Mothers’ Instinct (Duelles, Belgium-France, 2018)

Like sisters

I was delighted to find that the third film in the Myfrenchfilmfestival2020 was well worth seeing (see tag for links to the others); I accidentally posted The Swallows of Kabul out of order). Director Olivier Masset-Depasse, who co-scripted with Giordano Gederlini and François Verjans (based on the novel Derrière la haine by Barbara Abel), delivers a delicious thriller that at least one review suggests is Hitchcockian. It certainly opens with a master class in misdirection as Alice (Veerle Baetens, who was also excellent in Broken Circle Breakdown), prepares a surprise for her close friend and neighbour Céline (Anne Coesens). The film’s set in early ’60s Brussels and the milieux can’t help referencing (for me at least) the television series Mad Men (US, 2007-15), particularly as there’s a passing resemblance between Baetens and January Jones, who played Betty. The set decoration (by Séverine Closset) is as  immaculate as the bourgeois lifestyle of the two couples as are Thierry Delettre’s costumes. The period is further mimicked with the gorgeous cinematography, by Hichame Alouie, which could be mistaken for the Technicolor of the era.

It’s a thriller so a disruption of some violence is necessary but I won’t spoil that. Suffice to say the relationship between the two, who at the start are like loving sisters, changes. The film is impressive in how it presents the psychological pressures and responses to the situation; it is entirely convincing on how two people, who are very close, can suddenly become suspicious of each other. Jessica Kiang, in her Variety review, nails it when she describe the protagonists as ‘expressive but unreadable’: ideal performers to keep the audience guessing.

Where the film trumps Hitchcock is the focus is entirely on the women; the husbands are little more than marginal. While Hitchcock used his ‘ice cool’ blondes to investigate his idea of female sexuality, here the women as mothers have agency. The men spend their time failing to acknowledge difficulty or, in the case of one, abnegating all responsibility.

I’m surprised the film wasn’t released, as far as I can tell it was restricted to festival screenigns, in the UK as the Mad Men-setting could have offered a cultural handhold for those reluctant to try out difference. Then again, UK’s insularity seems to be peaking (I won’t mention Brexit); one block of flats in Norwich had messages posted on doors demanding only English be spoken. Typically, there was a grammatical error in the message emphasising the poor education of the idiot who seems to think Britain is, and was, a great country.

Savage (Les fauves, France, 2018)

Savage? Really?

My second instalment of Myfrenchfilmfestival2020 fared no better than my first, however Savage is more coherant than Jessica Forever. Lilly-Rose Depp (celebrity royalty but she performs well) plays Laura who, it transpires, is a troubled teen spending time at a camping site with her cousins and aunt. I say ‘transpires’ as the ‘set-up’ doesn’t make it clear she is the protagonist; her cousin Anne (Aloïse Sauvage) seems to be equally important at first. This isn’t an issue but in a conventional (would-be) thriller, narrative economy is to be expected and the rather diffuse opeing suggests the script (written by director Vincent Mariette and Marie Amachoukeli-Barsacq) isn’t quite up to the task.

It appears the campsite is being plagued by leopard attacks (police presence is pretty minimal for some reason) but Laura discovers through casual burglary (which Anne joins in) the truth. It’s not clear why the cousins like breaking in to their neighbours on the site and it seems more of a plot device (leading to Laura’s discovery) rather than a psychological insight into character. This lack of clarity infects the film as a whole and shows how difficult it is to write scripts that nail the plot devices to a film’s theme in a convincing way. It’s a film with possibilities but they never coalesce into a convincing whole.

Comédie Française’s Laurent Lafitte, seen in School’s Out, adds a brooding presence but his motivation is unclear. It’s apparently about him wanted people to reconnect with wild myths but this is undercooked. This is potentially a very interesting thread for a thriller; the attraction of the genre may be about feeling a primitive fear that cosseted folk of today miss. But the potential is never articulated, it’s one idea that’s mixed with genre tropes in the hope that a palatable result follows.

Camille Cottin brings charisma to the role of Inspector Camus (a name laden with philosophical potential completely missing from the script) but I wasn’t even convinced she was actually a flic until Anne refers to her as such. There seems to be a point about gender being made through her character but…

Enough moaning. I’m not saying I’m worrying about my €7.99 investment in the festival (yet) but I’m hoping for more of a buzz from my next screening. The picture quality, incidentally, is excellent and apparently you can access the festival through YouTube but I haven’t worked out how so I’ve been streaming the films on television through my phone.

Joker (US-Canada, 2019)

It’s not funny

Superhero films no longer interest me but, fortunately, this isn’t a superhero film. I saw the teaser trailer about six months ago and couldn’t place what type of cinema it was. The grim mise en scene, and disturbing characterisation, suggested arthouse-indie so it was a major surprise to see it was a Warner Bros. film. It’s done superhero level box office, despite its tangential relationship to the Batman franchise; in fact Joker‘s at its weakest when it hints at it being a Joker origin story. Of course, it is set in Gotham City but the film is successful because it focuses on Arthur Fleck’s mental illness. One of the conditions he suffers from is uncontrollable inappropriate laughter; if only for the way Joaquin Phoenix performs that, his is a great performance.

Phoenix doesn’t have to carry the whole film because the production design (Mark Friedberg), cinematography (Lawrence Sher) and direction (Todd Phillips) are all excellent. That Phillips has managed to make, for him, such an uncharacteristic film is surprising as he’s known for comedy (principally the Hangover series, 2009-13); Dave Holmes summarised the reasons behind the genre switch in Esquire:

In a new Vanity Fair cover profile of Joaquin Phoenix, Phillips explains why he left comedy to direct his new dark comic book drama Joker: “Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture.” And then, having said those words out loud in a room where other people could hear him, I swear to God he kept talking: “There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore—I’ll tell you why, because all the fucking funny guys are like, ‘Fuck this shit, because I don’t want to offend you.’ It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter. You just can’t do it, right?”

I’m surprised that anyone stupid enough to use the ‘political correctness gone mad’ argument could then make (he also co-scripted) such an intelligent film. It is one of the highest grossing R-rated movies in North America but the gross-out violence is restricted to one scene and there’s an interesting under-current that maybe tapping into the growing realisation that billionaires are a problem and not role models. Phillips wisely channels Scorsese; when watching I assumed the setting was representative of New York in the 1970s but apparently it is 1981. Regardless, there’s no doubt that we are seeing the ‘mean streets’ of Taxi Driver (1976) and celebrity culture is skewered in the same way as Scorsese did in The King of Comedy (1982). Joker shares the latter’s of casting of Robert De Niro and whilst such homages don’t normally work for me, here the combination was perfect: De Niro now playing the Jerry Lewis role.

Beyond the bravura of performance and mise en scene, the focus on mental illness humanises the film. Fleck scrawls notes in his book including ‘the problem is normal people expect the mentally ill to act normal’ (I paraphrase). Phoenix brings pathos to the role of a ‘loser’ who never had a chance; though I think the idea that he  represents ‘incels’ is wide of the mark. While he clearly is a lonely single male who fancies and fantasises about his beautiful neighbour (Zazie Beetz), that isn’t shown to be the cause of his inability to function in society. Obviously it depends on how you read the film and I guess wingnuts on the right might think that Fleck is a role model rather than someone who needs serious help (budget cuts curtail his social worker support).

And Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score is brilliant; it has sufficient bombast for the chase sequences but it is its use of plangent strings, channeling bleak Icelandic folk, that elevates it out of the routine. Its otherworldliness is a perfect emblem of Fleck’s disordered mind.

A Holllywood blockbuster likely to be one of my film’s of the year; who’d’ve thought it?

The Aeronauts (UK-US, 2019) – LFF4

Invisible CGI

I tend to choose my films ‘blind’ at film festivals: i.e. I pack as many as I can in the time available. So I was a bit dismayed to see I’d chosen a mainstream film that will be in ‘cinemas everywhere’ in a couple of weeks. Add to that it is a period drama, not my favourite, and reliant on CGI for much of its running time, I could have been in for a stinker. I wasn’t.

There’s barely a film made without CGI (Bait is one) but the question is whether the audience notices it. It’s always been the case that there are two types of special effects: invisible and visible. The visible ones show us impossible scenes so Ray Harryhausen’s skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts (UK-US, 1963) are visible as are all the superheroes in Marvel movies. Invisible special effects are those that simulate what happens in the real world but are too expensive to stage – as such they are easily not perceived as special effects. One example of a ‘visible’ ‘invisible’ special effect would be the ‘in orbit’ location of Gravity because we know the actors were not filmed in space. The same is true of the brilliant staging of the balloon journey in The Aeronauts because we know that Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne could not be filmed in that location. I’m not arguing against visible special effects, only against films that rely upon them for their dramatic effect. There’s been a Twitter debate lately about whether Marvel films are cinema (Scorsese and Loach say ‘no’) and although The Aeronauts is CGI heavy the thrill of the narrative is such that it is very easy to forget that these special effects are visible.

The film is based on a ‘true story’, the highest balloon ascent to date in 1862, I’ve no idea the degree of truth contained in the narrative. That’s not the point of the film: it’s clear the gender politics, Jones is the action hero, are today’s. The narrative covers the 90 minute flight with numerous flashbacks to give context and it is the human drama, of Victorian adventurism and female repression, that roots the film in a believable world thus allowing us to truly care (well, I did) for the protagonists in peril.

Tom Harper directs the action sequences very well and credit is due to Michael Dawson and his team for the special effects. The suspension of disbelief is still required for the appreciation of film, I think, which is why most CGI-heavy movies leave me cold as I don’t believe them. It’s as because they look convincing, yes I can see the Hulk exists, that I don’t believe in them and they usually fail to engage me either intellectually or emotionally. In The Aeronauts I knew the actors were ‘green screening’ but was so engrossed I forgot.

Defence of the Realm (UK, 1985)

When the fourth estate meant something

As I remember it, Defence of the Realm was well-received when it was released; I certainly enjoyed it at the time. The film follows investigative journalist Nick Mullen (Gabriel Byrne) as he digs into a politician compromised as a possible spy. What’s striking now is how naive the film seems (or is it me?), although the idea that the security services use the press to disseminate propaganda wasn’t new it seems to suggest it is surprising (The Sunday Times‘ ‘death on the rock’ story rubbishing witnesses to the state-approved assassination of IRA members in Gibraltar was just around the corner). I suppose you could take Mullen’s naiveté to be a narrative device, though the ‘world weariness’ of Byrne’s persona makes it difficult to believe he would be so gullible, to lead the unsuspecting in the audience through to the ‘horrific’ realisation about the corruption of the British Establishment.

The film is an effective thriller, though the newsroom and printing presses are oddly ‘unbusy’ too often. Denhom Elliott is excellent as the ‘shabby malcontent’ who has seen it all but now observes the world through the bottom of a glass. Another aspect that dates the film is the marginalisation of women: Greta Scacchi doesn’t get much to do.

Are people more aware nowadays about how the press is both compromised by proprietors’ commercial interests (noted in the film) and their links to the security services? Whilst social media has facilitated the expulsion of bile into the ‘public sphere’ it has also served as a tool of education. Media Lens‘ analysis, for example, must surely have lifted the scales from many people’s eyes about the corruption of the fourth estate (which is meant to hold those in power to account) and Mark Curtis is always informative on foreign policy.

It’s easy to assume that things were better in the past but I find it hard to believe any newspaper would have had the front to suggest that Boris Johnson is fit to be Prime Minister before the ‘post-truth’ age. Fake news is not new but brazen lying by politicians, and not getting held to account for it, is a curse of our times. Part of the problem we have in the UK is the complete failure of the BBC as a news organisation (Tom Mills is an excellent commentator on this); whilst it’s always been an Establishment mouthpiece (one Director General who tried to fulfil the BBC’s news role, Alisdair Milne, was forced to resign by a Thatcher appointee) its editorial decisions have shifted so far to the right that it can no longer be considered centrist (there are too many examples: giving a platform to the ‘far right’; not only the failure to investigate Leave.EU’s criminality but inviting them to spin their version whilst ignoring their accusers; the vilification of Julian Assange; hit jobs on Corbyn and so on.

Defence of the Realm reminds us of the controversy of nuclear weapons on British soil that precipitated the Greenham Women protests. How they were vilified by the press at the time, just as Extinction Rebellion is now! There’s a, not particularly good, exhibition on at Manchester Art Gallery, Get Together and Get Things Done, that shows us what the Establishment vilifies as an unacceptable attack on the status quo, is often later eulogised (co-opted) if the protest succeeds.

Woman at War (Kona fer í stríð, Iceland-France-Ukraine, 2018)

Close to nature

We have Revolution Extinction to thank for raising the profile of immanent climate catastrophe and films like co-writer and director Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War can only help, if it gets seen. Kermode points out that the protagonist, Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), has much in common with the Mission: Impossible‘s resourceful Ethan Hunt; and this film is more thrilling because it deals with a potent threat to our existence.

Erlingsson’s previous feature, Of Horses and Men, was an affectionately surreal portrait of Iceland, and it is that country that is the focus of Woman at War; but here it’s land that stands in for the Earth as it is the planet that is under threat. If only we had a sense of the fragility of the ecosystems, as the astronauts of High Life do, serious action would have been taken years ago to ameliorate climate change. Like the folks of Extinction Rebellion, Halla decides to take responsibility for protecting the planet.

The script, co-written with Ólafur Egilsson, is superbly constructed and seamlessly integrates allegorical elements into the narrative; Halla wishes to adopt a Ukrainian 4 year-old, representing hope for the future. The non-diegetic music transpires to be diegetic as the folksy three piece, and Ukrainian trio of voices, often appear in the scene. I can’t recall a non-comedy being so Brechtian with the music and while it serves to remind us we are watching a film, I think it also serves to remind us that the issues raised are real. Incidentally, the music (particularly the singers) is fabulous.

The final image is truly chilling that caps an entertaining thriller with a dose of reality that might even give climate change deniers pause for thought (actually, it won’t as they live in an ideological landscape that denies reality).

Obviously Geirharðsdóttir’s performance is key to the success of the film and her 49 year-old protagonist reminds us that we need unconventional heroes to save us; take a bow Greta Thunberg. Geirharðsdóttir also seamlessly plays her twin sister.

I can’t recommend the film enough because it was both immensely entertaining and up front in portraying the risks that face us. This isn’t an ‘infinity war’ because the battle isn’t going to go on much longer unless we start wining it very soon.

Greta (Ireland-US, 2018)

Not Greta Thunberg

I really enjoyed this classy piece of schlock. Classy not only because of the presence of Isabelle Huppert, but also Neil Jordan’s direction. In addition, the sound design by Stefan Henrix is outstanding. Added to these, Seamus McGarvey’s sumptuous cinematography ensures we know that this film oozes class whilst delving into Grand Guignol narrative.

One Guardian reviewer complained the film wasn’t about anything however the intergenerational clash seemed to me to chime perfectly with the current one being played out regarding the lack of action on climate change. In the UK we have been regaled by middle aged news anchors patronising youngsters as they take part in Extinction Rebellion protests. There couldn’t be a better illustration of the necessity that young people take action to sort out the response to climate change because the old fellows have failed.

Huppert plays a lonely woman and Chloë Grace Moretz the youngster who mistakenly befriends her. We know it’s a mistake when the music goes all ‘sinister’ when Huppert’s Greta is seen googling the young woman. Such obviousness places the film in the thriller mode that was popular in the 1990s; Single White Female (1992) sprang to mind. There is a danger when treading well-trodden ground that little surprises but Jordan, and co-scriptwriter Ray Wright, insert enough difference to ensure this is a genre piece that isn’t too ‘samey’.

Excellent as Moretz is, and Maika Monroe as her friend is great too, the film belongs to Huppert whose performance is such that when the psycho-woman appears there is no sense that this isn’t also the sweet older lady we met at the start of the film. I particularly liked the denouement, which I won’t spoil, that not only wrong-footed me but ensured, ideologically, the film was progressive.

Despite all this it was probably the sound design that impressed me the most. Presumably because of technological developments, sound in film is (well it seems to me) becoming more detailed. mother! was a case in point but as that was an expressionist inferno the foregrounding of sound was entirely appropriate. Sound isn’t used in the same way in Greta but the interplay between diegetic (in the narrative world) and non-diegetic music is exceptionally effective. Writing about sound in film is much harder than images because there’s usually more than one layer in the mix at any one time and, of course, it can’t be pictured in visual memory.

It’s Jordan’s first film for seven years and he’s too classy a filmmaker for such a hiatus. Greta isn’t going to rank amongst his highest achievements but it is well worth seeing.