The Lighthouse (Canada-US, 2019)

Lost in the fog

The Lighthouse seems to have been trailed for months and its monochrome look, and stars Dafoe and Pattinson, made it intriguing. Most of the critical response seems to have been glowing as well. The image above is misleading as the film is shot in a Movietone ratio of 1:1.19 (new to me); this dates back to the 1920s and was an early attempt at synchronising sound on film. The monochrome and almost square aspect ratio reminded me of Bait (which has the slightly wider 4:3) though the films use the archaic form (monochrome and aspect ratio) to signify different things: for Bait it was authenticity; The Lighthouse, the 19th century.

Another reason why Eggers may have chosen the narrow frame, which ‘forces’ composition to be vertical, is it meant close-up shots of a character’s head would fill the screen and so emphasise the likelihood that the events we are watching are the product of strained minds.

I didn’t get far into writer-director Robert Eggers’ debut, The Witch (Canada-US, 2015), as I was put off by the clangorous soundtrack telling me to be scared when there was nothing happening on the screen that was scary. The Lighthouse (co-written with his brother Max), too, is a horror film but initially presents itself as arthouse with its slow paced narrative in addition to the unusual aspect ratio and black and white cinematography (brilliantly done by Jarin Blaschke). The low-key lighting, no fill light making the shadows on faces deep, adds to the portentous atmosphere.

The narrative, two blokes stuck on a rock, is certainly not multiplex fair even with its stars. Dafoe has always took on non-mainstream roles and Pattinson is pursuing the same route. However, as the film develops it becomes more of a genre piece and, for me, it falls apart.

This isn’t because I’m anti-genre, or anti-horror, just that the two elements are not combined in a convincing fashion. The script plays around with the fact that maybe the events we see aren’t really happening but are the product of a disturbed mind (we are with Pattinson’s Ethan/Thomas for most of the film), but events become too random (the severed head in the lobster basket) to cohere. There’s nothing wrong with keeping an audience guessing about the veracity of what we see, and we know mermaids don’t exist, but the balancing act of the ‘fantastic’ (is it real or not?) is delicate and The Lighthouse falls over too often to convince.

Eggers’ background is as a set designer and Craig Lathrop’s production design is a magnificent piece of Gothic detritus. I only wished I cared for the characters more. Ethan/Thomas has a back story, hence he has two identities as he seems to have lied about who he is, which is never clearly elucidated; similarly Dafoe’s Thomas may be not who he claims to be. The doubling of names suggests doppelgängers but again this isn’t fully worked through. The obtuseness has the arthouse about it but didn’t, to me, seem to have point: obtuseness for its own sake.

The sound design (Damian Volpe) is superb: the grinding of cogs that run the lighthouse are enough to drive its inhabitants mad even without the moonshine liquor. But, but, but… should’ve had a better script.

Tag (Riaru onigokko, Japan, 2015)

Bloody patriarchy

I’m very much a later-comer to the Sono Sion party who directed four other films in the year Tag came out; his total is over 50 features. He reminded me Miike Takashi, who now has over 100 films as director, in that he is prolific and multiplies ‘going overboard’ with ‘throwing in the kitchen sink’. I stumbled across the film on Prime and had zero idea what to expect so my eyeballs were well and truly shredded around five minutes into the film. Critical commentary on the film is favourable but as I watched it I had no idea whether I was watching something that was entirely exploitation horror or whether there was, as is often the case in this type of horror film, more to it. When I realised, about half way through, no male character had made an appearance so far I twigged that writer-director Sono was saying something.

The fact that most of the characters to that point had been Japanese school girls in short skirts and had included many knicker-shots suggested dubious (to be polite) character but it turned out that the film was making a point about gender. Having cake and eating it does spring to mind but to critique patriarchy does sometimes require it to be mimicked.

To avoid spoilers I won’t go into the details of exactly how Sono is critiquing male dominance as the film does manage to pull off, in the denouement, the pretty impressive trick of actually explaining the bonkers-ness of what we have seen before. The source material is Yusuke Yamada’s novel Real Onigokko (2001) but I suspect that this has only formed the narrative premise rather than the feminist perspective.

It’s not a film for those for whom gore is a turn-off, though it is strictly cartoonish rather than realistic hence its 15-certificate in the UK. I’ve tagged the film SF as the narrative explanation for the bizarre events qualifies for the genre rather than fantasy, which seems to be the usual category used in reviews.

I now have the challenge of catching up with the rest of Sono’s ouevre; come to think of it, I’m still in single figures for the number of Miike films I’ve seen. Of course, it is an impossible task to keep up with everything, especially as most of the rest-of-the-world cinema never gets distributed in the UK. By the way, the Japanese title apparently translates as ‘real tag’, the game when you’re ‘it’ until you touch someone; we used to call it ‘tick’.

Koko-di Koko-da (Sweden-Denmark, 2019) – LFF3

Going into the woods

Apparently writer-director Johannes Nyholm asked journalists not to reveal the plot in their coverage of the film however it is very difficult to write about the film without giving away details so go and see the film (though it’s not due to be released in the UK until February) before you read this as spoilers abound.

This is the second film I’ve seen recently that deals with parental grief at the loss of a child; the other was The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belguim-Netherlands, 2012). The latter dealt with the trauma in a realist fashion using melodrama to articulate the emotional pain. The milieux of that film, a country band, gave plenty of opportunity for music, which was superbly done. Koko-di Koko-da uses horror as a vehicle to articulate grief; early in the film a character references Freddie from The Nightmare on Elm Street series as a clue to understand the recurring (apparently) dream narratives the protagonists suffer. There’s also an element of Run Lola Run (Lola rennt, Germany, 1998) in the repeating narrative; whilst Lola relived her trauma three times, the six experienced here felt excessive until the denouement. Koko-di uses an arthouse narrative technique where the end of the film throws into focus what’s gone before and there’s an epiphany. I won’t spoil what that is.

The ghouls are Grimm fairy tale type characters that are truly unsettling; they appear to be products of Nyholm’s imagination but have a convincing ‘collective consciousness’ quality to them. They are brilliant bogeymen. Of course, these tales are primarily aimed at children but the context here is entirely adult as the nightmare of a child’s death is brilliantly staged at the start. The bulk of the film is three years later when the couple are camping and end up in the woods. The cyclical nature, the vicious circle, of grief is brilliantly articulated by the repetition of their nightmare. In The Broken Circle Breakdown the narrative is a spiral down and expresses anger at the American ban of gene cell therapy, which may have saved the child. Hence, the American music context of the film: Johan Heldenbergh’s Didier loves the country but rails against Bush’s relgious convictions that prevent research.

Koko-di isn’t situated in a particular time and place, though the Nordic woods are particularly spooky with the bleached-out light, and is more effective for it. The pain has a universal quality that intensifies the nightmare and it’s clear that suffering the death of a child is likely to get you waking up screaming.

Killing Ground (Australia, 2016) and Don’t Breathe (US, 2016)

Unhappy New Year in Australia

Two critically appreciated horror-thrillers with very different audience reaction: Killing Ground‘s rated 5.8 on imdb and seems to have taken little at the box office; Don’t Breathe gets a 7.1 and took nearly $150m worldwide. Both are superbly well made but for me there’s a crucial difference that makes the Australian film far superior: I cared about the characters.

 

Just deserts?

In the American film, which cost approximately 10 times more to make, the three protagonists are burglars. In Australia, the protagonists are an ‘in love’ couple celebrating New Year in the Outback. Writer-director Damien Power ensures this isn’t sickly-sweet and he’s aided by excellent characterisation by Harriet Dyer and Ian Meadows. Aaron Pedersen adds some charisma as the lumpen proletariat and although the film’s been compared to Deliverance (US, 1972), the film isn’t really about class. So as the burglars break in to a blind man’s house I’m quite happy for him to terrorise them (they have to be quiet hence ‘don’t breathe’). It is true that the narrative configures our sympathy with the youngsters as we learn more about the apparent victim but it’s too late by then; ‘too late’ for me but not most apparently.

Power’s film has plenty of suspense but it becomes clear he’s more interested in the relationship of the lovers; Dyer’s Sam proposes early in the film. How does such a romantic commitment stand up to life-threatening circumstances? Most of the violence is handled well and the worse is off screen though I thought the fate of the baby was miscalculated (I’m not entirely sure what happened as it was pretty dark).

The director of Don’t Breathe, Fede Alvarez (who co-wrote with Rodo Sayagues), handles the darkness well when the blind guy cuts the power to take away the youngsters’ advantage of sight. We’re in Silence of the Lambs (US, 1991) territory with our ‘heroes’ floundering in the dark but we can see as its shot (or post-produced more like) with filters that signifies ‘pitch black’ whilst we can clearly see what’s going on. It’s far better than the ‘day for night’ technique used in Hollywood’s heyday.

Don’t Breathe‘s slated for a sequel (Alvarez has directed the flop The Girl in the Spider’s Web, UK-Swede-Germany-Canada-US, 2018) but I’d rather see Power get another shot; he’s only directed a short since. Hopefully this won’t need to be in Hollywood but unfortunately that’s the path to take to get the finance. I can’t fathom why imdb voters prefer the American film as the Australian is much more emotionally involving; I guess it is because the former has more visceral thrills which is what youngsters tend to be more interested in.

The White Reindeer (Valkoinen peura, Finland, 1952) – LIFF5

Vampiric lust in a cold climate

The White Reindeer is a weird amalgam of Finnish folklore and what appears to my untutored eyes to be ethnographic filmmaking. However, a quick glance along the casts’ filmographies shows that most of the cast are actors and their adeptness in the frozen north with reindeer and skis is obviously born of their culture. The glimpses of Sami life are probably the most fascinating aspect of the film from the reindeer races, the weddings and reindeer herding. Director Erik Blomberg (who also coproduced, co-wrote and photographed!) brings visual flare to what must have been a tough shoot. Only occasionally is the mise en scene compromised; for example, at the climax there are already ski-tracks visible – presumably from previous takes.

The narrative, a mythic tale designed to demonise (literally) sexually voracious women, is less than gripping. The startling images make up for the lack and Bergstrom seemed to me to use the top of the frame for more action than is usual. This gave a sense of the immense landscape; one exceptionally spectacular shot was of a herd of reindeer flowing into the distance (below).

Eyes are drawn to the top of the frame by the flowing reindeer

In addition, the transition scene – the cursed woman turns into a white reindeer – uses negative effectively. The soundtrack, which I take to be Finnish/Sami folksongs, adds to the eerie otherworldliness of the images though the sound was compromised by distortion in the bass (cinema’s fault – the Vue, Leeds – not the film’s). The White Reindeer was, for me, eye-opening drama in which the milieux is more important than the narrative.

Orphée (France, 1950)

La grande mort

One of the key tenets of surrealism was to annoy the bourgeoisie who have to find profound meaning in their art. To provoke annoyance the surrealists relied upon dreams as the ‘legislators of truth’. Although Cocteau was part of the surrealist movement he was often supposed to be a dilettante; however, as  he said: “I have been accused of jumping from branch to branch. Well I have – but always in the same tree”. Hence although there are surrealist elements in Orphée its narrative has a logic that isn’t found in the classic surrealist films of the 1920s. In Orphée there’s no doubt that death lies beyond the mirror but it also seems to be a dream world that Cocteau brilliantly articulates through a variety of techniques.

One such is using back projection which includes a character engaged in conversation with another who is in the foreground. There’s also superb moment where Orpheus and Heurtebise, whilst in the realm of death, struggle along a wall to reach a corner where they appear to fly down the other side. The ‘underworld’ is accessed through mirrors and the transitions through them are done superbly using judicious angles and editing; there’s none of the plasticity of CGI.

Despite this brilliance I’ve never liked the film as Orpheus himself is a misogynist. However, I noticed this time (my third viewing) that he describes himself, toward the end, as ‘insufferably smug’, and early in the film he says that ‘we shouldn’t think to hard as it would become confusing’ (I paraphrase). In other words, it is typical surrealism playing with expectations that art should be meaningful and indicating that the ‘film’ knows Orpheus is pretty dislikable. On the other hand, unliked most surrealist films, it’s relatively easy to understand Orphée: it’s a commentary on the ‘agonies’ of the creative artist both socially (at the start Orpheus is ostracised by his peers because he is successful) and intellectually (the difficulty of creation).

María Casares’ ‘angel of death’ is particularly striking and in one moment of visual brilliance, when she is accused of loving Orphee, her dress suddenly turns from black to white. And it is such cinematic moments that stick in the mind from Orphée, not Jean Marais’ ‘insufferable’ Orpheus.

Mother Joan of the Angels (Matka Joanna od Aniolów (Poland, 1961)

Taking the devil out of horror

Mother Joan of the Angels is a sort of sequel to The Devils (UK, 1971), Ken Russells’ hysterical and extravagant adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon (1952) which was based on actual events that occurred in the 1630s. ‘Sequel’ because it deals with the aftermath of Grandier’s (Oliver Reed) death although it is based on Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz’s novella written in 1943 whilst incarcerated in a concentration camp. The stylistic contrasts between the film could not be more striking as director Jerzy Kawalerowicz and Tadeusz Konwicki’s adaptation eschews full frontal representation of sexual repression in favour of restraint. The stylisation in the earlier film is through Jerzy Wójcik’s stark and beautiful black and white cinematography and some striking set pieces (as in the still above).

This version of the ‘devils of Loudon’ focuses more on the conflicted, unworldly Father Suryn, who arrives to exorcise Mother Joan, rather than the sexual repression of the nuns. Mieczyslaw Voit’s haunted performance as Suryn makes it clear from the start that he is unlikely to be up to the task. In one heavily stylised scene he asks a local rabbi for help: the conversation between the two, where each character (both played by Voit) occupy the same space in the frame after the edit, emphasises the priest’s inner conflict. The rabbi asks if the devil ruled the world it would explain why there is so much evil.

Unlike the elaborate design (by Derek Jarman) of Russell’s film, the setting is a muddy and pitted expanse of ground between the locals’ inn and the convent. In the middle there’s a burnt out stake, that saw the last of Grandier, that is a reminder of the Church’s violence. Unsurprisingly the Catholic church condemned the film but the Polish authorities were happy with its anti-religious stance; Cannes awarded it the Special Jury Prize.

Apparently this is Kawalerowicz’s most stylised film as he was, predominantly, a commercial filmmaker; he’d made Night Train a couple of years before which is equally good. Mother Joan of the Angels is brilliant on so many levels: direction, performance, mise en scene and the portrayal of the psychological damage that religion can wreak. What stands out, however, is the chiaroscuro cinematography that seemingly effortlessly presents a real space as abstract.