A Quiet Place (US, 2018)

Silence is…

Along with Hereditary (US, 2018), A Quiet Place had a critical buzz that suggested a reanimation of the horror movie; the latter also had the lustre of box office gold. As it turned out I found the former terrible and the latter just about adequate, which no doubt says more about me than the films. While A Quiet Place is conceptually clever, don’t make a noise or peculiar creatures will eviscerate you, and is efficiently directed by John Krasinski (also co-credited with the script and he plays the lead male), there was an emptiness in the film that meant I didn’t care about what happened. Teen horror films, in particular, can suffer from not engaging audiences (me anyway) sufficiently with characters so their inevitable demise is more a relief (we’re nearer the end of the film) than a tragedy. A Quiet Place does not fall into that trap for we are offered a nuclear family, mothered by the charismatic Emily Blunt, and children who are obviously vulnerable. So why didn’t I care?

Seeing a newspaper headline, early in the film, ‘New York in Lockdown’ was somewhat surreal given current pandemic circumstances. That, if anything, should have intensified the horror. While I have no problem with films being ‘only entertainment’ I do like to find more in the text than a sugar-rush. In the case of horror movies this can often be found in the monster, the fearsome Other, and what it represents. In this film the monsters are indeterminate, and their appearance based on slimy creatures not unlike the aliens of the Alien franchise (UK-US, 1979-2017); they have – in effect – big ears and munch anything that makes a sound. They are not creatures from the id; they are not the ‘monstrous feminine’; they are not sexually potent; they are not migrants and so on.

As the monsters don’t represent anything other than necessitating the destruction of civilisation and severe restriction upon the easiest way to communicate, speech, the full weight of the development falls on the family; there has to be more than simply to avoid being turned into bloody mulch. Here the film manufactures conflict between Dad and eldest child, played by the deaf Millicent Simmonds (great to see someone with a disability getting a lead role). Understandably Dad is in ‘survivalist’ mode and this seems to include training up a reluctant son rather than enthusiastic daughter. Why?! We don’t know enough about Dad to understand why he has Neanderthal views on gender and the film fails to articulate why this likeable guy (he tells his wife he’ll take daughter ‘next time’) should be so stupid. By the end of the film it’s clear the whole plot point is exists solely to create an emotional resolution. In this sense it is typical of the film, everything is designed to work in a solipsistic way, the set-ups (for example, Mum’s heavily pregnant, a nail sticking up from the floor) signpost themselves in neon and their whole point is create suspense and thrills. However as they are not sufficiently integrated into the film’s world they stick out as obvious narrative devices.

The only interesting thing I found in the film was the use of silence; most of the dialogue is signed and we understand through subtitles (a subtitled film as a $100m+ hit in North America!). Music is used sparingly and much of the 90 minute running time is spent in silence and this wasn’t comfortable ‘listening’ suggesting how important sound is to the enjoyment of a film normally.

The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea (To thávma tis thálassas ton Sargassón, Greece-Germany-Netherlands-Sweden, 2019)

Cop on the verge

As cinemas are not an option at the moment I’ve taken advantage of a free offer from MUBI and so am plunging through two films a day to catch up with its ‘one new film a day’ distribution pattern. I won’t see them all but the opening of The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea was promising enough to stick to the end though, generically, it was slightly misleading. The excellent Angeliki Papoulia plays Elisabeth who is busting terrorists in Athens only to be chucked to the backwater of Mesolongi, on the coast west of the capital. There she’s the chief of police and the narrative resumes 10 years on where she has become as corrupt as the cops she seemed to be evading at the start.

Her wayward cocaine-snorting, gun waving detective reminded me of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (US, 1992). The setting, in the marshes and lagoons of Mesolongi, reminded me of Marshland and the relative remoteness of the location is important. Here social rules become looser and police presence isn’t necessarily welcome. The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea goes further than Marshland as some characters seem to be losing their grip on reality somewhat; there are scenes re-enacted from the bible with no, as far as I can tell, link to the narrative. Director Syllas Tzoumerkas, who co-wrote the interesting Suntan (Greece-Germany, 2016), wrote the film with co-star Youla Boudali who plays Rita, the bullied sister of an egomaniac drug dealer (Christos Passalis oozing sleaze). Rita works in the eel factory, detailed in gruesome documentary detail, which links the area to the Caribbean’s Sargasso Sea as that’s where the eels go to breed. Peter Bradshaw suggests the location is a metaphor for renewal though one of the comments below his post suggests it’s more to do with decay. The latter is more likely given the film’s ending.

Papoulia has appeared in three of Yorgos Lanthimos’ films that epitomise the current arthouse favourite ‘Greek weird cinema’. Lanthos’ films do nothing for me (see The Favourite) but I’ve nothing against ‘the weird’. However, as I couldn’t find even the most tenuous connection between the bible re-enactments going on, and the presence of Albanians also seemed to be significant, the film seemed half complete. Maybe it’s my own lack of religion that makes me blind to the allegory. However, the film is worth seeing if only for Papoulia’s ‘bad cop’; such a rare thing to see in a female character.

The Silence (Tystnaden, Sweden, 1963)

Diametrically opposed sisters

I’m an absolute sucker for Sven Nykvist’s chiaroscuro cinematography allied to Ingmar Bergman’s deep focus compositions. In The Silence they are welded in a chamber drama of two sisters at war: one lasciviously animistic; the other cooly intellectual until she accepts the truth of her imminent death. The 1960s were probably the height of arthouse cinema in terms of the acceptance by audiences, however minority, of abstruse narratives and we are plunged into a strange world without explanation. The sisters, Ingrid Thulin’s Ester and Gunnel Lindblom’s Anna, are travelling through an unidentifiable east European state either in the throes of, of gearing up for, war. Anna’s young son, Johan, is with them and the opening, on a train, sets the tone that we are as much inhabiting a psychological as a physical landscape; the unscrolling landscape is obviously a back projection.

In Hamish Ford’s interesting Sounds of Cinema review, he quotes Bergman as saying: “It follows Bartók’s music rather closely – the dull continuous note, then the sudden explosion.”. Ford notes a ticking clock is heard at the start and end of the film (it could be a metronome in keeping with the musical metaphor), no doubt indicative of our lives’ movement toward their inevitable end. Bergman’s existential angst, which often seems mangled up in misogyny, plays out as the sisters vie for psychological supremacy. I must confess that I spent most of the film unclear on what the heavily portentous goings-on actually meant, but I was never less than engaged. Knowing Bartok didn’t help.

The film was a hit, probably because of the (for the time) explicit representations of sex. Ester masturbates whilst Anna witnesses a couple having sex in a theatre and seduces a waiter for the same purpose. I’m sure that this was the reason the film was successful with audiences though it was to Bergman’s chagrin:

“One is always glad when a film is a success. Be then, when I discovered why it was a success, and how many of the people who were going to see it were saying furiously they’d never again go and see an Ingmar Bergman film, I was terrified.” (Bergman on Bergman, Björkman, Manns and Sima, 1973: 180)

I’ll take his statement at face value, though it should be noted that the relative explicitness of arthouse cinema was one of the reasons why it became so popular in the post-war period. As I wrote in Introduction to Film (which is going cheap on Amazon at the moment!):

‘Although art-cinema’s increasing popularity was relative, and was always far below the mainstream’s, there is little doubt that the presence of (female) nudity in Summer With Monika (Sommeren med Monika, Sweden, 1953) helped establish director Ingmar Bergman as a favourite.

‘Films such as this helped break the censor’s stranglehold. The nudity would not have raised many eyebrows in un-puritanical Scandinavia. Because the nudity was not obviously sensational, and the film was received as art (putting it, in cultural terms, on a similar level as the nude of Renaissance painting) and consumed by a middle-class audience, it was harder to justify it being censored. In addition, these films, produced abroad, had no obligation to the Production Code.’ (Lacey, 2016: 118)

Even if I finished The Silence unsure of what I’d experienced there are some moments of direct emotional power. For instance, when Ester has an ‘attack’ (I’m guessing she has TB) and rails against death. I don’t think the strength of the scene was accentuated by the fact the ‘grim reaper’ is abroad great numbers worldwide at the moment due to the pandemic; the position of the shot, at the head of her bed, and Thulin’s performance are enough to make it terrifying. The film is available on MUBI for another four days.

 

Chaotic Ana (Caótica Ana, Spain, 2007)

Jungian journey

Writer-director Julio Medem can be guaranteed to get you thinking with a narrative graced with ravishing imagery and likely much nudity, particularly female. Chaotic Ana (newcomer Manuela Vellés) suddenly finds she has visions linking her to (possible) past selves, women who died young and violently at the hands of men. Her life as a naive artist in Ibiza, where she lives with her dad in a cave on the coast, is disrupted by Charlotte Rampling’s Justine (presumably named after de Sade’s character but the reason for this I can’t fathom) who runs an artists’ colony in Madrid. Here Ana meets video artist Linda (Bebe Rebolledo) and Said (Nicolas Cazalé), with whom she enters into an intimate relationship. She discovers she can dream for the first time and, under hypnosis, filmed by Linda, she investigates what might be her past. The paintings that had so enraptured Justine were doors on the cave dwelling walls: doors and dreaming = Jungian psychoanalysis. For many this will be a problem: Jung as hokum or as insight? It’s the former for me, however I’m willing to suspend disbelief in return for interesting narratives and Medem certainly succeeds on that level. There are moments (like when Ana appears on Linda’s dad’s boat) where credulity is over-stretched (I assumed it was a dream for a few minutes) but there are enough ideas whirling around to engage to the end.

At the end Medem has flung in American aggression in the Iraq war (UK was culpable too) in a very strange scene with an American politician. We also end up in Arizona (Ford’s mesas and buttes are on show) at an Native American Reservation that, as aquarello concludes is:

‘an awkward juxtaposition [for the film] that proves especially flawed during a pivotal encounter at a Navajo bar, where Medem’s trenchant parallel illustration of dispossession and institutional segregation between the Native American reservations in the US and the refugee camps of displaced Saharans in the Middle East – and by extension, the Iraqi occupation that has also resulted in geographic factionalism along ethnic and tribal lines – is undermined by the facile sight gag of a patron’s inebriated uncoordination.’

The refugee camps in Africa are drawn into the narrative via the mysterious Said and there is a degree of Orientalism in his representation. The film was dedicated to Medem’s sister Ana, an artist who was killed in a car crash in 2001. Clearly the film is a form of therapy for the director, which explains the narrative lacunas.  Her beautiful paintings are used as her namesake’s in the film and knowledge of her death adds to the melancholy that infuses the movie.

A Sun (Taiwan, 2019)

Unlike father

It’s striking that a two and a half plus hour melodrama doesn’t quite give enough attention to some of the characters. That’s not to say that the script by Chung Mong-hong and Chang Yao-sheng, is baggy, more that it is so rich in its characterisation; Chung also directed as well as photographing the film under the pseudonym Nakashima Nagao. It’s a family melodrama featuring, what Han Cheung, of the Taipei Times, tells us is a typical emotional landscape of a Tawainese family:

‘This kind of family dynamic is fairly common in Taiwanese society. Although every family member deeply cares for each other, they shut each other out and even say hurtful things, often preferring to secretly “help” in ways that cause even more discord. A-wen’s character exemplifies this archetype — frail, crooked and wrinkled but unwilling to bend even a little bit.’

A-wen is the putative family patriarch (Chen Yi-wen) who works as a driving instructor but is clearly himself forever learning about the responsibility and roles of a father and husband. The films starts when one of his sons, A-Ho (Wu Chien-Ho) takes part in an eye-popping assault that makes it appear we are watching a gang movie and not a family melodrama. He’s indicted and receives no support from dad in the courtroom. We spend some time in juvenile detention with A-Ho during which his mum, Miss Qin (Samantha Ho), learns he’s got his girlfriend pregnant. Miss Qin is the bedrock of the family and it’s questionable, from a western perspective, why she doesn’t chuck her husband out.

They have another son, A-Hao (Han Hsu Greg), who’s a dreamy youngster trying to get into medical college. His character is somewhat under drawn and a shocking narrative turn suffers from this. Similarly, A-wen’s girlfriend is given little space to develop as a character and disappears before the end.

There are other complications (are you keeping up?) as when A-Ho is freed his old partner in crime, the superbly named Radish in a chiling performance by Liu Kuan-Ting, returns to mess up his rehabilitation.

As you can see there’s plenty of melodramatic meat and this is served up with some stunning cinematography where green and red predominates giving a sickly and violent hue to a often hyperreal mise en scene, particularly in the night scenes. It’s not surprising that the film was a big winner at the Taiwanese Golden Horse awards (for Chinese language films), including best film, director and for Chen Yi-wen and Liu Kuan-Ting.

Mary Shelley (UK-Luxembourg-US-Ireland, 2017)

Musing upon life and death

The choice of Haifaa Al-Mansour to direct this slice of English Gothic is interesting; she was the first female Saudi to direct a film and this is the follow-up to her debut, the excellent Wadjda. Presumably the producers were attracted by her outsider’s eye (and of course her talent) though I’m not sure what she has added as the material is presented in a straightforward, and efficient, manner. Al-Mansour is also credited with ‘additions’ to Emma Jensen’s debut script. My knowledge of Mary Shelley is limited but it’s good to get her perspective on the Romantic poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron.

If the script sometimes leans towards a 21st century view of gender, the film’s set in the early 19th, then that is forgivable. It even uses the term ‘gender’ when ‘sex’ would have been the word of the time. We are, after all, observing the past through modern eyes; no one can truly recreate historical times. There’s no doubt that Mary (Elle Fanning) was a remarkable woman: we meet her at 16, daughter of the feminist Mary Wollstonecroft Godwin who died just after birthing her. Her dad, William (Stephen Dillane), was also a radical but the film shows he is somewhat nimbyish about the emancipation of his daughter.

Percy (Douglas Booth) is portrayed as a ‘pretty boy’ who follows his libido though he has more about him than simply being a ‘player’. That Mary’s masterpiece, the novel Frankenstein, was initially attributed to him shows the sexism of the time and he’s portrayed as unhappy about it. Tom Sturridge’s Lord Byron, on the other hand, is entirely heartless with women; I didn’t find the performance convincing (too much kohl?).

Probably due to budget limitations, there’s no sense that they are in Switzerland when Mary concocts her famous and hideous tale. I wasn’t even sure they were abroad until the challenge to write a ghost story arose. While Gothic graveyards are given their due, it was a mistake not to show the awesome Swiss peaks as an inspiration on Shelly’s famous novel. On the other hand, the influence of popular theatre presenting the ‘miracle’ of Galvanism is well portrayed.

Elle Fanning is excellent as Mary, combining youthful vulnerability with fiery defiance. Bel Powley, as her sister, makes her mark as someone determined to not be left behind by her brilliant sibling. It avoids the problem that many biopics have of trying to cram a life into a short narrative as the focus is on the key moment in Mary Shelley’s life, meeting Percy and publishing Frankenstein.

The Awakening of the Ants (El despertar de las hormigas, Costa Rica-Spain, 2019)

Preparing for patriarchy

This is a superb debut from writer-director Antonella Sudasassi featuring an astonishing central performance from Daniela Valenciano in only her second film appearance, 10 years after her first. She plays Isabel, mother of two daughters and wife to Alicdes (Leynar Gomez) who’s, along with his family, petitioning for a third child. When we meet Isa she is decorating a birthday cake whilst the mayhem of a children’s party whirls around her. The men talk football and ask for coffee and beers. The camera lingers on her and Sudasassi’s facial expressions tell us all we need to know of what she is feeling; it is bravura filmmaking and performance. And then she plunges her hands into the cake, in frustration, taking us into Isa’s interior world.

The film portrays the everyday life of a poor Costa Rican family which Latin American machismo, and the Catholic Church, makes worse by consigning women to the role of homemaker; Isa dreams of having a sewing business and knows having a third child would make that even more unlikely. Sudasassi daringly has Isa discover her own sexuality from her young, and innocent, daughter. In a brilliant scene she experiments with masturbation while her husband sleeps oblivious next to her.

I mentioned the destruction of the cake, which was all in Isa’s mind, and we are ‘treated’ to other expressionist moments, such as when insects plague her in the shower. Isa is having a mental breakdown with no one to support her. As strong female characters go, she is with the best as she strives to overcome her oppression.

Alicides is no monster. As no doubt most men in patriarchal societies are, he is blithely ignorant of his privilege. In one scene she insists he help lay the table for dinner and he has to be told where the cutlery is and reminded to include glasses. He’s uncomplaining and bemused and certainly has no understanding that really he should know where all this stuff is!

The performances are excellent throughout and Sudasassi shoots family scenes with the authenticity of ‘direct cinema’. In particular the two daughters are marvellously natural; as a portrayal of a ‘slice of life’ goes this one oozes authority.

The film was screened in Berlin and on MUBI worldwide (just available for three more days) and, as Sudasassi explains:

‘The story of Isabel of Hormigas is part of a transmedia project which seeks to explore sexuality in the vital stages of women. The project is interdisciplinary and collaborative and invited artists* from all over the world to create a collective mosaic of honest experiences about femininity and sexuality in order to demystify it and provoke a rupture with the violence inherent in traditional gender roles.’

She is a talent to watch.