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I, Daniel Blake (2016)
In hindsight a little "preachy" but nevertheless packs an amazing emotional punch with minimal material.
By the time I saw I, Daniel Blake, it had already won 8 awards including three at Cannes. The subject matter, about two people who are on the brink and failed by social services, hardly sounds like a great night out. (We know there are people worse off: do we really want to pay £10 to have our noses rubbed in it?)
Spurred on by glowing reviews and suppressing a thought that the money might be better spent giving it to charity, I went along, not least inspired by the fact that the screening was to feature 'a discussion with a panel' afterwards. Perhaps the film would challenge us to come up with good ideas . . .
The last two films by the great (and he is great, in his way) Ken Loach that I've seen I've found thoroughly enjoyable. Carla's song was original, surprising and inspiringly insightful. My Name is Joe was gritty but edged with enough humour to hold attention effortlessly. With I, Daniel Blake, Loach uses all his not inconsiderable directorial skill to give an emotional punch to a current outrage: the failing of the U.K. benefits system to help people who are very seriously too ill to work or made homeless with young children to feed and clothe. Loach makes his point well and there is hardly a dry eye in the theatre: but what exactly is he trying to do here?
If the film had been screened on television. it might have had the social impact of a 'Cathy Come Home' than a 'Poor Cow.' The cinema, in spite of it being a special event, was more than half empty. Several MPs and voluntary workers lined up on the stage to make their heartfelt speech. Sadness gives way to suppressed anger: but neither emotions are in themselves a solution.
I sat through half an hour of deeply-felt righteousness from the panel, hoping that there would indeed be time for a 'discussion' and mentally prepared what I felt could be a constructive exchange. Whoever is running the government or social services, there is only a set amount of money in the pot. No-one has found a way of implementing a good solution to social inequality. The message between the lines however was, "It is really terrible", "People must be treated with respect" (which turned out to be inventing another politically correct phrase for desperate people), "I want the other politicians to see this film!" (to do what? -- a good point but it was a politician that put it forward and someone, somewhere, at some point, has to come up with *ideas* instead of ways to make others feel guilty/ashamed/sad/angry). The underlying message seemed to be "Look at us (i.e. volunteers), we are working so hard" (agreed and hats off, but there is still a problem isn't there?); or from politicians, subtly, it is all their (i.e. the *other* political party's) fault, or (this screening being in Scotland) "It is all Wesminster's fault."
None of this should detract from Loach's accomplishment in packing a powerful punch to make his point. That was *his* job. Endless wailing by others after watching the film doesn't really add to it.
A great movie in many ways but, Mr Loach, please remember you are a filmmaker, a talented one, and your movies are (unfortunately) not going to change the world.
Steve Jobs (2015)
A sad use of cinematic talent
No-one can deny the superb acting or Boyle's talent in this film. Yet even if it is admittedly "not a documentary" it seems a shameful use of someone's name, a vicious character assassination on one of the greatest minds of recent times and whose genius changed so much in the world. Almost any of the fact-checks now available demonstrate that the key emotional and historical events are untrue, untruths that characterise the film and try to redact the world of Steve Jobs. Boyle has done some great films, he did a great job as artistic director of the London Summer Olympics as well, but this movie is no gift to humanity. Vindictive, spiteful and an attempt to destroy the name of someone who was and will still be an inspiration to millions, Boyle can only hope that it will be forgotten, or written off as a rather sad, ill-judged attempt to cream publicity off a person who was much greater than he could ever be.It should be remembered as "Ad Hominen Jobs."
A cinematic triumph
While it will not please everybody, Kurzel's treatment of a familiar story is little short of spectacular, gripping the spectator emotionally and visually.
There have been many treatments of the semi-fictional yet inspiring Shakespearean saga of ambition and corruption, with famous actors and directors from the earliest days of cinema. In 1971, Polanski injected new life in the tale by depicting the grimness of the early Scottish landscape and the violent and brutality of events from the play. Although Polanski made an effort towards faithfulness of the words written by the Bard, bringing a grittiness to the screen that could hardly be achieved on stage, Kurzel in one sense goes a stage further, completely accepting that cinema is a different medium and that faithfulness to the spirit of a story can be fulfilled in many dimensions.
From the very opening scenes, before hardly a word has been spoken, Kurzel uses visual images of desperate conditions, a child's death, a youngster preparing for war, to heighten our emotional sensitivity. When spoken words begin, there is little attempt to 'make Shakespearean English understandable' in the normal way. True to the story, he uses heavy Scottish accents, forcing the viewer to follow what is happening visually, and the emotional journeys become a tsunami.
Superb acting shows Macbeth as an initially good, loyal, man, the three witches not as bat-boiling hags but as sincere, folklorish women, and the future Lady Macbeth as devoted, loving and kind (if a bit misguided). All this fits with reasonable history of the period and the story generally. The unsophisticated Macbeth is loyal to his king, but allows his wife (who wants him to succeed in life) to influence him against his better judgment. Her unravelling, as she witnesses the monster that her husband has become (at her bidding) is a transformation effected by Marion Cotillard in one of the most remarkable female performances of the year.
As long as you have a passing idea of the story, it is easy enough to follow by focussing on the emotions of the characters. There is no need of the usual cinematic markers of overblown heroism and evil deeds to delineate good and evil (although there are plenty of evil deeds as well, some of them clothed in sweetness and piety). We can see for ourselves, in the subtle expressions and choices, as a pure heart becomes corrupt, and as evil takes root until the person no longer knows themself.
The contrast between the old king and Macbeth in power also touches on broader themes: that leaders can embody things that all men and women aspire to, such as honesty, recognition of others, kindness and a better future for all. When these are lacking, most people no longer love and identify with their king but merely think of staying alive, being a bit better off materially, or going home to their family.
Kurzel finds novel ways of dealing with the big supernatural events that strike us as entirely credible without the use of special effects and even manages to add a new interpretation to the famous 'Birnham Wood'. The stunning climax might suggest modern day lessons of tolerance over the heated Scottish independence question; and the final footage is used not to amaze in typical blockbuster style but to tear at one's heart and guts as we consider the horrors visited on innocent men and children by the unleashed greed and ambition that was as unstoppable as it was unintended.
One cannot make a film like this which breaks the mold without upsetting those that seek straightforward entertainment. Yet this is, in some sense at least, Shakespeare: those that only go for battle scenes and the story on a plate may leave feeling distinctly unsatisfied.
Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1980)
One of my favourite Godard movies
I never did quite 'get' Dali. All those contortions. Grotesque shapes. Stunted creatures. Then one day I saw clues. His 'melting pocket-watch' (The Persistence Of Memory) was not just a silly timepiece, bent out of shape like wax melting off a table. It was the fluidity of time, how we perceive time in different ways. When we have fun (for instance) and time seems to speed up. When we're bored, and it slows.
Our inner experience of time is affected by our perception. Our focus, our mental state, it makes a big difference. We are similarly affected by how things are presented externally. Trees flashing past so quickly they are almost a blur. Have you ever been on a train as it traverses a wooded hill? But see the same trees from the hilltop and their majesty and poetry become evident. In both cases, perhaps there is no absolute 'reality' only different ways of perceiving it. At any one second, our senses are overloaded with more data than our consciousness allows. It is less a case of 'seeing what is really there' - but of exerting control over our selection process, our filtering, and deciding what data to take time to consciously process; and what our conscious mind ignores.
Perception is, for Godard, an enduring theme. Speed it up, slow it down. The camera mimics the process of visual perception. It chooses what to observe, and how. It 'tells' us what to think. Can cinema, by its careful control of simulated perception, increase our understanding of 'how' we perceive things? Or alert us to the possibility that there is 'more' in front of our eyes than we might have assumed on that busy day? The nominal plot revolves around a three characters. A filmmaker called Godard. Denise, a writer/editor trying to make a career change. And Isabelle, a prostitute (Isabelle Huppert) trying to better herself. Godard and Denise are in the painful process of ending a relationship. He is also going through a tough time with his ex-wife and daughter. Denise sees Isabelle being abused in the street. Isabelle sleeps with Godard after going to a movie with him. She wants to get a new place to live even phoning about a flat during a bizarre sex scene - and she wants to work for herself instead of the pimp. Not knowing Godard is the landlord, she visits their cottage up for rent as Godard throws himself across the table at Denise.
Three wildly different life trajectories. Intersecting in ways that allow the film to challenge accepted notions. Toying with the nature of perception. And even asking how we get to where we want to be in life or not. Separate chapters - after the intro sequences - for each character. Then 'Music' brings all three together. (Look out for unusual sound tropes as well.) Slow Motion by whatever name we call it is almost as conventional as Godard gets. While the narrative is far from mainstream, it is a more recognisable cinema experience than much of his most challenging (or didactic, uncommercial) work. And it provides material to sustain many repeated viewings.
The film includes about 15 'stop-action' shots, where the image is stopped completely, slowed down, replayed, and/or speeded up. We don't just analyse images outside of their diegetic function: we are able to invent a parallel diegesis. It is almost like the break-up of a relationship where a man and woman see 'reality' from totally different perspectives. Godard deconstructs his own maxim of 'truth 24 times per second' by varying the speeds. Outwardly hollow moments contain more than might otherwise meet the eye. It is not the subject matter and characters that demand Brechtian analysis, to become aware of our spectator involvement, so much as the process of perception itself. In a scene where an executive orchestrates a scenario with two prostitutes and another man, we are again confronted with complex metaphor, ("Okay," he says, "we've got the image, now we'll take care of the sound.") But here, the symbol of prostitution is not playing into the Marxist-bourgeois analogy so commonly used by Godard in films such as 2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her. In the debauchery, we can see the construction processes and their perception, the images, the sound, used to no specific purpose other than gratification thus mimicking the production of mindless entertainment in Hollywood consumerist cinema.
Compounding such stop-motion tropes is the use of interior dialogue. Isabelle plays out another life in her head while having sex with clients. What do we choose to 'see'? To hear? Comparison of the prostitution scenes and the scenes where natural, spontaneous sexuality is apparent or implied, coupled with the 'selection' process we make when determining how we 'see' things, might reflect not only on how men and women (or any two people) can be 'in tune' but also, with different emphases affecting the data-perception process, the very gender difference apparent when we look at how men and women might typically view things differently. There might be life apart from the diegetic one. We might choose what we perceive to be 'real' but ultimately we make our own reality.
Dehumanization occurs when a person is not able to order their life according to their will. At that point, the individual has become a slave to the senses rather than their master. One might not be able to change the territory in which one finds oneself but, by standing back far enough to discern the wood from the trees, one might at least find new perceptions that can be converted to reality.
above-average horror film
The autumn chill hits, and it's a good time for horror movies...
Sinister comes from the people who gave us Paranormal Activity and also The Exorcism Of Emily Rose. Only it's a little more... sinister. Found footage of snuff movies heralds its adult credentials before you've had time to choke on the nachos or splutter salsa over the person in front. Copy picture A family is murdered. Months later, comeback writer Ellison Osborne moves into the house with his family. In the attic, he discovers a box of tapes that includes footage of many murders. Unbeknown to his family, he has chosen the house in order to research a true-crime novel. Having only had one bestseller, he sees this as his lucky break, his chance to write his In Cold Blood. The children start to act strangely and his good wife freaks out on him when she discovers the real reason they are living there.
Ethan Hawke, as Ellison, and lovely Shakespearean actress Juliet Rylance playing his wife, Tracy, immediately strike us as realistic characters worthy of belief and empathy. Their convincing personas have more depth than the average shock- flick, and we are sorely tempted to consider whether this at heart might be a psychological thriller of Hitchcockian nastiness. Yet if the trailer hasn't given everything away, we are transported into a dark world of malignant forces the minute Ellison discovers a strange symbol repeated on the death tapes. Strong supporting acts appear in the form of a local police deputy who changes from doting fanboy to calm, collected criminologist; and a little later Professor Jonas the expert on bizarre cults. The professor makes this Babylonian demon 'Bagul' sound so realistic that you could be forgiven for wondering if Sinister is based on a true story, with Mansonesque worshippers helping Bagul to find souls of children to feast on.
More lost footage. More creaks and bumps in the Osborne family's almost endless night. Ellison is losing the plot, but we are barely a knife-edge ahead of him. Cue cute kids, cue creepy kids, cue dead kids. Sinister will shortly become shriek-out-loud horror. As well as creeping inside your head on the way home, insidious horror. Polished production values handle clichéd camera jerks with admirable restraint. What we can see and know on-screen is nasty; what we don't know is even more unsettling. Perhaps pausing only to admire the exquisite backing tracks and diligently applied sound effects, we soon realise we are hooked on trying to solve the mystery: who was the killer? Sinister's dark humour is equally discreet. Rather than being played for quick laughs, it emphasises the fear experienced by our protagonists. When Ellison is threatened by a Cujo-sized dog, he speaks soothingly, gently, while muttering a desire for the baseball bat to smash its skull in. And during a row with his wife, he says he hasn't 'really' brought them to house where murder was committed, since our crime occurred 'in the garden' ("As if that makes any difference!" Tracy explodes.) Horror films sometimes work by challenging us to confront the things we abhor, and all from the safety of a cinema seat. Whether physical (mass murderers), mental (psychological threats) or psychical (supernatural happenings), horrors on a movie-screen do not have to be real just real enough to remind us of something that could be. Our inner demons. The things we fear most. It could be said the 'ghost' haunting Ellison Osborne, his creeping, sweating, drink-sozzled paranoia, is evoked by his frankly unsavoury and obsessive career, his life's dream, that is in reality destroying the family that he loves and frightening his children. As with Frankenstein before him, Ellison's monstrosities might be partly of his own making. It might be tempting to see the monster as a reflection of him. Yet the very visible on-screen ghosts are nevertheless small works of art that capture our senses. That, and the gut- churningly self-assured, unexpected and irresistibly compelling ending swiftly sweep aside mundane interpretations.
Given the effort put into getting it right, a part of me would still have loved to see a police psychiatrist in the coda explaining how everything really happened. An ultimate reliance on the supernatural is fine for horror fans, but inevitably weakens mainstream impact. (Imagine Norman Bates had summoned his mother back from the dead instead of just putting a wig on.) Sinister is far too derivative to be accorded a big place in cinema history; but this souped-up, low-budget compendium of dread is still more satisfying than most horror films that graced our screens this summer.
Hélas pour moi (1993)
A difficult masterpiece but undoubtedly worth the effort
Are you easily distracted? When I first watched Gaspar Noé's 2002 film, Irreversible, I sat near the screen and found the cacophony of images overpowering. On my second viewing, I sat further back, more easily contemplating the 'bigger picture,' appreciating a remarkable film. Virginia Woolf's 'Mrs Dalloway,' suggests a similar psychology in her 'stream-of-consciousness' where writing emulates experience: we need to step back before we can tell, what is the pertinent information? what is the story about? In real life, we may only see things in true proportion retrospectively.
This psychological hurdle forcefully confronts us in Hélas Pour Moi. I strongly urge you to see it twice if possible. The story is more logical and flowing when you know what is happening. You can appreciate the many subtleties, and the exquisite cinematography of Caroline Champetier. Failing that, I would recommend sitting at the rear of the auditorium.
We meet a publisher, Abraham Klimt. He has turned detective to investigate a strange story sent to him of divine intervention, though part of the manuscript is missing. We catch up with Klimt as he seeks out Simon and Rachel Donnadieu, our main characters, as well as the one witness who maybe saw the key event: did God take human form to have sex with Rachel, by inhabiting the body of Simon, her husband? We are subject to the same sort of events-discordance, people coming and going, conversations overlapping, as Klimt might, as he searches for truth in an unhelpful environment. This non-sequitur approach goes on for ages, and only in the last 30 minutes or so of footage does the story congeal for a first time viewer.
It re-works a play based on the legend of Zeus, Alcmene and her husband Amphitryon. In the Ancient Greek, the divine Zeus takes the human form of Amphitryon to mate with Amphitryon's betrothed. In the original, this leads to the birth of Heracles, born of divine father and human mother. But in Godard's modern setting, the story just goes as far as sexual union. God, once known as Zeus, now seems more Christian, and by implication can even lead us to question the veracity of the standard Mary-and-Joseph story. Klimt has no preconceptions: he just wants the truth.
There is no strong statement on whether one should believe in divine intervention, or just go for the more obvious explanation: that Simon, although estranged, is feeling horny, he suffers an obsession, and assumes a divine persona which the ever-devoted Rachel believes. "All men are the shadow of God to the women who love them." (We do however, see a low-budget and highly effective scene where God, looking rather scruffy and unkempt, enters Simon's body.) Godard called Hélas pour Moi "a complete flop." Yet, while difficult and obscure, it garnered critically praise and was his first feature to be distributed in the U.S. for ten years. Depardieu (who plays Simon) abandoned the film halfway through shooting, exasperated at Godard's methods. "It could have been a good movie," said Godard, "if Depardieu was willing to try. But he was not interested in the movie, in working to make it right. Of course, he said, 'Godard is a genius.' He was just making it for my name." But without Depardieu, the film would not have been financed.
Hélas pour Moi is replete with dozens of obscure references (from French and Italian literature, from philosophy, from theology) and quotations have sometimes been 'edited' by Godard. This makes it a particularly difficult film even if it wasn't so already. In the jangling, difficult-to-watch first two-thirds, apparently discordant ideas and images are set against the beautiful backdrop of nature and Lake Geneva. Such style is intrinsic to the content. "I feel a strange revulsion at the thought of crudely expressing what the spectator has probably guessed of his own accord," says Klimt, but it could have been from Godard's own lips.
For a while, I wonder if the film will develop into a polemic against religion no stranger to Godard's virulence perhaps replacing it with Art as the highest of aspirations. Yet, "there is always something depressing about the portrayal of crude reality," and belief is heralded in what could be interpreted as a positive light when a character asserts, "I believe because it is absurd." When logic fails, after all, we are left with belief. And what is truth? "Truth is what keeps the walls of houses upright, what keeps the roofs from collapsing." This is just one reading. We could view the film as an essay on human feelings. An enquiry into sexual union as an aspect of communicating with God (Rachel likens the gesture of hands in prayer to hands folded in an embrace around one's lover.) Or how an artist seeks meaning in the world. Or we can follow the poetry of Champetier's photography, enjoying the way subjects are framed in nature, focused and de-focused, and the beauty of the moment as a bicycle falls over, or a woman's hat blows off. As a feminist study, or as the way history (and literature) is created and redacted: the French words 'histoire (history) and 'histoires' (stories) being symbiotic for Godard - who entitled his history of cinema 'Histoire(s) du Cinéma.' Metaphysical aspects are drawn together in the opening, and in the final coda, halfway through the credits. These skilfully harmonise Godard's ideas on the nature of perception and the evanescent nature of truth.
"When my father's father's father had a difficult task to accomplish, he went to a certain place in the forest, lit a fire, and immersed himself in silent prayer. And what had to be done was done." The ritual was diluted over time. "But we do know how to tell the story." Never shy at innovation, Godard tells his story in a new, deep and meaningful way.
Flamboyanytly and enjoyably chaotic, if ultimately (and perhaps intentionally) slightly pointless
What is This Film Called Love? takes the viewer on a flamboyant, colourful, iconoclastic journey of three days through Mexico City or three days inside the head of its creator, quirkily comical film connoisseur, Mark Cousins.
There's much sleight of hand, including changing gender and raising Eisenstein from the dead. But it's all done (quite remarkably, beautifully, and in near HD) on a small Flip camera costing a hundred quid. It's inventive and mesmerising, cunningly shot, heavily edited, wittily scripted and charms us into finding simple acts such as a man getting on and off a bus rather mesmerising.
To achieve this, Cousins uses his well-trodden alter-ego of an adolescent on a Kerouac-style ramble. He constantly makes the ordinary sound interesting and, for at least half of the movie I held my breath to see what was going to come next. Each shot is exquisitely composed, often with rather boyish self-congratulation, such as when he compares his 'typical' camera angles with those of the great Eisenstein. But, if you have glanced through Cousins' wonderfully erudite yet readable book, The Story of Film, and hoped to gain some insights into the work of the great Sergei Eisenstein (a pioneering Russian filmmaker from about 100 years ago) you'll be disappointed. The closest we perhaps get is to view the delightful montage techniques in Cousins' film as a tribute to Eisenstein's work. But the 'influence' could be called superficial: Eisenstein used montage to make a point, whereas Cousins just wants to have fun. But when the amusingly egotistical Cousins carries a photo of Eisenstein around Mexico City talking to it, or goes running naked through the American desert, we are inclined to forgive the ladishness of such name-dropping.
Eisenstein is the main other 'character,' but Cousins doesn't stop there. When he hints that his style is based on Virginia Woolf's stream-of-consciousness technique, the humour reminds me more of Sascha Baron Cohen. A bit like saying a Madras-flavour pot-noodle is based on the fine Indian cuisine. Unfortunately, we sense that beneath it all Cousins is taking himself seriously. Residents of Stuttgart might be equally unimpressed with his throwaway, factual inaccuracies about the philosopher, Hegel. It is someone who is genuinely an expert in one area (cinema) posing as an intellectual in another, and trying to brush it off with false modesty.
In some ways it is still forgivable. Think of poetry, and this film resembles poetry. Think of song lyrics that most unaccountable sort of poetry. And think of Bob Dylan who (by his own account) selected names and phrases from a prestigious shelf of books he had never read. Who cares? Highway 61 Revisited was still an inspiring set of songs, and What is This Film Called Love could be equally inspiring to the right young mindset. Jack Kerouac for the iPhone age. Except the film hasn't the depth or weight of Kerouc. The wittering about ecstasy has one of the most insightful moments of the film - pondering the etymology ex stasis, hence a 'going away from' the state of standing still. Yet it feels like a Christian rock band singing of the joys of sex and drugs. There's a point where the author surely has to live the dream before inviting us in, and a bottle of Mexican beer plus a few veiled references to drugs is hardly a William Rice Burroughs friendly battle with the devil.
PJ Harvey's almost funereal 'To Bring You My Love' explodes two-thirds of the way through the movie and does suggest we might get some depth or seriousness, but the promise quickly fades as it goes back to laconic meandering and sleight of hand in the dialogue (his gender change merely being one of viewpoint). What some will enjoy (and others find infuriating) is the stylishness of technique. Almost every shot is like a picture essay on how to frame or use the camera inventively. The dialogue is self-referentially Brechtian in new and exciting ways. Delivery and timing is impeccable rather like his illustrated lecture (on Cinema and Creativity) in Edinburgh, where it turns out that the film made in Edinburgh wasn't made in Edinburgh at all. Like the pop-science writer Jonah Lehrer (who Cousins speaks of almost as if he were a guru), Cousins can be inspiring, his enthusiasm contagious; even if some of his details don't seem to stand up well to scrutiny. But if you are enjoying the ride enough, this shouldn't bother you.
There were two main flaws in this movie for me. One was of my own making, that of expectation. To think that Mark Cousins, whose book I loved, would have something worth-while to say about (for instance) Eisenstein. The second is its near absence of plot. Even a semi-documentary needs some sort of point to hang it on, and this has very little beyond being quite enjoyable while it lasts.
A fragmented, defining image
What defines us? Or, what defines anything, for that matter? Is it a dictionary definition or our composite understanding that defines? A Married Woman (Une Femme Mariée) is perhaps better understood with reference to its original title, The Married Woman. Our opening scene is merely two lovers. A Man. A Woman. Photographed with immaculate perfection, shorn of erotic or personal overtones, each shot encapsulates the beauty and symmetry of an exquisite fashion ad say, maybe, Chanel. Only after a few moments do we find out who these two individuals impeccably framed by Raoul Coutard are in real life. Assuming they are lovers, yes, but we find that Charlotte is a married woman. Her lover is Robert, an actor.
Just as 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her viewed the world through the eyes of commodification, so does Une Femme Mariée view it through the superficiality of advertising. The usual love triangle of a man and two women is turned on its head by giving Charlotte (Macha Méril) two men between whom she cannot choose. Her aspiration to be perfect is measured in terms of messages sent by 60's women's magazines and other media defining the 'ideal woman' whose main aim, it seems, should be to please her husband. Charlotte measures the position of her breasts, listens to a record on how a woman can improve her marriage (it consists of vacuous female laughter), and is expert at seeming light while keeping both men on the back foot. She sees herself as an object of desire by both Robert and husband Pierre and practices superficiality to perfection. She also, however, seems far from dim-witted when giving either of them a grilling.
It is easy to become divided over this film. One can view it as trite, a Godard cast-off, or one can admire the cinematic poetry, the precision with which it delivers its point and its critique of the institution of marriage. It almost goes as far as to suggest that such emptiness is the lot of 'The Married Woman.' (The title was changed at the censor's insistence, who found the definite article disparaging to French women generally. A topless scene was also chopped.) "I love you too, Pierre. Often not the way you believe, but it's sincere." While men's underwear adverts are just plain photos, adverts for women's lingerie are accompanied by unrealistic promises of what they will deliver in a woman's love life (mostly, of course, in terms of a man's pleasure). At one point, Charlotte is standing next to a gigantic brassiere advert, and it is touchingly clear that society made the image more important than the individual.
Each of our main characters has a monologue, but we additionally hear Charlotte's internal monologue. When she has had sad thoughts, she repeats to herself, "I'm happy . . . I'm happy . . . I'm happy," as if the mantra will translate into reality. When she learns from the doctor that she is three months' pregnant (to whom?), her internal voice tells her, "Find a solution . . .. Save appearances." She continues to rely quite effectively on the character she has become, now telling each man how much she loves him, all the while skilfully testing him. It is almost as if primitive instinct to secure a hunter-provider takes over. Although Charlotte admits to the doctor she is scared, she doesn't lose her inner composure even once in the whole movie. She might even be shouting, but we can believe it is part of her dexterous womanish wiles quite ironic, given that she presses Robert to define acting and say exactly how it is different to real life. Only once does she falter, tripping and falling in the road as she leaves the doctor's surgery. When I look back on a film that is almost devoid of real emotion, it is a heart-rending moment.
Apart from intertitles, and jump-cuts to juxtapose intertextual media with narrative, other cinematic tricks include switching between positive and negative photographic images and superimposing summaries. Charlotte eavesdrops on two teenagers as they discuss what a man does during the loss of one's virginity. Salient point appear in small grey letters over the image (for instance, "Je dors avec un garçon"), perhaps showing how Charlotte reduces everything to its minimalist formula. For those that find the film itself as empty as the subject matter, one need only to look at the extended references to Racine (in Berenice, where Racine similarly makes something out of nothing for a similarly helpless protagonist), or Moliere, who answered critics by saying that, to prevent sin, theatre purifies love.
Perhaps Cahiers critic Jean-Louis Cornolli summed it up best when he described Une Femme Mariée as "a film about a woman's beauty and the ugliness of her world." Macha Méril credits it with striking a blow for women's rights at a time when the pill was still illegal in France.
My Reincarnation (2011)
Belief and scepticism combine productively
A challenge facing any reviewer is how to present a balanced picture without letting one's own feelings sway it too much either way. The same challenge must face documentary makers. How do you present 'facts' without putting a spin on them? The first film I saw by Jenny Fox was her Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman: a six-hour marathon of her own journey to discover what it means to be a woman. My Reincarnation is mercifully brief by comparison. She returns to more traditional cinema verité, again dissecting the psyche this time of a high Tibetan Buddhist Monk. Both his greatness and his more earthly failings all are part of this vivid 82 minute documentary. In making it, Fox gained unparalleled access to his private and family affairs. She had little funding for the first 18 years, of what turned out to be 20 years of filming, but in spite of the title, it was all completed in a single lifetime.
The monk in question is Chögyal Namkhai Norbu. While less famous than the Dalai Lama, a quick google search shows he's right up there with revered world-famous authorities.
A reason My Reincarnation took so long to complete, Fox tells me, is that there was no 'storyline' on which to hang a commercial film. Chogyal teaches in exile, and his son (Yeshi), although also recognised as a great incarnation, prefers family life in Italy to the ascetic Buddhist path. So not a lot happens. But then, a breakthrough. The documentary had almost been abandoned when our prodigal son secretly hoofs it to Tibet to reclaim his heritage. Dad, meanwhile, is looking unwell, and a Buddhist foundation wants to preserve the teachings. So they gave Fox enough funds to get things to the big screen.
Our film's unhurried pace could easily make it rather unexceptional, especially to non-Buddhists: except for three things. Firstly, access to such a reclusive life is normally impossible. Secondly, the extraordinary tension between intelligent young Yeshi, who wants wants to see father as nothing special, and Dad with his hoards of adoring acolytes. By giving both characters equal weight, Fox explores Tibetan Buddhist tradition from the angles of both believers and sceptics. The third factor is Fox herself as a filmmaker. She has an unnerving ability to turn navel-gazing into life-changing. Her daunting self-exposé, Flying Confessions, was even serialised on television. Now, her mantra-laden, bell-ringing, Himalayan odyssey is disarmingly down-to-earth.
While there is, for Buddhist audiences at least, enough 'meat on the bone' as Fox puts it (a curious expression as most Buddhists are vegetarians, Tibetans often being an exception), she maintains a director's crucial impartiality in the final edit. Yeshi's irritation is displayed without totally wrecking the character of the old master. But we also get to see the latter as merely human. Brief monologues are impressive. Basic Buddhist teachings include observing one's own mind and avoiding worship of a master (a point repeatedly overlooked, it seems to me, from the doting expressions of followers). The Dalai Lama makes several very informal appearances, laughing and joking charismatically. But the real emotional clout is launched in the final Tibetan footage. Is there anything in the prophecies? These last reels were shot without Fox's knowledge she didn't even know Yeshi was going. Miraculous intervention or an overpowering sense of duty? The whole thing can still look a bit woolly to this viewer, but it works dramatically and impressively for the community of Dzogchen Buddhists. Chögyal Namkhai Norbu might not be a divinity from on high, but he gives sound advice to people desperately in need. His practices have given him fortitude and focus. Not a bad role model even as a mere father.
For sceptics, Tibetan Buddhism's shortcomings when running a modern-day sanctuary are highlighted. Early in the film, Yeshi introduces modern business strategy to enable many more people than would have been envisaged in the original Buddhism to get on well with each other. In this sense, the West brings something to the East. "This," as Fox proclaims, "is the future. If they can get through it." Whatever your beliefs, shake yourself at the end of the movie and remember: this is real life documentary, not fiction. The chrysalis of documentary movie-making transforms itself into moving evidence.
Pink blobs are people, red buckets are blood, and whirring things are chainsaws
MACABRE is one of those tasty blood-gushingly psychological tortures in three neat and tidy acts. Even the trailer is hard to watch without looking away. Act One has two newly weds, Adjie and Astrid, with three of their best friends. Chill out, relax in Bandung, Indonesia. Head for Jakarta, but give a lift home to a strange girl who says she's been robbed. In her mother's house, we enter the pristine, bourgeois world of Dara, who insists on repaying kindness with food and drink. And torture. Once drugged, our guests enter a blood-dripping, nightmarish world of no escape, their bodies neatly sliced one by one and professionally packaged. Astrid gives birth. Dara's calm, sophisticated composure never breaks its stride. She coolly empathises with Astrid's pain before pointing out that baby and hubby will experience even more. Viewing permitted. As the film is introduced at the end of a all-night film programme, we are told not to worry if we are already tired. The plot is simple and nothing to fret over. "Pink blobs are people, red buckets are blood, and whirring things are chainsaws." A classic story where the point isn't revealed till the end, and the suspense, sadistic pain, and surreal nastiness doesn't stop for a second. A satisfying if rather colourful conclusion to the long night at Edinburgh's Dead By Dawn horror film festival.