The 400 Blows: excellent existential film of young adolescent search for understanding

Francois Truffaut, “The 400 Blows” (1959)

This debut feature film by director Francois Truffaut is a very affecting one. By the standards of its time (1950’s), it was a revolutionary film of its kind and is considered as being the first film of the French New Wave Cinema. Set in a working-class Paris few people had seen, it is a snapshot in the life of an young adolescent schoolboy, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud), whose life quietly goes off the rails as he strives to find meaning in it. Neglected by his mother and step-father, who are occupied by their own concerns – mum has a secret boyfriend at work and step-dad is obsessed with organising weekend car races – and regarded by teachers at his school as a trouble-maker, Doinel starts skipping classes with a friend, Rene (Patrick Auffay), going to amusement parks and stealing money, dossing in a printer’s shop overnight and going into his step-father’s office to take a type-writer which he and Rene hope to sell to raise money to run their own business. Eventually he’s suspended from school for plagiarism in his homework and his mother dumps him into a juvenile delinquency / observation centre where he decides that he has no-one to look out for him and he must make his own way in the world alone.

The entire plot and the dramas and conflicts that arise are entirely character-driven: Antoine’s problems are the result partly of circumstances beyond his reach and partly of the clash between his own exuberance and the institutions around him that seek to instill conformity and meek obedience in him. The plot progresses in such a way that it almost seems improvised; there appears to be nothing staged or contrived in the movie. The entire film is shot from a child’s viewpoint but Truffaut often uses aerial shots and scene-framing shots with few, if any, close-ups of actors’ faces. The closest we may get to seeing an actor’s face in most of the film bar its beach scene conclusion would be a shot of the person’s head, shoulders and chest, often from the side as well as from the front or a three-quarters view. Fairly long takes and tracking shots are also a feature here.

Leaud plays the young Antoine splendidly, appearing in nearly every scene and often the sole character in several scenes without dialogue. His acting seems unself-conscious and naturalistic and most likely much of it is improvised. The highlight of his performance is his interview with the unseen woman psychologist: he answers her questions in such an unself-conscious way that you can easily forget the lines spoken are all rehearsed. Antoine is portrayed as intelligent and resourceful with a lot of spirit though at times he seems a little remote and detached. The support cast is also very good, in particular the actors who play Antoine’s parents: the mother (Claire Maurier) reveals she was once rebellious herself and for all we know, she may still have dreams about escaping her dreary life in a tiny, cramped flat shared with her son and a husband she may or may not love. The boys in Antoine’s class are lovable scamps who cleverly pass another child’s goggles around and damage them with split-second timing while the boy recites a poem so that by the time he is finished, the goggles are back in front of him.

The background setting of Fifties-period Paris as a grimy city of narrow streets, small cars, dreary schools with concrete playgrounds and tiny, run-down apartments might be a surprise to viewers brought up on images of Gay Paree. Filmed in black-and-white, the city looks impersonal and not at all romantic. The look of the movie is clear, almost as though filmed with a handheld video camera. Modern audiences may be too familiar with the filming techniques Truffaut uses to notice anything unusual and the film might appear as a simple, plotless story of a boy at a particular stage in his life, getting into more and worse trouble as time goes by. The film still makes an emotional impact on viewers as Antoine struggles for understanding from his parents and his mother alternately feels guilt, exasperation and anger towards her wayward son.

The climactic end in which Antoine faces the camera directly, questioningly, is a fitting revelation (the ocean, which Antoine had always wanted to see, becomes another barrier, a kind of prison) and closes a period in the boy’s life in which meaning and direction had been lacking, and he was constantly misunderstood and punished by older people simply for being natural, for being a child. We can presume that Antoine is at a crossroads in his life and can choose either to return to the reform school or create his own life without help from others or society generally. “The 400 Blows” is very much an existential film in that it reveals a character who is essentially alone in a hostile world and must make his own decisions about how to lead a meaningful life.

Alien: Resurrection (dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet): more a lame rehash than a revival

Jean-Pierre Jeunet, “Alien: Resurrection” (1997)

The idea behind this movie was to give new life to the Alien movie franchise but despite some interesting ideas about breeding alien / human hybrids as bioweapons and space pirate mercenaries working in secret and illegal tandem with a private or public military corporation among others, and replacing the psychological horror and action adventure aspects with black comedy, the movie suffers terribly from poor character development, a formulaic plot and poor writing. Two hundred years after “Alien 3” in which she dies in a vat of fiery molten lead, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) wakes up and realises it was all another bad dream … except this dream is very real and she’s not Ellen Ripley but her clone, cultivated and brought to life by military scientists on the spaceship USM Auriga from cells collected from the original woman during her stay on the prison planet. The scientists are actually interested in the DNA of the alien queen found in those cells which is why they have created the clone. By the time the new Ripley is fully conscious, the alien queen has been removed from her surgically and allowed to mature in a special holding bay. Ripley should have been discarded but the scientists remain interested in her as she has inherited various characteristics from the aliens.

A group of space pirates that includes a robot, Call (Winona Ryder), delivers human cargo kidnapped from another spacecraft to the USM Auriga. The cargo is to be used in the scientists’ experiments on the aliens bred from Ripley’s alien queen. The group receives its pay in cash from the USM Auriga captain in a way that demonstrates the transaction is clearly underhanded and corrupt. Call attempts on her own to kill Ripley as part of her mission, kept secret from her fellow pirates, to abort the alien breeding programme but discovers she is too late. She is caught by the Auriga’s soldiers and the entire group of pirates is arrested and held prisoner. In the meantime, the aliens that have already been born and are under study break loose and rampage through the ship. Surprise, surprise, Ripley finds herself following the pirates plus one of the human cargo and a couple of the Auriga’s regular crew as they try to make their way through the ship to the pirate craft Betty and escape before the aliens get them too.

From then on the story falls into the familiar refrain of run, hide, escape, kill if necessary, blow up more ships if necessary and send more aliens into outer space as space junk. A conservationist, environmentalist agenda has never been the Alien movie franchise’s strong point. Though Jeunet introduces elements to spice up the plot such as an underwater chase sequence ending in a cruel twist, aliens possessed of human intelligence and Ripley stumbling across previous aborted results of the cloning experiment that produced her, the plot formula proceeds stronger than ever, perhaps because of the sometimes ingenious deviations from it.

There is hardly any character development in the movie: the actors playing the space pirates, in particular Dominique Pinon and Gary Dourdan, do their best at giving their characters Vriess and Christie some individuality and Ron Perlman as the macho, sex-crazed pirate Johner provides tension relief after some heavy action scenes with lame comic one-liners and an encounter with a spider. Other actors of note include Brad Dourif as a scientist who’s a little too fond of the aliens for his own good. Weaver as the Ripley clone brings sardonic humour and camp to the role but doesn’t have much interaction with the pirates individually, Purvis the cargo or Wren the scientist in charge of the cloning experiment: Ripley’s relations with the Auriga and Betty survivors could have been a good source of tension and conflict and a sub-plot in itself. Ryder as Call is simply not believable as a spy and terrorist among the pirates: she’s too small and delicate in looks, and her role which is significant to the movie’s plot demands more screen presence which waif-like Ryder lacks. The very idea of a robot programmed to be sympathetic and at the same time carrying out a mercenary task is not credible.

Opportunities for exploring the nature of being alien and “alien”, and what being human means, are missed: Purvis, carrying an alien embryo, might at least have been given a chance to beg for death before the alien hatches, putting the pirates in some quandary about killing him in cold blood and forcing them to question how much they value other people’s lives; the Ripley clone might have wondered how much she owes in the way of loyalty at least to the humans who tried to exploit her or to the aliens, some of whom accept her as their own, let alone pondered on her uniqueness and “alienness”. The closest the movie comes to tackling this idea is in the Newborn, a weird alien / human hybrid which recognises Ripley as its “mother” and tries to bond with her. The moment when Ripley disposes of it before the Betty lands on Earth is a poignant one and possibly at the risk of “chick thing” melodrama, as Johner might have put it, director Jeunet could have extended this moment to have Ripley sobbing a bit and Call comforting her before they realise they’ve arrived.

The movie does have some big plot holes: what does mad boffin Wren get up to after trying to kill the pirates and Ripley and before boarding the Betty? why does the Auriga automatically set course for Earth whenever there’s an emergency, no matter how many zillions of miles away it is? how does Purvis manage to escape his prison and why is he the only one to do so? why don’t the characters care much about what happens when one of their number goes missing in the underwater swimming scene or on the Betty? (Doing head counts obviously isn’t important in the Alien movies.) Viewers expecting the movie to follow its own logic will be disappointed here.

Motifs from the previous Alien films – motherhood and the idea of a recurring link between Ripley and the aliens – appear in “Alien: Resurrection” but the movie otherwise doesn’t extend these motifs much (apart from giving the aliens no further excuse to bother humans or any other species) or introduce new ideas and themes that could be taken up in a fifth movie / fourth sequel. Yours truly has known for some years that Joss Whedon, the script-writer for “Alien: Resurrection”, had penned a script for a fifth movie tentatively called “Alien: Revelation” which was rejected; this movie likely would have taken up where the fourth movie leaves off and mostly likely developed the Ripley clone’s character, abilities and destiny further. “Alien: Resurrection” has the appearance of a film treading water in search of a clear direction that could take the franchise into new subject and thematic territory rather than simply rehashing old themes.

American Psycho (dir. Mary Harron): compelling satire on Wall Street society

Mary Harron, “American Psycho” (2000)

Based on the Brett Easton Ellis novel of the same name, “American Psycho” is a satirical survey of the people working at the top end of the financial industry in New York and their life-styles on the eve of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks in September, 2001. The title of the book and movie and their protagonist’s name Patrick Bateman refer deliberately to the famous Hitchcock movie “Psycho”: this in itself suggests that the society they depict is hollow and unoriginal and depends on plundering other cultures and its own social and cultural networks through media, fads and social competition to sustain itself. Death is an ever-present motif in “American Psycho” in many different forms and in Bateman himself: lacking a moral and spiritual base, he fills the vacuum he feels inside his head and heart with thoughts, images and fantasies  of violent death and killing, all acquired second-hand through and from the products of his society.

The movie presents a series of sketches, some linked to one another, others not, and many of them very comic and sharp in their social and political comment. All are joined by a narrative in which Bateman (Christian Bale) has literally axed his friend and fellow merchant banker shark Paul Allen (Jared Leto) and is being pursued for murder by a police detective (Willem Dafoe) who seems less interested in investigating Allen’s disappearance than in sampling some of what Bateman and his social set take for granted. This includes lunch and dinner dates at swanky restaurants to see and be seen by others of their kind; showing off their “knowledge” about food, wine, music, books, theatre, designer labels, whatever passes for fashionable in their insular world; and having sex with one another’s gal-pals. The narrative is embellished by Bateman’s sexual dalliances with various prostitutes, most of which result in Bateman mutilating and killing the women with surgical instruments, nail-guns and chainsaws. Bateman’s violent tendencies, having built up from his frustrations with his empty life and the empty people he hangs out with, extend through the movie to bashing a homeless man, tormenting a cat, shooting at police and blowing up their cars. In nearly all these violent acts, there is something unreal yet a little plausible, that may have viewers scratching their heads as to whether these acts are real or not: is it really possible to blow up cars just by shooting at them with a hand-gun? can women be killed loudly and violently with chainsaws and their bodies hidden in an apartment for weeks, months even, without the neighbours noticing anything? can you drag a heavy body-bag through a foyer leaving a trail of blood for the concierge and others to see and nobody raising the alarm? Funny how Bateman manages to leave so much evidence behind, not bothering to cover his tracks, and no-one notices anything. The narrative pans out in a way that leaves viewers wondering how much Bateman lives in reality and in fantasy, how much of his fantasy relies on heavy consumption of media and products (much of it second-hand and deformed by popular belief into something entirely different) to relieve what is a lonely, loveless, mundane real life in an unproductive job in an industry that consumes people and produces nothing of real worth. Viewers learn that Bateman feels disgust and loathing for himself and everyone around him but lacks the imagination he needs to escape the death world he inhabits, so he remains trapped in existential Hell.

As Bateman, Bale gives a remarkable performance that shoots from barely repressed fury and deadpan expressions to neurotic over-the-top histrionics and back again and again with smooth ease and precise timing. He’s at his funniest when most po-faced while intoning solemnly about the minutiae of Bateman’s morning beauty regime or the merits of the latest vacuous stadium rock and pop albums. When he panics, he does so big-time, breaking out into a cold and glassy-faced sweat when he sees that his pals’ business cards are glossier and more embossed than his own, or gabbling and giggling his misdeeds on the phone to his lawyer or secretary when overcome with guilt. The support cast which includes some fine actors like Dafoe and Reese Witherspoon, who plays Bateman’s fiancee Evelyn, doesn’t have much to do but then the characters played are shallow airheads after all. Viewers may feel most sympathy for Bateman’s secretary, the sweet-natured and shy Jean (Chloe Sevigny) and possibly also for Kristy the streetwalking prostitute (Cara Seymour): these women are not quite so shallow as the other people Bateman associates with and significantly they hover on the edges of Bateman’s world, wanting to enter it, so they are not so warped mentally and spirtually as its more permanent inhabitants. Still, for such women from a lower social and economic class, there’s a price to be paid to enter that world: Kristy ends up “dying” and Jean, secretly in love with Bateman, learns about his secret inner life and his opinion of women when she riffles through his work diary.

In a movie about people who worship conspicuous consumption and reconstruct class barriers between themselves and others through their materialism, the details of the background settings become important indicators of personality: Bateman’s all-white minimalist apartment with the stainless steel kitchen (never used for cooking, of course) and the TV set playing porno flicks and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” says more about the hollow life and mind of its lone inhabitant than Bateman’s voice-overs at the beginning and the end of movie do. Paul Allen’s apartment, overlooking a spectacular view, is plush and luxurious with deep colours, suggesting a personality at least different if not more mature than Bateman’s. The music soundtrack, made up songs by rock and pop acts popular in the 1980’s, is intentionally generic, shiny and vapid for the most part.

With unlikeable and unsympathetic characters, and a plot that goes into an ambiguous ending, “American Psycho” doesn’t have much popular appeal for a movie that, among other things, is about Western popular culture and the deadening effects it can have on people who selectively choose its most vacuous products and aspects to live by. The lesson the movie delivers comes with as much subtlety as the chop Bateman delivers to Allen: people consumed by consumption end up consuming one another and themselves. “American Psycho” turns out to be a bleak film filled with hopelessness about the human condition in a soulless society. It can be hard to watch at times but as a study of a character trapped in a downward spiral it’s weirdly compelling.

Funnily, in the entire movie, Bateman and his associates aren’t seen to be doing any actual work which is where the real “killing” (as in deliberately marketing and selling mortgages and other loans at high interest rates to businesses and individuals desperate for money, flipping real estate or stocks, or buying businesses to strip them of their assets, among other things) occurs. It would have given viewers some insight into the kind of industry Bateman works in and why he comes to feel the way he does about himself.

4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days: intelligent look at friendships under strain in a brutal mercenary society

Crisitan Mungiu, “4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days” (2007)

A bleak and often heartbreaking offering from young Romanian director Cristian Mungiu, this movie about a young woman who helps her friend arrange an illegal abortion is an intelligent examination of friendships under the strain of an oppressive and inhumane political regime. The film is set in Romania in the waning years of President Nicolae Ceausescu who together with his wife Elena ruled Romania for over 2 decades as though the country was their personal fiefdom: the Ceausescu government forbade imports of nearly everything (which explains the all-pervasive poverty in the film) and pursued a population growth policy which among other things made birth control and abortions illegal.

Two college students, Ottilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), are room-mates in a students’ dormitory in Bucharest: for the movie’s first half-hour, the two girls are making arrangements for something the audience is kept in suspense about. Gabita fusses over a plastic sheet and sends Ottilia on various errands to get money or cigarettes. Ottilia drops in on her boyfriend (Alexandru Potocean) briefly and reluctantly agrees to come to his mother’s birthday party in the evening. She trudges around different hotels to find a room and book it for 2 – 3 days. As the movie progresses and Ottilia meets a mysterious man, Dr Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), it becomes apparent that she is organising a secret and possibly dangerous abortion for Gabita who is at least three months pregnant.

The characters of the two girls become clear-cut in the film’s first ten minutes just from their dialogue and the camera’s constant tracking of Ottilia’s movements alone: Gabita presents as shy and retiring but the shyness masks self-centredness and lack of consideration for others; Ottilia is an uncomplaining, obliging work-horse who spends more time than she should looking after Gabita’s interests. Marinca puts in a brave and stoic virtuoso performance as Ottilia who over the course of the film comes to question the nature of her friendship with Gabita and the sacrifices she makes for her. There are many scenes where the camera is still and focusses on Ottilia’s face as she smokes or stares down at the floor, her face a study in conflicting emotions and suppressed anger at Gabita’s constant lies and lack of responsibility; or follows her as she stumbles about in the midnight dark, her breathing audible and close to hyperventilating in fear, as she tries to find a place in the city to dispose of the aborted foetus. One highlight of the film which illustrates the existential trap Ottilia finds herself in is the 10-minute dinner party scene where, surrounded by her boyfriend’s parents and family friends who gossip about the “good old times” and the uselessness of modern Romanian youth, she is forced to sit, say hello and try to eat and drink. Viewers get a real sense from seeing the trapped expression on Ottilia’s face of how stuck she is between her boyfriend and his demands, and her friend Gabita and her demands.

Ivanov as the ironically named Bebe is a suitably creepy abortionist who exacts his pound of flesh when the girls are unable to fulfill his changing and manipulative demands. Vasiliu is good as the thoughtless Gabita who gets herself and Ottilia in strife over the abortion arrangements – and that’s not even considering the consequences both girls face if the hotel staff discover what they and Dr Bebe have done. The sullen staff in the various hotels, all concentrating on the minutiae of their jobs and behaving like petty nit-picking bureaucrats, give the film the air of a spy thriller and help ratchet up the tension that becomes ever more overwhelming as Ottilia passes in and out of the hotel constantly and remains even when the end credits start to roll.

The use of bleached film stock suits the oppressive, grinding nature of Romanian society in the late 1980’s. Camera shots are steady and often very long, apart from the scene where Ottilia looks for somewhere to get rid of the foetus late at night and then the camera movements are jerky to emphasise the girl’s panic and fear at being caught. My understanding is that electricity was severely rationed at the time and all streetlights were out at night; there may have been night curfews as well which would explain Ottilia’s fear. Mungiu artfully sets up tableau-like shots in which Ottilia is trapped (the dinner table scene) or to suggest that Ottilia and Gabita’s friendship has changed for the worse (the restaurant table scene which emphasises the physical space between the two girls). In the latter half of the film there are scenes of long silences in which the actors’ facial expressions become very important and it’s in these scenes that Marinca and Vasiliu do their best if hardest work. The look of the film is naturalistic, the acting is minimal and driven by the plot so the film has the feel of a TV news crew following real people engaged in doing something illegal.

Romania in the late 1980’s is portrayed as a society where social capital has become ground down and exhausted by the state: people no longer care for one another, they live in their own world obsessed with status and material things, and there’s a mercenary “what’s in it for me?” attitude prevalent. Bebe takes advantage of the girls’ naivety and Gabita’s lies to get as much out of them as he wants; what he wants isn’t limited to money. The guests at the dinner table gabble about the past and find Ottilia quaint because her parents are working-class and she is the first person in her family to go on to higher education. Ottilia finds herself wondering whether other people will care for her as much as she has for selfish Gabita should she (Ottilia) fall pregnant. Perhaps this is the most devastating message of the film, that people’s compassion and sense of community can easily be eroded by ideology and relentless enforced poverty by the whims of a few.

Andrei Rublev: multi-layered film about art, faith and taking creative risks

Andrei Tarkovsky, “Andrei Rublev” (1966)

Loosely based on the life of the eponymous 15th century Russian icon painter, “Andrei Rublev” examines the relationship of an artist with his faith and what place he can make for himself in a society that doesn’t necessarily value faith or art. The movie consists of seven episodes bookended by a prologue and epilogue related to its themes; the episodes cover the years 1405 to 1425 in Rublev’s life. Each episode involves an event or incident, not necessarily historically accurate, in which Rublev is an observer or participant and shows the political instability, stagnation and spiritual corruption of mediaeval Russian society which made it vulnerable to foreign attacks. Criticism of the Soviet society at the time the film was made is implied. There is a definite linear narrative in which Rublev faces criticism from his fellow monks for wanting fame and renown, nearly succumbs to sensual temptation, has doubts about his skill as a painter, suffers punishment that severely curtails his ability and desire to paint, and finally finds unlikely inspiration to resume painting and renew his faith in God, himself as a person and in his art.

Most of the movie is filmed in black and white with only the epilogue, detailing some of Rublev’s actual works, done in colour: this most likely was done to emphasise that the artist himself is not that important but that his inner spiritual life, his beliefs and his doubts, faith and weaknesses informed his art and artistic journey, and what resulted from that journey is most important. (The black-and-white film is a convenience to first-time non-Russian-speaking viewers as well: it makes following the narrative, themes and dialogue subtitles much easier!) There is a mix of aerial panning shots, tracking shots, long shots and close-ups, all done very smoothly and gracefully, so the movie is as much about Russia itself at a particular time in its history when the country was struggling to throw off Mongol-Tatar rule and Orthodox Christianity was becoming a major force in Russian culture and society, though not without resistance from the common people. This is evident from episodes which include Rublev as an observer and near-participant in pagan fertility rituals, and as an observer of a Tatar raid on the town of Vladimir where he has been at work painting murals in the cathedral which the Tatars pillage and burn. Parts of the film, especially those featuring shots where the camera circles an entire scene where something significant is happening, have a disinterested, almost documentary feel about them that can be reminiscent of work done by German director Werner Herzog. Nature and weather are prominent in many scenes: Rublev and his apprentice Foma walk through a forest discussing Foma’s faults, walking over or along fallen branches; Foma later prods at a dead bird while Rublev converses with a monk; a naked woman swims in a river to escape her captors in an extended shot; Rublev and other characters comment on the singing of nightingales; and there are many shots of horses, some of which are very close to the camera.

As Rublev, actor Anatoly Solonitsyn doesn’t have a lot to do: in many episodes, especially the last episode in which a teenage boy called Boriska (Nikolai Burlyayev) oversees the construction of a bell, Rublev is only a minor character who reacts to incidents or is affected by them. Solonitsyn’s acting is very minimal and even his facial expressions give little away; by contrast, other actors such as Buryayev, Ivan Lapikov as Rublev’s fellow monk Kirill, Rolan Bykov as an animated jester and Irma Rausch as mute girl Durochka can be very emotional and their actions expressive in a naturalistic but not melodramatic way. The seven episodes emphasise Rublev’s quest for spiritual and artistic integrity and have the quality of parables. External events, his self-doubt, his weaknesses and the hypocrisies of the society he lives in, not to mention the compromises he is forced to make as a result, all complicate the quest. Even the ideal Rublev ascribes to – love of Russia, love of the Russian people, or agape (spiritual, selfless love as practised by Jesus Christ) – is tested by his encounters and his reactions: in one episode, he saves Durochka from being raped by killing her would-be attacker (a Russian soldier) while Tatars are plundering the cathedral where he and Durochka are sheltering. For this murder, Rublev must do penance by taking care of Durochka, being silent and refraining from painting anything at all. (This scene could also suggest that defending others unable to defend themselves can result in one being deprived of rights and freedoms of expression and speech in a repressive society; many other scenes in “Andrei Rublev” can be interpreted at different levels to mean different things.) In a later episode, Durochka “betrays” Rublev by accepting an offer of marriage from a Tatar soldier and riding off with him. Understandably this causes a crisis of faith for Rublev both personally and at a deeper level and he is unable to function at all as a painter for over ten years.

The supporting cast clearly represent the movie’s themes: Kirill as the monk lacking artistic talent who renounces monastery life and goes into the world, only to return to the monastery years later in spiritual and moral despair, represents an extreme example of what can happen to individuals when they lose faith and the torments they must endure to regain it; Boriska, who blusters his way through making his first bell and admits after making a perfect-sounding bell that he really didn’t know his father’s secret of making bells, represents youth, vitality and creativity buoyed by hope, hard work, belief in oneself or trust in God; and minor characters like Marfa (Nelly Snegina) and the jester represent aspects of a more sensual, natural though pre-Christian Russia which Rublev as a young man finds hard to resist.

Yes, there are scenes of bleakness, of unbelievable cruelty and violence (especially to animals: a horse is filmed falling down and through a wooden staircase, later to be stabbed to death, and a cow is set on fire) and of sheer pig-headed bigotry, all of which help to paint and embellish director Andrei Tarkovsky’s vision of Russia in all its contradictory glory. Tarkovsky’s love for his country and people is obvious but it is love tempered by knowledge of his society’s shortcomings. The film isn’t easy to watch: the pace isn’t slow but it’s fairly leisurely and viewers used to more conventional narratives in which a hero tries to overcome obstacles rather than simply endure them might find Rublev an unsympathetic and distant figure. Repeated viewings are recommended to understand the film’s messages more fully as it’s a many-layered creature. The episodic nature of the film lends itself to viewing in installments for those viewers of little faith as the episodes are fairly self-contained and only a minor incident in episode 7 refers to an earlier episode: in that regard, the important episodes to see are 2 (meetings with Theophanes the Greek) and 5 to 7 which cover the Tatar invasion of Vladimir, Durochka’s running away and the bell-making story.

The best and most emotional moment of “Andrei Rublev” comes near the close of the seventh episode (and the effective end of the movie) when the bell is finished and is made to ring: its resonant sound brings unspeakable joy to its young maker who sobs uncontrollably in Rublev’s arms and admits to the monk that all he had to go on was faith and sheer risk-taking bluff, only to realise he really did have the talent to make a bell. In that moment all the movie’s themes come together and Rublev experiences a rebirth: he is able to speak at last and resume painting. 

Knowledge of Russian history and of the real-life Andrei Rublev, of whom little is actually known, isn’t absolutely necessary to follow the film though viewers may find it helpful to know something of the Mongol-Tatar invasions and how Russian politics was affected: while there was some resistance among the Russian nobility, some princes did co-operate with the invaders and the political disunity perhaps allowed the Mongols to rule the country for as long as they did (over 250 years). While “Andrei Rublev” might not suit most Western audiences who prefer more dynamic narrative forms and active heroic characters, it is a rewarding film about art and the artist’s place in a less-than-ideal society.

Alien 3 (dir. David Fincher): potentially interesting psych horror / slasher flick in space is a mess

David Fincher, “Alien 3” (1992)

At least in this third episode in the Alien series, people finally figured out a new original way of killing the monster other than just flushing it out through a space-ship’s airlock into deep space where eventually the thing would join similarly executed critters in the Great Alien Skeleton Garbage Patch circling a distant planetary system. Beyond that, the options for the sequel to two very different movies were limited: the first having been a space horror movie, the second being an action adventure movie, where can the third go? It goes into a film noir / slasher flick scenario set in space in which an emergency forces an escape pod containing Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and her surviving companions from “Aliens” to separate from the spacecraft Sulaco and crash-land onto a remote planet where the only human beings live in a maximum security prison. Ripley is the only survivor of that crash-landing and almost immediately has to contend with a group of condemned men, hostile and uncertain as to how to treat this “alien” in their midst, while they wait for a rescue craft to pick her up. As Ripley tries to negotiate her way through the surly all-male prison society, unusual and violent deaths begin to occur and Ripley realises that an alien of the type she’s only too familiar with must have stowed away on the Sulaco and then on her escape craft. Chaos erupts and everyone starts to panic as the alien picks off the medic and the prison supervisor and as usual Ripley has to take charge and devise a plan to get rid of the creature before the rescue craft arrives.

The only really original element is the concept of an isolated factory prison where not only are all the inmates men with violent criminal pasts, they also are followers of an apocalyptic religious cult. This means the action takes place in a claustrophobic environment of industrial machinery, huge underground tunnels, galley ways, steel catwalks and long chains: dark, moody, full of foreboding. Viewers should feel dread and abandonment throughout this film. The religious flavour adds a superficial Gothic feel with close-up shots of lit candles; nearly all the cast are skinhead monks in drab dark colours and even Ripley falls in line with the hair and clothing fashions. Unfortunately constant studio interference in the making of “Alien 3” has made for a muddled mess in which the potential offered by a prison scenario of mad misogynist monks is never properly realised and the film retreats into a re-run of “Alien” in which people scurry around the labyrinths of the prison alternately flushing out the alien so it can be destroyed and trying to avoid being killed by it. The plot starts to stretch and drag halfway through when an early attempt to trap and kill the creature ends in disaster and everyone collapses in despair and self-doubt before slowly and painfully resuming the job.

Whatever character development exists in Ripley in “Alien 3” is limited to a black sense of humour and wry one-liners: “This is a maximum security prison and it has no weapons?!” or words to that effect. The prisoners she has to deal with, played by Ralph Brown, Charles Dance, Charles S Dutton, Brian Glover, Paul McGann, Pete Postlethwaite and Danny Webb among others, are one-dimensional characters or character stereotypes who get very limited screen time: Dance and Glover’s characters exit early and Webb, playing Morse, doesn’t even become prominent until near the end of the film. The one character who shows signs of being more than a one-note role is Dillon (Dutton), the hard man who enforces discipline and leads prayer, and who in his own way has a soft spot for Ripley and sacrifices himself to give her time to kill the alien.

The theme of how institutional religion and a bureaucrat mind-set can restrict people’s viewpoints and limit their capacity for action, especially in a context where they have to deal with an unforeseen and unpredictable threat to their security and existence, and a parallel theme of how people in despair learn to cope and deal with an extreme enemy, using the few resources they have, are strong but help create a plot that can be slow for audiences used to the fast and convoluted pace of “Aliens” and who expect sci-fi movies to fit the kinetic action adventure mould.

Had Fox Studio allowed director David Fincher more freedom to make “Alien 3”, the film most likely would have developed in a way similar to Fincher’s later movies like “Se7en” in which protagonists negotiate their way through a situation, the rules of which aren’t clear, and battle their own character limitations and flaws as much as they fight through their dilemma. In Ripley’s case, she not only must learn the rules of prison society as they apply to her, she must fight against her fears about the alien and her own body which now harbours an alien embryo. (How this happened and how Ripley knows the embryo is a “queen” embryo aren’t clear in the movie.) This might have made “Alien 3” an interesting noirish psychological study of characters in crisis but it wouldn’t have resulted in the kind of box office success the studio expected.

Hitchcock gives plenty of “Rope” in excellent interior murder mystery

Alfred Hitchcock, “Rope” (1948)

Adapted from a play by Patrick Hamilton and based on an actual murder case in which two young men strangled a teenage boy, “Rope” deserves to be a better known Hitchcock film than it is. Shot on one set, the movie is a series of several mobile 10-minute “takes” artfully put together so that the action more or less looks continuous to viewers. This method of filming and structuring the script so that the action took place in real time put a great deal of strain on the cast, especially the lead actors, and on the props people moving furniture during filming so it’s a measure of their ability and composure that most of the seven actors in “Rope” look composed and show tension and strain only when required to by the dialogue-driven plot.

Rich young flatmates Brandon and Phillip (John Dall and Farley Granger) have just killed their friend and former classmate David and stashed his body inside a chest. Their housemaid Mrs Wilson (Edith Evanston) returns from shopping and the three prepare a party for David’s family and friends who include his fiancee Janet (Joan Chandler) and his best friend Kenneth (Douglas Dirk) who happens to be Janet’s ex-boyfriend. The flatmates also invite their old university teacher Rupert Cadell (James Stewart) who taught David as well. The chest is used as the buffet to serve the food. While the party guests wonder why David is taking so long to arrive and if he’s been held up somehow, the hosts steer the small talk to the art of murder and the argument, based on a popular interpretation of Nietzschean philosophy, that it’s not murder for someone of superior quality or character to kill a lesser being. Cadell gradually becomes suspicious and deduces from the mix of talk of strangling chickens, David’s absence, Mrs Wilson’s mention that she had the afternoon off to go shopping and circumstantial visual evidence that his old students have indeed applied his teaching literally.

Dall and Granger as the two gay flatmates are great in their roles: Brandon (who may be slightly sociopathic) valiantly strives to maintain an air of cool smug composure and even delight but as the day passes, cracks appear in his pretence as he becomes nervous and starts to stutter at odd times. Conscience-stricken Phillip becomes more agitated and confused and acts in strange ways that arouse Cadell’s suspicions; Granger perhaps starts too early in the film having qualms about his role in the murder and some of his acting verges on the hammy but his overall performance is good. The other guests don’t notice the hosts’ bizarre behaviour: the older people are worried about David, and Janet and Kenneth stare daggers at each other. Stewart, perhaps miscast for his role, affects a kind of stand-offish avuncular intellectual stance which fades out once he suspects his old students are up to something; but his investigative side is well done. Chandler and Dick as the estranged couple don’t have much dialogue together but still put up a credible if sketchy job sorting out their differences amid mutual suspicion and at least agreeing to be friendly again when they leave the apartment.

The film falls flat at its climax when Cadell berates the two flatmates, back-tracking and arguing against what he originally taught the two in his lectures. The suggestion is that philosophy itself as an intellectual exercise, and Nietzschean philosophy in particular, leads people into dangerous and amoral ways of thinking and behaving. The climax might have been stronger if Cadell had not only emphasised David’s humanity but made his argument against murder using the same philosophy and concepts that Brandon and Phillip had used to justify killing their friend. Cadell could have shown them that it is their narrow egotistic and self-serving interpretation of the Nietzschean idea of the Superman that has led them to murder, and in this way the flatmates learn they must be solely responsible for their actions and accept all the consequences, including a possible death penalty, that arise from them. (True Nietzschean Supermen gladly accept everything that life throws at them, including pain, isolation, shame and humiliation if necessary, as a test of their mettle and as something that guides their evolution to a higher state of being and living.) The scene could still be one full of anguish for Cadell and he could still feel guilty for his part in David’s murder, as he comes to realise that perhaps he’s not as good a teacher as he thought.

The use of one set with a constantly roving camera gives a claustrophobic feel to “Rope” and there are many touches of macabre humour in the dialogue, replete with double entendres that add more tension and make Phillip more nervous, and in the dinner party conceit itself: it is more than a farewell party (Brandon and Phillip are planning to drive to Connecticut after the party finishes), it is David’s wake as well. And what could be more gruesome and funny than to serve the food off David’s coffin?

The homosexual relationship of Brandon and Phillip is a definite subtext – Brandon as the more assured, dominant partner, Phillip as the more submissive partner – and the movie suggests they killed David because, apart from being “ordinary”, he is heading for a married life with Janet and can have what Brandon and Phillip can’t have. On the other hand, Brandon and Phillip might regard themselves as “superior” because as homosexuals they need not bother with finding marriage partners and conforming to social mores but can pursue a hedonistic high-society life-style and be and do what they like. Romance, marriage and family life are an important theme in Hitchcock’s work and here it plays out in converse ways in the form of a gay couple, in David and Janet’s engagement and in Brandon throwing Janet and Kenneth together as if they were puppets (and the film suggests that’s exactly what Brandon enjoys doing: playing people against each other).

“Rope” attempts to criticise Nazism and concepts of elitism that led to the Nazi pursuit of racial hygiene policies in which people were graded into a racial hierarchy and those deemed “inferior” were killed though whether Hitchcock misinterpreted Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman is another question. At the time the film was made (the late 1940’s), most people including the Nazis themselves did misinterpret the concept in a simplistic way (people who are Supermen can do what they like and are not bound by conventional notions of morality) so it’s understandable if Hitchcock did also.

“Rope” features excellent acting performances from its three lead actors (Dall, Granger, Stewart) and from support actor Chandler in a plot that combines suspense, tension and subtlety. The visual flow that comes from the unusual filming technique used in the 1940’s adds to the audience’s sense of being voyeurs, with camera reels changing every time the camera “bumps” into the back of one of the male characters or into the furniture; it also reinforces the tense nature of the setting. The background scenes that show day changing to night and the lighting up of the New York City skyline, thanks to the Cyclorama technique used, are interesting to watch.

Nang Nak: ghost horror story of a love that transcends death and passage of time

Nonzee Nimibutr, “Nang Nak” (1999)

This Thai ghost horror story about a love that transcends death is very moving and tragic. The messages the film conveys about the fragility and impermanence of life, the Buddhist concept of the sin of attachment and refusal to accept change and flux, and the importance of community and the individual’s obligations to conform to its requirements, make “Nang Nak” complex and thoughtful. Set in rural Thailand in the late 1800’s, it follows the fortunes of a young married couple, Mak (Winai Kraibutr) and Nak (Intira Jaroenpura): Mak is required to fight for King and country and leaves his pregnant wife to work the rice farm on her own. He loses his friends in heavy fighting, suffers serious wounding himself and recuperates for a long time under the care of doctors and monks. After he recovers, the monks suggest to him that he should be ordained but Mak is anxious to go home and see his wife is all right. He travels back to the farm and sees Nak with their baby, both happy and healthy. Little does he knows what’s happened to Nak while he’s been away. Their village certainly knows; some of the villagers had to bury Nak and the newborn child some months ago …

Many viewers will come away with the impression of “Nang Nak” as a visually beautiful film with many shots of lush rainforest, grass and farming landscapes filmed under varied weather conditions at different times of the year. The emphasis on nature throughout the film serves many purposes: it shows how close humans and nature are; it demonstrates that the border between life and death, between the material and spiritual worlds, is more porous than we realise; it shows the passage of time and the changes it brings; and it is a distancing device separating Mak from the rest of the community, enabling Nak to deceive Mak, and also preventing viewers from identifying too closely with Mak and Nak’s dilemma. We know Mak has to learn the truth eventually and that Nak must go to the spirit world where she belongs. The village, led by its local monks, reclaim Mak and a senior abbot, Somtej Toh, advises Nak’s ghost to acknowledge her death and to stop terrorising and killing villagers who try to disabuse Mak of his delusions. Mak and Nak eventually realise they must separate and they promise each other that when the time comes for them to be reborn, they will be reborn in the same time period and become husband and wife again.

The film’s pace is leisurely and tension develops slowly but steadily. It picks up speed during the scene when some headstrong young men try to burn down Mak’s house and a storm generated by Nak’s ghost leads Mak away towards safety. The film’s pace bogs down during the ritual at Nak’s grave in which Somtej Toh soundlessly chants to Nak and for Western audiences, the emotionally intense farewell between Mak and Nak can come close to mawkishness. Why the chanting is soundless may be a puzzle to some: it may be that the intended audience (Thai people who know the legend) know the words anyway and they need not be repeated, or that Nimibutr might not have wanted to offend religious sensitivities by making them audible, especially as only part of the ritual might be used.

In spite of the simple and straightforward plot, practically given away by an unseen narrator at the beginning, the themes that flesh it out sit very lightly in the film. Kraibutr and Jaroenpura play their parts quite minimally, their actions and speech doing most of the emotional expression though Nak is very clingy and weepy where Western audiences might be concerned. The minimal acting fits in with the tenor of the film which treats its subject at a distance with the use of voice-over narration at the beginning and the end of the film, which clearly states that the story is a popular legend in Thailand.

Brief scenes in the film can be very graphic and violent – a scene in which Mak discovers a woman’s corpse being eaten by monitor lizards is especially horrific – but “Nang Nak” is well worth watching. Audiences interested in seeing how ordinary people in Thailand used to view life and how their lives were regulated by austere Theravada Buddhism and folk superstition together should see this film. It’s interesting to see how fear of the spirit world can be used by religious and communal authorities to pull people into line and at the same time preserve a person’s psychological health and well-being; a scene in the movie where some monks visit Mak at home clearly shows Mak to be suffering from psychological denial. The ritual at Nak’s grave can be interpreted as guiding Mak through a process of grieving and letting go, and enabling him to move to a new stage of life. While we may like to see Mak and Nak reunited, the passage of time and change itself dictate that this reunification is unhealthy for both of them.

Psycho (dir. Alfred Hitchcock): good psych horror thriller about predestination / free will and men’s oppression of women

Alfred Hitchcock, “Psycho” (1960)

This movie is a good psychological horror thriller with excellent performances from its two leads Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates and Janet Leigh as Marion Crane. Leigh dominates much of the film’s first half. Crane is a disaffected secretary who nicks $40,000 in cash from her real estate employer on the pretence of banking it and going home early because of a headache; she instead makes off for an out-of-town weekend rendezvous with her boyfriend Sam (John Galvin). Along the way she hurriedly changes cars at a used-car dealership and arrives at a hotel operated by lone owner-manager Bates. They have supper and a brief chat together, after which Crane suddenly decides she’ll leave in the morning, return to town and hand back the money. Her plans are thwarted when an intruder stabs her to death while she is having a shower. Some time after the killer has left, Bates comes and looks into the bathroom, is shocked at what he sees and cleans up the blood and other mess. He disposes of Crane’s body, her effects and her car in a nearby swamp.

The rest of the film introduces Vera Miles as Crane’s sister Lila, a respectable single woman in contrast to the more impulsive Marion, who engages a private detective (Matt Balsam) to inquire into Marion’s disappearance. After the detective himself disappears – he joins Crane down in the swamp – Lila and Sam decide to investigate Marion’s whereabouts and, following the detective’s last piece of information, arrive at the Bates Hotel to do their own snooping …

What makes “Psycho” more than just a psych horror / slasher film – and this is often true of many of Hitchcock’s films – is its theme that informs the characters’ motivations and personalities: in “Psycho”, it’s the choices that people must make between conforming to social expectations, duties and obligations and determining their own destiny: what Marion and Norman refer to as “the private trap”. The two sisters Lila and Marion are mirror opposites: Lila chose to conform before the film’s events and stays single; Marion chooses a de facto relationship and makes other decisions on the hop. Both women are subjected separately to knife attacks: the conformist sister survives, the nonconformist one doesn’t. Bates is both a conformist and nonconformist but in an unusual way: he’s a victim of his upbringing and fate which took away his father and made his mother turn to the son for emotional comfort; the son becomes trapped in his relationship with his mother. He chooses to preserve it even if it means killing his mother and her later lover; overcome with guilt, he resurrects the mother in his mind which “she” comes to dominate as prudish and repressive.

Romance is dealt with in prescribed ways approved by society and these ways usually privilege men’s needs and preferences over those of women. This puts Marion in an unenviable state: she’s in a relationship with a divorced man she wants to marry but who can’t afford to marry her. When a lecherous tycoon propositions her and throws the $40,000 down on the table for a property sale, it’s understandable that she would take it: she and Sam need the money, the tycoon treats it as small change. This becomes obvious after her death: her boss notifies Lila of her disappearance and the missing cash rather than go to the police, indicating that he and the tycoon are willing to forgive Marion for the theft.

Marion’s shower death scene cuts the film in two very different halves and the way it is done deserves mention: for modern audiences, it’s not gory and only once is the knife seen to pierce, or at least touch, flesh. Blood flows in the water and down the drain but is not seen much. Marion’s screams, the dull knife thuds (the film crew repeatedly stabbed a watermelon for the sound effects), the very quick camera cuts and the repeating shrill, hysterical violin music by Bernard Hermann provide the horror. The camera continually cuts between Marion’s point of view and the killer’s, and this helps to transfer the focus of the plot from Marion to Bates. A kind of sexual intercourse has occurred in the death scene. While the shower scene is structurally pivotal to the movie, the scene itself is the culmination of the chat Marion and Bates have about being free to live one’s own life versus obligations to family and how individuals become trapped in a particular groove as a result of personal history and family background. It’s during this chat that Marion decides to return to town to deal with her particular “private trap” and Bates determines that she should stay at the hotel. Viewers who watch and listen to this chat closely will link the bathroom intruder with Bates himself.

The weakest part of “Psycho” is the denouement in which a psychiatrist explains Bates’s behaviour and family history, followed by Bates sitting alone in a jail cell facing the camera. Although these scenes provide closure for those viewers unfamiliar with Freudian psychology, they cut off the possibility of multiple interpretations of Bates’s behaviour and place ultimate blame for his psychosis on his domineering mother. One could suggest that the psychiatrist imposes his own interpretation of Bates’s behaviour, based on interviews with him, and isn’t necessarily to be believed; Bates may be using his mother as a scapegoat for his crimes – a classic example of projecting blame. According to Bates, his mother disapproves of sexual desire yet earlier when Lila snuck into the woman’s bedroom, she saw small monuments to romantic and sexual love. Bates and another character in the film also acknowledge that Mrs Bates had a lover. Who is the real Mrs Bates then?

The low budget for “Psycho” at the time of filming meant it was shot in black-and-white which hinders aspects of the plot’s development and elaboration: the landscape in which the events take place looks generic and never becomes part of the movie. Colour film would have given sharpness to the film’s look and a colourful desert background would have heightened the isolation of the Bates family property and its lone inhabitant from the rest of the world. The Bates family mansion would look more dilapidated and distinctive as a character in its own right instead of merely resembling a haunted-house stereotype. The use of colour inside the mansion could have emphasised its three floors’ resemblance to the Freudian concept of the human mind: ground floor / ego, upper floor / superego, basement level / id. There is an emphasis on contrasts of light and dark within “Psycho” which colour film and a clear filter might have made more of.

The film makes several assertions about the nature of Bates’s psychosis and his relationship with his mother, all of them quite contradictory and undercutting each other, and challenges audiences on the good girl / bad girl polarity represented by Lila and Marion. Lila is the good girl but the film seems more sympathetic towards Marion, at least until she decides to turn back to town and return the money. Marion comes across as an attractive, likeable character with faults and her sister as proper, more mature perhaps, but maybe less deserving of the audience’s sympathy. The private detective is diligent in his work but ends up dead; the local police sheriff seems lackadaisical in investigating Marion and the detective’s whereabouts but survives. These positions the film revels in, many of them related to the central themes of the polarity of predestination / free will and men’s oppression of women and their sexuality, make “Psycho” an ambiguous and complex film.