Reminiscences of 2014
January 28, 2015 § Leave a comment
Lauded for his eye for landscapes and an acute sense of character psychology, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s wordsmanship has always been as striking as his seeming eerie ability to order the very clouds in the sky into position and photograph them with an ominous sense of texture and omniscience. An artist who has never shied from acknowledging his major influences (something that critics have seized upon all too lazily), Ceylan seems to have over the years drifted from an Antonioni-like taciturnity and visual austerity towards a more ‘talky’ dialogue-driven narrative form that resides somewhere between the proverbialistic tenderness of Ozu and Ingmar Bergman’s Nordic brand of navel-gazing psychoanalysis. Ceylan’s penchant for philosophising became startlingly apparent with his masterful “Once upon a time in Anatolia,” especially when paired with his still boldly melancholic imagery. With “Winter Sleep,” the Turkish filmmaker, working as always with his wife Ebru during the scripting process, has finally overindulged his apparent love for verbosity…or so some would say. Well, for those who are drawn to Ceylan’s work primarily on the strength of his brooding photographic sense, the 2014 Palme d’Or winner may indeed be something of a departure, or rather, a touch understated. But the brilliance of this writing team is startlingly apparent. Unlike writer-director Olivier Assayas who, on the basis of “The Clouds of Sils Maria” and the labourious words of its fictional playwright Wilhelm Melchior, wouldn’t make the greatest dramaturge, Ceylan and his co-scripters would excel on stage, and while not linguistically dextrous like Tom Stoppard at his absurdist best, their ability to propel a narrative on the back of unapologetically analytical and often caustic intellectualised exchanges is essentially unmatched in current semi-mainstream world cinema. It does not bear the hipster swagger of Tarantino or the archly ironic bite of the Coens, but much like some of Ceylan’s Romanian contemporaries, the spoken content of “Winter Sleep” possesses deep, socially-engaged intelligence without affected art-house banality. But this does not in any way imply that Ceylan’s use of cinema is ‘uncinematic.’ On the contrary, the skill and minute attention with which he and DP Gokhan Tiryaki capture faces in close-up could not be further removed from the theatre. Quite simply the tale of a middle-aged ex-actor turned Cappadocian hotelier cum newspaper columnist trying to figure out life in the wake of a dying marriage and an engulfing sense of loneliness and disillusionment, “Winter Sleep” represents an exciting development in the careers of an absolutely vital collective of artists spearheaded by a filmmaker of refreshing integrity.
Bong Joon-Ho is an unquestionable master of tone. Over the course of four feature films (well…five), the Korean wunderkind has displayed an illusionist’s slippery ability, mixing pitch blackness with a giddy, nearly slapstick brand of farcical humour. Like the interrogation scenes in “Memories of Murder” which oscillate nauseatingly between moments of borderline torture to instances of surprising hilarity that spring directly from the preceding horror, 2014’s “Snowpiercer” constantly has one foot in the possibility – and frequent eventuation – of violence, and the other sunk deep in sickly sweet satire. It’s a testament to the strength of Bong’s vision that he can achieve the same tonal tightrope with a multinational, multilingual cast (featuring the likes of Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris and Kang-ho Song), especially considering that the intended audience would have been far broader than what the director might be used to when working as an exclusively South Korean filmmaker, the risk being the possible dilution of whatever cultural specificities allow his earlier pictures to live and breathe as they do. In truth, “Snowpiercer” feels more unwieldy than Bong’s previous three films, less restrained, less ‘perfect’, more of a compromise. But it’s not so much meandering or aimless as it is indulgent and bloated at times, and this almost certainly has to do with a degree of excess and ‘blockbuster’ hubris that seems to run in the film’s veins which – one is tempted to say – is a due to the expectations of a globalised market dominated by far more excessive and gluttonous US tent pole releases. That this might be Bong’s least perfect picture is astounding, considering what an achievement of imagination the film truly is. Set in a future version of earth that is at the mercy of a mankind-induced ice age, staged on a globe-circling class-based train wherein the disenfranchised and disadvantaged masses occupy the rusted rear cars and so on and so forth, and featuring a very ‘pitchable’ high-concept plot, “Snowpiercer” is an openly symbolic, very topical fable for our current time, referencing everything from climate change to class disparity to the aforementioned globalisation. The film has been met with a curious degree of scepticism by the critical community, probably because of its tonal tenuousness and almost undisciplined grandiosity. Or maybe it’s to do with the gradual revelation – as was also the case with Park Chan-Wook’s “Stoker” (itself a fairly good film) – that the rhythms of mainstream English-language high-concept filmmaking may be relatively incompatible with the dizzying heights of Korean genre (bending) cinema. It’s funny to think that “Snowpiercer” somehow defies its status as a multinational, crossover production by ultimately highlighting the importance of cultural specificity. While Lars von Trier may thrive on casting his films with somewhat of an international reach, and though Paul Verhoeven’s approach and aesthetic may be as successful in the mainstream English mode as it is in the Dutch (though, who’s to say definitively?) , this might simply not apply to Bong Joon-Ho, which is not at all a bad thing.
Under the skin
No other major English-language film this year – none perhaps from the last few years – has managed, as has “Under the Skin,” to be so weirdly esoteric, so off-handedly oblique in its tone and mood all the while conveying a supreme sense of certainty of purpose and intellectual security. Every so often a film with a wide enough release or at least with a certain amount of festival buzz will dare to perplex audiences at the risk of alienating and infuriating them. Many if not most, even those as accomplished as Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors” a few years ago (or maybe even “Enter the Void”), can leave even the most astute and analytical of viewers with the nagging suspicion that they’ve been somehow played; that the strange concoction of images, sounds and ideas they have just beheld is in fact a stark nude emperor prancing the world stage or the ramblings of a great poet gone suddenly mad. But despite the fact that it is cryptic as hell and does not easily lend itself to wild interpretations – at least for this particular writer – Jonathan Glazer’s third feature as director somehow fails to simply feel like a menagerie of bizarre scenes loosely tied together with slick artisanship and a selection of broad, bordering-on-vague themes. It seems that the picture’s quiet, creeping aloofness and the wintry greyness of its Scottish setting, which ends up informing the relatively muted visual palette, creates the sense that Glazer and his collaborators have no interest in seducing viewers by simply dazzling them. This relative austerity – for want of a better term – is what counterbalances the film’s more outré elements and creates the impression that there is some purpose to the weirdness. As the narrative drifts along to the atonal whining, wailing, echoing and gurgling of Mika Levi’s appropriately extra-terrestrial score, it complements the clinical manner in which Scarlett Johansson’s apparently alien, certainly nameless entity drives a white van through the streets of urban and rural Scotland, harvesting human males. But there is one aspect to this film by British filmmaker and supreme cinematic technician Jonathan Glazer (check out his music videography for evidence of this) that stands out in greatest relief. “Under the Skin” is like the tragic younger sister of Wim Winders’ “Wings of Desire”: an alien entity is seduced into becoming human after spending a wealth of time drifting amongst them, observing them, the crucial difference being that the only real enlightenment that Johansson’s character achieves is the fatal realisation that human femininity is burdened with the yoke of warped power dynamics. Having assumed the body of a very fetching human lass and utilised her newfound sexual authority to lure men into her tarry lair, ScarJo’s alien is shocked to find that this very sexuality, while powerful in one instance, is the basis of immense susceptibility whether it be to exploitation or outright violence. It’s as if to imply that being a woman in our generally androcentric societies necessitates being a player in the game of sexual power one way or another, dominating or being dominating, preying on or being preyed upon; as if to imply that utilising and reappropriating objectification and the male gaze is the only alternative to exploitation and violence. Yet, within the same breath, “Under the Skin” appears to celebrate the human experience in all its frailty and quiet desperation. In some ways it is a back-handed celebration; in some ways it isn’t.
So another Coppola has taken their place in the director’s chair, extending the legacy of the once towering Francis Ford to a new generation in the form of granddaughter Gia Coppola. Funnily, when “Palo Alto” first slouched onto the scene in late 2013, premiering in Venice film festival’s Orrizonti section, it seemed that aunt Sofia Coppola was cited almost as often – if not more – than her father Francis when mention was being made of this Hollywood dynasty’s apparently hereditary penchant for making movies and how this may or may not have influenced Gia’s desire and logistical ability to take up the art form in a directorial capacity. Undeniably, the fact that Gia and Sofia are both women is a major reason for the comparisons and references (if not only for the fact that a supreme alpha male of American cinema is most vigorously survived not by his son, Roman, but by his daughter and grand-daughter), but it’s also very easy to draw lines of influences between the films of Sofia Coppola and Gia’s debut. The potent mix of languid sensuality and hip detachment that characterises much of Sofia’s work can be found in “Palo Alto” which, with its focus on the lives of a group of teenagers in suburban USA and its being based on a literary work (the James Franco’s collection of short stories from which the film takes its name) somehow recalls “The Virgin Suicides.” But it’s difficult to know whether Gia’s film actually looks, moves and feels like those of her aunt, or whether it is simply reminiscent of a certain type of film made in the wake of Sofia Coppola’s rapid rise to auteur status because, were a Coppola name not attached to it, would it strike anyone as being the work of someone familiar with Sofia? In some ways, whatever cynicism or scepticism rises to meet “Palo Alto” and however erroneous and presumptuous the comparisons to the history and heritage of the Coppola clan, “Palo Alto” is a work of great promise. Set in the eponymous city and centred on what some may call entitled white kids – in particular, a pair caught up in a tentative and cute courtship, this picture displays an acute sense of understanding and an affinity for the psychosocial maelstrom that is their hypersexed and drug-fuelled adolescence. At risk of endorsing the self-obsession of this particular breed of American teenager, “Palo Alto” manages to celebrate their irreverence while at the same time mourning the ennui and apathy that can result when one realises the limits of entitlement. The film also reveals young Jack Kilmer (son of Val) to be a fine performer with a disarming sense of naivety both on-screen and – presumably – in front of the camera.
It would be nice for an African film to one day – whenever that day comes – garner international attention on the back of a low key premise that focuses primarily on the lives of individuals in their own little worlds (like most US indies tend to be) as opposed to their being capital I ‘issue’ movies about civil war (“Darratt”), female circumcision (“Moolaade”), illegal trans-Atlantic migration (“La pirogue”) and, in the case of Aberahmanne Sissako’s “Timbuktu,” religious fundamentalism. But even with the Berlinale’s Golden Bear in its grasp and the fervent patronage of someone with as prominent a critical and cultural voice as Roger Ebert, the South African Xhosa language film based on a famous European opera, “U Carmen Ekhayalitsha,” failed to inspire much interest, not even in the form of derisive or dismissive negativity. Now, it could be quite successfully argued that a film like Mahmet Saleh Haroun’s “A Screaming Man” is in fact a modest tale of personal integrity and family that simply uses the Chadian civil war as a backdrop, though the spectre of conflict is present enough in that picture to justify it’s being classified as one about civil war. Haroun’s most recent picture “GriGris” about a wannabe dancer whose aspirations lead him to flirt with black market petrol (topical once again?) does not and did not possess any of the buzzwords that may have otherwise raised its profile as an African film worthy of attention. So, until that day comes, when there will be an African version of Hong Sang-Soo’s narratively inventive and structurally reflexive small scale relationship dramedies, we’ll have to ‘make do’ with exquisitely staged and soulfully photographed issue pictures like “Timbuktu.” This picture feels like one of those peaceful protests whose civility (here, gentle beauty) is all the more remarkable because of the underlying anger and outrage directed at those (presumably Ansar Dine and other Islamist groups) whose fundamentalism doesn’t necessarily extend inwards and is conveniently flexible, as required. What keeps the film from being one protracted cry against the scourge of unmitigated Sharia Law and other similar practices is the fact that Sissako & company seem to be more curious about the effect that the sudden imposition of one stringent value system may have a on a complex, non-perfect society, but at a decidedly grass roots level that focuses on what one may quite reasonably assume to be ‘average’ residents of Timbuktu. Like “A Screaming Man,” the political is very much filtered through the personal. So until the advent of moderately high profile talky Mauritanian romantic dramedies, “Timbuktu” will very much do.
For someone whose directorial talents have never been considered to extend to his various actorly turns, Joe Swanberg, like each member of this his tiny film’s tiny cast, brings a sublimely droll and somewhat disciplined naturalism to this tale of a young woman who calls in on her brother, his wife and their infant son in Chicago over Christmas. Quite possibly, the fact that Swanberg shares the stage with his actual two-year-old son, Jude, might account for the verisimilitude and sheer heart of his performance. And as for young Jude Swanberg, when last was a baby such a forceful and arresting screen presence to the point of seeming like a crucial narrative player despite his being generally unintelligible and wrapped up in his own little world? On another note, aquiline-faced Anna Kendrick seems to possess an uncanny (or maybe not so uncanny) understanding of what it is to be emotionally wrecked post-breakup so much so that one becomes socially oblivious and recklessly so, getting wantonly wasted, borderline loose and almost drunkenly burning down a house by reheating a pizza. But what propels “Happy Christmas” beyond being a modestly shot character study of a twenty-something acopic mess is that Kendrick’s Jenny is not a straight-up destabilising force like – say – Juno Temple’s character McKenna in Jill Soloway’s quite good “Afternoon Delight.” In fact, her effect on the central couple (Swanberg senior’s Jeff and Melanie Lynskey’s obliging but initially uptight Kelly) is surprising despite her continued psychological fragility and abandonment issues. And despite the fact that the loss of one man’s love has very nearly ruined her, Kelly proves to be an unexpected source of empowerment for a certain individual whose promising career as a literary novelist plays second fiddle to their role as full-time nurturer and wife. If, with “Happy Christmas” Joe Swanberg is still seen as merely a mumblecore director (if that term is still in use), then the ‘movement’ has certainly moved beyond awkward improvisations and slice-of-life uneventfulness while retaining considerable grit (of the sort found in the suburban garden not the urban gutter) and a great deal of soul.
Maybe it’s the lazy cinephile tendency to see everything through the lens of something previously seen, but a great deal of the rough-hewn charm of this Italian language (with swathes of German) picture seems to owe a little – if not a lot – to Fellini’s brand of fabulist cinema in whose wake magic and fantasy always lurks. Plus, the fact that the chief protagonist in this film, “The Wonders,” is the namesake of Giulietta Masina’s character in Fellini’s “La Strada,” only strengthens the link. Two bees crawl out of a girl’s mouth accompanied by the slightly eerie whistling of an apparently mute boy. As two children sleep in a cave, their spirits seem to come alive in the form of shadows cast against the rock walls by the light of a flame. A television show called ‘The land of wonders’ champions the primary industries of provincial central Italy as a way of celebrating the culinary traditions and general ethereal, spiritual earthiness of the region’s ancient Etruscan civilisation, complete with lyre and flute music and Monica Belluci looking resplendent as some kind of white-haired sprite-goddess TV host. These touches of mysticism/magical realism, paired with the very ‘indie’, very now approach to cinema (one which favours a drifty and physically intimate camera, inconsequential dialogue that aims for naturalism, and elliptical storytelling) gives the film a subtle atmosphere which at times feels exquisitely unique but can also come across as rote subscription to a very widespread mode of independent filmmaking. Written and directed by Alice Rohrwacher and featuring her soulfully aquiline sister Alba, “La Meraviglie” is most easily summarised as a coming-of-age tale though this is only truly accurate on a surface level. The key protagonist, Gelsomina, is a twelve year old girl, the honorary first-born son of her bee-keeping, honey-farming, petulantly patriarchal father whose tendency for girls (having borne a quartet) is commented on several times. Initially a bastion of prodigious responsibility and reliability and heir apparent to her father’s vocation, Gelsomina’s interest in partaking in ‘the land of wonders’ as well as the introduction of the aforementioned mute (and cute) boy creates a rift in the central father-daughter relationship, or at least highlights the fundamental disparities which clearly exist from the outset. Interestingly, “La Meraviglie” can be viewed from a primarily familial standpoint, but the film – and director Rohrwacher, presumably – has a clear interest in the concurrent romance and non-progressive isolationism inherent in ideas of pastoral self-sufficiency and traditionalism while also seeming intent on questioning or at least exploring the extent to which such isolationism is or isn’t sustainable in the face of ‘modernising’, globalist influences. For all these possible subtexts, it must be said that this picture is so unassuming and understated that it deserves praise for its patience but also gentle chiding for too often epitomising an all too common mode of ‘serious cinema.’
Lightly joking about the grunts and grumbles with which proto-impressionist painter Joseph Mallord William (J.M.W.) Turner tends to express his thoughts and feelings (as per Timothy Spall’s spiritedly roughhewn interpretation) was something of a meme in 2014, at least amongst the critical community. Having seen the film, it turns out (pun unintended but nonetheless enjoyed) that the character of Mr Turner does in fact utilise guttural sounds as much as he does intelligible words (oftentimes mispronounced). Whatever the accuracy of Mr Spall’s portrayal, it is one which rings if not true then intuitively appropriate and fitting, painting the artist as a man whose astounding sensitivity to beauty and the subtlest behaviours of light is offset by a startlingly crude and brutish manner, a dichotomy which composer George Yerosh underscores (another pun) with pieces that range from soothingly traditional to borderline atonal, reflecting both Turner’s roots in the classical and his Avant-garde leanings. But it may also be that such an obsessive appreciation of aesthetics leaves no room in Turner’s persona for any sort of foppish or flattering social refinement, though there is also a strong sense that he is – was – a man consumed by pain of which he was never eager to confront yet never willing to let go of and which as a result expressed itself in his very physicality and in the disciplined squall of colour that characterises his art. In addition, the man was a visionary – a stance Leigh and his colleagues do not seem in the least bit shy about expressing – and it may very well be this moderate disregard for etiquette that enables his defiant and distinctly modern approach to landscape art whilst remaining a respected (perhaps feared) member of a very exclusive and conservative institution. This is not to say in the least that J.M.W. is not in fact a gentleman, for this he is in his own crusty way, not only in his being an esteemed and apparently popular fellow of the aforementioned Royal Academy and seemingly well off to boot money-wise , but that he also possesses a capacity for gentleness which he extends to some only to withhold from others, particularly – it seems – the women closest to him (his wife and daughters, and his heartbreakingly doting and exploited house help, Hannah Danby). But for all of this rich nuance (for which Timothy Spall is rightfully being heaped with plaudits), what makes this Mike Leigh film – ‘written’ (in quotes on account of the writer’s methods) and directed by a man who is by this point in time a bona fide cinematic master – a unique iteration of the ‘biopic’ is that it makes a notable effort to explore Turner not just as an emotional being but as a technician and an artisan, a deeply curious creature who stands apart from his peers by way of his almost scientific sense of procedure, technique and technology, but also – ironically – his unorthodox and sometimes aggressive methods which involve spitting on canvases and employing violent brushwork that seem to pre-empt, almost by a century, the action painting of Jackson Pollock. As for its being a period picture, “Mr Turner” finds Mike Leigh achieving a deeply refreshing balance between the stately rigidity that paintings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries suggest of upper middle class British society at that time (emphasised by the appropriately stately cinematography), and a very Leighsian naturalism of performance which is in some ways the very antithesis of “Barry Lyndon” but which ironically makes it that picture’s rightful peer. All this is captured for the screen by Leigh’s visual right-hand man, DP Dick Pope, whose normally modest approach is afforded the chance to reach moments of splendour that recall the aforementioned Kubrick film in their painterly quality: landscapes that echo the light-obsessed work of Turner himself, but which also highlight the fact that Pope, like his cinematographic forbears and his greatest contemporaries i.e. Lubezki and Deakins, are truly painters in a new medium, one which Mr Turner in one particularly poignant scene fears will eventually replace him and his peers (though, in all fairness, Turner was not simply a recordist but an interpreter). If this picture does not win J.M.W. Turner a resurgence of interest (if not a new slew of admirers), it would be deeply sad if it does not immortalise in cement the genius of Mike Leigh and the company of immense artists of whom he is but one. Surely one of the most exquisite films released by anyone anywhere this year.
The LEGO Movie
If, by hailing the script penned by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller as the best piece of original screenwriting of 2014, the National Board of Review is applauding the Hollywood golden duo’s ability to capture the narrative hyperactivity and sheer chaos of child’s play, then the award is deserved. However, if this madcap story of an ordinary LEGO construction worker who finds himself amongst a merry band of rebels intent on foiling the diabolical plans of a tyrant is considered to be sharper, funnier or more elegantly structured than – say – “Winter Sleep” or “Listen Up Philip” (amongst others), then the NBR’s decision may warrant serious review. Towards the end of “The LEGO Movie,” an unseen character known only as “The Man Upstairs” is revealed to be someone quite unexpected, giving the movie’s heartfelt plea for unfettered creativity a disarmingly obvious but sweet new meaning, one that will be very pertinent to a hefty chunk of its viewership. In addition, this sudden inclusion of live action not only references the seminal “Toy Story” series but also contributes to the illusion that the animation in this film is achieved practically (as opposed to virtually) though it is more than reasonable to assume that CG has a major hand to play in the creation of the vibrant images on screen. Whatever the means of animation, it is safe to heap praise on the efforts made to maintain utmost fidelity to the nature of LEGO, most evident in the way fluid entities such as water, smoke and fire are rendered. The most impressive technical feat might be the depiction of the sea with its undulating blockiness which is nonetheless startling in its detail. But on a more thematic and narrative front, the film is either a haplessly or a wilfully transparent satire lampooning ubiquitous commerce and the effect it has on the creative spirit, one which maybe be chewing on the LEGO hand that feeds, to the point of being cringingly ironic, even oblivious. It features a Will Ferrell-voiced villain called Lord/President Business for the love of Christ. Plus, the fact that the cast of characters includes LEGO iterations of lucrative properties like Batman and Superman and not so lucrative ones like the Green Lantern only positions this film as a work of not so subtle brand publicity, but one which believes that openly highlighting its profiteering tendencies and relative creative bankruptcy gives it license to completely indulge and wallow in them. Like Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s “Jump Street” films, the significant kernels of imaginativeness evident in “The LEGO Movie” are unfortunately consumed by the trademark sensory assault that US studio cinema all too often confuses with ‘fun’ and ‘entertainment.’
Edge of Tomorrow
Seeing as it cannot, for some reason (probably rights related), be named after the novel upon which it is based (Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s “All you Need is Kill”), this financially ‘underperforming’ sci-fi action thriller whose lack of box-office punch has been attributed to everything from Tom Cruise’s apparent toxicity as a headliner to the film’s apparently vague and generic title, should probably stick with said title, vague and generic as it may be/appear. “Edge of Tomorrow” (the phrase, that is) has a certain wistful quality about it and a weird throw-back kind of innocence which is entirely in keeping with the movie itself, a Doug Liman directed effort set in a future where earth is under attack from a race of beastly extra-terrestrials called Mimics some of whom possess the ability to manipulate time and some of whom unwittingly transmit this power to human opponents, namely Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) and Sergeant Rita Vrataski (a brilliantly strapping Emily Blunt). “Live Die Repeat,” the name by which the film is now known post-theatrically, may be muscular and ‘cool’ from a ‘Halo’-playing kidult point of view, but it will only hurt the film by giving potential new viewers the impression that it is just a hectically violent, silver screen version of…well, ‘Halo.’ Now, to be fair, “Edge of Tomorrow” is as blue-green hued, CG clogged and plot-obsessed as one would expect from such a picture, but it is the slight but noticeable deviations that render it a standout example of modern high-concept Hollywood entertainment, these deviations being (a) the trust and patience Liman invests in his visuals such that he avoids chopping the film up into a string of shaky millisecond shots; (b) the absence of the one-note super-seriousness that too many action thriller adopt despite their mindlessness, replaced here with a steady pulse of humour and genuine tenderness; (c) the thankful lack of an overbearingly percussive ‘action movie’ score ; (d) the captivating, lived-in lead performances, especially that given by Tom Cruise who, despite his off-screen antics and what-have-you , has always been a most dependable and committed actor. A masterpiece it may not quite be, but for the type of film that it is (one which the US studio system is obsessed with churning out endlessly) “Edge of Tomorrow” should be the standard bearer. Sadly, its ‘measly’ $360000+ worldwide gross will ensure that the billion dollar “Transformers” series remains the template for a while longer yet.
How much of a selection can a selection be?
April 20, 2014 § 1 Comment
What an odd feeling it is, being disappointed by the very thing you are excited about. This phenomenon occurred to me when I scanned this week’s press release which revealed the films officially selected for Cannes 2014.
More so than any in recent memory, this year’s selection – particularly the films In Competition – seems overwhelmingly dominated by those directed by ‘name auteurs’, the kind whose auteur status may have in fact been nurtured or at least solidified by festivals such as Cannes; the irony of this being that, while I may appear skeptical of this year’s selection by the tone of my words, I don’t know that I have salivated this freely in response to a list of festival films (at least one released by Cannes), nor have I been familiar with as many directors in main competition as I am this year. Aside from 3 or 4 names that barely ring a bell, most of these individuals I can say with certainty are capital E established directors, the type fledgling filmmakers in every nook and crevice hope to one day be. Even newcomers to the Cannes main competition line-up like Xavier Dolan and Bennett Miller are either highly-regarded mainstream artists with critical heft or protégés of the festival itself, Dolan having cut his teeth at least twice in Un Certain Regard. As for the rest…the mere inclusion of Nuri Bilge Ceylan and a seemingly MIA-until-now Mike Leigh is enough to flood my mouth with anticipatory secretions. Add to this the newest works from The Dardennes, Olivier Assayas, Bertrand Bonello whose last Cannes entry ‘The House of Tolerance’ I found to be nothing short of magnificent, David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, Naomi Kawase, Ken Loach, Andrey Zvyagintsev, Abderrahmane Sissako (one of the few African filmmakers of international renown and himself not a newcomer to Cannes)… even Tommy Lee Jones who won big at Cannes a few years back with ‘The Three Burials of Melquaides Estrada’…add these and you have a murderer’s row that will pique the interest of any serious cinephile with an internet connection. Lest I fail to mention it, a crown prince of French and indeed world cinema, Jean Luc Godard, will present his newest film in competition as well. Which is where the trouble begins.
There seems to be a general expectation that the newest works by the most renowned directors must have their premieres at the most renowned film festivals. There are certain online publications that shall remain nameless due to my general appreciation of them, publications that nonetheless broadcast and enforce such expectations. When updating their readerships about upcoming releases for filmmakers of note, there is often a line of two speculating where and when these films might premiere. Speculation is one thing, but when phrases such as (and I paraphrase) “so and so film will receive a main competition slot at Cannes” are thrown around months before a festival lineup is even aired and before a frame of the film has even been made public, the air begins to smell a little foul. There is being speculative, and there is being just plain presumptuous. Following the announcement of the official selection, Thierry Fremaux fielded questions from the press and the first of these were silly enough to inquire about the absence of Malick and Kusturica in the lineup. It turns out, according to Fremaux at least, that these filmmakers did not feel their work was quite yet fit for presentation, but even if the final edits were ready to screen, why should anybody expect that a movie should find its way into competition simply by virtue of being a Malick picture? Perhaps individuals responsible for such presumptive statements have informants on their payroll, or maybe they simply believe that there are filmmakers so flawless, so creamy that they will float to the top in all circumstances. And while it would to some extent puzzle – perhaps even irk – the film community if a Cannes competition lineup featured no ‘big’ names, there is something worth questioning in the expectation that the newest film by Nuri Bilge Ceylan or the Dardennes must surely be good enough to make the cut; and I cite these filmmakers because, unless I am mistaken, neither party has in the last decade had a new feature not premiere at Cannes. Now my personal opinion is that Ceylan is hurtling towards arguable pantheon-level greatness with his modest filmography to date, but humour me this for a moment. If, by some stroke of cosmic madness Ceylan’s ‘Winter Sleep’ and all other new works by renowned filmmakers were utterly devoid of artistic merit, were utter goat turds, would they be left off in preference of films by lesser known, less sexy artists whose names would not draw nearly as much interest from film lovers and the film press? I suspect that in this fantastical situation I have created, a festival committee – for fear of losing the publicity a festival like Cannes or Venice banks on – would not only invite a host of A-list celebrities to grace their carpets, but that the selection committee would take chances on bad films by essentially good filmmakers, hoping they have a ‘Vertigo’ on their hands (a film essentially ahead of its time) or that, at the very least, the press will have a field day trashing a name director’s turd of a picture. Am I saying that a selection would throw filmmakers under the bus in order to maintain their festival’s profile? I’m saying I don’t know that they wouldn’t, and that – if they did – that it would be knowingly malicious.
Now – to be a stick in the mud of my own complaint – is there perhaps a reason why the same names keep appearing at festivals such as Cannes, hogging the artistic limelight? Is it because these filmmakers make buddy-buddy with Thierry Fremaux and Gilles Jacob and don’t forget to send Christmas cards? Is it because the film community – like any community – is ever so resistant to those on the fringes, only welcoming a few at a time into its core? Or are these artists well renowned because they truly are the best of the best of the best of the best? Considering thousands of films are submitted each year in the hopes of landing a slot somewhere in the official selection, I’d say that all three of the above are at work to one degree of another.
But on the other hand, Cannes is an institution with the sovereign right to elevate those films it deems worthy of elevation. There are those who question what right festivals have to select a handful of films and ignore a vast majority. To these folk I say, “What right don’t they have? This is what a selection is.” As much as I appreciate their frustration (and mine at times), the simple truth is that each festival, each panel of selectors, is ultimately taking part in the act of ranking art according to its own (the respective festival’s own, that is) value system however steeped in superficiality or artistic integrity, and unless they are tasked with ranking numbers 1 through 2000 in order of numerical value, it is hard to argue against the selection of a film versus the non-selection of another film. If anything, the fact that these festivals don’t seem to surreptitiously suggest that their choice is the capital C choice, unlike some academies that brand films ‘Best Picture’ without much of a relativity clause, sucks the wind from the sails of those who argue against the objective merit of the films that tend to be selected for festivals. The answer is that there is no pretence of objectivity, only the belief that the opinions of those selecting films are as much in service of cinema as the opinions of those who will be ultimately bestowing golden statuettes and ribbon-tied scrolls at said festival’s conclusion. At the very least, the best film at Locarno is the best film at Locarno, and simply that.
So, having argued for the right of festival committees to select whatever films that they so desire, can I then blame the film press for being aware of these committees’ predilections and patterns? If Festival A showcases all the big names while Festival C focuses on small scale films by cinematic underdogs, can one be blamed for knowing that SXSW will almost certainly not be screening Haneke’s next film and that, likewise, Alex Ross Perry isn’t that likely to bag a spot on the Croisette in place of Kore-eda? I suppose the game of presumption and expectation will continue as long as some festivals remain dedicated to bringing you the newest films from the best directors you have heard of.
Brief impression: “Force Majeure”
November 14, 2014 § Leave a comment
It’s just a ‘simple’, straightforward rear tracking shot of a seemingly archetypal upper-middle class Western European family – mother, father, daughter, son – skiing steadily down an iridescent, perfectly manicured white slope at the Les Arcs ski resort in the Alps, but it’s a moment of magic, visual, technical, thematic…all of it. One by one, the four Swedish holidayers cruise into frame in gentle swoops and dips until they, as a group, have established themselves as the focus of interest, which can’t be that hard in so bland – though prettily so – an environment. As if floating on the arm of a Steadicam attached to an operator firmly strapped to a snowmobile with the most exquisite suspension system, the camera then calmly follows them for what seems like several minutes of tracking perfection: not a jiggle, not a blur. At first there may be the slight anticipation of something dramatic happening to disrupt this very sedate picture, but it becomes clear that this won’t be the case and the eyes are suddenly drawn to the way in which the skiers weave in and out of each other’s paths, at times threatening to drift apart but always remaining comfortably in reach. There’s something hypnotic, something reassuringly monotonous about the whole thing, and one can only assume that this sense is shared by the people on screen. But at the same time there is something oppressive about the way Ebba, Tomas, Vera and Harry seem to orbit each other, or maybe disrupt each other’s trajectories, as though their adherence to a certain cultural concept of what a functional family unit looks and feels like ultimately limits each member’s individual potential. They’re like electrons circling some unseen nucleus, moving according to their own intrinsic energies but unable to escape altogether, the result being an internally discordant but externally cohesive whole. In fact, only a few minutes of film time prior to this scene, the classic foursome is being coached by a resort photographer on how to appear happily familial and natural about it. Needless to say, the results are awkward, which only works to inform the dynamic that will be suggested in the tracking shot to come.
In a wonderfully astute interview of writer-director Ruben Ӧstlund by Film Comment magazine’s Violet Lucca, the Swedish filmmaker makes mention of the mid-twentieth-century concept of the ‘nuclear family’ and how it may have been – may still be – a sad evolutionary step in Western humankind’s move towards a more individualised (narcissistic?) approach to living, and with this particular shot it’s as though director of cinematography Fredrik Wenzel has enabled Ӧstlund to craft a pretty direct visual pun with regards to the ‘nuclear family’, one which smartly and succinctly forestalls what may very well be the core concern of “Force Majeure.” But it’s the film’s showstopper scene – the one which sets the dramatic ball rolling and the one everybody simply can’t not talk about – that highlights the fact that this movie is interested in exploring the inherently unstable human tendency to try to find a harmonious sweetspot where the primal and the aspirational can meet, or at least collide under controlled conditions.
Ebba, Tomas and their two prepubescent children are on a five-day skiing trip which – Ebba explains to a fellow holidaying Swede that she meets on day one – is a rare opportunity for busy breadwinner Tomas to focus his full attention on the family for whom he apparently works his ass off to win bread. The interesting thing about this particular ski resort is that ‘controlled’ avalanches are a regular part of maintaining the generous snow cover that makes for a comfortable, gentrified skiing experience – as well as doubling as some sort of sideshow spectacle. So while lunching outside, one of these ‘controlled’ avalanches occurs and the diners and onlookers all turn to watch or raise whatever video-capable device they own, Tomas included. Something then occurs which anyone who has seen Julia Loktev’s marvellous “The Loneliest Planet” might be able to guess. The beauty of this scene – apart from its purposefully spare composition and thrillingly detached execution, proof that restless filmmaking is not the only way to preserve and present the visceral power of a moment – is that it is a near literal face-off between two examples of mankind’s desire to somehow exercise a degree of dominion over forces of nature that often prove to be more difficult to subjugate or manage than expected: instincts of self-preservation, maternal drive, the basic physics of a tumbling mass of snow, and fear, amongst others. It’s the perfect point from which to launch into what is a fairly on-point examination of a particular type of western lifestyle (heteronormative but gender-progressive, monogamous, nuclear) and how the social structure supporting this mode of living is almost a kind of containment chamber which keeps certain elemental but undesirable human tendencies in check, albeit tenuously. In a way, “Force Majeure” has a certain kinship with a novel-film duo like Lionel Shriver/Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need To Talk About Kevin” which dares to skewer, or at the very least question, the generally held expectation that all mothers embrace motherhood without there being any room for feelings of resentment, self-loss and frustration. Likewise, “Force Majeure” takes to task the expectations placed upon certain roles within a tightknit social structure and, in doing so, insidiously disassembles the illusions upon which a very pervasive mode of western living seems to be founded. Are Tomas’s actions during the avalanche unnatural or are they just undesirable within the social construct of which he has chosen to be a part? When Ebba is chatting up an acquaintance in the hotel restaurant only to learn of this acquaintance’s open marriage and consequently killer sex life, does her indignation stem from a sincere belief that marriage should be strictly monogamous, or is she desperate to defend the conventional marital approach that she has (presumably) adhered to in spite of her actual attraction to and desire for the alternative that this lady has offered up? It’s interesting to note that the tension between Tomas and Ebba only truly escalates as a result of his denial of his actions/lack thereof. Does this imply that somewhere, deep down within her, Ebba believes that her husband is simply a ‘normal selfish white alpha male’, and that she is okay with this? Or does Tomas’s shocking behaviour simply concur with her already held impression of him lacking dedication to his family? Perhaps this shattering of Tomas’s image enables Ebba to momentarily acknowledge (in her own mind) that she may in fact be tired of him sexually/emotionally, and that she craves some kind of respite even if in the shape of a Brady Corbet toy boy, which she will of course never permit herself to enjoy. Either way, it’s only after Tomas’s sadly humorous catharsis on the hotel room floor that he and Ebba decide to resuscitate the marital image that they came so close to losing. As is the case in “Gone Girl” in which Mr and Mrs Dunne – after Amy Dunne’s Machiavellian viciousness is made evident to Nick and Nick Dunne concedes his douchebaggery to Amy – conspire to continue their toxic marriage in the interest of who knows what (image? Security?!), in “Force Majeure” it’s only after Ebba bears witness to the true wretched confusion residing within her husband’s soul that she can presumably forgive him and allows him to reprise his role as Protector and Provider, the role he has to-date so poorly played, if only for the sake of their children and their enormous superegos.
With his 2011 film “Play” and this 2014 follow-up, Ruben Ӧstlund seems to be working his way towards a place amongst a select group of filmmakers who in one way or another utilise cinema as some sort of hypothetical social laboratory or model, constructing situations with specific stresses and specific parameters and then tossing in a bunch of human characters in order to observe how they behave. Accordingly, the director takes a steadily observational approach that favours longer takes, fewer cuts, spare camera moves and dialogue that oscillates between the incisive and the evasive. One filmmaker that immediately comes to mind when one thinks of cinematic social experiments is Luis Bunuel (“The Exterminating Angel”, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie ”) with Mike Leigh, Michael Haneke, Yorgos Lanthimos and maybe even Lars von Trier being more contemporary examples. This assertion, as much as it is a way of praising Ӧstlund’s directorial chops and his socially relevant approach to cinema, also brings with it the burden of disapproving audiences who are wont to decry any film that they consider cruel to its characters, mean-spirited or unsettlingly distanced. The image of a misanthropic creative intelligence needlessly and gleefully ‘torturing’ fictional humans, which has often been attached to both Haneke and von Trier (though certainly not Leigh), may not haunt Ӧstlund just yet, at least not on the basis of his filmography to date. While “Force Majeure” is all too aware of the painful hilarity of its proceedings (as evidenced – for example – by the belly-tickling use of Antonio Vivaldi’s “Summer”, a piece which would be instantly recognisable to fans of HBO’s Larry David vehicle “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) and while it indulges in this very comedy for both its entertainment value as well as for its social commentary potential, it never does so inconsequentially and certainly not haphazardly. It’s all very…controlled. But if, for whatever reason, Ruben Ӧstlund’s directorial career does not take flight and soar in the way that a work as consummate as “Force Majeure” would suggest, he should consider finding work at an alpine ski resort like Les Arcs, sending snow a-tumbling down mountainsides with perfectly-timed explosions in order to terrify, thrill, and occasionally tip a nice, well-off, heteronormative family into a necessary state of crisis, the crisis that they simply need to have.