Of Horses and Men (Hross í oss, Iceland-Germany-Norway, 2013)

You couldn’t make it up

One of the attractions of watching films from around the world is to learn about different cultures. Of Horses and Men collects vignettes of ‘soap opera’ life in rural Iceland: a close-knit community’s going-ons with a focus on sexual jealousy. This community is built around horses and climaxes with a community round up of the beasts which, a character states, has been going on for a thousand years. An ancient culture then and I wondered a little about my reaction, whilst watching this film, because much of what we see is farcical. However, as the superb soundtrack by Davíð Þór Jónsson makes clear with its jaunty accompaniment, writer and first time director Benedikt Erlingsson is poking affectionate fun.

The fun, however, is often dark and surreal; in one episode a character’s desperation for alcohol leads him to get a horse to swim to a passing freighter to buy Russian ‘vodka’ (it’s not clear what he actually consumes). The scene is extraordinary. The horses themselves, as the title suggests, are central characters and they are exceptionally beautifully shot by Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson.

Roy suggests that the translation of the title misses out ‘women’ and they certainly come off better than many of the men who are often driven by stupid impulses. In one scene an older guy keeps suggesting that he take over from capturing horses from a young woman and what follows is a marvellously triumphant moment.

At the film’s end we are assured that no horses were injured during the filming and all the actors love the creatures. Their skill with the animals is obvious as is their affection for the beasts. Of Horses and Men is a superb glimpse into another world.

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Roma (Mexico-US, 2018)

Chronicle of a life

Alfonso Cuarón’s extraordinary autobiographical (he says it’s 90%) movie is the best film of the year. He directed, photographed (in a luminous 65mm digital monochrome), co-edited and wrote; that’s an auteur for you. His way of shooting, feeding the casts lines and situations day by day, and using non-actors, is similar to Ken Loach’s and although their visual style is very different; Cuarón also uses melodrama to dramatic effect like the older filmmaker. Roma, an area of Mexico City where Cuarón was brought up, consists of slices-of-life featuring Cleo (a stunning debut performance by teacher Yalitza Aparicio), who stands in for the director’s nanny/maid, Libo, to whom the film is dedicated. Cuarón wrote the script based on Libo’s, his sister’s and his own memories.

Cuarón’s visual style (after the green palette of his early films) is most obvious in his use of long takes and often moving camera. The movement in Roma is ‘reduced’ to panning and tracking, no freeform steadicam, and the average shot length is considerable. As is usual, he reserves extremely long takes for moments of high drama. The slow pans, particularly at the start of the film, mark the film as ‘arthouse’, along with (to British audiences especially) its foreign language and ‘black and white’ cinematography. The pans usually move to the action and that action is often banal: the quotidian activities of a maid. The tracks are more dynamic, one reveals a main street where busy life goes on as Cleo chases after the children in her charge. As Cuarón says (he was paraphrased):

“Scenes shot in long takes feel “more real” not just because of the continuity of time and performance, but also because we have the time to really invest in the backgrounds…we can shift our focus from the character to the background and back again.”

Wikipedia states the budget was $15m; an extraordinarily small amount even taking into consideration the use of digital editing of images to ensure the setting looks like the early 1970s.

I regularly find myself railing against critics’ mischaracterisation of melodrama. The review of the film in Little White Lies concludes:

‘This is his magnum opus, unassuming, emotion, never melodramatic, sublime…’

The writer assumes melodrama must be ‘over-the-top’ and thereby in bad taste according to bourgeoise standards. As can be seen in the still below, the hugs of the two sets of characters are mirrored showing how both the women feel about the males they clasp. In addition, the cage like gates, and bars on windows, echoed by the caged birds inside, are emblems of restricted lives; Cleo’s in particular. And the meaning of the dog shit is obvious. All these are likely to be Cuarón’s memories but once placed into the mise en scene they take on meanings.

Melodramatic mirroring emphasises the dynamics of relationships

There’s more: during the credit sequence at the start the camera stares at a tiled floor that is being cleaned. Even after the director’s credit the camera lingers and the water that flows looks like the sea breaking on a beach; why is revealed at the end. In the same shot, an aeroplane is seen reflected in the water. This visual sign reoccurs and represents life going on elsewhere; maybe the life of the viewer. And there’s more: the earthquake in the hospital; the gun pulled on Cleo by Fermin and so on. Roma is a domestic melodrama! (I’ll shut up now).

Looking at Cuarón’s work which, Great Expectations (US, 1998) apart, has always been critically highly regarded (including Harry Potter: The Prisoner of Azkaban, UK-US 2004), he is primarily a commercial filmmaker (no offence intended). Roma, thoughis arthouse because of the aforementioned visual style and the painstaking elaboration of daily routine. The second half of the film explodes into action (no spoilers) that manages to combine the personal with the political. Cleo is a Mextico-speaking indigenous woman who serves the family of European heritage; in a great line one of the children states a gringa they’re visiting makes him feel as though he stinks. Cleo’s race defines her class: in one scene she, with another maid, descend many steps to join their ‘people’ whilst the middle classes celebrate the new year upstairs.

Given the small budget I’m surprised Cuarón opted for Netflix. Having resisted any cinema distribution of its films Netflix has learned from Amazon (Moonlight) that certain awards can greatly raise the profile of films so Roma did get a very limited showing in cinemas. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Netflix’s roster of foreign language films (from an English/UK perspective) is extremely limited and I doubt that is about to change. It’s not just that such a film should be seen in its ‘natural’ environment but we shall also have no idea what impact it has, in terms of numbers, on audiences as Netflix doesn’t release the data. Would it have been a crossover hit or remained, outside Spanish-speaking audiences, an arthouse release? If you don’t wish to ‘give in’ to Netflix, join for a month’s free to see this masterpiece.

The Demi-Paradise (UK, 1943)

Stranger times

The Demi-Paradise was one of the propaganda films produced during World War II to ensure the ‘imagined community’ of Britain both knew what they were fighting for and that they would win. It’s particularly interesting as part of the film’s project was to emphasise that the Soviet Union was our friend and ally. Laurence Olivier plays a Russian engineer designing a revolutionary (‘geddit?’) propellor being built in England. I say ‘England’ because we are in the ‘jolly hockey sticks’ land of the middle class south; Joyce Grenfell even makes an appearance.

Being British isn’t anything to be proud of at the moment because of our humiliating government and the right-wing isolationism of Brexit. Indeed the tosspots who want us out even state that because we survived the war we can survive being outside the EU. Self harm won’t matter, it seems, as long as Johnny Foreigner keeps his distance. They might do well to watch this film as, even though it’s full of middle class paternalism, there is a real sense that ‘we are all in it together’ (a phrase recycled by George Osborne as he proceeded to screw to poor for the benefit of the rich). Felix Aylmer’s patriarch, and owner of the shipyard, rails against income tax, complaining that ’10 shillings in the pound’ (50%) should be higher! The Russians are praised of course, in stark contrast into the Russophobe propaganda we are fed these days (no I do not like Putin).

Another striking moment is when the workers insist they’ll deliver what’s required. The first to speak out is on old woman who’s later seen soldering. A bloke follows stating that ‘where women go we won’t be far behind’. That would be a pretty amazing statement of female empowerment even nowadays.

The film was produced and scripted by Anatole de Grunwald whose parents had fled the Soviet Union and he very effectively brings an outsider’s view on some of the absurdities of upper middle class life; most particularly the pageants that seemed to have been popular at the time. I’m not sure if it is a British trait that we can laugh at ourselves, a very healthy aptitude, but de Grunwald seems to think so and his satire is affectionate.

Olivier’s ‘love interest’ is played by Penelope Dudley-Ward, daughter of a socialite and so is well cast in the depths of the plummy accents that surround her. Despite my antipathy she is engaging in the role; she retired from acting after marrying director Carol Reed. There are several character actors, that run through British cinema like writing in rock, dotted about the movie including George Cole, John Laurie, Margaret Rutherford and Wilfred Hyde-White (who even manages his trademark sardonic smirk in the role of a waiter with 10 seconds of screen time).

The Demi-Paradise is nowhere near being a great film; it is a competent one. However, as a taste of fraternity between nations who are only enemies because it suits the establishments of both nations to be so, it is well worth seeing. The title’s a quote form Richard II (Shakespeare) by the way.

Like Father, Like Son (Soshite chichi ni naru, Japan, 2013)

Happy families

Another day, another Kore-eda. If I’d thought about it at the time, the idea that the child I’d been bringing up for the past six years was not actually ‘mine’ would have been a ‘worst nightmare’. That’s the premise of Kore-eda’s quite brilliant Like Father, Like Son. Add to that the theme of alienation (in common with yesterday’s Air Doll) this time caused by corporate culture, and you have a film that’s not only intellectually fascinating but grips the viewer as the consequences unfold.

To add to the melodramatic mix, as the hospitals tell the parents it’s usual to swap the children, Kore-eda makes the other family in many ways the direct opposite of the one we meet first. Lily Frank’s apparently feckless, smalltime shopkeeper is in total contrast to Fukuyama Masaharu’s organisation man, Ryoto (which in Japan requires you give your soul, though this is tempered by a sympathetic boss later in the film). I found the narrative appalling in the sense I was appalled by Ryoto’s behaviour and found myself squirming as much as I would watching a brilliantly made thriller.

In common with all the films I’ve seen by Kore-eda, he casts a compassionate eye so that even Ryoto isn’t simply a villain. Unlike, say, in Hollywood cinema, the director doesn’t require a good-evil opposition and his melodramas are thus infused with a humanity rather than the need to take sides. However his films are indisputably melodrama, which is a genre not a term of abuse. In an otherwise sympathetic review, Glenn Kenny makes a common mistake:

Every now and then, Kore-eda will overplay his representations a little bit; there’s a scene in which Ono’s character contemplates an escape from the torment of potentially trading the son she loves for a child she doesn’t know, biology or not; this takes place on a train, and as her thoughts grow darker, the shadows of the station that the train is pulling into throw her and the child actor into literal darkness. It’s a well-orchestrated effect that hinges on obvious.

For me the scene was absolutely brilliant as the change in lighting externalised Ryoto’s wife (Ono Machiko) anguish which her position in patriarchal society made it very difficult for her to verbalise.

The actors are brilliant, especially the children who Kore-eda has no peers in directing. The child playing Ryotor’s son, Ninomiya Keita, seems have preternaturally black eyes, which give him an alien presence perfectly in keeping with his position in the family.

Japanese culture seems to be so buttoned up that it makes the British seem to be as extravert as a Latin stereotype. However, the undercurrent of emotions that Kore-eda reveals in his films are, of course, as deeply human as any nation. His film unearth the psychological damage such a repressed culture can cause. Our Little Sister, the first Kore-eda film I watched, differs from the others as it bathes the viewer in the warmth of a matriarchal family that has little conflict. Shoplifters, too, focuses on a loving family but in the wider context of poverty and uncaring officialdom.

Air Doll (Kûki ningyô, Japan, 2009)

Take me to my maker

Kore-eda Hirokazu took an idea from a manga (by Goda Yoshiie) a sex doll comes alive, and does what Kore-eda does: make a marvellously humane film. What is a potentially exploitative idea offering the titillation of transgression (sex with a doll) and female nudity becomes instead a rumination on modern alienation, particularly in Japan. It has been reported, with I guess some bemusement in the west, that Japan’s falling birth rate is linked to young people’s indifference to sex. Kore-eda’s films suggests, as the doll, Nozomi (Bae Doo-na of Sympathy for Mr Vengeance), says at least a couple of time, she exists because people (men) don’t won’t the complexity of relationships. Peripheral characters who pass Nozomi emphasise the absence of love in urban life.  She works in a video store, ironically given we’re watching a film, which seems to suggest that people use films as a way to vicariously experience the whole range of human emotion.

As in his other films, Kore-eda produces moments of cinematic magic (by which I mean film is the only medium the scene would work so effectively) when Nozumi floats amongst the balloons that look like planets that her owner has adorning his room. It’s both funny and life affirming as it shows a blow up doll understanding our place in the universe. Of course, the idea is absurd and there is no explanation for Nozumi suddenly waking up, finding a heart, but that would only matter to those without imagination.

I must admit the ending confused me slightly (no spoilers) but the final scenes are devastating and, along with another disturbing scene, are in direct contrast to the light-heartedness of much of the film’s mood. The casting the brilliant Bae Doo-na, a Korean, in the role was presumably to enhance the otherworldliness of Nozomi; I’ve no idea to what extent her Japanese is accented. The way she moves is sufficient to signify difference and the scene when she goes to the sex doll manufacturer (above) reminded me of Blade Runner. I suspect it’s a deceptively complex film that will need at least another viewing.

Kore-eda has been my greatest discovery this year (OK I’ve been miles behind aficionados) and he reminds us about the thrill of cinema and the thrill of life.

The Small World of Sammy Lee (UK, 1963)

Run Sammy run

Ken Hughes’ biggest hit was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (UK, 1968) and he seems to have little in common, although he was roughly the same age, with the British ‘new wave’ directors such as Tony Richardson and John Schlesinger. A characteristic of the wave was its northern settings and despite being set in London The Small World of Sammy Lee shares its ‘down at heel’ gloom. Anthony Newley was using the film, he hoped, to prove he could be a serious actor and it was made whilst he was performing in his hit West End show, Stop the World, I Want to Get Off (Newley was a multi-talented superstar of the era). The film covers less than 24 hours of Sammy’s little world which he spends performing as a compere in a strip club whilst trying to find £300 to cover a gambling debt: at 7pm he will be beaten up.

Most of the film is set in Soho, an area Hughes apparently knew well and his script reeks of authenticity. There is certainly a smell about Soho at the time which is explicitly revealed in a climactic moment when Sammy tells his audience, consisting of seedy, middle aged men, the truth. It reminded me of Maureen O’ Hara’s ‘showgirl’ in Dance Girl Dance (US 1940) when she tells her audience ‘home truths’; if memory serves, Hughes isn’t quite as daring as Dorothy Arzner (yes, a woman director in classical Hollywood) who had O’Hara directly address the film’s audience. Soho was known for its sex clubs and, like Expresso Bongo, there is titillation to be had from women in underwear and tassels on their nipples. The women’s matter-of-factness is well conveyed, it is just a job they have to take, and Julia Foster, as the ‘naive northern lass’, portrays her humiliation with pathos. The club owner’s (Robert Stephens) rant about ‘any woman who takes her clothes off is a whore’ emphasises the misogyny of the time.

Hughes’ film not only condemns the treatment of women, Sammy himself is shown to be a pathetic male chasing thrills and ignoring consequences with his gambling. Newell plays him as a schmuck, not a bad guy as such but contemptible. The scene when he taps his brother (Warren Mitchell) for money is, this article suggests, a rare presentation of Jewish life in British film. When his brother berates his wife (Miriam Karlin) for spending money on clothes she looks at him with disdain and reminds him he married her because of her ‘looks and class’. She also has no truck with Sammy’s pleadings.

Despite the fact the ending of the film has a dab of sentiment, it doesn’t ameliorate the desperation of Sammy’s life.

The restored print (shown on Talking Pictures) looks great. Cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky, who only died two years ago (aged 104 and also shot the classic Get Carter, UK, 1971), worked mostly in documentary and he brings out the grubbiness of Soho well. However the area’s multi cultural vitality isn’t missed; an opening tracking shot along a row of restaurants shows the diversity of cuisine on offer. Sammy chats to Afro Caribbeans in passing as with anyone else. When desperately trying to buy drugs, Sammy asks a black jazz pianist (I haven’t been able to find who is playing the role) and is berated for his racist assumptions that a black person would necessarily have drugs; a progressive representation for its time and now.

Much of the footage of Sammy racing against time through the streets was obviously shot with no cordoning off as the public can be seen watching him which, paradoxically, adds to the authenticity of the film. Neither John Hill’s or Robert Murphy’s books on British cinema of the time mention the film and I think it should be placed alongside ‘new wave’ classics such as A Kind of Loving (1962) and This Sporting Life (1963).

Disobedience (Ireland-UK-US, 2017)

Love in a cold climate

Two films a year from director Sebastián Lelio, we are spoiled; and he’s completed his English-language remake of Gloria due early next year. A Fantastic Woman was fantastic and I think Disobedience is even better.

I have little time for religion (though I’ve no problem with people being religious as long as it doesn’t impinge upon others) so a film set in an Orthodox Jewish community was not likely to appeal to me. In last month’s Sight & Sound interview Lelio explains how the community decided to cooperate with the film, already having experienced the controversy caused by Naomi Alderman’s novel, to ensure that the representation was as accurate as possible. Such tolerance serves both the film and the community well as the ‘forbidden’ lesbian love that drives the film is a problem for the Jewish tradition. Despite the homophobia, ultimately the film shows the strength of humanity over bigotry.

The film’s set in Hendon, a suburb 11km north west of central London, and its sterile, uniform streets are superbly captured in Danny Cohen’s cinematography: it is a bleak mid winter. Rachel Weisz’s disobedient rebel, Ronit, returns for the funeral of her father and the script brilliant offers a slow reveal of her relationship with Rachel McAdam’s Esti.

Although the image is bleached of colour, this is a full blown melodrama that uses the singing at Jewish ceremonies to great effect; there is also a marvellous use of The Cure’s ‘Lovesong’. Matthew Herbert’s score is extraordinary in ways I’m not quite sure about. It’s symphonic, and lush strings are used to emphasise high emotion, but there’s more going on: woodwind figures give an otherworldly atmosphere. It’s a melodrama where the buttoned-up orthodoxy ensures when emotions escape they are full-blown.

When the lovers journey to the centre of London for some privacy they suddenly realise they can hold hands in public. I’m sure there remain many places in the UK where same-sex hand holding is seen as an invite for derision. Thus the scene reminds us of the battle against homophobia that is still in the process of being won.

It was clearly a project close to Weisz’s heart, she optioned the novel, and presumably was involved in the selection of Chilean Lelio as director. It’s not so much a foreigner’s eye view of London, as an outsider’s view of this Jewish community and maybe this distance allowed him to so effectively portray a community that is strange to many of us. I haven’t read Alderman’s novel, there are autobiographical elements to the story, but it is highly likely that the celebration of humanity was in the original material so brilliantly brought to screen.