Steppenwolf: a stodgy and soporific adaptation of a cult counter-culture novel

Fred Haines, “Steppenwolf” (1974)

There was a period in the 1960s when this 1927 novel was the darling of the psychedelic counter-culture in the United States, due in part to its depiction of drug use and free sex, and to its themes of introspection and self-examination, a quest for a more authentic way of living as opposed to living like an automaton in a society of frivolity and shallow values, and the possibility of personal transformation and hope. No surprise then, that in spite of the novel’s fantastic plot and its metaphysical themes, a film adaptation was made in the mid-1970s: the major problem with the making of “Steppenwolf” seems to have been its financing and the question of its ownership which ruined the marketing of the film and sent it straight into art-house obscurity.

Having read the novel a long time ago, I don’t remember much of it but I do think the film follows the novel fairly closely. Solitary intellectual Harry Haller (Max von Sydow) despairs of ever fitting into bourgeois society with its shallow people and values, and contemplates suicide. By chance he is given a book called “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” by a man carrying an advertisement for the Magic Theatre. Astonishingly, the book is addressed to Haller personally and describes his state of unease accurately: he is of two natures, one being human and spiritual and the other being that of the Steppenwolf, the lone steppe wolf, essentially animalist. Haller’s problem is that he is unable to recognise his dual nature and thus reconcile both these aspects. He resolves to commit suicide on his 50th birthday but before the big day arrives, he meets a mysterious woman (Dominique Sanda) at a dance hall. The woman sees Haller’s distress and arranges to meet him a second time. On this occasion Haller discovers the woman’s name is Hermine, and Hermine starts to introduce Haller to aspects of what he had previously regarded as frivolous: he learns to dance, to listen and appreciate jazz music, to indulge in drugs and to take a young woman, Maria (Carla Romanelli), as a lover. All of these activities are presented as aspects of a worthy life. Haller later meets jazz saxophonist Pablo (Pierre Clementi) who runs the mysterious Magic Theatre. Once in the Magic Theatre, Haller is confronted by all his fears, anxieties and fantasies of his mind.

While Max von Sydow has no problem playing the angst-ridden Haller – having acted in no fewer than eleven films directed by Ingemar Bergman, von Sydow should have regarded “Steppenwolf” as a walkover – Sanda and Romanelli’s portrayals of their respective characters come close to being soporific. One would think that Hermine would be alternating between acting flirtatiously with Haller and being serious and concerned for him. Clementi does a fine job as the flamboyant and sexually ambiguous Pablo in the few minutes allotted to the character. The real attraction of “Steppenwolf” though is in its surreal animation: it may look very outdated to modern viewers, and is of a piece with films of its time that also relied on surreal / psychedelic animation, but nevertheless it can be quite imaginative. The cartoon that is the “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” is fun to watch with animated cut-outs and collages reminiscent of the animation used on the Monty Python and the Flying Circus comedy series; the later animation used in the Magic Theatre scenes is more psychedelic than surreal but is surprisingly easy to follow and digest. There are scenes in the film which used bleached film stock to emphasise their dream-like, hallucinatory nature.

By contrast the live action parts of the film are stodgy and slow with uneven acting and dialogue that is harder to understand than it should be due to the cast’s different accents. (The entire cast speaks in English, yet English is not the first language of any of the major actors.) Fans of animation must wait until the film is well past its halfway point. At least the plot is not difficult to follow and viewers following Haller right to the end will be relieved to know he does find some peace with himself. On the other hand, viewers may not find much peace in the music soundtrack in the film’s later scenes: there is too much boring blaring synthesiser in the psychedelic prog-rock instrumental sections playing over the Magic Theatre scenes, and not enough dissonant jazz to set the mood in earlier parts of the film.

The film has achieved cult status due to its obscure viewing history but that does not mean it’s a great film. Readers of the original novel are likely to find the film a disappointment and need to set their expectations low.

5 Centimetres per Second: an insubstantial trilogy on the fleeting nature of youthful love, hope and desire

Makoto Shinkai, “5 Centimetres per Second” (2007)

As with his “Your Name”, Makoto Shinkai’s earlier “5 Centimetres per Second” is a teenage romance based around desire, hope and loss. The film takes the form of a trilogy of short story pieces revolving around young hero Tataki as he progresses through childhood and adolescence and becomes a young adult taking on the burdens and pressures of adulthood. The first and longest short story riffs on his childhood friendship with the girl Araki, how they meet in primary school and bond together, and their separation when, on the verge of transitioning to junior high school, she and her family relocate away from Tokyo to a more distant rural part of Japan. The second story focuses on another girl, Kanae, who is in Tataki’s class at high school and who has a crush on him which he fails to notice and she fails to admit to him. In the third and shortest installment, Tataki has already graduated from high school and college and with a job and a girlfriend seems well on the way to middle class career and family contentment. However the young man still pines for Araki so he chucks in his job and breaks up with his current love to travel to that part of Japan where Araki lives in the hope of meeting her and reigniting their relationship.

In themselves the characters are not all that remarkable and seem very one-dimensional in their melancholy and constant preoccupation with their thoughts; likewise the threadbare plot proceeds to a conclusion many viewers may find unsatisfactory if predictable. Kanae’s unrequited crush on Tataki – and his attitude towards the girl – may come across as rather callous on Shinkai’s part, and point to an insensitive and immature self-absorption on Tataki’s part that explains his inability to hold down a job and maintain a relationship with any female other than Araki. Perhaps it’s just as well that the original relationship between him and Araki peters out from the pressure of distance and time because if they were ever to meet again, he would find her literally another person.

The use of first-person voice-over story-telling is an original touch and coaxes the thin narrative forward steadily. The fragmented and not altogether reliable monologues have to be pieced together by viewers to form a clear narrative that holds all three stories together. The film proceeds rather as a series of beautifully detailed tableaux reflecting on the passage of time through the changes of day into night and day again, and of the seasons. The emphasis on trains and train travel serves as much to heighten the sense of separation through time and space between Tataki and Araki.

The background animation is gorgeous as it always is in Shinkai’s films but the characters and story fall far short of the beautiful and rich settings. Tataki and the girls he is involved with seem far too stereotyped as lovey-dovey young teenagers and the plot is equally generic. The film’s unusual title is a reference to the speed at which cherry blossoms, symbolic of the fleeting and fragile nature of youth, giving way all too soon to age and ultimately death, fall to the ground from the tree. It would be most ironic if this film becomes as minor in Shinkai’s body of work in the years to come as cherry blossoms are transient.

Faust: a visually stunning film with many magnificent scenes – but a thin story weakens it

F W Murnau, “Faust” (1926)

Visually powerful and stunning, with an incredible opening scene of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding high in the sky, “Faust” is an ambitious film that retells the story of Faust and the pact he made with the devil Mephistopheles. Special effects abound in this movie; modern audiences will be flabbergasted that, back in the 1920s, special effects were rarely used in films generally.  Even though the plot is thin and predictable – even those not familiar with the original “Faust” tale can guess how the plot will turn out – the passion and energy with which it is told, at brisk place, are evident. The acting may appear exaggerated to modern Western audiences but actors playing the main characters do their utmost to portray their characters’ feelings, emotions and pet fears.

The plot may remind readers here of the Book of Job in the Bible, Job being a fellow hit by many calamities – his children dying, his enterprises going bust – and undergoing trials set by God to test his faith. The Archangel Gabriel rebukes  Mephisto (for Mephistopheles) for glorying in war, violence and bloodshed. Both agree to make an example of Faust (Gösta Ekman), an ageing alchemist and healer, and subject him to a trial of his spiritual faith, with Mephisto (Emil Jannings) declaring that he will own Faust’s soul at the end. The deal having been struck, Mephisto promptly blasts the plague over Faust’s home town and Faust is helpless to prevent mass deaths. He casts all his books of knowledge into a bonfire but one book reveals a path out of his dilemma: he can appeal to the Prince of Darkness to gain power. Faust takes this path and meets Mephisto who gives him great power to heal others. Faust promptly starts using this power to bring people back to life but when they discover him shunning the cross, they reject him. Faust then appeals to Mephisto to take him away and give him youth; Mephisto does so, under certain conditions.

In his new youthful guise and living in a new country, Faust seduces an aristocratic woman, whose seduction comes to be the ruin of her marriage. Eventually tiring of the woman, Faust wishes to go home. Mephisto takes him back and Faust meets a young woman, Gretchen (Camilla Horn), of pure heart and soul. His desire and lust for Gretchen leads Faust to seduce her as well – but as with the aristocrat, so too does Faust’s desire cause destruction of Gretchen’s family and ruin the girl’s reputation. Gretchen is punished for harlotry and, much later, is tried and convicted for the murder of her child. She is condemned to burning at the stake. On hearing that Gretchen is to be burned, Faust rushes to save her.

Ekman plays both the old and the young Faust well but (as viewers might expect), Jannings steals the film as the malevolent yet often comic Mephisto. Horn’s performance as Gretchen is not bad but the character is definitely very stereotyped as a fallen innocent girl. The real stars of the film though are the sets, influenced as they are by German expressionism, the cinematography and the special effects.  A highly memorable early scene shows Mephisto, grown giant, spreading his black wings over Faust’s town and blowing black clouds of plague through it. The special effects which include animation are bold and incredible for the period in which the film was made.

While the film’s message of the redeeming power of love and self-sacrifice may be heartening, in its own way the film is also quite bleak. In order to understand the true power of God’s love and compassion for humanity, Faust is forced to experience the deepest despair possible and the corruption that having power over others and objects can bring. One might ask if it was really all that necessary for so much suffering and death to occur just so Faust can realise the error and selfishness of his behaviour and actions. Gretchen loses all her family and ultimately her life as a result of Faust’s actions towards her. Also, if God is willing to horse-trade humans with the Devil just to prove a point about love and redemption, is He really worthy of worship?

Loving Vincent: an arresting visual animation style papers over a repetitive and insubstantial formulaic plot

Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, “Loving Vincent” (2017)

Most viewers will probably be bowled over by the use of oil paintings on canvas as animation cels and the directors’ preference for classically trained painters over animators to do the paintings, resulting in a very arresting visual style drawing heavily on 19th-century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh’s vibrant style. For all the distinctive visual style though, the film is not that remarkable in its plotting and I have to wonder why animation was preferred wholly over live action when both animation and live action could have been used. I suspect the animation helps to paper over inconsistencies and flaws in the plot that would have made the film just another ordinary historical biopic about a famous figure.

A year after Vincent van Gogh’s death in 1890, young tear-about Armand Roulin (voiced and played by Douglas Booth) is tasked by his postmaster father to personally deliver a letter from Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo after the letter fails to reach the latter and is returned to the post office. Although Armand does not know van Gogh well, his father persuades him to take the letter, telling Armand that van Gogh had suffered mental illness and had been ostracised by others as a result. Armand goes to see Julien Tanguy, an art dealer who sold painting supplies to van Gogh: Tanguy tells Armand to visit Dr Gachet, who had cared for van Gogh in his last days, in Auvers-sur-Oise. Armand calls in at the Gachet residence and learns the doctor is away. The young man whiles away his time visiting people who knew van Gogh (who painted their portraits) and tell him all they know of the painter: their stories form a narrative suggesting to Armand that van Gogh might not have committed suicide but instead had been murdered. In Armand’s mind, everyone including Dr Gachet and his family become potential suspects.

The film does flit over several themes including mental illness and people’s attitudes toward mentally ill people in van Gogh’s time, the painter’s difficulties in coping with his poverty and various demons, and how best to remember someone by seeing the world as he saw it, with all its natural delights, and celebrating what he leaves behind in spite of a painful and undeserved death. Unfortunately the film concentrates too much on a story that tends to go round and round in circles and becomes quite repetitive. Ultimately Armand’s adventure seems rather insubstantial – the whole murder plot building up in his mind eventually goes awry after he’s interviewed all the most significant people who knew or met van Gogh – though he does come to appreciate how special van Gogh was to the people who knew him and he resolves to lead a better life than he has done so far. Even so, the idea of a rank amateur trying to solve a murder mystery that the police have dismissed as a suicide, and using rough-n-ready interview techniques to solve where more sophisticated police methods of the time have failed is hardly new.

The acting is not all that remarkable and seems rather flat – but that may be due to the style of animation used. The action proceeds in a leisurely way and only near the end does it become emotional and moving in parts.

Promoters of the film are very fond of saying how it was made and of how many painters (mostly from Poland and Greece, two countries severely affected by neoliberal economic policies and programs ordained by EU bureaucrats) were employed to create the 65,000 oil paintings that became the basis of the film’s animation. When so much emphasis is placed on the film’s technical aspects, one suspects that so much else within the film isn’t quite as good.

The Passion of Joan of Arc: an experimental film let down by its narrow focus, story-line and characterisation

Carl Theodor Dreyer, “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928)

In itself, this silent film is remarkable for its lead actor Maria Falconetti’s acting from the neck up, portraying the anguish and suffering of the famous French heroine after she was captured by Burgundian forces who delivered her to the English for imprisonment and torture. Based on actual transcripts of Joan’s trial, the film covers the period from her incarceration to her death by burning at the stake. French clergymen loyal to the English cause try to force her to sign a confession admitting to being under Satanic influence and when that attempt fails, resort to blackmail and deception to compel her to sign. Threatened with burning, Joan allows a priest to guide her hand in signing the confession but later recants when given a life sentence. Having failed to break her resistance and spirit, the churchmen put Joan to death, and her public execution rouses the townsfolk into revolt against the religious and military authorities.

The film is noteworthy for its insistence on the use of facial close-ups of the lead character to convey her devotion to her king, her country and God, and to emphasise her spiritual purity and strength. Joan’s persecutors are filmed under harsh light that emphasises their craggy features (or soft facial padding as the case may be) and suggests that they are spiritually impoverished or corrupt. The clergy’s obsession with Joan wearing men’s clothes and the way in which they use the ritual of holy communion to trick Joan into signing the confession show the men are more interested in following empty forms of outward piety than pursuing spiritual enlightenment.

Unfortunately the film gives very little background (apart from title cards) to Joan’s imprisonment and says very little about the visions that inspired a simple peasant girl, unable to read and write, to take up arms and lead armies into battle against the English. Viewers can easily get the wrong idea about Joan’s character from watching Falconetti’s performance – there is little in her portrayal that suggests a forthright and determined character. Falconetti’s Joan makes an impression as a highly religious woman whose outward simplicity hides a fairly cunning mind. Occasionally she is given over to brief ecstatic episodes that might suggest she is hallucinating.

The film is not long but its narrow focus and minimal style can make it seem unbearably long for some viewers. Perhaps it might have worked better if several of the churchmen had been more devious and pretended to Joan that they desired to help her escape punishment – on conditions that they will make known at much, much later times. The film could have been as much an inquisition of Joan inside and outside of court, and emphasised a narrative of prison and trial as tests of Joan’s character and intelligence, as it is a portrayal of the “justice” meted out to her. We would see the qualities that made Joan an outstanding leader and a non-conformist whose very existence threatens the power hierarchy and values exemplified by the Roman Catholic Church. As an experimental film of a sort, it works well but the experimentation butts heads with a narrowly defined story-line and a heroine who turns out to be more conventional in character and portrayal than expected.

The Congress: good ideas and astute criticism of Hollywood and technology undone by a confused narrative

Ari Folman, “The Congress” (2013)

Partly based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel “The Futurological Congress”, in which the central character suffers from both delusional and actual mental states, Ari Folman’s film is split between live action and animated action reflecting its heroine’s existence in both the real world and the virtual world and her own mental state, wavering between delusion and reality. Robin Wright (played by the real Robin Wright) is an actor notorious for her fickleness and unreliability that have cost her many lucrative film roles, to the chagrin of her agent Al (Harvey Keitel), and which have reduced her to living in a caravan with her children Sarah and Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the latter suffering from Usher’s syndrome which is slowly destroying his sight and hearing. Try as she and Dr Barker (Paul Giamatti) might, the boy’s condition is irreversible and her circumstances force her to agree to a humiliating proposal by Miramount film studio representative Jeff Green (Danny Huston) to sell the film rights to her digital image and emotions in return for a huge sum of money, on the condition that she never act again. Considerable wrangling between Robin on the one hand and Al and Green on the other takes up about a third of the film and this section is filmed in live action, culminating in the scene where Robin is being digitally screened and Al subtly manipulates her into displaying her emotions by professing his apparent (if actually harsh and castigating) affection for her and revealing to her her fears.

Having sold her image and emotions to Miramount – the studio uses these to create a science fiction character “Rebel Robot Robin”, starring in a franchise of SF films, against the original Robin’s wishes – Robin spends the next 20 years caring for her ailing son and devoting her life to good works. She then travels to Abrahama City to renew her contract  and to speak at Miramount’s “Futurological Congress”. At this point the film turns into an animation with all the crude riot of colour and Hollywood 1930s animation style it can muster. Robin learns that Miramount has developed technology enabling anyone to turn him/herself into a digital likeness of her (Robin) and while she agrees to allow this in her new contract, at the Congress itself, she denounces this technology that commodifies individual identity. At this point, rebels opposed to the technology invade the Congress and Robin only narrowly escapes with the help of animator Dylan (Jon Hamm) who has always loved her digital image.

From here on, the animated Robin has several adventures in both the real world and the digital world (plus another digital world which could be a representation of a state beyond death – she does appear to die in one scene) in which among other things the real world is revealed as a post-apocalyptic dystopian ruin in which real human beings stumble around as though zombies, living in poverty and delusion, while a small elite (including Dr Barker) lives in airships floating above them. At this point, Robin determines to find her son Aaron but this means having to leave Dylan, with whom she has fallen in love, permanently.

The film pores over themes such as the loss, manipulation and crass commodification of individual identity; the domination of the cult of celebrity in Western societies; the use of drugs to escape reality and enter an artificial world where identities can be changed as casually as clothes; and various freedoms: freedom of choice, freedom to be and freedom to choose one’s path in life. One notes the irony in which Robin’s freedoms are constrained by her past actions, the unfortunate circumstances and Al’s manipulative chatter that force her to agree to sell her name and image and to pour out her emotions to Hollywood for peanuts, yet future others are free to buy her digital avatars and become them, if only temporarily and at a price. Hollywood is satirised as a greedy corporate machine. In later scenes, the film makes some subtle criticisms about how a techno-fetishistic society cannibalises past pop culture figures to prop up a shallow belief system, in which to possess the appearance of something is considered as authentic as being, and how this supposed culture substitutes for an actual impoverished culture in which a small elite exists in comfort and prosperity at the expense of a permanently deluded and severely enervated majority.

While Wright, Giamatti, Huston and Keitel are all very good actors, their talents are very much squandered in this film which -ironically enough – spends more time wallowing and losing its way through the crude animation sequences and not enough on the live action scenes where it seems the real horse-trading of one’s identity and authenticity is taking place. Ultimately one comes away from this film feeling that over two hours’ worth of viewing have been wasted on very muddled work. Good ideas and astute criticism of Hollywood and technology are undone by a confused narrative that probably should have ended or taken a very different direction – and one not necessarily animated – after Robin’s scanning. How ironic that with its themes this film should have foundered on its dependence on a live action / animation split.

Sans Soleil: a pretentious and confusing film that plays a stupid joke on its audience at its end

Chris Marker, “Sans Soleil” (1983)

Picture yourself receiving a letter from a long-time friend who has been living and travelling for many years in Japan, Iceland and Guinea-Bissau (a small country in western Africa). Everything he writes about in the letter – and it’s a very long letter too – revolves around the transience and fragility of memory, the malleability of history, what people across the world yearn for and dream of, and the quest for meaning in life wherever it is. He wants to capture everything he sees and hears, whether in writing or in filming it (he’s a film buff and knows Alfred Hitchcock’s work, especially the classic “Vertigo”) and he’s trying to find a story-line or narrative that can encompass all he experiences of contemporary Japanese culture with all its contradictions and complexities, its startling ultra-modern technology co-existing with ancient temple ceremonies, social rituals and superstitions; and what he knows of Guinea-Bissau’s history and politics. (You know your friend is sympathetic towards leftist politics but is not heavily concerned with socialist ideology.) No matter how he tries, the concept seems to be too overwhelming so he hits you with everything that makes a deep impression on him, all the things that made him cry for joy or weep in despair; but out of all this melange, he hopes to inspire you, to break all barriers of time, space, cultures and all our mental constructs to reach out to you and to connect with you.

In a nutshell, that’s “Sans Soleil”, French director Chris Marker’s attempt to combine in one very long and overwhelming visual work his meditations on the nature of time, space and history, and their circular nature which climax in his overwrought discussion on the treatment of memory in the movie “Vertigo”. While the images presented are often very beautiful, thanks to various special effects and filming techniques that renders some very hallucinatory and abstract, others can be extremely disturbing and still others seem quite pointless.

The film suffers from its own ambition and Marker’s own arrogance: the narration covers far too much ground in such a superficial way that much of the film where it covers Guinea-Bissau and aspects of Japanese culture (that is to say, the bulk of the film) almost seems racist. In particular the film’s broad sweep across Japanese culture and the attention it devotes to social fads that blow away Japanese people from time to time suggest not so much a deep love and understanding of the nature of Japanese people and society, and why they are the way they are, but instead a kind of creepy voyeurism that exoticises and makes fun of its subjects. There is nothing in the film that hints that Marker makes any attempt to know and try to understand the strains that Japanese society might be under, why the country was (even in the 1980s) heading for a demographic crash and to connect with Japanese people themselves, even if that connection is with one or two individuals.

The narration is dull and repetitive and the music soundtrack with its bleached acid-psychedelic sounds and effects is so badly dated that it gives the impression of the film being ten years older than it actually is. Although the version of the film that I saw was digitally remastered, some images are very blurry and substandard in their appearance and the soundtrack desperately needs remastering and cleaning up.

A confused and confusing film that ends up saying the worst about its director, that presents his superficial observations about aspects of foreign cultures (removing them from their proper historical contexts); and moreover contains a cheap twist about the real nature of your friend – so the “narrative” itself includes you as the antagonist, not as a narrator removed from the action, and everything in the film could have been imagined by a political prisoner or an asylum inmate (and now you know why the film is called “Sans Soleil” meaning “without sun” in English)- can only be considered a buffoonish and pretentious fantasy. The notion then that memory is fragile and history is circular becomes a tool that could be used to serve a sinister agenda and exploit people – as Scotty discovers (in “Vertigo”) that he and the woman he thought was Madeleine are used and exploited by the real Madeleine’s husband to cover up the murder of his wife.

That Obscure Object of Desire: a tale of sexual obsession in a society falling apart through its hypocrisy and violence

Luis Buñuel, “That Obscure Object of Desire” (1977)

Between two full buckets of cold water that the main characters dump on each other unfolds (for the entertainment of a small group of breathless train passengers) a tale of sexual obsession taken to extremes, to the point where the outside world becomes irrelevant until it rudely and violently intrudes on the characters’ lives, and of the clash between the old world and the new, the aged and the young, and the hypocritical, corrupt upper class and the lower class on the make as represented by the protagonist Matthieu (Fernando Rey) and antagonist Conchita (Carole Bouquet / Angela Molina). The film’s plot takes place in a world of increasing insecurity and chaos, and this chaos is mirrored in the romance between Matthieu and Conchita who find they can’t live without each other yet also find they can’t live with each other either.

The film will work best for viewers if they consider it as a character study into sexual lust and obsession; male attempts to control women and their sexuality; the nature of women’s sexuality as inaccessible and uncontrollable; and the influence of religion, especially conservative Roman Catholic religion, on people’s sexual behaviour and the games and power plays of titillation and frustration this gives rise to. Fernando Rey portrays Matthieu in all his sordid glory as both an urbane (and possibly ethically compromised) upper class career professional with connections in high places and an easily led cuckold undone by his sexual lust. One can feel equal amounts of pity and disgust with him, and repulsion as well when he hits Conchita repeatedly in one scene. Bouquet and Molina are rather more limited and stereotyped in the way they play Conchita: Bouquet is a cool, angelic and frigid Conchita while Molina plays a more earthy and sensual Conchita. The way in which the two actresses alternate is unpredictable and seems to respond to whatever mood or feeling is required of the character though Buñuel had not originally planned the role to be acted the way it seems to be done. The end result though is that Conchita, far from being a victim of the much older Matthieu’s attempts to control and own her, ends up controlling him with her eroticism and street cunning, and she is as much repugnant and sadistic as he is.

As in several of Buñuel’s late period comedies of the bourgeoisie, organised religion gets hammered for its hypocrisy. Conchita’s mother prays at church every day but is prepared to sell her daughter as a prostitute. The veneer of propriety and the smugness of the middle class are borne out by the behaviour of the train passengers who eagerly listen to Matthieu’s recounting of his sorry experiences with Conchita; the midget psychology professor in particular makes presumptuous pronouncements on aspects of the tale that reveal his arrogance. The corruption of the upper class is evident in the fly that appears in Matthieu’s glass of water at a high class restaurant and the mouse caught in the mouse-trap in his apartment.

The terrorist violence that appears throughout the film and which possibly claims the lives of Matthieu and Conchita reflects the growing corruption of middle class society and the chaos and disasters that society leaves in its wake, in much the same way that Matthieu and Conchita’s encounters leave behind a trail of broken vases and furniture, bloodied cushions and disgruntled employers unwilling to give Conchita any references for future jobs. There is a suggestion in the film that Conchita herself may belong to a terrorist group and that she takes up with Matthieu deliberately to divest him of money that should be redistributed among the poor.

While the film is very well done and quite droll in its own way, I feel it’s not a match for earlier Buñuel classics like “Belle du jour” and “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”, even though the plots of all three films are very funny and improbable and feature plenty of social and political commentary. One feels that Matthieu and Conchita are locked into a destructive relationship in which they are condemned by their material desires and frustrations to play their respective roles of tormenter and victim, and that nothing can be done for these self-destructive individuals – hence the need for the director and his fellow co-writer to resort to a deus ex machina device to finish off the film.

Festen: a rich film skewering Danish society and social hypocrisy, and delivering redemption

Thomas Vinterberg, “Festen” (1998)

“Festen” remains the best-known and most mainstream of the various films made under Dogme 95 movement rules. Even if audiences no longer remember what the goals and restrictions of Dogme 95 are, “Festen” still remains a powerful indictment of late 20th-century Danish society with its obsessions with social conventions and rituals, which serve to suppress and deny uncomfortable truths and secrets that have the power to destroy or at least derail people’s lives and prevent them from fulfilling their potential. The wealthy Klingenfeldt family is celebrating grand patriarch Helge’s 60th birthday at his country estate, and his surviving adult children Michael, Christian and Helene dutifully turn up despite Michael not having an official invitation after the last birthday celebration during which he drunkenly misbehaved himself. Now I say “surviving adult children” because the immediate Klingenfeldt family members soon start talking about their absent sister Linda who is revealed through dialogue and a clever device (in which Christian’s secret love Pia takes a bath) that she drowned herself in a bathtub full of water.

After the entire extended family arrives, everyone is called to dinner and speeches are made during which Christian (Ullrich Thomsen) reveals a shocking family secret involving himself, Linda and their father Helge (Henning Moritzen) and from that moment the film takes ever darker turns, reflected in the steady progress of the day from morning to afternoon to night, in which the family and guests reveal ever more hypocritical and crass sides of their characters and the equally pharisaical nature of Danish society generally in which social conventions, rituals and traditions mask coldness and cruelty, distance between parents and children, and put down children and stunt their growth and development. All of the Klingenfeldt children have somehow failed to meet their father Helge’s expectations of them, and all of them are stumbling through their lives trying to find meaning and purpose. Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen) has to learn discipline and control if his marriage is to survive and his children are to have a stable home environment. Helene (Paprika Steen) needs to stop waltzing from one foreign man to another and overcome her depression and pill-popping. Christian however cannot find meaning and purpose until he is able to confront his father with his crimes and his mother with her failure to protect him and Linda when they were chldren, and the film becomes as much about the way in which he grows and matures, overcoming one humiliation after another, and finally learns to take charge of his life and find love and purpose.

The adherence to Dogme 95 rules such as the use of hand-held cameras, grainy film of a particular size and various other restrictions gives “Festen” a raw immediacy that confronts audiences with the powerful emotions and the sheer enormity of Helge’s crimes and abuses against his children. The rules also throw the burden of carrying the film and its themes squarely onto the dialogue, the characters and the actors’ ability to carry everything off. The entire cast rises to the challenge and without exception performs magnificently. Thomsen is outstanding as the troubled son battling depression and other personal demons in order to stand up for Linda and himself, and to be able to go forward in life.

Minor characters in the film add to its depth and richness: the dotty elder relatives are sinister in their own ways and one feels for Helene’s African-American boyfriend who is the one sane and sensitive person in the entire birthday party debacle and who one senses will be thrown over like so many previous boyfriends. The servants are rich characters in themselves and push Christian in his endeavour to force his family to confront the truth about his father. Cleverly the film allows Helge’s wife (and the mother of Christian and his siblings) Elsie to condemn herself as an accessory to Helge’s past sins and she becomes a lonely and isolated figure scorned by family and guests alike.

While the film could have been made without Dogme 95 rules, and one does not need to know the rules to watch and appreciate the film’s power, “Festen” could have been a much lesser work without the rules. This film can be a terrifying experience with its depictions of violence, instability, depression and emotional pain, yet it unexpectedly also delivers forgiveness and redemption in amongst social criticism and black comedy. In years to come, this will be considered one of Denmark’s great films and a great film in the tradition of the comedy of manners, following films like Louis Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game”.

Supervenus: a 3-minute critique on Western standards of female pulchritude and the damage they cause

Frédéric Doazan, “Supervenus” (2013)

This 3-minute debut effort for writer / director Frédéric Doazan is a devastatingly critical comment on modern standards of female beauty as they have changed over time. Using Photoshop, a home-made green screen to film his hands and Adobe After Effects, Doazan cuts out a picture of a woman from an old anatomy textbook and changes her appearance from ordinary and generic to a more glamorous creature by puffing out her cheeks and lips, replacing her brown eyes with blue (by ripping out her eyeballs), giving her lustrous dark hair, augmenting her breasts, digging out a pair of ribs and performing other kinds of cosmetic surgery in fairly gruesome and bloody ways. The result is varnished with a burst of sunlamp ray and the newly tanned lady looks quite attractive if rather bland. Doazan proceeds to the next step of transformation of his model by pumping up her cheeks and lips even more with Botox, zapping her brain with drugs, denying her her unborn child, thinning and extending her limbs, and stuffing more silicon into her already stuffed breasts. He subjects his victim to yet more sunlamp rays and the end result is … more sizzled than sizzling.

The silent animation – there are sound effects of slicing and dicing, but that’s all – is entertaining to watch as comedy horror satire. Doazan makes a good point about how much female physical appearance is forced to conform to a highly artificial standard determined by external forces (represented by gloved hands) and how much individuality and the natural functions of the female body are sacrificed in following such a standard. Most disturbing of course is the moulding of the brain (and the woman’s own sense of identity) and the harm the various procedures cause to the woman’s body until it can’t stand the tortures any more and literally falls apart.

Doazan might have made a stronger point about how corporations profit from establishing standards of beauty that compel women to undergo often quite dangerous and life-threatening procedures, and about how cosmetic surgery turns women and their bodies into passive vessels on which men may inscribe their desires and expectations. The very minimal style of animation certainly allows viewers to make up their own minds about what Doazan is saying about cosmetic surgery and its place in the way physical beauty is defined in Western society, and the harm and damage such narrow aesthetic standards can create.