Festival de ‘Usual Suspects’: Fireworks Wednesday (2009) de Asghar Farhadi

May 19, 2016 § Leave a comment

As is often the case, ‘last minute’ additions were made to this year’s Cannes line-up and the main Competition pool was widened by one entry, Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, the Iranian filmmaker’s second Palme d’Or nominee after 2013’s The Past. Accordingly, Festival de ‘Usual Suspects’ welcomes an earlier Farhadi work to the Alternative Competition: Fireworks Wednesday, a film which – alongside About Elly (2009) – has recently enjoyed a resurgence of interest following the cultural coup that was A Separation (2011) and the subsequent increase in western critical appreciation for Farhadi’s output as a writer-director. Set in Tehran, against the Persian New Year (Chaharshanbe-soori) for which the film is named, Fireworks Wednesday is a tale of threatened domestic implosion, feeling almost like an alternate-universe prequel to A Separation. Young bride-to-be Roohi (Taraneh Alidoosti) lands a casual cleaning job via an agency only to find herself caught between a household that is a mess on several fronts and the various individuals that may or may not prove a threat to said household. Mentally beleaguered Mozhde harbours a frankly debilitating suspicion that her husband Morteza (Hamid Farokhnezhad) is being unfaithful, and on the eve of a family trip to Dubai (with their young son), it all comes to a spitting boil. As tension builds in a manner that suggests impending emotional explosions to rival the inevitable late night fireworks, Roohi must manoeuver her way around a stream of secrets and lies while earning a few thousand Tomans for her own wedding. Having seen three of his films to date, Farhadi’s ability to stage big, bold dramatic conflict that feels natural and strangely uncontrived makes his approach to cinema one that many of his English-language contemporaries would do well to investigate. From Hediye Tehrani’s bare, exposed-nerve performance as the betrayed wife (whose issues clearly extend beyond the marital realm) to the wild spousal sparring matches, Fireworks Wednesday should feel – at times – like overheated theatre, but somehow doesn’t. Even the sly social critiquing (a staple of western-friendly contemporary Iranian cinema), often aimed at unbalanced gender dynamics, is low-key to the point of being insidious. A large part of this is due to the writerly instincts of Farhadi and co-scribe Mani Haghighi, who are careful to introduce tantalising plot developments with understatement and patience offset by fast-flowing, emphatic dialogue, so much so that the first fifteen minutes almost dare the viewer to speculate on what is and isn’t of narrative significance. Then there is Farhadi’s visual generosity, at once loose and controlled, allowing his characters the freedom to roam the cluttered apartment spaces and bustling streets. But for all the consummate off-camera craftsmanship, the true mastery lies in front of the lens, headlined by a trio of performances that are highly complementary by way of being vastly different: naked and raw (Hediye Tehrani), barely contained (Hamid Farokhnezhad), and deftly unassuming (Taraneh Alidoosti). In general, additional proof of Iran’s supremely humane contributions to international cinema. 


Festival de ‘Usual Suspects’: Tom at the Farm (2013) de Xavier Dolan

May 18, 2016 § Leave a comment

Finally, my first taste of the Quebecois prodigy. And, in an ironic twist, I have chosen the one film that Xavier Dolan did not premiere at Cannes, but which he instead took to Venice (apparently as a means of protesting the utter tragedy of his third film Laurence Anyways premiering in Un Certain Regard as opposed to main Competition). I mention this in order to lay bare the fact that, prior to seeing this film, my impression of Dolan (collated from various opinions and snippets of hearsay) was that he is privileged and entitled, egocentric and cinematically overheated. Having premiered – at age 20 – his partly self-financed debut I Killed My Mother (2009) at Cannes’ Directors Fortnight, I would imagine that a measure of egotism is a prerequisite. As for his apparent cinematic hubris and emotional candour, Tom at the Farm (an adaptation of a stage play by Michel Marc Bouchard) offers bountiful evidence of both, though, if there is one word which nags at the mind in response to this film, that word is ‘tension.’ Yes, the central narrative is inherently fraught and taut: young Montreal copywriter, Tom (played by Dolan himself), travels to cornfield and cows country to attend his recently deceased ‘friend’ Guillaume’s funeral and to meet his grieving mother (who is unaware of her late son’s sexuality) and his homophobic brute of a brother, Francis (who is menacingly eager to keep his mother in the dark about said sexuality). But the tension lies beyond Tom’s being torn between tact and honesty, as he tries to determine when and how he should reveal his true identity as Guillaume’s lover; a pseudo coming-out to a pseudo mother. From the opening minutes, the fabric of the film is being pulled and tugged, on one end by cool, static restraint, and on the other by a more volcanic, implosive sensibility. Add, to this, the tension that exists between Tom and Francis, and not simply from a city slicker versus rural ruffian standpoint. Tom exhibits an increasing mix of sexual pride and bottled shame, the latter probably a consequence of his being ‘the hidden lover.’ Francis is comprised of a similar mix of contradictions, though his latent attraction to Tom (or men in general) is never explicitly proclaimed by the burly farmer. The result of this psychological mess is a weird hostage situation in which a presumably brief pilgrimage becomes an extended visit, Tom seemingly held captive not only by Francis’ physical antagonism, but by a trio of desires: to come out on Guillaume’s behalf and strike a victory for freedom and tolerance, to indulge in self-loathing at the hands of the supremely self-loathing Francis, and to possibly consummate the prickly attraction that he and Francis share. Obviously, Tom at the Farm is a melange of ideas and something of a cinematic tease, but when Dolan walks out of the movie’s final frame, why does the picture feel like an overreach? It may be related to the nugget of local lore that Tom discovers while drinking at a bar, a story which reveals the depths of Francis’ homophobia and violence if there was in fact any doubt at this particular point in the narrative. This piece of backstory seems to be the antidote for Tom’s hitherto Stockholm Syndrome. Yet, for a film that – for the most part – carefully balances subtlety with unabashed expressive release, this being the impetus for Tom’s escape is not so much convenient as it is superfluous. Either way, it must be said that Tom at the Farm proves Dolan to be the real thing, if ‘the thing’ in question is a filmmaker with a confident command of his art and craft.


Festival de ‘Usual Suspects’: L’Adversaire (2002) de Nicole Garcia

May 13, 2016 § Leave a comment

Who is ‘the adversary’ to which this film’s title refers, and does the answer to this question influence one’s impression of how writer-director Nicole Garcia handles her subject matter?  Based on Emmanuel Carrère’s namesake non-fiction book, Garcia’s film dramatises the case of Jean-Claude Romand (fictionalised here as Jean-Marc Faure) who, in 1993, murdered his children, wife and parents after spending over a decade pretending to be a high-ranking doctor at the World Health Organisation, and living on defrauded money. For a film that sounds like a hybrid of Laurent Cantet’s Time Out (2001), Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can (2000) and Joachim Lafosse’s Our Children (2012), L’Adversaire lacks their respective eeriness, energy and pathos, instead being a very intelligible but somewhat unfocused picture that seems to be aiming for ambiguity when the source material is by nature sufficiently mysterious and difficult to comprehend, psychologically, morally, and most definitely logistically. Yet, whether by design at the script stage or in the editing suite, Garcia and Co choose to intercut the last few months of Faure’s chronic ruse with the homicides he eventually commits, also sprinkling in a handful of scenes in which Faure’s associates are quizzed by law enforcers about their utter bamboozlement and complicity by way of ignorance. When applied with deftness and consideration, such a temporal approach can prove thrilling to watch as a narrative and its characters comment on themselves, unearthing surprising connections as well as relevant contradictions, enriching the central theme(s) in the process. Unfortunately, Garcia’s use of the semi-staggered timeline only works to protract the unraveling of Faure’s grand lie, and, in a way, a measure of tension and foreboding is certainly achieved. L’Adversaire is a thriller of sorts, and on this front is does succeed in an understated way. However, to return to the opening question of this piece, very little is posited in the film, which is not to say that answers are mandatory but that the title does suggest some sort of angle or theory. There are moments which suggest a dissociative state or extreme denial; depression; delusion; pathological pride. But perhaps, like the source material’s author Carrère, Garcia and her writers are implicating ‘evil’ in the form of psychosis, suggesting that Romand/Faure was himself a victim of malignant, adversarial mental forces that he failed to grasp and control, and that he in turn became a silent adversary to those who, for years, trusted him; an adversary to simple honesty and decency. If this is the case, L’adversaire does not betray its hand, content with simply following said forces as they lie, steal and wreak domestic havoc, following them to the story’s sad end without too much speculation or comment. I suspect Garcia’s rebuttal would be that speculation is ultimately up to the viewer, and fair enough. Perhaps there is sufficient substance in Daniel Auteuil’s wide-eyed, slippery, admittedly fine performance to allow for some rich theorising.


Festival de ‘Usual Suspects’: The Pledge (2001) de Sean Penn

May 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

In 2001 and 2002, Jack Nicholson was invited to Cannes Main Competition with two films in which he portrayed freshly-retired men struggling with a sense of purposelessness and existential impotence. The latter is Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt. The former, Sean Penn’s third directorial feature, The Pledge, a relatively measured mystery drama in which Nevada Detective Jerry Black catches a homicide case a mere six hours before his official retirement: The horrifying rape-murder of a minor in the snowy woods. Pressured by the victim’s beleaguered, distraught mother, Black promises justice. And even after a dubious confession is squeezed out of an intellectually disabled indigenous suspect, and after he ceases to be on The Force, ex-Detective Jerry Black endeavours to honour his oath to the point of insanity. This is where the film begins to falter; right from the opening scene in which a drunk, unkempt Jerry babbles and gesticulates to himself in the Nevada sun (overlaid with images of bird-filled skies), presumably having failed to keep his word, or so he believes. Adopting a circular narrative approach, Penn’s screenplay proceeds to depict the events which lead Jerry from a place of dignity to one of dereliction, gently observing as he finds unlikely love and companionship with Robin Wright Penn and her young daughter, and discovers a renewed sense of worth along the way. As a director, Penn is of the Clint Eastwood school of unfussy Americana and is somewhere near the top of his class. But, quite simply, The Pledge begins and ends woefully, on the very same image, one which features a miscalculated impression of psychosis from Jack Nicholson, in a performance that the late Roger Ebert bafflingly posited as being perhaps his best. Frankly, there is little evidence that Jerry, a seasoned homicide detective, would be traumatised by the continued existence of a child killer to the point of mental debility. Even paired with the destabilising blow of retirement, with which he seems to eventually come to terms, such disappointment being a catalyst for sudden madness is almost a diabolus ex machina. Now, while I do love a good deal of ambiguity, The Pledge’s circular structure implies that answers, insights and truths will be unearthed in service of completing this very narrative circle. From a mystery standpoint, sure, Jerry’s low key investigation does bear fruit, albeit fruit coated in pleasingly stinging dramatic irony. Psychologically speaking though, The Pledge is as corner-cutting and impatient as the detective who cajoles the sketchy (but not necessarily untrue) confession.




Festival de ‘Usual Suspects’: J.S.A.: Joint Security Area (2000) de Park Chan-wook

May 4, 2016 § Leave a comment

Like Andrea Arnold’s short film Milk, J.S.A: Joint Security Area is a curious glimpse at a ‘pre-branded’ Park Chan-wook, by which I mean the Park Chan-wook whose name has come to evoke a particular style, be it his archly fastidious compositions or his operatic approach to violence. Strangely enough, as much as J.S.A. may appear to be a gestational work by an auteur whose balls have long dropped, it is perhaps more reminiscent of Park’s later work than Milk is of Arnold’s most recent output. While it may lug around a colour palette that is positively monochrome compared to something like Stoker, or even Oldboy, the sheer gusto with which Park moves his camera and strings his images in order to unravel the central mystery is as bold as blood on snow. Sourced from a novel titled DMZ, authored by Park Sang-yeon, J.S.A. follows Major Sophie Jean (a shaky Lee Young-ae) as she investigates a regrettable international incident: the killing of two North Korean soldiers at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas. With it’s time-hopping narrative structure and it’s endearing scenes in which a beautifully acted quartet of unlikely chums goof around and ‘hang out,’ it’s no mystery why Quentin Tarantino, in 2009, cited J.S.A. as one of twenty films released from 1992 onwards that he cherishes above all others. And, like another South Korean Tarantino favourite, Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003), J.S.A. intentionally swings between dead earnestness and ironic humour; dark humour which would only blacken with Park’s subsequent features. Interestingly, of all the differences and similarities that exist between this his first major work and his later efforts, humour, however mordant and strangled, seems to be the unwavering constant.


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