Cold Souls: a dull, flat and unsatisfying comedy about materialism and the nature of identity and existence

Sophie Barthes, “Cold Souls” (2009)

In the vein of Charlie Kaufman’s “Being John Malkovich” but without that film’s sprightly tone, “Cold Souls” is a metaphysical comedy intended as a commentary on Western materialist society in which souls can be traded for money just like any other commodity. Playing himself, Paul Giamatti is a typically angst-ridden New Yorker who becomes so absorbed in the characters and roles he plays that they follow him home even after the play or film has finished and end up tormenting him and playing havoc with his relationships. He discovers a clinic that can remove his soul and put it into deep storage. After undergoing the necessary procedure (and finding to his great consternation that his soul looks just like a chickpea), Giamatti is tremendously relieved. Not long afterwards though, his new soulless condition starts causing him problems with his wife (Emily Watson) and his acting career so he returns to the clinic to retrieve his soul. He and his doctor (David Strathairn) open the storage unit and discover the soul is missing. For a while, Giamatti is content to use the soul of a Russian poet called Olga, and this enables him to play Uncle Vanya in Anton Chekhov’s famous play of the same name successfully but unfortunately the Russian soul isn’t a good fit for Giamatti and he yearns for his old soul back.

Unbeknownst to both, the chickpea thing has been stolen by a soul mule called Nina (Dina Korzun) who works for a black market operator based in Saint Petersburg trafficking in stolen souls. Feeling a bit guilty, Nina contacts Paul and tells him his soul is now residing in the body of a Russian TV soap opera starlet married to the fellow running the black market soul-stealing scheme. Paul has to try to retrieve his soul back from the starlet – but is his soul agreeable to returning to its original owner? It seems that Paul’s soul is having such a fun time with the starlet that it wants to stay with her permanently.

The film could have been very funny with a serious message about how commodifying souls can encourage greed, increase unhappiness and discontent, and even lead to violence and the kind of trafficking shown. (If the clinic run by Strathairn’s character had been the black market operator or the doctor himself an unscrupulous money-sniffing quack, that would have provided the film with the frisson it needs rather than having to resort to needless stereotypes about Russian-style capitalism that imply that whatever Russians do turns out bad.) Intriguing questions about why we have souls and the difference between American souls and Russian souls could have been asked and left unanswered so that the audience is challenged to come up with its own answers about questions of life and the purpose of existence. By choosing to film the story as drama as well as comedy, director Barthes turns “Cold Souls” into a dreary plod. Giamatti is enthusiastic about sending himself up and provides the main spark of life as long as he is on the screen; but once he disappears, the movie becomes very leaden. Support characters like Nina, the doctor, Giamatti’s wife and the Russian starlet could have been very interesting and entertaining, even in a brief superficial stereotyped way in the case of the starlet, but under Barthes’ control end up flat.

Under a different director, the idea of a society where souls can be bought and sold (and stolen and trafficked) could have given us rich comedy and plenty of food for thought … but in the hands of Barthes, in the guise of “Cold Souls”, it just ends up … soulless.

In the Beginning: interplay of social realism and individual psychologies results in a film of self-renewal and fulfillment

Xavier Giannoli, “À l’Origine” / “In the Beginning” (2009)

It’s rather too long by 30 minutes and a couple of sub-plots, one involving Gérard Depardieu sleepwalking through his part, go nowhere but otherwise this tale of a con-man who takes on a scam job bigger than he can chew and ends up bringing new life to a depressed rural town and possibly himself is an enjoyable excursion into social realism and the possibility of reinvention in one’s own life. Small-time con-man Philippe (François Cluzet) makes a living ripping off construction companies by usurping identities and selling equipment, going from one town to the next … until he comes to a municipality plagued by mass unemployment and a bleak future as a result of a highway construction project that has stalled because a colony of rare scarab beetles lives in the area where the highway was supposed to go through. Adopting the role of project manager, and egged on by an eager mayor (Emmanuelle Devos), Philippe restarts the project, hires local people as labour and local firms to supply materials for the construction, even though he has very little idea as to what project managers on such jobs actually do. He befriends local girl Monika (pop singer Soko) and her drug dealer boyfriend Nicolas (Vincent Rottiers) who find jobs on the project which for the first time in their lives promise a better future for them in the town. Philippe himself finds a new lease on life as the entire town is energised by the project and the passion and enthusiasm the townspeople have in the construction work infect him as well. The possibility of settling down in the town with the mayor, as opposed to furtively running from one place to the next, beckons. Unfortunately Philippe’s con-man partner makes an appearance and the law through the town bank manager starts to catch up with Philippe.

The tension in the film generated by Philippe’s conscience as the con-man starts to stress over the lies he tells the townspeople and how soon something will happen that will reveal the truth about him and the project to the mayor and everyone else, holds the plot together. In this, Cluzet does a great job with quite minimal acting, his face alone conveying the increasing guilt and shame he feels at having duped everyone. Initially planning to cream off the profits generated by the construction work, Philippe ends up spending all the money he hides on making sure the work gets done on schedule, even buying up new office equipment when the factory office gets trashed by night burglars. The rest of the cast basically revolves around Cluzet with Rottiers as the delinquent who is redeemed by working on the project the stand-out of the supporting actors.

The thin plot is padded out with various themes playing out in quite complex ways: there are contemporary economic issues about the outsourcing of work that led to the town becoming depressed, the bureaucracy that stalled construction work, and the need for the town to find a new identity and common purpose that unites everyone and stops them from descending into poverty and crime. There is the sense that the town is isolated from the rest of France and needs a catalyst from outside that can set its people on their own path of self-help and collective renewal. Certainly officialdom has been of no help so far. Philippe finds self-fulfillment in work that generates jobs, prosperity, happiness and new-found purpose for a whole town. Yet the knowledge that his scam will be revealed and Philippe himself experiencing anxiety, health problems and coming close to wrecking not only his own life but other people’s lives as well is ever present.

It’s the intersection of the social realist themes (economic depression in rural regions, the need for useful work that creates jobs, prosperity and self-fulfillment) and the individual psychologies of characters like Philippe and Nicolas, both small-time criminals who find new identities and self-renewal in the most unlikely way, that gives this film its unique style as a tragicomedy combining elements of heist and redemption films.

God Willing: a brisk slapstick comedy opposing self-complacency and arrogance against humility and faith

Edoardo Maria Falcone, “God Willing / Se Dio Vuole” (2015)

A gentle slapstick comedy, Falcone’s “Se Dio Vuole” won its director top directing honours in Italy’s own version of the Oscars and one viewing shows why: it manages to be brisk, witty and wise with a message about how self-complacency and intellectual arrogance can be one’s undoing and how personal faith and humility can change people’s lives and relationships. Main protagonist Tommaso (Marco Giallini), a rich and renowned heart surgeon seems to have everything: a successful career, a beautiful stay-at-home wife Carla (Laura Morante) and two well adjusted children Bianca (Ilaria Spada) and Andrea (Enrico Oetiker) and a son-in-law dealing in luxury real estate. At least, that was until Andrea decides to unburden himself of a personal secret to everyone. The family steels itself for Andrea’s revelation that he’s gay (or so they think) and then the unthinkable happens: Andrea announces that he wants to become a priest in the Roman Catholic Church!

Enraged, Tommaso tries to find out how Andrea decided to become a priest and secretly follows his son to the local youth group where he sees charismatic preacher Father Pietro (Alessandro Gassman) holding his audiences spellbound with inspirational sermons. Tommaso is convinced Pietro is a charlatan so with the help of his son-in-law and a private investigator he tries to find dirt on Pietro and discovers the man does have a past as a jailbird. The trio stage an elaborate set-up to entrap Pietro but this quickly unravels when Pietro unexpectedly visits Andrea at home and bumps into Tommaso. As penance, Tommaso must help Pietro on the weekends for a month renovating an old church that Pietro’s mother visited for solace during the period when Pietro was off the rails, committing crimes and ending up in jail.

As if all this tomfoolery weren’t enough, Carla, bored with her life and lack of purpose, moves out of home and into the family maid Xenia’s room and rediscovers her old passion of college student activism, and Bianca becomes enthralled with learning about Christianity and religion. In their own ways, each member of Tommaso’s family moves out of his or her complacent or stagnant rut, learns something new about himself / herself, and renews connections with one another. Tommaso gradually also gives up his domineering ways and narrow outlook, and under Pietro’s guidance learns what true spirituality really is. The ultimate test of whether Tommaso has matured and become less perfectionist and authoritarian, and more open and forgiving, comes when Pietro meets with misfortune and his life hangs in the balance.

The action is very brisk and the slapstick comes full bore with hardly any pause, but most viewers will be able to adjust their attention and keep up. The sub-plots are very minor and play out more or less completely though there are still a few loose ends at the end of the film. Some of the characters are very uneven (notably Bianca’s who initially is as superficial as can be and yet becomes suddenly profound) and others like Carla, Andrea and the son-in-law are not very well developed. Pietro’s character is mainly the catalyst via whom Tommaso breaks out of his self-satisfied rut and goes on a journey of self-discovery and development.

The comedy skits flow smoothly from one to the next and Falcone directs the action so deftly that at times the film itself can seem a bit complacent and smug like Tommaso. But it then takes a sudden turn at its climax and from then on it sobers up and carries on rather untidily towards an uncertain and open ending. What inner revelation comes to Tommaso when he sees the pear fall from the tree at sunrise? Does he come to realise that, no matter what happens to Pietro, the universe will carry on seeding life and hope?

The film manages to make a case for spiritual belief and belief in Jesus without engaging in Catholic dogma and avoids Bible-bashing. On one level it can be viewed as a buddy movie and a road movie with laughs, on another it carries a lesson about the possibility of self-transformation through faith.

Modern Times: sympathy for the underdog and horror at a machine society enforcing conformity and repression

Charlie Chaplin, “Modern Times” (1936)

In its own way, “Modern Times” is significant as an example of how one actor / director adapted his style from making and acting in silent films to working in sound films. Contrary to what contemporary audiences might imagine, the leap from silent film to sound film was not smooth and quick; many silent film actors’ careers actually ended with the arrival of sound films, and some audiences then still wanted to see silent films and did not favour sound films. Like everyone else working in the film industry then, actor / director Charlie Chaplin had to adjust his style of acting and the scripts he wrote to accommodate sound and the changes that sound film brought, and the rather uneven result can be seen in “Modern Times”. Significantly “Modern Times” is the last film in which Chaplin plays his famous character known as the Little Tramp. The film is also a sympathetic treatment of the common man and how he copes with life in Depression-era America and a rapidly industrialising and increasingly mechanistic society, and for that may be important as a counterweight to other Depression-era films which escaped into fantasy and did not generally deal with the plight of ordinary people thrown out of work and unable to find jobs.

The film is basically a series of comedy skits united by a vague plot in which the Little Tramp tries to find his niche in a mechanical society where everyone must find his or her place as a cog in a vast machine hierarchy and must conform to the demands of industry and government. The Little Tramp starts out working on an assembly line in a factory and is subjected to bullying by his foreman and the boss, and manipulation by an inventor who tries to interest the factory boss in a complicated machine that can feed his employees lunch in 15 minutes. Crazed by the mind-numbing repetitive work and the pressure to work faster and do more in less time, the Little Tramp ends up causing havoc and disrupting the factory routine. Not for the first time in the film do the police turn up and cart the fellow off to jail; the use of police to enforce conformity, create terror and stifle worker grievances and protests is a running theme throughout the movie.

After serving time in jail (during which the Tramp helpfully arrests some criminals for the police), the protagonist is tossed out onto the streets and expected to find work on his own. He meets a young homeless woman known only as the Gamin (Paulette Goddard) and together they try to find work and create a nest of their own. The Tramp goes through jobs such as roller-skating security guard for a department store, an assistant to a mechanic and a singing waiter in a restaurant. Just as it seems that the Tramp and the Gamin have finally found their calling as entertainers, the Gamin’s past catches up with her in the form of two orphanage officials and the two must flee for their lives.

Plenty of laughs are to be had in the slapstick – the most memorable scenes are the early ones in the factory where the Tramp gets caught up in the machinery and the feeding machine, and his roller-skating scene in the department store close to a sheer drop – although some comedy scenes lay on the situational humour very thickly and for too long. Overacting on Chaplin and Goddard’s part is the order of the day. The comedy is both relief to and contrast with the pathos of the Tramp and Gamin’s desperate situation: they need to work to survive and to put a roof over their heads, yet they are too individualistic and rebellious to stay at their various jobs for very long. At the end of the day, they have chewed their way through a variety of unsuitable jobs, and their future prospects look very bleak, yet as long as they have each other, they have hope that times will be better and that maybe one day society will accept them for what they are.

In these two characters, Chaplin expresses his hope that humans will rise up above the technology that threatens to engulf and enslave them with courage, imagination and not a little cheekiness. The irony is that the Tramp and the Gamin desire the same things that most Americans were after – secure jobs, money coming in, a house and maybe family life – yet time after time bad luck, the period in which they were living, advances in technology that put people out of work and the pair’s past peccadilloes come to haunt them. Yet whatever hits them, the Tramp and the Gamin take their problems in their stride.

Yet even in this film, Chaplin only seems to go so far: the Tramp’s fellow work colleagues seem hell-bent on conforming and dehumanising themselves for their bosses, and Chaplin’s treatment of workers engaged in street protest and the Tramp’s involvement in it is superficial. If Chaplin had any sympathy for the trade union movement and the notion of class struggle, he does not show it here. Unemployed workers are reduced to petty crime to survive – they apparently cannot appeal to trade unions or their communities to help them. Ultimately Chaplin’s message to his audiences to keep their chins up and hope for better times, just as the Tramp and the Gamin do as they walk off into the sunset, starts to look like an excuse to avoid the issue of fighting for social justice and calling people’s attention to the exploitation that they suffer from their political, economic and cultural masters.

Marguerite: a rich film of how loyalty, control and hypocrisy intersect with innocence and free spirit

Xavier Giannoli, “Marguerite” (2015)

The inspiration for this film may have been the American socialite and amateur opera soprano Florence Foster Jenkins who was notorious for her bad singing but the subtext of “Marguerite” is very rich in what it says about the politics and social values of the period in which it is set, the various hypocrisies of the people who rely on the film’s central figure of Marguerite and how they manipulate her and end up destroying her, and above all the plight of women dependent on their husbands, no matter what their social status may be.

The film starts off as comedy and ends up as tragedy. It essentially pivots around rich socialite and arts patron Baroness Marguerite Dumont (Catherine Frot) whose husband Georges (André Marcon) had married her for her money so he could run a successful business (and keep a mistress on the side). Neglected by Georges, Marguerite retreats into a world of opera music and singing, imagining herself a great opera singer, to gain her husband’s affections, because this is all she knows and all she can do. She is encouraged in her pursuit by loyal butler Madelbos (Denis Mpunga) who takes photographs of her as various characters in her favourite operas and who may secretly be in love with her – except that his is a love that can never be requited because of the class and race divide between them. (One can appreciate the irony of someone from a socially inferior class and ethnic group controlling the fate of somebody else who is supposed to be superior in class and biology to him.) She gives recitals at her rich socialite friends’ regular music clubs and everyone who attends loathes her singing but claps politely anyway: she is after all the patron of the club.

One day two anarchists Lucien (Sylvain Dieuaide) and Kyril (Aubert Fenoy) attend a recital, at which upcoming opera singer Hazel Klein (whom Marguerite has supported financially) also sings, and Kyril writes a review that damns Marguerite with faint praise. Before long, Marguerite is mixed up with Lucien and Kyril’s bohemian set and is manipulated into performing as part of a dadaist cabaret act. Nevertheless she presses on with her singing and performing and Lucien finds her a singing teacher in the form of operatic has-been Pezzini (Michel Fau) who, along with his friends, also starts sponging off Marguerite. This sets in train a series of events that eventually leads to Marguerite’s tragic downfall, during which Georges resolves to end his affair with Marguerite’s business entrepreneur friend Françoise (whom Marguerite admires for her independence and courage in striking out on her own) and be faithful to his wife; and Madelbos finally tires of maintaining the pretence and decides to marry one of Pezzini’s friends and be his own independent man.

Set at the end of World War I and at the beginning of the Roaring Twenties, the film contrasts the world that Marguerite aspires to joining, and which is on its last legs, with the world of jazz, bohemian and avant-garde art, and freaky fringe characters such as a bearded lady whom Madelbos eventually wants to marry, frequented by Lucien and which he invites Marguerite to join. The irony here is that while Marguerite can never hope to join the exacting and perhaps exhausted world of opera – Pezzini, for all his talent, is down on his luck and his future prospects are very grim, hence he has no choice but to become Marguerite’s singing teacher just to survive – a world beckons in which one can be an off-key singer and be accepted. The world that Marguerite desires to join is a world of artifice but the world of jazz, at least in the early 1920s anyway, celebrates the joy of life and living, spontaneity, freedom and individuality: this could have been a world that accepts the aspiring diva on her terms.

On one level the film can be viewed as a love story: Marguerite sings because she wants love and connection with a distant husband who manipulated her for her money, her social status and her connections to the people he needs to impress; there’s another unrequited love story of the butler Madelbos who may or may not love Marguerite but finds through his manipulation of her fantasy an artistic outlet for himself. Marguerite’s plight, contrasted with Georges’ lover Françoise (Astrid Whettnall) who is a successful businesswoman and Hazel Klein (Christa Théret) who becomes a successful singer in both opera and more contemporary / avant-garde music, might say something about the position of women at certain levels of society who are barred from developing their talents and abilities properly and who end up retreating into fantasy.

(At this point it should be said that there is a moment in the film where indeed Marguerite is actually able to sing but it is cruelly cut off by the Cosmic Joker who then sends the singer into hospital, from which point her life starts to go downhill.)

The film being a French film, eventually this fantasy attracts the attention of rationalism in the form of medicine, which then proceeds to destroy the fantasy – and with it, Marguerite’s purpose for living and her individuality. All the people who are charmed by Marguerite’s guilelessness and innocence, her bravery and risk-taking attitude, and above all her free and generous spirit, cannot or will not help her. So on another level, it’s a film about control and the ways in which people use pretence and falsehood to prop up a deluded individual, because of what they see in her that is genuine and authentic, and how eventually another form of control – this time, state control – cuts away that pretence and destroys the individual.

The acting is superb with everyone playing his or her part well, and in particular Catherine Frot as the eponymous Marguerite gives the performance of her life, playing the doomed songstress as a wide-eyed naif who is also surprisingly intelligent and aware of the talk behind her back. Marguerite’s bravery in undertaking punishing singing lessons from Pezzini so that she can perform professionally is jaw-dropping and inspirational. Mpunga also deserves credit for playing the butler who supports and indulges his mistress in her fantasy and uses her to advance his own interests.

It seems that everyone who appears in this film or who works on it has been inspired to give of his/her very best, and I would put that down to a highly sympathetic script (written by director Giannoli) that explores themes of loyalty, truth, manipulation and the role of hypocrisy and pretence in society, and how these intersect in a narrative that turns out to be rich and devastating. We end up grieving for Marguerite not only as an individual built up and destroyed by the system, but also for the loss of the authenticity, innocence and free spiritedness that she embodies for the people who come to love her.

I can’t help but think that the British screen version of Florence Foster Jenkins’ career with Meryl Streep as the deluded singer will be very second-rate compared to this film.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie: mocking the middle classes for their hypocrisy, sense of entitlement and shallow values

Luis Buñuel, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie / Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie” (1972)

This comedy-of-manners film about six people who constantly make arrangements to have dinner together but never really succeed in doing so thanks to random coincidences, misunderstandings and their own faults and misdeeds is a vehicle for director Buñuel to mock the French middle class for its hypocrisies, empty rituals and shallow values in which style and surface sheen triumph over seedy and sterile substance. The narrative relies on a repeating social ritual – three couples from the upper middle class trying to meet for dinner several times and failing every time in different ways – so that the film becomes no more than a series of absurdist Pythonesque comedy sketches. Initially the film is bright and straightforward as the dinner guests meet but as the movie continues, it becomes increasingly darker, unsettling, paranoiac, and ends up being trapped in banality and trivia, reflecting the sordid nature of its main characters and the society they move in.

The ensemble cast (Stéphane Audran, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Paul Frankeur, Bulle Ogier, Fernando Rey, Delphine Seyrig) acquits itself speedily and efficiently if blandly; they represent particular aspects of the French bourgeoisie that Buñuel found especially irksome or ripe for satire. Audran and Cassel’s married couple snub a man dressed as a working-class gardener and turn him away, but when he returns dressed in his bishop’s garb, they fawn and grovel before him. Seyrig and Frankeur may look like the perfect married couple but Seyrig’s character is secretly having an affair with Rey’s ambassador of the Republic of Miranda. The ambassador is highly regarded in French polite society but on the side he is running a cocaine ring with Frankeur and Cassel’s characters, and he deals with a would-be student Marxist rebel assassin by arranging for her to be kidnapped and “disappeared”. We learn much more about the kind of corrupt Third World hell-hole that the Republic of Miranda is in someone’s nightmare in which a cocktail party given by an army colonel goes disastrously wrong.

Buñuel can’t resist taking pot-shots at the Roman Catholic Church by including a sub-plot (which might not sit easily with viewers) in which a kindly priest hears a confession from a dying man. The aged man confesses that, decades ago, he murdered a couple and left their child an orphan. The priest then reveals to the man that he was that orphan. Nevertheless he forgives the man his sins on the authority of God and Christ Jesus … then calmly walks over to where a loaded rifle is resting against a wall. While this sub-plot is an amusing comment on the hypocrisy of the RCC and shows that the priest is human after all, it adds very little to the overall narrative.

There are other gags in the film that have no bearing on the narrative other than to poke fun at authority generally and authority figures in particular. Two soldiers talk about their childhood or their dream of death, and two police officers chat about how their superior tortured a student prisoner and ended up assassinated. Frequently the gags take the form of dreams and dreams within dreams, to the extent that the second half of the film all but groans with them and the thin line between fantasy and reality disappears. From this point on, the film becomes very repetitive and turns on trivia and banality, for good reason: the dreams that the dinner guests and various others have reveal their fears and neuroses, their selfishness and lack of care and consideration for others, and ultimately their thuggishness, all hidden under a veneer of discretion and politeness.

There are many highlights in the film but probably the best ones are the cocktail party scene during which the ambassador tries in vain to fend off uncomfortable questions about his country’s corruption, high crime rate and harbouring of Nazi war criminals, and an earlier scene in which a bunch of soldiers talk about smoking marijuana and our drug-running dinner guests then express disgust at the prevalence of marijuana use in the army. The scene in which the dinner guests sit down at a table, only to be exposed to an opera audience who boo at them, is a surreal high point that suggests these characters cannot withstand open scrutiny and crumple up easily if their crimes and peccadilloes were to be exposed publicly.

The film’s technical qualities are highly commended; the presentation is bright and realist, hiding the fact that this is an absurdist film in which dreams seem more real than reality. The soundtrack is important too, with background white noise coming to the fore at critical moments when characters are talking to one another. Randomness as a long-running motif plays a significant role in advancing the narrative and its repetitions.

At the end of the film, the dinner guests are still wandering about in their quest for the perfect dinner party and it’s at this point that one questions whether, for all their wealth, power and influence over elites, that they can get out of jail with impunity, these unhappy people have much free will when their desires are constantly frustrated due to their own indulgent flaws and stupidity, their obsession with a false social propriety, and things happening out of the blue as a consequence of past decisions they made or of their thoughtlessness and belief that they are special and deserving of aristocratic privilege. One almost feels pity for these people who seem to be permanently trapped in an invisible hell of their own making. The ambassador’s dream about himself and his friends being mown down by a bunch of terrorists and someone else’s earlier dream about the six being imprisoned for drug-running offences suggest that there are forces gradually and relentlessly closing in on the dinner guests and their world, and that they will get their comeuppance. Only then might they discover freedom.

The Phantom of Liberty: a snapshot of modern life where social conventions and hypocrisy limit personal freedom and responsibility

Luis Buñuel, “The Phantom of Liberty / Le Fantôme de la Liberté” (1974)

This film might be seen as a snapshot in the life of modern France as it appeared to  Luis Buñuel, with all its bourgeois hypocrisies and contradictions. “The Phantom of Liberty” is a string of loosely linked episodes and sight-gags that celebrate chance and randomness while mocking social institutions, conventional behaviours and etiquette, and taboos such as necrophilia, sadomasochism, incest and paedophilia. For this film, Bunuel assembled an ensemble cast in which no one actor stands out – though I did recognise Michel Lonsdale from an old James Bond movie of years past – and everyone plays his or her part perfectly with completely straight faces.

The film’s loose narrative wends its way smoothly from one tableau to the next. A stranger offers photographs to two young girls in a public playground and the kiddies promptly hand them over to their parents who are shocked at the pictures – which turn out to be scenes of famous architecture around the world. The children’s father then visits his doctor about strange dreams he’s had and offers a letter given him in one dream as proof. The doctor’s nurse excuses herself to drive into the countryside to visit a sick father; on the way she stops at an inn where some Carmelite monks offer prayers for the elderly man and then hang around in her room playing cards, drinking alcohol and smoking excessively as though they were Mafia gangsters. Next day the nurse gives a lift to a police academy lecturer who later has to deal with a class of unruly gendarmes behaving like bored high school students. The lecturer drones on about the relativity of laws and customs, and recounts the time he went to a dinner party where all the guests sat on toilets around the dinner table and hungry people retire to private rooms to eat meals. Later on in the film, a sniper kills various people around Paris, is arrested and tried for murder, and sentenced to death; he leaves the courtroom by himself and signs autographs for eager women. A couple report the disappearance of their daughter to the police and the police treat the couple’s statements seriously – all while the child is in plain sight of everyone at the police station.

The film forces people to think very deeply about how much influence social conventions and expectations, coincidence and chance have on our minds and behaviour, and thus how they and their interactions limit our ability to think and act freely, and in some situations to act morally (even though our minds might rebel at having to act immorally). Particular scenes show how the things we take for granted can be bizarre if they are reversed, as in the scene where the dinner guests sit on the toilets while talking crap at the table yet have to eat in private. A very humorous and quite creepy scene in which a police commissioner is caught desecrating his family burial vault to find an apparently revenant sister and brought before another man in his job, and the two of them then discussing and carrying out an attack on political activists noisily campaigning against democracy, has the power to chill. This scene suggests that the functions of a job (in this case, that of a police commissioner), its status within a hierarchy and the attendant reputation and traditions reduce complex individuals to mere cogs in a machine. All the comedy sketches, no matter how far-fetched they are, are plausible in some way: the police can be just as disorderly and unruly as the crooks they apprehend (largely because police and crooks are members of the same society after all, and were it not for some chance occurrence, a police officer could have ended up on the wrong side of the law) and the sketch with the girl trying to convince her parents and the police that she has not disappeared may tell us something profound about how children are often ignored by adults. Social taboos like incest and young men falling in love with elderly women may be played for laughs yet at the same time force people to question the nature of these taboos, why they exist and how they are perpetuated.

The movie moves at a fast pace and the characters are drawn in such a way that they clearly represent social or occupational stereotypes. The cinematography is beautifully done in a way that makes the various sub-plots look like moving tableaux. The direction is deft and flows very smoothly: this is important for a film where there’s no clear traditional story-telling narrative and chance incidents linking two sub-plots must not look contrived.

Charlie’s Country: a portrait of a man and his community in search of belonging and identity

Rolf de Heer, “Charlie’s Country” (2013)

A sad and compassionate film of a man’s search for identity and belonging, “Charlie’s Country” originated as a vehicle around lead actor David Gulpilil’s talents and experiences as an Aboriginal man living and passing between indigenous Australian society and Anglo-Australian society. In its minimalist presentation, the film is layered in its depiction of how Aboriginal people at the Top End (Darwin and surrounding areas) often live and the ways in which Anglo-Australian society through its representatives and institutions unthinkingly and insensitively creates problems for these people in their attempts to live either traditionally, in white society or in some combination of the two. The film’s style, reliant on long takes of Gulpilil close up and with sparse dialogue, is very poignant and does a far better job of expressing emotion and deep feeling than one with more talk and fewer striking visual scenes.

Charlie (Gulpilil) is an elder in his Yolngu community who is becoming increasingly disenchanted with life in his tribal community. The period is during the time of the Northern Territory Emergency Response Act aka the Intervention of the early 2000s. Young people are estranged from their traditions and express little interest in living the way their ancestors did. There is no work to be had in their community and everyone lives on government handouts and unhealthy junk food. Few people express dissatisfaction with their dreary lives. Charlie goes off with a pal to hunt and shoot a buffalo (so they can provide their people with fresh meat) but their prize is confiscated by police when the coppers discover the two men do not have licences for their gun and rifle. The two protest but the laws concerning gun ownership have changed to become harsher and more punitive.

Fed up with the white police and his own people’s apathy, Charlie decides to leave his community and hunt, fish and live as his ancestors did. For a few days he is happy but then the tropical rains come and, no longer in good health thanks to years of smoking ganja, he falls ill with pneumonia. In the nick of time, his friends find him and the police arrange for him to be hospitalised in Darwin. In the hospital, he is reacquainted with an old buddy who eventually passes away from kidney failure. Grief-stricken and fearing for his own life, Charlie escapes from hospital into the streets of Darwin and promptly falls in with a group of alcohol-addicted Aboriginal people. He shares his money (earned from helping police track escaped criminals in the bush) and buys alcohol for the group but the police chase him down and he is tried, convicted and sent to jail for buying and giving grog to people banned from drinking, and for resisting police arrest. Jail is a disheartening and dreary experience but a young counsellor finds Charlie a dry community to serve out his time.

The first half of the film is basically expository, establishing Charlie’s complex relationship to the police – it is sometimes joking, sometimes a little hostile – and does a good job of fleshing out Charlie’s character. Charlie is sometimes dignified, outspoken, not a little rebellious and often quite funny in a sad way. He manages to be knowledgeable about many things yet remains something of a naif. Audiences see the conditions in which Charlie’s community ekes out an existence; the extent to which white people control Aboriginal people’s lives (to the point of feeding them deep-fried garbage that makes them sick over the long term) is alarming. The whitefella rules under which Aboriginal people must live are often contradictory and force them into a culture of apathy and unhealthy passivity.

The second half of the film deals with Charlie’s odyssey in Darwin and is filled with stereotypes about Aboriginal people in urban settings. It’s as if whatever Charlie can do wrong or go wrong, the incident then happens (with or without Charlie’s participation). The plot is forced: how does the Aboriginal woman in Darwin know where to find Charlie and take him to her fellow drunks? How do two elders find Charlie among the drunks and warn him of the dangers of alcohol? The film deals with Charlie’s dilemmas gracefully and without judgement, and Charlie is eventually reunited with his people. A new creative opportunity arises that uses Charlie’s skills as a dancer and which finally allows him to find his own niche within his community that is creative, and the film ends on a happy note. Yet this part of the film seems much weaker than the earlier half and the resolution of Charlie’s earlier unhappiness a bit too pat. He may be happy teaching dancing and painting to younger people and warning them against the demon drink, but artistic activities and avoiding alcohol and imprisonment will not solve the community’s problems of unemployment and being controlled by Federal and Territorian governments through handouts, policing and punitive laws.

Apart from Charlie who completely dominates the film, other characters are little more than stereotypes. Most actors in the film had no training as actors yet their performances are sincere. The film does a good job though showing that the white people who interact with Charlie themselves are also struggling with a system (which they don’t necessarily understand) that treats them as cyphers and cogs at the same time that it is unsympathetic towards Charlie’s community.

With the powerful themes and messages about belonging and how people cope with an inhumane capitalist system that oppresses and separates white and black people alike, “Charlie’s Country” inevitably comes to a resolution that seems quite thin and insubstantial. Charlie may have found a creative outlet that gives him opportunities to let off steam and help the children in his community, but how long that will pass, and whether whitefella laws will let it continue or nip it in the bud, is hard to predict. Nevertheless this is a very moving if at times quite biting and comic film.

The Big Short: a crash course into the causes and toxic culture of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis

Adam McKay, “The Big Short” (2015)

How do you tell the story behind the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the massive housing bubble that led to the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, with the attendant collapse of giant global investment banks Lehmann Brothers and Bear Stearns, in a way that the general public can understand? Adam McKay shows one way how this can be done with a fictionalised comedy-drama with documentary-genre elements based on finance journalist Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine”. Following the fortunes of various characters (all based on real-life people) who believe that the US national housing market is unstable and heading for a massive collapse, and who try to profit from that instability, the film cleverly combines a fast-paced narrative from the viewpoint of several hedge fund traders who represent different character stereotypes with brief excursions into financial education for bemused viewers and a sometimes critical view of American contemporary culture and how it is driven by greed and a desire for instant gratification, cynicism and the kinds of social, political and economic institutions that enable a few individuals and corporations to exploit the American public and the basic need for housing.

The film’s narrative presents through three parallel sub-plots. In 2004, doctor-turned-fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) realises from his analyses of US financial markets that hundreds, possibly thousands, of housing loans sold to people with dubious credit records by banks have been packaged into investment vehicles and then sold to investors such as pension and superannuation funds. He predicts that the sub-prime housing loan market will collapse in 2007 and realises he can make huge profits by creating a credit swaps default market. He persuades various large banks to back him on his proposal and they do so, thinking what a deluded fool he is. His investors are alarmed but go along with his idea nevertheless. As time goes by, Burry’s investment looks more and more foolish and his investors nearly threaten to rebel (so he clamps a moratorium on their withdrawals) but eventually his prediction turns out to be right and he and his investors walk away with 489% profits!

A subprime mortgage bond manager, Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) hears about Burry’s gamble and realises he too can benefit so he gains the backing of hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) who, though sceptical of Vennett’s scheme for its cynical moral duplicity, goes along with the idea. To assuage his conscience, Baum sends his employees to check out the homes of some of the people who have bought the dodgy housing loans that have been repackaged; the employees discover large empty kitsch mansions, left behind to rot by people who cannot pay back their loans, and talk to one man whose landlord is someone’s pet dog. Baum then talks to two young brokers who boast that they have made millions selling bad loans to migrants and poor people who have no hope of ever paying back their loans. In one memorable scene, he visits a representative of Standard and Poors rating agency who tells him that her boss issues triple A ratings to large banks because if S&P doesn’t, then they’ll just mosey down the road to rival agency Moody’s who will.

The third sub-plot focuses on two young money managers Charlie (John Magaro) and Jamie (Finn Wittrock) who built up their own hedge fund as student working out of a garage and who also tack their sails into the wind behind Burry and Baum. They enlist the help of retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to make the deals they hope to profit from but Rickert reminds them that thousands of families across America and perhaps beyond will be devastated by their actions. Chastened, the two young men attempt to tip off a financial newspaper about the coming housing collapse but the paper is not interested.

For its two-hour running time the film is engrossing despite the unevenness of its plot. The sub-plot featuring Charlie and Jamie is not quite plausible and the about-face they experience is hard to take seriously. At the very least these two hot-heads come over as shallow and one has to question whether they seriously understand that the industry they are working in is corrupt. Pitt’s detached portrayal as Rickert is troubling and there’s no sense that the character genuinely cares that his two proteges are careening towards the edge of a cliff leading into a gigantic abyss.

The stand-out performances of the film belong to Bale and Carell out of a cast whose overall acting is above average. All actors involved were clearly committed to this film even if individual performances are sometimes uneven. Significantly Brad Pitt helped to produce the film. Bale does a great job playing the eccentric Burry and Carell dominates all his scenes as the morally conflicted Baum who, against his better instincts, follows Vennett into his particular vale of darkness. At no point during his hedge fund’s various shenanigans does Baum consider pulling the plug on the deal-making and marching to the Feds to report the investment banks’ fraudulent activities when he realises the extent to which Federal law and regulations are being broken on a regular basis.

Hilarious cameo performances by Margot Robbie, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain in an inspired Masterchef-style class and Selena Gomez help break up the tension in the film and provide good laughs along with a crash-course in financial education by explaining how investor herd mentality can lead to unstable financial markets and why banks initially thought bundling bad mortgages with good mortgages and flogging the packages to pension funds was a great idea. At the same time, these little mini-documentaries are satirical jabs mocking people’s obsessions with sex, food and money, and the short attention spans encouraged by modern consumer culture.

The film does a fairly good job of emphasising the moral rottenness of American society at its most cynical and self-interested, and shows something of the impact of the sub-prime mortgage blow-out crisis on ordinary people as the man paying rent to someone’s pet dog is forced with his wife and children to live in a van by the film’s end. What it also does well is show how people within the financial industry realised what was going to happen but were either resigned to it or, worse, decided to profit from the looming apocalypse. All the various characters we follow through their respective sub-plots are intelligent and become aware at some point in the film that the industry they work in is corrupt to the bone, yet either they are unable to help themselves out of the morass or try to extract whatever they can or run off before everything blows over and takes them down.

The film ends on a bleak note: the finance industry may have taken a heavy blow, and thousands of its worker bees may have ended up in long dole queues, but thanks to an $800 million bail-out by the US government it continues its merry way towards another, even bigger financial crash. While the film-makers criticise the culture that led to the 2008 GFC, they basically do not question neoliberal capitalist ideology or suggest an alternative to the dysfunctional financial industry and its toxic culture and values.

The Great Dictator: using comedy and drama, silent film and talking picture to confront fascism

Charles Chaplin, “The Great Dictator” (1940)

It’s over-long and the slapstick comedy is laid on very thickly but film legend Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” is daring political satire for its period, especially when one considers that at the time as now Hollywood generally shied away from taking a stand for ordinary people against those who would oppress them. Chaplin takes pot shots at war film propaganda, dictatorships (and Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in particular), revolutionaries and political authority in turns, and is clearly on the side of ordinary people against those who would oppress them. The actor / director / screenwriter plays two roles in the film reflecting the divide between repressive authority and humble worker bee.

An everyday man, unnamed but conventionally known as the Jewish barber (Chaplin), recovers from a 20-year amnesia brought on by injuries incurred during his time as a soldier with the Tomanian army in the Great War (1914 – 1918). While he has been in hospital, Tomania has suffered economic and political instability resulting in a putsch that brings Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin again) to power. The barber tries to return to his former job in the Jewish ghetto he calls home but the community is under constant harassment from storm-troopers. With the help of local girl Hannah (Paulette Goddard), the barber evades the storm-troopers and re-establishes his business but due to the past amnesia, he’s not easily intimidated by the security forces and he keeps getting into trouble with them. At one point in the film, he falls in with a bunch of revolutionaries planning to get rid of Hynkel but their plot to assassinate the leader fails before it even has a chance to go into action.

Running parallel with the story of the barber is a sub-plot centred around Hynkel in which he luxuriates in megalomania, plotting to take over the world and having to entertain the equally insufferable Mussolini figure Napaloni (Jack Oakie), the dictator of Bacteria. The subplot is basically an excuse for Chaplin to make fun of the real-life Hitler by exaggerating the man’s quirks and tempestuous tirades; the buffoonery is overdone and sometimes tiresome, to say nothing of the way in which the German language suffers undeserved humiliation and Italian-American people suffer stereotyping. A highlight of this subplot is the silent scene in which Hynkel, completely wrapped in fantasy, balances and plays with a globe, only for it to burst like an ordinary balloon. The symbolism and message behind this scene are priceless.

Flitting between being a talking picture and silent movie, the transitions are not always smooth and the film itself is uneven. Audiences of the time expecting straight-out comedy might have been puzzled by the switching from comedy to drama and back again, especially in the film’s later montage sequences where storm-troopers burst into the Jewish ghetto and start beating up people. The plot is thin and consists of linked comedy skits with only the barest connections between them. At times both plot and sub-plot seem to be hunting around for ideas that might refresh them with opportunities for more buffoonery. Major characters like Goddard’s Hannah are not well developed and serve as mouthpieces for Chaplin’s political messages of unity, tolerance and democracy.

The film’s main highlights are Chaplin’s acting which often shows surprising depth and intelligence beneath the slapstick and the character stereotyping; the near-ballet scene with the globe; two separate scenes in barbershops; and the climax in which, mistaken for the dictator Hynkel, the barber delivers a speech that at once pleads for universal love, tolerance, equality and brotherhood, and damns the capitalist structures and institutions that turn people into cogs in a cold-blooded machine system. (Significantly after the film’s release, the US government began to follow and scrutinise Chaplin’s career and political beliefs more closely, and FBI director Herbert Hoover used Chaplin’s beliefs and the various personal scandals that dogged the actor against him in a smear campaign that damaged Chaplin’s career.) Oakie chews the scenery as Napaloni and his scenes with Chaplin poke fun at megalomania and the petty arrogance of dictators and autocrats generally.

The real worth of the film lies in Chaplin’s deft use as actor, writer and director of both comedy and drama, using the techniques of silent and talking-picture film-making, to confront and criticise fascism, at a time when American society’s reaction to fascist governments was to ignore it (or work with it secretly), and to support ordinary people in their resistance against oppressive governments. At the time the film was made, Chaplin did not know of the horrors (because most of them were yet to come) of Nazi Germany’s persecution of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, physically and mentally handicapped people, Soviet POWs and others in its network of concentration camps in eastern Europe.