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.

We Are the Best! (Vi är bäst!, Sweden, 2013)

They are!

They are!

Swede Moodysson’s last two films, Container (2005) and Mammoth (2009), both passed me by but I was mightily impressed by three of his first for directorial efforts. I was out of synch with most critics’ reaction to Together (2000), but loved his debut Show Me Love (aka Fucking Amal, 1998). His next films explored sex trafficking Lila 4-Ever (2002) and pornography, A Hole in My Heart (2004); both were suitably gruelling. He’s back on his debut’s territory with We Are the Best!, showing what a brilliant director of children he is, in this ‘coming of age’ pic about young girls in the early ’80s.

I’m struggling to think of the last film where I felt I was smiling for much of the running time. It’s not a comedy but the portrayal of the three friends is so affecting, and the characters’ rebellion so attractive, that there’s is just loads to like. The three debutants excel in their misfit roles and the narrative meanders nicely through several months when they attempt to form a punk band. They do this to annoy annoying lads and, of course, they cannot play any instruments (at least until the third, Hedvig, joins them).

The  ‘meandering’ of the narrative is perfect for it allows the gentle portrayal to unfold at a perfect pace. Even the narrative drive, to form a band, is fairly inconsequential. It is a snapshot of these girls lives in 1982 and is based on Coco Moodysson’s (wife of Lukas) graphic novel and this is no doubt where the film’s authenticity lies.

The film’s opening weekend box office was disappointing in the UK. Why?! Treat yourself to something different, and rewarding, before it disappears.

Brothers (Brødre, Denmark-UK-Sweden-Norway)

More to do with mother than brother

More to do with mother than brother

There’s a lot to like in Susanne Bier’s melodrama including marvellous performances and Connie Nielsen (apologies but she is just stunning to look at). The film appears to be about the relationship between two brothers: the solid and successful Michael (Ulrich Thomsen – above) and the failure Jannik. However, after Michael goes missing, presumed dead, in Afghanistan Jannik steps up to help his previously estranged sister-in-law.

I don’t want to spoil the contrived narrative (that’s not a criticism as this is melodrama) but it did strike me that the Nielsen’s Sarah was the key character in the film as she has to deal with the fall-out of her husband’s disappearance; they have two small children. She doesn’t move to centre stage until quite a way into the film and so it seems to change direction as it looks initially to be about, as indicated by the title, the men.

As in In a Better World (2010) Bier excels in engaging the audience deeply into the emotional situation; though I found the later film to be superior. Possibly this is because of the film’s uncertain focus: is it dealing with brotherly love or the emotional turmoil of losing someone close MIA? Regardless, the film is certainly well worth seeing.

In a Better World (Hævnen, Denmark-Sweden, 2010)

A normal psycho

This Oscar winner (best foreign language) is an absolute belter if you like your melodrama.  Two ordinary bourgeois families coming to terms with marital strife and the death of a mother, respectively. The teenage boys struggle at school to deal with the everyday thuggery of bullies: one is passive (he’s Swedish so is victim of Danish racism) the other, the superbly named Christian… well I won’t spoil.

The Swede’s father works intermittently as a surgeon in Africa; doing ‘good’ in extreme circumstances. He has to deal with the morality of treating a ‘warlord’, who is guilty of extreme violence, and the bullying when he’s at home (one of the bullies is superbly played by Kim Bodnia, Martin in The Bridge). Christian’s dad seems to be a distant businessman who cannot connect with his son.

This is one to catch on Blu-ray, if you can. The cinematography of Africa is absolutely stunning and Bier’s direction is constantly engaging, also using the Danish settings well. It investigates middle class morality by placing the characters, and the audience, into a moral maze where the right answer might not exist.

Headhunters (Hodejegerne, Norway-Ger, 2011)

'What do I do with this?'

This is the second time I’ve been to a multiplex to see a subtitled movie this year; hats off to Showcase again. And there’s absolutely no reason why this film shouldn’t play to a mass audience as it barrels along at a fantastic pace, including a gruesome shit scene and a hilarious ‘dogged impaled on a tractor’ moment. Of course, many let the writing at the bottom of the screen put them off.

The distributors hope that the relative popularity of Scandinavian fiction on British television, such as The Killing and Borgen, will stimulate demand in cinemas for similar fare. It opened with a reasonable £500k at the box office, but the crunch will be the midweek figures as the ‘subtitled’ viewing audiences are less likely to show at multiplexes at the weekend.

I can thoroughly recommend Headhunters as long as you don’t mind wildly implausible plot points. As I said, the film’s pace is such that they really don’t matter. Beautifully shot, there’s some stunning locations, and well acted; let’s hope this heralds a more adventurous UK audience. Don’t worry, unlike the dog, the subtitles won’t bite!

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.