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 immediately 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.

My Winnipeg: an intriguing blend of memoir, documentary and surreal dark fantasy in a paean to a little city on the prairie

Guy Maddin, “My Winnipeg” (2007)

An unusual blend of memoir, documentary and dark fantasy, Guy Maddin’s “My Winnipeg” probably does more to promote his home city, out on the prairies in the middle of Canada and the entire North American continent, than a hundred thousand travel agency brochures could do. Instead of presenting an overgrown railway transportation hub town that freezes over five months a year (although the city is also surprisingly one of Canada’s sunniest places), Maddin gives us a Winnipeg as an unlikely chthonic deity with a darkly magnetic sexual energy and an occult, even sinister personality. At the same time, Winnipeg is a universal city, suffering from the same problems that large cities the world over are blighted with: underhand and corrupt city politics, the demolition of beloved landmarks like the ice hockey stadium or an old elm tree, and conflicts between the city’s political and economic elites and the factory workers they exploit. This presentation runs in parallel with Maddin’s exploration of his past, in particular his complicated relationship with his mother (played by Ann Savage) and his equally complicated sexuality, as a way of coming to terms with the environment that made him what he is.

The film’s plot structure is ingenious: it takes the form of Guy Maddin (played by Darcy Fehr, with Maddin providing voice-over narration) on a train leaving Winnipeg to where he possibly knows not, lying on a bed in his compartment and wrestling with the problem of what he needs to do to be able to escape Winnipeg, where he has lived all his life. He decides to film a fantasy documentary recounting events from his life in Winnipeg and from the city’s own history as a way of coming to terms with Winnipeg and his own family history so he can leave. Hence the reason for the film already scrolling before our very eyes. From here on in, the road-movie theme encompasses a series of episodes that leap from the personal and family experiences to the greater experiences of the city and back again. ot

To be honest I found Guy Maddin’s recollections of past incidents involving family members not all that interesting, not to mention suspect in their veracity in case readers are wondering; these “remembered” incidents only appear to underline the sexual links, real or imagined, between family members (especially Mom) and Winnipeg, and the hold they have over Maddin. The incidents in Winnipeg’s history, real or not, are far more intriguing, bizarre or eccentric: a fire at a racetrack panics horses in nearby stables and they rush out into the cold wintry night and plunge into a river, only to freeze to death, their frozen heads above the icy surface of the waters the only evidence of their deaths when they are found the following morning. (The incident is relayed with animation and still shots in such a way as to suggest there was something predetermined about this tragedy, that the horses – themselves often symbolic of sexuality and sexual control in dreams – were following a script laid out for them even before their births.) A determined attempt by elderly matriarchs to save an elm tree from being destroyed to make way for a city development ends when the tree is attacked by a gang of thugs during the night. In the 1930s a spiritualist craze spreads like fever to the highest echelons of Winnipeg city council. Such a quirky selection of events in the city’s history makes Winnipeg seem more alive and vibrant than a coach tour of its museums, art galleries, restaurants and cafes does.

For the most part the film is shot in black-and-white which helps give the blurry cinematography a mysteriously shadowy Gothic style. Historical film of actual events (whether relayed accurately or not), acted scenes of past family dramas and animated sections are united by Maddin’s voice-over narration which lends the movie a faux-documentary sheen. In lesser hands the film could have been laughably bombastic but Canadian self-deprecating humour ensures that Winnipeg, whether representative of all cities, an overgrown set of houses on the prairie or a network of layers of narratives of different cultures that combine to give this cow-town a richer tapestry than it could have hoped for, has a charm all its own. Even the fact that Winnipeg gets covered in snow for several months a year is treated in a way that induces a sense of wonder – and frequent still shots of black criss-crossed by white noise slash add to the mystery – rather than fright in potential tourists.

As to be expected with films by Guy Maddin, “My Winnipeg” defies convention and becomes a surreal dream-like paean to home, family, community and city, and the stories (real, depressing or fantastical) that they carry or threaten to carry.

Freaks: a sympathetic work that pleads on behalf of its performers and turns normality on its head

Todd Browning, “Freaks” (1932)

A unique cult film of the kind that can be said to be the only film of its genre – outsider film, perhaps – “Freaks” is actually a sympathetic work highlighting the abilities of several of its cast members who had physical or mental disabilities. The title itself is intended to be ironic, forcing viewers to question who the real freaks in the movie are. All the action takes place in a circus, which itself is significant because for Under Southern Eye readers of a certain age, that was the traditional repository where children dreamed of running away to, if conditions at home were bad, and where they knew they would be accepted for what they were, be they beautiful or ugly or deformed, because everyone in the circus was an outsider of some kind or another. The very venue of a circus becomes a place where “normality” is interrogated and turned on its head, and the audience is forced to consider institutions like family and concepts like loyalty, payback and revenge anew.

The plot is related in flashback, and this in itself turns the whole film into a parable about acceptance and discrimination, and what happens if by threatening one individual, an entire community is threatened. Hans (Harry Earle), a circus midget, falls head over heels in love with normal-sized trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), despite being engaged to Freda (Daisy Earle, Harry’s sister). Cleopatra treats Hans patronisingly until she discovers that he is heir to a massive fortune. She then conspires with fellow performer and secret lover Hercules for her to marry Hans, get rid of him and abscond with the fortune together with Hercules. She goes through with the first part of the plan but Hans discovers the plot to kill him through her and Hercules’ indiscretion and with the help of the circus sideshow freak community foils the two lovers’ evil plot.

Along the way viewers are treated to character vignettes of the various sideshow freak performers which generate sub-plots that unfortunately go nowhere. The film was originally 90 minutes long but cuts forced by the studio that funded it reduced the film’s length to 75 minutes and most of the 15 minutes that were cut well and truly ended up in the Great Garbage Bin in the Sky. Thus we never learn how the conjoined twin sisters Daisy and Violet (Daisy and Violet Hilton) manage to live with Daisy’s husband, a stuttering performer in Hercules’ routine, and the circus owner’s son who woos Violet and asks her to marry him (she accepts), nor whether Venus (Leila Hyams), Hercules’ ex-girlfriend, finally escapes Hercules’ temper and violence and finds happiness with Frozo (Wallace Ford) the clown. We also do not know what really happens to Hercules at the end of the film – apparently in the cuts, there is the suggestion that he was castrated – or, more importantly, whether Hans and Freda find happiness together.

The acting can be very uneven – the Earle siblings are not too convincing as would-be lovers but one doubts that actors who are siblings in real life would be able to play lovers very convincingly – and in parts the plot appears very rushed, particularly in the wedding feast scene where Cleopatra and Hercules reveal a bit too obviously to Hans and the wedding guests their affection for one another.

The film can be read as a plea for viewers to accept people with deformities as humans with all the passions and feelings that the rest of us take for granted, and that they are entitled to the same hopes for happiness, peace and love as all humans should be. The sideshow performers close ranks around Hans when they realise Cleopatra and Hercules are exploiting him. (One might expect that by the same token, had Hans spurned them, the sideshow performers would show him the consequences of his actions – by abandoning him when he most needs them.) All the sideshow cast are given significant roles and perform them to the best of their abilities – even the Human Torso (Prince Randian) gets a close-up scene all his own, if just to demonstrate how he lights up a cigarette.

When first released in pre-Depression America, the film flopped but since 1962, its cult status has grown in parallel with a growing sympathy for people with mental and physical disabilities; at the same time, the increasing rarity of such people in public and the cessation of avenues that highlight their differences might serve to separate them further from the general public so the apparent acceptance of people who look and behave very differently from the rest of us might be superficial.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anomalisa: an incompletely developed film on alienation and the struggle to live in an oppressive conformist society

Charlie Kaufmann and Duke Johnson, “Anomalisa” (2015)

Not often does a film come along that encapsulates in its appearance and format its themes of human alienation, rootlessness, loss of identity and individuality and fear of the same, and the lack of authenticity in modern Western civilisation. By telling its story through animation and the use of three voice actors, two to voice individual characters and the third actor (Tom Noonan) to voice all other characters, “Anomalisa” says something about how modern society has robbed people of their uniqueness and crushes them with a banal, insincere culture through a particular if rather biased and narrow point of view, that being of its main character Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) who himself embodies much of what is trite and troubling about the society he lives in.

British expat Stone is a motivational speaker and author based in Los Angeles whose recent book on customer service has become a best-seller and who has been invited to speak at a conference in Cincinnati, a city in the industrial rust-bucket Midwest region of the US. On the plane there, he re-reads a 10-year-old letter sent him by his old girlfriend Bella who happens to live in his destination city. After landing at the airport in the evening, he endures vapid chatter from the taxi driver who takes him from the airport to the four-star Hotel Fregoli (the name is taken from a mental disorder in which the sufferer imagines everyone to look and sound the same) whose stodgy interiors and furnishings resemble those of a prison, albeit a comfortable one. He calls his wife and son and engages in dull stereotyped conversation with them. He contacts Bella and they meet in the hotel bar – for the first time in over 10 years – but she is still upset over their break-up and she carries considerable psychological baggage from her recent relationship which has also broken up and the two former lovers separate in anger and distress. Michael then saunters off to find the toy-shop the taxi driver had told him about – and which turns out to be a toy-shop for adults – to buy a present for his son.

Back at the hotel and feeling depressed – it’s late at night by now – Michael meets two young women who have travelled all the way by car from their small-town call-centre jobs to see and hear him speak at the conference. Emily is just like everyone else he meets but her companion Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is another thing altogether: her face a bit disfigured and hidden under a thick irregularly shaped mop of hair, having had a limited education and suffering from low self-esteem, Lisa is not at all what Michael has come to expect of Americans in all their commonplace conformity. She speaks what’s on her mind (out of nervousness perhaps), admits that she likes Cyndi Lauper and, after some persuasion from Michael, sings Lauper’s biggest hit “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” right off the bat. The older man is smitten with Lisa’s charm and after drinks with the two girls, manages to persuade her to come back to his room with him. One thing leads to another and next thing you know – after a brief detour into a dream scene that might riff on current American fears about pervasive surveillance and the possibility of being blackmailed or arrested for associating with people different from yourself – Michael and Lisa are having breakfast together. At this point, Michael looks at Lisa anew … and the day ahead (the conference, the return home, family reunion) starts to unravel.

The film moves at a fair clip covering what is basically mundane material – a jaded and depressed middle-aged man goes on a business trip, preys on a young woman and has a one-night stand with her – which it uses to explore its themes of alienation and trying to survive as an authentic being in a society of stifling conformity. The audience comes to realise that Michael’s depression and alienation are as much a result of past refusal to take personal responsibility and an unwillingness to listen to and connect with others, as demonstrated early on in his failed reunion with the fragile Bella, as it is of the machine-like soulless corporate nature of American society. A couple of scenes in the film in which his identity appears to be fragmenting and falling apart to reveal the robot beneath highlight the depth of his depression and the fragility of the identity that he has. The fact that Michael is not American-born might give a hint of his rootlessness which might lie at the bottom of his feelings of alienation; one would like to know something of his childhood and youth that led him to flee Britain and go to Los Angeles, that citadel of reinvention and manufactured identity.

For all his search for authenticity, as represented by Lisa, Michael’s reaction to it turns out to be depressingly selfish and banal: he tries to possess it and Lisa through sex and fantasises about leaving his wife and son and shacking up with Lisa. The breakfast scene is significant in that signs of incompatibility between Michael and Lisa appear as Michael starts picking on Lisa’s eating habits and Lisa’s voice increasingly changes to those of everyone else around Michael. The scene breaks off midway through and the audience does not see what happens next, which some viewers may consider a major weakness of the film, but it should not be hard to guess that Michael and Lisa start arguing and break up in almost the same way that he broke up with Bella all those years ago. Fortunately, for all her hang-ups about her appearance and her lack of confidence, Lisa is not as fragile as Bella and treasures the evening she spent with Michael. For his part, Michael returns to the existential hell that he in part has made for himself.

The film dwells very little on why US society has become so oppressively conformist although Kaufmann and Johnson do include one remarkable moment in which a confused and disoriented Michael, giving his address to the conference, goes off script and starts railing against the US government and its foreign policy, and declares that the world “is falling apart”, at which point his audience begins booing. This can only further alienate Michael from the people and country that he calls home, and this is as daring as Kaufmann and Johnson come in suggesting that the entire US nation is living in an alternative universe far removed from authenticity and reality. Michael later dutifully returns to his wife who has put on a home-warming celebration but to him everybody there is a robot looking exactly the same as all the other robots he knows.

The film’s narrative does appear incomplete at times and the action can appear forced. It is odd that Emily allows her sexually inexperienced friend to go off with a much older man and the brief affair is rather creepy. The breakfast and conference address sequences are woefully incomplete and we do not know whether Michael’s woozy performance of a speech (which he has probably delivered hundreds of times before) has ruined his career as a motivational speaker and writer. The film gives no sense of closure as the characters return to their everyday lives and routines, perhaps never to meet again. Given the themes though, the incomplete nature of the plot and underdeveloped ideas might be considered part and parcel of what the film aims to achieve: how to cope and survive in a society whose true horrific nature we have only a fragmented knowledge of, with not much in our arsenal save force of habit, our self-centredness, desire for immediate gratification, and the need to please and to conform as our weapons against evil.