A Quiet Place (US, 2018)

Silence is…

Along with Hereditary (US, 2018), A Quiet Place had a critical buzz that suggested a reanimation of the horror movie; the latter also had the lustre of box office gold. As it turned out I found the former terrible and the latter just about adequate, which no doubt says more about me than the films. While A Quiet Place is conceptually clever, don’t make a noise or peculiar creatures will eviscerate you, and is efficiently directed by John Krasinski (also co-credited with the script and he plays the lead male), there was an emptiness in the film that meant I didn’t care about what happened. Teen horror films, in particular, can suffer from not engaging audiences (me anyway) sufficiently with characters so their inevitable demise is more a relief (we’re nearer the end of the film) than a tragedy. A Quiet Place does not fall into that trap for we are offered a nuclear family, mothered by the charismatic Emily Blunt, and children who are obviously vulnerable. So why didn’t I care?

Seeing a newspaper headline, early in the film, ‘New York in Lockdown’ was somewhat surreal given current pandemic circumstances. That, if anything, should have intensified the horror. While I have no problem with films being ‘only entertainment’ I do like to find more in the text than a sugar-rush. In the case of horror movies this can often be found in the monster, the fearsome Other, and what it represents. In this film the monsters are indeterminate, and their appearance based on slimy creatures not unlike the aliens of the Alien franchise (UK-US, 1979-2017); they have – in effect – big ears and munch anything that makes a sound. They are not creatures from the id; they are not the ‘monstrous feminine’; they are not sexually potent; they are not migrants and so on.

As the monsters don’t represent anything other than necessitating the destruction of civilisation and severe restriction upon the easiest way to communicate, speech, the full weight of the development falls on the family; there has to be more than simply to avoid being turned into bloody mulch. Here the film manufactures conflict between Dad and eldest child, played by the deaf Millicent Simmonds (great to see someone with a disability getting a lead role). Understandably Dad is in ‘survivalist’ mode and this seems to include training up a reluctant son rather than enthusiastic daughter. Why?! We don’t know enough about Dad to understand why he has Neanderthal views on gender and the film fails to articulate why this likeable guy (he tells his wife he’ll take daughter ‘next time’) should be so stupid. By the end of the film it’s clear the whole plot point is exists solely to create an emotional resolution. In this sense it is typical of the film, everything is designed to work in a solipsistic way, the set-ups (for example, Mum’s heavily pregnant, a nail sticking up from the floor) signpost themselves in neon and their whole point is create suspense and thrills. However as they are not sufficiently integrated into the film’s world they stick out as obvious narrative devices.

The only interesting thing I found in the film was the use of silence; most of the dialogue is signed and we understand through subtitles (a subtitled film as a $100m+ hit in North America!). Music is used sparingly and much of the 90 minute running time is spent in silence and this wasn’t comfortable ‘listening’ suggesting how important sound is to the enjoyment of a film normally.

Crack 6T (Ma 6-T va crack-er, France, 1997)

Revolutionary ‘La Haine’

This was my final film in the Myfrenchfilmfestival festival and an outlier as it isn’t contemporary. Its subject matter, however, remains vital: young peope living in poverty in the banlieues of Paris. Co-writer (with Arco Descat C. who also starred) and director Jean-François Richet’s film came out two year’s after the seminal La Haine (France), which is about to be re-released, and is even more incendiary. At La Haine‘s Cannes screening the police turned their backs on the filmmakers in protest, however Richet’s call to arms is more direct: the film’s bookended by a young woman (not a character) seen above toting firearms with calls for revolution on the soundtrack. As both films show, such a conclusion is entirely reasonable as the underclass are downtrodden by society and kept in their (shitty) place by the police.

I haven’t found much written about the film but as most of the actors are playing characters with the same names as themselves, and the film is their only credit, they are non-professionals and the narrative is wrenched from the streets with an authenticity that’s matched by the handheld camera (cinematography by Valérie Le Gurun) and editing (Richet). Some of the cast are professionals: the schoolteacher, for instance, whose difficulty in dealing with delinquents is superbly realised, is played by Joanna Pavlis.

While the film doesn’t aspire to the mythological heights of La Haine it is, in some ways, more effective than its feted ‘brother’. The charisma of Vincent Cassel, for instance, roots the earlier film in fiction whereas Crack 6T has a more documentary feel. The latter film, by the way, is better at representing women who are mostly absent in both films. In a scene where one of the protagonists tries to chat up a friend from school she determinedly rejects him by pointing out that he has nothing to offer her because of his ‘gangsta’ lifestyle; she knows that simply ‘not fancying’ him would not be enough to stop him bothering her.

Hip hop music is important and the ‘girl with a gun’ framing shots are a music video ‘call to arms’. Richet went on to do the remake of Assault on Precinct 13 (France-US, 2005) and the two Mesrine films (L’instinct de mort and L’ennemi public n°1, France-Canada-Italy, 2008).

Most of the films I saw in the festival were enjoyable; the winner of the Jury Award was School’s Out (which I had already seen) but I thought Escape from Raqqa was the best on show though I wouldn’t argue with the Audience and International Press awards to The Swallows of KabulMeteorites got a Special Mention, no doubt for Zéa Duprez’s sensational performance.

Escape from Raqqa (Exfiltrés, France-Turkey, 2019)

Into hell

Scriptwriters Benjamin Dupas and Emmanuel Haman (who also directed) based their film on a true story of a French woman, Faustine (Jisca Kalvanda), who took her child to Syria intending to help the victims of Assad’s government but ends up imprisoned, and working for, ISIS. The is Haman’s first fictional feature and his documentary background ensures we get a clear sense of place (the non-French locations were shot in Jordan) and it works very effectively as a thriller as Faustine’s husband, Sylvain (Swann Arlaud, miles away from the whimsy of The Bare Necessity), tries to facilitate his family’s exfiltration. There’s excellent support from Finnegan Oldfield, as the aid worker with expertise in the area, and Charles Berling as Patrice, Sylvain’s boss, who has connections to the French government.

What the film lacks is backstories, particularly for Faustine; why does she take her child into Syria? There’s a perfunctory suggestion that she wants to do ‘good’ but, unlike the case in the UK of Shamima Begum who was 15 when she went to join ISIS, we need more explanation why the older woman thought it was a viable plan. We have a sense of her disillusionment with aid efforts, but little of whether she is disgruntled with her husband, so more was needed for us to see her other than stupid. The UK government’s decision to strip Begum of her citizenship is disgraceful and the film shows the French authorities to be little better as Sylvain’s attempts hit a brick wall. To be honest suspicion of those who aid ISIS is warranted but the French officials are shown simply to be uncaring bureaucrats. Similarly, Oldfield’s aid worker, Gabriel, is unhappy with his role as a translator to an NGO in Turkey; why isn’t made clear.

However, these are relatively minor points as films that deal with the realpolitik should be celebrated, particularly if they are done so well. The portrayal of life under ISIS shows a dysfunctional world where women are slaves; though the sexual element, perhaps fortunately, is not shown. As in The Swallows of Kabul, male dominated, militaristic society approximates, at the very least,  ‘hell on earth’. The film doesn’t delve into how this came about (the US-UK invasion of Iraq) but it’s unfair to presume a fiction entertainment, for it is essentially a thriller, should give us all the details; though more would have been welcome.

Of the films I saw in the Myfrenchfilmfestival2020 this was certainly the most entertaining.

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

Like sisters

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 screenings, 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.