March 27, 2019 § Leave a comment
While the mainstream grows more accommodating of frank, honest sexuality, the conversations around sex on screen remain fretful, the championing of artistic freedom offset by the burden of moral responsibility. From the breathless curiosity that characterized the response to the “marathon” sex scenes in Blue Is the Warmest Colour to the harsh accusations levelled at Catherine Breillat’s Romance and films of a similar ilk, filmmakers are often charged with justifying sexual explicitness. As ever, the crux of the matter is intent. Even amongst seasoned critical ranks, the evoking of a genuine emotional response—be it a scream, a belly-laugh or a face strewn with tears—is generally considered a sign of a moment’s potency. By this metric, what kind of response should a filmmaker crafting a sex scene hope to evoke in viewers, and with what degree of certainty can they expect the inevitable wave of moral panic, should they succeed? Audiences and critics alike resented Michael Powell and his film Peeping Tom for making them feel complicit and deviant, so it’s not at all surprising that contemporary filmmakers are quick to declare “not porn!” for fear of career sabotage or the “dishonor” of being labelled a pornographer. But when intent and effect are considered, just how cleanly can “art” cinema and “porn” cinema be separated?
* Currently published on MUBI Notebook (https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/video-essay-not-porn)
Festival de ‘Usual Suspects’: That Old Dream That Moves (2001) de Alain Guiraudie
September 19, 2016 § Leave a comment
That it took 12 years for Alain Guiraudie, a French filmmaker, to find his way onto the Cannes Croisette is a matter of niggling curiosity. Between his first mainline* Cannes entry, the sublime, erotic thriller Stranger by the Lake (2013), and this delicate 49-minute slice of dreamy realism, Guiraudie directed three features, none of which I have seen and none of which received even a droplet’s worth of the acclaim showered upon his 2013 picture. It would be interesting to discover whether the mid 2000s was indeed an artistic trough, or simply neglected. What can be said with some confidence, though, is that the Bressonian visual elegance Guiraudie displays in Stranger by the Lake is very much on show in That Old Dream That Moves. With a keen eye for borderline bland locations, Guiraudie and cinematographer Emmanuel Soyer turn a dilapidated factory into a cathedral of fragile masculinity and unspoken desire. This brisk but patiently told tale centres on an industrious technician named Jacques who arrives at a factory that is being closed down, tasked with disassembling a particular (and at times phallic) machine in preparation for transportation to a new home. While the regular employees laze about, contemplating their pending unemployment and channeling their fear into petty squabbles, Jacques goes about his business with a certain intensity only to be courted ever so gently by two older ‘heteronormative’ men, Donand and Louis, both of whom may only just be discovering or coming to terms with their own wants and needs. At this point a vital voice in international queer cinema, Guiraudie’s approach to sexuality is neither combative nor yielding. While Jacques does not declare his preference for men on arrival, he neither bends over backwards to conceal his sexuality or rebuff advances. In a strange way, his unshowy matter-of-factness is a challenge to Donand and Louis, daring them to either make a move or make a run for it. If one is to go the allegorical route, Jacques’ role in decommissioning the factory could even position him as an angel of sexual rebirth, spurring his suitors to shed their old skins as they will their old jobs. Like low tide, this very social realist picture quietly presents its central ménage à trois (of sorts) in a manner that suggests the groggy period after an afternoon nap, accentuated by the use of muted tones, diffuse light and soft shadows, and still, boxy framing. At its modest length, That Old Dream That Moves qualifies as a feature film according to Anglo-American standards, while it is nine minutes shy of being a feature in its homeland, having been nominated for a Best Short Film Cesar in 2003. By either standard, though, it is without doubt a great film.
* Giuraudie’s 2009 picture The King of Escape premiered in that year’s Directors Fortnight sidebar
Festival de ‘Usual Suspects’: Kinatay (2009) de Brillante Mendoza
June 15, 2016 § Leave a comment
I concur with Quentin Tarantino’s impression of Brillante Mendoza’s eighth feature film and second Cannes entry, Kinatay, as expressed by the American filmmaker in this bit of collegial correspondence scribbled in red ink on hotel stationery during the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Tarantino applauds Mendoza’s dedication to the experiential perspective of the film’s lead character, Peping; praises the under-exposed, grainy depiction of horror that characterises the latter two-thirds of the film, and the relative anti-drama of the whole affair. That Tarantino, king of immaculately aestheticised violence, would praise a peer for practically being his antithesis is indeed of interest, but his appreciation of Mendoza’s approach was nonetheless shared by that year’s Cannes Jury, who awarded the Filipino filmmaker the Prix de la mise-en-scene for Best Director. At the risk of defending a picture that I don’t particularly care for, I must say that I do not necessarily contest their decision. Kinatay displays a certain clarity of purpose, a quality which few similarly grim and confronting pictures can consistently claim to have achieved with any degree of success. Whether Mendoza’s artistic purpose in turn serves a broader cultural or political purpose is where the debate might rapidly become a losing battle for those in the ‘pro’ camp. Inspired by the actual experiences of a young police academy recruit, Kinatay follows a newly-wed trainee whose part-time dealings with a crew of dirty cops ostensibly turns into a full-time contract when he is made a witness and peripheral accomplice to the belly-turning murder of a prostitute called Madonna. Beginning with Peping’s very low-key, good-natured daytime wedding, the first ‘act’ of the film ends with a fade-out of the setting sun after which his nightmare commences. It’s an obvious visual pun, as if to imply that the sun is also setting on Peping’s moral and spiritual freedom. Roger Ebert famously declared Kinatay to be the worst film ever selected to compete for the Palme d’Or, a claim which smacks of hyperbole despite my reservations about the movie. The late (and largely great) critic accused Mendoza of ideological bludgeoning, but could not quite articulate – in this piece – what this ‘Idea’ was and is. Frankly, neither can I. As a cautionary tale warning of the immense gravitational pull of crime on those in its orbit, Kinatay had me quietly promising myself that I would never associate with any individuals who exude even one percent of the malice and soul-blunted disregard for life exhibited by the on-screen killers. Without a doubt, such individuals live and breathe in their unfortunate communities, and similar crimes have in fact plagued Mendoza’s turf, let alone the wider world. But is a film like Kinatay what it takes to galvanise public awareness of and outrage at law enforcers who not only fail to uphold safety but who in fact actively propagate social degeneration? Who amongst us is not all too aware that violence and barbarism exists, and that death can arrive with shocking suddenness, even for those who dance with it on a daily basis to the point of feeling somewhat immune? Perhaps Kinatay is simply the result of a filmmaker translating a captivating story to screen in a manner which seemed – to him – most appropriate. If anything, Mendoza’s picture is at least an unapologetic alternative to the glut of cinema that seeks to extract entertainment from the gutters of human behaviour; a cinema at the centre of which sits the likes of…my beloved Basic Instinct?
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.
Festival de ‘Usual Suspects’: Basic Instinct (1992) de Paul Verhoeven
April 29, 2016 § Leave a comment
For Halloween 2015, I produced a short video tribute to giallo cinema for online film publication 4:3. Had I seen this Verhoeven picture beforehand, I would almost certainly have included any one of several moments that seem lifted from if not merely inspired by that Italian horror/thriller sub genre. Even the pulpy plot, which finds San Francisco detective Nick “Nicky” Curran (Michael Douglas) becoming increasingly entangled with a sexily icy/icily sexy novelist who may or may not be translating her fictional homicides into actual homicides, is somewhat reminiscent of Dario Argento’s Tenebre. But ultimately, more than it is a not-so-sly tribute to Hitchcock’s Vertigo (that alabaster outfit!) or giallo or what have you, Basic Instinct is a Paul Verhoeven film through and through, unabashedly unshy and impeccably crafted. Perhaps it has to do with his pre-cinema background in the world of mathematics and physics, but there is something thrillingly calculated about Verhoeven’s ability to construct what are – in my opinion – first-rate mainstream entertainments that end up becoming cult classics due to misappreciation. Then again, perhaps it’s this very calculatedness that leads to accusations of ‘superficiality’ and ‘hollowness,’ rendering his films contentious, utterly working for some while utterly not working for others. Well, I guess this cannot be helped. As for Sharon Stone in her role as paperback-writing titillator Catherine Tramell, it’s a travesty that her vagina’s infamous split-second cameo has upstaged what is a perfectly calibrated performance, in the context of the film and its tonal fabric, that is. Which is how every performance should be judged: In context.