Woman at War (Kona fer í stríð, Iceland-France-Ukraine, 2018)

Close to nature

We have Revolution Extinction to thank for raising the profile of immanent climate catastrophe and films like co-writer and director Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War can only help, if it gets seen. Kermode points out that the protagonist, Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), has much in common with the Mission: Impossible‘s resourceful Ethan Hunt; and this film is more thrilling because it deals with a potent threat to our existence.

Erlingsson’s previous feature, Of Horses and Men, was an affectionately surreal portrait of Iceland, and it is that country that is the focus of Woman at War; but here it’s land that stands in for the Earth as it is the planet that is under threat. If only we had a sense of the fragility of the ecosystems, as the astronauts of High Life do, serious action would have been taken years ago to ameliorate climate change. Like the folks of Extinction Rebellion, Halla decides to take responsibility for protecting the planet.

The script, co-written with Ólafur Egilsson, is superbly constructed and seamlessly integrates allegorical elements into the narrative; Halla wishes to adopt a Ukrainian 4 year-old, representing hope for the future. The non-diegetic music transpires to be diegetic as the folksy three piece, and Ukrainian trio of voices, often appear in the scene. I can’t recall a non-comedy being so Brechtian with the music and while it serves to remind us we are watching a film, I think it also serves to remind us that the issues raised are real. Incidentally, the music (particularly the singers) is fabulous.

The final image is truly chilling that caps an entertaining thriller with a dose of reality that might even give climate change deniers pause for thought (actually, it won’t as they live in an ideological landscape that denies reality).

Obviously Geirharðsdóttir’s performance is key to the success of the film and her 49 year-old protagonist reminds us that we need unconventional heroes to save us; take a bow Greta Thunberg. Geirharðsdóttir also seamlessly plays her twin sister.

I can’t recommend the film enough because it was both immensely entertaining and up front in portraying the risks that face us. This isn’t an ‘infinity war’ because the battle isn’t going to go on much longer unless we start wining it very soon.

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And Breathe Normally (Andið eðlilega, Iceland-Sweden-Belguim, 2018)

Lost in translation

Ísold Uggadóttir’s first feature, which she also scripted, won the Best World Cinema Competition at the Sundance Film Festival and highlights the importance of the screenplay in filmmaking. And Breathe Normally‘s script just doesn’t quite hold together as narrative difficulties are often elided by moving on quickly to the next scene. However, this is a minor criticism as the film is a highly involving story about a refugee (Babetida Sadjo) from Guinea-Bissau (due to her sexuality) marooned in Iceland as her passport is fake.

It’s also about Lára (Kristín Þóra Haraldsdóttir), a single mum who also happens to be gay, who’s struggling in poverty and her path crosses Adja’s (the refugee) when she takes a job as a border guard. What struck me is the way Uggadóttir, whose direction is excellent, manages to suggest that social class is the key element rather than race, sexuality or gender. Despite idiots like Tory James Cleverly dismissing I, Daniel Blake because it’s fiction, only the wilfully blind are unaware that inequality in many societies has reached unsustainable levels (inequality is never right but was sustained by the welfare state, ease of credit and expanding economies). What unites the disadvantaged is usually social class; this is not to say ‘identity politics’ are not important, but that Marx’s call for class consciousness to fight exploitation is as valid as ever.

There are few institutions in the film as it is a social realist ‘slice of life’. We see border security at work and some of the workings of the deportation process; we are also shown, briefly, Lára’s son’s school. However it is clear that she is almost as trapped by society as Adja; ‘almost’ because for Lára there is some hope, ironically, in the border guard job: by saving herself and her son she has to oppress others.

Uggadóttir shot the film in Reykjanesbær, a town that houses the international airport in Iceland. It is shown to be ugly and she explains that the film avoids the tourist clichés used to represent the country. It is a bleak film (I won’t give away whether the ending offers hope) that gives a convincing glimpse into the lives of refugees (and the poor) who are often demonised whilst they are invariably the victims. Netflix.

 

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.

The Guilty (Den skyldige, Denmark, 2018) – LIFF2

Think before you act/speak

The Guilty is Gustav Möller’s debut feature, a low-budget creation based on his own story. Jakob Cedergren plays Asger Holm, a cop reduced to answering emergency calls because of – at the start of the film – an unspecified mistake. Like Locke (2013, UK-USA) it is a one-location film, though it expands to an adjacent room rather than just inside a car. The benefits are a cheaper made film; the challenge is to keep it interesting.

Cedergren’s performance and Möller’s story are likely to keep most gripped throughout the film and Philip Flindt, the sound effects editor, ensures that the narrative space of the phone calls is created with a magnificent aural landscape. However, it is more than an exercise in style for, as the title suggests, the film investigates the nature of guilt. The slow reveal of Holm’s transgression, and what’s actually happening with the caller he’s desperately trying to help, add a psychological dimension. It can’t quite be called Dostoevskian but there’s enough cerebral nourishment to go with the visceral thrills.

In my initial tweeted response to the film I suggested that the direction needed more imagination. Given its low-budget origins, however, this is a little unfair and Möller does a good job. The way Holm isolates himself in another room as he gets deeper into trying to save the distressed woman and his physical reaction to frustration are all satisfyingly cinematic.

Möller has worked on a couple of episodes of Follow the Money (Bedrag, Denamrk, 2016-) (the first season, at least, was good), one of the plethora of ‘Scandi noir’ TV series that have brought brilliant grimness into our homes. The Guilty is another satisfying example from the dark side of Scandinavia.

Force Majeur (Sweden-France-Norway-Denmark, 2014)

Happy families

I thoroughly ‘enjoyed’ Ruben Östlund’s Play and found this subsequent feature equally engrossing. Skewering the bourgeoisie is not exactly a difficult task and cinema has been at it since at least the Surrealists in the 1920s, but Östlund manages to revisit the territory in interesting ways. The bourgeois family are holidaying in the bourgeois winter destination par excellence: a skiing resort. Östlund separates scenes with shots of the overnight maintenance of the ski slopes which, particularly when accompanied by a demented accordion version of Vivaldi’s ‘Winter’, are surreal.

Östlund’s camera, as in Play, is detached from the events it portrays through the use of longish takes such as in the image above: a recurring banal activity but as the fractures in the family widen the subtle changes in behaviour speak loudly. After a traumatic event the family unravels as the patriarch’s shallowness is revealed. I’ll not reveal the dramatic moment as it’s intensely gripping.

Östlund (he also wrote the script) is not afraid of challenging the audience and the final scene, when the family are leaving the resort on a coach, is brilliantly done leaving a final image where the family are shown to be a microcosm of bourgeois life. Brilliant stuff.

Play (Sweden-France, 2011)

What do you think?

What do you think?

I haven’t seen writer-director Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeur (Sweden-France-Norway-Denmark, 2014), one of the most feted arthouse films of this year,  but my anticipation has increased after watching (experiencing?) the film which preceded it, his second feature. There are at least two levels of ‘play’ going on in the film: there’s the ‘play’ of the boys (though it’s actually bullying rather than the ‘innocent’ kind); and the play with the spectator’s head, which makes for an interesting, and sometimes uncomfortable, experience.

Based on actual court cases in Gothenburg, Sweden, the film follows a group of black lads as they part con/part bully two white, and one lad of East Asian extraction, out of their stuff. The racial politics could, in the eyes of the ‘wrong’ (racist) audience, be quite incendiary as the film represents the black lads in a (negative) stereotypical way. As an arthouse film (in both Sweden and elsewhere given the film’s visual style – more below), however, we might expect it to be seen by the ‘right’ (middle class) audience who may be appalled by the racist stereotyping presented.

However, it all happened so it’s not racist is it? These questions might give you some idea of the way Östlund teases (plays) his audience. It’s a bit like near the start of Crash (US, 2004), where two African-Americans talk about negative stereotyping before robbing two middle class white people on the street. It’s shocking to see obvious racist stereotypes in modern cinema (there are plenty of non-obvious ones). Östlund, who co-wrote and directed, doesn’t offer the emotional catharsis of entertainment, which we get in Crash, but the unnerving camera eye, most commonly utilised by Michael Haneke, with which to observe events. The film virtually forces us to ask the question whether we are watching a racist film or not; it is a good question.

The camera is mostly still, with some pans, and uses long takes and long lenses to observe the action from a distance, which often appears to be taking place on location with passers-by oblivious to the filming. This ‘dispassionate’ distance puts us in the position of an onlooker who can only observe and not intervene. Very little intervention from passers-by actually goes on. In one scene, where the black gang beat up one of their own members, a man who saw what was going on tells the victim he’ll be a witness in court for him. While this scene is obviously completely staged (please let it be!), it’s still shocking to think people won’t get involved; though the passivity of people, when confronted with problems on the street, is well documented.

Östlund does not simply ‘have it in’ for the gang, as a coda the dads of the white lads take out their revenge in a quite outrageous way; presumably this too happened. Two women do intervene at this but didn’t call the police!!! Sorry for the exclamation marks but that’s how the film works: ‘call the police!’ was bellowing in my head.

Assuming it all happened, an absolutely key issue for if it hadn’t then the film would be read differently, Play brilliantly questions our morality. The Daily Telegraph reviewer, who gave the film 5*s, felt the film was ‘partly about a kind of paralysis wreaked by political correctness’. That’s to be expected from a right wing newspaper that doesn’t understand that ‘political correctness’ is a term of abuse aimed attempts to avoid discrimination. For me the film’s about voyeurism and interrogates our values; or rather encourages us to interrogate our values. And I don’t think the film is about race, rather it is suggesting that class is the key social factor. The gang have little, compared to their middle class victims, who we first see shopping in an anonymous Mall; one of whom has just lost 500 kroner to no great distress. Their parents, barely seen, seem more interested in work and only belatedly respond to a distress call. In a materialist society, materialism is the source of conflict. Östlund doesn’t take sides he just shows us uncomfortable truths.

A mostly non-professional cast are brilliantly marshalled though I am still puzzled by the scenes on a train with a cradle which seems to show up near the end, but the point is lost on me. Enlightenment welcome in the comments below please.

Blind (Norway, 2014)

What we cannot see

What we cannot see

Film is possibly not the most obvious medium to investigate blindness, however Eskil Vogt’s debut feature brilliantly portrays the psychological trauma that can accompany the loss of sight. Central to this is Ellen Dorrit Petersen’s excellent performance as Ingrid who, unsurprisingly, has issues of trust after her world has darkened. How this is shown would spoil the narrative somewhat so I won’t say.

As you might imagine sound is particularly important and Gisle Tveito’s design is exemplary and cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis’, of Dogtooth (Greece, 2009), offers some superbly disconcerting moments. Eskil Vogt looks like his a talent to watch.