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.

Ouaga Girls (2017)

Following this morning’s review of Even When I Fall, my mini-theme today (within my Sheffield Doc/Fest week) is documentaries that take us to different parts of the world. Although this is of course something that a lot of documentaries do, finding a subject that hasn’t been covered can sometimes be difficult, but it’s fair to say there aren’t many documentaries out there about women’s vocational training centres in Burkina Faso, so it’s great to see inside this one.


The film takes the familiar route of following a small number of people amongst those studying at this Ouagadougou auto mechanics training centre, women who are taking car bodywork lessons to go to work for garages in what is repeatedly referred to as ‘men’s work’. The personalities of the various women all come out slowly, not least because at school they are all largely respectful and quiet (perhaps the situation, or maybe it’s the presence of the camera), but there are some strong words about the importance of this education to them. The film is also made with a fair bit of style of its own, carefully edited and framed well, especially in the introductions near the start. On the whole, it’s a likeable and interesting film about women in an unlikely place.

Ouaga Girls film posterCREDITS
Director Theresa Traoré Dahlberg; Cinematographer Iga Mikler; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Friday 20 October 2017.

Monos (2019)

As far as revolutionary cinema goes, Monos is very much more about capturing a mood, an intensity to being a guerrilla in the jungle, rather than trading in any particular or specific history. It’s more of a mood piece, and it worked (for me) very well, although critical opinion I’ve seen has certainly been divided. It’s probably not the exemplar of a ‘cinema of resistance’, but it’s about revolutionaries and the idea of resistance.


As an experience of a film, I really liked this. It has a dreamy intensity to it, which starts out as if amongst the legionaries in Beau travail albeit situated in a mountainous and muddy jungle terrain (rather than the heat of Claire Denis’s film) and with teenage revolutionaries in a sort of Lord of the Flies-type dystopia. The Latin American setting and the guerrilla-style warfare that is being undertaken suggests that they are fighting against state suppression and possibly some kind of American military-industrial nexus of capitalist interests, but honestly I’m just reading all that in based on what I’ve seen of South American liberationist history (as it has been portrayed on film at least), and no specifics are ever touched upon here, undoubtedly quite intentionally. However, it has such a concrete sense of place, and evokes such a tangible mood through the movement of the actors in the setting, and the throbbing Mica Levi score, that it achieves something that feels properly cinematic, though perhaps on reflection it’s more of a suggestion of cinema than something fully achieved. What it does evoke is a scenario that could as easily be science-fiction, making it more Hunger Games than Apocalypse Now. Ultimately it feels like more of a cautionary tale about what happens when trust breaks down amongst a group than about any specific socio-political idea, with the curiously gender-non-specific character of Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura) a particular highlight for me. It must have been an intense shoot.

Monos film posterCREDITS
Director Alejandro Landes; Writers Landes and Alexis Dos Santos; Cinematographer Jasper Wolf; Starring Julianne Nicholson, Moisés Arias, Sofia Buenaventura, Julián Giraldo; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Wednesday 13 November 2019.

Criterion Sunday 321: Jungfrukällan (The Virgin Spring, 1960)

Every exploitation genre has its austere or vaunted arthouse predecessor, and just as slasher horror in 1960 had Psycho, so the rape-revenge film has Ingmar Bergman here. That said, I don’t mean to impugn it by association; the bleakness and moral ambiguities are very much intended by Bergman, and you can tell what’s coming by quite how innocent and jolly the opening third is, as Karin (Brgitta Pettersson), the daughter of farmer Töre (Max von Sydow), prepares for a journey to church through — of course — a big scary forest, the very sight of which seems to push their servant (Gunnel Lindblom) into overacting/breakdown. In that sense the folktale elements loom large (and is indeed adapted from a 13th century narrative, though these are themes that recur throughout fairytales and legend), and the fate of our titular virgin is pretty clear as soon as these elements are introduced. I think what sets the film apart is the moral complexity and even dubiousness that’s cast on the revenge, and though the father purifies himself and atones for his sins, there’s a clear sense that what he’s doing has some equivalency to the crimes he’s punishing, albeit given thin justification with invocations of God (and I don’t think Bergman is presenting this as a particularly Christian victory). This film also marks his first major collaboration with Sven Nykvist, the cinematographer who could go on to make most of the rest of his films, and it is immaculately lensed, with great expressive pools of light and dark as the film progresses.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ingmar Bergman; Writer Ulla Isaksson (based on the traditional ballad “Töres döttrar i Wänge” [“Töre’s Daughters in Vänge”]); Cinematographer Sven Nykvist; Starring Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg, Gunnel Lindblom, Birgitta Pettersson; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 31 May 2020.