FILM ROUND-UP:YEAR’S BEST PART 2

FILM

Ingrid Goes West 

Despite the overarching comic tone (albeit with sharp caustic and aggrieved inflections), this study of a troubled young woman’s journey cross country (nursing an enormous vacuum in her soul) to inveigle her way into the perceived glamourous life of an Instagram socialite is possibly the most despairing film on this year-end list. The innate likability of star Aubrey Plaza keeps a viewer invested in a character who spirals into some truly alienating, diabolical behaviour, a miasma of abhorrent selfishness, inconsideration and physical violence (directed at both self and others). It posits a world which feeds on personal insecurity and shame, a currency of images against which an individual defines value and worth. The strength of the film is in indicating its internet sensation herself may be nothing more than a beguiling composite of other people’s ideas and suggestions, a carefully crafted cribbing to project an interesting facade (at heart inauthentic). Online social culture, with its immediacy and  disingenuousness, and an increasing generational inability to reflect adroitly, can exacerbate anxieties and paranoia in already compromised people. The film’s scariest moment arrives when Ingrid’s most personally destructive action results in the most desired state-rather than an instant of sudden clarity or epiphany at just how far her life has spun out of control, instead you witness Ingrid’s stunning lack of care or interest in self-harm, only that she has inadvertently achieved a goal that she foolishly believes will make her whole and valid. And that is all. You laugh, but choke in appalled disbelief.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer 

The images pristine and antiseptic, the atmosphere austere, the tone acerbic and acidic, there is something unnervingly unearthly beating beneath the surface of Yorgos Lanthimos’s new film, which unspools in the fashion of a parable (informed by Euripides’s Iphigenia). Lanthimos shares with other acclaimed European contemporary directors (most prominently Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl) a pitiless, unvarnished gaze, an egregiously honed flair for showcasing humans enmeshed in exquisitely  awkward agonies of (mostly) their own making, and presenting a universe designed to ultimately extinguish and crush all follies of humankind, displaying a merciless fetish for the cruel turn of fate. All of this, with a misanthropic wit (perhaps less so of Seidl as he has progressed through his career). Lanthimos suggests that the bourgeoisie family at the heart of this tale must be punished for perceived arrogances of privilege, a gauzed existence-we see supremely self-possessed cardiac surgeon Steven (Colin Farrell) strangely solicitous to a teenage boy, offering gifts and visits, their dialogue freighted with tension and uneasiness, extortionate undercurrents. Barry Keoghan plays the boy, who we come to understand is the son of a man who died under Steven’s care, possibly while he was drunk, as slightly ethereal-and dangerous. He is an implacable force, a rancid agent of retribution, come to collect. Sometime at the mid-point, any sense of realism is relinquished, and the film hurtles off into the mythic realm, and firmly remains there. Family members succumb to paralysis without any physical cause, and Steven and his wife (Nicole Kidman) must face an annihilating decision. Even as he shades off into symbol, Keoghan rivets with a seething charisma, a malevolence borne of unforgiveness and profound anger. It’s not an easy watch, and some of the later scenes may try the limits of an individual’s taste (the level of intensity could be considered repugnant ), but Lanthimos certainly, and gleefully, goes to extreme places, throwing restraint aside, and I appreciate the gesture, ostentatious as it may be, although some may dismiss it as facile satire.

PattiCake$ 

More than just a distaff version of Eminem’s 8 Mile, Geremy Jasper’s debut film chronicling the first steps of an aspiring rapper, defying convention in a multitude of ways-female, white, ample in size-is rich in attitude and energy, energising an otherwise traditionally structured narrative. Jasper brings a sure feel for lower-middle class New Jersey environments and locations (car parks, convenience shops, dingy clubs, cluttered homes) and a verve for the cultural and ethnic melange of the population of the town. Australian actress Danielle MacDonald is a force of nature in the title role, indefatigable, determined, self-possessed, as she navigates around several spheres of discrimination and defeat (especially detailed and complicated is the fraught relationship with her mother, love and resentment hopelessly entangled). Patti’s mother, once in pursuit of a musical career herself, abandoned her dream when she became pregnant with her daughter, so there’s an understandable ambivalence in her response to Patti’s ambitions. As embodied by comedienne-singer Bridget Everett, she’s a formidable presence, hard-bitten and worn. Not all of the characters quite work (a virulently antiestablishment metal-punk associate who lives, improbably, in a park shed which resembles a set piece out of the Saw films), and there are more than enough  montage sequences (the Rocky effect), but an admirable coarse candour and dynamically written characters help enormously to distinguish the material beyond the familiar elements. The conclusion isn’t so much that Patti will triumph and go on to a famous career, in the feel-good way of all underdog stories, but that she reaches a moment that proves something profound to herself, that she can see an objective through to achievement, even if manifested on a small stage in a local club.

Personal Shopper 

Mysterious, ambiguous, haunting-all these words apply to Olivier Assayas’s piercing exploration of the psychic drift of the title character (played superbly, fearlessly by Kristen Stuart, who remains an effortlessly charismatic and idiosyncratic physical presence on screen, with a profoundly still and concentrated emotional register), unmoored by the recent death of her sibling. Travelling to and from exotic locations in pursuit of accessories and wardrobes for her celebrity fashionista client allows for much time to contemplate and reflect, each journey itself a limbo of alienated time and space, a realm in which to lose a sense of self and direction. Assayas uses the disembodied nature of modern communication devices brilliantly, exploiting them for their uses as foci for aggression and anxiety (the sequence in which Stewart receives a series of stacked threatening texts from an unknown source, the unfurling lines filling the screen with the force of a fist, is truly terrifying, a moment worthy of Hitchcock). Maintained throughout the film is the exquisite feeling of suspension, Stewart held in a state between dream and reality-perhaps able to commune with spirits as a medium, she has a series of encounters with phenomenon (one spectre, intentions uncertain, draws close to her in her brother’s house, a wondrous and dreadful CGI image that crackles with frisson). Near the end, there is a masterful scene which rewards vigilance: Stewart, foregrounded, with an astonishing movement in the background, nearly imperceptible, but awe-striking in its quiet menace. With its final moment, Stewart, now as afield as she has ever been, speaks into the void, and perhaps hears herself answer-she may be the ghost haunting herself.

Prevenge 

On the evidence of this outrageously nervy and bold effort, Alice Lowe may have been the stealth agent in Ben Wheatley’s best film to date, Sightseers (she co-wrote the screenplay), keeping the proceedings in focus and preempting Wheatley’s more abstract tendencies, his waywardness with arcana. Lowe, who was pregnant when she wrote and shot this audacious stew of kitchen-sink horror and anarchic comedy, stars as an expectant mother whose baby, from the womb, begins to issue death notices to particularly loathsome and arrogant persons with whom the mother-to-be engages. Some critics have found fault with the broad caricatures of the victims, but the cartoonish dimensions are in keeping with the woozy, amphetamine drive of the narrative (perhaps the obnoxiousness of the people is a clear exaggeration of the lead’s heightened emotional state). Quite beyond the murders (many of which are predicated on the behaviour exhibited towards the character as a pregnant woman), the film is actually a poignant exploration of the uneasiness and alarm of the state of carrying a life inside of the body, the threats to sense of self as you are expected to surrender wholly to an unseen entity growing inside you. Lowe locates reserves of fear and exhaustion and power in her character, and bravely confronts the sanctimoniously predominant sentimental notions of the state of pregnancy as divine and dignified-rather, as seen here, it’s messy, traumatic and visceral. Lowe likens her state to “a hostile takeover”. It’s a bit scrappy and unrefined as cinema, but Lowe has a singular sensibility and wonderfully malicious wit, and her film is alive with delicious and grimy spite-perhaps a bit too gruesome for those with a more discreet taste, but very palatable for adventurous consumers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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FILM ROUND-UP: YEAR’S BEST PART 1

FILM

As a caveat, I mention that this list is of the most memorable examples of cinema product seen in 2017-of course, there are many acclaimed high-profile films which have not yet had the privilege of release here in the UK (Lady Bird, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, The Shape of Water, The Square, BPM, Loveless) or under-the-radar films which may struggle for any significant distribution (All These Sleepless Nights, Foxtrot, Columbus) that could have very comfortably resided on the prominent end of the viewing spectrum if the chance had been available. Even without the presence of the aforementioned films, 2017 certainly was redolent with great experiences-no dearth of inspirational or stirring moments and images existed. In fact,they abounded. In alphabetical order, the first five:

The Beguiled 

A masterclass in sustained tension without once resorting to crude dramatics-instead embedding it in the very mood of the film-Sophia Coppola’s gender inversion of Clint Eastwood’s 1971 psychological thriller in which an injured Union soldier of the Civil War stumbles onto the grounds of an all-female boarding school, his presence unspooling and releasing a deep wellspring of repressed anger and sexuality, is a marvel of production design-you feel every drip of humidity, are acutely aware of each rustle of dress fabric within the hushed surroundings, each spasm of yearn and frustration from the characters uncomfortably immediate. To the film’s credit, Colin Farrell’s disruptive male energy is not demonised (outside of some ill-judged manipulative behaviour, the dynamics of which are not absent in any of the female players either), complicating the culminating actions taken by the house residents in regards to him. Instead the film becomes an even more intriguing study of an enclosed society’s inability to countenance any interloper disturbing a fragile economy of entrenched customs and rituals. Coppola keeps the frames tight and the shadows firm.

Colossal 

Once you get past the patently absurd high-concept plot, that a troubled alcoholic is somehow, while asleep, releasing a kaiju creature (Godzilla-like) to destructive effect in Seoul (an explanation is offered later in the film), the film’s deeper concerns emerge. After damaging her successful New York career and relationship, Gloria (a freewheeling Anne Hathaway) moves back to her hometown and takes a job as bartender at a local establishment, now run by a childhood friend , who, it steadily emerges, is even more troubled than she is, perhaps dangerously so (a creepy Jason Sudeikis, who sympathetically imbues the increasingly unsavoury Oscar with layers of desperately appalled consciousness ). Behaviour left untreated and ignored shades into concerning fissures of anger, resentment and self-loathing, constricting awareness and reason. Nacho Vigalondo has found a maverick way to study the destructive effects of self-hate, that often personal violence and mess may have far-reaching consequences. Gloria’s journey is to discover a way out of her vortex, saving both herself and the greater globe-and to rid herself of  a dysfunction so majestic it metamorphosises into a cumbersome creature run amok.

Call Me By Your Name 

In a gorgeous, sun-drenched Lombardy, Italy, 17-year-old Elio and the strapping American doctoral student who arrives to work as an intern for Elio’s professor father tease fixedly into one another’s orbit over the course of a summer, igniting a blinding flare of erotic and romantic entanglement, all-consuming and, unsurprisingly, ephemeral, leading to a heartbreak as extravagantly scaled as the passion which preceded it. As Elio, Timothee Chalamet is the film’s most precious asset, an astonishing preternatural performance in which every tremor and spasm of youth and first love is indelibly expressed in body language and gesture-Elio is at once delicate and strong, naive and wise, victim and victor. It’s clear that Elio, in his pursuit of love and passion, is leagues ahead of his partner (and parents), is capable of a bravery and dedication that far outstrips his circle. The astounding concluding held shot, of Elio tending to a fire, would tax the abilities of professional performers twice Chalamet’s age-in bruising close-up, you sense a character defining the sense of self that will carry him through the rest of his life, an individual coming of age before the eyes. A quick mention of God’s Own Country as well, a solid debut film from Francis Lee about a conflicted gay Yorkshire lad working on his infirm father’s sheep farm who begins a tentative relationship with a Romanian migrant worker who arrives to assist with seasonal tasks. Landscape very much determines character and behaviour in this realm, a degree of rigour and brusqueness ruling in a harsh, unforgiving space. What is refreshing in both film’s view of gay relationships is that the biggest impediments to the success of the involvement is not social convention but personal reticence (we are far removed from the environment defeating the leads of Brokeback Mountain). Progress: the tragic is not the inevitable outcome of gay pairings.

The Florida Project 

Director Sean Baker continues his compassionate studies of those living on the margins of American society with this examination of hardscrabble families trying their best to eke out dignified existences in housing originally built as hotels for the tourist trade to nearby Disney World (in distance about a mile away), which may as well be located on Mars as far as it has any meaning to these souls (the only good it serves is the moment the lead adult character is able to sell off a family package of resort tickets below cost to a gullible British tourist-most likely which he will be unable to claim-something which she’s been able to steal off a client). At one time these now dilapidated, slowly deteriorating spaces, with their tacky, colourful facades once promised  fanciful inclusion in the Disney dream (mere fairy dust)-the exhausted, enervated adults have long abandoned any pretence; it’s only the children (especially the resourceful, forthright Moonee) , earnest and not yet calloused, who are able to envision the environment as a playground of adventure, mischief and mystery, despite all evidence to the contrary. In its treacherous final moments, when the bad (in some cases, the only) choices of her mother bring crushing, sudden consequence to both the life of her and her child, the emotional severity letting loose a nearly banshee cry, it’s excruciating to watch-the nervy and startling final shot, a rush of hallucinatory jump-cuts, in which two little girls wilfully violate the parameters of the manufactured fantasy, leavens the preceding devastation and acts as a hearty kiss-off to the forces which would extinguish them, perhaps unrealistic but absolutely fitting. The paucity of the characters’ lives are revealed in casual observations (a conversation about the relative costs of pizza toppings, sneaked meals, sharing of one ice cream cone amongst a trio, for which they have had to panhandle, Moonee sent off for a bath during her mother’s appointments with men), and Baker does not cheapen his gaze with judgement or pity. The performances are collectively searing, raw souls bared on screen-Willem Dafoe projects a profound decency as the manager of the premises, well-worn but trying his best to look after his residents. Despite the catastrophe of tragedy at every turn, the film maintains the look and feel of a fairy tale, rejuvenated constantly by the bruising propulsion of people who defiantly continue to forcefully, rudely live life even in compromised circumstances.

A Ghost Story 

Single-handedly reclaiming the image of a ghost as a sheet-enshrouded figure from the oblivion and absurdity of cliche, this near-experimental meditation on grief and bereavement establishes its own universe of space and time. Casey Affleck’s deceased character, unable to quite let go of his earthly binds, haunts the fringes of his beloved’s life (Rooney Mara, stunned and brutalised by anguish) watching with impotent longing as the years advance, from her initial stages of profound sorrow to the inevitability of moving on past the pain, lost to the insistence of life. He is unable to move off the property, time expanding and compressing in regular sequence (one moment futuristic, then a sudden plummet into the 19th century), a constant presence through many seasons of upheaval, eruptive change and pain, witness to the constancy of natural process. It’s clear the most haunted character on screen is the ghost himself, unable to fathom the unfair, arbitrary conditions which brought him to this perplexed state-sadly, the sole peace to be had is perhaps when the distant loved one finally solves his or her feelings in regards to the lost partner, or perhaps when death finally claims those whose memory is the final tether on Earth. It’s metaphysical, spiritual, unique, uncompromising-the viewer must bring the self wholly to it, this quietly sustained aria of temporal melancholy.

In the next post, I’ll cover the final set of five films.

 

 

 

 

 

CINEMA ROUND-UP

FILM

HAIL, CEASAR

This latest concoction by the brothers Coen finds the duo in a rather jovial mood, especially following on the heels of the bleak and affecting “Inside Llewyn Davis” with its nearly mythic structure and downbeat narrative arc. In comparison, this feels like a trifle, although a trifle of great bon-homie and elan, more of an excuse to string together a series of energetic set pieces in homage to Hollywood genres, from westerns to drawing room comedies to Biblical epics to delirious musicals (represented by a felicitous, Gene Kelly- like Channing Tatum and Scarlett Johansson’s soaring tribute to Esther Williams’s diving gymnastics). Josh Brolin provides the sympathetic human centre around which a constellation of antic contract players and industry figures spin, a studio head and fixer who attempts to keep his charges one step ahead of controversy and scandal. There’s an extended comic riff in the form of an elocution lesson between Ralph Fiennes’s uptight British director and Alden Ehrenreich’s out-of-his-depth cowboy star recruited for a sophisticated Noel Coward romantic comedy that will rightly assume the status of classic exchange. The film is ultimately a collection of sharp sequences rather than progressive narrative, and the Coens use a cabal of communist writers and producers for comic effect, which some critics have found a bit negligent given the great and terrible cost of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s interference in Hollywood.

THE WITCH

I have to confess being a bit disappointed in this undoubtedly atmospheric, eerie 17th-century set experiment in suspense given its enormous acclaim and profile from last year’s festival circuit. Debut director Robert Eggers certainly delivers a credible period environment on very limited means, and his fiercely committed cast successfully sell dialogue spoken in an archaic vernacular (which could easily slide into pantomime in less sure hands) in this study of the effects of both religious fervor and emerging sexuality on a Puritan family exiled to the remote edge of a dark and troubling forest. Especially in regards to its teen female lead (a wholly compelling Anya Taylor-Joy), I find the ideology confused and problematic-the film seems to be caught between the oblique and explicit in its view of her arc, skirting very close to reductively condemning her sexual flowering as a destructive force, a tired reflex that seems out of place in an otherwise sophisticated  feature. I find the drift of the film into more obvious genre territory in the final act distressing, and whether or not its closing image is meant to be taken as symbolic emancipation is entirely compromised and complicated by the actions which immediately precede it. As a first film, though, this announces a prodigious, extravagant talent, with many memorable sequences of severe disquiet.

ANOMALISA

The painstaking stop-motion animation of this unequivocally adult study of dangerous malaise and disappointment lends the human characters a tenderness and poignancy that live-action would need to work overtime to communicate. Middle-aged married man and self-help author Michael arrives exhaustedly at an anonymous hotel to give a motivational speech to a group of customer service conventioneers, and it’s clear that he suffers from a deep and abiding estrangement from all social interaction. Everyone he encounters speaks in the same voice, a great aural indication of his inability to distinguish any longer an individuality in other people, until he encounters the sweet and seemingly fragile Lisa, with whom he has a fleeting, possibly liberating affair. There’s a startling scene where we suddenly become aware to what troubling degree Michael is the source of his own alienation-until that moment, we’ve sympathized with the character in a general way, as a victim of an uncaring, purposeless universe. He is left bereft at a homecoming celebration, his son gifted with a hilariously inappropriate present. The film generously grants Lisa, a much warmer, optimistic character the final moment, suggesting the opportunities and prospects available to the more emotionally accessible and openhearted.

THE ONES BELOW

Cooly exploiting the fears and anxieties of a young professional couple expecting their first child, this debut feature is a slick and unnerving venture, which doubles as a study in estate porn, its leafy north London street of Georgian property as seductive and pretty as any of its four lead characters. The pleasant, slightly shabby existence of Kate and Justin is interrupted by the impossibly glamourous and powerful new downstairs neighbours, perfectly coiffed and composed, seemingly incapable of being ruffled, even though themselves expectant parents. Events take a dark and disturbing turn as the film progresses, Kate and Justin’s existence descending into a stew of sleep-deprivation and frayed nerves, and the film’s strength is in keeping the audience off-guard, uncertain of the motivations or credibility of each character. It may be a bit unclear as to how or why Kate and Justin may be the chosen targets of their possibly nefarious neighbours, but the story hurtles along so ferociously and compellingly, and the intrigue is so sustained, that questions fall by the wayside. There are echoes of “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” in the material, but it’s also gloriously its own-and I truly admire that the film builds to a remarkable and unrepentant diabolical conclusion that is a refreshing slap in the face.

 

 

A MOUTHFUL

FILM

Some thoughts on Deadpool and A Bigger Splash

Merc with a mouth, indeed. Borne along on a constant kick of kinetic energy, powered by a bracing verbal raunch rarely heard in such a mass-market product,director Tim Miller’s entry into the superhero genre upends genre tropes with gleeful derangement. The titular Deadpool may very well be the (anti)hero that current societal spasms of dread and unease needs to call into its service. Sarcastic, most assuredly unhinged, psychosexual, consumed with vengeance as his only motivation (one of the byproducts of which is some actual good), he is a corrective to the inviolable virtue and morality that afflict many superheroes, and which strain credibility. Diagnosed with terminal cancer, not wanting to be a burden to his commited girlfriend, the mercenary Wade Wilson agrees to an experimental procedure which leaves him broken and disfigured-but gloriously, torturously alive. The bulk of the film is an extended chase after the doctor responsible for Wade’s new state in which much destruction and chaos ensue. Near the conclusion there is a filthy declaration of love and devotion that somehow manages a surprising romantic charge. Ryan Reynolds brings an endearing dimension to what could have been a brittle, sour and intolerable character, and there’s good work (and chemistry) from co-stars Morena Baccarin, T.J. Miller and Leslie Uggams. The easily offended will instantly recoil, but for the adventurous the film offers plentiful snark and snap.

In contrast, the attractive, prodigal quartet at the centre of Luca Guadagnino’s curious mix of romantic idyll and thriller, hide ugly motivations and schemes under surface gregariousness and cordiality. Recovering from a throat operation on a remote Italian island, a rock star and her boyfriend’s serene rhythms are soundly disrupted by the sudden appearance of her ex and his apparent daughter from a previous fling (although a clammy intimacy is often suggested). As embodied by an obstreperous Ralph Fiennes, this is a character who is endlessly pitched at a decibal level just one or two levels too high, creating a certain unease and discomfort in most every social environment. From the start, all four participants become enmeshed in an increasingly dangerous erotic and emotional frolic, all the while the weather building towards a major tempestuous storm. It’s in its hazy visualisation of a particular brand of sun-baked torpor and languor that the film is most consistently successful.The machinations between the lead characters remain intriguing while the film unspools, mostly due to the efforts of the wildly talented and charismatic cast (including, in addition to Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts and Dakota Johnson) but I’m not sure any feeling is carried out of the cinema. As in his previous film I AM LOVE, the drama suffers from a manufactured sense of melodrama, an empty style. The Italian police are filtered through a buffoonish lens, there are half-hearted, weakly conceived attempts at suggesting the migrant crisis gathering force in the background (given the island’s proximity to Lampedusa), and the film concludes on a blithely sour note that the privileged will necessarily escape all justice and sanction. After a time, these spoiled individuals, lacking in rectitude, cease to be interesting or worthy of investment.

DIM ALL THE LIGHTS

FILM     Some thoughts on Spotlight and Youth

On the subject of decades-long, systemic sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, allowed to virulently flower unfettered due to a toxic collusion between all echelons of clergy, law, and to an extent, the media, we can all agree to outrage and disbelief. Director Tom McCarthy’s very earnest film of the crusading investigative journalists who first exposed the full, horrific scale of the molestation, is full of good intentions and sympathy-I only wish it had not been so polite and sincere in tone. This is a story that begs for a bit of grit and messiness, an undertone of danger, but the film frustratingly maintains a softheartedness that, for me at least, robs it of any ability to haunt. Performances are solid and fairly textured, but even the outbursts and exclamations feel clearly crafted, timed to the precise rhythms of a screenplay. Visually, the film never aspires beyond the modest, more akin to assembling a top-tier cast for a telefilm. I am most intrigued by the passage wherein Liev Schreiber’s newly-appointed editor is summoned, in monarchial fashion, to a meeting with the archbishop of Boston, as if all institutional figures must align with the Church, be granted approval. This, more than any other image or passage in the film, is the strongest indicator of how powerfully the Church is entrenched in the social and political fabric of a city, a country.

You’re never far from a visual flourish in Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s works-his films are in love with being films, the endless, inventive possibilities of  visual movement and energy within a frame, the keen way music can complement an image, the way a physical quirk or look can hypnotically compel a viewer ( much like Pedro Almodovar or David Lynch, to name a few contemporaries ). Set in the extravagant environs of a pricey clinic in the Swiss Alps, the film follows an aging composer and his filmmaker friend as they drift in the ruin of their own masculinity, redolent with regret and remorse. Sorrentino has studied artists in prior films to engaging effect, so the fact that much of the dialogue here reeks of self-indulgence and tedium is quite disappointing-I grew quickly impatient with the preoccupations and concerns of Harvey Keitel’s character and his pontificating band of production assistants, and a stiffness in both language and performance infest some of the supporting characters ( a cameo from singer Paloma Faith is particularly misjudged ) . The film is redeemed by some late sequences, especially Michael Caine’s final aria of a monologue-a poetry lacking in the rest of the screenplay is achieved here. His words are honest, piercing, unvarnished. The closing scene is also a stirring mix of song and sentiment, luxuriously visual. In the canon of Sorrentino’s films, it still feels like a minor effort.

 

 

MAN AND BEAST

FILM

Reflections on Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s The Revenant

In this gripping, ultimately overextended film, vengeance is certainly posited as a sustainable life force, as poor Leonardo DiCaprio’s besieged Hugo Glass has no less than three rebirths throughout its running time, each sequence a heightening of visceral impact. The film opens to the omnipresent sounds of the natural world, humans only gradually introduced into the frame, spears and bodies thrusting in from the sides, closing in on prey. This nicely presages a more massive attack about to take place as the group of fur traders to which Glass belongs are suddenly descended upon by a rival Indian tribe-the quiet, deadly arsenal of arrows that assault the troop, the sheer, blunt, hushed inexorability of their violent trajectory, the spatial inability to identify enemy position, calls to mind the opening of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, the storming of Omaha Beach, in its absolutely savage confusion and disarray, its ragtag immediacy of death. It’s a startling, queasy passage. The problem with this film as it progresses is that it increasingly settles for a mythic tone, which prevents the viewer from identifying emotionally in a specific sense. Glass increasingly takes on the form and bearing of a beast, and seems almost preternatural-Inarritu risks pushing the film nearly into farce in the latter stages as he escalates the misfortune and misery to which Glass is exposed. The stark, essential conflict between Glass and John Fitzgerald, a fellow trader and agent of villainous betrayal, is momentarily lost amid a superfluous subplot of the Indians’ business relations with the French, and far too many hallucinations of Glass’s former familial peace, which feel indulgent. A final battle along a riverbank snaps the film back into focus-you only wish you had reached the location a bit sooner. A few shots intriguingly break the fourth wall, as it were, where breath and blood are allowed to invade the camera lens (in the case of the breath, it leads to a remarkable transitional shot, linking Glass, the world and Fitzgerald). And Glass’s concluding look is to the camera, and the audience, whether in defiance or resignation up for interpretation. I wish Inarritu had been a bit more ambiguous with the ending, in any case. Most of the time I think I was responding not to Glass as character but DiCaprio as actor, ferociously dedicating himself to a sadistic catalog of physical demands and labours.

MY FRENCH FILM FESTIVAL

CINEMA

Available via internet in most every country, this is an innovative platform, now in its sixth year, that curates a selection of ten feature and ten short films to watch at leisure from any device for very modest costs. The festival runs for a month’s period (from 18 January-18 February),  and is an exciting opportunity to become conversant with choice offerings from recent French cinema, in many cases works that have bypassed international distribution altogether or been exhibited only on the festival circuit.  As a host, I’ve used the Curzon Home Cinema site to access the programme, itself a wonderful tool (requiring no subscription fee, allowing purchase on a per-film basis, in many cases releasing same-day as in the cinema for a fraction of box-office price). Thus far I’ve watched the congenial, if slight, IT BOY, which coasts favourably along on the charming, sexy energy of its lead couple, gently and perfunctorily addressing serious topics of sexism in the professional industries and issues of age within relationships; and HENRI HENRI aspires to be the French Canadian AMELIE, a voyage given over to whimsy and fancy as a beatific innocent (a perfectly cast Victor Andres Turgeon-Trelles), a lighting technician, wanders into the lives of a series of isolated, lonely, drifting individuals, mounting a steady campaign to bring shafts and shivers of joy into their existences-it’s admirably optimistic in perspective, but finely tuned to an underlying poignancy in human interaction. The selections are a nicely balanced mix of the comic and the sober, the lighthearted and the extreme. It’s my hope that similar, smartly packaged online festivals from other regions become available  (and perhaps, with a bit of research, indeed do exist), as they offer invaluable opportunity to view films otherwise inaccessible. In the time of Netflix and AmazonPrime monopolies, the bespoke online film festival is nice counterprogramming. Further information can be found at: http://www.myfrenchfilmfestival.com/en/