Citizen Kane: interesting film but it privileges style over substance

Orson Welles, “Citizen Kane” (1941)

Notwithstanding its tag as America’s greatest film or the world’s greatest film – usually bestowed by American film critics, of course! – “Citizen Kane” is actually an interesting film that challenges its audiences to think about how one man may easily become corrupted into arrogance, greed and self-importance to the extent that he makes errors of judgement and crashes into humiliation and ruin spectacularly. I daresay that while the film is about just one individual, its tale of the American Dream of rising from obscurity with perhaps an innocent or idealistic goal to success, fame and influence, only to fall into ignominy and oblivion with a loss of the original ideal or ideals, could apply to organisations and even entire countries as it does to people generally. However as a study of a man’s life and character, while it does a great job demonstrating the anti-hero’s faults and errors, “Citizen Kane” actually has little to say about how the man came to be so cynical about and nasty towards his fellow human beings.

The film’s narrative structure is very unusual for a Hollywood product of its time. It begins with a series of ghostly Gothic images appropriate to a horror movie – a bit of black humour on director Welles’s part perhaps – featuring a huge building and its surrounds, with the camera focussing closer and closer with each succeeding shot on a light behind a window. The window eventually takes up most of the screen, there’s a black-out, suggestive of a terrible event within, the light comes back on and suddenly the camera thrusts the viewer behind the window, inside the room. A close-up shot of a man’s lips whispering “Rosebud” appears, then the camera zips to a hand releasing a snow globe that shatters on the floor and there’s a mirror image of a nurse coming into the man’s room; the nurse moves to lay a sheet over the dead man. This artfully sequenced series of montages alerts us that the story to come will be in flashbacks or reminiscences and may not be conventionally laid out. Sure enough an obituary of media magnate Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) is presented by a news service “News on the March”, detailing Kane’s achievements and failures in full in a style typical of filmed news articles of the time (early 20th century) and even going so far as to feature blurry film footage of Kane in his wheelchair dotage. After the obituary ends, a group of journalists discusses Kane’s late word “Rosebud” and one reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) determines to locate and interview significant people in Kane’s life including Kane’s second wife Susan (Dorothy Comingore) and best friend cum Kane’s conscience Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten) about their opinions of and experiences with Kane and what they think “Rosebud” means.

Through the interviewees’ recollections and Thompson’s research at the private library of Kane’s guardian Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris), we learn that Kane came into a considerable inheritance when very young. At the age of 25, he enters the newspaper business by buying The New York Inquirer, hires the best reporters he can find and uses the paper to create and spread sensationalist news, and mould public opinion. The paper also criticises political and economic elites and their exploitation of the public with sharp business practices. A first marriage links him to influential people in politics and Kane prepares for a political career by campaigning for State governor. Both his campaign and marriage derail when his opponent discovers and publicises a secret love affair with singer Susan Alexander. Kane marries the singer after a quick divorce but from this moment on, he makes one blunder after another: he attempts to mould Susan into an opera singer but bad reviews and her suicide attempt kill off that ambition; he builds his extravagant home Xanadu complete with private zoo but fortunately for good taste the Great Depression hits the United States in 1929 and ruins Kane’s media empire utterly. Trustees take over what’s left of his fortune. Susan leaves him and Kane withdraws completely into seclusion.

The film’s not too clear on how and at what moment Kane becomes so consumed with his own success, power and influence that they sap any idealism he might have had and lead to gross errors of judgement. It’s plain though that Kane’s moral compass from young adulthood on is quite shaky and he eagerly exploits the yearnings of ordinary people to give them what he thinks they want – populist crusading on their behalf, based on a set of socialistic principles which Kane later repudiates – and to grow rich from fulfilling what other newspapers consider tacky and base desires. How Kane managed to avoid a solid grounding in ethics at home, school and college is not explained in the film and this might be considered its major failing. Although Kane’s character is based partly on the character and personality of William Randolph Hearst, the major US media magnate of Welles’s day, it’s not difficult for us seventy years later to imagine parallels between Kane and the current global media magnate Rupert Murdoch and many of his media industry peers around the world. However as the film relies on unreliable and often biased points of view, the picture of Kane that emerges is vague and fragmented and viewers may be forgiven for thinking, well how did such a man get to be so rich, so famous and so powerful if he made so many mistakes and did such stupid things? Thompson’s choice of interviewees itself is strange: second wife, a former best friend, a loyal business manager, a butler – these are people a trashy sensationalist biography might rely on. What about Kane’s business and political rivals and allies, why aren’t they interviewed? Is it because they might not offer juicy titbits worthy of celebrity gossip magazines? Hmm, that in itself isn’t a good reflection on Welles’s opinion of what movie-goers want to see!

Technically the film is excellent with every shot and series of shots set up, framed and presented carefully for maximum impact and to influence viewers’ impressions of Kane and the monster he became. A series of montages of Kane and his first wife sitting at breakfast demonstrates perfectly how their marriage deteriorates over the years: at the beginning of the montage, the two are sitting close together; each succeeding shot shows them ageing and talking at each other rather than to each other; eventually one shot shows them reading rival newspapers; and the end shot shows them at opposite ends of a long table. The placement of certain background props creates optical illusions – in some scenes, characters walk towards the background and end up being dwarfed by the backdrops (often paintings rather than actual built backgrounds) which may show how much their reputations have diminished – or establishes a mood or characters’ relationships to one another – when Susan walks out on Kane, she does so through a series of doors which shows beyond doubt that their marriage is finished and done with. Physical settings and clever framing of the actors and the action – in many shots, three actors are placed in such a way that their heads form points of a triangle and the lighting in the scene will focus on one actor and make that person the centre of attention – often indicate more than action and dialogue alone and together can do what is happening in the plot, how the actors’ characters relate to one another and even give a hint of what is to happen next.

The sequencing of the shots that move the plot back and forth in time can be very smooth and clever: in the segment of the film in which Jedediah Leland is being interviewed, the change in time is signalled by the background changing behind Leland while he is speaking and then Leland himself gradually darkens and disappears into the scene being remembered; when the film comes back to Leland in the present day, the foreground of a previous scene in which Kane is typing Leland’s last review becomes the background to Leland and the interviewer. The background darkens and Leland’s nurses later emerge from it.

The final shots of the film are amazing to behold, showing off the hundreds of art objects, furniture pieces, office equipment, toys and other bric-a-brac Kane accumulated in his life. These inanimate items perhaps reveal more about Kane and his desire to control and possess everything, everyone and every situation around him than all the interviewees have been able to say. We finally learn that the one thing Kane could not control was that moment in his childhood when his destiny changed – when he learned of his inheritance while he was mucking about on his sled – and his carefree and happy days were over: this is the apparently profound yet also very ordinary and hardly earth-shattering(?) secret behind “Rosebud”. The very last shot of the film of Xanadu behind the gate with its “No Trespassing” sign, the mansion’s chimney smoking furiously, the fires within its furnace erasing all memory of Kane, is more sinister than sad; Welles couldn’t have known while making the movie that Nazi Germany was about to move Jews, Roma and other groups of people to concentration and death camp complexes hidden deep in remote country areas in Poland.

Welles introduced a number of technical innovations in “Citizen Kane” including the use of unusual camera angles, strong contrasts of light and shadow, and deep focus shots (in which backgrounds are contrasted with foregrounds) and on these innovations the film’s reputation as America’s greatest film or the world’s greatest film lies. Much credit must go to the cinematographer Gregg Toland as to Welles himself. The acting varies from efficient to hammy and some individual performances (Cotten as Leland, Everett Sloane as the business manager) are better than others. The film’s narrative conceals or misses more than it shows and makes demands on the audience to fill in the missing gaps. We end up knowing that Kane most definitely is an arsehole but how he came to be such a miserable bastard and how the “Rosebud” sled ties into such a development, the film never comes close to even hinting at. Hate to say it but even with Orson Welles and “Citizen Kane”, style wins over substance. Kane himself might well be smiling (and Leland grimacing) at the irony.

Still there’s a valuable lesson in “Citizen Kane” in that it demonstrates how early success can be the ruin of people if they’re not sufficiently grounded in a moral code and are easily swayed by flattery and immediate though short-term fame and fortune about how important and influential they are.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance: disturbing film about vengeance and how it distorts humanity in a warped society

Park Chanwook, “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” (2005)

“… Lady Vengeance” is the third of South Korean director Park Chanwook’s revenge-themed movie trilogy that began with “Sympathy for Mr Vengeance” and continued with “Oldboy”. Both the second and third films in the trilogy are in line for remakes by Hollywood (because as we all know, American and Australian audiences hate reading sub-titles and don’t understand movies where everyone looks foreign), demonstrating that across the world, revenge is a popular theme for drama. As you’d expect, “… Lady Vengeance” or just “Lady Vengeance” as it’s sometimes called follows the standard revenge-story format: the protagonist has been wronged in the past, spends some time in a state of suffering and on release from that suffering plots and carries out the revenge against the villain. Usually for some reason the law is of no help to the protagonist so s/he must operate semi-legally or illegally and consequently exerts considerate effort to achieve the goal. Once the revenge is complete, the drama ends but often at this point the real curve-ball is thrown at the audience: does the hero get any real satisfaction out of carrying out the revenge?

Consider the case of Lee Geumja (Lee Yeongae) who has spent the past 13 years in jail for the kidnap and murder of a small child called Wonmo.. Flashbacks in “Lady Vengeance” show Lee was blackmailed by the real murderer Mr Baek (Choi Minsik, who played the avenger in “Oldboy”) who threatened to kill her baby daughter if she didn’t admit guilt. Lee is arrested, charged and given a long sentence in a women’s jail. During the 13 years, Lee becomes a kind-hearted ministering angel to her fellow prisoners, performing many good deeds which include killing the prison bully with poison. After her release, Lee plans and carries out her revenge against Baek by calling in all the favours she’s done for various ex-convicts. She also tracks down and is reunited with her daughter who has been adopted and named Jenny by an Australian couple in the meantime.

Once she’s found Baek and taken him to an abandoned rural school-house, Lee discovers she hasn’t the heart to kill him outright. On discovering his mobile phone is festooned with various small trinkets, she realises he’s a serial child murderer who has lured children to him using their toys. With help from Baek’s estranged wife, she sets about tracking down the identities of the dead children, locates their relatives and brings them to the school where she informs them of Baek’s crimes and lets them decide what justice Baek deserves. They decide as a collective what to do and carry out the gory deed. With Baek out of the way, Lee and the relatives take a group photograph that implicates all of them in their crime and they all swear not to report one another to the authorities. They go to the cake-shop where Lee has been working since leaving prison and hold a birthday celebration ritual that allows them all to remember and let go of the deceased children and move on (?) with their lives.

Sorry I had to tell the story but the point of “Lady Vengeance” isn’t whether Lee succeeds or not in her vengeance – the film’s English title implies she does succeed – but in whether the relentless planning and pursuit of Baek makes Lee a better or worse person than he is and forces the audience to decide if she deserves compassion and sympathy for what she does. The film makes plain that Baek is a menace to society but the fact that he’s been able to commit heinous crimes around the country without arousing suspicion suggests that the law, and society in some way, lacks power or the ethics to deal with his kind of criminal. Perhaps Geumja is indeed justified in resorting to extreme measures to stop and punish him. At the same time the emotional and physical toll of her revenge is just as extreme; after Baek is gone, Geumja seems to become a mere shell, perhaps no longer able to relate to her daughter (who eventually returns to Australia with her adoptive parents), and this psychological emptiness is the true horror of what Baek has done to the woman.

The film is presented in a visually gorgeous and artistic way that creates a clinical distance between the characters and the audience. Nearly every scene is a tableau where action and dialogue happen to be staged. Scenes are filmed at unusual or awkward angles so as to become abstract: stairways appear as geometrical formations, a bathroom becomes an architectural fantasy and snow country is a backdrop for a painting of dog-paw patterns or curves created by sleds. The whole film has an unreal, staged quality where beauty exists everywhere, masking or denying life with all its horrors and untidiness, and even street scenes look artfully designed. The apartment Lee lives in, decorated in lurid black-and-red tiger-stripe wallpaper, seems devoid of passion even when passion occurs within its walls. You’re looking at a society of fragmented art-gallery scene puzzles whose citizens have to find the joins to make sense of the world they live in and of themselves as permanent residents.

Geumja herself, from the time she leaves prison to just after the cake-shop celebration ritual, wears highly stylised, minimal war-paint that masks and maybe eventually denies an inner emotional repression or turmoil; on taking the make-up off, she becomes drained of all colour and is as bland as the tofu cake, representing goodness and purity, that she ends up bashing her face in and trying to suck up, to ingest the goodness that perhaps she realises she lacks. One assumes that when Jenny returns to Australia, Geumja will find a new place and wardrobe that will be as washed-out as the tofu cake. There could be hope in that cake; possibly Geumja is ready to be truly good as opposed to pretending to be good and doing good while in the slammer.  There may be redemption or there may be a bland, slightly saccharine-sweet tofu-cake sort of life, empty of true passion and feeling, in a society that abandoned her and those lost children in the first place. A scene in the bathroom near the end, in which Geumja has a vision of a grown-up Wonmo (Yu Jitae who appeared in “Oldboy”) stuffing a cork into her mouth, suggests there is no redemption, at least not of the inner psychological sort, and her future life will be emotionally sterile.

Lee Yeongae’s acting as Geumja is very controlled and restrained right up to the last few scenes where her beautiful luminous face breaks into something that’s half-sorrow and half-happiness – it’s hard to tell and the ambiguity is deliberate – and it’s only really in the last scene with the tofu cake that Lee really lets rip with emotion for what she has lost and what perhaps lies ahead. Choi Minsik offers excellent support as the boorish, animalistic Baek who reveals little emotion and remorse right up to his last moments of torture and suffering and eventual death.

There is a feminist aspect to “Lady Vengeance”: most female characters in the film are clearly on Geumja’s side and offer help and advice on how to go about capturing Baek. The male characters who support her are passive and follow her instructions: for example, the police detective who arrested her over a decade ago is reduced to a tea-lady role at the school where Lee informs the relatives of the dead children of what happened to them. Of the characters who support Baek, all of them are male, among them the Christian who tries to persuade Geumja not to give up the good-girl attitudes and behaviours she acquired during imprisonment. This implies that institutions in Korean society that are supposed to be morally and spiritually uplifting and protective of vulnerable people are in fact supporting corruption and evil.

This can be a disturbing film that calls into question the nature of vengeance and what it can do to people who have no choice but to carry it out under conditions that drain and distort their normal human development and relations with others in a warped society that denies its most vulnerable members (like young children and naive women) proper justice.

Citizen Dog: comedy with one-dimensional heroes and disappointing plot

Wisit Sasanatieng, “Citizen Dog” (2004)

File:Citizendoghouse.jpg Source: Wikipedia, www.en.wikipedia.org

Living in Australia with its huge Hollywood fixation, even though Hollywood’s output of films has declined a lot since the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, means we don’t get to see very many movies from countries in other parts of the world. That’s a pity as some places like Thailand now have a significant movie industry and are exporting some very well-made films with excellent technical production standards. This particular movie with the eccentric name “Citizen Dog” is a quirky fantasy romantic comedy that combines two characters’ quests – one for love, one for meaning to life – with a message that searching for something may not get you anywhere or yield the result you need but if you wait, what you want will come to you eventually. In other words, trust in life and it will give you what you desire. I suppose this is what some people call a Buddhist approach to life, though my impression of Buddhism is that it calls on people not to have a materialistic attitude to life or be attached to “things” (which may include desires), but there’s something about the film’s message that makes me uncomfortable: it just seems so conservative and limiting and turns its hero into a passive being. The film seems unsatisfactory; it’s likeable and has some very amusing characters and situations that make for a very surreal world but the whole edifice, carefully constructed, depends largely on a barebones and disappointing romance plot and the main characters of Pod (Mahasmut Bunyaruk) and Jin (Saengthong Gate-uthong) remain distant, one-dimensional and unremarkable.

Pod is a typical young man who leaves his family’s rice farm to seek work in the huge Bangkok metropolis. He gets a job in a sardine-canning factory where as a result of losing and then regaining his finger, he meets a similar young migrant fellow Yod (Sawatong Palakawong na Autthaya) . Together they leave the factory to find other work and Pod finds himself in a security guard’s uniform escorting people up and down in elevators in a city building. He meets and falls in love with Jin, a company cleaner who is obsessed with reading a book that has fallen out of the sky and which she believes holds the key to success and a meaningful life. From then on, Pod alternately pursues Jin or waits for her to come to him while Jin herself tirelessly – and not too intelligently – chases after a messiah figure or a cause connected directly or indirectly to the book that she believes will lead her to something better in life.

The film is a light-hearted and entertaining cartoon-like comedy with some interesting by-ways and eccentric characters who include a spoilt rich kid (Pattareeya Sanittwate) of indeterminate age with a talking teddy-bear, a salesman with a compulsion to lick everything in sight and a grandmother whose soul is continuously recycled through some very unusual life-forms. The eccentricity can get a bit twee and artificial, even for a fantasy like “Citizen Dog”. Jin’s obsession leads to her taking up protesting against pollution as a cause and this has very comic results: the interiors of her house become a jungle in contrast to its prim-and-proper picket-fenced exterior and the Bangkok city skyline ends up dominated by a huge white mountain of plastic bottles she collects. It’s on this mountain, reaching as high as the moon in the sky, that Jin eventually discovers her life’s mission.

To me, “Citizen Dog” makes fun out of the aspirations of ordinary working-class people, toiling as taxi-drivers, cleaners and factory workers, for a better, more meaningful life that makes them feel special and unique. Admittedly this meaningful life may be no more than being richer or more famous than others, and at first this seems to be what Jin desires but as her desire transmutes into something else and she ends up blundering into doing things that can be monstrous as well as comic, I sense a cruelty to the otherwise gentle comedy. Are we laughing with Jin or at Jin? Ultimately the meaning of life and Jin’s true mission coalesce into helping Granny reincarnate for the umpteenth time and running a plastics factory into the ground.

The structuring of the film into chapters and the use of an unseen narrator (Pen-ek Ratanaruang) aims for a sweetness reminiscent of some French art-house films and creates a distinctive world at once familiar yet unfamiliar but I found this style of narrative quite alienating and fussy after a while. It does though keep the film moving at a good pace and helps pack in a sub-plot and various minor characters to flesh out the universe within the film. I guess one use too, of such chapters to introduce various minor characters who are incidental to the plot is to demonstrate how searching and running after love can end up a pathetic quest, especially in the case of Yod who yearns after a self-obsessed Chinese restaurant worker. The main characters don’t have enough substance to them to carry the entire film; the actors playing them are good-looking and play their parts well enough so that their quirks, though maddening and overdone, do have the feel of plausibility in the mad world they inhabit.

The urban Bangkok environment plays a major role in the film and I would have liked to see Sasanatieng give it even more prominence as a major “character”: the city itself is a place where anything and everything can happen but it tends to be something of a backdrop rather than a semi-active player itself. Indeed, I feel Bangkok as presented here is a generic big city that could be found anywhere in an economically wealthy and dynamic Asian country. The music soundtrack does have some highlights – a bit of Thai-language hiphop here, some laid-back middle-of-the-road rock or country music there (yes, I believe Thailand does boast its own country rock music scene, it’s called luk thung)- but it’s not very distinctive and doesn’t reflect on some aspect of the plot or the characters’ development (not that there is any; the plot requires Pod to be a passive character and so he remains the same wide-eyed thunderstruck innocent throughout the film) as it probably should.

The film might have worked better if Pod had been the obsessive-compulsive cleaner with the neatness streak and love of causes striving for Jin’s attention and Jin a corporate lawyer at the firm that employs Pod. The plot would then have allowed Pod to undergo all the ups and downs of unrequited love and to create the mountain of plastic bottles only to discover that Jin is weary of being a corporate slave and that she longs for a simpler life and loves Pod for all his bungles and blunders. Or at least something that enables Pod to grow and mature in a way that still maintains his essential goodness and naive outlook on life. Jin can still be a bit nutsoid and pursue her book obsession. At the same time the urban Bangkok environment with its particular sights and sounds can be both a positive and a negative influence on Pod’s development.

“Citizen Dog” happens to be Sasanatieng’s second film as a director so perhaps I shouldn’t be too hard on him. He has created a visually gorgeous film which in its own way lambasts the corporate world and I hope in future films he can build up a distinctive Planet Bangkok reality where magic realism is more realistic than reality itself.

To Catch A Thief: there’s fluff and then there’s fluff, Hitchcock-style

Alfred Hitchcock, “To Catch A Thief” (1955)

A clever light-hearted comedy crime caper set in southern France, this was one of Grace Kelly’s last films before she married Prince Rainier of Monaco and settled permanently in that part of the world, and Cary Grant’s “comeback” movie after he had declared his retirement from making films in 1953. Grant plays retired cat burglar John Robie aka the Cat, enjoying life as a vineyard owner on the Cote d’Azur. Enjoyment is short-lived though as a series of jewellery burglaries with the hallmarks of the Cat’s style lead the local gendarmes to suspect Robie’s gone back to his old occupation. He calls on his old friends with whom he fought in the French Resistance in the 1940’s (and with whom he swore never to return to crime) to pull in some favours but they’re suspicious and upset that he’s apparently gone back to his old ways.  He escapes the police only with the help of Danielle (Brigitte Auber), the daughter of his friend Foussard. Danielle is infatuated with Robie and suggests they flee to South America together but Robie refuses.

His reputation under a shade, Robie decides to clear his name by catching the copy-cat (ha!) in action so he enlists insurance agent Hughson (John Williams) to help him. Hughson introduces him to rich American socialite Mrs Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) and her daughter Frances (Grace Kelly) who happen to be top of a list of likely victims for the thief. Initially Frances is attracted to Robie (and eventually falls in love with him), guesses his identity and becomes enthralled with his presumed life-style, at least until mother loses her jewels to the thief.

Robie stakes out the roof-tops to try to catch the thief but ends up struggling with an attacker who turns out to be Foussard. Foussard falls from the roofs into the harbour and drowns. The police later announce that Foussard was the copy-cat thief but Robie points out to Hughson in his office that Foussard had a prosthetic leg and couldn’t be the thief. Later at Foussard’s funeral, Danielle sees Robie in attendance and accuses him of murdering her father so he has to leave. On exiting the cemetery, Robie meets Frances who has read about Foussard’s death in the papers. She apologises to Robie and confesses that she loves him.

In the evening Robie attends a masquerade ball with Frances and by doing a costume swap with Hughson, manages to evade the police and stakes out his position again on the roof-tops, determined to catch the real copy-cat thief …

The film is beautifully shot in what was called VistaVision at the time: Hitchcock revels in bird’s-eye view and aeroplane shots of colourful French Riviera coastal scenes with picturesque villages, long snaking roads through mountains and luxurious holiday resorts for the rich. The rich colour of the setting is echoed in the lavish masquerade ball in the last quarter of the film. Even the roof-tops at night exude an eerie, almost radioactive-bright green colour. The most colourful highlight of the film though – and the most overtly sexual – is the fireworks scene, interspersed with scenes of Robie and Frances alone together in a darkened room, trading witty sexualised repartee and doing more besides while the camera concentrates on the pyrotechnics.

There is a lot of sexual innuendo in the film and much of it, like the fireworks display, isn’t necessarily verbal: even the car-chase scene, where Frances hits the gas to escape the cops and Robie is forced to be her unwilling passenger, could be construed as a kind of “seduction” (read: rape, sort of) scene. Then there are obvious gags like Danielle showing off her legs to a police plane on the floating jetty. The physical setting itself carries cultural baggage as a place for holiday romance and seduction – no doubt fictional British spy James Bond spent many days and nights on the Cote d’Azur and in Monaco with gal pals too numerous to mention – and the colours of the masquerade, and the masquerade itself with its late 18th-century costume theme, recall the sensual decadence of the period of French queen Marie Antoinette’s court.

It becomes clear that the film’s crime caper plot is secondary to its raison d’etre which is the romance between Grant and Kelly’s characters. Robie may be the thief trying to catch a thief but the real thief is Frances who catches him and steals his heart. The denouement in which Frances gazes around Robie’s property and comments on how her mother will love the place, Robie’s priceless expression at the comment and the doomy sound of the church bell tolling at the same time is a hilarious Hitchcock piece of black humour and a small showcase of how well Grant and Kelly worked together despite the huge difference in their ages (at the time, he was at least twice her age). I haven’t seen Cary Grant in a movie before but his acting here suggests that “To Catch A Thief” was a cakewalk for him: he glides well-dressed through his scenes, seems very relaxed and barely creases his forehead even when danger threatens. No wonder he was an early candidate to play James Bond. Kelly, playing an assertive and intelligent young socialite who, uncharacteristically in a 1950’s film, is the active suitor to Grant’s character who plays hard-to-get, would have made an ideal Bond girl if she had been born half a century later. It’s likely that Kelly and Grant improvised a lot of the sexual banter within the scene paramaters set up by Hitchcock. The ad-libbing would highlight how well they clicked together on the screen. The predictable screen romance becomes more interesting and I can truly believe Frances will be more than a match for the lounge-lizard Robie.

It’s interesting that in this film and “Rear Window” at least, Kelly plays a sophisticated, wealthy ice-queen socialite with nerves of steel and daring who will defend and preserve not only her own life but the lives of others, with the aim of snaring a man who’s less of a “man” than she is. I’ve not yet seen “Dial M for Murder” but I understand that in that film, Kelly plays the same kind of character. Like Lisa in “Rear Window”, Frances assumes characteristics associated with male heroes of 1950’s films while the male co-star is forced to adopt a passive feminine role or the characteristics associated with such a role: she saves Robie from being detained or shot by the police on two occasions while he is either helpless or trapped. In a period when most movies portrayed blonde women as empty-headed, ditzy sex bombshells, Kelly and other blonde actresses who featured in Hitchcock’s films must have been thanking their lucky stars to have come across a director consistently offering them challenging work. The popular conception of Hitchcock has always been that he was a misogynist and treated his actresses badly, but this conception could be based on his complicated relationship with Tippi Hedren, star of “The Birds” and “Marnie”. I’d say Hitchcock’s relationship to his lead actresses must at least have been as complicated as, say, Danish director Lars von Trier’s relationship to the lead actresses in the films he directs: von Trier draws performances from his lead actresses that can be great as well as emotionally draining for them in films that have been construed as demonstrating a misogynist viewpoint. But I suspect von Trier  likes turning traditional (or maybe not-so-very traditional) Western views of women on their head in ways that challenge and confront audiences about their own beliefs and the possibility that at some level, we are still influenced by old notions about how “good” women should behave versus how “bad” women usually behave. In like manner, Hitchcock may have enjoyed turning ideas about “good ” women and “bad” women on their head. I’m sure modern audiences watching Kelly in “To Catch A Thief” might be just as amused or surprised as audiences were 50-plus years ago seeing her character pursue Robie aggressively and flaunt her sexuality at him in the darkened hotel room during the fireworks display.

For a film that’s regarded as Hitchcock at his fluffiest, I managed to write a fair amount but this demonstrates that even fluff, when done by Hitchcock, still retains a lot of the rich, subversive and layered quality of the Hitchcock universe. Deception is everywhere in this film wherever viewers look and might be considered a major theme. Perhaps Robie’s look of horror at the end of the film is its real climax: he realises the depth of Frances’s deception and that her “love” for him was really a way of snaring more real estate and wealth for her family. Who’s the real thief? Yep, there’s fluff and then there’s fluff, Hitchcock-style.

Superego and Id meet slapstick in Oristrell’s breathless “Unconscious”

Joaquin Oristrell, “Unconscious” (2004)

An amusing and vivacious romance comedy set in Barcelona, 1913, “Unconscious” starts off as a search, possibly whodunnit, mystery and winds up a bonkers, overly slapstick trip into the more titillating and taboo areas of human psychology and sexuality. Dr Leon Pardo (Alex Brendemuehl) has recently returned from Vienna, having studied female sexuality as a student of the illustrious psychoanalyst Dr Sigmund Freud, and promptly disappears. Pardo’s wife Alma (Leonor Watling) enlists the help of her brother-in-law Dr Salvador Pifarre (Luis Tosar), also a psychiatrist, to find her lost spouse: the two pore through Dr Pardo’s casebook and discover he’s been treating four patients who may be able to assist in the search. The amateur detectives end up wading deeper into the extremes of human behaviour (for their time) such as homosexuality, transvestism, bondage, fetishism and incest than they anticipate, and their relationships with their spouses and with each other change permanently as well.

The film’s entire cast obviously had a ball making the movie: the acting is energetic, the lead actors make an excellent comedy duo and support actors like Juanjo Puigcorbe, who plays Alma’s psychiatrist father Dr Mira, and Mercedes Sampietro, Alma’s sinister housekeeper, chomp eagerly on the available scenery whenever the camera is focussed on them. Watling throws herself into the role of forthright Alma, unafraid to dive in where the more cautious Salvador fears to tread. The facial hair fashions of 1913 render Tosar’s Salvador into a John Cleese lookalike and Oristrell must have realised this as he sends Salvador into many situations where he comes a-cropper with dignity barely intact: being told a statue he’s holding is a fertility goddess, being co-opted into a porn film, having to wear Alma’s dress to a cross-dressing party and crashing down the stairs while bound to a pair of metal angel wings. These are comic mishaps I associate with John Cleese in the old British TV show “Fawlty Towers” and I almost expect to see Salvador in hopping hysterics screeching in that strained high-pitched Cleese tone while he flaps after Alma who could be a younger Prunella Scales. The various situations the two fall into grow ever more farcical and over-the-top right to the fantastical revelations, for which viewers are completely unprepared, about Alma’s family, Dr Pardo and their housekeeper which inspire Pardo to attempt to assassinate Freud during his tour of Spain. I’m still scratching my head as to how the smart and spirited Alma couldn’t have known her dad’s secret before marrying Dr Pardo and having their baby; I suppose the point among others that Oristrell and his script-writers are making is that mental health professionals can be the most screwed-up of all major occupational groups and their families the most dysfunctional.

Needless to say, students of psychoanalysis won’t learn anything here their lecturers and tutors haven’t already told them; if anything, the movie ridicules Freudian ideas such as “female hysteria” which is posited as a weapon men use to control wilful women, and insights into people’s unconscious feelings and desires – as when Salvador accidentally hypnotises himself and Alma discovers his feelings for her – suggest that people’s unconscious lives are funnier than their conscious lives are. Freud himself though is never presented as an OTT comic character; he’s a gentle person if a bit puzzled by the crazy Catalans and Spaniards around him, scuffling with a gun and firing bullets in the air.

The film is beautiful to look at with opulent sets – even the interiors of people’s apartments are furnished with colourful wallpaper (though having just read a book, James C Whorton’s “The Arsenic Century: how Victorian Britain was poisoned at home, work and play” on the use of arsenic-based products in Victorian Britain, I shudder to think of all the wallpaper dust the characters were breathing in and how that might have scrambled their brains and moral compasses) – and quaint vintage cars rattling on dusty roads. The attention to historical detail extends not only to the making of a pornographic film within the film proper but to the use of animated film reels to indicate scene changes or new chapters in the detective search. Pretentious, yes, but it does give the film a distinctive historical flavour. The structuring of the plot with separate chapters for each patient Alma and Salvador interview adds to the film’s breathless pace.

Oristrell may not be in fellow Spaniard Pedro Almodovar’s league yet but for the time being anyway, he has made a wacky sex comedy of the type the French used to make thirty years ago (“Pardon Mon Affaire”, “La Cage aux Folles”) and which few people these days seem able to do with style, intelligence and originality. I’ll stick my neck out and say that “Unconscious” may achieve the status of a minor classic: there’s rather too much slapstick and not enough wit (which could have been improvised) from the two lead actors to make this a truly great movie.

Empire of Passions: pedestrian story saved by beautiful visuals and psychological character study

Nagisa Oshima, “Empire of Passions” (1978)

By coincidence, when I saw this film the first time early in 2010, I had just finished reading “Therese Raquin”, a psychological novel by late 19th century French writer Emile Zola, and I have to admit I failed to see the similarities between the two at the time. Although the novel is not the source inspiration for the film, there is a similar basic idea: a woman and her lover plot to kill her husband, they carry out the deed in a way so as to ensure there are no witnesses, and for the rest of the story, the murderers suffer pangs of guilt either openly or indirectly and their guilty consciences lead them to act out certain behaviours or say things that arouse the attentions and suspicions of others. The film is based on a real incident that occurred in Japan in the late nineteenth century. Oshima has fleshed out the plot into a mix of story genres – traditional Japanese ghost horror story meets modern thriller with a psychology study thrown in – that may comment on the impact of Western rationality and police-state control, as exemplified by the soldier lover and the police officer who investigates the crime, on a traditional easy-going and spontaneous rural society with its particular set of values as exemplified by the unfaithful wife.

The film revolves mainly around the two lovers, soldier Toyoji (Tatsuya Fujii, who appeared in Oshima’s “In the Realm of the Senses” prior to making “Empire of Passions”), who relies on reason and experience; and Seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) who, in spite of her mature years, being old enough to be Toyoji’s mother, retains her youthful looks and figure and a naive, morally flexible and child-like approach to life that Toyoji takes advantage of to seduce her. Viewers may sense that Seki’s life with her rickshaw-driver husband Gisaburo (Takahiro Tamura) is in some ways unfulfilling: her personal needs and desires go unspoken and unsatisfied as she is kept busy looking after hubby and two kids and working for the landlord in his fields and kitchen. I can’t help but compare Seki with the “good girl” characters in Danish director Lars von Trier’s trilogy of films about self-sacrificing heroines (“Breaking the Waves” / “The Idiots” / “Dancer in the Dark”) in which the good women live in or come from situations of isolation – and you could argue Seki herself has lived in isolation of a sort, as a woman married to a poor man in a rural community sidetracked by Japan’s industrialisation in the 1890’s – and are so innocent and naive that they readily agree to be co-opted by their men into behaviour and actions that lead to their downfall (cruel, violent death or family ostracism). The difference is that Seki comes to regret her actions and is tormented by the murder. Why Seki would want to throw away her settled, comfortable if hard-working family life for a man with no job prospects and who rapes her, mutilates her by shaving her and then forces her to co-operate in the murder of her husband and his body’s disposal, is never adequately answered in the film. One assumes that the position of women in rural Japan in the late nineteenth century was so dreadfully low that women like Seki were completely lacking in self-esteem and control over their lives and bodies to the extent that others had more rights to their reproductive systems than they themselves did.

Toyoji himself is a puzzle: having been discharged from the army, he’s only interested in having a good time and in preying on Seki’s generous nature and innocence, only to become disinterested in her after murdering her husband. Oshima offers no explanation as to why his behaviour towards Seki changes. Toyoji appears to have no qualms about murdering Gisaburo but his constant repetitive actions in visiting the well where Gisaburo’s body lies and dumping leaves there might well suggest guilt. Even his apparent disinterest in Seki may reflect his guilt: if he and Seki were to be seen together by the neighbours after Gisaburo’s disappearance, the community might well add two and two together and come up with five, and so he and she must wait for as long as they can (if necessary, for years) before they can be seen together openly. Another interpretation of Toyoji’s character is that he’s simply being rational in insisting on waiting and not appearing to be a couple. As it is, three years after the murder, various folks including Seki’s daughter Oshin report being visited in their dreams by Gisaburo and these reports play on Seki’s mind sufficiently that she starts to see Gisaburo’s ghost regularly at nights. Understandably Seki is frightened enough to want to stay with Toyoji; when he rebuffs her, she responds by trying to burn herself and the family home.

In the meantime police inspector Hotta (Takuzo Kawatani) arrives to investigate Gisaburo’s disappearance and the various rumours that he has been murdered. Unfortunately the film pays little attention to the way he conducts his investigations, apart from his eavesdropping on Seki and Toyoji one evening, though it’s not much of a surprise to viewers when he has enough evidence to indict Seki and Toyoji. It’s almost as if Hotta and the police authorities decided that Gisaburo was murdered, and that Toyoji and Seki are his killers, and all they need do is collect or even fabricate evidence to clear up the matter. Since Hotta enters the film around the half-way mark, the plot might have worked better if Hotta’s point of view had become dominant: viewers would have been able to follow Hotta eavesdropping on the couple, observing Toyoji and Seki going out to the well, and writing up his thoughts and opinions about the two acting in ways that suggest their guilt and shame. The police then would have a better case to prosecute Toyoji and Seki, and their torture of the two to force their confessions could still take place and appear all the more cruel (because it’s not necessary). Indeed, telling the story from Hotta’s point of view could reinforce Oshima’s message about late 19th century Japan becoming a more military and fascistic society, because Hotta himself would be the mouthpiece for the selective mix of extreme neo-Confucianist and Western, specifically Prussian, ideologies that became the basis for the Japanese imperialist police state of the early 20th century.

Away from the pedestrian plot which leaves a lot unexplained and therefore is open to numerous interpretations, the film is mainly remarkable for its investigation of Seki’s psychological state after the murder and for its depictions of the changing seasons, particularly of the snowy winter backdrop against which Gisaburo’s murder is committed, and of the spring and summer periods during which time community rumours about Gisaburo’s disappearance gestate and are made known to Seki. The cycle of the seasons demonstrates how Seki and Toyoji become trapped, physically as well as psychologically, by their actions with the implication that eventually their crime will lead to an even more base crime (the killing of the landlord) and the two must face punishment with no hope of forgiveness or redemption. The ghost story element is actually less important than the police investigation but it does make for a chilling moment where Seki in her growing mental torment accepts a ride from the ghostly Gisaburo in his rickshaw and he gets lost taking her home.

The film is a companion piece to Oshima’s “In the Realm of the Senses” and was his reply to the outrage that accompanied the earlier film’s release for its controversial plot, based on an actual incident, of a gangster and his lover who engaged in sadomasochistic sex. In that particular film, the sex served as a metaphor for the individual’s revolt against a repressive and increasingly militaristic society.

Throne of Blood: a fine film let down by truncated plot and mostly sketchy characters

Akira Kurosawa, “Throne of Blood” (1957)

Often referred to as an adaptation of the Shakespearean play, “Macbeth”, this historical drama by Kurosawa is a fine film that is actually sourced from many different inspirations and influences, of which the play is a significant inspiration, and which also combines some features of Japanese Noh drama and the American Western film. “Throne of Blood” often hailed as a masterpiece but, truth be told, I found it less compelling than Kurosawa’s later “Ran” which also partly references Shakespeare (“King Lear” to be specific). Certainly if filming in colour, a bigger budget and a greater knowledge of Japanese military history and mediaeval fighting techniques had been accessible to Kurosawa in 1957, then “Throne of Blood”, technically at least, would have been a much greater film than it is. As it is, the film has to depend much more on plot and character than “Ran” does, and in this, it’s a much lesser film than “Ran” (and even then, the characters in “Ran” can be rather one-dimensional with the exception perhaps of Lord Hidetora’s fool). Part of the reason is that the plot of “Macbeth” is much whittled down in “Throne …” with a watered-down Macduff character to oppose the Macbeth character, Lord Washizu (Toshiro Mifune), and as a result a source of tension and interest is removed; another reason is that with his epic samurai films, Kurosawa intended to say something about the nature of war and killing in our age, and used a specific historical period in Japan – the period from about 1450 to some time in the early 1600’s (known in Japan as the Sengoku period, or Warring States period) when the Tokugawa shoguns took over the country and ushered in an unprecedented age of peace and prosperity- as a way of enabling people to view modern warfare and killing objectively, and this lesson takes precedence over character depiction to the extent that the characters appear clunky and one-dimensional.

The film opens with two warrior friends, Washizu and Miki (Minoru Chiaki), lost in a forest after successfully crushing a rebellion against warlord Kuniharu Tsuzuki (Takamaru Sasaki), who holds Spider Web Castle. After fruitlessly riding through dense fog and dark trees, the two men come upon a witch (Chieko Naniwa) who, chillingly, spins thread on her spindle in the manner of the Three Fates of ancient Greek mythology. The woman prophesies that Washizu and Miki will be promoted for their efforts and that Washizu and Miki’s son will become lords of Spider Web Castle. Naturally the two men are doubtful but the prophecy that they will achieve military promotions comes true and this leads Washizu to become uneasy, restless and not a little ambitious. His clever wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) realises the inner turmoil he’s going through and starts egging him on to realise his ambitions. Soon enough, Lord Tsuzuki comes to stay at the garrison where Washizu and Asaji have just moved in with their household and this affords both husband and wife an opportunity to kill him. They cover up their treason by blaming the murder on Tsuzuki’s guards. With Tsuzuki out of the way, Washizu becomes Lord of Spider Web Castle but the other part of the prophecy about Miki’s son begins to trouble him and Asaji, and they soon start acting in strange ways and doing things that alert others to suspect that they (Washizu and Asaji) are Tsuzuki’s real murderers. Eventually Asaji goes mad and Washizu rushes headlong into a war that will be his doom.

Mifune gives a great performance as Washizu, though much of the time his face is distorted into fixed expressions of rage, and even in the extended sequence where he is being hounded by arrows in a narrow corridor, he still looks often as angry as he does terrified. Yamada, made up in Noh make-up and costuming, is as emotionless and artificial as Mifune is as openly emotional, neurotic and panicky to the point where he starts to flail about with his sword and … oops! … someone’s cut in half and looking very dead. The two complement each other perfectly: Asaji knows how Washizu’s mind works and she guesses correctly that he wants Miki out of his way so she arranges for this to happen. She doesn’t need to say a lot to goad Washizu into killing Tsuzuki as she knows only social convention and the samurai code of honour are preventing him from fulfilling his ambition. The pity though is that these two characters are the only fully rounded characters in the film: all the others, Miki in particular, are so slightly delineated as to be moving wallpaper needed to prop up the plot. Miki may be a ruthless warrior but you wouldn’t know it from the way he is portrayed in the film. The code of honour that compels Washizu to treat Miki as his equal and which is part of the reason that Washizu has qualms about killing Miki seems superfluous. Miki’s son (Akira Kubo), who one might expect to be at least hell-bent on avenging Dad’s death, merely attaches himself to a rival warlord Noriyasu (Takashi Shimura), the would-be Macduff character who never gets to meet Washizu and avenge Miki’s death on the son’s behalf as the code of honour would require. Neither Noriyasu nor Miki’s son is more than window-dressing for the plot. Incidentally Shimura and Mifune had appeared together in a previous Kurosawa film “Seven Samurai” so it’s rather strange that Kurosawa decided not to pit their characters against each other in a climactic do-or-die fight that would allow Washizu to die nobly and gasp out some last words about how the gods play around with humans like toys, and Noriyasu in return spout something about maintaining samurai honour and restoring the natural order of the world to appease the gods.

It would have been really worthwhile too if at some point during Washizu’s extended death scene, mighty and terrifying though it is, the samurai realised he has been manipulated by the witch through his blind faith in her “prophecy” and that he has thrown away his own life and the lives of people he cared for dearly as a result. All his achievements will be dwarfed by his treason and other crimes. There is nothing to suggest that Washizu and Asaji come to learn anything about themselves through their failings and misdeeds. I can’t remember from my own readings of Shakespeare’s plays whether he dealt with the idea of free will versus predestination. I have a feeling that he did, and that one play in which he might have done this is “Macbeth” so it should have been possible for “Throne of Blood” to combine both the notion of people trapped in a world where all their actions have been pre-determined by fickle gods or evil spirits and one character coming to realise that he has been exploited in this way and maybe should have resisted the witch’s words.

Though there are some great scenes – an early prolonged scene in which Washizu and Miki race around in circles in the fog demonstrates perfectly how enmeshed in the workings of fate they are and how their arrogance will undo them – the film does feel very cramped in its outdoor settings and use of black-and-white film. Even so, black-and-white film is used effectively to create creepy atmospheres and moods, especially in the forest scenes, and the weather becomes a significant character in the film, reflecting characters’ inner moods and thoughts, and portending what is to happen in the plot. “Throne of Blood” really does cry out to be filmed in colour, even if the range of colours that suit the film is in the dark blues, greys, blacks and blood-red, and with more panoramic filming techniques and appropriate film stock so you get a real sense of Japanese history and what the unsettled Warring States period might have been like.

Fair Game: Naomi Watts wastes her time as an unappealing good-girl CIA agent

Doug Liman, “Fair Game” (2010)

Facing Off: Naomi Watts as Valerie Plame and Sean Penn as Joe Wilson in ‘Fair Game’
Picture Source: Melinda Sue Gordon for Warner Bros Pictures, www.hollywoodchicago.com

A few weeks ago (early December 2010), I went to a talk at an adult education centre in Sydney and the speaker there, Keith Suter, who is a consultant and lecturer on international affairs, recommended to the audience that they see this film so out of curiosity I did. I had heard of Valerie Plame some years ago and knew the events surrounding her exposure as a CIA agent by Wall Street Journal columnist Robert Novak in July 2003, and her connection to former US ambassador Joseph Wilson (he’s her husband) who published an article “What I didn’t find in Africa”, detailing his fact-finding trip to Niger to see if Iraq had sought and bought uranium from that country, and finding no evidence that Iraq had done so, for the New York Times a week before her outing. The movie concentrates mainly on Wilson’s belligerent and energetic attempts to expose the US government’s deliberate use of information to lie to the public and lead the country into an unwanted war, and the toll his actions and the media circus take on his marriage and on Plame herself, with a message about how democracy depends on the individual’s willingness to stand up for truth and fight for what is right.

Sean Penn as Wilson is passionate and preachy and the actor really throws himself into the role. As for Plame herself, the figure around which everything supposedly revolves, Naomi Watts does a competent multi-tasking job: the adoring wife who throws dinner parties (even if dinner is Chinese takeaway) and keeps her opinions to herself, the devoted mother of twin preschoolers, and the ultra-loyal CIA agent who manages several teams of operatives, convinces a doctor to go to Iraq to get information off her nuclear scientist brother and who, during training, was the last of a group of recruits to break down under psychological and physical pressure and torture. Yep, she’s an all-round brainy blonde. Wikileaks main man Julian Assange would definitely fall in love with her. Strip the roles away from Plame though and she turns out an unappealing character who, strangely, refuses to defend herself even though the government and the corporate media are spreading lies about her and her husband. I can’t see any passion or other distinctive personality trait in Watts’s Plame that attracted Penn’s Wilson in the first place. I see a good actor wasting her time playing yet another good-girl role – being loyal to her employer, being loyal to the government, not making waves, trying to be all goodie-two-shoes things to all people – in a long line of good-girl roles. Maybe Lars von Trier should be prevailed upon to throw Watts a line and draw her in to play one of his anti-heroines in yet another crazy von Trier creation?

The only people in the film I really feel anything for are the doctor (Liraz Charhi) who fled Iraq years ago and who risked her life to return there and make contact with her brother Hammad (Khaled Nabawy) under Plame’s direction and promises, and the brother himself and his family. When US forces begin bombing Baghdad, Hammad tries to get his wife and three children out of the country but the family is ultimately stranded on the verge of escape once Plame is outed and all her work allocated and dispersed among unseen paper-shufflers. The doctor loses all contact with the family and confronts Plame personally about their disappearance. Of course Plame has no answer – she can’t even say sorry (which must say something about how brainwashed she’s been by years of working for the CIA) – and the doctor leaves her in tears. The film never reveals what happened to Hammad and his family but from what I have been able to find out from reading various blogs and websites, the intellectual, artistic and professional classes in Iraq have been subjected to cultural genocide by Shi’ite militants and others, and many of these people have fled the country to avoid kidnapping and murder. I imagine a fair few of these people have attempted to make hazardous voyages on flimsy Indonesian fishing boats across the Timor Sea to Australia and drowned on the way; and if they didn’t drown, they’re wasting away in detention centres while politicians and the media in Australia denounce them as queue-jumpers. As of late 2010, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that Iraqis formed the second largest group of refugees in the world with over 1.8 million people living outside Iraq alone and a total of 4.7 million having been displaced as a result of the US invasion.

The CIA is presented as a typical faceless and bureaucratic organisation rent by office politics; it’s an organisation that demands a great deal from its employees but spits them out and hangs them out to twist and turn helplessly under the harsh media spotlight when it suits. All the “good” work Plame does for the organisation vanishes once she goes. Yes, I put the word in inverted commas because some of that work must have included blackmail and bribery, running guns to shifty and unreliable allies, and the odd “disappearance” of a wanted person, among other things. It’s not for nothing that in some countries, the CIA is synonymous with murder and corruption in high places.

Did I like the movie? Well, yes and no: I liked the acting but the family life stuff is so-so Hollywood and the script ultimately plumps for a lame up-beat ending in which Wilson harangues an audience about standing up for democracy when all the way through the film it’s apparent that it will take more than just lots and lots of individuals to stand up to the lies, misrepresentation and endemic corruption in the White House that didn’t end once George W Bush left the presidency.

Screen veteran Sharif and newcomer Boulanger team up in easy-going “Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran”

François Dupeyron, “Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran” (2003)

This is an easy-going coming-of-age story based on a novel of the same name set in Paris in the early 1960’s. The material is lightweight and familiar – wayward youngster taken in hand by a kindly adult who teaches him about life and living – but is given gravity and warmth by lead actor Omar Sharif who plays Ibrahim Demirdji, the Turkish shop-owner who befriends a lonely Jewish teenager Momo (Pierre Boulanger) and eventually adopts him as his son. The movie divides into two roughly equal halves, one half focussing on the slow disintegration of Momo’s family and early life, and the other half being a one-way road movie.

At the start Momo lives with his father (Gilbert Melki) who seems depressed, cares little for his son’s well-being and treats the boy as house-keeper and cook in their working-class apartment on the Rue Bleue. During the day, the boy hangs out with the local kids who keep him updated with the latest songs and dances. Local prostitutes provide him with his first sexual encounters and some emotional comfort. He shops for food and household supplies at Demirdji’s general grocery store across the road and over time the elderly man guesses that the boy needs some psychological and spiritual guidance and direction, and starts providing it. He encourages Momo to see religion not as a set of rules and rituals but as a personal faith and philosophy to guide a person in life. While Momo and Ibrahim draw closer in their daily encounters, the father becomes more distant from the son and buries himself in work. In spite of this, he ends up being sacked and decides to leave his son to fend for himself. Momo copes well on his own at first but then receives news that his father has committed suicide. Demirdji then adopts Momo and sets about educating him in life and experiences: he buys a snazzy red car, takes driving lessons and plans a trip through Europe to Turkey. The two then set off and whiz quickly through the continent and reach Istanbul. After enjoying the sights and learning about the city’s culture, Momo accompanies Demirdji on his trip deeper into the Anatolian rural heartland.

One aspect of this film is issues that appear are never revealed in their entirety. We learn early on that Momo’s mother left the family many years ago but no-one knows why. Later when she appears after the father’s suicide, she fails to recognise Momo (he pretends to be someone else and she falls for the ploy) and tells him he never had an older brother called Popol. What effect this has on Momo – because his father used “Popol” as a stick to beat his son psychologically – and on his opinion of his father, we never learn because for one thing the mother then disappears from Momo’s life, perhaps forever. We also never discover what Demirdji is driving towards – there’s an unfortunate accident – or what he had in mind when he decided to take Momo on the car trip. There’s the possibility that he wished to take Momo through Turkey to Iran (Persia) as early on in the movie, he tells Momo that he is not Arab but comes from “the Golden Crescent” (a region stretching from Anatolia to Persia inclusive) and that at film’s end, Momo’s “education” still has a long way to go and is something he must complete himself. Disappointingly the film’s conclusion looks very much a cop-out and suggests that Momo’s self-realisation will be a repetitive self-referential loop.

It’s basically a sleepwalk for Sharif with regard to acting effort: the most he does is beam a lot and pretend to make a fuss in front of a car dealer. Boulanger’s equally minimal acting seems appropriate for a teenage boy who has grown up emotionally distant from both parents and is understandably wary of friendly strangers. Both actors complement each other well in their scenes together and though mawkishness does creep in, still you can’t help feeling a bit sad when eventually Demirdji must leave Momo and Momo finds himself all alone again. Isabelle Adjani turns up in a brief cameo playing Brigitte Bardot filming a scene for a movie (Jean-Luc Godard’s “Contempt” which was made in 1963) and later visiting Demirdji’s grocery store.

The film makes a better shot of showing how two people of different generations, religion and social background can find a connection, than it does of Momo’s transformation from a bewildered, emotionally lost child estranged from his religion as well as his family to someone with more self-knowledge and awareness who is able to pass wisdom onto other troubled kids. The film does try to suggest commonalities between two religions (the two main characters are named after revered prophets Abraham and Moses in both the Jewish and Islamic religions) and that religious belief and faith are independent of labels and obeying rules and stereotypes, allowing for the kind of fluid religious identity that Momo achieves. Though there’s not much to suggest that Momo has already been schooled in Jewish religious belief by his father. Perhaps if there had been a voice-over narrative done by Momo as a mature man, commenting on aspects of his adolescence, viewers would get a stronger sense of Momo on the road to personal growth and the film might not be so sentimental.

I also think the film would have been a lot stronger and more profound if it hadn’t stuck closely to the source novel by Eric-Emanuel Schmitt, and had a completely different ending in which Momo pursues a varied and different career path, and derives more self-knowledge and a greater understanding of what Demirdji had tried to teach him. As the events in the film date back nearly 50 years ago, having a conclusion set in the present day, with Momo in his twilight years reflecting over a past life (in which perhaps he had become a civic leader and tried to improve conditions in the neighbourhood of Rue Bleue) and remembering the lessons of his youth, might be more appropriate than a coda in which Momo is a young man running the shop and seeing his adolescence reflected in a young shoplifter.