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.

Ivan’s Childhood (Ivanovo detstvo, 1962, Soviet Union)

Poetic masterpiece

Poetic masterpiece

Ivan’s Childhood is Andrei Tarkovsky’s first feature film and he started his film career running; unquestionably he is a ‘poet’ of cinema. He went on to make a number of masterpieces, such as Andrei Roublev (1967) and Solaris (1972), and his elliptical visual style is evident in his debut. But what does it mean to be a ‘poet of cinema’?

Unlike some of his later films, Ivan’s Childhood has a straightforward narrative. The titular boy acts as a scout for the Red Army toward the end of the war. Although there is very little action, and there’s a tender middle section, without Ivan, where the young medic Masha is courted by Captain Kholin, the story is straightforward. There are, though, four heavily symbolic dream sequences; however, because these are dreams the poetry of the sections are motivated by the narrative. The reason, I believe, ‘poetry’ is an appropriate metaphor for his films is because the mise en scene isn’t simply at the service of the narrative. Takes will extend longer than necessary revelling in the extreme beauty of the image. These images do contribute to the narrative but break out of Hollywood’s hegemonic idea of ‘narrative economy’. This is aided by the extraordinary cinematography of Vadim Yusov, who was mimicking Sergey Urusevskiy’s work in the seminal film of the ‘Russian Thaw’, The Cranes are Flying (Soviet Union, 1957). In the second dream sequence Ivan suddenly finds himself in a well, his mother is standing next to the opening when she falls suddenly and water splashes over her. Proof that Tarkovsky uses the techniques of cinema brilliantly is the astonishing impact of the sequence that sounds bizarre in words.

Tarkovsky’s films are full of such moments and it is possible that Ivan’s Childhood benefits from its brevity (around 90 minutes); he later went for three-hour long epics that have their longuers (which, I hasten to add, are worth it). As it stands the compactness of this film makes it a devastating experience. If the stunning beauty, of often devastated landscapes, isn’t enough, the film ends with documentary footage concerning Goebbel’s suicide and poisoning of his children. Afterwards I needed to put my head in a bucket of ice.

Love from a 'grave'

Love from a ‘grave’

A note on the ‘tender middle section’. I’ve seen it suggested that the Captain is on the verge of sexually harassing Masha. He asks how many boyfriends she has had called ‘Lennie’. She says ‘none’; in reply he says you have one now. On the face of it he is being over-bearing but the performances bely that simplistic reading. They are soldiers ‘on the edge of death’ and so sex was, no doubt, something that was urgent (it may be the last time). Masha isn’t simply a victim of the Captain’s forwardness; she is interested. The scene ends, in a shot that last about 10 seconds, in the clinch (see above) that is shot from a ditch, almost as if it is a grave. Once again, I felt my breathe exhaling at the beauty and dramatic impact of the shot and narrative.

Under the Skin (UK, 2013)

Getting under the skin

Getting under the skin

On the basis of his first two features, Sexy Beast (UK-Sp, 2000) and Birth (UK-US-Germany, 2004), there’s no doubting director Jonathan Glazer’s talent and it’s disappointing that it’s taken nine years for his third feature; but it was worth the wait. Based on Michel Faber’s unsettling novel of the same name (2000) the film follows an alien’s exploration of Scotland. Although I’ve tagged the film SF it eschews the iconography of the genre with its distinctly art house sensibility. Mark Kermode links the film to Nic Roeg’s work, particularly The Man Who Fell to Earth (UK, 1976) and the opening sequence references 2001: A Space Odyssey (US-UK 1968). However the images in the sequence, that recalls space ships docking in Kubrick’s film, consists entirely of light and transpires to be the lens that are creating Scarlett Johansson’s unnamed alien’s eyes. It’s a beautiful abstract image followed by an extreme close up of an eye; itself extremely beautiful.

This abstractness runs through the film, her lair is more art installation, or  video art, than SF, but it is counterbalanced by the literal realism of the alien picking up men off Glasgow streets. This was done, in the most part, candidly. Whilst I realised the scenes had the quality of being improvised but I concluded that they were just very well done as the cameras didn’t seem to be concealed. However, it transpires that Glazer used up to eight hidden cameras. Not all the men gave their permission to be used in the film; I guess it’s not everyday that a Hollywood star tries to pick you up.

The casting of Johansson is crucial as, to coin a negative stereotype of Glasgow, it’s hard to imagine someone like her being more out of place than the rough streets of the city. I’m not  sure that’s fair on Glasgow but it does work dramatically. Although Johannson’s bewigged and fake-fur dressed, there’s no disguising her sensuous lips and, entirely appropriately, she drives a white van.

Hard SF deals with ‘what it means to be human’ and the alien is therefore characterised as an ‘other’ (to human) as we can’t truly conceive of the alien. However, Glazer’s film has come closest, I think, to conceive of what an alien sensibility might be like in a disturbing scene on a beach.

Mica Levi’s music is brilliantly ‘other-worldly’, its hypnotic repetition of microtones perfectly reinforces the otherness of the mise en scene. As noted earlier, placing Johansson ‘fly-on-the-wall’ in Glasgow is other-worldly in itself but we are also invited to see the mundanity of everyday life, walking in the street, shopping etc., from the alien’s perspective. It ‘makes strange’ our reality and it didn’t look pretty. Obviously shooting in a wet Scottish winter loads the dice in this but, nevertheless, street scenes have never seemed as uncanny. However, the focus here is on, stereotypically, working class people and I’d have felt easier in accepting the film’s representation if it hadn’t been so classed based.

The narrative does develop slowly and I won’t spoil. However, true to its art house provenance, the film doesn’t explain everything. In many ways it’s an open text and I’m not sure that knowledge of the original novel is helpful, it might actually get in the way of reading the film. Casting a Hollywood star is one way of getting finance and, hopefully, an audience, but it works also entirely to this film’s purpose. Johansson is naked in a few scenes of the film and in one of them, where she examines, what is to her, her alien body I was reminded of the scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris (France-Italy, 1963) where Brigitte Bardot’s body is similarly scrutinised (though there by a man). Johansson is examining her own body and maybe, in doing so, is reclaiming it from the male gaze.  Peter Bradshaw described the film as ‘very erotic, very scary’; I’m not sure about the eroticism. The alien’s seduction, she is a femme fatale, is hypnotic and matter of fact; it doesn’t know what it’s like to be sexy. Later in the film she finds out and this leads to a turning point.

Daniel Landin’s cinematography superbly captures the bleakness of the film’s world. Glazer combines the elements of the film brilliantly and this is will be one of my films of the year. Hopefully we don’t have to wait a decade for Glazer’s next outing.