Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Sorstalanság (2005) - Lajos Koltai

Fateless, the directoral debut from Hungarian cinematographer Lajos Koltai stars Marcell Nagy as György, a Jewish teenager from Budapest who bares witness to the full horrors of the holocaust, first hand. Initially shielded from the truth by his family (who likely aren't fully aware of what's going on themselves) when his father is sent away to a labour camp, György soon follows along with other Jewish children (all of whom have passes). He is first sent to Auschwitz where he survives merely by lieing about his age; from there he is sent on to several labour camps including Buchenwald where his spirit is broken as he finds himself alienated by Yiddish-speaking Jews and Gypsies. His soul is broken, body shattered and yet with the liberation of the camps (featuring an appearance by Daniel Craig as an American GI) the boy, who has long-since grown into a man, manages not only to find hope in the future but a wistful longing for the time when he was in the camps.

Technically-speaking the film is a highly impressive piece of visual art - the outstanding use of filters that give the film a dated, sepia-like tone echoing the narrative's pervading sense of melancholy is rarely less than sublime. Likewise the way the visuals drift, as day does into night, into haunting monochrome bringing to the scenes an acute sense of the camps' harshness is as superb as Koltai's control of the camera's movement and framing of his shots. And the performances of the cast are equally incredible - from the young lead through to the camp guards and those fellow victims who suffer alongside the protagonist; it's a very finely crafted piece of film all round - except that is, for the editing. At 140 minutes the film's narrative is comprehensive, but let down considerably in the middle hour by languid editing that fades one scene into another seemingly bereft of context. This results in between 40 and 60 minutes of what i can only describe as "camp vignettes", individual scenes that although revealing in their own individualistic way, do not flow together in any coherent sense instead drawing out a slow-moving plot far longer than is strictly necessary. It's not a film one should find boring - the journey is as incredible as the lessons learned, but this slow mid-section unhelpfully veered from patience-testing to sheer boredom (to the point that i almost fell asleep). Survive this lengthy, slow section that lacks dialogue but remains nonetheless poignant, and you arrive at the film's conclusions in the final reel, which are not, in any way shape or form, expected or particularly easy to take.

The film's title, Fateless embodies the key theme of the film, a theme that in one way or another runs through every single scene and line of dialogue - the "Jewish fate". Early in the film the young protagonist is told by his elders that the Jews are fated to suffer for their past sins - that a history of persecution is a form of divine penitence, and that only God can every forgive the Jews on the day of judgement once they have atoned for previous wrongs. Accepting this, the majority of the film - which takes place in concentration camps - would seem to be Jews simply accepting their fate. Of course this isn't the case though, indeed it's a dichotomy that the film doesn't really seem to adress, and when it does try to debate the issue it does so in a rather cack-handed manner. The film starts by showing Hungarian Jews resigned to being persecuted as if it is something they should expect, merely by matter of cultural heritage, but no one ever says in the film anything to the effect that the camps are necessary, or something that should simply be "taken on the chin" because of the Jewish fate. Likewse, it is one thing to say that the Jewish race is united by this fate, but what about when Jewish communities become fragmented, either forcibly by external factors or simply by internal politics?

For instance the Yiddish-speaking Jews in one of the camps ostrasise the young Hungarian boy as an outsider; they're all suffering the same tortures at the hands of the camp officers, they all have to stand in the square until they collapse but they point blankly refuse to get on with the boy from Budapest. This of course, is just one instance in the film but there are more - the Gendarmes who turn them over to the Nazis in the first place, and the guy who tries to take all their jewelry on the train. In living out this shared fate, the Jews of the film, far from unifying under the weight of oppression of revolting against it, find themselves accepting imprisonment then turning against their fellow prisoners for what - to outsiders - would seem the pettiest of reasons. My concern is not that there weren't internal conflicts in camp populations (i'm sure there were), merely that this film shows us these arguments but never says why - no reason is given for these people turning against each other and nor, perhaps more cruelly, is any context given to the prisoners who take command of the others, which the film presents as some form of capitualtion with the SS. The detailing of real events, and life in the camps is impressive and should be commended, but it is the handling of these themes of guilt, and dealing with persecution that should be criticised i feel.

In saying [above] that the conclusions of the film "are not... particularly easy to take" I am referring to the central character's fond memories of the camps in which he suffered for so long. How can someone whose body was shattered, whose soul was close to destruction amidst the inhuman conditions inflicted upon him by an invading force, possibly have fond, positive memories of the concetration camps? To be honset, to say the boy misses the camps isn't true; what he misses is the sense of community with those who he developed friendships with. They suffered innumerable wrongs in those horrific places, but the boy choses to remember the friends he made and the spirit of comraderies that developed as they toiled together through the troubles. As much as i have said about the community being torn apart, the protagonist does not look at it like this at all, chosing [unconsciously i think] to overlook the horrors he witnessed and latch onto the few positive memories he has left. To me this seems a clear parallel to the Jewish fate the film explores - the Jewish community, in the eys of the boy, chose to remember the negatives of thier past that have become so entrenched in culture and tradition rather than celebrating the positive things the Jewish people have accomplished and experienced.

Of course this is an entirely reasonable suggestion, and one worthy of discussion and debate, but again its the context within the film that i take umbrage with. Ultimately, the film presents the boy's opinion as the be-all and end-all of it. It seems to be saying "stop being so down; look on the bright side" but completely overlooks the fact that the boy spent very little time whatsoever in Aushwitz (or any extermination camp for that matter) to the point that when asked, he can't say he saw the chimneys fom the gas chambers. One of the boy's close friends is killed at Aushwitz, and his father never returns from the camp he was sent to, so perhaps the boy is experiencing some form of denial - the mental scarring that being thown ont a pile of dead bodies must do to a person is unimaginable - but the film never suggests this is the case. The problem, i guess, is that i felt the film told me how I should think, whilst negating relevant details like the boy being young (and thus still impressionable and what he did and didn't actually see. Suggesting the stance is brilliant, but without any opposing view i was left with a slightly bitter taste in the mouth.

All round Fateless is a brilliantly constructed and performed film that raises many important issues, though restricted by the limitations of the autobiographical [Nobel prize-winning] source text and never really exploring the issues as fully as perhaps possible, it is nevertheless essential viewing. A film that leads on from the final scene of Fateless would be very interesting indeed in this viewer's opinion. 7/10

Friday, 16 March 2007

Ta'm e guilass (1997) - Abbas Kiarostami

The Palme D'or-winning Taste Of Cherry, from acclaimed Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, stars Homayon Ershadi as a man on a mission. Our protagonist, Mr Badii, spends practically the entire film in his Land Rover, driving back and forth from a spot up on the mountainside surrounding Teheran - atthis spot is a tree, and next to it the hole he has dug into whcih he is going to fall asleep. All he wants is for someone to come to the hole the next morning to call his name three times, if he does not answer then that person is to fill in the hole with earth. Kiarostami's film is not concerned with why he is going to commit suicide, nor is it particularly concerned with whether he can actually go through with it - what this film spends 95 minutes exploring is the debate as to whether he should or not. Slowly, but surely, in this jeep between this Iranian and his passengers, a subtle lust for life emerges - the yearning to taste cherries once again.

Taste of Cherry is first and foremost a wonderful piece of writing - a fantastic character study, combined with a sublime lead performance from a relatively unknown actor who carries off the most lengthy of monologues with ease. In asking these strangers to do this job for him, we learn not only of Mr Badii's depression, but also of the state of the country around him. A country in which labourers, as important as they are rarely receieve the wages that perhaps they should. It's an economic injustice that Mr Badii uses to entice these people into doing this task. Though it has to be said that in the end only one person actualy accepts the job - a soldier freaks out and runs off down the mountain whereas a seminary simply declines upon being given the full picture of what is to be expected of him. It is no mistake then, that the one person who accepts should be a Taxidermist, a man who makes a living from stuffing dead animals now being asked to bury someone who is going to have killed himself. The in-car debate with the seminary yields some interesting moral and religious aspects to the suicide debate, although this is restricted by the shortcomings of the seminary's strict dogma, and his unwavering belief in that philosophy - dogmatic philosophy that does not afflict the opinion of the taxidermist.

The Taxidermist is the most resonant of the characters, lingering long in the memory after the film has finished with his joke about a Turk going to the doctors ("Your body's fine but your finger's broken") and his genuine attempts to listen to this strange man contemplating suicide, engaging him on a personal, uniquely humanist level revealing that he himself once contemplated the same act years before. There is a degree of sentimentality in his "taste of cherry" comment, enough at least that i was reminded of Capra's It's A Wonderful Life (although i really can't understate the connection enough), but it's a genuine, loving affection for existence rather than faux sentiment that veers into horrible cliché. The film's final third, it's heart and soul, is [thankfully] gratifyingly warm - more than making up for it's morbid concept.

This heart and soul would however, amount to little if it were not for Kiarostami's impeccable visual style and sense of pacing. The slow, brooding, methodical pace of the narrative seeks only to confirm and enhance the natural feel of the movie whilst its impressive visuals not only supply aesthetic delights of their own, but also elucidate the story's emotional complexity. The emotional glaciation of Mr Badii, his distance from the world around him, even from his family who he has chosen to leave behind, is made all the more clear through the use of telephoto long shots, wide-angled close-ups and the vast expanse of the Iranian terrain. The size of the country dwarfs his Land Rover, just as whatever force is pushing him into this act is making Mr Badii feel so inferior to those around him that he cannot carry on. This 'empty' visual style owes a lot to the likes of Theo Angelopoulos and Michelangelo Antonioni (both of whom have become reknowned for thier depiction of alienation and distance onscreen), at least as much as the film's seeming coldness towards the people within it does. The closest film to this visually, that i can recall from recent years is the Turkish film Uzak from director/photographer Nuri Bilge Ceylan who must have either seen this film, or another Kiarostami work such is the similarity in some scenes between the two.

I do have one reservation though, or if not a reservation then certainly it is something that has left me perplexed to say the least, and that's the end of the film. I can't say what happens, as that would spoil it for those who havent seen the film, but i can say something as to my own thoughts on how the film reaches a conclusion (if that's what it can be called?). I had to do a little looking around to check if there was any reaon for the chosen ending remaining in the film - and it turns out that there was a problem at the lab where the film was being developed, so at the very least there is a practical reason for its applicatio. But Kiarostami doesn't strike me as the sort of artist who, facing the problem of not having the ending he intially wanted to the film, would just settle in the cutting room for something superfluous to narrative requirements. So what is the purpose? The first name that came to my mind was Michael Haneke (specifically his soon to be remade Funny Games), a director whose treatment of the limitiations of cinema (and the artificiality of its construction) form part of his distinct yet unique style; another that i've seen in discussion is Alejandro Jodorowsky (specifically in relation to The Holy Mountain).

Both of these names seem to be close to, and a million miles away from what Abbas is doing. He is drawing attention to the artifice inherent within the medium of film, but it is not a ploy or trick - indeed it's a futherance, or natural continuation of the plot and focus of the film i.e. emotional isolation. Perhaps only through reminding the audience that we are just watchinga movie, can the audience every hope to appreciate just how distanced the protagonist feels from the world around him. By forcibly tearing his audience from the fiction of the narrative, Kiarostami has shown at once bravery (in having the cojones to finsh a film like that) and incredible luciduty of vision in letting the emotional subtext of the movie (and often alck of it) supercede the story itself in the un(?)dramatic denouement.

An unforgettable film, that we are probably not meant to love - rather one for reflection, pondering and endless discussion. 8/10

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

I will be posting even less frequently

I dont post very often here as it is, but with a new woman in my life who doesn't [yet] share my cinephilia I will have even less time to write about what i'm watching.

So if i dont post for a long time, it's not cos something bad has happened to me.

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Les Biches (1968) - Claude Chabrol

Chabrol's The Does follows the story of two women and the man who comes between them. Frédérique (Chabrol regular, Stéphane Audran) is a well-to-do Parisian who one day comes across this actractive woman drawing deer on the pavement (Jacqueline Sassard), a woman who only gives the name Why when questioned. The two quickly start up a relationship, barely days later moving into Frédérique's St Tropez home where her two acquaintances, Fernand Robèque and Jacques Riais, have alread settled into their comfortable riviera lifestyle. The relationship is complicated when firstly, Why falls in love with an attractive poker player (Paul Thomas played by Jean-Louis Trintignant) who she meets at a party, then furthermore when Frédérique steals him away to Paris for a few days. The film's dramatic focus in the final reel is on Why, her jealousy, hatred, sense of betrayal and the vengeance she decides to enact.

It becomes abundantly clear aearly on in the film that Chabrol is a master of creating his characters in 3 dimensions. Everything from the clothes they wear to the rooms the inhabit tells us aout who they are, not to mention the specific maneurisms and body language key to each charcter's unique personality. The comic relief for instance, Fernand and Jacques, are effeminate, garishly dressed with a ribald sense of humour to match. When they are sent to follow Why after the party they do so in the most unsubtle manner possible, with some funny results. Converesely Why heself is a creature of ice coolness. Her clothes are neat, usually drkly coloured, her hair rarely out of place and her makeup always impeccable. There's always a sense that there's something beneath her icy curface more sinister, darker, but we never know what that is exactly as it becomes evermore masked by the chic gallic sensuality she exudes from every pore - similar in many ways to that of an Emmanuelle Béart character - only without the apparent innocence of Béart. The same goes for Frédérique, who's smartly expensive designer clothes perpetuate her higher social status than those around her, the hunting trophies on the walls of her St Tropez home reflecting her predatory nature. A young femme fatale and a sexual predator, with a rather charming middle class businessman caught in the middle.

The characters, richly drawn as they are, are not quite so simple though - nor are the relationships that bind them. Frédérique and Why get very close surprisingly quickly, almost unnaturally so after their first encounter on the streets of Paris; similarly the way Why becomes attached to Paul seems almost too quick for her persona. It is this "unnaturalness" in the development of the relationships that, i think, reveals some of what is going on below the surface. You have to wonder pourquoi is this happening quite the way it does; what is motivating these people to coalesce. At first it would seem the two women are connected on a purely lustful basis, that being liberal 1960s women they want to explore each other's bodies as much as their souls. The seduction of Why would certainlys eem to be a sexual liason, if not physically enacted then at least in the atmosphere of their early scenes. But taking Why back to her home outside of Paris suggests a maternal element in the couple, an element that becomes more exagerrated in the matriarchical structure of the living arrangements in St Tropez. Once there it is clear Frédérique rules the roost, she commands the men she plays poker with when it is time to settle up and the two men who live with her are always unashamedly subservient to her, although it's never made clear exactly why they live with her. My assumption is that they are with her for the money, and that Why is there almost for the same reason.

Why never mentions a family, so there is certainly reciprocation of the maternal element on her part, but also it has to be remembered that she was selling drawings on the streets for money. She was clearly never comfortable economically, perhaps this new relationship offers financial as well as emotional reward? Given this proposition, some of what Why says takes ona slightly different meaning: when she says she is a virgin this, at first, seems like an emotional opening, a brutal honesty to demonstrate commitment - however now this could be the start of a honeytrap; it gives Frédérique a position of sexual authority through which she can exert control over the seemingly impressionable Why, which is probably playing right into Why's hands. Why's calculating manner becomes further apparent during the poker game, during which she uses her body language and raw sensuality to make Paul seduce her. Paul, of course, will believe it was him who made the first move but suring the scene it is Why who makes a point of grabbing his attention, and focuses all of her energies on him for the whole night. This suggestion of coldness, of cynical calculation could be overlooked if it weren't for the film's climax in which Why becomes a creature of pure cold calculation, that uses her charms to get her way in a manner until then one wouldn't have thought possible (or if thought possible, then thought would have been quickly dismissed).

This writing of characters and relationships would be the film's highlight, if it weren't for Chabrol's wonderful visual style, placing his characters in scenes and filming them in such as way as to make each shot seem at once perfectly natural, and the conception of a great artist. His tracking shots give the scenes fluidity whilst reminaing impressive on thier own technical merits, whilst the us of focus both shallow and occasionally - deep - allows him to let shots linger than other more impatient dirctors would be inclined. With Jean Rabier's expert cinematography, utilising the St Tropez light to its fullest, Chabrol is able to place his engaging drama amonst a series of splendid tabeau compositions, each wonderful in their own right and moreso when they flow together so eloquently. In Le Mépris Fritz Lang says of Cinemascope, "Oh, it wasn't meant for human beings. Just for snakes... and funerals.", a sentiment echoed in Chabrol style here. He doesn't shoot either snakes or funerals, but what he does do, to maximise the use of the widescreen frame, is have his characters sleeping or reclining through an awful lot of the film. Be it on a bed, a chez longue or simply on some grass he [Chabrol] does not let an inch of visible space go to waste in producing a gripping humanist drama that works on many levels of impact.

I'm not saying The Does is Chabrol's finest work to date - some of the dialogue for instance is more than slightly clumsy, "I'm going to make unbridled love to you" cutting througha romantic scene like a knife at one stage; what i am however saying is that it's a deceptively complex, well crafted piece of cinema that undoubtedly warrants further analysis and critique. One not jst for the Chabrol completists, but for any film-viewer no matter what their tastes. 7/10

Monday, 5 March 2007

Jubilee (1977) - Derek Jarman

Jubilee was only Jarman's second feature length release, having already made a cult name for himself in the London community through short 8mm films. Already, off the success of Sebastiane, Jarman is carving out his uniquely british vision of society, culture and punk rhetoric. A far more linear story than The Last Of England, but similar in many visual and thematic ways, Jubilee follows Queen Elizabeth I on a voyage of discovery. The Queen, accompanied by John Dee, calls upon an angel (played by Adam Ant) to provide her with knowledge. This knowledge he provides her by way of a vision of England's future - a future unmistakebly 1970s, although it bares uncanny resemblances to Kubrick's Clockwork Orange dystopia.

In this future we see a group of punk artistes, visionaries or misguided souls - that is for the audience to make up their minds, but undeniably extraordinary. We watch Amyl Nitrate, Chaos, Crabs, Sphinx et al as they record music, discuss life and politics, and generally cause chaos. They live in what would generally be considered at best a squat, at worst squalor. There's an awful lot of bravado and pride on show in their actions and speeches but this isn't reflected in their derelict, cramped and messy environment.

It's to this clash of ideas and reality that the film turns, or at least - seems to suggest is present. We watch our protaonists, apparently happy in thier lives (or if not hapy then at least content) but there's always the pervading sense of something being array. As the film progresses it becomes clear this is not a celebration as the title may suggest, but some sort of mouring of society or perhaps a paen to the classical times of Elizabeth when things were 'better'. Via some interesting distractions, such as a Eurovision entry featuring Rule Brittania mixed with divebombing and Hitler rhetoric, the film introduces an eccentric record exectuive-come-monopolist, Cardinal Borgia Ginz - played by Jack Birkett at his very best indeed.

Ginz represents the key to the film. He gets the lionshare of the best lines that reveal amidst this punk dystopia he is making a fortune. He has bought everything he can in order to preserve and widen his power, he is in effect - exploiting the anarchic youth that he embraces with one hand and shuns with the other. It's him who runs the Eurovision contest, he runs the media which has a vice-like hold over the attention of the protagonists and he in a very Orwellian sense, is the protagonists' Big Brother. Whether anything should be read into the campness with which he is portrayed i am unsure, however what he stands for is unmistakeably important to the narrative thrust of Jarman's film. These young punks believe they are changing the world, they believe they have power and an ultimate sense of freedom following the abolition of law and order that is mentioned in the movie, but they dont. After all the strife, after the chaos that has ensued in persual of total freedom for the citizen, everyone is ultimately the capitalist's slave - and not just any capitalist but a media mogul. His infectious power, his midas touch sucks the vulnerable, weak and dissasociated into his grasp where he can use them as he likes. The ultra-cynical subtext is palpable, especially when the pseudo-philosophical ramblinsg of the punks get to their most rambling verbose sections. Jarman is not praising the punk movement; he is highlighting the irony in the punk reliance on mas media. He is detailing, quite cleverly i may add, how those who controlled the direction of the movement (as he saw it) were little removed from those punk sought to attack and ridicule.

The film finishes by nicely, and again - ironically, circling in on itself. Happiness is swept away with hope to be replaced by despair, all at the doing of the punks who are only acting out of what they feel is justice. Self destruction reigns supreme and, although the monologues may be pretentious tosh at times and the actinga bit wooden, the film does have enough merits to make for worthy viewing. From a nostalgic perspective it's interesting to see the likes of Toya Wilcox when she was still punk's darling, along with Adam Ant doing his best to ape David Bowie but the main source of intrigue and debate in this work is what it's saying about the era that spawned it. It's a far cry from the homoeroticism of Sebastiane, focusing on female empowerment and violent feminism for the mospart as the 2 gay characters are resigned to the periphery, that allows Jarman to focus on the social implications of the plot to a far greater degree - expanding on narrative themes far more competently than in any of his previous work.

Not Jarman's best film by any stretch, but one worth a look for anyone interested in British sociopolitical history. 7/10