Ida (Poland-Denmark-France-UK, 2014)

In the bleak midwinter

It’s taken me a while to catch up with this extraordinary film and I have to berate myself for not seeing it in the cinema such is the power of the visual imagery. The image above is misleading as director Paweł Pawlikowski uses the 4:3 Academy ratio. This frame shape emphasises vertical composition and in this interview in Film Comment he suggests that the decision to tilt the camera up for many of shots was whimsical (he was bored). The effect is to leave protagonists ‘drowning’ in the bottom of the frame, oppressed by what’s above them; often the ‘big sky’ seen above.

Ida (debutant Agata Trzebuchowska) is sent by Mother Superior to her remaining family, an estranged aunt (Agata Kulesza brilliant), before taking her vows. Reluctantly Ida finds herself investigating her Jewishness and Polish collaboration with the Nazis; the film is set in 1961. This portentous theme is dealt with fairly matter of factly though when her family are dug up in an unmarked grave the anti-drama mise en scene finds itself ‘compromised’ for a moment. By this I mean, Pawlikowski’s restrained aesthetics, such as little camera movement and non diegetic music, allow the drama to play out with seemingly little comment from himself.

It’s only Pawlikowski’s third feature in 15 years; it’s wrong to think of him as anti-commercial but he is uncompromising in his vision. The fabulous ‘look’ (ironically it’s a drained out black and white) of the film almost makes it appear as if was made in the time it was set although the unconventional framing mentioned above means it avoids pastiche. Polish cinema at this time was awash with brilliance and the young saxophonist that Ida meets reminds me of the great Zbigniew Cybulski (see for example Ashes and Diamonds). So it’s an unusual experience watching Ida which seems at once old and new.

It’s a proper arthouse film that lets the audience think and opens a window on history.

Moonlight (US, 2016)

Moonlight shadow

Moonlight won Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, not something that particularly interests me as they are hardly a reliable barometer of great films. The commercial bent of Hollywood, the Oscars are designed to market films that are harder to sell than its usual product, has meant that non mainstream fare is rarely celebrated. Was it because ‘films of colour’ were badly treated at last year’s Academy Awards that this year members leaned toward such minority filmmaking as Moonlighting? Whatever the reason, this year the voters have got it right, not because Moonlight is necessarily the best film of 2016, but because it is a great film about vastly under-represented people, gay men of colour, that should be widely seen.

I’m not going to judge the film as a work of Queer cinema but as a melodrama; not for any ideological reason just I understood the film primarily as melodrama. The three-part story covers roughly three decades of the bullied Chiron’s life from being ‘Little’ to a young man (‘Black’) with the teenage years (‘Chiron’) in between. Melodrama focuses on relationships and often uses narrative in an overtly exaggerated fashion, using coincidence for dramatic effect. Moonlight eschews this aspect of the genre, however, and its relatively slow pace, and sometimes alienating use of rack focus, situates the film’s aesthetics in ‘art house’. Although the narrative is slow, punctuated by one particularly explosive moment of violence that is all the more shocking in the ‘slow’ context, it never drags; the rack focus (a change in the depth of field in the shot so different parts of the image go either in or out of focus) occasionally puts the image’s subject out of focus for no apparent reason which I haven’t seen before. I think the visual style, quite violently handheld at the start, and point-of-view shots, is intended to emphasise Chiron’s subjective experience of a hostile world. In this, the film is expressionist a style that fits with melodrama.

Without spoiling, the most melodramatic moment is near the end of the film when Barbara Lewis’ ‘Hello Stranger’ is played on a jukebox and the song’s words speak the character’s thoughts – a moment to wallow in cinema’s power. The drug dealing milieux is represented through some great hip hop and the film starts with ‘Every Nigger is a Star’. In addition, the character with a Cuban background is celebrated with Caetano Veloso’s classic ‘Cucurrucucú Paloma’ and there’s even room for Mozart. Melos = music and writer-director (adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play) Barry Jenkins has excelled in bringing melodrama back to its roots where music substituted for dialogue.

Obviously we are invited to empathise with the bullied Chiron… I was about to write ‘who wouldn’t?’ but The (London) Times film critic, Camilla Long, managed to spark outrage with her review that suggested that the film would only be watched by straight, white and middle class audiences (you can see enough of the review here). Her bizarre contention seems to be that such art cinema as Moonlight is only for people like herself, such mono-vision is itself evidence of the necessity for diversity in representations. Piers Morgan recently complained that he wasn’t considered to be ‘diverse’ in a spat about… well, I’ve forgotten what the publicity seeking hound was bellyaching about but his response was indicative of the fact that challenges to white, male (and straight) hegemony are often seen to have gone ‘too far’ (when they’ve really gone nowhere) by those in the position of privilege. My MP, the execrable Philip Davies, persistently tries to ‘talk out’ legislation designed to protect women on the grounds that men are being discriminated against. You couldn’t make it up but rather than berate the straight-white-middle aged-males for their stupidity it’s best to remember that it is ignorance rather than a lack of intellect that informs their perspective. Where was I…?

The film’s strength is not only in its sympathetic representation of black gay men, the first character we meet is the local drug ‘king pin’, played with vast charisma by Mahershala Ali, and the street dealer stereotype is thoroughly challenged as he becomes a father figure to the besieged  ‘Little’ in the first part of the story; we might have expected him to cultivate the youngster as a worker for his business. He’s humanised but the film also doesn’t fail to highlight his hypocrisy when he berates the young boy’s mother (a fantastic Noami Harris) for her addiction; she points out that it is he who sells her the rocks. The nuances portrayed in the film offer a complex representation of life.

According to imdb the film cost an estimated $1.5m to make. This is a sensationally small amount for a film with such high production values. Clearly the lives of black men are cheap in America and such humanising representations of an ethnicity under fire need to be widely circulated to call out the racism of those that have made #blacklivesmatter a necessary locus of resistance. So well done to the Oscars for doing social good; if La La Land had won at the expense of Moonlight then 2017 would have been another year of Academy Award irrelevance.  

The Hourglass Sanatorium (Sanatorium pod clepsydra, Poland, 1973)

Mental mise en scene

Mental mise en scene

I was musing to a friend recently that I fancied watching an arthouse film where I had no idea what was going on. Perspicaciously The Hourglass Sanatorium appeared, Wojciech Has’ adaptation of Bruno Schulz short stories, which has some of the most mental mise en scene I’ve ever seen. I use ‘mental’ advisedly as the events probably take place in the protagonist’s, Józef (Jan Nowicki), mind.

The film starts with Józef on a bizarre train with a dreamlike landscape. He arrives at a sanatorium where, apparently, his father is staying, although in Józef’s world he is dead. You might be getting the picture of the bizarre narrative but what I can’t convey is the intricate detail of the settings which reminded me of Sebastian’s apartment in Blade Runnerthe whole film is crammed with clutter and paraphernalia.

The intricate detail of the mise en scene

The intricate detail of the mise en scene

But what is going on? The surrealist nature of the film suggests we shouldn’t try and make sense of the narrative; director Has often welds disparate scenes together with the logic of dream. On the other hand, if we are considering dreams then Freudian ideas are obviously present; Józef’s mother thinks he is still a child and the preponderance of women’s breasts, in some scenes, suggests infantilism. We are probably in Józef’s mind, maybe in the moments before death as he revisits his past, though not in any coherent order.  Jewish culture is clearly important but I don’t know why; this excellent article suggests it is a result of Schulz’s source material. However Has may have included Jewish iconography to upset the Polish authorities who were indulging in a bout of anti-semitism at the time of the film’s making. He succeeded and the film was banned; however it was smuggled to Cannes where it won a prize.

Jewish culture to the fore

Jewish culture to the fore

It’s difficult to sum up: it’s bonkers and brilliant.

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.

Three Monkeys (Üç maymun, Turkey-France-Italy, 2008)

Strife is in the air

Strife is in the air

Nuri Blige Ceylan is one of the most interesting directors around; this is no secret, of course, as his latest film Winter Sleep won this year’s Palme d’Or. It’s taken me a while to warm to him; I eventually ‘twigged’ with Once Upon a Time in AnatoliaWhich is great as it means I’ve got a lot of catching up to do with what is, in essence, an ‘old school’ art house film director. Three Monkeys concerns the fall out of a politician bribing his driver to take the ‘rap’ for car accident. As the image above suggests, there’s trouble in the air.

Ceylan, who also scripted with Ercan Kesal, is a master of ellipsis and pregnant pauses allowing the spectator to fill in the gaps. It isn’t ‘obscure’, as the narrative unfolds, all is revealed but there are moments when you’re not sure what the conclusion of the last scene was. Such ambiguity, of course, is rife in life.

He’s also a master of composition and is very patient in waiting for the right weather conditions to illustrate the melodramatic emotions of his characters (or he also controls the elements). He favours the long take and, unusually, action in extreme long shot even for intimate scenes. This loses something on the small screen but then he is making films to be seen in the cinema.

The cast are excellent, especially Hatice Aslan as the driver’s wife.

The Wind Will Carry Us (Bad ma ra khahad bord, Iran-France, 1997)

Making strange the 'strange'

Making strange the ‘strange’

Abbas Kiarostami shoots his subjects tangentially; that is, he doesn’t necessarily place the camera in the obvious position to tell the narrative. Behzad Dorani plays the ‘engineer’, which is what the villagers in a remote location of Iran think he is, and we come to know the place through his observations. On a couple of occasions Kiarostami’s favoured long take simply focuses, from the position of the mirror, on the engineer shaving. The narrative, at this point, is carried by his conversations with the rest of his film crew; they are in the village to secretly film an ancient sacrament. Similarly, the opening sequence watches them arrive (see above) in extreme long shot, with the telephoto lens flattening the landscape; it makes strange what we recognise. We here the men in car trying to navigate via agrarian directions such as ‘turn left at the big tree’. Dorani, by the way, according to imdb, has only appeared in one other feature, which is remarkable given how brilliant he is in carrying this film.

For much of the film we are not clear what the protagonist is after; he seems to be waiting for someone to die. He spends his time wandering the village and, increasingly hilariously, rushing up the mountain to get a mobile signal. Not a lot is happening in a village where not a lot ever happens; except it does. The film covers birth, life, marriage, death, friendship, education, childhood. All of life in an exotic location is there for the spectator and it is beautifully shot; the colours are quite stunning, both the village, and its surroundings, occasional look like an Impressionist painting.

Making films in Iran is difficult unless they are treading the party line. Kiarostami’s success, and this film won the Palme d’Or, is rooted in his ability to appeal to the western art house audience. There is a slightly uneasy opposition set up in the film between the ‘town’ (the ‘engineer’ is from Tehran) and the apparently simple ‘country’ of the village. Despite the fact the film-maker is indigenous I think we are still being offered an ‘orientalist’ portrayal of a society we know very little of. The place is portrayed extremely sympathetically but we are no more than tourists. To be fair to Kiarostami, he probably feels that way too. Hence the village is ‘strange’ to my western eyes and is shot in a strange (arty) way; but what we learn is that, essentially, the strange is very much the same.

It might not be the same, though, I cannot tell from the film.

Knife in the Water (Nóz w wodzie, 1962, Poland)

Tension to cut with a knife

Tension to cut with a knife

Polanski’s debut, and his only fully Polish production, combines brilliant cinematography, by  Jerzy Lipman, with a claustrophobic narrative of a threesome on the, mostly, open lake. Polanski made a virtue of the cramped conditions, on a yacht, of the shoot by using deep focus compositions such as the one below. You get the impression of being close to the action at the same time as  seeing the open spaces that surround the yacht.

The unusual composition was a result of the cramped shooting conditions

The unusual composition was a result of the cramped shooting conditions

The opening sequence renders two, of the three, protagonists literally faceless as their visages are obscured behind the car windscreen. The moment Polanski’s name, as director, leaves the screen they appear. But even then we can’t hear what they are saying; they may be bickering. The ‘young man’, a hitchhiker, is picked up and it becomes clear that Andrzej wishes to show off; probably to impress his wife, Krystyna. Despite their, putatively, communist milieu, Andrzej and Krystyna appear to be the quintessential bourgeois couple; he’s a journalist, and they have their own yacht. They aren’t simply at loggerheads, however, as they obviously enjoy the teamwork required in sailing. There’s also no simplistic opposition that favours the young man (Polanksi was in his late 20s when the film was released) who’s shown to be both immaturely petulant as well as having an affecting naiveté.

Wife and husband unified

Wife and husband unified

I’ve no problem in labelling Polanski an auteur and it’s no surprise that the tension between the ‘young man’ (that’s all he’s known as) and the older man should surface. However, the ‘twisted’ element often associated with Polanski is relatively subdued in this film.

It’s a striking debut and allowed Polanski a calling card to make films in Britain as he Khrushchev inspired ‘thaw’ had refrozen, and the Cold War got chillier; the Polish Establishment weren’t impressed by Knife on the Water, western critics were.