Jessica Forever (France, 2018)

Sort of super hero

Writer-directors Caroline Poggi and Jonathan Vinel won an award for their short As Long as Shotguns Remain (Tant qu’il nous reste des fusils à pompe, France, 2014) at the Berlin film festival and hence this, their feature debut, was greeted with interest. And the first part of the film is interesting, a dystopian future where orphans are treated like, and actually seem to be, homicidal maniacs and hunted down by the state. ‘Fortunately’ Jessica (Aomi Muyock, who starred in Gaspar Noé’s Love) is on hand to maternally protect them. If my summary sounds a bit facetious that’s probably due to my annoyance at the film’s failure to be convincing. Dystopias tend to be warnings about the present and the treatment of orphans, particularly those housed in institutions, can be highly problematic; in the UK many girls, in particular, find themselves in abusive situations. However Poggi and Vinel never convince me their society is a metaphor for anything.

Jessica’s orphans are all male and she is barely older than them (they are probably in their 20s) making her maternal role problematic at best. The boys are clearly hormonal and it’s barely convincing that none of the men would fancy her, and given their behaviour, not try to act upon their desire. It’s not until toward the end of the film that sex is treated as a key aspect of being young. Psychologically it’s simply not convincing and the ending doesn’t solve any of the narrative issues.

It’s also the first feature of cinematographer Marine Atlan and she comes out of the film with a lot of credit. Altan gives the settings, often middle class suburbia, a slightly ethereal feel which creates a sense of uncanny suitable to the dystopia. Muyock is adequate in the virtually silent main role but she isn’t given much material to work with. Sally Potter, speaking recently on Radio 3, stated that the script is the key element of film, the architecture on which everything is hung, and in the case of Jessica Forever, its lack of coherence meant the film was almost certain to fail.

I saw it as my first screening of Myfrenchfilmfestival which runs online for a month from 16 January and includes 31 films (19 shorts available for free) for a nominal €7.99. Although Jessica Forever hasn’t been a good start the festival is certainly worth a punt and hopefully other national cinemas follow suit and sponsor cheap online distribution as most/all of these films won’t be seen outside festivals in the UK.

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’.

Mountains May Depart (Shan he gu ren , China-France-Japan, 2015)

SF melodrama

To an extent most films are melodrama because they rely upon a narrative that, by its nature, is contrived and try to engage emotions through exaggeration. That said, melodramas – and there are many different types – do form a distinct genre; in them the emphasis is on relationships, often using a particular time and place for context. Jia Zhang-ke’s films, however, although melodrama (A Touch of Sin may be an exception), emphasise the time and place as much as the characters. Mountains May Depart has an epic scope, it covers 26 years of Tao Shen’s life; at the start she is a young woman having to choose between two male friends.  Strikingly the years cover 1999-2025, so the final section of the film can be defined as science fiction! There aren’t many films that move from the past to the future, unless it’s a time travel narrative; 2001: A Space Odyssey (UK-US, 1968) is one. Whether the final segment is strictly SF is debatable, although there is some futuristic technology, but as writer-director Jia is clearly making a comment about the China of 2015, like most SF it is a film that is about the now.

Somewhat bizarrelyit can be argued the film is based on The Pet Shop Boys’ song ‘Go West’. It frames the  narrative which is about the lure of western capitalist values: just like the song, there are scenes on a beach; friends depart; the west (Australia in the final segment) is seen as a kind of utopia. The protagonist, Tao Shen (played brilliantly by Zhao Tao, Jia’s wife), is seen dancing exuberantly at the start. One of her friends, Jingsheng (Zhang Yi), is a successful businessman; the other, Liangzi (Dong Liang Jing), is alienated from the go-getting world that China had become at the end of the 20th century. The film is set in Jia’s hometown of Fenyang, in the Shanxi province of Northern China; as are a number of his other movies. Fenyang, we see, has an amazing pagoda which sticks out in contrast to the rundown nature of the town. There are some typical Jia almost-surreal shots: blasting dynamite in the ice floes on the river; an aeroplane crashes at the roadside. From a western perspective, China is an unusual place but Jia accentuates this weirdness as a melodramatic emblem of how capitalism is making China a place where no one belongs – Still Life is a great example of this. Jingsheng even names his child ‘Dollar’, such is his love of money.

Whilst the ‘loser’ character somewhat peremptorily drops out of the narrative, the focus is undoubtedly on Tao Shen who struggles to reconcile a life of wealth with a soulless existence. In the final scene, she achieves some kind of redemption though it obviously can only be temporary.

Ad Astra (US, 2019)

Retrograde

Brad Pitt’s Plan B has a history of producing interesting films, using Pitt’s star power to help with the financing; 12 Years a Slave is a prime example. Ad Astra is a bit different in that it is a big budget (in the region of $100m) action film seeking a large audience; but it also has pretensions to thoughtfulness. In theory it should have been visual and intellectual treat: it only offers the visuals.

Pitt’s assigned a humanity-saving mission to Neptune but it is also an Oedipal journey. The latter is intended to give the film intellectual heft but is merely a retread of retrograde tropes of masculinity. Pitt can do, and does in this film, sensitivity but the script is such a mess that neither the science nor the psychological aspects are successful. It’s written by the director James Gray and Ethan Gross and while it’s not necessary that the science necessarily makes sense for good drama there are far too many stretches to the narrative. I’m not sure how long it would take to send and receive and message to Neptune from Mars but I am certain you wouldn’t hang around waiting for the answer: it would take a good few hours. Even the psychological elements don’t make sense: I really have little idea what happens at the ultimate father-son confrontation. It’s more a flop than climax.

There a number of gratuitous action sequences (a buggy chase on the moon and mad primates on a spaceship) that add nothing to the narrative and presumably are present only to ensure the ‘popcorn crowd’ are kept happy. Action and ideas are not anathema and could be combined.

Patriarchy is still raging in 2019 but is increasingly desperate; like a dinosaur bewildered by the changing climate. There are women in the film but they’re mere ciphers for Pitt to define himself against. The mixed race casting is heartening but all they do is ratify the hero’s WASP ethnicity. It’s also retrograde in vaunting the American pioneer spirit when it’s clear that, in reality, it is an empire in decline.

The pluses: Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography and Kevin Thompson’s production design. Inevitably 2001: A Space Odyssey lurks and I was also reminded of Soderbergh’s version of Solaris (US, 2002). The comparisons on make Ad Astra pale into insignificance; that said, the film has done good business and elicited some rave reviews. I’m not saying all cinematic SF should be like Claire Denis’ High Life but if the makers have more than commercial aspirations they need, particularly in SF, to look forward not backwards to near-Neanderthal representations of gender. I’m sure they were trying to critique ‘heroic masculinity’: they didn’t.

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.

The Night Caller (UK, 1965)

Trouble with blondes

The American title for this low budget SF film was Blood Beast from Outer Space which, while making its exploitation credentials clearer, is more than misleading. Spoiler alert: the beast is kidnapping young women, who aspire to be models, for procreation purposes on Ganymede (a moon of Jupiter). As Steve Chibnall points out in ‘Alien women: The politics of sexual difference in British sf pulp cinema’ (in ed. IQ Hunter British Science Fiction Cinema), the British at the time were worried about young women, not aliens.

Although the beginning of The Night Caller suggests Cold War paranoia, Patricia Haynes’ blonde scientist is soon portrayed as rebuffing John Saxon’s advances. No doubt at the time his double entendre (about beds) would be seen as flirting; now, hopefully, we realise that this behaviour isn’t appropriate in a work situation. So she is characterised, despite being blonde, as somewhat frigid. On the  other hand, female scientists are thin on the ground in film (and life) and she is a particularly dynamic character and takes it on herself to act as a bait by replying to the ‘beast’s’ advert in Bikini Times to be a model. During this confrontation the beast explains:

‘I fear what I cannot control, and I cannot control an intelligence which is almost equal to mine. A mind such as your searches and destroys’.

Clearly young ’60s women were giving men some problems and, of course, she is punished for her ‘uppityness’.

As you may have gathered, The Night Caller is more interesting as symptom of the mores of the time than drama. It has the production values of early Doctor Who though cheapie specialist John Gilling does direct with some vigour. The best scene is when a victim’s parents explain their bewilderment about their young daughter: Warren Mitchell and Marianne Stone are hilariously deadpan culminating in the moment when the former produces a requested copy of Bikini Time from beneath a sofa cushion.

The City and the City (UK, 2018)

Not really there

Is anything ‘unfilmable’? Probably not because everything can be adapted but it was brave of the BBC to put China Mieville’s intriguing novel in a primetime Friday night slot. The premise of his novel, that two cities exist in the same place but it is illegal to acknowledge the presence of the other, is obviously a major challenge for the visual medium. Director Tom Shankland conveys the division brilliantly by blurring the forbidden parts and using the excellent David Morrissey’s troubled expression, in shot-reverse/shots, to indicate he’s trying not to see. Tony Grisoni’s script moves mountains to convey the weirdness of the place whilst keeping the detective narrative going. However, I’m not sure whether audiences without knowledge of the novel will cope.

Mainstream television narratives require momentum because if it stalls the remote is too close to impatient viewers. When reading a novel a stalling narrative is less of a problem because (my tendency at least) it’s easy to put down and have a break; very few of us expect to consume novels in one sitting. The same could be said for pre-recorded television though I suspect few break up individual episodes very often. Apparently the trend is for binge viewing where many episodes can be consumed at once. So in the weird world of The City it is essential that the strangeness does not get in way of comprehension.

I can’t imagine The City in the City being produced, say, 10 years ago. The explosion of ‘quality television’ has shown there is an appetite for complexity; for example, series three of Twin Peaks (2017) was typical Lynch in that events are never fully explained and he does shoot some scenes as longueurs. The second season of Twin Peaks failed because this weirdness was not allowed by the network.

The art direction (David Bowes) is superb, a scuzzy noir world that is a melange of times and places. The mixture of iconography (including I think East Germany (GDR) and Turkey), numerous accents and ethnicities give the programme a modern edge that is beyond postmodern eclecticism. In our world where borders are a key issue The City and the City is a timely and must-see broadcast.