Although Robert the Bruce (whose story is rendered in Outlaw/King) and Henry V (of The King) were two historical figures whose lives never overlapped, they did live within a few generations of one another (Henry was born around 60 years after Bruce died), and both lived in what was then a divided island, though part of that was down to the actions of Bruce himself. Neither film can probably claim to be great history — they are more invested in generic tropes of heroism and resistance, while The King isn’t even based on the history but on Shakespeare’s rendering of it some century and a half later — but both illuminate some of the ways that history is used and abused, also adding to that popular idea that Mediæval times were all about grim misery, mud and gore.
Neither of these films is ‘mumblecore’ or even independent, but the Safdie brothers come from that kind of no-budget background; their first film The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2009, directed by Josh, though Benny was involved in editing) has a very loose narrative centered on a woman who’s a kleptomaniac (I’ve seen it, and liked it, but I barely managed to write more than a sentence). It’s only with their last couple of features that they’ve really broken through, and perhaps that’s the involvement of bankable screen names, but if so their style is still very much firmly planted in the grainy textures of their 16mm roots, harking back to a certain kind of gritty 70s NYC-based crime thriller. In both films, there’s a propulsive energy that rarely seems to let up, as characters make bad decision upon bad decision, compounding their situation ever more precariously as the films continue. These are thrillers, but grounded in the characters and their struggles.
I’m doing a week theme around Polish films, as today sees the UK cinematic release of Agnieszka Holland’s latest film Mr. Jones. It’s an English-language co-production, and so is today’s film, which I’m including for that tenuous reason. One of the co-producing companies is from Poland and Agata Buzek co-stars, but aside from that there’s not much particularly Polish in it, although there’s something about the film’s very weirdness that puts it up alongside Has or Żuławski or other out-there auteurs.
Claire Denis has made two of my favourite films of two successive decades (that’s Beau travail and 35 Shots of Rum, and a few others I adore besides), but yet I guess I’m not fully subscribed to this latest one. It’s not that it’s broaching new experiences — science-fiction setting, English language screenplay — because a lot of the idiosyncrasies that lie within it are vintage Denis, but I think it may need more time to work itself into my psyche (like L’Intrus, another film of hers that I feel I’ve slept on). It primarily feels like a mood piece, evoking an extraordinary atmosphere of isolation, in a story of one man (Robert Pattinson) and his baby — its helplessness and reliance on him only magnifying the starkness of their situation — as they live on a prison spacecraft flying out towards a black hole. His story is intercut with flashbacks both to his childhood life on Earth (the 16mm photography evoking the infinity of time having since passed), and to a time when there were others on the ship with him, and how he has come to be on his own. There are some really quite indelible scenes, and some incredibly outré setpieces, but always there’s that sublime atmosphere, with its grinding Stuart A. Staples score adding to the mystery, a mystery that never quite resolves but extends outwards, a film drifting inexorably (like the spaceship) towards its own event horizon.
Director Claire Denis; Writers Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau; Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux; Starring Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, André Benjamin, Mia Goth, Agata Buzek, Lars Eidinger; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 11 May 2019.
Whenever I visit Paris, I seem to get the opportunity to see an English-language film somewhat ahead of its release elsewhere in the world, and my experience has been that these films have probably been a bit too weird to find mainstream success. Such was the case with Anne Fontaine’s Adore (aka Perfect Mothers, 2013), and it’s certainly the case with this, the latest David Cronenberg film. It’s not the setting and the atmosphere that are unusual — this vision of family dysfunction amongst the hermetically sealed-off homes and egos of Hollywood is familiar from films like Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) and, more recently, Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (2013). Nor is it strange for the way it seems to share a spiritual kinship with that other twisted North American David’s Mulholland Dr. (2001) at the level of its unsettling atmospherics. What’s most disconcerting about the film (admittedly partly the reason it brings Lynch to mind) is in the melodramatic dynamics that are in play amongst the film’s protagonists — ageing diva Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), infomercial guru Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), his neurotic wife Cristina (Olivia Williams) and their brattish movie actor spawn Benjie (newcomer Evan Bird), and mysterious stranger Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) with her enigmatic burn scar and initial apparent fascination with Hollywood homes. It’s all beautifully and antiseptically shot, and it’s one of those films that impresses with the density of its ideas upon later reflection, but the experience of watching it is odd and unsettling enough that I remain unconvinced. There’s a recurring incest metaphor that expresses itself in the arc of several characters, primarily the bond between Havana and her mother Clarice, who died many decades earlier, while still in the bloom of youth. We see some (rather unconvincing black-and-white) footage of one of Clarice’s films, and she appears as a waking nightmare to Havana at several points, as do other dead presences to other characters. But this is only one way in which the past haunts the present characters. The strangest is the repetition throughout the film of a poem by French symbolist Paul Éluard. It’s spoken in the old film of Clarice’s, it’s recited as a mantra, it’s even being memorised by Benjie in his trailer. The poem, “Liberté”, was written in 1942 as a riposte to the Nazi control of France, which already loads it with a history to which the film doesn’t always seem equal. But this is, after all, a film in which characters are trying (not always with great success) to free themselves from the burden of the past. If it sets itself out to be a map of the interrelationships between these Hollywood players, then it’s clearly one that people should be wary of following.
Director David Cronenberg; Writer Bruce Wagner; Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky; Starring Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson, Olivia Williams; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at UGC Ciné Cité Les Halles, Paris, Friday 4 July 2014.