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.

Lillian (Austria, 2019) – GFF7

On the road

This is director Andreas Horvath’s first fiction film (he also edited and composed the music) after making a number of documentaries. One of the fascinating aspects of the film, which was the best I saw at the Glasgow Film Festival, is the degree to which it is fictional. It’s based on a true story of a woman, Lillian Alling, who in the 1920s tried to walk from New York to Russia. She may have succeeded. Lillian is set now and, as far as I can tell, Horvath and his star, Patrycja Planik, improvised the narrative as they took their nine month journey across America. Horvath is credited with the film’s concept, using everyday encounters as the basis. Obviously these would have to be contrived as there was a film crew in tow (although it consisted only of five people). It works in a similar way to Borat (US-UK, 2006) where Sacha Baron-Cohen as the titular reporter traversed America showing up its absurdities. Horvath’s intention is to offer a snapshot of contemporray America. Hollywood Reporter states the film was ‘long-in-the-making’ and, if I remember rightly, there is a rodeo poster for 2013; in an interview Planik states shoot took nine months. Whatever the reason for the long gestation Horvath has produced a stunning piece of work if only in terms of the varying American landscapes we see; the cinematography is stunning. Planik is one of the Foley Artists (these produce the sounds we hear and are used in virtually all filmmaking) and the sounds of her walking are slightly high in mix throughout. Although Planik doesn’t show great range in the role, it is a superb performance in what must have been a gruelling shoot.

I think it’s safe to assume that most of the people Lillian comes across are playing themselves. For example, we see the Nebraskan Sheriff preparing for his day’s work when he gets a call about a ‘walker’ and he goes to investigate. He is both oppressive, searching the young woman, and paternal, giving her a coat for the cold nights. One exception is the role of the lecherous farmer who chases her through cornfields which was taken by the production manager, Chris Shaw.

We pass through Standing Rock where Native Americans are protesting against the environmental impacts of an oil pipeline and hear an inspiring speech. Lillian passes through everything implacably, never speaking or reacting much to her experiences.

Points west

As she reaches the north west of the continent she finds a road called ‘Highway of Tears’ where a large number of young women (presumably abducted and killed) have disappeared over the years. It’s bucketing down with rain and Lillian plods on filmed from behind a window (or lens) which has so much water (tears) on it she can barely be seen. It is a highly poetic shot that captures the moment.

We’re never clear on the protagonist’s motivations, just as we don’t know what were the original Lillian’s. At the start she is trying to get work in hard core porn but as she’s overstayed her visa even that line of work is impossible for her. She’s advised to go back to Russia, ironically described as ‘the land of opportunity’, and decides to walk there after finding a map in a house she’s apparently broken into.

Without spoiling the ending, I will only say, at first, it seemed to be a serious misstep when we meet indigenous people at the Bering Straits and are regaled with an ancient story about treating the natural world with respect. Throughout the journey we hear, no doubt authentic, homey radio broadcasts talking about unseasonable weather and it’s clear that climate catastrophe looms over the film. When I linked the two, the ending ‘clicked’ and it works superbly to conclude the film. It’s a road movie where it’s the spectator that goes on a ‘learning journey’ not the characters; Lillian is a ‘cipher’ on which we can project our own feelings.

Certified Copy (Copie conforme, France-Italy-Belguim-Iran, 2010)

Where's the truth?

Where’s the truth?

Like the Before Sunrise-Midnight films, Abbas Kiarostami relies heavily on long takes, long conversations and entirely convincing performances. Of course Juliette Binoche can be expected to be absolutely wonderful but William Shimell…? Kiarostami had directed him in a performance of a Mozart opera so knew he’d be up to the task; it’s inspired casting. Shimell has since appeared in Amour (2012).

Befitting of Kiarostami’s art house status, Certified Copy is more obviously intellectual than Richard Linklater’s films; which is not to say it’s better or worse. I wasn’t particularly interested in the philosophy of authenticity in art, or in relationships, but was riveted by the conversations, and the Tuscan landscape, that ran throughout the film. There’s a brilliant twist, about half way through so stop reading now if you plan to see the film.

It has appeared so far that Binoche’s Elle (a ‘universal’ ‘she’?) has been flirting with the intellectual James (Shimell) but, when they are mistaken as a married couple, she plays along with the error and then he too plays along… But are they or are they not actually married? It is a brilliant sleight of narrative that raises issues of longevity in relationships, memory, as well as gender roles. Unsurprisingly Kiarostami doesn’t bother to tell us the ‘truth’ of the situation, leaving us to ponder if we wish. I’m sure we’ll ponder the actors’ brilliance and, maybe, Kiarostami’s too. I’m not suggesting that his film is derivative in any way, he often uses long takes in his films and may have patented the car dashboard camera.

One clue to the film’s playfulness is surely the casting of Jean-Claude Carrière in a minor role. Carrière scripted a number of Luis Bunuel’s late films and  surrealism is expertly interlaced with the ostensible realism of this film’s visual style and the performances.

Breathing (Atmen, Austria, 2011)

Say ‘ah’

Roman (Thomas Schubert, above left) is allowed out of a juvenile institution on ‘day release’; his job is at a morgue. So far so melodrama, especially as Roman is almost as emotionless as a corpse. We follow his faltering steps into the ‘real world’ as he tries to find a compass in a society that treats him with contempt; we don’t learn of his crime until well into the film.

The narrative progresses slowly, routinely; typically arthouse as it demands our patience as we wonder whether it’s better to actually live a life rather than watch someone else live theirs. However, it repays patience with intense drama, when Roman is sent to pick up a corpse in the street whilst a distraught wife is still clinging onto hope that her husband’s still alive, an an emotional payoff at the end when… well, I shan’t spoil it.

Death remains a taboo in western society; consumerism is driven in part by a desire to deny it: cosmetics for everyone. Breathing confronts death, particularly in the scene where the morgue attendants have to prepare a corpse of an old woman who has died at home. We get to see what we don’t wish to see as the deceased body is carefully attended to by men who, hitherto, have been generally unlikeable. It’s a particularly powerful scene.

It’s written and directed by Karl Markovics, who played the lead in the terrific The Counterfeiters (Aus-Ger, 2007) and I’m looking forward to his next film.

Le Havre (Finland-Fr-Ger-Nor, 2011)

Past and present intermingle

The best way of understanding (sort of) writer-producer-director Aki Kaurismaki’s universe might be through the answer he gave to a question, in May’s Sight & Sound, about whether he was his dogs’ agent:

‘No, my wife is. So it’s tough negotiation. When I start to write the screenplay, always on the third day my wife comes and says: “Is there any part for a dog?” She’s a good manager. And the dogs always remember their dialogue. The actors always don’t. I mean, the other actors.’

So far so batty. Kaurismaki’s universe is similarly surreal. In Le Havre the iconography of the ‘fifties (clothing, cars and interiors) is mixed with a modern tale of (illegal) migration. Kaurismaki’s melodrama focuses upon the solidarity of the working classes (also from a bygone age?) in the face of repression. The interiors of his  mise en scene emphasise turquoise, for reasons that escape me, but doesn’t half look good. It’s also good to see old, really old not just what’s old to young people, characters as protagonists. Little Bob and his band, performing in a charity concert to raise money for the protagonist, cuts a mean impression of Springsteen too.

The narrative focuses upon the attempts of a shoeshine, whose wife’s in hospital, to help a young African lad get to London to be reunited with his mother. He’s shadowed by a police inspector, tailored all in black, and helped, of course, by Laika; the all-important dog.

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.

Carnage (Fr-Ger-Pol-Sp, 2011)

OMG my handbag!

What’s the point in filming a play? Shakespeare’s robust enough to take virtually anything but a one-set, four-hander…? Well, you get to cast Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet; not to mention John C Reilly. And they are a treat; particularly Winslet: an arched eyebrow is enough to convey her annoyance at her husband’s use of his mobile phone. But is that sufficient?

It would have been if the play had lived up to its billing: carnage. However there just wasn’t enough of it. It was meant to be skewering bourgeois pretensions, (particularly liberal) but at the film’s fade out I assumed there’d be a second act when things would really get serious.

There wasn’t.

Melancholia (Denmark-Sweden-France-Germany-Italy, 2011)

Mental apocalypse

Lars von Trier’s need to provoke ended badly for him at Cannes this year when he professed sympathy for Hitler. He isn’t a Nazi, as he said, and it’s best to let his films do his talking. The fracas was a distraction from Melancholia and Kirsten Dunst, winner of the best actress award.

Melancholia is far more straightforward than his last film, Antichrist, but shares an opening that’s awash with beautiful super-slow motion images. This, in effect a prelude, tells us the narrative to come and emphasises the film’s about the depressive Justine’s (Dunst) state of mind. This expressionist sequence, revisited to an extent at the end, is in stark contrast the part one (‘Justine’) which focuses on her wedding party. Von Trier’s pricking of bourgeois rituals, and hypocrisy, takes us back to Festen (Denmark, 1998), directed by Tomas Vinterberg, the first of the Dogme95 films. Dogme95 was anti-Hollywood, swearing a ‘vow of chastity’ in only using, for example, natural lighting, handheld camera and definitely no special effects. Von Trier was co-author, along with Vinterberg, of the manifesto but has long since departed from its tenets. However, this section utilises Dogme95’s trademark febrile camera and jump cuts.

Part two, ‘Claire’, focuses on Justine’s sister’s attempts to help the latter out of her depression. Science fiction enters the narrative as the planet Melancholia is approaching Earth, though we are promised it will merely ‘fly by’ and everyone will be saved. The symbolism is clear for all and generates a quite brilliant climax.

However, and maybe this is a result of seeing the film after the immaculately directed We Need to Talk About Kevin, von Trier’s direction of the first part simply comes across as sloppy and lazy. Whilst Vinterberg’s similar direction worked brilliantly in Festen, the contrast with the the prelude and the later sections, where we are viewing an expressionist landscape, is just too great a contrast.

There are many references in the film; the above image, with Wagner’s Liebestod dominant on the soundtrack, reminded me of Bunuel-Dali’s Un Chien Andalou (France, 1929) and Hamlet’s  Ophelia tangentially appears in an image of Justine floating on a river and a painting of the scene is shown. Chien Andalou is about an ‘amour fou’ and Ophelia goes mad because of love. The name Justine reminds up of Marquis de Sade’s character, the ‘good sister’ suggesting that she is one with knowledge unlike the ‘sane’ Claire. In addition, the mansion, and its gardens, reference Last Year in Marienbad (France 1961), Alain Resnais’ engimatic film, which might be about a love affair that never happened. If nothing else, von Trier is cineliterate.

That said, this is a film of tremendous imagination that, at its best, touches brilliance.

The Ghost (France-Germany-UK, 2010)

The ghost of Hitchcock

It was fitting that there was a trailer for Double Take (2009) before I saw this throwback of a relatively slow paced thriller that Hitchcock would have enjoyed directing. Polanski brings real panache to the material, aided by cinematographer Pawel Edelman; I loved the climactic shot of a note being passed through a crowd.

It’s certainly not a pastiche and is entirely modern in its take on British politics in the Blair years. It wears its critique lightly and is anchored by entirely convincing performances by  Ewan McGregor and Olivia Williams; Brosnan is good also as the ex-PM.

JCVD (Belguim, Luxembourg, France, 2008)

Haggard but acting

Haggard but acting

It’s very difficult for action heroes to get thespian credibility; Sylvester Stallone got some for Copland (1997) but I can’t imagine Keanu Reeves ever receiving a nice sounding gong. Jean-Claude van Damme lives, as a movie star, in straight-to-video land mostly. He surfaced most prominently in John Woo’s first Hollywood film Hard Target (1993) but I’ve heard little of him since; of course he’s continued to make movies.

JCVD is little more than postmodern fluff, he plays himself caught in a hostage situation in a beseiged Post Office in Belguim, but is worth a watch. Most extraordinary is the scene were, with no narrative motivation, Jean-Claude is elevated above the fracas to bear his soul to camera in a long take. Blimey! Doesn’t he pull it off.