High Life (2018)

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.

High Life film posterCREDITS
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.

Little Women (2019)

Given this film has only just been released, it’s a late entry into my contenders for favourite of the year. To my shame, I’ve never seen a previous adaptation, and I’ve had the book unread on my shelf for half my life. I intend to remedy both points, as I’ve now ordered a copy of the much-beloved 1994 version by Gillian Armstrong; I was a teenager when it came out which may be why I didn’t see it then. Still, this latest film convinces me that it’ll be worthwhile.


I’ve seen some criticisms of this that mostly follow along the lines of the way it’s put together — not just the tricksy narrative conceit of bridging a seven year gap in the sisters’ storylines by constant cross-cutting, and the way that the death of [you all know which one right; we all know that surely by now, this story having been made so very many times?] becomes so emblematic of the death of their childhoods, as they move into a world of adult responsibilities… but also the way that the editing feels rather choppy, as if in a rush to move through this story. I can understand that some might suggest it would make a better miniseries, but honestly I think there’s little need to dwell too long on such a familiar story.

Despite not having read the original or seen any previous adaptation, the character arcs feel somehow very familiar, even as director Greta Gerwig brings something modern to the story. I imagine the older sister Meg has always felt a little bit underpowered (and requires someone of the iconic stature of Emma Watson to even bring a little bit of pathos to a very telegraphed storyline). Beth has humanity here, ironically a little bit more life to her than I had expected, but as presented it feels as if Little Women is canonically all about the conflict between Jo and Amy — and those more familiar with the story can put me right if this isn’t the case. Both Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh are wonderful actors, perhaps the best of anyone in the cast (and this is a cast with Laura Dern and Meryl Streep in it), but they capture the most attention, and there’s as much nuance in both performances as in any of recent memory (as much as in Streep’s, doing some of her finest work in years I think for the number of scenes she has). There are, for example, inflections to Ronan’s face in certain scenes that pull me back strongly to Cate Blanchett in Carol (if only because I’ve seen that film so often and so recently, not that I’m suggesting anything about Jo, though it certainly did cross my mind).

Aside from the acting, there’s a heavy emphasis on the monetary, proprietorial nature of marriage in this era, the sense of romantic partnership as transaction, which is what makes Amy’s storyline in particular so freighted with pathos. There’s this short scene where Streep’s elderly aunt calls Amy in from painting, something she loves and enjoys and wants to make a success out of (despite her self-awareness of her own limitations), to baldly inform her that the fate of the family basically rests on her making a good marriage and to forget about the frivolity of learning and artistic endeavour she’s currently engaged in. There are several scenes of this nature — in which women are confronted matter-of-factly with the reality of their world — that pass by almost subliminally, given the aforementioned speed of the film and its editing, but which resoundingly linger as these contrapuntal notes in what is otherwise a beautiful, warm and enriching film about life, with all the autumnal beauty and familial warmth you’d expect from a U-rated period drama. I suppose it could feel a little heavy-handed, but I think it all works enormously well within the context of a properly family film to make clear the constraints within which the characters live.

Little Women film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Greta Gerwig (based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott); Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux; Starring Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Eliza Scanlen, Meryl Streep; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Holloway, London, Thursday 26 December 2019.

Sils Maria (Clouds of Sils Maria, 2014)

Aside from the pre-scheduled Criterion posts, there’s been slim pickings on this blog in recent weeks as I’ve been on holiday in the States and Canada, which means I’ve largely not been seeing films. However, I did catch up with one while over there. UPDATE: It has since been added to the Criterion Collection, so you see just how far I’ve strayed.


I’ve always had the sense from the infiltration of celebrity gossip into news coverage that Kristen Stewart has been underrated as an actor, apparently on the basis of, I don’t know, her lack of a sunny Californian disposition? It’s obviously a shallow criticism, as even if you’d only been aware of her since her turn in Twilight (2008), she’s already proved her acting mettle many times (my favourite being the 2010 musical biopic The Runaways). Clearly French director Olivier Assayas has been attentive, as he’s cast her alongside acting heavyweight Juliette Binoche, and Stewart very much holds her own (though perhaps it helps that Binoche is called upon to deliver much of her performance in English). It’s a classic self-reflexive European narrative about actors and acting, about ageing and egos and a sort of psychic transference between the older (Binoche) and younger generations (Stewart, as well as Chloë Grace Moretz in a small role). Stewart plays Valentine, the harried but largely unflappable PA to Binoche’s Maria, a well-known theatrical actor who is travelling to Zürich to deliver a tribute to the (now-deceased) director who discovered her when she was a teenager. There’s something about the way it all unfolds with its narrative ellipses, its teasing character linkages and its self-reflexivity about the craft of acting and cinema, not to mention the mountainous Swiss setting (the film’s title is taken from a notable cloud formation), which reminds me of the Swiss auteur Alain Tanner and a 1960s/70s tradition of this kind of story. Clouds of Sils Maria hints at the boundaries between the real and the fictive in a playful, literary and engaged way, but leaves us on a questioning note, unsure of exactly how much has changed for its title character and those women around her.

Clouds of Sils Maria film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Olivier Assayas; Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux; Starring Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at Cineplex Forum, Montréal, Wednesday 15 April 2015.

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

The new Jim Jarmusch film starts on a turntable as a vinyl record spins, before cutting to matched shots circling first Tilda Swinton and then Tom Hiddleston from above, with them sprawled in poses of narcotic ecstasy in their respective homes. These are the doomed lovers of the title, Eve and Adam, and it’s a fitting start, putting us straight into the dizzying, woozy whirl of their lives. They move around a lot — he is based in Detroit, she in Tangier — but little really changes for them, for they are trapped in the eternal purgatory of being vampires, subsisting on packs of blood sourced from reliable local hospitals. It’s a film of beautiful textures — visual and sonic — and it feels almost autobiographical after a fashion, for the vampires are nothing if not artists, preying on millennia of culture as much as on blood.

Jarmusch’s style is particularly well-suited to these characters, because he’s never really been interested in plot so much as in atmospherics. Here the lack of momentum in the narrative is perfectly suited to characters for whom time is largely meaningless, a constant miasma of experiences that all blend into one another, even over centuries. They occasionally reminisce about the past, casually mentioning classical composers or feuds from the 16th century, and indeed one of their compatriots is Christopher Marlowe (a wizened John Hurt), which at least allows for some amusing Shakespeare gags.

There’s a constant undercurrent of deadpan black comedy that threads through their encounters, Eve with Marlowe, then Adam with the excitable wannabe Ian (Anton Yelchin), who helps him out with his artistic pursuits by sourcing vintage instruments and the like. Ian, like all the other non-vampires in the film, is a “zombie”, the term Adam and Eve condescendingly use to refer to mere mortals. They really are the ultimate hipsters: living a life of devotion to their art, citizens of the world recycling local influences and avoiding the corruptions of global capital (Detroit and Tangier are both places of largely forgotten and crumbling grandeur, and when Eve is booking a flight she is keen to avoid London at all costs), ultimately desirous of nothing so much as cult respect. Near the end, Adam encounters a performance by Yasmine Hamdan in a Tangier bar, and is told by Eve that “she’ll be famous one day” to which he snidely replies “I hope not! She’s too good to be famous.”

Music is a key to Jarmusch’s work, especially in this film. Given the essential stasis in the narrative, it wouldn’t be accurate to say the film stops to take in various musical performances, but integrating these is part of its method, whether Hamdan in Tangier, or psychedelic spacerock band White Hills in a Detroit club. Adam is a man after Jarmusch’s own heart, and indeed Jarmusch and his band Sqürl have provided a lot of the sonic textures for Adam’s artistic experimentation. Eve meanwhile is obsessed by literature, and when she travels books are all that she carries; we see her running her hand over their tactile pages as she packs them. Their seriousness is contrasted with Eve’s inane LA-based younger sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska).

Once you get into its slowly laconic rhythm, there’s a lot to like about the film. Tilda Swinton remains refreshingly disarming on screen and perfectly cast as this otherwordly being (harking back in spirit to Orlando), while Tom Hiddleston is a compelling presence, effortlessly assuming the pose of a debauched, self-serious artist. If everyone here just seems to be marking time, they certainly do it with style.

Only Lovers Left Alive film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch; Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux; Starring Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, Anton Yelchin, John Hurt; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Leicester Square, London, Thursday 6 February 2014.

Arbitrage (2012)

First up, “arbitrage”. According to my learned sources, it’s a matter of taking advantage of price differences between markets to turn a profit. Our protagonist Robert Miller is a rich white man (a derivatives trader, or a hedge fund manager, or whatever; my knowledge of the financial world is incredibly meagre). He has all the problems attendant on great wealth. He has to deal with the potential loss of hundreds of millions of dollars (presumably from said arbitrage), which would jeopardise his company’s sale and make him poorer (though hardly poor in any real terms as experienced by the audiences for this film), his daughter is digging around his dubious accounting practices, and, possibly more importantly — though it’s only a possibility — he has to reconcile himself to the part he played in the death of his mistress (accidental, but still manslaughter). So, he has a lot on his plate.

There are a lot of films with this kind of premise — the fall from grace of a plutocrat. In this film, as in so many, the character played by Richard Gere lives in a gorgeous apartment (though frankly even the poor kid from Harlem has a nice flat) with the best suits, the best art, just all those little touches that make it reek wealth. And there’s no real reason to like or sympathise for this character. And yet Gere manages to make the viewer care — if not actually care whether he loses all his money or not, but perversely to care whether he gets away with the crime of which he’s so manifestly guilty.

So, there’s no real reason for this movie to exist, and whether you see it depends on your tolerance for stories about rich white men and their transgressions. For despite the pedigree of the supporting cast (Susan Sarandon as Miller’s wife, Laetitia Casta as his mistress, Tim Roth as the detective investigating her death, Vanity Fair editor-at-large Graydon Carter’s exemplary head of hair as another trader), this is firmly focused on Gere and all these other actors are merely afforded minor appearances. But the ride itself is well-made and well-played.

Arbitrage film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nicholas Jarecki; Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux; Starring Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Sunday 3 March 2013.