A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica, Chile-Germany-Spain-US, 2017)

Super hero

I saw this Berlin Festival winner (best screenplay) at a preview and managed to avoid knowing anything about the film, apart from it was directed by Sebastián Lelio who’d made Gloria, which was enough recommendation for me. This proved a boon given the film’s subject matter, which I won’t give away.

A Fantastic Woman is a brilliant melodrama and Lelio isn’t afraid to go way off realism; in one sequence the protagonist Marina (Daniela Vega) is walking down a street tracked by the camera. The wind gets up blowing detritus into her face. It gets stronger and, at the end of the scene, she comes to a dead stop leaning almost 45-degrees into the wind. This is symbolic of the difficulties n Marina’s life but, like Gloria, she continues to battle.

In a film about identity it is no surprise that mirrors are seen throughout the film including, near the end, in one telling shot that questions how biology shapes who we are. In another bravura scene, workmen carrying an enormous reflective surface stop in the street and Marina is shown in the wobbling mirror: another great visual metaphor about body image.

It’s a cracking film.


No (Chile-France-US-Mexico, 2012)

Ad exec takes on military dictatorship

Ad exec takes on military dictatorship

General Pinochet, whose CIA-backed coup overthrew Salvatore Allende’s democratically elected Socialist government on September 11 1973, was almost held accountable for his crimes when he visited the UK in 1998. He was let go on health grounds: the ruling classes certainly look after their own as there was nothing wrong with him! This film recounts how Pinochet was deposed: a Referendum, as to whether he should continue as President, in 1988 imposed on Pinochet by his western backers. They wanted him to have the veneer of democratic respectability but were surprised by the victory of the ‘no’ vote. No recounts how the ‘no’ campaign was successful and uses footage from both the actual campaigns and the brutality of Pinochet’s troops.

From a naive perspective it is surprising that many would vote ‘yes’ for a military dictatorship but that neglects the fact that many, in the middle class, had benefited from Pinochet’s rule. So it’s self-interest over democratic ideals and fairness; a ‘principle’ that goes some way to explain why many voted for the Conservatives in the May UK Election. Democracy is a fig-leaf that is useful to gain consent (‘hegemony’) from the masses and if people dare to misuse their vote – as in the Greek Referendum on the economic destruction of their country – they will be ignored; in the Greek case by the EU and  European Bank (the World Bank at least acknowledges that Greece can never pay back its debt under the terms it’s been given).

It struck me also how Pinochet’s Minister responsible for the ‘yes’ campaign referred to his opponents as ‘fools’; anyone who opposes their ideas must by definition, they think, be idiots. Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign, for the leadership of the Labour Party, have been characterised in similar ways. Corbyn is challenging the status quo and has a high level of support, this the Establishment cannot tolerate (because it means that they aren’t necessarily right) and cognitive dissonance kicks in, so they start ridiculing what is opposing them as they can’t rationally argue against them.

Back to the film: obviously well worth seeing but Larrain’s direction did irritate me. He seemed to delight in shooting into the sun presumably to give the film a documentary feel with its ‘uncomposed’ shots. It was shot on 1983 U-matic video camera (in the 4:3 ratio) which means the image quality is poor; that didn’t bother me. Gael Garcia Bernal, as the ‘heroic’ ad exec (that phrase doesn’t occur very often), is brilliant as usual. His appearance in a film, in itself, seems to guarantee quality.

Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes, Argentina-Spain, 2014)

Expectedly unexpected

Expectedly unexpected

Wild Tales has one of those rare beasts: a good trailer. Although I enjoyed watching the film it hardly lived up to the rave reviews it’s received in some quarters or its excellent publicity. Possibly the problem is its short story nature, the film consists of six unrelated tales, as I’m not fond of the form. I find it dissatisfying that a story comes to an end just as I’m getting into it. This dissatisfaction can be overcome if the stories are thematically linked, such as in Dead Of Night (UK, 1945), however the only common factor in these tales is the fact they are ‘wild’.

I don’t mean to sound overly-negative, most of the tales have a logic where the protagonist is pushed beyond the boundaries of ‘decent’ behaviour. Particularly good is Ricardo Darín (also seen in The White Elephant) as the explosive expert who cracks when his car is towed away despite being legally parked; apparently this is common in Buenos Aires. The bride who discovers her husband’s infidelity during the wedding party also has a narrative that satisfyingly spirals out of control.

However the lack of a strong thread between the segments was disappointing. If they had all, for example, attacked bourgeois mores (which a few do) then it would have been more successful. It reminded me of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, adapted for British television in the 1970s; Wild Tales may have been better as a series of six programmes.

PS After writing the above it was pointed out to me, by someone who’d only seen the trailer(!), that revenge links the stories. Now you might ask how I missed that… I’m wondering too.

The Exterminating Angel (El ángel exterminador, Mexico, 1962)

Dooming and dooming the rest of us

Doomed and dooming the rest of us

Luis Bunuel was good at excoriating the bourgeoisie; in The Exterminating Angel they are trapped at a dinner party for no apparent reason and their reason soon goes. The civil veneer of the the ruling classes is shown to be just that and beneath the surface most of them are scumbags (the doctor, however, is decent). Are the bourgeoisie these days the 1% who own 99% of the world’s wealth? Or do they include the ‘squeezed middle’ who politicians (including Labour!) seem so concerned about? Whoever they are they remain as self-centred as they have been since the rise of capitalism. The brutal behaviour of the guests in The Exterminating Angel is being meted out to the poor in Britain and elsewhere. Hopefully Syriza’s victory is the start of a left-wing revolution that will end the economic nonsense of ‘austerity’, the Tories announced today they are promising more if re-elected, that has devastated many people’s lives. Good on the Greeks, a third of whom live in poverty, for giving the ‘troika’ the finger.

As Marx suggested the bourgeoisie are doomed, the only question is whether they will destroy the rest of us. Climate change, fuelled by unsustainable economic growth, will finish us off given long enough. However, given the stupidity of neo liberals who, irrationally, still believe in the ‘free market’, it could be that civil dissent causes a meltdown before Gaia does.

Gloria (Chile-Spain, 2013)

A lust for life

A lust for life

When discussing ageing with pupils I suggest that everyone wants to grow old. After a moment of derision they usually realise that the statement is true. However, the ageing body is clearly a monstrous Other in western society where we, women in particular, are urged to avoid showing the outward signs of decrepitude. Gloria, played brilliantly by Paulina Garcia, is a woman who is ‘past her prime’ and a lone divorcee who we meet in a singles bar. She has a lust for life and that, another taboo in mainstream cinema, includes a lust for sex. Few films deal with sex in old age though Hollywood has dipped into this demographic with films like the funny It’s Complicated (2009) and the dreadful Hope Springs (2012) (where giving her husband a blow job solves the marital problems). However neither of this films show the sex, Gloria does in all its glory and ageing bodies.

Sebastián Lelio directs (he also co-wrote) in a detached fashion, often framing in a medium to long shot with a static camera, in a relatively long take, allowing us observe the ‘always-on-screen’ Gloria at a distance. Sometimes this means the action isn’t clearly framed, however the technique works well to offer a certain detachment to the melodrama allowing us to more readily admire Gloria rather than be too emotionally involved in her situation. Gloria doesn’t want our sympathy, she just wants to get on with her life. There are a couple of marvellous melodramatic emblems: a street puppeteer has a skeleton dancing leading Gloria to give her on-off lover one more chance, it repreesnts mortality writ large; she finally rids herself of the ‘lover’ by shooting him with his own splatter gun.

Gloria’s lust for life includes her children but they, whilst loving, are detached from her and have their own lives; they obviously feel their mother no longer has much of a purpose for them. Garcia is marvellous at portraying her disappointment at her offspring whilst never showing them that she is hurt. This dislocation from the past is also a key part of the film’s politics. A dinner table discussion about Chilean society leads Gloria to suggest that children have been hard done by in the post-Pinochet period. Understandably Chileans want to move on from the brutal dictator’s time but Leilo suggests that the bourgeoisie are only concerned with their own cosy existence.

The film isn’t simply about ageing it’s also about gender and men come across as particularly pathetic. Gloria’s paramour, Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), whilst undoubtedly in lust, and maybe in love, with Gloria cannot break from his past – particularly his needy daughters. He’s shown to be emotionally stunted as if he believes his desire for  Gloria should be enough to sustain the relationship. He gets what he deserves when she shoots him. At the end we see Gloria, as she was at the beginning, dancing alone. At the start of this dance, however, she is surrounded by women. Leilo may be a bit too  harsh one men: we’re not all that bad!

Gloria is a cracking film that shows us oldies still have a lot of life in us.

The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza, Argentina-France-Italy-Spain, 2008)

What I can't see can't hurt me

What I can’t see can’t hurt me

Written and directed by Lucrecia Martel this admirable film strikes me as Expressionist without the Expressionism. Verónica (Maria Onetto) is driving home from a ‘ladies who lunch’ gathering when she, momentarily distracted by her phone, hits something and bangs her head. From that moment we enter he literally ‘stunned’ world where people talk to her and often don’t receive a response; this doesn’t seem to bother them as if they never really listened to her anyway. The framing is slightly off-kilter, not enough to be expressionist; the composition sometimes appeared badly framed. I wondered if this was the transmission (via Amazon’s (boo!) Prime) was to blame but Peter Bradshaw confirms it is the case – he loved the film.

I won’t spoil but do look out for the handprints on the car window when Verónica stops the car having his something; there also appears what looks to be a reflection of a boy.

Martel is clearly criticising the bourgeoisie who seem to be surrounded by dark-haired (indigenous?) people who try and anticipate their every need. Of course, they don’t really have any ‘needs’ as they live in a world divorced from most of the problems of ‘everyday life’; though Verónica does have an ailing aunt who’s grip on reality is less than secure, like the protagonist’s.

It’s not an easy watch as Martel doesn’t make the narrative clear. This is partly misdirection, for dramatic purposes, but also to reflect the traumatised state of Verónica’s mind. It’s a brave filmmaker who seeks to disassociate the film from its audience and in that Martel succeeds admirably. It’s a film that haunts after the viewing as the film’s purpose becomes apparent.

Antonio das Mortes ( O Dragão da Maldade contra o Santo Guerreiro”, France-Brazil-W.Germany, 1969)

A western but not as we know it

A western but not as we know it

Like the film that preceded it that featured Antonio das Mortes, Black God, White Devilthe original title is more evocative: The Dragon of Evil Against the Saint Warrior. The saint in question is George, a seemingly ubiquitous myth that straddles continents. You might expect the titular hero, Antonio, to be the saint however we are defiantly not in Hollywood territory. Glauber Rocha, the director, was one of the defining voices of Brazil’s Cinema Novo, an anti-colonialist new wave of the 1960s. As in Black God, Antonio starts off as a killer hired by the Establishment.

I remember seeing the film on Channel 4, in its early days (if memory serves Thursday evening was World Cinema night; hell, they were the  ‘good old days’!), and being bowled over by the film. Whether this was to do with the fact I didn’t have a clue what it was about or the stunning stabbing sequence I’m not sure. I guess when we’re young if we stumble across something that is unlike anything we’ve experienced before we think it’s good. However, Antonio das Mortes does require some knowledge of Brazilian culture and, more specifically, Cinema Novo.

This isn’t the place to elucidate what it all means; I recommend Brazilian Cinema edited by Randal Johnson and Robert Stam. However, there’s no doubting the power of the film from the parody of the western shootout at the climax, the Eisensteinean montage when the bad Colonel/landowner is executed and the death of the capitalist, mentioned above, who’s stabbed by his ‘mistress’, the Colonel’s wife. Rocha’s film uses characters as representative of social groups: a teacher stands in for intellectuals (he starts as a boozer); the ‘cangaceiro’, the Robin Hood-type bandit, who represents the legendary Lampiao; the Colonel (the military) is literally blind and so doesn’t see the consequences of his beliefs.

Rocha dramatises his ‘aesthetics of hunger’, which he argues will inevitably lead to violence, with two massacres shot with the intensity of the finale of The Wild Bunch but without the voyeurism. Antonio das Mortes is tough going in parts but is undoubtedly an example of ‘landmark’ cinema.