The Battle of Algiers (La battaglia di Algeri, Italy-Algeria, 1966)

Urban warfare

The Battle of Algiers is an extraordinary film for a number of reasons, primarily the impartiality with which the events are portrayed and the style in which it is shot. It was made just after Algerian independence from France and focuses upon the battle for the capital city in 1957, which although a failure for the National Liberation Front (FLN) at the time, sowed the seeds for the eventual withdrawal of France.

Director Gillo Pontecorvo drew upon the Italian tradition of neo realism by using non-actors, except for the vital role of Colonel Mathieu, and location shooting. The latter was possible as the film had the cooperation of the Algerian government. Despite the fact that the government’s involvement might suggest a propaganda , nation-building, purpose for the film, Pontecorvo, and screenwriter Franco Solanas, do not portray the French as monsters.

Indeed, the even-handedness of the way each side is presented is quite remarkable; both commit atrocities and deaths on both sides are shown to be equally tragic. For example, the bombing of the  Casbah, by off duty French policemen, is followed by the equally cold blooded bombing of, amongst other places, a milk bar full of young people. Whilst it is clear that the atrocity committed by the French was answered by Algerian revenge, Pontecorvo spends more time emphasising how innocent the French victims are through a series of eyeline matches from the woman planting the bomb. The aftermath uses the same music, Bach’s B minor Mass, which also accompanied images of the dead being dragged from the rubble in the Casbah.

Ali La Pointe: he won't give in

Later, Algerian ‘freedom fighters’ rampage through town in an ambulance shooting anyone they can. This is in response to the torturing of Algerians as the paratroopers tried to track down the FLN’s leadership. Col. Mathieu is even allowed to justify the use of torture, though this is used to illustrate politicians’ hypocrisy. As he says, if you wish Algeria to remain French then it must be done. Mathieu is no cardboard villain but a compassionate, professional soldier, played with great charisma by Jean Martin (who’d lost a part because he signed a petition supporting Algerian independence). On two occasions, when French passers-by attack Algerians in hysterical revenge for killings, it is gendarmes who come to the rescue. It’s not obvious as to why the French banned the film for many years.

I should make clear that the film doesn’t condone torture; the scenes are quite horrific and the film’s viewpoint is obviously anti-colonialist. The French should not be there; there should be no reason for torture.

Unlike the neo-realists, the event portrayed is not insignificant but a decisive moment in Algeria’s fight for freedom. Also, the use of faux newsreel footage (the image was processed to look grainy) is a departure from neo realist technique. It does, however, give the film immense immediacy. I have to keep reminding myself that the film is a recreation; Paul Greengrass achieves the same effect with Bloody Sunday (UK, 2002).

The face of a killer

A final point to make, and something that has been reflected in the Arab Spring, is the vital role of women in the uprising. Three women plant the bombs that kill many and the final shot of the film is a woman, holding the national flag, who keeps coming forward despite being pushed back by French security forces.

The Battle of Algiers is one of the greatest films of the 20th century.


My Week with Marilyn (UK-US, 2011)

It is Michelle Williams

Michelle Williams is superb as Marilyn Monroe, as she was when shooting The Prince and the Showgirl (UK-US, 1957); Kenneth Branagh is no slouch as the director-star Laurence Olivier either. The only thing that Williams lacks, as Monroe, is the voluptuous curves; other than that, it is an entirely convincing portrayal.

She’s particularly good at Monroe’s insecurities in front of camera. Marilyn was a notoriously unreliable actor, in her final years, and this film does give an insight into how her vulnerability affected her behaviour. Despite all this, I disliked the film. Why?

It’s based on Colin Clark’s memoir who got a job with Olivier’s film company because of the silver spoon in his mouth (dad was Kenneth of Civilisation fame). Sure, that’s the way it was but it still nauseates me. Come to think of it, it’s still like that. Getting a foot on the film industry ladder often requires working for nothing so you need mummy and daddy to support you. Class is the great British divide.

Oh, and let’s reinforce it shall we by reducing the income tax for those who earn over £150k in today’s budget. And let’s attack the deficit by reducing corporation tax; brilliant! That will mean welfare payments will have to be reduced, but hey! who cares about the poor? They get what they deserve!

Excuse me while I puke.

A Dangerous Method (UK-Ger-Can-Switz, 2011)

Talk to me

It would be churlish to complain that a film about the parents of psychoanalysis was too talky, so I won’t. The film’s built around the possible, as I understand it, sexual relationship between Carl Jung and one of his patients, Sabine Spielrein, superbly played by Keira Knightley. Jung’s infidelity was prompted by Otto Gross, a brilliantly demented Vincent Cassel, and Jung’s rather prim wife (no excuse of course). However, the film actually seems to be about the schism between Freud and Jung and I’m not clear what the supposed sexual liaison had to do with this. Jung’s immorality may have confirmed to Freud that he wasn’t ‘fit’ to be his heir apparent, but it was Jung’s dabbling in mysticism that actually ‘did’ for him.

So I’m not sure what the film is doing, but it does it extremely well. Immaculately shot, by Cronenburg’s regular cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, excellent performance (Mortenson’s Freud is exceptional), beautiful locations; overall an amenable film. But I expect more from Cronenburg.

I am grateful to the film for suggesting that Spielrein was an important influence on the development of psychoanalysis; women are usually rubbed out of history, men’s fragile ego’s can’t seem to share the glory. It’s interesting that the hysteria in women, that the psychoanalysts treated, no longer exists. Presumably this is due to the advances in feminism so women are more likely to be treated as human’s rather than children to be put on a pedestal and to be screwed occasionally.

In an interview in Sight & Sound Cronenburg says that recently advances in MRI scans suggests that there’s a lot of brain activity that cannot be explained and so Freud, and his subsconscious, may be about to be proved correct.

A friend regularly complains about Knightley’s constant pouting; after this, Knightley’s gurning will have to be added to the list. It’s quite exceptional that a star should expose herself in this way. It’s quite a startling opening to the film; the most Cronenburgian moment.

The Ides of March (US, 2011)

The Candidate for the 21st century

George Clooney’s at it again, co-writing and directing a terrific political movie (see also Good Night, and Good Luck (US, 2005). It’s as if he’s, almost single-handedly, trying to resurrect the political cinema that Hollywood produced in the early 1970s. The Ides of March reminded me of The Candidate (1972); though, as I haven’t seen it for over 30 years I’m not sure how much water the comparison will hold.

Both deal with the process of becoming a presidential candidate; The Ides is a convincing portrayal of  ‘behind the scenes’ of the electoral machine and an indictment of the state of American politics. Clooney plays the candidate, Govenor Mike Morris, whose policies are entirely sensible (he’s not religious but will defend the right of anyone to practice their religion as long as it doesn’t impinge upon others) but almost certainly impossible to state in the ‘land of the free’ because it’s in thrall to right-wing lunacy. There’s a real frisson hearing Clooney speak political sense; it’s similar to the moment in Bulworth (1998) when Warren Beatty’s senator invokes socialism!

A top notch cast includes Ryan Gosling as Morris’ idealistic PR advisor; Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti support. Alongside Danish TV’s Borgen (2010) it’s the best political text I’ve seen this year.

Sleeping Beauty (Australia, 2011)

Not a fairy tale

In the movie previous to this, Emily Browning played Babydoll in Sucker Punch (US-Can, 2011) and is maybe in danger of being typecast as a vacant, sexy being (I don’t know whether that was her character in the film but name suggests as much). Glancing at the current issue of Elle I noticed that the feature on Alexa Chung called her ‘Britain’s premiere clotheshorse’; well, full marks for honesty I suppose but it’s another example of the dehumanisation of women that is symptomatic of the tide that’s pushing back the gains of the 1960s-70s feminists.

Lucy, played by Browning, is certainly dehumanised as we see her work as a waitress, a guinea pig for experiments and, mostly, as a prostitute. She’s a ‘working girl’ funding her studies, a method that no doubt will increase more with fees going up to £9k in the UK this year. She’s entirely vacuous, that’s not to say she’s stupid but, until the end, seems incapable of expressing any feeling. She’s like the postmodern beings that inhabit Cronenburg’s Crash (Can-UK, 1996) where sex has no meaning because the characters have lost contact with their humanity.

George Monbiot writes of how Ayn Rand’s psychotic philosophy is becoming increasingly influential in the UK: selfishness is the only good. That may sound absurd but then we hear the suggestion that the 50% tax rate for the rich should be abolished; the poor sods, how do they manage? I don’t understand why tax is a ‘burden’; it is a necessity. As we become increasingly defined by what we buy, or what labels we wear, we will lose our humanity; we should not forget that we are citizens not consumers.

Sleeping Beauty allows us to see Lucy subject herself to ever more bizarre encounters that culminate in featuring her body as a fetish for old men who can no longer ‘get it up’. They have lost their humanity, having drowned their wealth. All this is portrayed in an exceedingly distanced, and distinctly unerotic, fashion that demands hard work from the viewer. I thought it was making a good point but there are surely better ways of saying the same thing.

It was writer-director Julia Leigh’s first feature, she’s also a novelist. The film was made under the mentoring of Jane Campion.

Ashes and Diamonds (Popiól i diament, Poland, 1958)

Stunning mise en scene

 Jonathan Rosenbaum makes the point that while this film is about the forties, it’s set on the day of the Nazi surrender, it’s overlayed by a fifties’ sensibility. This is evident through the James Dean-like Zbigniew Cybulski (though Rosenbaum cites Brando) but also in the European Art cinema style in which its shot. The ‘heavy’ symbolism of the still above is a good example. Add to that the melodrama of the young man, who’s fighting against the Communists and wrestling with his conscience whilst falling in love with the beautiful, and melancholic, barmaid, you have cinema made for me.

This blu-ray edition looks terrific and so emphasises the wonderful cinematography with stunning Expressionist lighting. Director Andrezj Wadja was clearly influenced by Bergman, I love the horse that simply walks into the mise en scene, but also Welles, particularly his use of deep focus.

The film brilliantly dissects a moment in history when everything for Poland was going to change (except in a way it didn’t as they, once again, became dominated by a foreign power). The possiblities of the time, those grabbing power, the splintering of families due to the war, are all portrayed in an affecting human story. Cybulski plays Maciek who’s been sent to assassinate a Communist Party official; he fails but has the night to fulfill his task except that’s when he meets the barmaid.

The official’s son is part of the reactionary forces that are opposing the Russian takeover, however the bourgeoisie’s grab for power is in full swing anyway, shown by the small town major’s celebration at being appointed a minister. The climax of the party, where they are all drunkenly dancing to a bastardised version of a Polish national song, is truly surreal. As is the denouement for Maciek, in a setting worthy of Bunuel.

I’m not sure if Wadja’s in or out of fashion at the moment, very few of his recent films have been distributed in UK; he’s still making them and is 86 next Tuesday. Ashes and Diamonds forms the third in his ‘War Trilogy’,  A Generation (Pokolenie, 1955) and Kanal (1957); there are all must-see films. The first two, the narratives are unconnected, have a pronounced debt to neo realism; Ashes and Diamonds is a triumph of expressionist cinema.