Chronic (2015)

Chronic - Poster

NOTE: I genuinely believe that any potential viewers of Chronic should endeavour to come to the film with as little information about it as possible. The following review contains significant analysis of key scenes that may spoil the overall effect of the film for a viewer.

Dir: Michel Franco

Starr: Tim Roth, Rachel Pickup, Michael Cristofer, Robin Bartlett, Sarah Sutherland

Viewed: Filmhouse, Edinburgh (Screen 3)

Until I sat down in the Filmhouse’s smallest screen and watched the unforgiving Chronic I had no idea who Michel Franco was. After the film’s closing act of self-sabotage I had to find out more about this clearly talented but extremely problematic filmmaker. Franco’s last film After Lucia (2012) had garnered him some acclaim at Cannes, including the attention of Tim Roth the president of the 2012 Un Certain Regard competition who bestowed the prestigious award upon that film. So it should come as no surprise that Roth lends his acting talents to this latest effort. Nor should it be any kind of shock that Franco walked away from Cannes 2015 with an award for Best Screenplay, particularly as the festival had been a strong supporter in the development of the production. Yet questions need to be asked of the Cannes festival jury as to what strengths they saw in this innately cruel and slyly manipulative screenplay. Is this simply another example of Cannes’ promotion of an auteurist agenda regardless of the overall quality of the work presented?

Chronic is ostensibly a character study, focusing upon David (Tim Roth) and his role as a caregiver for people who are terminally ill. However, the film isn’t solely concerned with this difficult subject matter, rarely seen in the movies, it is also interested in other notions of dependency, as well as deliberately toying with the audience’s preconceptions and understanding of cinema narrative. The composition of the opening ten minutes of the film serves as a microcosm of Franco’s controlling and deliberately duplicitous approach.

 

Chronic - Funeral
One of the key traits of Roth’s performance as David is the frequent inscrutability of his facial expressions.

 

The film begins with a sequence that is mainly comprised of a long tracking shot. However, initially this shot seems to be presented to us as the fixed frame presentation of a suburban home and driveway. This is quickly recontextualised by a frame within the frame, namely that of the windscreen of a car parked opposite the house. The shot is now given some degree of agency as the audience is made aware of its potential POV nature. When a young woman exits the house and gets into her car, the person who has been sat in the car opposite now tails her. Within this tracking shot we are then presented with the character of David, as the camera pans away from the windscreen to focus momentarily upon him, a middle-aged man following a young woman. This sequence then cuts to another fixed frame shot presenting David in a spartanly furnished room, sat at a computer desk, scrutinising something on the computer screen. Franco cuts to a fixed framing of the computer screen and the audience is shown that David is clicking through the pictures present on the Facebook profile of the young woman we saw earlier – her name is Nadia Wilson (Sarah Sutherland). The blunt cuts from these photographic images to the stark title of the film and then to a distressing fixed frame shot of a young emaciated woman Sarah (Rachel Pickup), barely able to keep sitting up straight upon the chair hoist of a bath tub, give the audience a new and disturbing context for the character of David. In this first post-title shot David is bathing Sarah. He is doing so in a manner that suggests a professional purpose and a degree of intimacy between Sarah and himself. It seems obvious that David is Sarah’s carer, but it isn’t as obvious as to precisely why he is caring for her. Is he a family member or a hired help? There is a tenderness in the way that David goes about bathing Sarah that runs contrary to the otherwise obvious signs of professionalism.

 

Chronic - Bedside.png
Very often Franco presents a scene to the audience in a way that makes them feel as if they have come in to the middle of something. Here David (Tim Roth) and John (Michael Cristofer) sate the latter’s pornographic needs.

 

What becomes apparent as the film progresses is that David, despite his generally professional approach to his work as a carer, is somebody who struggles with, or deliberately transgresses, the boundaries between the professional and the social, the impersonal and the intimate. On arriving at John’s home David immediately sets about demonstrating practical ways in which he can make this patient’s predicament easier. John has just suffered a debilitating stroke, leaving him bedbound. Franco uses David’s initial encounters with John and his various concerned family members to demonstrate how attentively the caregiver empowers his patient by wrestling the decision-making process away from these relatives and back within the patient’s control. Whereas the relatives tell David what John might need, David takes each one of their comments and directs it in the form of a question to John. Only when John has responded does David then act. Once more this would appear to show David’s professional approach to his occupation, yet it also enables David, over time, to keep the relatives at an ever-increasing distance. It helps that John is wonderfully portrayed by the caustically intelligent playwright Michael Cristofer.

A rather ingenious facet of the script is how it unfolds time. The audience is never really sure of the time that has passed between cuts. Moreover, Franco frequently approaches each sequence as if he were thrusting the audience into the middle of something. This creates an unsettling sense of narrative disorientation that fosters maximum ambiguity within many key scenes. One such important scene involves David going to a bookshop to enquire about the availability of some architectural texts. John’s profession was that of an architect (“Nothing special. Functional stuff.”) and my initial assumption in this scene was that David was getting some books for John, or maybe for himself so that he could have something to talk about with John. However, the scene actually points up the degree of David’s social dysfunction, as he enters into an excruciating conversation with one of the bookshop clerks. In this conversation David presents himself, for the second time in the film, as someone who is assimilating facets of his patients’ lives to flesh out his own biography. In this case he pretends to be an architect and parrots lines that John has mentioned to him. Franco never explicitly qualifies why precisely David does this, although there is an abiding sense that David is seeking to resolve his own traumas by empathetically and imaginatively inhabiting the realities of his patients.

Chronic is fortunate to have the physical presences and acting talents of the likes of Pickup, Cristofer and Bartlett. Each of these actors brings a specific set of physical vulnerabilities to the film, their bodies are sites of disease and exhibit thus. Pickup’s skeletal thinness encourages a simultaneous empathy and voyeurism. Cristofer’s soft, comfortable middle-age spread makes his debilitating stroke symptoms seem all the more frightening as they chime with the around about manner in which he is forced to communicate – he is a man swaddled in the suffocating softness of atrophy. Bartlett’s aged female frame expresses a stymied maternity and a stoic defiance of her disease, with her flesh settling on the brink of collapse, the brink of decay. There is a poignancy in each of these performances that never descends into the maudlin sentimentality of more conventional films about disease and dying. If anything the director appears to demand a little too much flattening of technique, which in the sequences involving David and Marta (Robin Bartlett) leads to increasingly mannered and inscrutable stillness within long takes. It is clear from the beginning why Roth would seek out Franco as a collaborator, as the director has effectively built a film around the British actor’s intuitive immanence and bustling attention to activity. Since his breakthrough in Alan Clarke’s Made in Britain (1983) Roth has operated with a bristling, primeval energy and threat, that has been gradually modulated by a careful attention to practical tasks. Even in his paunchy fifties Roth still exudes many of those boisterous and youthful qualities and Franco’s awareness of them informs much of his film’s ambiguous detailing of David. The professional approach of that character stems from Roth’s complete immersion in activity, whilst the troubling sense that this professionalism masks something far more unsavoury is a mark of those qualities that have the potential for violence or perversion. Whilst not being omnipresent within the frame – Franco frequently chooses to have Roth positioned off-camera within a sequence – Roth assiduously comes to dominate the film, in a mirror of the manner in which he comes to dominate the lives of his patients. What the actor most effectively brings to this role, and something that was almost certainly consciously worked out with the director, is a variety of gestural responses and facial expressions that seem deliberately out-of-place. This approach by Roth helps to maintain the ambiguity of the character and verges on an impenetrability that is suggestive of both an intensely private man, and a potentially characterless cipher. Either way it is a mesmerising performance and is the major reason why the film should be endured.

As the closing credits of Chronic roll a keen-eyed observer can’t help but notice the debt of gratitude Franco gives to fellow Mexican filmmakers Carlos Reygadas and Arturo Ripstein (his son Gabriel is a producer of this film). Within the context of successive generations of challenging Mexican filmmakers both of these figures, with their penchant for cruel and coolly controlling approaches to narrative and character, would seem to be clear influences. However, the thanks given to American filmmaker Jerry Schatzberg seems all the more relevant as Chronic’s elliptical development of narrative and deliberate counterpointing of character details seems indebted to that director’s complex moral and social works, such as Scarecrow (1973) and Street Smart (1987). It is a rather gross misjudgement, or a sign of youthful petulance, that Franco should end this disarming character study with such a relentlessly cruel closing sequence, the shock of which comes at the expense of absolutely undermining all of the work that has come before it. Returning to that initial querying of the Cannes screenplay award, one has to wonder just how exposed the quality of the writing may have been in this film if not for the superlative casting and Roth’s impeccable central turn. If Franco is setting out on an auteurist path it can only be hoped that he builds upon his eye for a performance and tries to curb his enthusiasm for cheap and sadistic shocks.

Rating: 6/10

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Ga, ga – Chwala bohaterom (1986)

Ga-ga bohaterom - Poster.jpg

Dir:- Piotr Szulkin

Starr:- Daniel Olbrychski, Jerzy Stuhr, Katarzyna Figura, Leon Niemczyk, Maria Ciunelis, Krzysztof Majchrzak

Scr:- Piotr Szulkin

DOP:- Dariusz Kuc

Put quite simply, Ga, Ga – Chwała bohaterom is a low-budget absurdist sci-fi masterpiece from the tail-end of the Communist era in Poland. Director Piotr Szulkin made a number of fairly inventive and daring movies during the 1980’s, including Golem (1979), Wojna swiatów – nastepne stulecje (1981) and O-bi, O-ba – Koniec cywilizacji (1984). Yet since the end of the Communist era in Poland his cinematic output has been limited to a 2003 adaptation of the Alfred Jarry play Ubu Roi. In many ways this is a great loss to Polish cinema, as the Gdansk-born Szulkin is one of the most distinctive Polish directors outside the holy trinity of Kieslowski, Polanski and Wajda.

Set in a bleakly grim futureworld in which prisoners are put to good use by being blasted out into space, supposedly to discover and claim new planetary terrain, Ga, Ga – Chwała bohaterom plays out like some twisted blend of Dark Star (1974), Mad Max (1979) and Monty Python. The hero (or bohater) of the title is played by Daniel Olbrychski, one of the premier stars of the Polish screen (and an actor who in more open times would have almost certainly become a significant Hollywood presence). Olbrychski does sullen, Eastwood-like terseness almost as well as the great man himself and in Ga, Ga – Chwała bohaterom he wanders around the hellish ‘western’ civilization he has ‘stumbled’ upon, seemingly unwilling or reluctant to engage with anything, or anyone. What he does discover, fairly rapidly, is that the idealised notion of interplanetary discovery that both the government and the prison authorities are putting across is a lie. Rather than being sent to dangerous new planets the prisoners are sent to one particular planet where they are greeted as arriving heroes by the depraved human population of the colony. However this hero-worship has a hidden and sinister purpose that becomes increasingly apparent to Olbrychski, who appears to have simply swapped one type of prison for another, more dangerous, one.

Szulkin, who must have been working on a shoestring budget, manages to convert areas of Łodz (Poland’s heavily industrialised second city and cinema hub), particularly the Widzew stadium, into truly terrifying frontier terrain. At times the film has a close visual feel to the night-time sequences from the cult Australian movie Dogs in Space (1986), laced with a little of the working-class surrealism of Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki. One of the most impressive visual metaphors throughout the film is the way in which the old and stately rubs shoulders with the brash and modern. Christmas lights seem to illuminate every shop or bar sign, advertising various iconic American products, such as Coca-Cola and Campbell’s soup. In the bar hotdogs are sold (inexplicably made from human fingers), whilst immense pride is taken by the bureaucrats of this hell-hole in the form of transport they drive around in. Inside the hotel Olbrychski as a visiting hero has to inhabit, there is a chaotic assortment of sculptures, busts and artworks, as if the place were a lapidary cemetery, or decaying museum, in which the forgotten history of a culture has been haphazardly stored away. So much of the landscape of the planet is familiar and obviously Earth-like, yet Szulkin is circumspect enough in his framing of each shot, that it unnervingly becomes an explicitly alien terrain in which humanity seems to have become hideously degraded and morally deformed.

Ga-ga bohaterom - One True Hero
If you could only find a way to commit a massacre with this toy piano then you’d be our one true hero.

Alongside Olbrychski another titan of the Polish screen Jerzy Stuhr – Amator (1979), Seksmisja (1983), Kiler (1997) – features as the camp and craven local bureaucrat, who seems at first to have only Olbrychski’s best interests at heart. There is a certain ‘theatrical’ style of acting that comes through in some Polish cinema and television and resembles a milder form of the deranged performances extorted by Andrzej Zulawski in his 1981 horror film Possession. At its worst this manner of performance can be seen as an irritatingly ineffectual and heavily signposted anti-realism, that seems to turn every role into a cabaret comic turn. However, when given the right narrative conditions, and when executed with the sophistication of a figure like Stuhr, this type of performance can significantly escalate the absurd comic energies of a given film. Here Stuhr puts on a whining, wheedling, brilliantly brown-nosing display that comes to encapsulate the passive-aggressive implacability of ‘officialdom’. This comes across most effectively in one brilliant sequence in which Stuhr arrives, unannounced, in Olbrychski hotel room to shower the ‘hero’ in gifts of a most disturbing nature.

The depravity of the frontier terrain that Szulkin has created in the movie has a hysterical and blackly comic tone to it. Gangs of whooping and screaming individuals ride around on converted motorbikes and sidecars, letting off firecrackers and lighting eerie flares. Sex is a prime source of corruption, with Olbrychski being inundated with different perverse offerings from the very moment his spaceship lands. Stuhr’s bureaucrat presents the first of these offerings to Olbrychski in the form of a youthful Katarzyna Figura, who plays an ‘innocent’-looking prostitute called Once. Later in a wonderfully demented sequence involving Maria Ciunelis’ malevolent harridan of a whore, Stuhr’s slimy authority is called into question as he is verbally chastised by Ciunelis with the kind of inventive cursing that is so rarely heard in everyday Polish. Aside from sex, there is an obsession with violence and brutality in this frontier world. The ‘heroes’ are meant to participate in this society by committing a suitably grisly and sickening crime, so that they can then be publicly executed in a truly horrendous and highly comical manner. Having left behind a brutally oppressive and dehumanising prison life on planet Earth, Olbrychski is more and more mortified to discover that far from having the lonely freedom of deep space welcoming him, he rather has an even more distorted and disturbing version of Earth to navigate through.

Ga-ga bohaterom - Naughty Hero.jpg
Now who is a good little hero then. Play nice.

 

Szulkin’s film is an extremely funny one, but underpinning, and in many ways fuelling, this humour is a satirical bite that doesn’t need a specific understanding of late-Communist Polish realities to make its mark. The subversive way in which it ennobles Olbrychski’s prisoner figure by showing him to have far more humanity than either the prison authorities who deal with him upon earth, or the citizens of this ‘Depraved New World’, is further complemented by the manner in which government methods of policing and bureaucracy are frequently shown to be corrupt fabrications of idealised ‘authority’. In one particularly effective, if slightly heavy-handed, sequence Krzysztof Majchrzak’s military policeman first antagonizes Olbrychski, then provokes him into committing an absurdly violent act, before finally ensuring that the necessary evidence of wrongdoing is obtained by framing the scene. It is as coy and playful an interpretation of the average Polish citizen’s relationship to authority as you’ll find in Polish cinema, lent even greater poignancy by Olbrychski’s baby talk protestations (from which the title of the movie is derived) that seem to suggest that the only way to respond to those who wish to infantilise you is to become truly babyish.

Being a Polish director Szulkin cannot resist also involving elements of Catholic religious symbolism in his work and in Ga, Ga – Chwała Bohaterom the implicit waiting for the Second Coming of Christ is found in the arrangement of objects in trinities, one on the left, one on the right and one in the centre. On a couple of occasions in the film this religious metaphor accrues an additional political meaning, as Olbrychski’s character refuses to select between left and right, but rather looks toward the middle option, the central way (neither adhering to the failures of either extreme, but seeking to balance one against the other). In this way Olbrychski’s character could be interpreted as a lone voice of reason, in a world of fanaticism and extremes. Szulkin tends to write these exchanges so that they resemble a particularly portentous take on Beckett, straining for elusive ambiguity. This is a rare false note in an otherwise energetic, sharp and wholly original addition to the dystopian sci-fi subgenre. Even the naming of the planet on which Olbrychski lands has a degree of ironic sophistication, it being a new-fangled formulation of Australia, that colonial dumping ground for all those dissident elements of ‘British’ society. This excellent film is well worth unearthing and has been handsomely boxed alongside two of Szulkin’s other 80’s films in a recent Telewizja KinoPolska release, replete with English subtitles

Compendium of Published Writings (No. 1)

Over the last few years I have had a handful of articles appear in two on-line film publications. The first of these is Intellect’s The Big Picture Magazine, which is a publication devoted to focusing attention upon the visual artistry within contemporary cinema. You can find the following three articles at this publication:

  1. Four Frames: Sherry Baby (Published: 17/10/2013) – This is a short piece exploring the power dynamics of a rather frank sex scene that occurs early in Laurie Collyer’s 2006 film.
    Four Frames: Sherry Baby
  2. Four Frames: La Vie de Jesus (Published: 22/03/2013) – Focuses upon the exquisite framing of the climatic scene in Dumont’s 1997 debut feature. It is my argument that this sequence appears to conflate the spiritual and the material as masochistically endured antimonies.
    Four Frames: La Vie de Jesus
  3. 1,000 Words: Deconstructing the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (Published: 26/04/2013) – A short essay that looks at the phenomenon of the manic pixie dream girl in film and advocates that Ruby Sparks (2012) is in fact an impressively self-aware feminist deconstruction of this slyly chauvinistic trope.
    1,000 Words: Deconstructing the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl

Whereas these were some of my earliest attempts at a serious engagement with writing about film aesthetics and cover standalone films, my two full-length essays that are published through the Parisian portal entitled The East European Film Bulletin (EEFB) are more exhaustive and focus upon my academic interest with Polish cinema. They are as follows:

1) Love and Sensation: A Brief Examination of Some Trends in Polish Comedy Films since 2005 (Published: 23/03/2015) – This piece looks at data surrounding the most financially successful Polish comedies of the last decade, since the formation of the Polish Film Institute (PISF). It suggests formal and aesthetic linkages between these films and examines why few, if any, of them have been successfully exported.
Love and Sensation: Polish Comedy since 2005

2) Agnieszka Holland: Transitioning Between Televisions (Published: 07/06/2015) – Focusing upon Holland’s little-acknowledged television work within multiple regions (Poland, US, France, Czech Republic), the article examines this output as a site of transnational transitioning. Holland takes her experiences and training within Czech and Polish State television during the communist period and transitions elements of their aesthetics and operating procedures into the French and US systems. What is more her experiences in the US, particularly with HBO, then enable her to return to the contemporary Polish and Czech television environment with new formats for ambitious drama series.
Agnieszka Holland: Transitioning Between Televisions

I can strongly recommend both websites as sources for interesting and incisive film writing and hope that you will not only look over my articles listed above, but explore the works of some of my colleagues upon these publications.

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

Something Wicked This Way Comes - Poster

Dir:- Jack Clayton

Starr:- Jason Robards, Jonathan Pryce, Diane Ladd, Pam Grier, Ellen Geer, Vidal Peterson, Shawn Carson

Scr:- Ray Bradbury

DOP:- Stephen H. Burum

Producer(s):- Peter Douglas, Dan Kolsrud

Between 1976 and 1984 Disney attempted to diversify from their patented brand of wholesome family fare. During this period a raft of movies were released that although still aimed primarily at children were clearly much darker in both tone and content. The 1983 adaptation of Raymond Bradbury’s classic Shakespeare-referencing, carny horrorshow novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, sits alongside the likes of Escape from the Dark (1976), Return from Witch Mountain (1978), The Black Hole (1979), The Watcher in the Woods (1980), Return to Oz (1985) and The Black Cauldron (1985) as emblematic of this awkward collision between traditional Disney family entertainment and a more ambiguous conception of childhood, laced with horror, mystery and more challenging philosophical concerns. At the time Disney was not alone in this trend toward the maturation of kids films. The early-to-mid eighties, in particular, saw bleak works like The Dark Crystal (1982), Labyrinth (1986), E.T. – The Extraterrestrial (1982) and The Neverending Story (1984) brought to the big screen during holiday season. Whilst blockbuster fare like The Goonies (1985) and Ghostbusters (1984) (as well as the essentially adult Gremlins (1984), by Joe Dante) pushed the envelope in terms of what constituted family entertainment. This made growing up in this period akin to a late-Victorian childhood, where a moral education appeared most effectively conveyed through the restrained use of horror and pathos (think Dickens, Le Fanu, M.R. James, M.P. Shiel and the later Edwardians like Algernon Blackwood).

Ray Bradbury’s source novel is a remarkably dense and allusive work that deals primarily with the mutability of good and evil. It was inspired by Bradbury’s own youthful encounters with a travelling carnival and has much of a child’s curiosity and wonder at its core. Bradbury had initially conceived of the novel as a film script for his good friend Gene Kelly, but failure to attract the necessary studio backing led Bradbury to flesh out his narrative idea into a novel-length work. Disney bought up the rights to the novel from Bradbury in the mid-seventies and commissioned the author to work upon his own adaptation. They also gave Bradbury a degree of artistic control on the project that saw the producer/director Jack Clayton – who famously directed the eerily compelling The Turn of the Screw adaptation The Innocents (1961) – employed to helm the movie. Clayton was hired on Bradbury’s recommendation, as a result of having developed a good working relationship during their time together on the 1976 adaptation of Moby Dick. With this in mind it seems odd then that one of the biggest difficulties that Something Wicked This Way Comes faced, during production, was Bradbury and Clayton’s increasingly divergent conceptions of how the finished film should look. For Bradbury it was essential that the movie retained the core of the novel’s moral incertitude. Clayton, however, was much more pragmatically focused upon making the material accessible enough to as wide an age group as possible. As a result of this creative conflict the finished film has an unevenness of tone that somehow manages to capture the essence of the novel, without staying all that faithful to it.

The film is set in a bygone forties-era, small town America of barbershops and soda fountains. Two teenage boys Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson) and Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson), one blonde-haired and one black-haired, bond over their frustrated affections for their fathers. In Will’s case his father Charles (Jason Robards) is a world-weary, bookish and fearful man, riven with regret, who cannot bear to spend time with his son since he embarrassingly failed to save him from drowning in a fast-flowing river. Will was rescued, but by Jim’s father Harry, something that Charles seemingly cannot forgive himself for. Jim has an equally problematic relationship with his own father, as Harry has absented himself from the family home and has not been seen by wife, nor son, since. These withdrawn, or absent, paternal figures seem to have defined their own children’s adventurousness and strength of character. Will embraces action to almost the same degree that his father recoils from it, whilst Jim has the kind of reckless courage that stems from his father’s own example.

Something Wicked This Way Comes - Marching
The devilled eggs chase the bacon round the frying pan. Jonathan Pryce as the darkly dangerous Mr Dark.

 

The town they inhabit is the very definition of idyllic, as it is a place where little of consequence seems to break the sweet slumber that has fallen over its residents. The adults of the town all seem to be somnambulists. From the barber Mr. Crosetti (Richard Davalos) to the matronly school teacher Miss Foley (Mary Grace Canfield), they seem incapable of affecting change in themselves and initially repress their desires for a different life under the prevailing benign contentedness that pervades the community. It is this deep-rooted and unacknowledged dissatisfaction that brings Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce) and his Pandemonium Carnival to town. Dark is a demon, if not the devil, who animates a beguiling Dust Witch (Pam Grier) and sets about giving the townsfolk what they truly desire. Yet these acts are by no means altruistic, as they are simply cunning illusions engineered to enslave the townsfolk within the diabolical carnival, allowing Dark to feast upon the marrow of human misery and despair. Both Will and Jim stand in Dark’s way, as they are self-possessed youths who have yet to feel the crippling doubts and fears of their elders. Their curiosity, their vitality is the very thing that Dark most fears, as it contains the potential for lightning and love, the powers that can destroy the dour and depressing illusions of the carnival. In this way a crucial ancillary role is that of Tom Fury (Royal Dano), the lightning man, who goes around selling conductor rods that channel lightning away from buildings. Fury manages to sell one of his rods to Jim, which acts as a vital defence against the very worst that Dark can do and ultimately brings about the storm which is Dark’s downfall.

Such, almost allegorical, narrative ideas can seem more than a little muddled when transferred from book to big screen and in fact Bradbury (and an uncredited John Mortimer) jettison much of the novel’s explanatory material, making the film all the harder to follow. Yet one thing that Clayton and Bradbury have been able to capture and transport from page to screen almost perfectly is the rather intense atmosphere of dread and fear that runs through the core of the source material. James Horner’s wonderfully chilling soundtrack supplies much of this intoxicating mood. However, there is also some impressive visual horror that seems all the more authentic in light of modern CGI blandness. One particularly horrific sequence involves an invasion of tarantulas that is up there with the insect infestation sequence in Creepshow for the sheer, visceral repulsion it evokes. Pam Grier’s silent performance as the malevolent Dust Witch is also queasily evocative of Poe’s best work, her veiled beauty occasionally morphing into a Munch like personification of evil and anguish. The carnival set features two extraordinary elements. The first of these is the Mirror Maze, that ultimately serves as the scene of the final encounter between Charles, the boys, the Dust Witch and Mr. Dark. The second is the Merry-go-round, upon which people either grow rapidly younger or older. In the Mirror Maze Bradbury seems to combine elements from Hesse and Snow Whitethat Clayton then reproduces in a similarly disorienting manner to the famous closing sequence of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon (1973). On the Merry-go-round, when Bruce M. Fischer’s Mr. Cooger is reduced to a small child, the film uses a highly effective hallucinatory visual trick that harks all the way back to the very origins of cinema.

Despite the film’s plot failings it is a striking work of cinema because of this focus upon the origins and defining characteristics of the medium, namely as a source of illusion. The opening sequence that has a train approaching the screen in the dead of night, plumes of steam billowing from the engine stack, a bright white light piercing the darkness, is a direct reference to that most exhilarating of cinematic moments L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1896), seeming to act as the blackened mirror image of that moment of technological magic. Later on in the movie various visual effects are deployed that make the viewer all too aware of the artifice and illusion of the film itself, most impressively in a stippled lightning effect, toward the end of the film, that seems to convert an empty field into a threatening alien landscape. When these moments of visual virtuosity are allied to the disturbing spectacle of a carnival promenading down the town’s main street, Jonathan Pryce marching at its front decked out in black top hat and tails, cane in hand, then the film appears to be self-consciously using the form as a means of examining ‘strangeness’.

There are familiar elements in the movie that hark back to works like Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) and Clayton’s own earlier effort The Innocents. Yet, one surprising aspect of the film is the way in which it seems to serve as a visual blueprint for the far more sophisticated Hungarian work The Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), from the legendary cinematic auteur Béla Tarr. Perhaps, it points up an unrecognised, or unacknowledged, Bradbury influence upon the novelist, and Tarr collaborator, László Krasznahorkai. In another cultural crossover, the singer Tom Waits also seems to be pilfering a little of Pryce’s devilish magnetism in his promo video for the song ‘In the Neighbourhood’, from his career-changing album Swordfishtrombones (1983). There are also parallels to be drawn between the smooth visual darkness of the film and later ghostly eighties works such as Tim Burton’s uproarious Beetlejuice (1988) and Frank LaLoggia’s sombre fable Lady in White (1988).

Something Wicked This Way Comes - The Dust Witch
The female of the species really is more deadly than the male. Pam Grier as the beguiling Dust Witch.

 

As well as the unique look of the film, Clayton also manages to elicit some very strong performances from the likes of Pryce, Robards and Grier. Robards was always most impressive when playing characters who combined a mixture of stoic resolve with resigned world-weariness. His turn here as the emotionally stunted librarian and father Charles Halloway, is one that manages to work out almost every imaginable permutation of despair and regret, without engaging in the fanciful histrionics of a born-again Hamlet. Robards’ still central performance could have allowed Jonathan Pryce to run amok in the hammiest of ways in the role of Mr. Dark (maybe Stephen King was thinking of Pryce’s performance when he wrote the character of Leland Gaunt in his 1991 novel Needful Things). However, Pryce is far too subtle an actor to grandstand Pacino-style. His performance is remarkable for the way in which it suggests menace whilst exhibiting so much restraint. Perhaps the most insidious of all images in the film is that of the seductive Pam Grier. Her performance as the Dust Witch is one that is so powerfully effective precisely because she does so very little. The slight gesture of her hand, or faint nod of her head become quiet little moments of horror, that force the viewer to watch on whilst all the time indicating that indeed something wicked this way comes.   

 

Changeling, The (1980)

Changeling, The - PosterDir:- Peter Medak

Starr:- George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas, Jean Marsh, John Colicos

Scr:- Russell Hunter, William Gray, Diana Maddox

DOP:- Jon Coquillon

Producer(s):- Joel B. Michaels, Garth H. Drabinsky

The Changeling is a slow and ponderous movie, featuring a rather leaden central performance from George C. Scott and absolutely no overt horror sequences. However, the film’s strengths lie elsewhere. Underneath its stolid surface it is in fact an intensely chilling and atmospheric haunted house movie, with elements of Richard Matheson’s A Stir of Echoes (1999) spliced into the mix and some fascinating cinematography from Witchfinder General (1968) DOP, Jon Coquillon.

English-Hungarian director Peter Medak [The Ruling Class (1972), The Krays (1990)] veers away from his standard blackly comic fare to deliver a brooding, chilly and utterly po-faced entry into the horror canon. Scott plays John Russell, a musician who has just lost his wife and daughter in a tragic road accident. Returning to his alma mater in Seattle, to teach advanced musical composition, he is leased a sprawling, palatial property by the local Historical Society. Russell strikes up a friendship with the Historical Society associate Claire Norman (Trish Van Devere, Scott’s real-life wife) who is dealing with this property. Before long strange occurrences are alerting Russell to a potentially malevolent presence in the house, that brings Claire and himself directly in contact with the spirits of a century old mystery.

Changeling, The - Staircase
Not since Hitchcock has a stairwell being used to such horrifying effect in a film.

 

Remembering that the end of the seventies had seen a real growth in supernatural horror, it is understandable how The Changeling may have been ignored in favour of the more hysterically terrifying pyrotechnics of The Omen and Amityville movies. There is little in the film that immediately grabs your attention. Yet once Medak and Coquillon have mapped out the external landscape of Seattle (including some excellent establishing shots of the strange geometry of the city’s architectural landmarks) and the internal layout of Russell’s leased property, the film creates an understated atmosphere of dread and foreboding that is unlike almost any other post-seventies horror movie, with the possible exception of The Blair Witch Project (1999).

What Medak seems to intuitively understand of the genre is that less is invariably more. As a result, The Changeling is one of the leanest horror movies I’ve seen, with only really the denouement reaching out for the kind of outlandish bombast beloved by the aforementioned films. Another impressive judgement call on Medak’s part is to do with the amount of information the audience is given throughout the film. Again Medak resists literality, often skipping over pieces of narrative explication so as to enhance the ‘weird’ tension in the film. Scott, one of the great physical performers of the sixties and seventies, is taut, restrained and prickly. It’s a performance that superficially seems ill-conceived and lifeless, as if Scott was simply collecting a pay-cheque. However, the manner in which he closes down the role of John Russell, suggests hidden reservoirs of grief and guilt, that makes the character a second site of haunting within the film.

The way that Medak sets about confidently exploring the horror genre can be evidenced most clearly in the cinematography of Jon Coquillon. This Dutch DOP had a track record of capturing moments of cinematic terror in films like Witchfinder General, Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968) and Straw Dogs (1971). Under Medak’s direction Coquillon uses his entire arsenal of cinematographic tricks to turn the interior space of the house into an imposing, threatening and utterly claustrophobic experience of dread. Utilising long, smooth, seemingly POV (but whose point of view is the troubling question here?) tracking shots, Coquillon lays out the schemata of the property as if it were being excavated from memory. It gives the film much of the feel of Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), which would be released later in the same year. Aside from these impressive mobile camera sequences, the use of extremely high-angled shots throughout the movie, as if suggesting the presence of things, unseen, in the nooks and crannies of the property, imbue almost every internal scene with a sense of intense anxiety and paranoia. Even when Russell and Norman are out and about in Seattle, Medak and Coquillon frequently resort to the use of the same vertiginous establishing shots, only in these external settings the camera position tends to be reversed, with extremely low-angled shots craning upward, placing the actors within a landscape of imposing structures. So much of the film is, in this way, carefully constructed to point up the extreme insularity and remoteness of Russell’s bereaved husband and father.

Doesn’t Daddy want to play ball?

 

The use of darkness and shadow is also exemplary in The Changeling. Russell’s initial forays into new, hidden, parts of the property, are often framed within darkness, with only glimmers of light creeping through from obscure sources in the shot. Medak’s mis-en-scene suggests a man groping around in the dark spaces for answers to terrible, unspoken questions. A sequence late on in the film in which Russell convinces a woman that her daughter’s room is built above a grave is eerily captured from above, detailing a gaping black hole in the centre of the room, out of which some light may finally be cast upon the mystery at the heart of the movie. The suggestiveness of language and story is also displayed to full effect by Medak, as frequently the horrors of the film are spoken about, before they are ever actually seen, if they are even seen at all. This is an identical technique to that used in The Blair Witch Project, where story and conversation plant the seeds of the terrifying bounty, that is harvested late on.

I’m guessing this may be labelled conceptual art.

 

As with all movies of this ilk The Changeling has its silly sequences and plot implausibilities (the wheelchair pursuit close to the end of the film, or the manner in which the house can kill some people, but not those who would bring about a resolution to the haunting), but most of these are kept to the periphery of the movie’s action by Medak’s complete investment in atmosphere and suggestion. Whereas in most haunted house movies there is the nagging question as to why the inhabitants don’t just cut their losses and move on, in The Changeling Russell has no financial commitment to the property and should be even freer to move away when the house begins to reveal some of its more disturbing peculiarities, yet there is a perfect logic to why this character may feel compelled to linger on and explore the dark corners of the house. In Russell, Medak has a character who has been deeply wounded and although these wounds may now have begun to heal, scar tissue has been left behind that he cannot help but pick away at. Just as this character is immersed in external horrors as a means of reconciling his inner grief, so the audience undoubtedly becomes ensnared in one of the most fully realised portrayals of supernatural terror ever brought to the cinema screen.

Play Poland 2015: Carte Blanche (2015)

Carte Blanche Poster

(Poland, 2015, 106mins)

Dir: Jacek Lusiński

Cast: Andrzej Chyra (KACPER), Arkadiusz Jakubik (Wiktor), Urszula Grabowska (Ewa), Tomasz Ziętek (Madejski)

Screenwriter: Jacek Lusiński

DOP: Witold Płóciennik

Editing: Jarosław Barzan

Production Design: Marek Zawierucha

Sound: Artur Kuczowski & Filip Krzemien

Viewed: 20:40, Filmhouse, Edinburgh (Screen 3), Tuesday 20th October 2015

This is a both a very safe Polish film production (based upon a headline grabbing news story, set in a public institution and dealing with a potentially tragic central protagonist) and also one that exhibits all the peculiar elements that Poland brings to standardised genre forms. British audiences will be well versed in the mechanics of the ‘disease-of-the-week’ drama, most often a television movie of US provenance aimed squarely at provoking maximum emotional response from the viewer. Carte Blanche doesn’t play by those rules, even if it is operating within the genre. It’s a grittier film, which constantly undercuts the clichéd dynamics of its characters with a particularly blunt attitude towards the disease itself. Perhaps, the hardest thing for a non-Polish audience to get their heads around will be the central dilemma of Andrzej Chyra’s quietly resourceful history teacher. Whereas in Britain a debilitating disease would only be of issue to a person’s employment prospects if it meant their abilities to do the job were grievously impaired, in Poland it is a more awkward issue. This is due to the social stigmas that are, at the very least, implicitly attached to any person who clearly exhibits a disability. Visible disabilities are still very much the stuff of the periphery and margins in Polish public life, with families often overly-insulating disabled relatives from the world, out of fear or embarrassment. Feliks Falk tackled this issue head-on in his melodramatic thriller Enen (a film that deserves greater recognition), and Lusiński does something similar here, only with a more optimistic outlook.

Chyra is one of my favourite contemporary Polish actors. His azure blue eyes are all too bewitching and Lusiński’s decision to focus attention upon them at every possible moment in the movie is a sensible one. Playing the middle-aged history teacher Kacper, based upon real-life Lublin teacher Maciej Białek (who appears in a brief cameo as Kacper’s sarcastic neighbour), Chyra is playing against type as a generally decent man stuck in a situation that requires him to lie. At the beginning of the movie, after the sudden death of his mother, Kacper is made aware that he has a medical condition that has been passed down maternally and will ultimately lead to his eventual blindness. From here on in Kacper is trying to come up with as many solutions to the problems of his disability that will enable him to continue in his teaching position. This complex cover-up ropes in Kacper’s closest friend, played by Arkadiusz Jakubik, who acts as a confidante and sounding board. However, it is only really through the complicity of his students that Kacper is ultimately able to pull the wool over the authorities of the school for long enough to make them question passing any rash judgement on his capacity to carry out his duties of work.

Carte Blanche - Jakubik and Chyra
Andrzej Chyra plays Kacper a high school teacher who is gradually losing his sight. Here he schemes with close friend Wiktor (Arkadiusz Jakubik) as to how he will continue in his job without anyone finding out about his condition.

 

Lusiński and DOP Witold Plóciennik come up with a visual representation of the effects of Kacper’s disease that gradually narrows and distorts the camera lens’ field of vision. As well as limiting what it is Kacper can actually see, the image is further degraded by a switch to a progressively more monochrome colour palette. By the end of the film Kacper is barely able to make out anything and the images that the viewer are exposed to from Kacper’s POV are a murkily indiscernible swarm of motes and dots. It is as if the retina is quite literally raging against the dying of the light. Even though director and DOP do a good job of working out this issue of displaying visual deterioration, they are often prone to overly ostentatious shots of their Lublin locations. This is partly understandable as Lublin is a striking city that has gone somewhat underfilmed in the past. Yet the heavy-handedness of a few of these ‘artful’ shots undermines the otherwise modest and unassuming nature of the film. This is particularly obvious with one overhead shot of the staircase to a work colleague’s flat, Ewa (played by Urszula Grabowska), which forces the visual identification of this ornate spiral stairwell with the contours of the human eye. A shocking accident sequence is far more effective and arresting, as the camera placement suggests the blind spot that Kacper is hitherto unaware of, and does so in a way that barely draws attention to itself.

Another strength of the film is in the dialogue subversions of the script. Seemingly lifeless classroom sequences, in which it is unclear what exactly Kacper is teaching, are suddenly enlivened by a pointed remark from a student, usually Tomasz Ziętek’s cocksure Madejski. Staff meetings point up the petty grievances and jealousies of the teachers. When Kacper is forced to reveal his secret to a character he has come to care about a great deal, he is met with the cold anguish of a remark describing him as a cripple. At times Lusiński overplays the rapport between students and teacher, and there are baffling moments like when it is revealed that Kacper and one of his colleagues don’t even know each other’s names, but the director generally manages to navigate effectively between maudlin sentimentality and cool detachment.

In recent years there have been a number of Polish films tackling the issues related to disability within Polish society, among them the aforementioned Enen, Jacek Bławut’s intense docudrama Born Dead and the technically stunning international co-production Imagine directed by Andrzej Jakimowski. Carte Blanche doesn’t bear comparison to the best of these films, but within its own modest means and buoyed by an excellent central performance it is a light and engaging social drama worthy of a wider audience. Moreover, it is that rarest of films in Poland, namely a feel-good film.

IFFR 2016: Brat Dejan [Brother Dejan] (2015)

Brat Dejan - Poster

(Russia, Serbia, 2015, 113mins)

Dir: Bakur Bakuradze

Cast: Marko Nikolic (DEJAN STANIC), Misa Tirinda (SLAVKO)

Screenwriter(s): Bakur Bakuradze, Ilya Malakhova

DOP: Nikolay Vavilov

Editing: Ilya Malakhova, Ru Hasanov

Set Design: Nikola Bercek

Sound: Saulius Urbanavicius

Aspect Ratio: 1.85

Viewed: 12:15pm, Pathe 7, Rotterdam, Thursday 28th January 2016

 

Synopsis: General Dejan Stanic has been on the run from the European Courts and the new government regime in Serbia, post-Balkans conflict, for almost fifteen years. Wanted for war crimes he is holed up in the hills with an old army friend Slavko. Whilst Slavko diligently attends to his bees, the General is moved from location to location in a desperate attempt to get him out of the country before the police, or his many enemies, catch up with him.

 

Review: Bakur Bakuradze’s remarkable film is a monumentally oppressive dirge of a character study. As off-putting as that may sound the film’s great strength lies within the carefully constructed air of wounded fatalism that seems to stalk the central protagonist at every turn. Bakuradze is banking upon his audience identifying with a person who has perpetrated war crimes, yet the director isn’t willing to make this identification trite or easy. Frequently in the film, including most memorably during one of the closing shots, the camera frames Stanic in a close-up headshot from the rear, making the back of his head the clearest possible obstacle to understanding. This repeated visual motif, almost always satisfyingly well framed, comes to embody the certitude with which the film answers the question how well we can really know anybody.

From the opening scenes of the film the audience are made aware of the way in which General Stanic is at the mercy of various different interested political factions within Serbia. Bakuradze’s further imposition of the rehearsal footage adds a meta-layer of meaning to this all-pervasive idea of management and mediation. Not only is the General being moved around his country like a harried and imperilled king on a chess board, but Nikolic’s performance is likewise being carefully handled by Bakuradze’s exacting notion of narrative. In a very real sense the General cannot escape himself, he cannot transcend his past, he is cursed to embody the war criminal he has been condemned as. Likewise, Nikolic cannot break free from the strictures of Bakuradze’s narrative and the insistent demands of the director’s blocking. The revelation of rehearsal footage at key moments within the film effectively blurs together performer and character, forcing the audience to experience the fixedness that relentlessly traps both within a narrowly proscribed framework (the film and the law).

Bakuradze is a Moscow-trained Georgian filmmaker with two well-regarded previous feature films Shultes (2008) and The Hunter (2011). It is interesting to consider how the filmmaker came to shoot a project so rooted in recent Balkan history, and so well aware of the nuances of the conflicts of the 1990s. Bakuradze has mentioned in interviews that the germ of an idea came from the fate of the Bosnian-Serb military leader Ratko Mladic, who was arrested in Lazarevo, Serbia on the 26th May 2011, having spent fifteen years on the run from an arrest warrant issued in 1996 by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. It is tempting to draw parallels with Bakuradze’s own homeland, which has been riven with civil war and secessionist conflicts since the dissolution of the former USSR. The factionalised nature of Balkan politics does have a mirror within the Caucasus, where competing nationalisms and ethnicities stake their claim for sovereignty. What is more despite being inspired by the events of Mladic’s fugitive life, Bakuradze has been at pains to detach Brother Dejan from oblique biopic status. This isn’t a film that seeks to document an individual existence, but rather one that is attempting to imagine (and reimagine) that existence. Again, the director’s inclusion of rehearsal material as a key constituent of his finished film is a formal decision that reinforces this notion of working and reworking a narrative and a character.

Brother Dejan - Back of Head Shot
Brat Dejan presents General Dejan Stanic’s head as a key visual obstacle to empathy and understanding. It is a film saturated with inscrutable back-of-head shots.

 

In competition at Locarno in 2015, Brother Dejan was received with a degree of disappointment by a number of critics. A central criticism of the film seemed to be the opacity of the character of General Stanic. Supposedly there is an absence of access to the inner world of this character, which has been interpreted as a failing of the film, especially in the light of Bakuradze’s interview comments about seeking to explore whether or not a man accused of ‘war crimes’ is in fact capable of change. I am not so convinced of these perceived ‘failings’. To these eyes Bakuradze has chosen to intricately construct a near wordless central performance that is consistently drawing attention to both past ‘glories’, present circumstances and future projections, all of which are connected by a nexus of disillusion, guilt and foolish pride. Nikolic’s richly ambiguous passivity as the General neatly vacillates between arrogance, insecurity and stoicism. It is a model of minimalist acting, thoroughly convincing in its minor detailing.

There were three sequences that stood out as exemplars of the tactics deployed by both director and star. The first of these sequences occurs early in the film when General Stanic is first housed with Slavko, a former soldier turned farmer and beekeeper. Slavko (played guilelessly by the non-professional actor Misa Tirinda) is also the caretaker for a hilltop site that includes a dilapidated radio station and radio mast. The General accompanies Slavko on one of his clean-up trips to the site. Wandering around the decayed, and decaying, structure of the radio station the General comes to a collapsed outer wall that allows him to survey the rolling hills up which he has just struggled to climb, the implication being that he had once scaled them with far greater ease at the head of a military outfit. Bakuradze switches from handheld camerawork that has stalked behind the General as he journeys through the building, to a wider shot that shows the building in profile, balanced precariously overhanging a precipice. In this wider shot the General is shown to be right at the edge of this precipice, looking first outwards and then downwards. The radio station is both a testament to the destructive impulses unleashed by the conflict – for which the General must take some responsibility, at the very least, for channeling – as well as a first potential site of self-destruction for the General. The peripheral presence of Slavko, working away on some wiring and completely oblivious to the General’s activities, only further enhances the concentrated remoteness of the General’s predicament. He literally cannot move forward, and no amount of mundane activity will help him to lose himself. It is striking just how little the General actually does throughout the entire film. Labour offers no succour, no respite, no escape. What is more, where once the General forcefully shaped the world around him, now his actions don’t even impact upon the one person forced to endure his company.

Brat Dejan - Precipice
General Dejan Stanic (Marko Nikolic) balanced upon the precipice between life and death. A precipice formed from his own wanton pursuit of destruction.

 

The politics that swirl around the General are perfunctorily outlined by a meeting with former colleagues. These men in the aftermath of the Balkans conflicts have since become mainstream opposition politicians, looking to manage the General’s situation for maximum populist publicity domestically and minimum negative consequences on the international stage. It is because of the General’s affiliations with this group of powerbrokers that he is being consistently moved from one location to another and prevented from showing his face in public. Midway through the film, having eluded his minders, the General goes down into Sarajevo simply so that he can eat a sandwich on a busy city street. This impromptu appearance in public makes headlines and thwarts the political campaign to have the General officially recognised as ‘dead’. Prior to this appearance he had not been seen in public for almost a decade, making it legally possible for his wife to have him declared ‘dead’. As a result of the political fallout from this ‘sighting’, including further demands for Serbia to take a more active role in pursuing the war criminals wanted by the International Criminal Tribunal, the General is moved to a villa in the north of the country in an attempt to smuggle him over an international border.

In the villa, that is decorated in an obscenely baroque fashion, the General decadently drops into drunken dissolution. A bravura sequence shows him, framed in a wide shot once more, sat by an empty swimming pool, like some squalid king surveying his own inner desolation projected outward into the physical surroundings. Bakuradze then cuts from this external shot to a similarly composed and framed internal shot, showing the General alone in the palatial drawing room of the villa. Sat upon a throne-like chair, surrounded by garishly ornate works of art and sculpture, the General appears to be drunk. Staring into space, his face assuming the vacancy of a stroke victim, he is suddenly animated into an incongruous fit of laughter, before he drifts off into slumber and drops his glass upon the floor, which brings one of his minders into the room to check upon him. What Bakuradze achieves within this sequence is an impressive compression and conflation of memory and fate. The film has opened with the director rehearsing a seizure. The General’s posture and attitude evokes a memory of this opening scene. Simultaneously the sequence also foreshadows what will occur to the General later on, an event that is directly linked to that earlier rehearsal. There is no obvious indicator as to what the General is laughing about, yet this isn’t necessarily opacity. The manner in which this scene has been edited, with each shot being very carefully composed, brings to the surface the absurd emptiness of the General’s present existence, as well as the manner in which it is so tightly controlled and managed. Although ostensibly a free man, he is a prisoner of political circumstance, a ruler without subjects.

Perhaps, the single most troubling and disturbing sequence in the entire film is one that seems at first to be incoherently related to the whole. It adopts the raw, unvarnished camerawork of other rehearsal scenes within the film, but operates more like a fantastical and nightmarish projection of the General’s inner fears and insecurities. Whereas the sequence at the radio station can be viewed as a first approach toward self-annihilation, this sequence in which an execution is rehearsed, seems to represent the General’s horror with the idea of divine retribution. What is implied throughout this sequence is that the actions of the militia are predicated upon the belief that they are exacting an eye-for-an-eye sense of justice. This sequence is framed by the General having earlier in the film overheard the news broadcast of another war criminal being captured. With the proposed crossborder escape becoming a rapidly approaching reality the General is shown to be experiencing an inability to sleep, whereupon the rehearsal footage begins. It depicts in claustrophobically close handheld camerawork the stopping of an elderly destitute looking man by a self-appointed militia. The militia are very clearly of the opinion that this man is a war criminal, despite his protestations to the contrary. The militia men force the man to stand up against a wall, at which point they spray him with a round of bullets. The man slumps to the ground apparently dead. The home video quality of the footage enhances the sense of witnessing an ‘authentic’ execution, with echoes of that chilling Saddam Hussein footage. It makes the manner in which the bullets pierce the body seem somehow more visceral and terrifying. The fear exhibited in the elderly man’s features give way to a deathly emptying out of consciousness as the body slumps to the floor – vacated. However, this ‘authenticity’ is immediately shown to be constructed manipulation, as the director verbally intervenes in the sequence and demands that the executed man fall more convincingly. This imposition of the rehearsal technique here foregrounds that central idea within the form of the film that the General’s life is manipulated and mediated, worked and reworked, for meaning, for message, for the benefit and agendas of others. It actually situates Bakuradze as a filmmaker attempting to approach the idea of the General and his life in a manner that actively seeks to sabotage the grand political narratives that can be attached to such a figure. It also plainly points up the crafted and fictive nature of the film by showing the processes and craft of this fiction.

It is rare to come across a work that so seamlessly marries together two conflicting realms of action and activity as Bakuradze does in Brother Dejan. The filmmaker is effectively making a film about the listlessness and lassitude of an old man who has become absolutely fed-up with the present circumstances of his existence. Yet by aggressively pursuing this sense of inertia and inaction, by demonstrating the utter lack of significant agency that the General has over his day-to-day affairs, Bakuradze imbues this character study with a contrary desire to survive, and continue surviving, that makes Stanic such a tragic figure worthy of our empathy, if not necessarily our understanding.

Other Side of the Door, The (2016)

Other Side of the Door, The (Poster)

Dir: Johannes Roberts

Starr: Sarah Wayne Callies, Jeremy Sisto, Sofia Rosinsky

Viewed: Cineworld Fountainpark, Edinburgh (Screen 8)

The Other Side of the Door is a nearly successful supernatural chiller that gives a strong indication of where the future may lie for the British film industry. It is the kind of classily mounted low-budget venture that Hammer made a killing from. Unlike Hammer, however, Rory Aitken and Ben Pugh’s production company 42 are looking toward the Indian subcontinent as a production partner, whilst simultaneously maintaining strong links with the Hollywood Studio system.

42 was announced with some degree of fanfare back in 2013. They were to operate as a production company cum talent agency, representing the likes of Rhys Ifans and Michael Caine, as well as looking to produce mid-range commercial genre fare like Welcome to the Punch (2013). Working alongside Rakesh Mehra’s Kriti Productions (who helped produce Asif Kapadia’s breakthrough work The Warrior (2001) they have put together a rather modern work of horror, set in India, with some location shooting taking place at the former residence of author and poet Rudyard Kipling – whose The Jungle Book is featured prominently as a plot device within the film. The influential VP of Fox International Pictures, Anna Kokourina, is the Hollywood production partner. The film features familiar faces with a television profile, Sarah Wayne Callies (The Walking Dead) and Jeremy Sisto (Six Feet Under, Suburgatory). In genre terms it is also important to note the presence among the producers of Alexandre Aja, director of the remakes of The Hills Have Eyes (2006) and Maniac (2012). It is safe to say that Aja has had a very hands-on role in the production, as not only does his production partner Justine Raczkiewicz feature as a co-producer, but cinematographer Maxime Alexandre and editor Baxter are both Aja regulars.

English director Johannes Roberts, who worked on the intense F (2010), initially handles the material here with a deft and subtle touch. The audience is introduced to Maria (Callies) and Michael (Sisto) during a blissful, sun-kissed Mumbai marriage proposal sequence, that swiftly reveals itself to be a dreadful nightmare. Michael has relocated the family to India to pursue a career in rare antiquities. The couple’s young daughter Lucy (a delightfully impish Sofia Rosinsky) is doted upon by her father, on the rare occasions he is home. Maria seems to be a little colder with her daughter and entrusts most of her care to the Indian maid Piki (played by Indian television personality Suchitra Pillai). Gradually, Roberts and his regular writing partner Ernest Riera, unfurl the complicating factor within this series of relationships. Audaciously they have chosen to examine a kind of Sophie’s Choice source of trauma, in which a mother has had to choose between saving one of her children and letting the other one die. The guilt of her inability to save her son Oliver (Logan Creran) is what dominates Maria’s thoughts, creating distance between herself and the daughter who survived, as well as the husband who wasn’t there when she needed him.

If the film had continued to mine this seam of loss and trauma then The Other Side of the Door could have been a very effective psychological drama, particularly considering Roberts’ facility for creating tension out of the alienating and disorienting ‘otherness’ of Mumbai. The film’s move toward the more familiar spectral hokum of Del Toro is an unfortunate progression. Unnerving child presences, poltergeist-like activity, the objects of a lost childhood (the stuffed toy tiger), J-Horror inspired demonic figures, all of these are blended together in an increasingly preposterous climax to the film, that even manages to foreground Sisto’s Michael, despite the fact this character has barely featured at all in the rest of the movie.

Other Side of the Door, The - Del Toro Horror
The descent into Del Toro terrain negates much of the effective psychological drama that had preceded it. Here we have a ghoulish Oliver (Logan Creran) seeking to torment his younger sister Lucy (Sofia Rosinsky).

 

Yet even in such magpie messiness The Other Side of the Door manages to come up with real moments of poignancy and baroque horror. Maria is told by Piki of a temple near her home village where “It is said that the line between the world of the dead and the living is very thin in this place”. Roberts follows up this conversation with a beautiful window shot that shows Maria enclosed within the shadowy domestic space of haunting memories, whilst reflected against the window pane is the blurred frame of her daughter, playing with their pet dog in the sunshine. This occasional visual succinctness is a strength that better producers may have fostered more effectively in Roberts. Later, when Maria approaches the temple she first journeys through a lush forest that is straight out of a fairytale, before coming across the skeletal trees, dead animals and disturbingly pregnant silence that surrounds this holy site. The sound design at this moment actually makes so much of so very little, with the initial silence of the temple being a forceful presence of its own.

There is an irresistible pull toward exoticism for any non-Indian filmmaker operating within the subcontinent and Roberts’ use of the Aghori sadhus as a ghoulish expression of Indian spiritual ‘otherness’ is perhaps the most exploitative aspect of the film. The encroaching menace of these painted figures provides the film with the majority of its cheap shocks and jolts. By comparison the simple use of a pet animal staring off camera is far more effectively chilling and has none of the problematic cultural misreadings. As the film strains for its concluding sacrifice it also falls foul of that old chestnut of the martyred woman, with Maria’s increasing mental instability making her more reminiscent of Victorian gothic females, than the more compellingly complex and modern trauma victim she had at first seemed. The film may have benefited more from adhering to the restrained and chilling claustrophobia of The Innocents (1961) than indulging in the mannered CGI shocks of The Orphanage (2007).

Rating: 5/10

La loi du marché [The Measure of a Man] (2015)

Measure of a Man, The (Poster)

Dir: Stéphane Brizé

Starr: Vincent Lindon, Karine de Mirbeck, Matthieu Schaller

Viewed: Filmhouse, Edinburgh (Screen 1)

An award-winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the latest gut-wrenching work from Stéphane Brizé is a beautifully underplayed human drama, resistant to the increasingly melodramatic connivances that have begun to undermine similar work from the Dardennes brothers. Brizé is assisted by a strong central turn from Vincent Lindon as the put upon, recently redundant, father of an academically gifted disabled son. The hang dog expression of stolid defiance that Thierry increasingly comes to adopt is a world away from the twinkle-eyed lover he played in Claire Denis’ superb Vendredi Soir (2002), and it speaks of Lindon’s impressive range that he can go from the immediate and sensual intimacy of that film, to the detached voyeurism of this, whilst proving equally adept in both roles.

Mia Madre by Nanni Moretti, which also featured strongly at this year’s Cannes, poked fun at the kind of politically engaged, leftist, humanist cinema that Brizé’s work embodies. The director within Mia Madre is making a film about trade union politics and workers’ rights. The insinuation in Moretti’s film is that the director has long since moved away from the preachy politics of such films and now has acquired a degree of worldliness that enables him to see such work as fraudulent. It could be instructive for Moretti to pay close attention to Brizé as here is a filmmaker who makes incisive, politically acute films about workers relations to employers, and the political institutions that perpetuate cycles of poverty and unemployment. Crucially Brizé does all of this whilst delivering a taut, formally intriguing and subtly underplayed morality tale/character study. I know which of the two films I felt more in tune with. Lindon plays Thierry, a manual labourer who has been let go from long-term employment at an age where it is difficult for him to find new work. Thierry has a loving wife, who appears to be the full-time carer for their disabled son. The son is intelligent and academically ambitious, but heavily physically impaired to the point where his father has to assist him in getting dressed. Thierry needs to find work to ensure he can pay off the last few years of the mortgage upon the family home, as well as seeing to it that his son can get to study his preferred subject at a costly University. Whereas the Dardennes somewhat preposterously boiled down Marion Cotillard’s impending redundancy to a few glib psychological issues and the social politicking of a ridiculous 48 hour timeframe, Brizé embeds his audience within a much longer period of time, effectively a year in Thierry’s life. Rather than this extended timeframe making the drama seem ponderous and over-long, Brizé’s plotting and formal decisions draw the viewer in to a compelling and complex moral dilemma.

Thierry eventually finds work as a security guard in the supermarket of the French title. At this halfway point in the film Brizé chooses to shift the action from a conventional social-realist domestic drama, to a voyeuristic CCTV reality show, in which the supermarket comes to act as a microcosm for all that is fundamentally wrong in the consumer-capitalist culture of the 21st century. It is bravura filmmaking that acts as a direct and defiant riposte to Moretti’s sanctimonious and solipsistic posturing. Not only does the film work as a brilliant political drama, but it also has some of the most cruelly funny and affecting scenes I’ve seen in any film this year. Again, whereas Moretti’s comic drama was over-reliant upon the gurning and mugging of John Turturro’s preening Hollywood actor caricature, here Brizé mines discomfiting comic gold from the excruciating realities of hunting for jobs in a modern marketplace where employers hold most of the cards. During an early Skype interview Thierry is instructed by the prospective employer about how to craft a better CV. Later on during a jobcentre workshop in which jobseekers watch each other’s interview technique and then group critique them, Thierry is taking to task for everything from his posture, to his inability to seem amiable. Lindon is superb in this latter sequence, as each piece of criticism serves only to amplify his feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability. Just following those hang dog eyes is sufficient to get the point.

One of the strongest scenes in a film packed full of arresting moments of human drama actually comes right at the opening of the film. Here Thierry is insistent in trying to communicate his sense of disillusionment with the jobcentre and their training courses. During this sequence we learn a lot about the main dynamics of the film and its characters. Firstly, there is the degree of inflexibility that defines Thierry’s outlook on finding work. Secondly, there is the institutional inflexibility that fails to adequately address Thierry’s job-seeking issues. Finally, there is the complexities and corruptions of a system that creates work for one sector of the population, by placing another sector of the population into pointless and wasteful training programs. The flawed platitudes that Thierry’s job officer keeps trying to peddle, echo the opaque personalisation of language in the supermarket workplace that Thierry eventually finds himself working within. Both conversations hold to the pretence of maintaining ‘niceness’, even when the situation and its frustrations demand the exact opposite. The degree to which Brizé stands above the likes of Moretti and the Dardennes, is in the manner with which he allows the drama to carry both the central protagonist’s overt struggle and the possibility of a similar perspective in the antagonist. In that opening scene we don’t just see Thierry’s frustrating predicament, but also the constraints and protocols that prevent the job officer from actually communicating in a direct, humane and truthful way with Thierry. We see how institutional systems effectively negate the individual human being, whilst incessantly wittering on about the individual and their choices.

 

The Measure of a Man - CCTV Scene
Rami Kabteni takes Vincent Lindon’s Thierry through what a security guard needs to look out for on the CCTV.

 

When the film veers into the surveillance culture of the supermarket then it becomes a scathing attack upon the flawed society that creates poverty traps and temptations and then condemns those who succumb to either. A repetitive over-shoulder shot of shoplifters and employees being marched down a corridor to an office where no good can come from the ensuing situation is the endgame for an overly condemnatory society. The supermarket uses its CCTV security system to scrutinise both customer and employee for evidence of any wrongdoing. The CCTV footage is inserted directly into large sections of the film, with Thierry and his fellow security guards manipulating the type of shot we see and the way these shots are edited together for maximum dramatic effect. Also, the security guards narrate what they are watching, which rapidly keys the viewer into how they should be seeing the society the film is presenting. There is a great degree of irony in the supermarket manager telling one of his employees – who has been keeping receipts thrown away by customers, so that she can use the voucher discounts on the back of them – that her actions have led to a breakdown in trust between them. As the CCTV inserts have made patently obvious, there was never any trust to breakdown in the first place.

The CCTV footage also operates as an incarnation of omniscience. The personal rigidity and inflexibility in Thierry is shown to have a direct corollary within the rigid and inflexible operating procedures of consumer capitalism, in which a young man thieving an i-Phone charger is treated in the same manner as an elderly man stealing a cut of meat, or an employee hoarding discount vouchers that customers have chosen to throw away. All of these individuals have stolen, but the inflexibility of the consumer capitalist system, particularly at the point where it intersects with the justice system, doesn’t treat people as individuals, but simply treats them as ‘thieves’ and ‘not thieves’. Brizé’s decision to align Thierry’s own loosening and liberation with a forceful rejection of the dehumanising aspects of his job, points the audience toward the real object of condemnation, namely the culture and society that can create such heinous job situations in the first place. Literally every character in Brizé’s film has a carefully crafted backstory that slowly drips into Thierry’s central narrative. The overall effect of this wonderfully rich and textured approach to character is to highlight at all times the humanity of people in relation, and how that humanity is placed under unendurable pressure by the inhumane systems we have created to govern our social spheres.

Rating: 9/10

A Fear of Dying: Approaching death in Wim Wenders’ ‘Lightning over Water’ and Tamara Jenkins’ ‘The Savages’

Nicholas Ray - Lightning Over Water
Nicholas Ray staring into the abyss in Wim Wenders’ Lightning over Water (1980).

 

At an early point in Wim Wenders experimental documentary on the death of Nicholas Ray, Lightning over Water (1980), Wenders puts forward the idea that one should confront one’s fears head on. Wenders’ perpetual paralysis when confronted with his visibly failing friend, and cinematic mentor establishes his motivation for coming to Ray’s New York apartment armed with a camera and flanked by a small film crew. Wenders is undoubtedly confronting his own fear. The uncomfortable opening exchanges between the iconic Hollywood maverick and his European protégé, are partly a result of Wenders placing a physical barrier – in the form of a partition wall – between himself and the coughing and spluttering, cancer-ridden, walking corpse that Ray has become. Ray here is a wraith-like spectre, almost always caught with his cigarette coolly dangling between skeletal fingers, or hanging louche (just like Jimmy Dean) from his wafer thin lips. The partition wall allows Wenders to remain blind to the physical decay of his idol. Yet the camera he deploys so mercilessly does not waver in its depiction of Ray’s deterioration. In looking over the day’s rushes Wenders ruminates over the exposing nature of the camera, as it insinuates itself into every rigid muscle and protuberant bone of Ray’s cracking carapace.

What is it that keeps Wenders film stock rolling? Continually, Wenders refers to the inability to find a film among all of the material, or simply the fact that he must carry on making the film. Yet as the fear grows closer and Ray’s vitality ebbs ever further away from the camera’s inquisition, what prevents Wenders from turning away, turning the camera away and thereby turning us – the audience – away from this process of dying? In amongst the cutting between aesthetic film (the cinema quality scene-setting) and guerrilla film (the revealing process shots of the film crew working the set) Wenders asks Ray what the great director wants from this film. Ray is bent on realising a dream-story he has had involving an art-dealer forging his masterworks and deriving his greatest pleasure from trying to place his own forgeries into the revered public spaces that have canonised the works in which he deals. Wenders calls Ray on his narrative idealisation. Why a painter Nick, why painting? We know it’s you, why not film. Nicholas Ray then verbalises the burden he is placing upon Wenders. He is asking Wenders to assist him in completing one last film – this film Lightning over Water (in itself a beautiful visual metaphor from the credit sequences). Wenders keeps filming because Ray needs to complete this film. As Ray says while addressing the Vasser College students, he needs to bring himself back to a sense of the whole man, he needs to feel whole again. Trying to bring Ray out complete and intact from the midst of his own deterioration is then Wenders’ task, his promise and what ultimately fuels the film’s intense final third, in which Ray fragments before the unflinching lens of the camera allowing Wenders to discover the ‘wholeness’ demanded of him by his co-auteur, a dying man’s ‘final cut’.

The degree to which Wenders goes deep into that reservoir of fear and captures the death of a man, and thus the life of a man, is partly because of his resistance to the cathartic emotional release, most often supplied to the viewer through a play of grief, or the shock of a moment of comedy. In Tamara Jenkins recent release The Savages (2007) the neurotic middle-class mores of a dysfunctional family triumvirate (erstwhile father, cerebral brother and extrovert sister) are the alienating glaze that deflects the penetrating stare of the camera just enough to keep the death process apart from the life process. The living, in dying, will not yield up to the quiet distancing and necessary erasure that allows them to move seamlessly into memory and away from the residue of ownership over the self.

 

Phil Bosco - The Savages.png
Phil Bosco and Philip Seymour Hoffman sitting, waiting around to die, in Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages (2007).

 

Lenny Savage is becoming consumed by dementia and he wears the haunted mask of confusion and horror that is the mark of his disease and its brutal propensity for emptying. Philip Bosco is acting, but inhabits that messily defined area, previously inhabited by Henry Fonda (On Golden Pond, 1981), Jason Robards (Magnolia, 1999) and Richard Farnsworth (The Straight Story, 1999), where life’s completion is closing in fast and he appears at that finely balanced moment before the inexorable decline. Having alienated himself from his children, Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Wendy (Laura Linney), when his long-term girlfriend dies, he finds himself exiled from their Sun City retirement bungalow and suddenly in need of the support of two strangers. Jon, a theatre Professor, and Wendy, a wannabe writer, exhibit two different manifestations of the fear of death, suddenly thrust upon them by their father’s mouldering presence. Jon retreats from his father mentally, while keeping a constant physical proximity. His response is akin to that of Wenders when confronted by Ray, a glacial rationalism, poorly masking the palpable fear bubbling away just below the surface of that pale white flesh. Wendy on the other hand attempts to delude herself into an intimacy with the father she never really had, that she has never really known. She compensates for their lack of a sense of deep kinship by throwing herself into a strange attempt at proving her love. Her fear is bought away from her in the little knick-knacks (such as the red pillow) she festoons her befuddled father with.

The two films are completely antithetical and yet when viewed in close proximity begin to migrate toward each other. Wenders’ film can be viewed as a careful fostering of a father-figure’s failing energies for one last exhibition of mastery. Yet the stress inherent within Wenders’ and Ray’s relationship also at times gives way to a struggle for ownership of the movie. Wenders brings out the key elements of Ray’s back catalogue, his work with actors (almost theatrical and given theatrical voice in the Kafka sequence), the sense of Homecoming that follows Robert Mitchum’s return home in The Lusty Men (1952) – as commented on in his Vasser lecture – and the radical fracturing of film narrative and form that was the hallmark of Ray’s return to directorial duties after a decade-long hiatus, in his SUNY Binghamton student project We Can’t go Home Again (1973) – which both features in and heavily informs the style of Wenders’ own film. Yet the central focus of the production itself is Ray and despite his deteriorating condition he seems reluctant to go quietly into the night, forgetting lines, trying to force awkward narrative projections onto the movie’s structure and attempting to make a sentimental death-bed sequence that sends Wenders to sleep.

With no such film-within-a-film framing the straighter narrative concerns of The Savages plays brother and sister off one another for ownership of the estranged father neither of them can now hope to know. What is so successful within the narrative contrivances and distancing devices (all so very Brechtian) of The Savages is the sparing use of back story, the deliberate manner in which the exact details of these three people’s familial relations are withheld. We never get to know how bad a father Lenny was, or what was the cause of the split from his wife. All we have are the poor, and deeply individual, memories of the adult-children, like the brace-removal incident, or their mother’s sudden flight. At the centre of the movie is Philip Bosco’s dispensed Lenny Savage, a porous cipher figure that eludes the misplaced struggle of his children by making himself disappear in all but physical frame. A poignant scene in which Jon and Wendy’s antagonism towards their relative coping methods overspills into an all-out slanging match sees the camera carefully pull away from the interior of the vehicle and drift across to the passenger seat, where Lenny sits with a suggestion of rage struggling to break through his otherwise confused countenance. He is framed behind the frosted passenger-side window pane and mutes their squabbling by pulling the hood of his ridiculous Parker raincoat (an inappropriate purchase by Jon) up over his head, encasing himself in yet another protective layer, removing himself a little more from the movie.

The Savages manages to leaven its despairing look at the human inability to cope with the dying process by placing an emphasis on the barbed wit of its protagonists, or their awkwardness within certain social contexts that they deem inappropriate (the sequence in which Larry requests the 1927 version of The Jazz Singer as his film in the respite home, staffed, as it is, by an almost exclusively African-American group of nurses and carers is a perfect example of the comedy of anxiety that the likes of Ricky Gervais and Larry David have mined so well in recent years). It also deploys pointed truths as one of its many distancing devices, so that when Jon rails against the hypocrisy of a society that makes profit from people’s descent into old age, it is concluded by the punchline of him offending the family members who are walking their loved ones in the grounds of the retirement home. Within the limitations of its conventional narrative framework The Savages goes a long way down that road that Wenders is driving in Lightning over Water, in fact if you take Jenkins, as director and writer, and place her in the Wenders role then in her own circuitous fashion she is approaching that primitive fear. The seeming benignity of her final throwaway epilogue sequence proves to have a great deal more resonance when you consider how much easier it is to give up on a human being – particularly when they will not play ball – than it is to give up on a beloved pet.

Wenders also deals with an epilogue as the conclusion to his (or Ray’s) film and there is once more a sense of ambivalence in the seeming triteness of this closing sequence. Having wrapped the film, having ventured to the harrowing point of human completion that is death (or in this case Ray’s ‘Final Cut’) Wenders and his crew dig up the dirt and gossip of the shoot and have a Saki infused wake onboard a yacht, replete with the kind of self-obsessed narcissism of a party for ‘creatives’. Gradually the stories and snippets begin to move onto Ray’s volcanic and electric personality and a wonderful cinematic metaphor is presented to the camera when one of the crew performs a trick in which he burns a match down to his finger and thumb, then wetting the finger and thumb on his other hand inverts the match and lets the flame consume what remains of the matchstick and in the process extinguish itself. Amidst all of the discussion Wenders sits beatifically smiling, having carried the burden of another’s death successfully and thus assumed the mantle of the mentor, facing down his fear.