everyone).
  • There are four of her short films included, starting with her very first, 2006’s Pressure, which has, as you might expect, a sort of sketch comedy set-up as well as a fairly lowkey presentation: three young women sitting on the floor of their college library, doing some study and talking. It manages to link academic pressure to orgasm, and ends with a bit of a punchline, but for the most part it’s observational.
  • Another short film in which Dunham explores the limits of her own need for attention is The Fountain (2007), in a sort of tripartite structure of exhibitionism in a campus fountain: first she strips off and takes a dip, then she confronts a security guard, then she reflects on the experience and what it says about her. I think you can sort of see the seeds of where she would go with Girls in later years.
  • A third short film is Hooker on Campus (2007), and I suppose it would be foolish to assume some deep understanding of sex work, as this basically comes across like a skit about her pretending to be offering sex to students at her very homogeneous middle-class campus. Again Dunham is playing with a sense of her own desperation to please, and get attention.
  • Finally there’s Open the Door (2007). I think there are interesting ways in which this very minimalist short film — a single shot of the camera entryphone to Dunham’s building — could be construed as a self-criticism of her own entitlement and petulant childishness, but you also have to witness Dunham being petulant and childish, and that can be difficult.
  • These early student works are accompanied by an interview in which Dunham talks about her inspirations and her creative process, and some of the scepticism greeting her from her teachers (looks like very low-budget porn, suggested one). She still has the habit of saying things that take you aback, but that’s her way I suppose.
  • There’s also a short interview with Paul Schrader, who talks about enjoying Tiny Furniture, and touches on some comparisons which in retrospect don’t perhaps hold up so well (James Franco, anyone?).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Lena Dunham; Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes; Starring Lena Dunham, Laurie Simmons, Jemima Kirke; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 15 December 2014.

Criterion Sunday 588: Trois coleurs : Bleu (Three Colours: Blue aka Three Colors: Blue, 1993)

I don’t think it would be overstating the case to say that this trilogy of films largely compromised my introduction to ‘world cinema’ back in the mid-1990s. I was too young (or rather not sufficiently precocious) to have seen them in the cinema, but a year or two later on VHS at home, and they do make for a good introduction. Even now, rewatching so many years later, this film is much as I remember it: very consciously constructed, with bold use of colour (in the camera filters, in the scenery and set design, in expressive lighting choices), striking symbolism and the kind of directorial vision that makes it very clear — even to a young cinema neophyte such as myself 25 years ago — that every camera movement, every detail and every choice within the frame is very much intentional. I found this a little overbearing at the time, and I still don’t believe this is my favourite of the trilogy, but there is such an assured style that I can’t help but be impressed by it, lugubrious and mournful as the subject matter can be (a woman dealing with the death of her husband and child, in a peculiar twist on the concept of “liberté”). Moreover, there’s Juliette Binoche in the lead role, who is an undeniable force and even in the depths of her character’s grief and sadness makes her compellingly watchable.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Two of the extra features are short films from the director’s film school days. His own is Tramwaj (Tramway, 1966), with the kind of throwaway premise that a lot of short movies have — in this case, a boy sees a girl on a tram and then realises he must chase after her. Still, there’s something to how it’s made despite the complete absence of sound, not that you’d have made the link between this and the director of Three Colours: Blue right away.
  • The other short film is Twarz (The Face, 1966), included not because he directed it (it was one of his fellow students, the otherwise unknown Piotr Studzinski) but because he stars in it. Indeed, it’s a fair bit more enjoyable than Kieślowski’s own student effort, with a cutting humour to its portrayal of the self-involved artist disgusted at his own face (which he has nevertheless used obsessively in his own art).
  • There’s a short featurette of interviews with various collaborators, including Binoche and the cinematographer Idziak, as well as some film writers (Geoff Andrew, Annette Insdorf), discussing the film and its creation, and how the director put it together, which is all fairly informative.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Krzysztof Kieślowski; Writers Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Kieślowski; Cinematographer Sławomir Idziak; Starring Juliette Binoche, Benoît Régent, Florence Pernel, Charlotte Véry, Emmanuelle Riva; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 13 November 2022 (and first on VHS at home, Wellington, in the mid-1990s).

Criterion Sunday 581: Les Cousins (1959)

For his second feature film following 1958’s Le Beau Serge, Claude Chabrol takes the same leading actors and remixes them in a Parisian setting. Jean-Claude Brialy is still the affected intellectual, as Paul, this time sporting a goatee that clues us in right away that he probably listens to jazz and is pretentious, though in actuality what he listens to is Wagner, and he loves to party — plus his hobby is to collect antique guns — so he’s a whole lot more dangerous a character. And again it’s Gérard Blain who plays the provincial type, as Charles, who shows up to his cousin Paul’s swanky Parisian apartment and moves in to study law. He’s committed to the studying; Paul is, of course, not, and he tries to tempt Charles by bringing a number of women through his life; when Charles falls for Florence (Juliette Mayniel), things get competitive between them. This is a sort of twisted psychodrama in the end, a ménage à trois that none of them really seems to be aware of — or certainly not Charles — and Chabrol has a streak of nastiness running through his plotting that means none of them are going to get away with it in the end.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Claude Chabrol; Writers Chabrol and Paul Gégauff; Cinematographer Henri Decaë; Starring Jean-Claude Brialy, Gérard Blain, Juliette Mayniel, Claude Cerval; Length 109 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 20 November 2022.

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.