Kuessipan (Canada, 2019) – CIFF6

Friends for life?

My final film in this year’s Cheltenham International Film Festival (still available online here) was proably the best; vying with Antigone and Rounds for the accolade. Narratively it’s a conventional ‘coming of age’ story however as it’s set on an Innu reservation in Quebec, the cultural difference is sufficient to make it stand out. Add to that the marvellous central performance of Sharon Fontaine Ishpatao as Mikuan and Myriam Verreault’s confident direction, we get a cracking film. The film’s based on Naomi Fontaine’s impressionistic novel and the ethnically white Verreault ensured that she would be sensitive in adapting the novel through getting to know the Innu community as well as recruiting Fontaine as co-writer.

I’m guessing that the narrative is autobiographical, in general if not in the detail. Orla Smith, at the start of her interview with Fotaine and Verreault, states:

‘Kuessipan is an Innu word meaning, “It’s your turn.” That sentiment inspired Noami Fontaine’s novel of the same name: living in Quebec, away from the Innu community she was born in, she was confused by white people’s notions that Indigenous Canadians were this strange ‘other’. Fontaine decided it was the Innu people’s turn to tell their own story, and so she wrote Kuessipan.’

This Othering of difference that reduces the diversity of a cultural group into a homogenous, and often misunderstood, blob is, of course, a huge problem. One of the functions of art is to get us to understand others and the film does that superbly with its ‘warts and all’ portrayal of thepoverty-stricken reservation life. Ishpatao portrays the vulnerability and strength of her character who is pushing against the limitations of roots and against the way she is seen by white people; she’s in a limbo and so it seems, at times, that she belongs nowhere. Mikuan has a tough time personally, with added melodramatic family tragedies, but has the inner strength needed to combat adversity.

Verreault, in her feature film debut, brilliantly integrates actors and non-actors and so the film’s authenticity comes from more than the location shooting. When Mikuan joins a school writing group it feels the scene has been created through improv so convincing is the interaction; and her poetry is great.

An interview with the lead actors, Ishpatao and Yamie Grégoire who plays Shaniss Mikuan’s ‘friend for life’, states there is more indigenous filmmaking happening in the area and it would be great if we could get more of it on the festival circuit. Particularly if they’re as good as this.

Antigone (Canada, 2019) – CIFF3

Age old dilemmas

Based on Sophocles’ play, writer-director Sophie Deraspe has made a vital, ambitious film for today:  the issue of protest, which is one of the film’s manifold threads, is especially vital at the moment and long may that continue. Nahéma Ricci, in a stand-out performance, plays the titular character who is a ‘good girl’ immigrant in Quebec whose brother gets into trouble with police because of his gang affiliations. As in the Greek play, Antigone puts herself in a position to sacrifice her future for her brother and, more widely, her family. If occasionally the film over-stretches credulity that matters little when the narrative has such ambition. Some of the subjects it tries to deal with are: social media campaigning; poorly trained youth offender staff; recalcitrant courts; politicians; citizenship rules and so on. Even if Deraspe bites off more than a film can chew readily it is an exhilarating watch.

By ‘good girl’ I mean Antigone is a model student who is determined to do well and she is an academic star. In a scene early in the film she makes a class presentation about how she arrived in Canada. At first the students are disinterested however when they wake up to the fact they are hearing about childhood trauma they, like the audience, are riveted by Antigone’s performance. The scene is typical of a superbly directed film that allows the audience’s understanding to grow as the action progresses and, right at its end, we see the teacher moving forward as she realises the trauma of what Antigone has said.

The film has the trajectory of a ‘youth picture’ except were, usually, the ‘growing up’ is done through sexual awakening, here it is Antigone’s growing realisation of the politics of being an immigrant. She starts as a ‘naive’ youth who believes that truth will lead to justice and learns a tough lesson and leaves us with an ambiguous ending.

On a negative note, the montage sequences illustrating how social media responded to Antigone’s campaign jar slightly with the aesthetics of the film. The habit most people have of using phones in ‘portrait’ position, thus severely restricting what can be seen, allows three phone screens to be shown across the film frame, with a hip hop soundtrack. Whilst this is meant to indicate the impact of her campaign it doesn’t work as it’s only Antigone’s boyfriend who we see involved in getting her message across. It’s a minor criticism for, as I’ve said, you can’t downgrade a film for ambition.

Ricci is superb at conveying the intensity of someone who has not yet been downtrodden by the system, unlike many of her fellow inmates whose rebellion consists of shouting and swearing. Deraspe even gets Tiresias into a particularly chilling scene. The film won best Canadian feature at the Toronto film festival and was Canada’s foreign language entry for the Oscars and it’s definitely one to catch at Cheltenham here.

 

James vs. His Future Self (Canada, 2019) – GFF4

Back to the past

Director Jeremy Lalonde co-wrote this with his star Jonas Chernick and they’ve produced an agreeable SF-romcom. If the hybrid is unusual the narrative trajectory isn’t: blinkered boy eventually gets the ‘hot’ girl (Cleopatra Coleman). The science fiction element is James’ future self visits his young self, a nerdish scientist, to tell him it’s a mistake to develop time travel because he’ll lose ‘the girl’. The time travel paradox is interestingly dealt with as the future self, Jimmy (Daniel Stern channeling Christopher Lloyd though not as manic), will disappear if his advice is followed. Although formulae abound on chalkboards (they’re retro!) the science, understandably, is as fictional as the narrative and the film barely qualifies as SF.

Fortunately the romcom side has its pleasures, particular Coleman’s Courtney; Coleman is an Aussie and I look forward to seeing more of her. She manages to convey her female exasperation with male stupidity with deft changes of facial expression; the film is very much on her side. However, of course, James is the protagonist and while it’s unfair to chide Lalonde for focusing on the man, we do need more female orientated romcoms (as far as we need them at all).

Frances Conroy is excellent as the demented boss of the lab that James and Courtney work in. She is a truly unhinged creation that portrays the ‘mad scientist’ as both female and old; this is the sort of genre tweak that make can films interesting.

Unfortunately the dynamic of Jimmy seeking his own destruction is not investigated. This isn’t surprising as it would shift the narrative weight onto the older character and the focus, in true romcom fashion, is on the move toward coupledom. There are some good lines: Courtney says her putative partner dresses as if he were higher on the ‘spectrum’ than he actually is. The best scenes are between the two when James, urged on by Jimmy, tries to move his long-standing friendship with Courtney toward sex. She obviously fancies him but is savvy enough to know the switch in the dynamic from friendship to lust (she reckons the moment has long past) is fraught with difficulty. This isn’t investigated in detail, which is unfortunate but then it the number of laughs would have been reduced.

Overall the film’s worth seeing for its offbeat indie vibe; for some reason it reminded me of Killing Jessica Stein (US. 2001), which is indisputably female-orientated.

The Lighthouse (Canada-US, 2019)

Lost in the fog

The Lighthouse seems to have been trailed for months and its monochrome look, and stars Dafoe and Pattinson, made it intriguing. Most of the critical response seems to have been glowing as well. The image above is misleading as the film is shot in a Movietone ratio of 1:1.19 (new to me); this dates back to the 1920s and was an early attempt at synchronising sound on film. The monochrome and almost square aspect ratio reminded me of Bait (which has the slightly wider 4:3) though the films use the archaic form (monochrome and aspect ratio) to signify different things: for Bait it was authenticity; The Lighthouse, the 19th century.

Another reason why Eggers may have chosen the narrow frame, which ‘forces’ composition to be vertical, is it meant close-up shots of a character’s head would fill the screen and so emphasise the likelihood that the events we are watching are the product of strained minds.

I didn’t get far into writer-director Robert Eggers’ debut, The Witch (Canada-US, 2015), as I was put off by the clangorous soundtrack telling me to be scared when there was nothing happening on the screen that was scary. The Lighthouse (co-written with his brother Max), too, is a horror film but initially presents itself as arthouse with its slow paced narrative in addition to the unusual aspect ratio and black and white cinematography (brilliantly done by Jarin Blaschke). The low-key lighting, no fill light making the shadows on faces deep, adds to the portentous atmosphere.

The narrative, two blokes stuck on a rock, is certainly not multiplex fair even with its stars. Dafoe has always took on non-mainstream roles and Pattinson is pursuing the same route. However, as the film develops it becomes more of a genre piece and, for me, it falls apart.

This isn’t because I’m anti-genre, or anti-horror, just that the two elements are not combined in a convincing fashion. The script plays around with the fact that maybe the events we see aren’t really happening but are the product of a disturbed mind (we are with Pattinson’s Ethan/Thomas for most of the film), but events become too random (the severed head in the lobster basket) to cohere. There’s nothing wrong with keeping an audience guessing about the veracity of what we see, and we know mermaids don’t exist, but the balancing act of the ‘fantastic’ (is it real or not?) is delicate and The Lighthouse falls over too often to convince.

Eggers’ background is as a set designer and Craig Lathrop’s production design is a magnificent piece of Gothic detritus. I only wished I cared for the characters more. Ethan/Thomas has a back story, hence he has two identities as he seems to have lied about who he is, which is never clearly elucidated; similarly Dafoe’s Thomas may be not who he claims to be. The doubling of names suggests doppelgängers but again this isn’t fully worked through. The obtuseness has the arthouse about it but didn’t, to me, seem to have point: obtuseness for its own sake.

The sound design (Damian Volpe) is superb: the grinding of cogs that run the lighthouse are enough to drive its inhabitants mad even without the moonshine liquor. But, but, but… should’ve had a better script.

It’s Only the End of the World (Juste la fin du monde, Canada-France, 2016)

Boiling point melodrama

I’ve only seen one of Xavier Dolan’s films, Heartbeats, and didn’t like his direction. This Grand Prize of the Jury prize winner at Cannes is much more surefooted as he places the camera close-up to individuals who are under-going a meltdown during a family reunion. Dolan’s screenplay is based on a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce and the tight framing is an elegant way of avoiding staginess; he also favours an expressive shallow depth of field by using rack focus to change the subject of the shot. There’s no doubt, however, that the key to the success of the film is its stellar cast: Nathalie Baye, Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard and Léa Seydoux. Gaspard Ulliel, too, is excellent as the protagonist who returns to his estranged family to announce his imminent death.

He hasn’t seen them for 12 years and has not been good at keeping in contact. It’s soon clear, Cassel’s character always seems to have his back to the action, that the pent up frustration of Louis’ absence is going to explode. The film is stagy in the sense that each of the characters get to have a private conversation with Louis that expose the history, of lack of, between them. However, as noted, such is the brilliance of the performances the scenes remain gripping. If Cassel’s rivets up his incendiary tendencies, Cotillard dials hers down to play Catherine as mousy but with a hint of steel. Baye breezes through as the mother who is determined to make the best of the occasion while not blind to Louis’ faults. Seydoux smoulders with resentment toward her brother (who’s a successful writer) that she barely knows.

If the ending, involving some fantastic symbolism with a suddenly animated cuckoo clock bird, is a little laboured, it otherwise doesn’t let down the preceding narrative. As the ironic title suggests, dying isn’t at all unusual so we shouldn’t forget living. Bradshaw suggests the film’s about the dysfunctionality of family life but I wonder if it’s more about how important family life is and what may happen if you neglect it.

Mama (Canada-Spain, 2013)

“Where’s mama?”

I’m doing some work on Guillermo del Toro so watched Mama as one of the films he executive produced and I’m pleased I did (I think). ‘I think’ because I was genuinely scared and that’s the first purpose of horror films. Of course they’re more interesting if they also have something to say, like last year’s Get OutMama is about parenthood and childhood trauma when parents fall short. I think Kim Newman gets it wrong in his Empire review where he complains that we get to see the monster too early. Because we’re not particularly concerned about what the monster is, though there is a detailed subplot explaining the why, we can focus on the children who’ve spent five years living on their own.

Guillermo del Toro was so impressed by Andrés Muschietti’s short of the same name that he facilitated the feature length version, co-written with Muschietti’s sister, Barbara who also produced. They both went on to make It, one of the big hits from 2017.

Mama owes a lot to J-horror, particularly in the contorted movements of the monster but also through the creepy mise en scene, such as stains on the wall. The CGI is not overblown and most of the shocks come from the editing. A great horror movie to make going to sleep an issue.

The performances of the children are superb, a tribute most likely to Muschietti’s direction. Children are recurring characters in Del Toro’s work, probably as a consequence of his owned traumatised childhood in a Jesuit school. I shall have to watch It.

Heartbeats (Canada, 2010)

Full of themselves

Full of themselves

25 year old Quebecois, Xavier Dolan (above right), is obviously a talent as he’s already directed five features; imdb also has five producer and editor credits as well as four for costume design and six writing! If Heartbeats is full of rather self-absorbed young people then that’s because that’s what the film’s about. I’m probably too old to appreciate such a subject and I am i sure wasn’t like that when I was a twenty something (I’m lying). Stand outs, include the costumes (something I don’t usually appreciate) and Monica Chokri’s Marie, she is superb at the small changes of facial expression that indicate dissatisfaction.

Despite Dolan’s talent his direction annoyed me. Faux reality TV hand held re-framings, including push zooms, irritate rather than suggest realism. The film also includes young people, who are not characters in the film, talking heads speaking about relationships similar to the Big Brother post-eviction interviews. Again it may be a generational thing, but I don’t think Reality TV, as an aesthetic, has much to offer film.

I do fear for the youngsters of Montreal as most of them seem to smoke like chimneys.

McLaren 2014

Poetry in

Poetry in

‘McLaren 2014 is a Programme celebrating the centenary of pioneering Scottish artist, filmmaker and musician, Norman McLaren.’ (http://www.mclaren2014.com/about_the_project). Subject to small changes, the programme of shorts will last 1h20 and include: OPENING SPEECH (1961), BLINKITY BLANK (1955), LE MERLE (1958), PAS DE DEUX (1968), SYNCHROMY (1971), LINES HORIZONTAL (1962), NEIGHBOURS (1952), Là-HAUT SUR CES MONTAGNES (1945), V is for VICTORY (1941), LOVE ON THE WING (1938), HEN HOP (1942),  BEGONE DULL CARE (1949) and A CHAIRY TALE (1957).

I was familiar with the brilliant Pas de deux (above) and Neighbours (below) and if the rest didn’t come up the standard of those two classics that’s not a criticism. McLaren’s GPO film, Love on the Wing baffled me but it was clear that he was pioneer of absurdist comedy, using animation, with his Opening Speech and A Chairy Tale.

Devastating, still; still topical

Devastating still; still topical

McLaren made Neighbours in 1952 after visiting China; although the version that won an Academy Award was shorn of its ending when mothers and children become victims of the fighting neighbours. Seeing that, at a time when many civilians, children included, have been killed by the Israelis, was chilling.

Take This Waltz (Canada-Spain-Japan, 2011)

Making the most of life?

Making the most of life?

I did realise that Michele Williams is a superb actor, she was by far the best thing in My Week with Marilyn, and had excelled in Meek’s Cutoff, but I was unprepared for her brilliance in Take This Waltz. Her character, a slightly kooky woman, Margot, unsettled after five years of marriage, could have been difficult to sympathise with; however, Williams’ performance means that issue is not a question. Her husband, an excellent Seth Rogan, doesn’t understand that marriage doesn’t make the relationship, he says there’s no point asking how she is as he knows everything about her. What he doesn’t know is that she’s fallen for a neighbour, a charismatic artistic type, and the film charts her efforts not to give up on her marriage.

Writer-director-producer Sarah Polley mostly makes  this ‘will they/won’t they’ narrative entirely convincing. There’s enough ambiguity in the relationships for us not to be entirely clear about characters’ motivations, which is suitable as many people in life are not sure about their motivations either. There’s a virtuoso shower scene when women of all shapes and sizes talk about their lives. The contrast between Williams’ ‘perfect’ nubile body and the older women’s, reminds us that we all will age. Incidentally, the aqua-robics session that precedes this is hilarious.

The ending is suitably ambiguous. Without ‘spoiling’, we are left with questions about Margot’s future that are left unresolved.  I was also left with absolute admiration for Williams and am going to give Blue Valentine another chance; I think I let Ryan Gosling put me off that film far too early on.

As an aside, I recently watched Only God Forgives (2013, Den-Thailand-Fr-US-Swe) which, along with Drive and The Place Beyond the Pines (US, 2012), showed Gosling doing his inarticulate (maybe ‘catatonic’ is a better word) male schtick. To be fair Pines was redeemed, in part, by Bradley Cooper, but please if you’re going to dramatise male stupidity, make it human like Rogan’s portrayal of Margot’s husband. Then again, I’m not sure that we aren’t meant to admire the Gosling characters. Only God Forgives did feature fabulous cinematography and a fantastic Cliff Mansell score, both wasted on meaningless crap.

Stories We Tell (Canada, 2012)

Telling not showing

Telling not showing

If you haven’t see this film I urge you to do so before reading this post. I try and avoid knowing much about a film before I see it and in the case of Stories We Tell I think ignorance is crucial to our appreciation of Sarah Polley’s artistry. Before the spoilers, in brief: the film is an investigation into who is actually director Sarah Polley’s father and this is told, mostly, with a mixture of home movie footage and talking heads.

At the start we see Polley, at a sound mixing desk, instructing her father as he starts the narrative voice over of the film. He’s reading a script and refers to himself in the third person. Immediately Polley has set up, in a self-reflexive way, that she is in control of the documentary. Although her father is narrating a story in which he is a key participant (is he her biological father?), the fact he’s reading from a script under his daughter’s direction makes it clear she’s the boss.

One of her siblings says, early in the documentary, ‘why would anyone be interested in our family?’ I was inclined to agree as the only thing that was remarkable was the enormous amount of home movie footage used to partially illustrate the narration and interviews. However, Polley’s parents were theatrical so maybe that wasn’t so surprising.

Polley’s pursuit of the truth soon becomes an engaging narrative and the film works as a (sort of) documentary family melodrama but it also gradually becomes clear that what we’re seeing isn’t quite what we think it is.

It’s amusing to watch montages of the talking heads, who are also participants in the story, contradicting one another when asked the same question. They are not obviously being medacious as our understanding of events, particularly within families, are often diverging. There is a hilarious moment when Polley asks an ex-colleague of her mother’s if they’d slept together; his denial is entirely undermined by his eyes’ leap to the right.

At her mother’s funeral, she died at a relatively early age from cancer when Polley was 11, there is a home movie shot of her real father sitting at the back of the church. Why would anyone, ignoring the question of whether a home movie would be made at a funeral, pick out him in this particular framing?! My first thought was Polley must have digitally edited the shot to enhance the appearance of her real father for dramatic purposes. However by now I’d also noticed that the voice over narration (by her biological father) had slipped into the first person, so emphasising subjectivity. When had that happened?

I will have to watch will film again to unpick the way Polley playfully undermines our faith in both the sound and vision of what she is presenting. It’s likely that the clues are present much earlier than when I noticed: she’s obviously questioning the ontological status of the documentary form as well as telling a story about her family. This formal uncertainty complements the uncertainty about her familial relationships.

The credits are the giveaway that some of the ‘home movies’ are in fact pastiches of the form performed by actors; I didn’t notice the difference between the real and unreal home movies, probably because I wasn’t looking for it.

Peter Bradshaw makes an excellent point that it’s possible that Polley’s motivation in making the film was to pre-empt her real father’s memoir about her parentage. Polley was determined to get her version of the story told but, at least, she is clear that it is a version and not reality.

As a documentary, this is a tour de force and one of the films of the year.