The Past (Le passé, France-Italy-Iran)

Temporal triangle

Contemporary triangle

Asghar Farhadi’s profile rose recently as he became a victim of Trump’s bigotry when he was (temporarily for now) unable to travel to America for the Oscar ceremony because he happened to be Iranian (and Muslim). Such crass prejudice exists because many people cannot deal with nuance: vast groups of people are consigned to the Other to confirm supposed superiority. In contrast, Farhadi’s films (that I’ve seen: The Separation and About Elly) focus on the entangled dynamics of relationships showing  complexity without crass judgement about who’s to blame.

In The Past, Ahmad (Ali Mousaffa) returns to Paris to finalise his divorce from Marie (Bérénice Bejo) who’s in a relationship with Samir (the brilliantly bewildered Tahar Raham). The film progresses with a series of changes of perspective; just when you think you understand the dynamics of the relationships new information alters our viewpoint. It’s as if the narrative is a series of frames of reference that are added as soon as we think we know what is going on. The growing complexity beautifully portrays the mess, and excitement, of human relationships.

The victims, as far as there are any when couples fall apart, are the children. The teenager, Céline, (Aleksandra Klebanska) is particularly vividly drawn as she torments herself with guilt because of her (imaginary?) role in the destruction of the relationship between Ahmad and Marie.

Superb acting and thoughtful direction, windows and doors obstruct communication, as well as humour (Ahmad’s discussion with Marie is interrupting – in editing – by Samir’s drilling), make this a gripping film.

 

I, Daniel Blake (UK-France-Belguim, 2016)

21st century penury

21st century penury

I was aroused from my film stupor by Ken Loach’s latest socialist message which is as devastating as Cathy Come Home (UK, 1966). The latter was a TV play which was apparently watched by 12 million people (there were only three channels to choose from) and led to the Britain taking the homelessness seriously. Although I, Daniel Blake is doing good business for a Loach film, in the UK (he’s more popular in France), nowhere near as many people will see this masterpiece.

It has rattled the right wing though. In attempt to discredit the truth of what’s happening to the benefits system influential idiot, Toby Young, has picked (health warning: the following link takes you to the Daily Mailflaws in the film, ably taken down by Mark Steel.

It’s a typical Loachian (and scriptwriter Paul Laverty) melodrama that focuses on individuals rather than the system. But who can watch the film and not realise we are turning the clock back to the Victorian values of penury for the poor? Young and his ilk choose not to believe it is happening. Others are happy for the working class Other to be degraded. We are living in an increasing divided society; we are living in an increasingly divided world.

Carol (UK-US-France, 2015)

Love at first sight?

Love at first sight?

Fifties (set) melodrama; what’s not to like? Haynes’ Far From Heaven (US, 2002) sumptuously recreated Sirkian melodrama. Here his mise en scene is more restrained though the passion of the characters, perfectly played by Blanchett and Mara, sears the eyeballs. If anything, visually Carol is a little disappointing given the graininess of the super 16mm film; Haynes’ explanation, in December’s Sight & Sound, seems to be that he doesn’t like the sheen of digital film. I had assumed he was after a retro look however I just found it distracting. Enough cavilling!

Haynes’ framing reminded me of Fassbinder; characters are placed at the edges of unbalanced frames. This reflected the ‘forbidden’ love of the protagonists in the homophobic 1950s. The stupidity of those times might be laughable but when Trump is the Republican front runner it’s not funny as many people’s mentality obviously remains backward (to be polite).

I particularly liked Mara’s character; although she is a young woman finding herself in the world she refuses to be browbeaten. Blanchett’s Carol, too, decides not to be a victim of patriarchy and the final scene, with men almost swirling through the mise en scene, is extremely powerful. Undoubtedly one of the films of the year.

PS there’s an excellent Screen International article on the production of the film here.

Bright Days Ahead (Les beaux jours, France, 2013)

Does age matter?

Does age matter?

It’s rare for any medium to deal with a sexual relationship between an old woman and a younger man (The Mother, UK, 2003, springs to mind) and Bright Days Ahead would be welcomed if only on the basis that it breaks the rule that old woman are not sexy. Of course it helps that it is Fanny Ardant in the role of the older seducer but the film doesn’t skimp upon the travails of extra-marital affairs where age is an issue. The film relies upon performances to keep it afloat and all the principals are excellent but it is Ardant the sticks in the mind.

1864 (Denmark-Norway-Sweden-Germany, 2014)

War as it was and is

War as it was and is

I can’t find enough superlatives for this Danish TV series; simply, it’s the best TV I’ve ever seen. Ole Bornedal’s creation manages to  show the brutalities of war at the front, the consequences at home and the political stupidity that leads to pointless brutality. Bornedal, who wrote and directed the brilliant Just Another Love Story, uses the big budget to exemplary effect; I haven’t seen more terrifying war sequences and the performances are utterly engaging. The use of a framing story to link the events to the present is an effective device and the right wing backlash, in Denmark, showed it hit the mark. Those on the right like to live the myth not the reality.

The ending of the narrative is philosophical, accompanied by a tour de force use of sound. Another memorable moment was the blood running down the window to form the Danish flag as the PM had a breakdown. Throughout the direction is cinematic, that is using the image to tell the story rather than simply convey the script. Of course, the division between cinema and television is blurred these days; possibly the only distinction we can safely make is that serial form suits the latter. It’s not only the best TV I’ve seen but one of the best audiovisual texts I’ve ever experienced.

Room in Rome (Habitación en Roma, Spain, 2010)

Stranger in lu(s)v(t)

Stranger in lu(s)v(t)

As far as I know Room in Rome didn’t get a cinema release in Britain, somewhat surprising as it written and directed by Julio Medem, whose films like Sex and Lucia and Lovers of the Arctic Circle (Spain-France, 1998) made some impact. Add the highly marketable bodies of Elena Anaya (a Medem and Almodovar regular) and Natasha Yarovenko, who spend virtually the whole film in states of undress, it’s even more surprising that no distributor would take the risk. Medem said it was his most successfully pre-sold film after Sex and Lucia. The film is  mostly in English, presumably for commercial reasons. Fortunately I stumbled across it on Amazon Instant Video (not comfortable with giving that company a plug) and thoroughly enjoyed the ‘strangers spend a night together’ narrative.

As a heterosexual male I would have to admit that the women’s bodies were part of the attraction but Medem’s fluid visual style, even though it’s virtually wholly set in a hotel room, and the beautiful cinematography (Alex Catalán) make this a visual feast. For much of the film the women, only one of whom is a lesbian (Anaya’s Alba), about their lives; Medem’s (he scripted, loosely based on  In Bed (En la came, Chile, 2005)) postmodern playfulness is in evidence in these tales, but not excessively so. In the original the couple are heterosexual. I don’t know why Medem switched the gender of one of the lovers, though he does favour female protagonists, but the characters’ sexuality seemed incidental.; they are two strangers who connect for one night.

The central question of the film is ‘can strangers fall in love ‘at first sight’ or is it lust that is driving them?’ To succeed in engaging an audience (other than those who only want to feast on the pornographic elements) for nearly two hours requires powerful performances and both the leads are brilliant. Anaya is a great actor but Yarovenko was new to me and she matches the Spaniard’s performance; they are both entirely convincing. It could be good to see more of her in film.

Beyond the performances, it is Medem’s direction, where the camera will drift off to admire the paintings in the room (Cupid appears several times), that gives the film weight for me; I’m not sure why that is the case. Others found it pretentious in part and Jocelyn Pook’s soundtrack also divided opinion: I loved it.

 

Fruitvale Station (US, 2013)

#BlackLivesMatter

#BlackLivesMatter

It’s quite extraordinary how many black people are being killed by law enforcement officers in America and getting away with it. Racism is so institutionalised that even when Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year old, was shot in the back by a vigilante, George Zimmermann, the latter was found ‘not guilty’. Clearly it is open season on people of colour. The UK is not without its problems, Mark Duggan for example, but we can’t compare to America.

Fruitvale Station, which recounts the last hours of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan, brilliant in the role) before he was shot in the back whilst being arrested lying facedown, was released around the same time of the Trayvon Martin verdict. Its $16m North American box office was indicative of the film’s topicality as well as its quality.

As further evidence of the racial divide of America some commentators sought to attack the film because of its inaccuracies. For example, Grant is seen tending to a dog, victim of a hit and run, as it died. Although this never occurred, writer-director Ryan Coogler is clearly using the dog a melodramatic emblem of the way African-Americans are treated. The dog’s bloodied mouth mirrors that of Grant’s after he has been shot. So Kyle Smith’s attack on the film, in Forbes, is more interesting for what it says about Smith than the film. Spike Lee has been the subject of similar attacks when the dares to confront racism in America.  Do the Right Thing (1989) was particularly vilified by critics (see here) who suggested that the representations of the subordinate position of African-Americans was designed to stir up trouble. As Ed Guerrero says:

When a commercial film depicting a social issue or perspective challenges Hollywood’s strategies of ideological containment, that film usually comes under attack for inflaming and exacerbating the very problem that it seeks to expose, engage or change. (Guerrero, 2001: 18–19)

Although these films are dramatizing the social problem, right wing critics characterise them as being part of the problem. Unlike Zimmermann, the transport policeman was found guilty and sentenced to… two years (served 11 months). His defence was he thought he was firing his taser. The video footage, filmed by numerous onlookers (it was the early hours of New Year’s Day, 2009), may have helped get the conviction though this is doubtful as it didn’t help Rodney King get justice. The film starts with this ‘confused’ footage and then reconstructs Grant’s last hours, using a realist handheld camera style and shooting on Super 16 to avoid any slickness.

The film reminded me, as we followed Grant’s fairly ordinary last day, of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (US, 1977) as it focuses on ordinary people’s lives who happened to be black. It is strikingly rare to see such representations of ethnic minorities in cinema. Fruitvale Station was produced by Forest Whitaker’s Significant Productions, also responsible for the recently released Dope; presumably Whitaker is taking it upon himself to get the ‘African-American’ voice into film as Hollywood won’t do it.

I found the film compelling, not only because of the excruciating climax which is superbly staged, but also because of the performances: Melanie Diaz and Octavia Spencer, as Grant’s girlfriend and mother, are both standout. Ashley Clark’s perceptive review, in Sight & Sound, finishes with a quote from James Baldwin’s The Devil Has Work:

“The root of the white man’s hatred [for black men] is terror, a bottomless and nameless terror, which focuses on the black, surfacing, and concentrating on this dread figure, an entity which lives only in his mind.”

It seems, for many law enforcement officers, the only way to combat this terror is to shoot it.

Guerrero, E. (ed.) (2001) Do The Right Thing, London: British Film Institute.