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I'm old enough vaguely to remember the televised Frost/Nixon
interviews. Even the presidency. And the U.S./Vietnam war. I shared the
popular sense of moral outrage. But I'm not an American citizen, and I
couldn't get worked up about, 'giving Nixon the trial he never had.'
What difference did that make to me?
Something halfway through this movie changed my mind. Mid-interview, attempting to get a reaction from Nixon, Frost's team run footage of carnage in Cambodia caused by American carpet-bombing. I guess perhaps because I was in Cambodia only a few months ago. It made more of an impact. For all my intellectual appreciation of events, I hadn't been prepared for such devastation of a nation's psyche. An NGO worker looked into my eyes one day at a truck stop. She said, "And when I got here, I just cried every day for weeks." I think she knew, as our eyes met, that I, a grown man, had been crying in helplessness towards these people trying to hide my tears for days. Visiting the ancient temples and aid workers, but meeting villagers too, it was hard not to cry. I have never seen a people so psychologically annihilated. The first thing that had struck me was, here is a nation for whom the very idea of hope has been long ago discarded. I wanted Nixon to pay.
The horrific footage doesn't move Mr President, the way it moves me. I want him to have that trial. But Nixon is a heavyweight in every way, just as the actor portraying him. Frost, on the other hand, is almost a bit of a joke. Hardly a man to bet on. Yet from that moment I was rooting for him. The only person with a chance of bringing light into Nixon's disingenuous stonewalling. From that moment, I was emotionally hooked. I would happily overlook all but the most egregious of flaws.
Fortunately, like the real interview series, the film only gets better. As if it has been playing with us for an eternity before packing its punches.
I've never been much taken with Martin Sheen (Frost). I kept thinking of his performance as Tony Blair in The Queen and how, here as in The Queen, it seems too much like an impersonation. Rory Bremner on a good day. But it is almost Sheen's fallibility that allows the rest of the film to shine. Taking us off guard, just as Nixon was taken off guard. A cheap punk on the street who you walk past disparagingly, only to realise he's the mafia boss and you're surrounded. Then there's Kevin Bacon. Haven't I seen that suit in one too many movies? So when he hits me with real emotion towards the end (he's a very good actor) it has a profound shock. Both these men know how to play supporting actor in the true sense, supporting the lead role and the whole production rather than constantly making us notice their own lapels. But it's Frank Langella's towering interpretation of Nixon that eventually makes every other character real. Low-angle camera shots emphasise his power and he looms over us. The most powerful man in the world. And once we buy into that, everything we see in his 'world,' by definition, has to be 'real.'
Frost/Nixon is about as watertight as you get. Adapted by the man who wrote the play (and also wrote The Queen and Last King of Scotland); then an Oscar-winning director who only agrees to do it if he can have the two lead actors from his polished stage version. Remember how Ron Howard pulled it out of the bag with the equally dry-seeming, A Beautiful Mind? Well, he's done it again.
But for all the triumphant battle cries as Frost walks him into a trap, in the end it is Nixon that gets my sympathies. Even more than Frost gets my admiration. As I watch Nixon face his inner hell, I recall every speck of darkness in my own soul. How I never managed to make my father proud before he died. How I risked my career once when I stole a long international phone call in the office. How I cheated on the one woman I loved more than any woman in my whole life. Some sins just don't go away. Nixon becomes the Nemesis within Everyman.
Nixon, like a Judas Iscariot or Lady Macbeth, has no way of ever coming completely clean. But, through the ironic good fortune of an interviewer who outwits him, Nixon receives the gift of being able to say sorry. Sorry to the Americans he betrayed. His legacy, the symbol of ultimate duplicity the "-gate" tagged on to any word so to indicate scandal. See him fall is it then possible (for some perhaps) to open hearts and forgive?
The second biggest thing that is striking about Cambodians is their lack of ill-will. To the one who destroyed their country. Having never hated, they have no thing to forgive. A senior monk instructed me, while I was there, on a Buddhist method of mindfulness. One of the results of this mediation is that one focuses everything back on one's own action, and hence one's own moment-to-moment responsibility. It strikes me that for Nixon, Frost was like the senior monk. The guy who showed him how to face who and what he was. His catharsis. Not that anyone will ever say thank you (to Nixon, that is.)
And coming full circle, that's what cinema can do. It can take something that is intellectually discernible and make it real through an emotional investment. And it does it by means of fiction.
Can you recall being read stories as a child? Warm and tucked up. In
your bed. Feeling safe, secure, loved. And that wonderful, strong,
all-knowing adult giving you undivided attention? You don't have to do
anything. Wonderful tales race before your eyes. Lose yourself in the
prince as he slays the dragon. Or the princess awoken with a kiss. When
we awake as adults, we maybe re-create that security for ourselves. We
read to get to sleep. We read to our own children. We enjoy worlds and
emotions that give us respite from the hard business of living. Why
not? I wondered if Hanna (Kate Winslet) had ever been read to as a
child. A hard life shows on her face. She lives in a tiny apartment in
Berlin. She gets by. But, more importantly, Hanna cannot rebuild her
world through a half hour escape in a novel. Hanna cannot read.
The Reader brings together familiar enough story lines the seduction of a young boy by an older woman the trial of a former SS guard guilt self-sacrifice love found, then lost. But the emotional punch is delivered by mismatching our sympathies to the characters. The people we love turn out to be deeply flawed. But if we hold that against them, are we doing so to make ourselves feel better?
Hanna has sex with young Michael, shortly before his sixteenth birthday. We are encouraged to just accept it. Any analysing over whether it was 'wrong' or screwed Michael up emotionally can be done by those diehards in the cafe after the film. More pertinent at the time is their genuine affection, the superb acting, and the imaginative love-making between an extremely buff Michael and a rather fit-looking Kate Winslet. Winslet/Hanna is the constant transformation throughout our film. She is harsh, convincingly Germanic, and ages convincingly from her thirties to her seventies. It's a make-up job that almost rivals Kidman's Virginia Woolf in director Stephen Daldry's earlier masterpiece, The Hours.
Hanna is brutally honest with herself about almost everything. Except one thing. She is deeply ashamed of being illiterate. She hides it from Michael, who nevertheless senses it. He makes a habit of reading to her. Everything from Homer's Odyssey and Tolstoy to comic books and back again to Chekhov. We realise how important it is to her: she announces to him that he will read to her before making love, not afterwards.
Michael continues schooling to become a lawyer. Hanna is offered a promotion from her bus conductor job to work in an office. This is a disaster as she can't read. She throws a hissy fit at puzzled Michael and breaks up their affair. Later, when we learn she had once accepted work as an SS guard instead of a step up in her old job, we can secretly suspect the same reason.
Although Hanna is guilty of terrible crimes in the past, our sympathies are not so much with her victims. The one survivor has written a damning book and patently done rather well for herself. Elegant and tall in contrast to the haggard and drawn guards on trial. Those indicted are a handful out of tens of thousands. Symbolic sacrifices. Their incarceration allowing the silent others to feel sanctified. Germany righteously punishes its own. Jews are avenged. Justice is seen to be done. But we see Hanna's co-accused gang up on her. She confesses to something she could not have committed. A personal surrender, an over-redemption.
Michael doesn't announce a truth that would mitigate her sentence. He is too ashamed to be connected to her. He disguises it as 'respecting her wishes.' Like Odysseus secretly observing Penelope, he stays incognito. Michael's 'respectable shame' becomes the shame of humanity, unable to forgive, whatever the cost.
Ralph Fiennes, as the older Michael, is well-cast. Although the opening scene of The Reader recalls Constant Gardener (white collar chap with nude woman wandering around apartment), Michael is more of a throwback to the slimy characters that Fiennes specialises in.
At this point I differed from my viewing companion on the film. She declared it one of the saddest films she had ever seen. While I could not get it out of my mind what a slimeball Michael was. We both agreed it was fundamentally a love story. But for me it was marred by an increasing sense of cynicism. Catharsis for whom? As the emotional valence ratchets up scene by scene, I feel sucked into a sick psychopathology of characters whose stunted development was hardly a matter for theatrical wallowing. And while Winslet ages forty years in the course of the movie, Michael simply has two ages played by two actors. At one point amid the dizzying flashbacks and forwards I had to believe Fiennes was twenty years younger as he was wearing a jumper instead of a tie.
David Hare has done an admirable job with the screenplay. But the philosophical questioning of attitudes to people who helped the Nazis is hard to portray with cinema's broad brush. In The Hours, Hare (and Daldry) had both the genius of Virginia Woolf's ideas and Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer-winning modern take to work from. With The Reader, Bernhard Schlink's semi-autobiographical novel has generated a film that is thought-provoking rather than yielding insight. Hanna's illiteracy is his metaphor for modern understanding of the Holocaust. We weren't there. We can't understand. "What would you do?" Hanna asks the judge, not rhetorically, but wanting an answer.
And what would you do, if you couldn't live with what you've done? Even if you felt you'd had no choice? And if even the healing fantasy world of fiction is finally denied you? The Reader is a story that puts nothing to bed.
Che is sometimes, almost like life itself, a bit of a mess. It
meanders. In and around the time of the Cuban revolution and so
fittingly that the film is being released 50 years on but jumps back
and forth to give us black and white footage of Che Guevara addressing
the United Nations. Or meeting McCarthy in New York. And then through
lush tropical terrain, fighting to overthrow the regime in power until
Says director Steven Soderbergh, "I was drawn to Che as a subject for a movie (or two) not only because his life reads like an adventure story, but because I am fascinated by the technical challenges that go along with implementing any large-scale political idea. I wanted to detail the mental and physical demands these two campaigns required, and illustrate the process by which a man born with an unshakable will discovers his own ability to inspire and lead others." With that brief, there are so many different films that could have been made. This is one of them. And rather a good one. Yet probably not the one you will expect.
There is plenty of close-up fighting. But somehow we feel quite removed from it. What Soderbergh portrays is not the action hero. Nor the colourful historical drama. Neither is Benicio Del Toro's portrait one painted in close-ups and interiorisation. Instead, we have the vision. Depicted in a way consistent with the man's outlook a team-player as well as a guerrilla and idealist. A doctor and a soldier who aroused strong loyalty. "I was trying to find the scenes that would happen before or after the scene you would typically see in a movie like this," says Soderbergh. The result is casual, desultory. We get the feeling of what it may have been like to be around such a man. 'Political' is simply the mechanism, the "procedural of guerrilla warfare." Soderberg is agnostic about Guevara and indifferent to the rabid hatred of people who have not even seen the film.
Meticulously researched over many years, Che is a considerable achievement in historical accuracy. And yet here is the first controversy. Wouldn't a balanced portrait of such an almost mythologized figure include more of his faults as well as his virtues? I found myself struggling with this. A director who was capable of describing such a multiplicity of viewpoints (in his earlier film, Traffic) or bringing a real character to life on screen with emotional force (as in Erin Brockovich) was giving me something rather bland and unquestioning (Oliver Stone's insipid Comandante was already coming to mind). Che Guevara was lionised by the liberal left from Sartre to Nelson Mandela, and is still a hero to many of the world's youth. But he is also a hated figure by the anti-Castro Miami Cubans, not least for the bloody executions that followed his socialist revolution (a period conveniently ignored in the movie.) I had berated Charlize Theron for her right-leaning documentary, East of Havana , for its mis-statement of facts. But isn't Soderbergh's film, with seemingly the opposite political bent, guilty of omission? "There is no amount of accumulated barbarity that would have satisfied the people who hate him," says the director when confronted with this. Although this will not appease the fervent anti-Castro-ists, it does give some justification to the filmmaker's choices.
Guevara is not just a political-historical figure. Based on the famous photo by Korda, his image continues to emblazon t-shirts and memorabilia worldwide. For many youngsters, it is simply an anti-authority figure. In parts of South America that I have visited, it symbolises opposition to U.S. economic occupation. In other words, a hero. The inspiration (rightly or wrongly) is of someone who put moral ideals above his own material welfare. Not a bad image for a youngster to aim at perhaps. When we analyse the real person (which most people don't), we could perhaps ask if noble ideals are as noble when they don't always have noble results.
Soderbergh has had to condense enough material for a dozen films. The romantic youth so ably portrayed in Motorcycle Diaries left the viewing public deprived of any representation of the most famous and important period of Che Guevara's life. Before we passively sit down to a Spielberg-sized over-interpretation for bums on seats at the box-office, perhaps we should hail Soderbergh for this calm, relatively unspectacular and unemotional account. It is not a political film. But it perhaps approaches as close to documentary as biopic is capable of. Benicio Del Toro becomes Che Guevara with great acumen. Not flamboyantly. Not with great theatrics or displays of emotion. Sincere and almost reverent, he blends seamlessly with quasi-documentary footage. Unless you heard the real Che Guevara speak at the United Nations, this is probably the next best thing.
On the other hand, if your reply is, "United what?" and you would prefer a well-made Hollywood romp, please leave Che to us sad little people that inhabit art-house cinemas . . .
Neatly skipping over everything from the coup in Cuba to his undercover
entry into Bolivia, part two of Soderbergh's portrayal of Che Guevara
is that of the tragic hero. As with Che Part One, this rather
rambling guerrilla warfare escapade through the colourful mountains of
Bolivia is probably destined to disappoint more people than it will
satisfy, so why was the film (and particularly Benicio Del Toro's
performance) so loudly praised at Cannes?
James Rocchi, for instance, called it, a work of art that's, "not just the story of a revolutionary," but, "a revolution in and of itself." The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw called it a "flawed masterpiece." I return to my original contention for Part One that the value lies particularly in depiction of a hero figure. And in an age when there is a surfeit of poor hero role-models, could it not be salutary to see a strongly honourable one, even if stripped of some of the less endearing episodes of his life? This is the psychological hero enshrined by the great Scottish essayist, Thomas Carlyle, in his seminal book, Heroes and Hero Worship. Heroes can be real or imaginary (or somewhere in-between). But should genuinely inspire us to higher goals, a higher purpose. Compare this with the unrealistic 'heroes' of standard Western storytelling: where a person undergoes trials and tribulations before obtaining a barely-believable reward usually everlasting love or material wealth as if by divine studio intervention. Real heroes have an excess of moral courage not Lost Ark dare-devilishness or James Bond super-toys. They rise, and empower others to rise, to be the best that they can be. In Part One, Che succeeds. In Part Two, he fails. It is not for want of moral courage but since a) not all good plans can succeed and b) being human, mistakes are inevitable.
Guevara's intellectual clarity is flawed when he equates conditions that justify armed struggle with conditions that make that armed struggle able to succeed. It is a serious miscalculation.
High in the mountains from La Paz, the colours are breathtaking. There is an air of mise-en-scene authenticity that was occasionally lacking in Che - Part One (The U.S. would not allow Soderbergh to film in Cuba.) Visual treats are heightened by maximising natural light and the extreme flexibility and realism offered with groundbreaking RED cameras. This is a high performance digital cine camera with the quality of 35mm film and the convenience of pure digital. Designed for flexibility and functionality, the package weighs a mere 9 lbs. "Shooting with RED is like hearing the Beatles for the first time," says Soderbergh. "RED sees the way I see . . . so organic, so beautifully attuned to that most natural of phenomena light." If Che had stopped with the successful Cuban revolution it would have enshrouded him with an almost mystical invincibility. That he fails in Bolivia shows not only that he has human limitations but that it is his moral virtues that are remembered, not the political triumph. Critics will say and with some justification - that his armed struggle inspired much less noble characters to achieve tin-pot dictatorships. His development of guerrilla fighting tactics are not good or bad in themselves (and have since been used for both).
But for all its praiseworthiness, the film often seems to lack dramatic and narrative tension. We stumble from one escapade to another, knowing that he will eventually meet his death. I found myself glancing at my watch and thinking it could have been shorter. But the work that has gone into this interviews with people from all sides and even getting one of Guevara's ex-comrades to coach actors on the minutiae of the Bolivian operations make the film a commendable achievement. It might not be top-flight entertainment, but it demonstrates integrity in documenting a significant slice of history.
There is also another very important point in the Che 'hero' figure here. It's about failure. That if you try your utmost, even if you fail, your effort will not have been in vain because it may give others hope and moral courage. One could cynically call it a 'martyr' complex, and it is found, of course, in many religious figures as well. But Che does not 'sacrifice' himself. He does what he does best, to the best of his not inconsiderate ability, and so provides an example. Success or failure in any particular instance become mere details.
With the U.S.'s longstanding and illegal blockade of Cuba (all in the name of 'freedom'), I am tempted to write that Che Parts 1 & 2 are too good to be wasted on the U.S. But that would be to invite a contention that the film has sought so earnestly to avoid. One must hope that many viewers will have the skill to view Che without politics and the bias that inevitably engenders. Whatever its faults, it rehabilitates Soderbergh from the populist nonsense of Oceans 11.
But if you haven't heard of Che Guevara or seen Part One, or if you can't get past the phrase 'murderous Marxist' without frothing at the mouth, I might struggle to imagine what you would get from this film. The same can be said for many who have, and can.
In his most mainstream movie to date, director Danny Boyle successfully
transfers Trainspotting's renowned raw realism of economic deprivation
to bustling, modern day India. Colourful and ingenious, Slumdog
Millionaire adds that pure warmth of the child's smile to the kick of a
curry made from a moneylender's intestines, well-laced with raw spirit
distilled from fermented slum-dwellers. Rich and poor come together in
an orgy of excess, bolstered with a love-song whose words you barely
decipher but whose tune stays in your heart. Boyle has been reborn in
India is a country of inimitable charm. Yet asked to describe what is good, I am usually stuck for words. It's dirty. Corrupt. Unreliable. Disingenuous. It leeches off you like a starving African stealing food at a Band-Aid concert. Oh, and it stinks. Quite literally.
Yet, if you lean your weight against the old buildings near the Taj Mahal, something magical can happen. Somehow it is easy to feel your spirit leave the body. It will flow back through thousands of years of rich and vibrant history. Gandharvas and mythical kings. Back in reality, look up at the monkeys as they scamper across parapets, the sun dazzling you, and Hanuman and Lord Krishna echo from past aeons. Or walk through the mess that is modern Mumbai. Suddenly there's the architectural wonder of the railway station. An incongruently colonial splendour bizarrely appearing in the teeming twenty-first century.
Slumdog Millionaire uses the Taj Mahal and Mumbai Station as iconic reference points, rising from the dirt and chaos. Like the boy dressed as Rama, who pops up early in the film. Timeless and almost mythological. But conflict simmers broodingly beneath such visual wonder. Muslim versus Hindu. Strong versus weak. And Slumdog versus Millionaire. Something says the twain ne'er shall meet, so when a kid from the slums succeeds on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, everyone is suspicious.
On the other hand, unpredictability is the norm in India. The sense of this is so strong it could almost be described as 'spiritual.' Disconcertingly, it is easy to believe that India is a land where miracles could still occur. Even a child of the slums becoming fabulously rich.
The freshness with which Boyle paints the country, the punchy editing and charismatic performances, all conspire against our recognising this is a standard against-all-odds story, a standard rags-to-riches, and a standard do-anything-to-get-the-girl. It is standard pulp. But done so well we barely notice. He has put together a film of surprising maturity, and perhaps his first to win general audiences in a big way. It's a film that uses lessons from Boyle's earlier movies the gross-out shock value of Trainspotting, the lovable rogues of Shallow Grave, the exoticism of The Beach and the bold visual experimentation of 28 Days Later and Sunshine. It repackages them in feelgood form for all but the most delicate of tastes.
True, the sight of a young boy diving through an ocean of sewage (with filmstar photo held aloft) recalls the stronger images from Trainspotting. But here it is done for humour and too brief to be offensive. Everything about the film is refreshingly clever and a delight to watch. If occasionally there are subtitles, they are inventively inserted at interesting places on the screen with their own background colours.
The plot starts just before the question that lays the golden egg and cuts engagingly back through the boy's life using flashbacks. Why is he being tortured? How did he get on the show? Why doesn't he care about the money? In the background is his love, Latika, whom he has known since childhood. Both orphaned, she saw him by chance (standing abandoned in the rain) and he lets her share a corrugated iron shelter. It's a touching scene without too much sugar. And chance is the theme of the film. How does a Slumdog like Jemal guess the answers to general knowledge questions that could baffle the educated? That's what everybody wants to know.
Few Western directors have managed to embrace India so convincingly. Colours become sanitised, dirt becomes exotic. Boyle leaves us in no doubt as to the degradation, but makes it palatable through daring cinematography. This is no work of realism such as that of Satyajit Ray. Apart from a joyful closing credits scene, neither is it Bollywood. And although I thoroughly enjoyed it, I can't help feeling that some critics have gone overboard in estimating it to be more than the sum of its parts. As if Mamma Mia! could become art-house if it only had had one more ancient artefact. The film has nothing very deep to say. It is entertainment, pure and simple. Boyle's hodgepodge talents have been brought together for once in a recipe that any professional chef should be very proud of. It might even be his best film since Trainspotting, but it is heralds no new frontiers. A rounded display of talent that holds its own against the best in the Hollywood tradition. I would hate to think that the future of British film-making is in India, but I'm pleased Danny Boyle has firmly found his wings again. And I was also very pleased to see one of the stars of the outstanding TV series, Skins, conquer the lead role.
Slumdog Millionaire is a bag of very colourful tricks. The end result is great entertainment. It would be more remarkable if, in a later film, we were to see these stirring skills used for real comment on the human condition (for instance) and take us off the popcorn ride. When will the real Danny Boyle stand up? Near the Taj Mahal, I once looked down and saw boys pretending to levitate a corpse. They wanted tourists to throw money down to them (with a cut, no doubt, for the boy beneath the stretcher). It was all good fun. But made me wonder when the real fakir would appear.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Momentarily stuck for conversation, three characters in a cafe suggest
a moment's silence. "A minute's silence can be very long," says one.
And, in almost Dali-esquire fashion, "A real minute can last an
eternity." The actual minute, like Dali's clock, melts into a mere 35
seconds. But Godard plays a joke on us by blotting out all the ambient
background noise, to great comic effect. What threatens to become
profound simply becomes fun.
Amateur criminals, Franz, Arthur and Odile, plan to rob the house where she works as a maid. Godard, providing voice-over, gets us up to speed on the plot. But he takes a sideswipe at the, "people who've come in late." Bande à Part has been described as 'Godard-lite' it contains all of his quirky, Brechtian inventiveness, cinematic cleverness, obsession with 'things that matter' (such as sexual tension, intertextuality, youth, and Paris) over mere details like narrative continuity. There are none of his political rants or philosophical digressions - just a rollicking good movie. In modern terms, it falls halfway between Woody Allen capers and Tarantino satire. And Tarantino famously named his Pulp Fiction production company after the film, as well using the dance sequence to inspire Travolta and Thurman.
Franz and Arthur are besotted with pulp culture. They act out gun battles where Billy the Kid is shot by Pat Garrett. It is part of their machismo bonding rather than any childish play. But visually foreshadows the death of one of them. Posturing over plans for the robbery merges seamlessly with mutual desire for Odile. As if both were one and the same ritual rite of passage. Odile, while going along with their conspiracy, often acts dumb and shy, pretending it's not happening. Just like a shy young girl being seduced.
Many of the film's references will be lost on the modern audience these range from Rimbaud, Jack London, Edgar Allen Poe, and the Umbrellas of Cherbourg, to Greek Theatre, Charlie Chaplin and Loopy the Wolf. But they are for fans and not necessary to our enjoyment. Witty dialogue (which seems remarkably intelligent for such urban cowboys) will still delight almost any viewer. But especially the intelligent and 'cultured' classes' from whence Godard came and yet whom he constantly decries. Our hoodlums reminiscent of the protagonist from À Bout de Soufflé are depicted in as completely amoral. We might excuse this more easily, given the distanciation and fairytale existence, were we not aware also that Godard himself did time in jail for petty theft.
Insipid greyscales of riverbanks in the Paris outskirts are dramatised by colourful imagery, partly purloined from the original novel: "Under crystal skies, Arthur, Odile and Franz crossed bridges suspended over glassy rivers. The moats frozen. A taste of blood was in the air." Arthur seduces Odile with sexy love notes, passed during an English class where the teacher expounds dramatically from Romeo and Juliet. All is larger than life. They drive an old banger: but dream of racing at Indianapolis.
Techniques to block an audience from identification with protagonists are often used to get us to think more deeply about what is happening. But Godard both uses the techniques and (rather patronisingly, if equally amusingly) also does the thinking for us. The three characters perform a dance routine a badly executed but engaging Madison. This time, Godard cuts out the music (but not the ambient noise) periodically. Both to question, and then to tell us, what each of them is thinks and feels. As the narrator is not one of the characters, and so seems to have no vested interest, it adds a documentary feel to the otherwise unreal proceedings (as John Hurt would do, many years later, in Dogville.) Is he poking fun at Hollywood musicals / crime thrillers? Or is it homage? More importantly though, it works. Bande à Part is continuously light and frothy, relishing its own resourcefulness, and serving up a streams of delights.
But its strength is also its weakness. The story is too slight to be as memorable as the box of tricks for which it becomes the vehicle. Yet, unlike for instance, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, it does not demand any depth of the viewer. This is about as mainstream as Godard gets. He could have, for instance, used the 'one minute's silence' scene to underline our characters' relationship to each other, an eternity that only they share. But, as he misses no opportunity to remind us, this is Godard's story and his alone. The only relationship that interest him is with you, the viewer.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
There were several reasons for me not to see To Get to Heaven First You
Have to Die, a film by Tajik director Djamshed Usmonov. Firstly,
there's a rape somewhere in the story and I am particularly jittery
about how that subject matter is portrayed on screen. It can be
dehumanising, gratuitous in a particularly obnoxious way, or just plain
offensive. Secondly, the film's main theme is impotence, which is about
as exciting to the average male viewer as chopping carrots. But I let
my friend choose and, as there was nothing else remotely challenging
on, we plumped for it.
It opens with a particularly buff young man stripping off. Much as I am praying he will keep his underpants on, he has got them off before the opening credits can offer any distraction. Stark naked, he knocks on a door as if to be admitted for some strange game of torture. But it's an austere ex-soviet / Eastern European doctor's surgery. After some prodding, the elderly practitioner lies him down and tries to talk him through his troubles. Why hasn't Kamal been able to consummate his three month old marriage? A slightly fanciful interpretation of the movie would be to imagine everything henceforth as an elaborate fantasy of Freudian psychotherapy.
Without seeing the end of his counselling, we are whisked off with 19-yr old Kamal on his Oedipal quest - by train, bus and boat. And his sexual tension becomes vividly internalised on-screen. Have you ever been through that stage, either between relationships or else as a teenager perhaps, where the slightest casual gesture from a desired member of the opposite sex signifies oceans? You almost hold your breath wondering if their foot under the table will touch yours . . .
In Kamal's case, his first encounter is with a woman on a train. She matter-of-factly settles down to sleep. Fixated and sensing her every move, Kamal now makes a last-ditch attempt to talk to her. But she brushes him off almost maternally. When the train stops, he watches with suppressed jealousy as this object of his fantasy is reunited with husband and children on the platform. In another, beautifully framed scene, we see his fingers on a bus handrail. They are mere centimetres away from the a hand of his new, casual obsession. His stumbling footsie-with-fingers, if not reciprocated, at least gets him a smile from the girl in question.
Kamal makes abortive attempts to get to know a series of women and, although not played for laughs, his sincerity in this strange land (I mentally try to place Tajikstan accurately) makes us smile grimacingly - if only to share his embarrassment. Kamal's cousin next lines up two prostitutes. They look awkwardly realistic and unappealing, standing in the car headlights as the two men decide. How far has this director gone in using real-life 'extras' who happened to be going about their business? Stark, in-your-face visual shocks repeat themselves in a crime-lord's den as fat, ungainly pole-dancers writhe their stuff while men drink, play cards and fight.
Powerful mise-en-scene and static camera shots emphasise this bleak, uncaring environment while allowing the director to make provocative allusions comparing one fixed shot to another. Usmonov frames his subject precisely, several times within the rectangular confines of a bus shelter. The arriving vehicle suddenly and unceremoniously 'wipes' the character from view, engulfing the screen. Our identification with Kamal's internal state interrupted by reality. In a later, mirrored scene, the small detail of the woman sitting next to Kamal becomes more significant. She is, like him, also psychologically 'cut off.' I find myself fascinated by the sudden shift to violence towards the end of the film. Wondering over the potential validation of its use. In mythology, Oedipus has to kill his father to achieve manhood. Many boys go through a 'symbolic' triumph over their fathers as they grow up. For me, it was beating my dad at chess and later earning twice his salary. My companion recalled how a key incident in her brother's early life was beating their father tennis. But for Kamal, such normal growth has been stunted. He is not violent, and quite kind towards women. But it is the off-screen murder and rape which propel him towards manhood. His identity becomes that of a man who takes control, becomes powerful. Could, I wonder, on-screen violence ever be a harmless yet effective substitute in some cases? With Kamal, he fulfils his oedipal trajectory. He 'becomes a man,' morally, and also overcomes his impotence.
There is satisfaction when our spectator's gaze can wholeheartedly unite with Kamal's in a remarkably realistic knicker-ripping scene. It has the fumbling urgency of youth, but an amusing attention to detail as she has to pause, almost as a hurried afterthought, to disentangle her underwear in order to allow penetration. A pomegranate pointedly draws our attention to what could be a woman's viewpoint throughout the film. With its red juice and many seeds, a fabulous symbol of uterine fertility (The word was a biblical name of the Goddess's genital shrine). Vera (the girl on the bus) has to reawaken her own sexual identity. To move past the child she has lost. To escape her marriage, barren in a different way to Kamal's, and become a woman again. We see little of her nakedness compared to Kamal but what we glimpse is soft, beautiful, enticing. She yearns to be more than a factory worker with tied-back hair, a woman isolated from her husband and those around her. If her fingers didn't touch Kamal's, it wasn't because they didn't want to . . .
For some audiences, Usmonov's petite morte will be too slow. A trite and laboured lesson in Freudian dynamics. The humour will be too little and too infrequent. And the colourless Tajik environment too dreary to demand attention. Others will welcome a remarkably unsaccharined tale told with sensitivity and very few words.
I very nearly gave this movie a miss. I'm pleased I didn't.
As with the gay-themed Brokeback Mountain, many might have stayed away till they realised it was more of a movie than that. Milk is a biopic of the murdered gay rights activist, Harvey Milk. But it connects to the audience by being symbolically about everyone, every minority, anybody who has ever been bullied or ashamed to admit their beliefs. It's about the human spirit. The rights of man enshrined in the American Constitution. And it's about the compassion that lets us see our enemies as human beings.
Part of this is down to an outstanding script. But much is down to Sean Penn (at times almost unrecognisable in a beard), who handles the role with a winning combination of grit and sensitivity. He becomes the master orator standing for political office. There are characters in his life that have committed suicide because of the shame of being gay. He is the first openly gay man to hold public office and he gives people hope (in much the same way, it may be said, that the similarly charismatic Barak Obama is doing for black people). We see poignant comparisons with Nazi pogroms against anyone who was 'different'. We see the fervent religious right, claiming God on their side, as they preach a message of hate.
Righteous hatred is not dead in America. A few hours before seeing Milk, I had watched a horrific documentary about a family of preachers who picket not only 'faggots' but anyone they believe tacitly supports homosexuality (the footage included picketing a dead serviceman's funeral). We have laws against inciting racial hatred. How can they get away with inciting such homophobia? Milk goes back to the 70's. Politicians opposing him label homosexuals with prostitutes and thieves. Deny them any rights. An argument worth pursuing philosophically perhaps, especially as Gordon Brown's UK government is currently trying to demonise prostitution. A thief breaks the laws of property. But homosexuals and prostitutes for that matter offend only those whose totalitarian view of the world wish to discriminate against those who, privately and without hurting others, have the audacity to live differently. Common tactics include linking crime by association. And with prostitution there is some evidence of links to crime, although it may be linked more to marginalisation and prostitutes could always, at least theoretically, become non-prostitutes. Homosexuality, like being black or Jewish, cannot be 'treated.' Gays can rarely, if ever, 'become straight.' And neither is sexual preference an indicator of criminal tendency.
Milk takes his arguments to the most hostile of audiences. He debates with remarkable skill. But, although people warm to him for his courage and kindness, his personal life frequently sinks into tatters. Being second fiddle to a political crusader is no joyride. Even if you were straight. Campaign-trail Harvey might be fighting for your life in broad terms, but it won't help you through that long night of dinners for one.
Milk admirably avoids the mistake of glossing over common faults of the gay community notably male aversion (at the time) to lesbians. In a hilarious scene where Harvey hires a lesbian campaign manager, the all-male entourage dissolves into ridiculous girly twittering against her until, with a few well-chosen words, she proves she's got, 'bigger balls than anyone in the room'. Harvey slowly expands his cause. He realises it can't be just about gay rights. It has to be about everyone's rights. If elected, he has to show genuine concern for everyone's troubles not just gays. And, after a few political near-slips where he is tempted to cut a deal, he welds himself to a virtuousness in public office that his opponents can only hypocritically claim but not deliver.
We know in the first few moments that he is going to die. The rest of the film is told in flashback. Penn, an actor that is occasionally too intense for my liking, has found a film where he can throw every muscle twitch, every watery eye, every shade of emotion, into a character and cause where intensity is called for. In one of the finest performances of his career, he is understated to convey finer feeling, yet passionate on the soap box to an inspirational degree.
I was also very pleased to see this praiseworthy development from director Gus Van Sant. Many 'indie' directors start off with great 'artistic' work, only to be eaten up by Hollywood glitz. Van Sant's career is almost the opposite. Having proved his metal with crowd-pleasers like To Die For and Good Will Hunting, he seems gradually to have abandoned all pretensions to mainstream. His Paranoid Park was a masterstroke of subtle evocation in the thriller genre. With Milk, he has applied his skills like a great craftsman, reclaiming self-respect for the serious yet accessible artist.
The one nagging criticism of course is, where are all the gay actors? I cannot fault Sean Penn's acting. He is undoubtedly the best actor for the part. But the very message of equality proclaimed so loudly by Hollywood's darling liberal left is still unheeded within their own industry. How many openly gay actors can you name? I thought so . . . And how far have we really got, really, or has apathy set in? As California bans gay marriage, one commentator noted, "Where were today's Harvey Milks when Proposition 8 was on the ballot?"
Australia is released in the UK on December 26th. Which means some
people will be fresh from the experience of eating enough mince pies to
make obesity a permanent part of their life. Only for Granny to insist,
"Just one more, dear!" For those who have missed out and feel in dire
need of such surfeit, go and see Australia instead. It matters not that
the Christmas excess has made you more brain dead than a failed
euthanasia victim. Australia will dance meaninglessly before your eyes
whether you pay attention or not. It's something to do with a stuck-up
English woman who's a dab hand at rounding up thousands of cattle. Not
to mention driving them across the desert, adopting orphan half-castes,
and demonstrating enough moral superiority to rewrite history. All to
the tune of Over the Rainbow. And if you need the odd hour halfway
through to relieve your constipation, fear not! The plot is so
transparent and the acting so awful you won't have missed anything you
wouldn't pay to avoid seeing.
The film does have a few surprises. Firstly it was directed by Baz Luhrmann. That chap who has made movies in the past that contained things like script and excitement. Secondly, Nicole Kidman is in it. I used to like her. Apparently she signed up to it on a dark night. Either Mr Luhrmann asked nicely, or she had consumed the entire Australian white grape production before anyone else could. Russell Crowe escaped by demanding too much money. Although it has cost more than any sane country should spend on fatuous tourism ads, the cracks with CGI cows and cheaply pasted-in burning battleships are almost enough to make me want to send Baz Luhrmann a cuddly toy so he can live out his fantasies in a less embarrassing way.
After Germaine Greer had shredded any claim to its authenticity in the Guardian, I tried hard to like it. If only to spite Ms Greer. But I lasted about half an hour before realising I was watching out of sheer duty to warn others off, rather than any hope of finding a morsel of worthiness. Almost. Twelve year old Brandon Waters (Nullah) is good. He has that child's ability to keep his head when all around are losing theirs. Kidman's exaggerated Englishness is painful and unfunny. Hugh Jackman gives one of those performances that makes you glad that either he or the bad guy has a beard. Just so you can tell them apart. Not that it matters, as the story plods on (and on) with precise predictability. Attempts to attach comparisons with The Wizard of Oz feel contrived. In this world that is better than all possible worlds, women win equal rights, Aborigines sit down to drink with the white man, and the bad guy always loses. The catch-phrase, "Just because it is, doesn't mean it should be," is applied to anything that stands in the way, such as recouping investments at the box-office.
At best, it is a colourful romp for kids. As long as they don't start swearing as volubly as Nullah when they get home. But it's a long movie for children to sit through. Better, serialise it, along the lines of Little House on the Prairie. Add a dog. Or just send Baz Luhrmann that fluffy toy . . .
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Did you ever feel really strong emotion for someone you cared for, yet
not be able to reach them? Juliette and Léa are reunited after 15
years. Beautiful literature teacher Léa is bubbling over with
excitement. A hand-held camera tries to keep up with her as we cut from
the stillness of the shot with Juliette, whose cigarette smoke curls
lazily upwards. Juliette, the older sister, seems calm and distant.
There is a wall of feeling behind her eyes that doesn't quite reach her
face. It will take most of the film before she is able to reveal her
Films that deal with euthanasia, mercy killing or suicide are often subverted into the 'message'. The idea that it is morally acceptable. Or leaving it for the viewer to decide. Important as that is, what we often don't see is how it affects the people concerned.
French cinema has a long tradition of exploring deep emotion in preference to action. If the American film, Million Dollar Baby, kept the feelings as something we respect but don't show or think about too much, I've Loved You So Long instead offers a deep examination of emotional trauma. But although this will, I hope (without giving too much away), be enough to persuade readers to try to see the film, this award-winning movie has many rewards beyond an examination of a difficult life and death decision.
It is an all-time story of bonding between sisters. Two people who spend their childhoods together and are now striving for common ground, desperately trying to bond with each other as adults. Yet they are separated not just by time spent apart but by their age difference. Juliette's loving memories of taking little Léa for cakes after dance class are not recalled by Léa now. They sit in a cafe, each expressing all the will in the world to connect in a meaningful way, yet each encased in their own solitude. The strains of a Bach unaccompanied violin-cello sonata plays in the background. A song trapped in its own rhapsody, and its own wilderness.
I've Loved You So Long almost comes apart with its liberal political correctness. Léa and her husband Luc have two adopted Vietnamese children. Their learned friends include an Iraqi doctor and his wife, with whom they swap jokes about Al Qaeda. Dinner table chat includes discussion of Racine, and Léa debates Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov with her students in a heated exchange. "You can't extend the notion of redemptive guilt to mankind," she says, claiming there is no "intimate and universal portrait" that allows us to treat people as convenient stereotypes. But the most eloquent voice is sometimes the silence of Luc's father, mute after a stroke, or the self-imposed terseness of Juliette, able neither to lie nor to broach a truth that could offend and ostracise. Each learns from each other. Beneath the external happiness of the perfect family lie some raw emotions and hurt than only Juliette can reach. And they eventually find the special wonder lying buried in Juliette's psyche, as well as the hurdles she must cross to become integrated into their world.
At times one wants to slap the two sisters, much as husband Luc does, and force them to get everything out in the open. But we gradually realise that it s only through a heightened sensitivity to the feelings of others that we can unite with them on their own level. Emotional honesty is more than a willingness to conceptualise in words for the benefit of another person.
In a separate storyline, we suddenly see in a new light a minor character's convoluted and sincere (if unreciprocated) attempts to chat up Juliette. Was he a hopeless case? Or maybe just in need of friendship? With a shock, we realise too late he was suicidal. Humour is occasionally interjected effectively in film, bursts of laughter from the audience saying as much about the pent-up sentiments as the well-timed quips. It parallels neatly when Juliette's ghastly revelation is taken by a boorish dinner party to be a clever fantasy line that silences their inquisitiveness with laughter. A brief scene where Juliette is reunited with her Alzheimer's-detached mother provides another short, sharp shock to the system as we grapple with common scenarios normally swept under the table. That the film is continuously positive and uplifting, without descending to cliché, trivialising of situations, or unrealistic happy resolutions, is a tribute to the deeper joys of life so often submerged in a world of commercialism and 'fitting in.' If the story appear contrived to anyone, I can add that I once met someone who went through Juliette's situation with similar results. Unusual, yes. Contrived? No. So personally I excuse literary conceit on the part of first time director Philippe Claudel since his film achieves a higher end. Even the legal aspects, difficult to accept at first, are fully justified by details in the film for those who watch closely.
I've Loved You So Long captures, through beautiful photography and careful, nuanced performances, a story that allows us all to go deeper inside ourselves. Kristin Scott Thomas, as Juliette, provides an Oscar-tipped performance.
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