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 520: Maria Larssons eviga ögonblick (Everlasting Moments, 2008)

There are a number of Jan Troell films in the Criterion Collection and this just happens to be the first of those titles to have been put out by them, but despite having constructed myself a rigorous schedule by which to watch them in order (two every Sunday, as you should know by now!), I still managed to put off this one because it sounded boring. In a sense, it is what I thought it would be — a slow, elegiac ode to a lost personal history — but it also stays clear of being boring by having some fine performances, anchored in a history that feels close to Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (a high bar), while also somehow being a film reflecting on what it is to be a journeyman artist. Our lead character Maria (played by Maria Heiskanen over a period of years) is seen from her youth through to old age, dealing with a moody husband and an increasing number of children while also occasionally showing some interest in photography. It’s a film that’s about the past enough that it looks like an old film, all sepia tones and earthy colours, but it’s the complexity in the characters and the way that what might become simple moral stories become more layered and complex, as Maria becomes stronger in herself but never quite does what people expect. It’s a very handsome movie, and that’s a fine thing, almost a lost art itself.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jan Troell; Writers Niklas Rådström, Troell and Agneta Ulfsäter-Troell; Cinematographers Troell and Mischa Gavrjusjov; Starring Maria Heiskanen, Mikael Persbrandt, Jesper Christensen; Length 131 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 28 May 2022.

NZIFF 2021: Pleasure (2021)

Somehow even amongst the more solidly film festival fare at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, Sweden’s Pleasure manages to stick out, not least because it is very much set in the USA and is about a subject that feels somehow inextricably linked to LA, which is the adult film industry. And yet it’s still a festival film, an arthouse drama, a film that is about people working within that industry without (at least I don’t think) being exploitative or shaming, which most films dealing with the topic tend to do. It’s hardly uplifting, of course, but I admire what it does, though I daresay it will be controversial.


Isn’t it odd the way that films titled for an abstract noun with largely positive connotations often entirely lack that quality (my mind goes to films with titles like HappinessJoy and so forth). Well, it’s much the same here, although to my mind this film at least avoids the pitfalls of being preachy and moralistic. This is a film about Linnéa (Sofia Kappel), a young Swedish woman who travels to LA to get involved in the p0rn industry under the soubriquet Bella Cherry, but the film is not really interested in why she made that choice or about wagging its finger at her for having made it. As far as we see in the film, Bella just wants to do something she enjoys, and while her experiences aren’t uniformly positive, there’s a camaraderie that grows between her and others in the same industry that develops over the film. And though it could be said to sour towards the end, it’s not played for high melodrama or camp (as in, say, Showgirls) but instead is allowed to have a complex emotional range, chiefly expressed in the relationship between Bella, her imperious arch-rival (at least in Bella’s head) Ava, and her housemate Joy (Revika Anne Reustle), who falls lower down the pecking order it seems.

All of the cast seem to be taken from the adult film industry, and in most cases give pretty believable naturalistic performances, even the sleazier agents and directors. And while it is clearly going to be a divisive film, to my mind it doesn’t play as exploitative, but instead has a certain kinship to, say, Sean Baker’s films. There’s a beauty to all this mess, but primarily this a drama charting the messy but often healthy relationships that develop, as well as the pitfalls too. These latter are not exclusively amongst male-dominated sets, but are certainly exacerbated by certain male egos, and there’s a striking contrast made between the carefully delineated consent and constant attention she’s given in a bondage video directed and staffed by women, and a rather more naturalistic depiction of rough sex in a video made by men. Plenty of this is at times quite disturbing, but the film is judicious and balanced in its depiction of a sordid world.

Pleasure (2021)CREDITS
Director Ninja Thyberg; Writers Thyberg and Peter Modestij (based on Thyberg’s short film); Cinematographer Sophie Winqvist Loggins; Starring Sofia Kappel, Revika Anne Reustle; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Roxy, Wellington, Wednesday 17 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 477: Bergman Island (2006)

There’s a film with the same title directed by Mia Hansen-Løve currently doing the festival circuit rounds, but this is not that film, it’s rather the Criterion release of a documentary about Ingmar Bergman, filmed a few years before his death in his reclusive life on the island of Fårö. It’s edited down from a much longer conversation, and you can see snippets of the rest appearing as introductions to the various Bergman films in the collection as he talks about his own films. However for this documentary a lot more focus is on his own life as an artist, with a few clips from his films and some discussion of a handful of specific titles, but really it’s about him as a creator and about him as a person. The latter leads to the most revealing stuff, as he admits to having been a cruel man in his life, playing with women’s feelings (he had five wives, nine children and a string of affairs). But perhaps the most indelible turning point is his return to Sweden after being invited to a pool party by Barbra Streisand. I’m sorry, Ingmar, you made some good movies but that was the wrong choice.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Marie Nyreröd; Cinematographer Arne Carlsson; Length 83 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 7 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 454: Europa (aka Zentropa, 1991)

One of Lars von Trier’s earlier works, back when his focus was very much on being a wunderkind behind the camera and doing tricksy things with deep focus honouring his classical heroes, while also setting the stage to some extent for Guy Maddin and others, but for me it all lacks the thrill of Maddin. It certainly achieves a certain textural depth, with the graininess of the colour tinted film and the deep contrasts of the black-and-white working quite nicely with one another. The plot is a bit Hitchcockian, with its trains and machinations and a certain post-war gloominess about the idea of Europe along with Germany’s place within it. I didn’t feel an enormous amount of attachment to the characters or the story but as an exercise in style it’s persuasive.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Lars von Trier; Writers von Trier and Niels Vørsel; Cinematographers Henning Bendtsen, Edward Kłosiński and Jean-Paul Meurisse; Starring Jean-Marc Barr, Barbara Sukowa, Udo Kier, Ernst-Hugo Järegård, Max von Sydow; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 22 August 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, June 1998).

Criterion Sunday 416: Fröken Julie (Miss Julie, 1951)

I’ve actually seen this Strindberg adaptation before (16 years ago), and I’ve seen others too, but I don’t really retain anything of it, perhaps because I don’t particularly get on with the text. It feels a little bit pointedly about the terrible toll that an interest in women’s rights might get you to from a tut-tutting older Swedish man, and that may be a little unfair, but at the very least it’s certainly melodramatic. That said, this film is a stylish adaptation at times, which takes the play and interleaves past and present in an almost modernist way. This is most evident when the camera sweeps around from the present to the past in a single fluid motion, as the title character recalls her unhappy childhood and her fiercely independent mother, who is seen framed by flames with a wry smile on her face at one memorable point. Then there’s Julie’s romance with the groom, Jean (Ulf Palme), a mere servant though splendidly attired, which starts out flirtatiously but eventually descends into all the metaphorical angst in the world (caged and crushed songbirds, grand paintings collapsing on our leading man, flames and madness licking around this rotten world). There’s certainly stuff to like here, and Anita Björk gives an impressively imperious performance, but it’s Strindberg’s vision of the world that probably puts me off.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Alf Sjöberg (based on the play by August Strindberg); Cinematographer Göran Strindberg; Starring Anita Björk, Ulf Palme, Märta Dorff; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at Tate Modern, London, Sunday 17 April 2005 (and most recently on DVD at home, Wellington, Sunday 18 April 2021).

Criterion Sunday 412: Gycklarnas afton (Sawdust and Tinsel, 1953)

There is, rarely, any film so bleak as one set in a travelling circus, it sometimes seems. This film predates Bergman’s travelling players of The Seventh Seal (a much funnier film), but is set closer to the contemporary world, and has some of the visual acuity he would continue to display in later films. There’s a gorgeous use of monochrome cinematography, deep and penetrating shadows and blown-out sunny shots (as in the flashback retelling of the clown’s humiliation) thanks to Sven Nykvist, his first collaboration of what would be many with Bergman. That early scene with the clown (Anders Ek), though, is very much a microcosm of what the film ends up being about: men and women humiliating one another in love. Our circus master Albert (Åke Grönberg) is desperate, it turns out, to leave behind the carny’s life, his younger girlfriend Anne (Harriet Andersson) finds herself attracted to an actor (Hasse Ekman) who turns out to be a creepy abuser, and some desultory fighting ensues that leaves everyone needing to pick up the pieces. There’s not much hope in the end, just ruined lives, and if the characters keep on living them, you get the sense that it won’t be long before they try again to get out by whatever means necessary.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s relatively little in the way of extras on this Blu-ray, but there’s a short introduction by Bergman filmed in 2003, in which he relates some scathing contemporary reviews he received, as well as the feeling that he quite likes this early film of his.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographers Hilding Bladh and Sven Nykvist; Starring Åke Grönberg, Harriet Andersson, Hasse Ekman, Anders Ek, Gunnar Björnstrand; Length 92 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 2 April 2021.

LFF 2020: 200 Meters (2020) ٢٠٠ متر

The Middle Eastern and North African films are always a highlight at each London Film Festival, and the one I saw this year was this one, a tense thriller set in a contested area of fragmented borders in the State of Palestine. (PS Do excuse the way I’ve written the title; it turns out having two languages read in different directions plus numbers creates havoc for WordPress.)


This Palestinian film is a pretty tense thriller in which a Palestinian father (Ali Suliman) — who, for reasons, lives in a different home from his wife and children — has to get to his son at short notice. The only problem is an Israeli wall built between their two homes, only 200m apart, and an expired ID card meaning he isn’t able to get across. So he enlists the help of a people smuggler, and that’s where the drama starts as it’s hardly a straightforward process and involves a long drive to a mountainous area, a change of cars, and an enormous amount of paranoia from just about everyone. But in utilising this generic format of a tense thriller, it effectively shows up the daily struggle of those trying to navigate these borders in what is a hugely fractured territory, and the way that bureaucracy keeps people apart as much as (or indeed more than) it helps to ensure security.

200 Meters film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ameen Nayfeh أمين نايفة; Cinematographer Elin Kirschfink; Starring Ali Suliman علي سليمان, Anna Unterberger; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Sunday 11 October 2020.

The Roads Not Taken (2020)

I’ve had a bit of break again for the last week and a half, as things are busy at work, and preparing to move to the other side of the world, but I’ve seen a few more films in cinemas (all directed by women as usual), and as Miss Juneteenth is out this Friday in the UK, I’ll post reviews of the cinema releases I’ve seen since the last week I dedicated to these. I’m starting on Women Filmmakers’ Wednesday with the new Sally Potter film, a great director and already a veteran of several decades. Perhaps her recent films haven’t been my favourite of her work, but she’s still producing interesting drama at under-90-minute lengths.


Sally Potter’s most recent film is about a fragile relationship between the creative urge and memory in an older man, as his mind becomes fragmented in a period of dementia. It uses Javier Bardem in a small apartment by the subway tracks in New York, and contrasts this quotidian and slightly sad setting with him living by the sea in Greece as a writer, and again with Salma Hayek in Mexico, each time pursuing relationships that, as the title suggests, perhaps he never did do and perhaps has only imagined. So in fact, we get three outcomes for the same man’s life, three ways things could have gone, and who’s to say which is right; perhaps in his dementia, he’s imagining these lives, but perhaps just as much he (as a writer in Greece) has written the life of the man in NYC, whose daughter (and this is a stretch) is played by Elle Fanning. I like a lot of what Potter is doing here, but I don’t think it really quite comes off — partly perhaps because Bardem’s dementia performance seems like a caricature, or a fancible creation by a writer (although, to be fair, it could be a creation by another character within the film as much as outside it). I wanted to like it a lot more than I did, but I think it’s a nifty idea.

The Roads Not Taken film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sally Potter; Cinematographer Robbie Ryan; Starring Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Salma Hayek, Laura Linney; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Tuesday 15 September 2020.