Heavenly Creatures: a rich and dark dramatisation of a real-life matricide

Peter Jackson, “Heavenly Creatures” (1994)

Having made his reputation as purveyor of gory splatter horror comedy flicks to amuse teenagers and kidults, New Zealand director Peter Jackson made his jump to the mainstream film world with the drama “Heavenly Creatures”. The film is based on a notorious and sensational New Zealand murder trial that took place in 1954, in which two young teenage girls were charged with the murder of the mother of one of the girls themselves, and were sentenced to 5-year jail terms in prison, after which they were to change their names and never see each other again. Rather than focus on the actual trial itself, in which various psychiatric experts were brought in to ascertain if the girls were lesbian or insane, “Heavenly Creatures” details the friendship of the girls, how it developed and the intense fantasy world they wove together as their way of coping with social restrictions and pressures in the provincial conservative society of 1950s Christchurch in southern New Zealand.

Pauline Rieper (Melanie Lynskey) is a surly outcast at her girls-only high school until new student Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet) arrives from the UK. Both girls discover they have much in common: they suffered from serious illnesses as children and spent time in hospital; they are highly intelligent and imaginative and share the same interests in music, watching movies, reading books and making up their own stories. As the friendship grows, Juliet invites Pauline to her home and Pauline is amazed to discover that Juliet’s family is wealthy and cultured in contrast to her own working class folks. Together the girls create a fantasy kingdom called Borovnia, populated with clay figures the girls make; the youngsters also dress up and act out the adventures of the Borovnian royals which they then chronicle in novels they eventually plan to publish in the US. Perhaps a film director will even make movies out of the books! Meanwhile Pauline’s mother Honora (Sarah Peirse) and Juliet’s father (Clive Merrison) start to worry over the girls’ intense friendship; Pauline’s mum drags her offspring to see a psychiatrist who can hardly bring himself to mention the dreaded “L” word. Eventually the parents meet and agree that the girls should be separated. Juliet’s mother (Diana Kent), having an affair with another man and sympathetic to Juliet and Pauline, suggests the girls can spend a fortnight together before Juliet is dispatched to a relative in South Africa indefinitely. During this time the girls plan to run away and plot to kill Pauline’s mother whom they believe is the instigator of their separation.

As the two girls, Lynskey and Winslet are excellent: initially Winslet looks too old (she was 18 or 19 years old at the time) to play a girl in her mid-teens but she quickly sweeps away any misgivings about her suitability as Hulme. Her acting seems florid for modern audiences unused to the way upper class English teenagers might have behaved in the 1950’s but in moments requiring real emotion, Winslet is realistic enough. As Rieper, Lynskey nails the girl’s complex nature as she goes from resentment at her lower class background to exhilaration in Juliet’s company to a kind of puzzled alienation at losing her virginity. The emotion in Lynskey’s face, depending on changes in her character’s circumstances as she interacts with Peirse and other actors, is one of the most memorable aspects of the movie; the girl’s not a beauty but her face, often framed in close-up, is a real study of changes in feeling and mood. There is an electrifying chemistry to Lynskey and Winslet’s interactions that apparently continued beyond the film itself; in a weird case of life imitating art, the two continued to call each other Pauline and Juliet after filming ended! The acting support is top-notch as well, bringing out a strong impression of the social gulf that exists between the Riepers and Hulmes and which leads Pauline to despise her background, particularly her mother who’s the disciplinarian in the family in contrast to Juliet’s easy-going and rebellious mother.

The film’s approach is strictly narrative and realist: told from Pauline’s point of view, using the girl’s actual diary extracts as the source for Lynskey’s voice-over monologues, “Heavenly Creatures” presents the events leading up to the murder without taking either the girls’ side or their parents’ side. The social and economic context in which the girls meet and create their imaginary world, itself both a witty and cheeky commentary on the culture they’ve grown up with and a place to express their rebellious tendencies and frustration at social expectations of them, emerges as the elephant in the room that informs the girls’ fantasies and breeds the resentment Pauline feels for her family and mother. The fantasy world of clay figures, mediaeval castles, Italian operatic arias and English gardens, sometimes laid over the real New Zealand landscape of green fern forests in which the original Maori culture has perhaps been extinguished, is presented as appearing more real than real life itself and often intrudes with bloodthirsty relish in Pauline and Juliet’s day-dreams. Jackson’s attention to replicating details of New Zealand life in the 1950s looks accurate and captures the flavour of both the warm if claustrophobic working class life of Pauline’s family and the languid, free-wheeling life of Juliet’s family. Fantasy sequences featuring adult-sized clay figures and recreations of scenes with US actor Orson Welles from Carol Reed’s famous 1950s film “The Third Man” are often droll, wickedly funny and slightly sinister at the same time.

The cinematography which takes in panoramic and bird’s-eye views of the wide plains of Canterbury province in southern New Zealand is often very beautiful; the plains and the lush green forests could be symbolic of the girls’ desire for freedom and self-expression. By contrast, old newsreel scenes of mid-20th century Christchurch before the movie’s opening credits show a city that could have existed anywhere in Australia or New Zealand of the same period, apart perhaps from a shot of the Anglican church that was damaged in February 2011 by an earthquake.

It’s a pity that the film doesn’t go beyond the murder and show the voyeuristic and prurient aspects of the trial which would have demonstrated the sexually repressed and hypocritical side of 1950s Christchurch society in dismissing the girls as “evil” while salivating over the trial’s details through the newspapers of the time. Hints that the girls may have lesbian tendencies are explored tastefully: Pauline finds her first sexual experience with a man an alienating non-event and the scene in which the girls embrace and kiss in their underwear in bed could be construed as acting out parts for their novel – after all, someone has to play the prince! – as well as suggesting a sexual aspect to the friendship. Juliet plays a dominating role and Pauline is her adoring acolyte in the relationship. The film doesn’t dwell much on the family dynamics that encourage the girls to retreat deeper into their shared fantasy: there is no hint of the conflict in the Hulmes’ marriage (though there must have been as the mother has a lover and the parents are as alike as the proverbial chalk and cheese) or in the Riepers’ relationship even though the movie clearly shows Honora as a dominant character and her husband as a bit child-like.

Although “Heavenly Creatures” on the surface is a straightforward fictional retelling of a real-life drama with no apparent agenda, its themes of sensitive, intelligent individuals who try in their own way to cope with the restrictions their society places on them and the frustrations these cause, of how the fantasy worlds people create reflect their culture and help them cope (or not cope) with their reality as it changes, and the psychology of teenage girls together give the film a richness that informs the acting and fleshes out the drama with dark Gothic imagery. There is a gentle suspense that with the moderately fast pace builds quietly and inexorably to the horrific climax.

The Fringe Dwellers: gentle comedy with limited message about a family struggling with racial prejudice and discrimination

Bruce Beresford, “The Fringe Dwellers” (1986)

Based on the 1961 novel of the same name by Nene Gare, this gentle and minimally made movie is a compassionate look at the plight of an Australian Aboriginal family struggling with poverty, racial prejudice and culture shock and the effect these have on a young teenage girl in the family. When we first meet them, the Comeaways are living in a shack in a shanty-town on the edge of a town in rural Australia: they don’t have electricity or hot water on tap of course but what they lack in material things, they make up for in close family support and ties. One of the teenage girls, Trilby (Kristina Nehm), dreams of the family moving to a better house and neighbourhood where blacks and whites live in harmony and trust, and of completing her education and being able to get a job and work on equal terms with white people in the city. When Dad (Bob Maza) gets a steady job, Mum (Justine Saunders) moves the family to a Housing Commission home, and Trilby and her younger brother (Dennis Walker) get to go to school regularly, it really looks as if the Comeaways will pave the way for other families in the shanty-town to shift out of poverty into a brighter future. Uh-oh, things don’t turn out the way Trilby had hoped: the extended family arrives at the Comeaways’ new home and various relatives park themselves permanently on the furniture or the verandah and glue themselves to the TV set and in Mum’s make-up kit; the food and electricity bills shoot up without a corresponding increase in the family’s income; and Trilby’s parents have problems paying the rates on time. Unable to cope with the noise and the family’s financial problems on top of schoolwork, Trilby turns to a young bronco-rider (Ernie Dingo) for comfort and companionship but ends up falling pregnant to him. Eventually Dad deserts the family and everyone is forced to move back to the shanty-town shack.

Much of what happens to the Comeaways is played as gentle comedy which portrays starkly some of the problems and issues the family has to deal with. The members are able to bat and swat outright racial bullying in the streets and at school but racial discrimination doesn’t end there: when Mum and Dad have problems making ends meet, the town offers no help or guidance to them. Social isolation would appear to be a problem for Mum but apart from the appearance of a friendly neighbour who invites her to her place for afternoon tea the film skirts over this issue. The parents struggle with low self-esteem and trying to fit in with their white neighbours’ ways in spite of their poverty; at the same time, they’re obliged by their cultural background to share their house and possessions with their relatives who take advantage of them. The neighbours’ reactions to the Comeaways’ presence are difficult to fathom.

The acting is well done if minimal, in keeping with the film’s pared-down style. Characters tend to be resigned to their fate and restrained emotionally with only Trilby actively rebelling against the status and place predetermined by society for her and her people. The Comeaways accept their lowly lot in life but are always hopeful that one day things might improve. However, such improvement will come at a cost: in a scene near the end, when Mum tries to console Trilby after the birth of her child, she refers to the destruction of their native culture and knowledge – the possibility of reconciling material advancement with preserving First Nation cultures, values and knowledge isn’t entertained. This is probably the saddest moment in the film, not least because it indirectly leads to Trilby having to choose between staying with her people and accepting what they accept, and following her ambitions and ideals by going to the city. The climax when Trilby makes her decision and literally cuts her ties to her family and culture in the hospital’s toilet room is shocking and heartbreaking, though curiously the film continues with Trilby going home with her family and no-one saying anything; there are not even any subtitles to suggest that she might have stayed a bit longer in hospital for some psychiatric treatment.

Nehm is outstanding as Trilby who wants better for herself and for her family but comes under terrific pressure from both her own culture and the expectations of Western society; her performance in the women’s toilets scene is quiet and powerful, the character raising her arms as if in question or supplication and her appearance becomes almost Christ-like and sacrificial. (She sacrifices more than just a baby.) Saunders and Maza as Trilby’s parents provide comedy and drama in turns, and each is credible in both: Maza’s character is torn between the demands of his breadwinning role and his natural inclination to take things easy and have a good time, and Saunders’s Mum does the best she can keeping the family together with the limited knowledge and resources she has with a sunny though fatalistic outlook on life. Among their people, actions speak much louder than words: Maza’s scenes outside the Housing Commission office where he’s just about to pay his rent and where he gambles instead the money away, and the strain and guilt of his behaviour as these show on his face, are something to behold in this respect. A subplot beckons when a white teacher discovers Trilby’s young brother has artistic talent and gives him a sketchbook but doesn’t come to more than that.

The cinematography is beautiful and colourful, as might be expected in a movie where remote countryside is everywhere: the ambience of the town with its small shops and pubs is evident. Something of the small-minded outlook of the white townsfolk and the racial prejudice that exists is always present.

The ending calls for a sequel which would follow Trilby’s adventures in the city and how she copes with city life, particularly the psychological aspect of it, but to my knowledge this has never been made nor is it likely to be made. Viewers can be certain though that whatever happens to Trilby when she leaves the town, she will always remain a “fringe dweller”, never really at home in any society, including the one she was born into.

Unfortunately the film’s narrow focus on the Comeaways’ struggle personalises their problems to the level of neighbours and other people they have direct contact with, and says nothing about how racial discrimination and prejudice are institutional in their society. Discrimination is reduced to a matron at a hospital or a teacher or school student being nasty to the Comeaways but that’s all. But how did Trilby work out in the first place that being a strict nuclear family living in a house would be a way of breaking down the physical and psychological race barriers? Either someone taught this to her or she’s picked it up herself and rationalised the idea as the “ideal” way of living for her people if they are to advance socially. Seems like the one person most brainwashed and prejudiced against the worth of Aboriginal culture and its values is Trilby herself. In this respect, the film can be unintentionally patronising towards the people whose interests it aims to defend: it suggests that Australian Aboriginal and other First Nations people can overcome discrimination if they adopt the ways and the thinking of Western society but never offers the idea that Western society itself could learn something from these people’s cultures.

Palindromes: dark comedy fable of Western society’s exploitation of children and value of life

Todd Solondz, “Palindromes” (2004)

A dark comedic fairy tale about a girl trapped in a life that goes around in circles, “Palindromes” does have the air of something unfinished (as it should, I suppose) but features some very strong and delicate acting performances. Aviva is a young girl on the verge of puberty who desperately wants to have a baby: we don’t know why as she never gets the opportunity to properly express her reason but we suspect that a baby would give her the unconditional love that Aviva’s parents assure Aviva they give. She loses her virginity to a family friend’s son, Judah (Robert Agri), and becomes pregnant. Aviva’s mum Joyce (Ellen Barkin) hits the roof and, between tearful bouts of smother love and shrill histrionics, forces the unwilling girl into having an abortion at a clinic. Complications during the procedure render Aviva permanently sterile and after the operation, she runs away from home. She hitches a ride with a truck driver, Bob (Stephen Adly Guirgis), who abandons her at a motel. Aviva wanders around the countryside and finds shelter and comfort in a foster home for disabled children run by a Christian evangelist, Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk), and her husband (Walter Bobbie).

Aviva is accepted into the family and even joins the children’s pop-singing group but soon discovers Papa Sunshine has engaged the truck driver, Bob, to kill a doctor who performs abortions. Aviva, infatuated with Bob, leaves the family and accompanies him on his assignment. They drive into a suburban neighbourhood and pull up at the home of the doctor who performed Aviva’s operation. Bob accidentally shoots the doctor’s young daughter as well as the intended victim and he and Aviva flee to a motel. The police soon surround them and Bob, anguished about what he has done, commits police-assisted suicide. The cops return Aviva to her parents who celebrate her 13th birthday by throwing a family party. Some time after the party, Aviva again meets Judah, now named Otto, and the two have sex. Aviva, believing she is pregnant, is happy and at peace.

The choice of eight actors to play Aviva illustrates how the character of Aviva essentially stays the same despite the different opinions others may have about her, how Aviva might feel about herself as her body undergoes puberty, and how changes in her circumstances might affect her behaviour and responses to people and situations. Such differences are reflected in the height, age and general appearance of the actors who play Aviva. Viewers quickly pick her out even when she lies to Mama Sunshine and her brood, and says her name is Henrietta. The girl seems passive and easily influenced by others, and her vague, generic character (her name is Hebrew for “life” so she must be taken as a representative of humanity generally) won’t endear her to viewers, though near film’s end when she meets her cousin Mark (Matthew Faber), who tells her free will and the ability to change are fictions and everyone’s actions are predetermined by their environment and genetic history, she argues fairly passionately in a faint, deadened way that people should have hope and can change. The most notable of the several Aviva players is Sharon Wilkins who plays the Mama Sunshine Aviva: her performance embodies the previous performances and experiences of the younger Avivas and adds genuine feeling, a sense of having suffered trauma and an attitude towards her adoptive family that varies from wariness to cautious enthusiasm in the family’s get-togethers. Though Wilkins is much bigger and taller than her fellow foster siblings in the family pop group, she conveys the sense of being a young girl so effectively that she blends in successfully with the weeny warblers.

Ellen Barkin is superb if creepy as the self-centred Joyce who, with her husband (Richard Masur), showers Aviva with toys and material possessions but fails to give her the two things she most needs: love and some form of spiritual or moral guidance. As viewers can guess, the mother is most genuine emotionally when told of Aviva’s abortion going awry; through Aviva’s dim, semi-conscious gaze as it were, we see the woman rage then collapse against the doctor. Debra Monk is also effective as the mother substitute Mama Sunshine who offers what Aviva’s mother doesn’t; her beaming smile, clucky mother-hen style and occasional tears may however mask a steely authoritarian nature that exploits her charges’ disabilities and charm as tweeny Christian pop singers for profit. Of the several child actors in the film, Alexander Brickel makes the most impression as the chirpy foster child Peter Paul who doesn’t miss a beat in cheerfulness even when he takes Aviva to the garbage dumps to look for aborted foetuses.

The film lampoons both the mainstream secular suburban life with its spiritual and moral sterility, and its mirror in the Christian evangelist family which, though accepting of people’s physical imperfections and embracing the unwanted disabled children with warmth and love, is just as much a moral desert where money and differences of opinion are involved. The extreme family types don’t seem very outlandish due to Solondz’s direction under which everyone tends towards a deadpan, almost frozen-faced standard of dialogue delivery unless a situation calls for emotiveness. If the film takes a stand at all on any moral issue, it may be to suggest that, regardless of religious or socio-economic background, children can be vulnerable victims of extreme indoctrination and exploitation by parents, especially if the parents use the children as tools to fulfill their own needs for self-worth and validation. This can create situations where children become trapped in a hell not of their own making, for which they don’t have the knowledge and resources to escape, and end up as adults recreating that hell for their own children.

Ultimately as the film’s title and the most significant characters’ names suggest, people here end up zinging between two extremes in a situation or two sides of a problem or issue but never achieve a resolution or breakthrough. Though not a work that will appeal to most people, “Palindromes” is a brave if not very successful attempt to address difficult and controversial issues about the value of life, how it is abused and exploited by others for personal gain, and the effect that such exploitation might have on people’s lives and society generally. Solondz seems to have a pessimistic view of humanity’s potential to break out of structures and patterns that no longer have any value or meaning, and this vision makes the movie bleak and hopeless.

Princess Mononoke: flawed epic with ambition and good intentions

Hayao Miyazaki, “Princess Mononoke” (1997)

When I first saw this movie about a decade ago, like everyone else I was bowled over by the stunning animated backgrounds and the techniques used to create very life-like or 3D effects (even though nearly everything was hand-drawn), and the attention Studio Ghibli paid to details so much so that every character had his or her own individual look and hair-style, and even the cooking pots and bowls used had their own distinctive features. On second viewing, this time with the jarring English language soundtrack, “Princess Mononoke” still looks impressive but its defects are easier to pick out: significant characters remain one-dimensional or come into the movie at odd times, almost as an afterthought, and partly as a result the plot is over-stretched and ends up bogged down in its themes and story details. Most viewers shouldn’t have a problem with major battle scenes and plot developments occurring off-screen and being reported after they occur but younger viewers or those with no experience of movies, TV shows and PC games where several actions can occur simultaneously with players focussed on one action or being able to flick between parallel actions, might struggle to keep up with “Princess Mononoke” as it unfolds.

The story takes place from the perspective of a young teenage warrior, Ashitaka, who defends his isolated village clan in a remote part of Japan from a giant boar which wounds him as he brings it down with arrows. The boar is a demon made so by hatred and anger of humans and Ashitaka must find out how the boar was transformed into raging hate and fury if he is to find a cure for his poisoned wound which the village wise woman warns will spread through his body and kill him. He travels to the forests west of his home territory and soon is embroiled in a bitter, ongoing conflict between an industrial and mining settlement called Irontown, led by the aristocratic Lady Eboshi, and the animal guardians of the forests, led by the feral teenage girl San aka Princess Mononoke and her adoptive wolf family. The Irontown inhabitants are clearing the forests on a mountain so they can mine and use the iron ore there but their actions are destroying the animals’ habitat and enraging the boars of whom one became the demon that attacked Ashitaka’s people and wounded him.

Ashitaka gets the answers he needs quickly but getting the actual cure for his infection is a much more complicated problem than he realises, and requires his being able to see the conflict between the humans and the forest creatures from both Lady Eboshi and San’s points of view. He discovers that both sides are under pressure from and are being manipulated by unseen others. He falls in love with San, he has to tolerate others’ decisions and actions even when they bring disaster instead of success, he discovers that even when all seems lost there is always the possibility of renewal and regrowth, and with that possibility, there is hope. As a rite-of-passage / coming-of-age movie, “Princess Mononoke” doesn’t quite succeed as both Ashitaka and San undergo no very significant character development even as those near and dear to them suffer and die. Their romance is lop-sided and San’s rejection of Ashitaka and of humans generally cuts out all but a very slim chance of future reconciliation. Ashitaka accepts change but San is uncomfortable with it and the possibility of their ever meeting again, in spite of promises from them both, is uncertain.

The plot itself runs out of steam coming towards the halfway point of the film and wallows in earnestness over its theme of human transformation of the natural environment through technology, industrialisation and sheer material greed, and the consequences of such a transformation and the forces it may unleash. To the film’s credit, the characters representing the opposing sides of the conflict the theme generates are complex and ambivalent: Lady Eboshi, the “villain”, is a humanitarian who takes the poor and disadvantaged under her wing and puts them to work in her iron forges (though that could be said generally of rapacious corporations that continually move operations from one Third World country to another to take advantage of naive local workers, low wages and political and social conditions that suppress human rights) and the animal guardians of the forests, the “good guys”, think of their own self-interest, refuse to listen to good advice when it comes from a human and fail to co-operate for the benefit of the forests and the Forest Spirit. The Forest Spirit itself is a passive and gentle giant that offers no resistance to the various indignities which include decapitation and death that the humans hurl at it. In addition there are other forces that attempt to pull Lady Eboshi’s strings, notably Jigo and his hunters who plan to make Lady Eboshi do all the work of killing the Forest Spirit and suffer the wrath of the animals while they themselves make off with the deity’s head; and the never-seen Lord Asano whose army attacks and nearly destroys Irontown while Lady Eboshi and Jigo lead her forces into the forest.

It turns out that the Forest Spirit’s death is necessary to effect a cure for Ashitaka’s wound and this suggests also that death as well as life is necessary to sustain Nature. Ashitaka and Lady Eboshi come to their own conclusions about humans and nature living in harmony and significantly Ashitaka elects to remain with Lady Eboshi and the Irontown survivors rather than return to his home village.

With so many characters populating the movie yet having no impact on the workings of the plot – the human-eating apes in particular providing no more than a sinister potential rival to the equally malevolent boars – and the twists of fate that deny Ashitaka’s efforts to find a cure for his infection, there’s enough potential in “Princess Mononoke” for a two-part or even three-part animated mini-series. An origin story for San and some way of reuniting Ashitaka with his clan could be included; and there would be room for both Ashitaka and San to grow and mature psychologically and become true leaders. As it is, “Princess Mononoke”, with all its imperfections and loose ends, is still a complex and ambitious epic with good intentions, and viewers should watch it a few times at least to absorb the visual details and beauty.

Band of Outsiders (dir. Jean-Luc Godard): pop culture, the art of film and existential philosophy in one pulp crime film

Jean-Luc Godard, “Bande à part” aka “Band of Outsiders” (1964)

Once upon a time, the French had a knack for making gangster and pulpy crime movies in which they could hang philosophical concepts, especially those of existential philosophy, onto the plot. Such a movie is Jean-Luc Godard’s famous “Bande à part”, often cited as the most outstanding example of the French New Wave of films that came out in the late 1950’s / early 1960’s. The main distinguishing features of the French New Wave are present: the use of natural sets or real locations as opposed to fixed studio sets; the use of natural lighting or lighting found in the locations where filming took place; free-flowing action aided by a straightforward plot; and a naturalistic style of acting. Voice-over narration by Godard himself, which forecasts the action to come or describes what a character is thinking, defies conventional linear “show, don’t tell” narratives; a character appears to address the audience directly with a song about modern life; and the movie inserts several playful (though sometimes melancholy or tragic) scenes that reference film-making, popular culture of the time, social and economic change, and the place of the individual in modern society.

The film basically is about three young people in a love triangle who impulsively decide to steal money from a rich couple with whom one of the youngsters live. They talk more or less continuously about how much money there is to steal, and how they are going to do it, and use up a lot of energy and petrol racing around Paris and the banks of the Seine river while planning the heist, but the actual robbery itself takes place late in the film. Along the way, Odile (Anna Karina) dithers between whether she prefers Arthur (Claude Brasseur), a hardened, macho fellow who acts before he thinks, or Franz (Sami Frey) who is more sensitive and less certain of himself. The challenge for Godard is to keep the viewers interested in the doings, comings and goings of these people in a very simple plot, to which a sub-plot, involving Arthur’s uncle who decides he wants some of that money the youngsters plan to steal, has been tacked on almost as an after-thought; and Godard does this successfully by throwing Odile and her would-be lovers into situations that have no connection to the plot but simply rope in whatever ideas and concerns the director has about French culture and society. The plot and sub-plot become secondary to the movie’s themes which themselves enrich the characters and their relationships to one another and their wider world.

There are several scenes in “Bande à part” that stand out, in particular the cafe scenes of which one consists of a minute’s silence, during which time (actually just over half a minute) all sound in the film completely cuts out; the second scene in which the trio play musical chairs at their table and Arthur spikes Odile’s drink while her attention is elsewhere; and the third is the celebrated Madison dance scene in which Odile, Franz and Arthur dance together in line, all three more or less keeping in time and dancing together yet not really together as the music dips in and out and Godard’s voice-over tells viewers what each dancer is thinking. Odile dancing between the two buddies highlights the potential conflict the love triangle poses for all three of them. There is a strange sense of isolation in the scene: the dancers are self-absorbed and not looking at one another, demonstrated in Franz and Arthur gradually dropping out and Odile continuing the dance; the waiters come and go, oblivious to the dancing; and no-one else in the cafe joins in the dance or even watches it. The scene itself is a comment on changes in social relations in French society: most dancing before the 1960’s either involved large groups of people dancing or couples (each couple consisting of a man and a woman) dancing with more or less constant eye contact. Another very significant scene in the movie is the train scene in which Odile sings a poem about modern life in Paris and the cares and burdens ordinary people have to carry: this scene includes a montage of fixed scenes of Parisians in their day-to-day activities.

Other scenes that reference social change and the impact of American culture on French culture include Franz and Arthur’s playful re-enactment of a gunfight death scene from a popular Western movie which one of them will re-enact for real in a hysterically funny and exaggerated if tragic way near the end of the film. There is one very good scene where Franz and Arthur read aloud tabloid headlines about various murders and massacres around the world while lounging on a Seine embankment not far from a busy and noisy factory; the scene looks peaceful and serene but distant sounds of pounding machinery can be heard. The boys and Odile together also run through the Louvre museum in an attempt to break the world record, held by an American; the scene and its playfulness might be a laugh at the respect people have for cultural institutions simply out of conformity to tradition. Then of course the fact the boys imagine themselves the equal of their movie gangster and Western outlaw heroes to the extent that they dare to rob Odile’s adoptive relatives with Odile playing the gangster moll role, and none of them considering the dangers or the consequences that might follow, says something about how much of a hold American pop culture has on their imaginations and what that says about their alienation from the world around them.

As might be expected, the heist doesn’t go to plan and the love triangle resolves in a way viewers least expect with none of the main characters learning any lessons from what they experience. Two of them flee Paris without having to answer for their part in the robbery or feeling any pangs of conscience over three deaths. Some folks may see in the plot’s resolution a lesson in how dangerous second-hand fantasy derived from pop culture may be when applied literally to real life. Even if viewers don’t agree with the way the plot works out or the characters’ interactions with one another – Arthur behaves cruelly towards Odile who all too often is overly submissive and passive – they will find something in the movie that’s fun, clever, playful and enjoyable, something that reminds them of the carefree and innocent nature of childhood. Before it all collapses into tragedy and the reality of being responsible for one’s actions and future life. A movie that’s good to look at, enjoy and make you think about its issues on different levels: that’s “Bande à part”.

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring: lovely to look at but hollow

Kim Kiduk, “Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring” (2003)

Presented in five episodes that mimic the yearly cycle of the seasons, this film follows a man’s path from his early childhood through adolescence and youth into middle age. Adopted by a hermit monk who lives at a Buddhist shrine on a tiny island in a lake in remote mountainous country, the man grows up close to nature and learns Buddhist doctrine and contemplation; his upbringing, worthy though it is, fails him when as a teenager he is confronted with sexual and other desires when a girl his age stays at the shrine temporarily to recover from an unknown illness. He elects to leave the srhine to follow the girl into the wider world. He marries her but she later deserts him for another man and he kills her. Returning to the shrine, he attempts suicide but is thwarted by the monk who forces him to repent of his sin. Detectives come to take the man to justice and prison and the monk himself then commits suicide.

The story is beguilingly simple and straightforward with very little dialogue and almost no conversation: nearly every utterance is a statement that underlines some aspect of the action on screen. The cinematography makes great use of fixed shots set at some distance from the actors to show their interactions with objects or the natural environment together with some close-ups, as though to show that, no matter how much humans isolate themselves, their environment and by extension the wider world of human society and relationships will encroach on them. By killing himself, the monk acknowledges perhaps that he has done as much for his disciple as he can and from now on the disciple must be his own teacher and learn from his experiences as well as remember his lessons. The world of the shrine and its surrounds, beautiful though it is – the cinematography emphasises the beauty, colour and vivids moods of nature throughout the year – can’t encapsulate all the man needs to know about life in order that he might more fully appreciate what the monk has tried to teach him.

The cyclical nature of life which  renews itself is emphasised in frequent shots of snakes (an age-old symbol of renewal) and fish, and in an unexpected twist towards the end of the movie when the man has returned to the shrine after serving time in prison: a woman visits him and leaves her baby son behind. She has an accident that is partly the man’s fault and the man is left alone to bring up the child. We can presume that the child as he grows up will repeat the man’s experiences; the challenge is whether the man might be a different teacher, perhaps more forgiving or less forgiving, more inclined to punish or less inclined, based on his experiences, than his teacher was.

Director Kim Kiduk’s narrow focus on the story, with all the action centred in the shrine and its surrounds, leaves out a great deal about the hermit monk and his disciple which audiences have to assume for themselves. The two actually have some interaction with the outside world: they acquire a rooster and a cat during the course of the film and the monk does get supplies from the outside world. During one such shopping trip, he learns about his disciple’s crime from the newspaper wrapping around some food. This narrowed focus, while intended to relay a story of change and renewal (and with it, faith, hope and the possibility of reincarnation), gives very little insight into the motivations and behaviour of the monk, disciple and other characters; in particular, we have no idea why the old monk commits suicide and we are left to speculate on possible reasons ranging from despair to resignation at the disciple’s behaviour.

As a result, there is something empty and unsatisfying about this film and there is an underlying misogyny that is disturbing as well. Though the film offers hope in the form of a new acolyte, it also suggests that the youngster might well follow the man a little too closely in his ways and the man may offer much the same advice to the young ‘un about love, lust and life as his mentor did. The same mistakes may be repeated, the cycle of life and renewal may continue but do humans, can humans, learn from others’ mistakes so as not to repeat them, or not to repeat them the same way?

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

Francois Truffaut, “The 400 Blows” (1959)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Motorcycle Diaries: road trip through South America is a hard slog

Walter Salles, “The Motorcycle Diaries” (2004)

A film about two guys in their 20s riding on a motorcycle through South America in the 1950s should have been easy to make entertaining, especially when the travellers in question come from comfortable middle-class families in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and the people in the places they visit are not only poor farmers, miners and labourers, these folks are also indigenous or part-indigenous people who might never have heard of Argentina or know it only as a country full of rich snobs. Add to that scenario the fact that one of the Argentine travellers is one Ernesto Guevara de la Serna or “Fuser” as he was known at the time by his pals: yes, that Ernesto Guevara aka Che Guevara the diplomat, writer, politician and revolutionary. Throw in side-trips to Cuzco and Macchu Picchu, sites of the once-mighty Incan civilisation, with the added attraction of magnificent Andean mountain settings for the latter place; journeys across the Argentine pampa and over the snowy Argentine-Chilean Andes down to Valparaiso in Chile; an ill-advised hike by foot and hitch-hiking through the Atacama desert towards Peru; and a 3-week sojourn at a leper colony in Peru’s Amazonian territory near the end. How can you not make of this mixture a colourful and invigorating road trip spiced with questions about how some parts of South America became rich and other parts poor, how the aboriginal peoples were brought down so low by European colonisation, and what can the travellers do in their small ways to make amends for this situation?

Amazingly “The Motorcycle Diaries”, directed by Brazilian director Walther Salles using Guevara’s memoirs of the same name, and featuring Gael Garcia Bernal as Fuser with Rodrigo de la Serna (in real life related to Guevara) as travelling companion Alberto Granado, turns out to be a hard and earnest slog starved for energy and vitality through an itinerary of touristy spots without the rip-off souvenir shops. The miners, farmers and other labourers Fuser and Granado meet add some substance and flavour to the places ticked off on their list but viewers get no sense of connection, of brotherly feeling between the Argentines and the people they meet. Part of the problem here is the blank-slate soporific acting style adopted by Garcia Bernal in playing Fuser: viewers have no idea of what Fuser’s early background was like apart from his being a medical student. Even in voice-over narrations when writing to his parents in letters and diary entries, Fuser never refers to past memories of family life which might hint at his relatively privileged childhood and the education he received. He comes over as a geeky and socially awkward young man with bland pretty-boy looks more likely to accept his doctor slot in the capitalist slave wage society, patching up people who get hurt in the course of being ground down by the system and fixing their problems so they can get back to being ground down, than as an independent-minded rebel in the making. The real-life Che Guevara must have been a much more intelligent, inquisitive and engaging man than the enervated and watery being viewers see in the film.

The other part of the problem is the narrative structure and the filming approach used to support it: “The Motorcycle Diaries” plays out in traditional story-telling mode about two travellers who want to go sight-seeing, pick up girls and have a good time; and the film crew use a mix of tracking, close-ups and occasional fixed shots to follow the duo. Very much a conventional way of recording Guevara’s memoirs in visual form but limited and alienating the audience as well: we go from A to B all the way to Z in a way that loses its zip as one picturesque scene after another ends up blending into a string of picturesque scenes all very much the same. There is no sense of a structure to the film other than a loosely knit series of both comedy and serious drama sketches in which Fuser and Granado suffer mishaps with the wheezing motorbike, get into scraps with men in small towns after flirting with their wives and girlfriends, lose their tent and beg for food, money and shelter from strangers; this could be any road-trip story with a couple of bumbling characters playing straight man and comic.

The film might have worked better if it had employed a more journalistic approach with occasional handheld camera shots of Fuser and Granado conversing with the people they meet, learning of their problems with their employers, landlords and the police, and put cameras on the motorbike itself in scenes where the men travel in the countryside and crash into cows or fall into ditches to convey a sense of movement, the thrill and dangers of travelling in unknown places where anything could happen, and the joy of being free and knowing that the people you will meet know nothing about you and have no expectations of you. A mix of different points of view or even using first-person viewpoints (Fuser or Granado) might have helped, particularly in scenes set in the leper colony so viewers get a sense of the ostracism and other indignities suffered by leprosy patients from the nuns, along with voice-over narration from Garcia Bernal as Fuser to put the scenes in both a historical and personal context that gives viewers some idea of what might have gone on in Fuser’s head and how he arrived at the conclusion that being a revolutionary would do more for the downtrodden and exploited than being a doctor.

At least the stunning landscapes, the towns visited and the indigenous people who share their problems with Fuser and Granado, as identified by Fuser/Guevara in 1952 when he took his trip, provide the film’s saving grace and make it worth seeing.

Johnny Mad Dog: clear anti-war message let down by generic portrayal of film’s events

Jean-Stephane Sauvaire, “Johnny Mad Dog” (2008)

A film of child soldiers set in an African country experiencing a long and protracted civil war, “Johnny Mad Dog” will be gruesome watching for most people. The movie revolves around the viewpoint of two teenagers, Johnny Mad Dog (Chirstopher Minie) who leads a militia of under-age soldiers, some of them barely into their teens, in a rebel army and Laokole (Daisy Victoria Vandy) who tries to save her crippled father and little brother from the rebels when they hit her town and kill or drive away the soldiers. The film’s narrative follows the boys from the time they receive their orders from the General (Joseph Duo), through their journey into a town and then into the capital city to meet up with other rebel groups fighting government forces; along the way the youngsters commit appalling and brutal acts of violence such as forcing a child to shoot his father, raping a TV news reporter and torturing a middle-aged couple by forcing them to have sex. In warfare, the boys efficiently despatch a sniper; in brief periods of “peace”, they quarrel, waste too much ammunition in the air, steal things and generally sort out their particular places in their little social hierarchy. In the meantime, Laokole is torn between getting her wounded father to hospital and keeping her brother safe: she decides to take Dad to hospital in a wheelbarrow but loses the small boy.

The depiction of Johnny and his unit as they alternately kill and plunder, and act like a bunch of typical teenagers obsessed with second-hand Western pop culture or stolen trophies like a pig, looks realistic if bizarre. Many child actors who appear had actually been soldiers and you wonder how they must have felt recreating brutal, nightmarish scenes. The often shocking contrast of the boys’ violence and their relative innocence and naivety is a reflection of the surreal society that produced them, a society where adults are helpless and passive – even the UN soldiers guarding the city hospital barely hold out against Johnny’s rabble – or are deliberately uncaring, cynical and lying; and children are the ones who take responsibility for their parents and siblings. The rebel leaders who lure Johnny and the other boys into their ranks promise the children money for their future and provide charms claimed to ward off bullets and injuries but betray the children by joining the regular army once the war is ended.

Using a mixture of jumpy handheld camera shots, fixed-film shots and scenes shot in slow-motion style, Sauvaire achieves an effect that is at once immediate and in-your-face, and at the same time in its own way, universal: children brainwashed, degraded and traumatised by ongoing war and extreme poverty, with the adults exploiting their innocence, eager energy and desire for security. The film looks beautiful, even artistic, even in scenes of parts of the deserted city where evidence of poverty and long-term government neglect might be expected; the forests look too green and lush, and the houses appear picturesque and colourful.

The country where the war takes place is never identified; this is at once the film’s weakness and part of its purpose, which is to show that the events could happen in any country where there is ongoing civil war, but this approach risks making the country, its people and places generic. The film narrowly focusses on the boys’ activities and interactions so they come across as little more than thuggish brats with AK-47s. Viewers never learn if the government the rebels fight against really is corrupt and favours some ethnic or religious groups over others. The rebel leadership is never identified so viewers have no way of knowing if Johnny’s general is just not a nice piece of work or is representative of the rebel army leaders. For all we know, the rebels may have had very legitimate grievances which would have given a context to the orders the boys receive from the General and the mayhem they cause, and the film an added complicated political-social dimension which would enrich the sparse plot.

The performances of Minie and Vandy as the teenagers on two opposed sides of the war, whose lives run in parallel save for two meetings, are pivotal to the film’s plot and both youngsters deliver excellent work particularly in their scenes together. Their first scene, completely wordless, holds the possibility of a friendship and possible redemption for Johnny, and the close-ups of the actors’ faces, frozen yet filled with conflicting thoughts and feelings, are stunning; the protagonists’ second scene together, in which all hope of reconciliation is gone, is terrifying in the way it suggests both youngsters have been completely corrupted and degraded by the adults and events around them and will remain enemies forever. For all his bluster and near-sociopathic tendencies, Johnny shows potential to be a more sensitive person – he refuses to blast away a group of UN soldiers, to his unit’s astonishment; he is concerned for a prostitute he names “Lovelita” when she is shot – if he had been given better luck in life; and Laokole shows an unexpected hardening, vengeful side.

The message that war dehumanises people, most of all children, is very clear but for all that, “Johnny Mad Dog” is one-dimensional and not nearly as effective as it could be. The journalistic concentration on the issue of child soldiers throws the spotlight onto the child actors but without the background context that might explain how and why the civil war in the unnamed African country broke out and whether the rebels had good cause to revolt – this could be completely fictional yet plausible as it would be reconstructed from real life events in various countries- the film undermines its message and becomes open to charges of racism and exploitation of its themes for the titillation of audiences within Africa and beyond. Nevertheless it’s a worthwhile film to watch for the work of its two leads in portraying two opposed characters.

The film was shot in Monrovia and other parts of Liberia but is based on a novel “Johnny Chien Mechant” by novelist and scientist Emmanuel Dongala, who used his experiences as a refugee fleeing Congo (Brazzaville) in the late 1990’s when war broke out there, for the book.