Disobedience (Ireland-UK-US, 2017)

Love in a cold climate

Two films a year from director Sebastián Lelio, we are spoiled; and he’s completed his English-language remake of Gloria due early next year. A Fantastic Woman was fantastic and I think Disobedience is even better.

I have little time for religion (though I’ve no problem with people being religious as long as it doesn’t impinge upon others) so a film set in an Orthodox Jewish community was not likely to appeal to me. In last month’s Sight & Sound interview Lelio explains how the community decided to cooperate with the film, already having experienced the controversy caused by Naomi Alderman’s novel, to ensure that the representation was as accurate as possible. Such tolerance serves both the film and the community well as the ‘forbidden’ lesbian love that drives the film is a problem for the Jewish tradition. Despite the homophobia, ultimately the film shows the strength of humanity over bigotry.

The film’s set in Hendon, a suburb 11km north west of central London, and its sterile, uniform streets are superbly captured in Danny Cohen’s cinematography: it is a bleak mid winter. Rachel Weisz’s disobedient rebel, Ronit, returns for the funeral of her father and the script brilliant offers a slow reveal of her relationship with Rachel McAdam’s Esti.

Although the image is bleached of colour, this is a full blown melodrama that uses the singing at Jewish ceremonies to great effect; there is also a marvellous use of The Cure’s ‘Lovesong’. Matthew Herbert’s score is extraordinary in ways I’m not quite sure about. It’s symphonic, and lush strings are used to emphasise high emotion, but there’s more going on: woodwind figures give an otherworldly atmosphere. It’s a melodrama where the buttoned-up orthodoxy ensures when emotions escape they are full-blown.

When the lovers journey to the centre of London for some privacy they suddenly realise they can hold hands in public. I’m sure there remain many places in the UK where same-sex hand holding is seen as an invite for derision. Thus the scene reminds us of the battle against homophobia that is still in the process of being won.

It was clearly a project close to Weisz’s heart, she optioned the novel, and presumably was involved in the selection of Chilean Lelio as director. It’s not so much a foreigner’s eye view of London, as an outsider’s view of this Jewish community and maybe this distance allowed him to so effectively portray a community that is strange to many of us. I haven’t read Alderman’s novel, there are autobiographical elements to the story, but it is highly likely that the celebration of humanity was in the original material so brilliantly brought to screen.

 

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Heal the Living (Réparer les vivants, France-Belguim, 2016)

The professional-personal

Katell Quillévéré (who directed and co-wrote the script based on Maylis de Kerangal’s novel) is a talent new to me and I can’t wait to see more. Heal the Living focuses on a heart transplant: the first half of the film deals with the donor’s death and his family’s reaction; part two is about the recipient. The film manages to represent sublime moments in life: for the donor it is surfing (superbly photographed); for the recipient it is a piano concert played by a former lover. It also has a documentary eye on the actual heart surgery and, more importantly, the way doctors and nurses deal with the extreme emotions involved in the death of a child and the professional necessity of getting on with the job.

Of course such extremes rely on the actors to deliver the director’s vision and the assemble cast deliver with utmost skill. The putative star, Tahir Rahim (above right), has less screen time than some but manages to convey deep humanity from an apparently passive face; Quillévéré gives him time to explain why he loves goldfinches, to the be/amusement of a couple of nurses. The other ‘big name’, Emmanuelle Seigner, is similarly superb as the bereaved mother. However, all the cast hold there own with deeply committed performances.

It may appear a film about organ donation will be a ‘bit grim’, and there is much sadness represented in the film, but ultimately it is life affirming. Quillévéré takes time to dip into the lives of peripheral characters: a nurse has a sexual fantasy in a lift; a son hides his ‘dropping out’ from his mother. Her presentation of the bewilderment and joy of youth, when a boy meets a girl, is affectingly done and I’ve already mentioned the joie de vivre of the surfing sequence.

I read that the heart surgery scene is all special effects: they are as impressive as the film itself. Often cinema is an idea medium to spend some time in the ‘lives of others’. Heal the Living gives us time to understand the pain of the bereaved and at the same time understand the vitality of life.

Mustang (France-Germany-Turkey-Qatar, 2015)

In the shit

Not long after enjoying Kore-eda Hirokazi’s pean to sisterly love I came across another sister-centric film, this time directed by a woman, Deniz Gamze Ergüven. She grew up and was educated in France (her father was a Turkish diplomat) and was 37 by the time this, her first feature, was released. Hopefully, it will be the first of many however her second, Kings (France-Belgium-China-US, 2017) starring Halle Berry and Daniel Craig, hasn’t been released in the UK and scores 4.8 on imdb. Although the title Mustang refers to the North American horse, the film is firmly rooted in the conservative culture of Anatolia, Turkey.

The opening portrays the euphoria of the ‘school’s out for the summer’ moment and the five orphaned sisters, all brilliantly played, enjoy play-fighting with boys in the sea. A gossip tells their grandma and their house increasingly becomes a fortress to keep them away from boys before they are married off. The scenes of betrothal, in full view of the families who comment how the couple like one another (a version of fake news), are excruciating. The girls of forced to wear ‘shit coloured’, the youngest Lale’s term, clothes to cover themselves. What can’t be hidden, particularly in Lale’s case, is the girls’ life force that contrasts forcefully with the hidebound adults (with the exception of a friendly truck driver).

As a westerner it is easy to sympathise with the girls and in Turkey the film hit a discordant note with the forces of reaction, fuelled as they are by President Erdoğan. It’s a long time since I’ve been to Turkey where, in a tourist backwoods, I was struck by how many women toiled in the fields whilst the blokes put their feet up in the coffee houses: patriarchy feathering its comfort zone at the expense of women.

Mustang is a great rallying call for the oppressed and a lesson for the oppressors, if they’ll listen. It’s also a heart-filling portrayal of determination, through Lale’s character, that will not let the bastards get her down and she keeps on keeping on. I loved the last shot of the film suggesting that women can only save themselves.

Walk on the Wild Side (US, 1962)

Fonda brings modernity to Hollywood

The film seems to be most famous for the Elaine and Saul bass designed title sequence with a slinky black cat on the prowl however, for me, it’s Jane Fonda’s performance and charisma that mark it as a movie worth seeing. It also includes Barbara Stanwyck in one of her (coded) lesbian roles and Laurence Harvey, an actor I don’t usually enjoy, is excellent as the naive boy with a heart.

It has a classy cast, though one of leads – Capucine – seems to be in the role at the producer’s insistence rather than for her acting skills, and it is directed (though apparently not finished as it was a troubled production) by ‘classic Hollywood’ great, Edward Dymytrk. By having a brothel as a prime setting, and a lesbian as a lead character, Walk on the Wild Side was a thoroughly modern production for its time. Though because of the Production Code it had to imply anything that would be deemed untoward. Of course having Stanwyck, playing Jo the madam, as a lesbian who is cruelly manipulative is hardly a statement of tolerance.

Fonda plays a troubled youngster who just wants to ‘have fun’, though her attempts to seduce Harvey’s Dove Linkhorn are rebuffed. It struck me that her acting style was different to the Hollywood veterans in the cast. Apparently she insisted on changing her dialogue, maybe to make it more naturalistic, and she’s a very physical actor; there’s no standing around waiting her turn for dialogue, she is always engaging with the scene. 

Wild Fonda

She’s only in the film at the start and end but grabs the eyes when she is (and that’s not just to do with how she looks). She was 25 when the film was released and had only just started appearing in movies, after a career on stage. The scenes she has with Anne Baxter, who does her best playing a Mexican gas station owner, show the contrast between the ‘old’ and ‘new’: Fonda wriggles whilst Baxter is stately.

Although obviously hamstrung by the Production Code, the ending is suitably downbeat with the ‘law of compensating values’ (the bad need punishing) only fulfilled as an afterthought on a newspaper front page that’s been discarded. 

Cowboy (Vaquero, Argentina, 2011)

The wild frontier of acting

I don’t know if the term ‘cowboy’ in Spanish has the connotations of ‘wide boy/untrustworthy’ it has in English, in addition to its American frontier references. I suspect it might because Juan Minujin’s Julián is a self-centred actor seeking the big time with a role in an American movie (as a cowboy). Minujin, who also co-wrote and directed, is a top Argentinean actor and may reach a wider audience in the forthcoming British film The Pope, directed by Fernando Meirelles. He’s quite brilliant on screen and off screen – the direction is great.

Julián is in every scene and is privileged with a voice over as he enviously looks at other actors who he suspects are getting the better roles. We see him shooting a television drama and even then the voice over shows he’s distracted, thinking about working for a famed American director and so going through the motions in the moment. When he does get to audition for the role he covets the sheer anxiety of the experience is brilliantly conveyed.

Julián’s domestic life is as bad as his professional. He lives alone, spends his time thinking about masturbating, and the lurid green light that ‘litters’ his room gives an expressionist tinge to his envy of others. When he visits his family he’s as disconnected as he usually is, though this is understandable as his father repeatedly parrots about how good others are and his brother constantly eulogises how his son is good at imitating characters in television advertising.

There’s real skill in portraying bad acting and Minujin is totally convincing and somehow manages to remain sympathetic until his treatment of a make up artist later in the film. The final audition for the big role is a superb scene that manages to comment on colonialism whilst at the same time be excruciatingly funny. (Netflix)

Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary, Japan, 2015)

Sisters’ serenity

Kore-eda Hirokazu wonderful melodrama had me virtually from the start. I’ve no idea why swelling music that accompanied a character going to work ‘got me’, but it’s a nice change from the sinking heart that has accompanied early scenes in films such as Phantom Thread where the film’s dead for me virtually before it starts. Kore-eda adapted this tale of sisterly love from Yoshida Akimi’s manga and although the drama is low-key throughout it is gripping.

‘Slices-of-life’ cinema tend to focus on grimness and have an educational value in showing the audience lives they (hopefully) are not experiencing. For many life is relatively comfortable (though as the UN’s rapporteur’s forthcoming report on the UK will show, the post-World War II gains in equality have been viciously reversed) and the drama in our lives tends to be infrequent and often benign. That’s not to say that tragedy and grimness can’t hit everyone, but it’s not an everyday occurrence for most. So how does Kore-eda grip us in a film were little happens? Immaculate direction and performance won’t be enough; we must be emotionally engaged.

It is the latter ‘trick’ that Kore-eda manages through the marvellously engaging performers of the sisters. The narrative disruption in their lives is an adoption of a teen half-sister who has none of the requisites to make drama (she ain’t going to be ‘sleeping around’ or ‘doing drugs’). Her arrival in their lives isn’t particularly ‘life transforming’ as they carry on with their loves (or lack of), work and sisterhood.

There are some transcendent moments in the peacefulness, the cycle ride in the ‘tunnel’ of blossom, for example. What strikes, overall, is the warmth of humanity when we can forget ourselves for a moment and put others first.

I’m going to enjoy catching up on Kore-eda.

Shoplifters (Manbiki kazoku, Japan, 2018)

Warts and all

I’ve only just understood Kore-eda Hirokazu’s brilliance having failed to get on with After Life (Wandafuru raifu, Japan, 1998) several years ago. The turning point was Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary, Japan, 2015) – post to follow – which bowled me over with its sentimental portrayal of a loving family. ‘Sentimental’ is often a term of abuse, the rosy glow of life is emphasised too much, but Kore-eda manages to remain convincing due to his script, his performers and his direction.

His Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters is also about a family but one that is part of the underclass and not quite what it seems to be at first. They are not simply part of the underclass because they help themselves in shops, the two adults are employed, on a building site and in a laundry, but the work is poorly paid and precarious. The teenage girl works in soft porn. They are victims of the economic downturn, and unequal distribution of wealth, that has plagued Japan for decades. Also typically of Kore-eda is the focus on children and he has the ability to draw incredibly performances from minors who can often seem to be irritatingly precocious in film (I’m thinking Hollywood).

The first three quarters of the film are ‘slices from life’ of the family after they adopt a new member, a five year old girl being abused by her parents who live nearby. The final act of the film throws everything we’ve seen before into focus. The change of perspective at the end is a brilliant narrative device necessitating a rethinking of what we thought we knew.

Kore-eda develops his characters through slow reveals; just as we find out about people in life: few give us an expository monologue when we first meet them. The audience patches together the clues about characters’ motivations and, particularly in the case of Shoplifters, their morality as some of them are criminals. Lucky me as I have several more of his films to catch up on!