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Category Archives: World cinema

Force Majeure

Force Maeure film posterSynopsis

Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke ) is on a skiing holiday with his wife Ebba and the two kids.  Avalanches are controlled through detonation and one seems to be heading towards them.  Tomas grabs his Iphone and runs away leaving Ebba to look after the kids.  The avalanche leaves only a harmless mist of snow which does not reach them.  He returns to his family.  He must deal with his cowardice.

Review

This film is an unrelenting gaze at our failure to live up to the painfully flattering image we like to make of ourselves.  This is an affluent middle class family, the couple are good looking and enjoy all the status advantages, but this is undone in a moment of cowardice.  The middle class family starts to fall apart.  Ebba and the kids reproach Tomas who initially can’t be honest about running away.  He justifies himself by arguing that actions can be interpreted in different ways.  The evidence of the Iphone is irrefutable and his loss of face before his wife and friends is sadistically drawn out.  His friend Mats makes excuses for him “You were safe so you could dig them out?”.  The more he tries to excuse Tomas, the more embarrassing it becomes because all this painful justification convinces no-one.  Tomos then turns the event into a sort of family therapy session, absurdly claiming victimhood in order to win his wife’s sympathy.  He wants absolution and bizarrely seems to arrange a skiing accident which will flatter his male ego.  The desolation of the snowy landscape is good background for stripped down emotions, accentuating the transience of the affluent smugness that intrudes on it.  The wheezing machinery in the snow looks like a spidery cage opening on freezing death.  Grim.

 

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Wild Tales

Wild Tales film posterSynopsis

A collection of stories – Pasternak, Rats, Road to Hell, Dynamite, The Bill, Till Death Do Us Part – about revenge.  Set in Argentina.

Review

These stories are like a mixture of The Twilight Zone, and Bunuel with The Three Stooges.  The first story is appallingly topical after the Alpine plane crash, so its release is unfortunate.  Another story concerns the casual murder of a loathsome man.  Another is like Spielberg’s Duel, only this time the protagonists are snarling face to face.  The next starts with the buying of a birthday cake and ends up as a black comedy aimed at obstructive bureaucracy working a scam.  Then there is a story about a road death and how the rich and powerful can avoid the consequences of their misdeeds.  Another is about hilarious grounds for divorce, even before the couple dishes out the wedding cake.  There is a very jaded look at contemporary Argentina when corruption and violence are fixtures in the lives of the rich and powerful.  The stories cleverly dangle the plot twist which never really comes.  Each tale simply ends in cold vengeance, sometimes just malicious and sometimes just nobody is likeable, everyone has good reasons for bad behaviour.  The opening pictures of the film show animals and what we get is a menagerie of injured vanity, cowardice, greed, self loathing, jealousy, class hatred, and shame. The bars of the cage don’t so much rattle as clang from indignation at the sorry state of failed humanity.  It’s like torture porn scripted by Shakespeare of Titus Andronicus with a lot of Jacobean darkness.

 

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Ida

Ida film posterSynopsis

A young nun Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a 17 year old novitate.  Before reccceivng her holy orders she is asked to leave tne convent and visit her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) who tells Ida she was born Jewish and her parents were murdered during the Holocaust.  They journey to find out the details of this war time event.  Wanda gets drunk and spends a night in jail (she is a Public Prosecutor who could inflict the death penalty in the early 50s).  They confront the perpetrators. Wanda tries to introduce Ida to alcohol, sex, and jazz.  Ida meets a jazz player (Dawid Ogrodnik) for whom she has sexual feelings.  Does Ida take her vows in the end?  What happens to Wanda?

Review

This is set in the early 60s in Communist Poland during the deep freeze of a winter and the Cold War.  Ida lived an innocent life in the convent.  The scene of the statue in the snow is a classical pose for a painting of the religious life.  There is the same lifeless austerity already seen in the asylum in Camille Claudel 1915.  The nuns are as statuesque as their convent.  Wanda is a hard drinking and smoking cynic who likes a good time and taunts the complacency of Ida’s untested austerity.  Wanda is a beacon of hedonism, all compulsive movements and furious cigarette smoking.  Ida by contrast is a study in imperturbable stillness, all the more unsettling for its apparent stoicism.  She does not feel the need to defend the religious life against Wanda’s cynicism  They both visit the farm stolen from their family, where weaselly-faced peasants defend their ill gotten gained cottage in a wintry landscape so raw you can feel it scrape your flesh.  They have initially got the wrong man but the murderer is the usual mixture of snivelling justification and conscience-evasion, taking final refuge in self-serving inscrutability.  The murderer unearths their remains, transformed by the black and white of the film into a sort of priordial ritual.  Given the enormity of what he and the others did to the Jewish victims, Ida and Wanda’s calm refusal to even hint at absolution is dignified.  This is a journey into Poland’s terrible past as well as its grey present day (1962).  There is a symmetry from the religious imagery from the start of the film (after Ida has renounced the prospect of married life) to the end where Ida walks back to the convent as if on pilgrimage.  In the nascent pop culture of Communist Poland the ballroom scenes are quaintly innocent in that anti-puritannical daring, bordering unintentionally on a David Lynch parody of a jazz band in a grey poverty-primitive culture.  The black and white compositions of the film are superb, the countryside is practically an Arctic wilderness as if Brueghel-esque grotesque lurked in the woods.  Domestic interiors seem more picked out in detail than in a colour film.  Faces can be almost superfluous to a scene dominated, for example, by a high wall. Superb.

 

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In the House

In the House film posterSynopsis

Directed by François Ozon.  About a school teacher, Germain (Fabrice Luchini) who teaches literature in a provincial French town.  He is married to Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) who’s in charge of an art gallery.  They have no children.  Germain has an imaginative pupil Claude (Ernst Umhauer) who writes well on “what I did last week”.  The other pupils are hopelessly inept at writing.   Claude has a friend Rapha whose parents are affluent, they are Rapha and Esther.  Germain nurtures Claude’s talent and asks him to write about the lives of Rapha’s parents.  Is Germain encouraging voyeurism in Claude?  At the end Germain and Claude are building fictions from what they see in windows…

Review

This is a film about writing and film.  The school is Lycee Gustave Flaubert which refers us to the highly meticulous and perfectionist writer.  This film tells us of the danger of manipulating reality in the name of art, of the danger of making fluid boundaries between fantasy wish and realisation of such fantasy.  We get Purple Rose of Cairo-like situations where an actor playing Humphrey Bogart dispenses worldly wisdom to Woody Allen, only he can see Bogart.   In the House works as a satire on our expectations from film, Claude dreams of making love to Esther and we will him to go and do it.  As viewers we are complicit in the proceedings though we don’t get as stern a lecture as Haneke is prepared to give us in his films.  It’s about the writer/artist as observer and the boundary between artistic perception and voyeuristic manipulation.  Claude shows a gift for observation, writing about the “singular smell of a middle class woman”.  Rapha’s parents are cheerfully philistine and unacquainted with the rigours and perils of artistic aspiration.  Rapha’s home is in stark contrast to Claude’s broken home, Claude is the resentful outsider.  Germain eventually realizes he is playing a dangerous game by mentoring the unflinching gaze of an emerging talent.  Manipulation comes with consequences and Germain learns this to his cost.  His fostering of Claude has repercussions on his own relationship with his partner Jeanne.  He gets jealous and violent.  This reminds me of the novel The Act of Love by Howard Jacobson in which a husband arranges a relationship between his wife and another man and then tortures himself with jealousy over it.  The answer to this and Germain is “serves you right”.

At the end of the film Germain and Claude are observing lives going on behind the windows of houses.  This is an obvious reference to Hitchcock’s Rear Window and of course the camera”s balefully swivelling eye in Psycho. The house of the title could be a metaphorical house of art in which we are invited to watch the libidinous imagination play havoc with bourgeoise domesticity.  We last saw Fabrice Luchini play the pompous bourgeoise husband in Potiche, and in House he is similarly as comical as he gets out of his depth.  Absorbing.

 
 

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The Hunt

The Hunt

Synopsis

Thomas Vinterburg’s film about a teacher, Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), a kindergarten helper in a Danish rural area.  We see him take his son to the deer hunt and at home with his girlfriend.  A child makes accusations against him.  He is ostracized and subject to persecution.  Social interaction is off limits to him.  He is persecuted in a supermarket and there is a terrible scene at a Christmas Eve service…

Criticism

The film clearly establishes that Lucas is innocent, so our focus is on how he copes with the community and how they treat him.  It looks at our sentimentalized gullibility in our readiness to believe these sorts of accusations.  This was interestedly dealt with in Richard Hughes’ 1950s novel High Wind in Jamaica.  The Hunt is a pretty grim view of what human behaviour is capable of.  The one friend who seems to doubt the accusation keeps silent and is too afraid to help.  In what should be a legal matter, most people have made up their minds as they self righteously distance themselves from Lucas as if any friendliness towards him would taint them.  Lucas is a victim of medieval hysteria in a community whose country, Denmark, is regarded as one of the most tolerant and sophisticated in the affluent world, so what hope for the innocent accused in a less ‘enlightened’ culture?  In Britain recently we have witnessed the Jimmy Saville case (a recently deceased entertainer accused of abusing children, colleagues who knew him said nothing).

The Hunt offers us the familiar plot of locals in a rural area ganging up on either outsiders or turning one of their own into an outsider victim.  One thinks of Wickerman and The Village.  Mads Mikkelsen as Lucas is quite absorbing as the accused, he handles ostracism with the support of his son as he desperately tries to hold on to his dignity and sanity.  He never succumbs to paranoia even though he has objective grounds to do so.  We seem to be looking at the frailty of our civilization, how we depend on each other’s capacity for decency to sustain our daily lives.  Without the presence of the law daily interaction can appear to be quite terrifying.  This is human weakness feeding evil and it’s much more convincing about group persecution than (for example) Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

Upon establishing his innocence to the satisfaction of the locals, the film cleverly upsets our expectations.  The locals seem to have got over whatever shame or remorse they might have felt, we get no tearful apologies.  Lucas seems to have forgiven everybody and shows no resentment over his treatment, in this he seems to show more saintly forgiveness than Nelson Mandela towards the apartheid regime.  Someone then tries to shoot Lucas as he returns to the forest.  We are left guessing who did this and for what motive: anger at being proved wrong, lingering hatred for his supposed crime?  We are left guessing.

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Elena

Elena

Synopsis

Elena (Nadezdha Markina) is a middle aged woman living in a swish Moscow apartment with her partner the affluent Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov).  They sleep separately and eat together.  Elena’s son Sergei (Aleksey Rogin) is unemployed, living with his family in a shabby flat.  Elena gives him money.  Vladimir’s daughter Katya (Yelena Lyadeva) lives off her father’s money.  Vladimir has a heart attack and dies because Elena gives him the wrong medication.  Vladimir hasn’t left a will, what will Katya and Elena do with the money…?

Criticism

One is always aware of this being a film set in contemporary Russia.  For me, it’s a moral fable about the (for a few) more affluent post-communist world of that country.  There is a growing affluent middle class in Russia and it lives in a style unimaginable a bare twenty or so years ago.  When we see the austerely still camera gaze on the apartment and Elena starting her daily routine, we might expect her to be the reliable stereotype of the strong, wise Russian woman primed with the peasant resilience of her forbears, but she commits murder to satisfy her family’s greed.  She calmly and efficiently gives Vladimir the wrong medication.  The film gives much attention to this as it does to the details of her apartment and her routine. She keeps her nerve through the emotional turmoil of guilt and regret that she must feel.  The mask stays tightly on.  This is a very hard look at contemporary Russia, none of the characters are likeable.  Vladimir and Elena self righteously argue about the merits of their own family whilst dis’ing the other’s.  Elena’s son Sergei is a wife-bulling slob and his is a surly waster.  Vladimir’s daughter Katya  is a self serving attitudinising cynic who lives off her father.  There might be some affection between Vladimir and Katya but one doubts her disinterestedness given her prospect of a moneyed inheritance.  Despite the lingering shots (reminding me of Tarkovsky and Haneka), Elena cleverly sustains a plot tension which tautens the film’s nervous system to a highly watchable pitch.  Along this tension the money-grabbing characters trickle their drops of acid.

My only problem with the plot is that the medical authorities would surely suspect something especially when a few people will gain from Vladimir’s death.  Elena is a nurse, and there is nothing dubious about the medication?  The film does not tell us what Katya will do about Elena’s family moving into her father’s apartment, will she just accept it?  This is unresolved and it leaves us guessing.  An absorbing film.

 

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Rust and Bone

Rust and Bone film posterSynopsis

A film by Jacques Audiard. Matthias Schoenaerts plays Ali, his son Sam played by Armand Verdure.  They go to Antibes to stay with his sister Anne (Corrine Masiero).  Marion Cotillard plays Stephanie who trains whales at a marine show.  The whales crash into the stands and Stephanie loses her legs in the accident.  Stephanie recovers and has a relationship with Ali whom she first met when he was a bouncer at a disco.  Ali aspires to be a boxer and he gets into kick boxer fights and Stephanie deals with his takings.  Ali gets involved in spying on employees which results in Anne’s sacking.  Ali goes north and his son later meets him there…

Criticism

I found this film fairly irritating.  It follows the usual cinematic trajectory in showing disablement: from despair to life-affirming dance routines complete with the usual pop music tracks.  Stephanie gets artificial legs and Ali helps her to accept the situation.  She goes down to the Marine tank and makes the usual cinematic gesture of palming her hand against the glass as an act of acceptance no doubt.  All quite stereotypical in mainstream US films but one does not expect the French to imitate this.  As for losing her legs from an accident with a whale, didn’t this happen to Captain Ahab in Moby Dick?  Aren’t we supposed to appreciate this as symbolic?  Ali helps Stephanie out of her misery and yet he shows little consideration for his sister when he installs the electronic snooper at her work place.  He is obsessed with boxing and is easily provoked to violence.  The film has an erotic feel for vitality so you can almost smell the sweat and feel the shower steam but this vitality can get pretty thuggish.  Ali is another familiar character that Hollywood has foisted on us: ‘The Man With the Son’.  He carts his boy around like a status accessory, presumably to show his humanity.  In film, if you have a son (it’s usually a son) then your sensitivity credentials are established.  Ali is a sentimental brute whose world view is circumscribed by alpha pack confrontations which gave me a headache.  Then we get another predictable scene: the Brueghel like winter landscape where the boy plays on the ice.  You know for sure he is going to fall through the ice and he duly does so.  Rust and Bone to the taste you get when you’ve been punched on the mouth, but for me, well acted though it is, it felt like rust and bone in the head.  Unprepossessing.

 

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