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Au coeur du mensonge (1999)
Highly enjoyable routine Chabrol.
Although Claude Chabrol has worked predominantly in the crime genre, and adapted much mystery fiction, very few of his films are straight whodunits. Crimes may be the central feature of these films, or the catalyst at least, and investigations may shape these narratives and bring them to their conclusion, if not resolution. But Chabrol is usually more interested in focusing on point-of-view, of the killer, the victims, the suspects, the community, than in any who's-the-killer games. So 'Au coeur du mensonge' belongs to a relatively marginalised (and recent) position in Chabrol's filmography; its most famous predecessors are 'Cop au vin' and 'Inspecteur Lavardin' (although there are important echoes of earlier Chabrol classics like 'Que le bete meure' and 'Le Boucher').
However, just because we don't know who committed the two murders until the end, this doesn't mean Chabrol is only interested in artifical games. The limits of the whodunit paradoxically give Chabrol the freedom from delineating the psychology of the criminal, to something much more interesting to him; in other words, the unknowability of other people, especially those we love, live with and think we know best.
Chabrol's films are so self-contained and remote, that it's rare to find him concentrating on 'topical' issues. Here the subject is the all-too-familiar paedophile rape and murder of a young girl in the woods. She was last seen at a lesson with her art teacher, Rene, and suspicion immediately falls on him, in one of those oppressive small towns where the Internet will never outpace malicious gossip. If we didn't know whodunits, we might think so too - he is lame, shifty looking, whiny, and a failed artist experiencing mental breakdown who thinks his masseuse wife, Vivianne, is having an affair with a slick media personality, G.R.
There are other suspects: G.R. himself, his criminal go-between, and Rene's friend, Regis, even, as the coroner cheerfully suggests, a woman with strong hands and gloves - an exact description of Vivianne earlier. But it is Rene everyone suspects, especially the new Chief Inspector, Lesage, whose personal stake in the case (she has a daughter of the same age as the dead girl) makes her determined to bring him to justice.
'Mensonge' is a psychological study in the guise of a mystery thriller. We are asked to follow Rene's reactions to the murder, social ostracism, artistic failure etc., and yet we're not told whether he's the murderer or not, or any of the other characters, which would surely be a crucial element in anyone's psychology! so these two impulses - towards psychological truth and towards a mystery story which necessarily precludes the audience having any access to the character's psychology, puts it with the same level of knowledge of characters as the other characters, making for an effectively tense film, which, beyond its mystery trappings, asks whether we can ever know anyone, when trust, or self-confidence, or faith in 'reality' is gone.
The film links the idea of lies (characters concealing truths, making realities out of lies), with art (painting - Jacques revels in panoramas and trompes d'oeil; the second murder is 'composed' like a painting). Throughout, various media for the diffusion of truth - painting, TV, books, recitals - as well as the police investigation, with its need for artistic resolution, are highlighted, interrogated and undermined (even a last minute confession is suspect, and the denouement, appropriately, takes place in a deep mist). Chabrol's blithely elliptical narrative style further compounds our uncertainty. As with every Chabrol, the surface every character sees, or creates, is as treacherous as a trompe d'oeil. As the child-murder in the forest, echoing 'Diary of a Chambermaid', suggests, Chabrol is letting out the closet Surrealist in him.
Brass Eye (1997)
Unprecedented and extraordinary - Chris Morris is a Jonathan Swift for these yahoo-ridden times.
In these brightly Orwellian days, where cynical governments can smile 'Trust me...' and know we will fill in the blanks 'I'm lying' and not care; where 'biting' satire is left in the sole hands of a cricket-loving impressionist; where the laurel of 'great comedy' is placed on the head of yet another formulaic spoof of fly-in-the-wall documentaries; in these grimly shining times, Chris Morris is a dark beacon of sense, moral fury, fierce intelligence, intransigent vision; a man of endless, astonishing invention, intimidating energy and a gleefully, pranksterish sensibility.
The problem with today's 'satire' is that it sets up an 'us against them' opposition, in which we snicker with the satirist at a host of immovable, indifferent caricatures. Most of our most prominent satirists are of the same generation, background and ideology of the ruling classes, and their humour has the flavour of locker-room ribbing rather than devastating anger. Most satire consists of an audience talking to itself, reassuring itself of its own worth, its own values against targets so clearly ridiculous they don't really exist. It is satire as easy listening, as reassuring as old socks.
The reason many people don't like Chris Morris is not because of the 'taboo' subject matter he tackles, but because he doesn't play fair, he doesn't play cricket. He never allows the audience the comfort of complacent complicity. if we sneer at another hapless celebrity duped into piously anguishing over some preposterous non-issue in an obscene public gesture of their own ethical value and depth, we are stating that we are truly 'authentic', that we would never be caught out, that our values are sound. And then Morris will insert a crass joke that strips away the warm cloak of lazy irony - an imitation of the author of 'A Brief History of Time', for instance - that repels us, shakes us out of a cosy 'us vs them' mentality, forcing us to face up to the complexity of what we're watching, or - shock, horror! - think for ourselves.
When I was watching the 'Brass eye' repeats recently, I was struck by how little they had dated, how exhilirating and intellectually stimulating, as well as cripplingly funny, they still were. Surely a media satire, with its inbuilt topicality, should become instantly anachronistic. You could argue that this is a damning indictment of a media that hasn't changed its mind-numbing habits in the last half-decade. I would argue, however, that 'Brass eye' is not really a media satire at all, or is not one fundamentally, despite its destructively accurate potshots at sensationalism, the paucity of media intelligence, a culture with a media that no longer records or reflects reality, but actually creates it, as in the recent case of a major Sunday newspaper printing photos of paedophiles, encouraging the public to savage them, conveniently creating the next morning's news. This is all an essential part of what 'Brass eye' does.
But it is more than that. Morris is our century's Jonathan Swift, and last week's 'Brass eye special' on media hysteria about paedophilia was his 'A Modest Proposal', a satire so savage, so angry, so uncomfortable, so ironic in the true, original sense of that phrase, that people mistook the satire for its object, because Morris held up a mirror to our society, a totalitarian, propaganda-corrupt culture posing as a democracy; and to ourselves, we who conceal brutal, fascist instincts under a guise of ethical concern. We didn't like it, and rather than acknowledge our own darkness, we tried to smash the mirror. Like Swift, Morris has always been more concerned with language and ontology than the media per se, the way words no longer mean what they are supposed to mean, in the way the advance of media technology has created an illusionistic world in which 'real' people have to live, in which we try to make the illusion real, to devastating results. And yet, again like Irishman, the sheer invention with which Morris records this communicative decadence channelled through language, liberates and gives some hope - but only if we accept the challenge of 'Brass eye'.
A rare film with heart.(possible spoilers)
It is so rare in these times to find a film so utterly bereft of cynicism, and so warmly sympathetic to people, in all their variety and flaws, that it would be churlish to do anything but celebrate. Some critics have complained that 'Together' has adopted a sneering tone towards its subject matter, a collective living in 70s Stockholm, in which more hackneyed emphasis is put on rows about washing-up and petty ideological points than the genuine spirit of good-will that made them set up a collective in the first place.
They must have been watching a different film to the one I saw - not only is the portrait of the collective affirmative, but it is made into a kind of magical space with transformative powers - it protects the weak, gives refuge to outsiders, opens the minds of the closed but essentially decent outsiders. It is a magnet, which drags towards it those in need of spiritual change, those for whom the social grind of 70s Sweden, supposedly the most liberated and liberal in the world, is too much. It manages the difficult trick of celebrating alternative communities and dropping out, while retaining the integrity of the individual and the family.
This collective is a magical space in the Shakespearean sense, a kind of Forest of Arden with its own special glow surrounded by the grey oppressiveness of normal society. It has no place for false freedoms, austere puritanism, selfish sexual promiscuity, narrow ideological nit-picking. Although it effects change on outsiders, its power comes from its ability to change within, to adapt - its power is not destroyed by the introduction of TV or meat, it is strengthened because their introduction respects the freedom of others.
Again like Shakespeare, it is not just a magical space, but a testing ground, a spiritual test for those of essentially good faith. This is where I got a little queasy and could sympathise with the critics. With any test, some people must pass, some must fail; to allow someone to enter, someone must be thrown out. It's a fair enough satiric point that en essentially decent man is turned by a soulless society into a spiritually empty, drunken wife-beater. And it's completely lovable that Moodysson should take this potential monster and make his spiritual progress the heart of the movie.
But to make this possible, somebody must be expelled. And this is Lena, whose nymphomania is demonised as destructive, even paedophiliac. The scene where she is thrown out is dangerously close to Lester Burnam's throwing a plate in 'American Beauty' - where a weak man finally puts a strong, overbearing woman in her place. We are meant to cheer; I found it uncomfortable. It seems Moodysson's big, inclusive heart wasn't big or inclusive enough.
I found 'Together' very watchable and likeable, but something of a disappointment after 'Show me love'. Maybe the jokes weren't funny enough. Maybe the multi-character format is more suited to ironic distance (e.g. Altman) than warmth, although Edward Yang pulled it off. Maybe the characters, through amiable, aren't distinctive enough - with the exception of introverted Lisa Simpson prototype Eva, with whom I worryingly identified, it was hard to care about the characters.
The use of Abba to add a built-in melancholy for the overall optimism was inspired - I loved the fact that the 70s recreation was less in the period detail than in the zoom-heavy, dark-colour style - even the genitalia was filmed in 70s porn murkiness.
Je t'aime John Wayne (2000)
The funniest film you'll see all year - a rare treat for old cinephiles.
This short is a cineaste's delight, a parody so lovingly detailed it becomes a celebration. 'Je t'aime John Wayne' is a reworking of Godard's classic 'A bout de souffle'. In that film, Jean-paul Belmondo played a petty hood who modelled himself on Humphrey Bogart. In this, Kris Marshall is Belmondo, aka Tristan, a middle class English boy in love with all things French - he speaks ponderous French all the time, dresses sharply, philosophises, epigramises (sic?), poses.
The director of this film, Toby MacDonald, however, succeeds where Godard 'failed'. In 'Souffle', we were intended to notice the disparity between Belmondo's Frenchness, posturing and insignificance, and Bogart's mythic cool. Unfortunately, Belmondo is so charismatic and cool and funny, filmed in energetic, sunny monochrome against a delicious jazz backing, that he himself, unwittingly, became a figure of mythic cool. Tristan is not the first person to be dazzled by Belmondo's persona - sure, I've done it myself, snarling 'Te es vraiment deguelasse' at my mirror. France, to foreign eyes, especially in the 50s and 60s, is so romantically cool. So Godard fails.
England, however, is not very cool, especially when it tries to ape European sophistication. So although MacDonald expertly mimics Godard's enthusiastic jump-cut style and breezy music, Tristan is less successful. Every attempt at cool is hampered by bathos. The name 'Tristan', for a start, is public-school naff, and his brilliant answering machine message (with the Duke threatening any caller) is spoiled somewhat by his mother's middle class concern. A rendezvous we assume to be a romantic account with an unobtainable blonde turns out to be his loud little sister, who brings a little friend (he punishes them by bringing them to an excruciatingly pretentious art movie). A long exercise in posed cool turns out to be an uncool wait for a very uncool bus. Et cetera.
This is all very amusing, but could seem like rather a petty object of satire - middle-class pseuds trying to be French. The film transcends this pettiness in two ways. Firstly, although Tristan is ridiculous, he is never a contemptible figure of ridicule. this is where the Englishness comes in - the disparity between Tristan's dreams and reality becomes poignant. Ultimately, the film affirms these dreams, the power they give Tristan to transcend his banal reality, even if he is so lost in them, he has no more purchase on any kind of reality. This is helped by the pastiche stylings being rooted in a very real, documentary London.
Even more than this, the film's fun conceals a melancholy elegy for European cinema and its decline. Godard may have made a film about a slavish imitator, but his film, despite its borrowings, was something radically new, which contained the possibility for revolutionising the cinema. Twenty years later, however, it was as if it hadn't been made, cinema settling into the rut of offensive banality it's been happy to be stuck in since. Unlike Godard, MacDonald is as much of an imitator as his hero - we no longer believe in the possibility of anything new in cinema: it's sad, but significant, that one of the most inventive films around at the moment should be a pastiche of past glories.
Chicken Run (2000)
Good things about 'Chicken Run': genuinely feminist; even more genuinely socialist (in an Old Labour, let's-all-help-each-other-out kind of way). It magnificently mocks hollow American bluster, and its animated style is refreshingly different, if stilted, in a world of Hollywood conformity.
Less good things: formulaic plot. Dearth of interesting characters. Insularity of vision. Average, rarely hilarious dialogue. Gleeful luddism. Island mentality, unironically referred to as reward. Hackneyed aping of Alan Bennett sans humour or pathos. Very British.
Mission: Impossible II (2000)
What could have been another tiresome superhero-foils-the-villains film becomes subversive deconstruction in the hands of John Woo. By shooting in an audacious, fragmentary, ironic style; by alluding to a number of directors - Leone, Melville, Kubrick etc. - whose metier has been to undermine the ideal of the conventional action hero; by once again (after FACE/OFF) invoking Franju, inserting his famous white birds signifying madness at the precise moment when Ethan 'Colin' Hunt is preparing to save the day; by associating the central triangle with earth, wind and fire, and leaving out water (Robert Towne, remember?), without which we would all die, Woo undermines the film's retrogressive assumptions, giving us a seriously compromised hero. The colours are to die for. Genius.
Unsettling precisely because it's not.
Anyone who has seen Balabanov's eerie OF FREAKS AND MEN may be shocked by this very straightforward thriller about a young army deserter who becomes an efficient killer. Its tale of betrayal is reminiscent of ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, and Danila is also very much like The Man With No Name, a motiveless stranger pitting two enemies against each other until they are wiped out. The opening sequence (sparse forest, castle, robed woman, intimations of S&M) suggest Gothic,as does a certain burial sequence, but, try as we might, we cannot get away from the sheer amoral banality: a gloriously unneurotic hero, a sweet boy who does everything people of his age should (loitering, discman, drugs, concerts, parties etc.) and just happens to be handy with a gun (he is also the only worker in this former worker's paradise).
Dracula's Daughter (1936)
More powerful than much better films.
Many films have visualised the conflict between Law and Desire, but few have created such an eerie dreamlike space for it as this movie. There are elements from the other great Universal films - character comedy from Whale; sexual themes figured in petrified imagery from Freund - but this film's suspended dread is all it's own, where seeming flaws (clumsy compositions, wooden acting, slow pace) become serious virtues; and you find yourself sweating for some reason. It also manages to reject all the reactionary assumptions of Stoker's original novel. It doesn't feel like a great film, but its grip is unshakeable.
The Faculty (1998)
good: could have been great
With a tighter script, this could have been a classic - Rodriguez's flights of fancy are repeatedly, if I may say so under IMDb guidelines, beaten down by extended scenes of static exposition, implausible plot mechanics, and the dictates of genre. But THE FACULTY is still terrific - a proper horror with proper scares and restrained, justified self-referentiality; an excellent teen-pic centring on recurrent fears about conformity, independence, authority figures and sexual awakening.
Just because you keep referencing INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (love the switch to 'books', Kev!), doesn't mean you're not INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. For better or worse, society and cinema has become less political, so instead of panic about reds or McCarthy, we have more general fears (task-force modernisation etc.). But these are still valid. The thing about this conformity is that in a way it is collective, erasing class, racial and generational boundaries; it sees itself as a force for good, a way of making the alienated, the abused, the geeky fit in with the nice people. The film's whole conflict centres on a verbal pun, aliens versus the alienated. The conformity is only quelled when the disparate outsiders form a group, a sort of conformity in itself (it's no surprise that an ultra-conformist is the first to be revealed as bogus).
The film gives an alarming picture of life in American high schools, which doesn't seem that far-fetched to me now, having seem some documenataries exposing this metonymic environment. As you would expect, there is the usual, horribly violent, bullying of the clever; the cruel taunting of the different; the apotheosis and corruption-enabling of the football team. Even within this latter unit, there is rupture and doubt, as one star-player sees the system's fraud for what it is, sees how it makes a mockery of his own self-worth.
But the students aren't the only dissatisfied ones. The teachers are so disillusioned by the favouritism of the football gods at the expense of their own subjects, that they turn to drink, 'medication', arid sarcasm, and general indifference. This is perhaps an indictment of a system that fails its hypersmart kids, but we rarely get to see the teachers' side. So when the alien horrors begin, it's not just an allegory, like BODY SNATCHERS, for a cruel conformity that already exists, but shows up the failure of a certain kind of current conformity.
One could say that the film is just a catch-all expression of a certain, rather smug, alienated adolescent mindset; that the whole world is out to get you, from your peers, the girls you fancy, to teachers, parents, police. The profusion of narcotics strengthens this interpretation, the idea that all events are one big bad trip (there is a delightfully subversive subtext here which seems to contradict Richard Ashcroft). This would explain the lumping of every enemy figure together. The fundamental misogyny would be typical of teenage boys still at the episcopal-bashing stage. There are some excellent rites revealing tensions within the group, where the individualism of mistrust threatens to explode the resistance. But resistance to what? What is the coda bitterly suggesting?
What is most enjoyable about FACULTY is its rejection of current accepted horror practice, based on the slashers of the 80s, where the emphasis is very much on editing. There are, of course, some jolting cuts here (Rodriguez is, after all, the best editor in the business), but the best scenes are a result of careful compositon, striking, haunting images and an intelligent use of space (the almost army-camp restriction to campus reminds one of Ferrera's BODY SNATCHERS), which owes more to the Universal horrors of the 1930s, the B-movies of the 1950s and Romero's allegories - the LIVING DEAD-like scenes of faceless mob attack are truly frightening yet very funny.
A Woman Scorned (1999)
The seven-minute itch
With excellent production values for a short, A WOMAN SCORNED is a disturbing insight into the mind of a bitter woman lying in bed at might, her advances violently repulsed by her snoring lover. Flooded in gorgeous neon blues and reds, she tosses and turns and the film follows, in an elegant patchwork of past, present and murderous fantasy, the fragmentation of her mind figured in the changes of visual register, from glaring colour to grainy monochrome; from sexual ecstasy to empty loneliness; from talk to silence; dream to reality.
These last two become increasingly blurred, as she thinks of different ways of dispatching her lover (all, significantly, with a sexual twist), which are shown in gruesome detail, a bit like an uncomic UNFAITHFULLY YOURS. Snippets of the past involving a friend of hers lead to assumptions (i.e. adultery) that aren't completely explained (is she just imagining it?), but when she looks in the mirror next morning, the friend's strangled corpse reflects back. Unlike the Sturges film, dream definitely does not turn to farce, and if this is chilling, than there are fewer films as concise as this in describing the alienation, mistrust and festering anger and hurt that comprise most relationships.