Criterion Sunday 55: The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)

Maybe I’m missing the emotionally devastating power of this film (or at least, that’s the kind of description I imagine was applied to it when it was first released), or perhaps it just doesn’t stand up over time particularly well, or maybe I’m the wrong generation to appreciate it properly. I really don’t know what explains it, but for me, this handsomely-mounted, big-budget Hollywood epic of the 1980s with some pretty big name stars (at least by today’s standards; Day-Lewis and Binoche were still early in their careers back then) doesn’t seem to connect with its characters. To an extent changes in filmmaking taste may be a factor: hearing these actors from a range of European countries (England, France and Sweden for the central trio) affect Czech accents can seem a little jarring to today’s tastes, perhaps. But there’s also a sort of studied artfulness to the sex scenes: it has an 18 certificate, but you wonder if it would still merit that nowadays. There’s nothing particularly explicit or shocking: Day-Lewis and Olin play characters who live bohemian lives (it is Prague, after all), whose sexual libertinism swiftly comes into conflict with the new Soviet-imposed Communist ideals, as the tanks roll in to crush their freedom. Still, as shot by Bergman’s frequent cinematographer Sven Nykvist, it is beautiful to look at — it’s difficult to imagine Prague or the Czech countryside being difficult to imbue with charm, but Nykvist succeeds admirably well. I haven’t read the novel, but one imagines the idea that life and sex are fleeting pleasures that must be embraced and enjoyed — seemingly the meaning of the ‘lightness’ in the title — may work work better on the page. Certainly there the characters benefit from not having belaboured accents, though I will at least own that we’d miss the shaggy charm of their dog, Karenin.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Philip Kaufman | Writers Jean-Claude Carrière and Philip Kaufman (based on the novel Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí by Milan Kundera) | Cinematographer Sven Nykvist | Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin | Length 171 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 20 September 2015

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Miss Julie (2014)

It’s impossible to watch this adaptation of August Strindberg’s 1888 play without being aware of its stage-bound origins. There’s something very theatrical about its presentation, including that it has only three actors in it (other people are heard but never seen), and yet it’s never less than gorgeous to look at. There’s a classical simplicity to the framings that gives maximum exposure to the acting, and all of the actors do some of their finest screen work (though quite whether Colin Farrell will ever win me over, I’m not sure). That said, it’s a pretty exhausting watch, perhaps because of Strindberg’s writing, which immures the characters in a deadening and dreadful inevitability, as they — well, certainly the women (Jessica Chastain as the title character, and Samantha Morton as her household’s cook, Kathleen) — struggle towards self-destruction, helped along by the conniving of Farrell’s aspirational servant John. I suppose it all must reveal something about a certain pathology on the part of Strindberg and his era that he seems to will his female characters towards death (I understand it was inspired by Darwinism), but then he loops in the toxic effects of class stratification — Kathleen and John are a couple, both in the employ of the Count and his daughter Julie, in whose presence John becomes a shuffling, obsequious servant — and perhaps, after all, there’s something more to it. I suspect it will play well to those who are already great fans of the play, and even as I write this I can’t help but wonder if the elements that conspire to make it a tough watch couldn’t in fact be construed in its favour? Chacun à son goût.


© Columbia TriStar

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Liv Ullmann (based on the play Fröken Julie by August Strindberg) | Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman | Starring Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton | Length 130 minutes || Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Wednesday 9 September 2015

Honeytrap (2014)

I’m a sucker for a good film set in London, and as someone who’s lived in Brixton earlier in my life, I found this story (which is set there) fascinating. That said, I don’t think its appeal is just to locals. Its themes are familiar: it’s a fish out of water story (our heroine Layla, played by the wonderful Jessica Sula) has just arrived in London from Trinidad; it’s a coming of age (she’s 15 and falling in love); and it deals with disaffected gangs of urban youth. Yet the film is careful not to just play on some sense of a threatening racialised Other — this is a community, and if Layla’s mother is wary and stand-offish, there’s a sense of bonding amongst the teenagers. And while their environment may be one of post-war council estates, these aren’t shown as dangerous concreted wastelands, but simply as the homes they were built to be. The film follows Layla, and the central drama is between her and two boys: the no-good yet effortlessly cool rapper Troy (Lucien Laviscount), and her friendly classmate Shaun (Ntonga Mwanza). The antagonism between the boys, as well as Troy’s behaviour when he’s around his male friends and their casual sexism, is conveyed very well, and while Layla is in many ways strong-willed, she finds it difficult all the same to avoid the trap of a bad relationship, which is the tragedy the film moves towards. Stylistically, the film leans heavily on an elegiac aesthetic, with plentiful use of orchestral music to replace diegetic sound, not to mention slow-motion filming, which perhaps takes away some of the visceral sting from the characters’ actions at times, but gives the film a polished sheen. This is definitely a filmmaker worth keeping an eye on. Rebecca Johnson is in excellent control of her young actors and the way that the drama unfolds on screen, and Honeytrap suggests the possibilities still inherent in local stories.


© Anchor Bay Films

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Rebecca Johnson | Cinematographer Annemarie Lean-Vercoe | Starring Jessica Sula, Lucien Laviscount, Ntonga Mwanza | Length 93 minutes || Seen at Brixton Ritzy, London, Sunday 10 May 2015

Leviathan (2014)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 20 November 2014 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Sony Pictures Classics

Back when I was first learning about the cinema of Russia and the Soviet Union, watching those early great films by pioneers like Eisenstein and Kuleshov at university, there was a term that came up occasionally known as the “Russian ending”, generally contrasted to the “Hollywood ending”. Well, this new film, which has won a fair few prizes at various film festivals (including London last month), is Russian. It could, of course, be set in any society where bureaucratic corruption festers, but it mines quite a rich seam of humour at the expense of its vodka-drinking local functionaries, while hardly covering modern Russian society in any particular glory. The humour is bleak, though, and the grand movement of the film is to slowly reveal the extent of the societal cogs (government, bureaucracy, religious orthodoxy) which are turning to crush its hero Kolya (Aleksei Serebryakov), who has a younger wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and a son from an earlier marriage, and who is being helped by a handsome Moscow lawyer (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) to pursue a case against the local mayor involving his isolated family home. I’d stop short of calling it bleak, though it certainly isn’t bereft of such detail: the title recalls the foundational work of Western political governance by Thomas Hobbes, even as one suspects the film isn’t quite as enamoured of the role of government in lifting humanity from its “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” natural state. There’s also the remains of a literal leviathan in the film, which looms along this windswept coastline like the grand metaphor it is, tantalisingly introduced after a primal transgression pushes Kolya’s son to his limits. But the film finds more ground with its Biblical antecedents, such as the Book of Job, quoted at a drunken, enraged Kolya by a local priest. For all this, I’ve never viewed the so-called “Russian ending” as a necessarily bleak one. In a sense it brings things to the kind of conclusion grounded in comedy — in other words, one that finally levels its protagonists, like the punchline at the end of Barry Lyndon: “It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.” It’s just that while the film is running, some characters are more equal than others, and you can be sad, or angry, or just laugh. This film lets you do all those things.


CREDITS || Director Andrey Zvyagintsev | Writer Andrey Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin | Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman | Starring Aleksei Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov | Length 140 minutes

Only God Forgives (2013)

A note on the title: The title card of the film is in Thai, subtitled into English. None of the online sources give me a transliteration of this title, but if I were following the rather pedantic rules I’ve been using on this blog, I would give the title in Thai.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Nicolas Winding Refn | Cinematographer Larry Smith | Starring Ryan Gosling, Vithaya Pansringarm, Kristin Scott Thomas | Length 90 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Friday 2 August 2013 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Lionsgate

There are undeniably words and ideas that, if you read (or indeed write) a lot of film/literary criticism, you find yourself coming across more often than one might expect in the real world. It often comes down to finding an apt adjective to try and grasp a sense of a film’s style or mood, and if any ever film was reliant on style and mood then it’s this one. And the chief adjective that comes into my addled brain is “oneiric”.

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Blancanieves (2012)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Pablo Berger (based on the fairytale Schneewittchen [Snow White] by the Brothers Grimm) | Cinematographer Kiko de la Rica | Starring Maribel Verdú, Macarena García, Ángela Molina | Length 105 minutes | Seen at Renoir, London, Sunday 14 July 2013 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Wanda

Are silent films now a thing that people do? Is it a trend? Technically pre-dating the Oscars™ success of The Artist (2012) is this Spanish film, now on general release in the UK after some festival appearances, which to my mind is a far more nuanced and interesting take on the silent film form, though certainly darker in tone than that other famous recent silent. It’s also a more sympathetic pastiche (for a start, there’s no diegetic sound), yet swiftly moves beyond mere slavish hommage in crafting a rounded film that plays to all the strengths of this antique form.

Of course, over the 80 or so years since sound film came to pre-eminence, there have been periodic throwbacks to the specially-moving qualities of the silent film form. There are those which reference the era within otherwise mainstream (sound) films like Singin’ in the Rain (1952), and then there are those which imitate the style, like the fantasias of Guy Maddin or the overly-grim lugubriousness of Aki Kaurismäki’s Juha (1999), amongst several others, most rather more experimental in form. So, whether these recent few films constitute a real trend is up for debate.

If there’s more interest in silent cinema now — and, from a capital city perspective, my friend Pam’s Silent London site is some small evidence of that (there are plenty of other silent-film-specific blogs to suit your tastes) — I don’t think a handful of films really does constitute a trend exactly. However, it’s nevertheless pleasing to see filmmakers (and audiences, since these films would hardly exist if there weren’t an audience for them) respond to the peculiar joys of voiceless cinematic art. I say ‘voiceless’ of course, since as we all know now, these films are not really silent: there’s a lot that can be done with a good score and expressive acting. For Blancanieves, Alfonso de Vilallonga provides the music; he’s not a name I’m familiar with, but his score leans heavily on traditions of silent-film accompaniment that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a live screening.

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