Loveless (Nelyubov (Russia-France-Germany-Belgium, 2017)

Haunting absence

I found Andrey Zvyagintsev’s first film, The Return, absolutely gripping but, despite the critical plaudits, Leviathan (Leviafan, Russia, 2014) left me cold (I probably need to see it again). It also failed to impress the Russian Minster for Culture as it wasn’t patriotic enough so Loveless turned to European money to be made. Whilst Loveless doesn’t match The Return, it is a gripping and beautiful film; the beauty is rather austere deriving from its compositions and bleak winter landscapes. It concerns a divorcing couple whose 12-year-old son is seen to be an impediment to the new lives they plan to pursue.

Some critics (for example, the Sight & Sound review) complained about what they saw as heavy-handed symbolism; and even Jonathan Romney, who is sympathetic to the film, argued that the use of mobile phones and laptops as signifiers of modern alienation is clichéd (both March 2018). While Zvyagintsev is not a realist filmmaker he does situate his films in particular times and places (most of the action takes place in a Moscow suburb in 2012) and so if his characters are umbilically linked to their computer technology it is difficult not to show it. The sugar-rush of notifications and messages have addicted a fair proportion of humanity it seems and a film about alienation would struggle not include this technology.

I liked the film but it rarely seemed to transcend the characters’ banality (not a criticism). There are a few virtuoso moments when we see altruistic volunteers (who actually exist, they help people find missing persons as the police are able to do little) seek the missing son: an abandoned and decrepit Soviet-era swimming pool and a massive military satellite dish loom out of the woods. Misinformation features in news reports, about the end of the world and the war in Ukraine, showing Russia suffers similar news problems to our own.

The performances, particularly Maryana Spivak and Aleksey Rozin as the rotting couple, are excellent; Rozin also appeared in Zvyagintsev’s Elena (Russia, 2011), which I enjoyed. Loveless features more explicit sex than I’ve seen in any Russian film (maybe I’ve not been watching the right ones!) and it not shot voyeuristically but as another signifier of decadence (in the sense that the result of sex, the son, is neglected).

Romney also suggests that arthouse films no longer appeal to a younger generation that have grown up in the postmodern world of accelerated imagery. Although that is a statement of fogeyism, it may be true. Box office for arthouse films, that is those that are self-consciously portentous, is rapidly diminishing suggesting that bourgeois tastes have migrated to something else; it doesn’t matter what it is, just that it be fashionable.

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High Life (UK-France-Germany-Poland-US, 2018)

Life sentence

It’s difficult to write about Claire Denis’ latest film after just one viewing not because it is particularly dense, and so hard work to watch, but its rich allusiveness and elliptical narrative offer more questions than answers. As the Sight & Sound reviewer points out, the first English-language films of arthouse directors can lead to simplification; not in Denis’ case.

Arthouse science fiction immediately brings to mind Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (USSR, 1972) and there’s no doubt that it was in Denis’ mind when making High Life. In the former, an alien sentient ocean learns about humanity by bringing back to life loved ones; in the latter, life sentence prisoners are sent on an interstellar voyage to harness energy from black holes (Silent Running, US 1972, 2001: A Space Odyssey, UK 1968, are other references). The similarity between the films, apart from the standard SF trope of investigating what it means to be human, is in the mise en scene of the spaceship corridors and the flashbacks to wet and wooded Earth. Although not as dense as Tarkovsky’s film, Denis’ refuses to offer easy understanding as we are given little information about characters’ motivations; even though there is an intermittent voiceover from Robert Pattinson’s protagonist, Monte. We probably learn most about Juliette Binoche’s diabolical Dr Dibs who is determined that procreation will happen, in an unorthodox fashion, during the voyage.

Even if you struggle somewhat, as I did, with the narrative there is Yorick Le Saux’s sumptuous cinematography to revel in and Olafur Eliasson is cited in the production design; he was responsible for the awesome Tate Turbine Hall installation, Weather Project. The manifestation of a black hole is memorable if a little off-putting as the blackness surrounding the cinema screen was darker than the hole itself. However, although Denis consulted scientists when writing the script, it’s clear (in one scene particularly) that the needs of art over-ride the laws of physics (which is as it should be).

Elliasson’s Weather Project

Am I clearer about what it means to be human after seeing the film? I’m not sure because the choice of characters as ‘lifers’, some of whom live on the feral end of the spectrum, skews the sample; though Andre Benjamin’s Tcherny exudes humanity. Monte himself if something of an enigma and as such is superbly played by Pattinson; an actor to be praised for his choice of material when he could have been a ‘matinee idol’. What I am sure about is the haunting quality of the film, in part due to Stuart Staples’ score, because I’m interested to see if I can understand more about the film (and so about life) and to enjoy the startling imagery again.

It’s worth noting that ‘babies in space’ is an unusual representation and the opening of the film focuses on  Monte with a child. They are affecting scenes that emphasise human bonding even when the technological interface is paramount, as it is in a spaceship.

Maborosi (Japan, 1995)

Darkness at noon

Kore-eda Hirokazu has been a very late discovery for me and I feel like a teenager having so many great unseen films available to me. Maborosi, which can be loosely translated at ‘vision’ or ‘illusion’, was his first fiction film but it is the work of a fully fledged genius. The Japanese title, ‘Phantom Light’, is better as it refers to a key idea at the end of the film as well as drawing attention to the cinematography, which is often working in very low light levels. In once scene, the protagonist Yumiko (debutant Esumi Makiko) sits in a bus shelter barely visible; the shot is a metaphor for how she feels when trying to deal with the apparent suicide of her husband.

Despite the gloom, many of the images are painterly whether it’s a weathered postbox or a window opened out onto the sea. Despite its slow pace there is so much to think about. At one point, when Yumiko is painstakingly scrubbing steps, I wondered why Kore-eda was showing the scene in such detail; then she bows her head in existential distress and it’s clear why.

Peter Bradshaw noted the absence of close-ups for the first part of the film; in addition, Kore-eda uses a long lens to force the perspective in many shots which gives an expressionist feel to the mise en scene. So despite the slow pace and portrayal of the minutiae of everyday life the film is weighted with symbolism. For example, the image below is the last shot of the film and its meaning is whatever the audience thinks in the context of what’s gone before. Proper arthouse filmmaking.

Symbolism?

The screenplay’s by Ogita Yoshihisa, based on Miyamoto Teru’s novel, but what became characteristic Kore-eda is present in terms of the visual style, particularly the tatami mat level shots, and his marvellous use of children. Overwhelmingly in his work there is a humanist perspective that delves into what is important in life. As the film reaches a climax we see a funeral procession in extreme long shot, framed against the sea. It is an extraordinary image and scene that has the bleakness of Bergman but Kore-eda is more optimistic.

Y tu mamá también Study Guide (Mexico, 2001)


I’ve just published a study guide to Y tu mamá también. Here’s the introduction:

Alfonso Cuarón is amongst the most feted of international filmmakers as he is one of the few that bestrides both arthouse and commercial cinema. Although his last film Roma (Mexico-US, 2018) suffered from limited distribution in cinemas as it was funded by Netflix, it was regarded as one of the best films of the year; Sight & Sound (January/February, 2019) had it top of its critics’ poll and it won Best Foreign Language and Best Director Oscars (Cuarón also won for his cinematography). Gravity (UK-US, 2013), the film that preceded Roma, grossed over $700m worldwide in cinemas and won seven Oscars.  He’s also directed one of the Harry Potter franchise (The Prisoner of Azkaban, UK-US, 2004).

Cuarón is one of the three Mexican directors (Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu are the others) who Deborah Shaw (2013) used to illustrate transnational cinema, arguably the most obvious trend in filmmaking to have come to notice in the 21stcentury. The fact that the three are Mexican exemplifies this trend as they have come from a relative backwater for filmmaking. Mexico, though, had a thriving industry from the 1930s to the 1950s and Latin America, as a whole, had a significant impact on both the theory and practice of filmmaking during the 1960s. Cutting edge cinema at this time became highly politicised in its opposition to imperialism, that of America in particular, and the various military dictatorship that prevailed on the continent. Although Mexico was a democracy, it suffered one party rule for over 70 years.

Despite this, Cuarón has suggested that he is not particularly interested in using film as a medium for a political statement:

“It’s the mantra of the old guard. If you don’t have a naked marxist (sic) ideology, then you’re a reactionary. If you have a strong story and production values, then you’re a Hollywood wannabe. And if you enjoy any success abroad, you’re a sell-out. Thankfully, a lot of the new generation is tossing off that old prejudice. They realise that you can be 100% Mexican and still be universal.” (quoted in Brooks 2002)

At face value this seems to be the statement of an establishment filmmaker who is happy to take Hollywood’s coin to enrich both himself and the production values of his films. After his debut Sólo con tu pareja (Love in the Time of Hysteria, Mexico, 1991) Cuarón went to Hollywood and made two literary adaptations, The Little Princess (1995) and Great Expectations (1998). As Paul Julien Smith stated (when writing about Y tu mamá también):

Cuarón is willing to risk being branded as superficial because his film is entertaining, treacherous because it draws on US culture, and reactionary because it deals with bourgeois characters. (2002: 16c)

However Cuarón is anything but ‘superficial’ and although he is a ‘commercial’ filmmaker he is clearly interested in more than ‘mere entertainment’. He has a keen eye for inequalities in the world and he is on the side of the oppressed but he is also a pragmatist that established himself in Hollywood as a ‘player’ in the industry and so is also able to make personal films.

Cuarón is clearly conscious of his Mexican heritage and both Y tu mamá también and Roma are about his home nation, particularly its colonial heritage. Even after decolonisation countries tend to replicate the racial hierarchy that existed when they were under foreign rule. This usually means that lighter-skinned people are more privileged, reproducing the dominant European hegemony. So in Mexico:

The demographics show the Criollo – Creole, lighter skinned, European, phenotype continues to rule while the indigenous Indian continues to struggle against poverty and oppression. These small groups of white Europeans – the remaining Spanish colonists along with French Settlers from the 1800’s represent 9% of the population. The Mestizos, (people of mixed indigenous and European heritage) make up the largest ethnicity at roughly 60%. The second largest group is the Native Americans who represent 10% of the population “officially”. However, unofficially many believe the figure to be closer to 30%.  [However] most Mestizos are in fact assimilated Native Americans, inflating the Mestizo population estimate from 60% to as high as 80%. (Kemet 2006)

The continuing racial discrimination is, in part, a result of the institutional structures left behind by the colonists who favoured lighter-skinned people like themselves. This is how the racism of the colonists continues even after independence. We shall consider this in chapter three, the key point here is that Cuarón, although a commercial filmmaker, is a humanist who believes it is important that the underclass be represented as a challenge to racism.

Roma is a companion piece to Y tu mamá también not simply because they are both Mexican films, they both represent this underclass. Whilst this is the key theme of Roma, which is about the life of his nanny Liboria Rodríguez, in Y tu mamá también the ‘lives of others’ – the indigenous population  – appears to be tangential to the teen road movie narrative. However, the use of the omniscient voiceover serves to highlight the indigenous experience even when we are watching the frolics of the teenage boys. While Cuarón entertains us he also uncovers the lives of those who are rarely privileged with being shown in mainstream cinema. It is a multi-layered film that, at the top level, is a tragi-comedy and underneath a critique of Mexico at the turn of the century. It is a film that can be both enjoyed and thought about in equal measure.

Burning (Beoning , South Korea, 2018)

Twilight youth

This is the first Lee Chang-dong (he directed and co-wrote) film I’ve seen so I’ve obviously been missing out. It’s a slow burner that trades in ambiguity on many levels. If your protagonist, Jong-su played by Yoo Ah-in, is a writer (even if he doesn’t know what he wants to write about) the possibilities of a meta-fiction are raised, particularly when it’s based on a Murakami Haruki short story, itself based on William Faulkner’s ‘Barn Burning’. Faulkner’s Jong-su’s favourite writer and if it sounds like we may dealing with postmodern stupidity then I’ve misled you. Lee’s film is resolutely political as it deals with the travails and three youngster’s suffering, like many millennials because of globalisation, from ennui well before their time.

One of the characters, Ben played by Steven Yuen known particularly for The Walking Dead (US, 2010-), is rich and runs a Porsche. The source of his riches remains unexplained as does the exact nature of his relationship with Haemi (debutant Jun Jong-seo), the free-spirited young woman who seduces Jong-su at the start of the film. Being ‘free-spirited’ requires, apparently, dancing topless in front of the young men though the way it is shot is certainly more spiritual and sexual. Possibly to mitigate the potential sexism of the scene, there’s a brief conversation with another young woman who bemoans South Korean society’s vilification of females who are always ‘too much one thing and not enough of the other’. However, despite the fact Haemi has more ‘go’ than the men about her as she seeks the Great Hunger (the meaning of life), she is less the focus than Jong-su and Ben; boys’ stories apparently being more important.

The film doesn’t praise men but interrogates tangentially their existential angst: Ben is an empty shell surrounded by affluence; Jong-su has nowhere to go having been effectively abandoned by his parents and unable to parlay his creative writing degree into a career. In one scene he’s being interviewed for a job with six others and they are referred to as numbers; no wonder he walks away.

Hong Kyung-pyo’s cinematography is great: I’ve never seen desiccated plastic look so good (one of Ben’s apparent pass times is burning dilapidated greenhouses) as is the music; it includes Miles Davis’ for Lift to the Scaffold (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, France, 1958) when Haemi dances at twilight. I say ‘apparent’ because this may be an example of Ben’s braggadocio; he also claims he has superior DNA so never gets ill. This sounds big headed until we find he’s talking to his mum and so could simply be playfulness.

The 148 minute running time doesn’t drag and although the film’s cerebral it’s not difficult. Despite feeling slightly uncomfortable with the trope of ‘the female as a catalyst that helps men to understand themselves’, that doesn’t compromise the film. Haemi reminded me of the character Meimei/Moudan in Suzhou River (Suzhou he, Germany-China-France, 2000), which was a riff on Hitchcock’s Vertigo to which the Sight and Sound reviewer compares Burning. The film is allusive as well as elusive. The way these men ‘find themselves’ is not American style ‘self discovery’ but one that’s entirely in keeping with the mess humanity has got itself in by worshiping the god of profit – capitalism.

I always try and avoid spoilers in my posts and so won’t deal with the ambiguity mentioned at the start. There are plenty of what might be half-trues throughout the film and my reading is Lee is emphasising that, in life, if we think we know what we are doing, or what’s going on, then we are, at least in part, deluding ourselves. Like capitalism, bourgeois ideology trades in certainty; hence it cannot deal with the trauma of climate change which repudiates its basic principle of economic expansion. We would all be better off assuming we might not know what we’re doing rather than determinedly charging down a path that might lead to self-destruction. Many on the right accuse millennials of being ‘snowflakes’ to ensure older folk don’t need to feel guilty about the mess we’ve made of the world. They would do better to look in a mirror and consider themselves without certainty.

The Goalkeeper’s Anxiety of the Penalty (Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter, West Germany-Austria, 1972)

A particularly German angst

For people of my generation, when children, World War II hovered as an impalpable presence even though we were born many years after 1945. For the British it was a marker of former brilliance as the country divested itself of its empire. In Germany, it was a reminder of its shameful past or, possibly, if New German Cinema of the late ’60s/1970s is to be believed, something that was shamefully forgotten. Unfortunately in Britain some are still weirdly attracted to the war and use it as evidence we can survive outside the EU (as if surviving was a laudable benchmark) and ideas of empire remain instilled in their idea of Britishness as a high watermark of civilisation rather than shameful plunder from the rest of the world. Both the British new wave, of the early ’60s, and the German new wave held a mirror up to their country: for the British the main focus was on social class; for the West Germans it was the authoritarian nature of the recovery from war. In addition, Wim Wenders investigated how Americanised West German society had become.

Based on Austrian Peter Handke’s novel of the same name, he also contributed dialogue to the script, the ‘angst’ (sometimes translated as ‘fear’) is an existential one derived from French philosophers, particularly Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre. Indeed the protagonist’s motiveless murder early in the film, of a cinema cashier (film’s another recurring theme in Wenders’ work), is a direct reference to Camus’ L’Étranger (The Outsider published in 1942). He, Bloch the goalkeeper who gets sent off at the start of the film, sort of goes on the run to a small village but the genre elements only linger in the background as the lassitude of everyday life is examined. If that sounds boring it isn’t, partly because of the brilliant cinematography (by regular collaborator Robby Müller) which looks exceptional in this restored print. Wenders had never cleared the rights to the American popular music played in the film and apparently it was unavailable for three decades though I’m pretty sure it played in a double bill with Hammett (US, 1980) in the ’80s.

Famously in Wender’s King’s of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit, West Germany, 1976) a character states the ‘Americans have colonised our (Germany’s) unconsciousness’ and references to America proliferate in Goalie’s. The metaphoric meaning of the film’s title is revealed at the end but as to whether you find Bloch’s disconnect to his world a convincing metaphor of West Germany’s disconnect to itself is up to you. However, it is certainly a film that is worth viewing and I’m hoping there will be more Wenders I haven’t seen in the forthcoming MUBI season.

Taste of Cherry (Ta’m e guilass , Iran-France, 1997)

Let me out!

The Favourite continues to be a favourite with critics and audiences (in the UK at least) and I thought it was terrible. The winner of Cannes film festival’s Palme d’Or should be a guarantor of quality but (for me) Abbas Kiarostami’s joint winner is an unfunny joke of a movie (The Guardian’s Bradshaw places it as his second best winner).

The film’s narrative, a man (Homayoun Ershadi) is on the verge of suicide, is certainly not funny and he trails around the outskirts of Tehran looking for someone to bury him. The rather interminable driving around asking strangers to help him doesn’t bother me and some of the performances are excellent; particularly the young soldier played by, like most of the cast, an amateur. Apparently when the car’s passengers are being filmed the driver was Kiarostami himself and much of the film is improvised.

A treatise on the meaning of life is fair game for an arthouse film and I’m not necessarily expecting any particularly profound answer but when you find yourself wishing the protagonist would hurry up and do himself in something has gone seriously awry. Possibly my critical faculties have gone wonky; due to illness I’ve already seen 24 films this year including the five-hour plus Happy Hour. However, I’m not alone in thinking this film is a betrayal of the contract between filmmaker and audience – which I believe should be one of ‘good faith’. The ‘betrayal’ here is that Kiarostami seems to me to be trying to conjure a film out of nothing and even though he fails to do so he still takes it to Cannes. His appearance at the festival was in doubt until the last moment because the Iranian authorities were suspicious of his motives and he arrived to a standing ovation. Of course it is right to celebrate filmmakers working in oppressive circumstances but give him a Palme d’Or!?

I may be overstating the case as I was intrigued throughout most of the film but, as is often the case for arthouse cinema, the ‘payoff’ at the ending is key to giving focus to what we’ve seen (and sometimes endured). Here Kiarostami gives us his film crew calling a wrap. I remember as a kid being told not to end stories with ‘it was only a dream’ and for him to tell his audiences ‘it was only a film’…

I’m not anti-Kiarostami, I thought The Wind Will Carry Us (Bad ma ra khahad bord, Iran-France, 1999) was great, but save me from Taste of Cherry. Spoiler: I’ll save you, that is the ‘profound statement’: ‘life is worth living because of the taste of cherry’.