The Happy Prince: a character study of Oscar Wilde in exile and artistic decline

Rupert Everett, “The Happy Prince” (2018)

A labour of love, of much research over the years on the life and work of Irish-British writer Oscar Wilde, is this character study by Rupert Everett who not only directs the film but wrote the script and plays Wilde as well. The plot is skeletal to the point of non-existence and follows Wilde’s last years after his release from prison in 1897 for engaging in homosexual activities with younger, lower-class men: he goes into self-exile in France and reunites with Lord Alfred Douglas aka Bosie (Colin Morgan) despite the latter and his father the Marquess of Queensberry having been a cause of Wilde’s downfall and eventual imprisonment. Against the objections of his friends Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) and Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas), Wilde flees to Naples with Bosie where they spend lavishly on “gentlemen’s parties” but are forced to separate when their respective families cut off their allowances for continuing to see each other. Wilde returns to Paris where, depressed and alone, spurned by polite society, he finds solace in absinthe and in befriending two young brothers, the older of whom becomes his rent-boy. To both brothers, especially the younger, Wilde tells them the story of the Happy Prince. From then on, the narrative trajectory is on a downward slide, as Wilde writes very little and his health declines from a combination of meningitis and an old prison injury to his head flaring up again.

Wilde’s tumultuous and colourful three years in exile contrast with the restricted life his crippled wife Constance (Emily Watson) and their two young sons are forced to lead, to avoid public scrutiny and scorn. After Constance’s death, her relatives make sure the children never see their father again and this causes Wilde anguish. Another sub-plot that stays mostly undeveloped is the rivalry between Bosie and Ross for Wilde’s affections which continues even at Wilde’s funeral.

Everett’s portrayal of Wilde with all his flamboyance, his wit and selfish appetites is a passionate and heartfelt tour-de-force that anchors the entire film and carries it all the way to the end. While his punishment was severe and undeserved, and his health was affected by imprisonment to the extent that his life expectancy was severely reduced, Wilde is determined to live his life to the full in the way he wants, even if this means losing access to his children and possibly ending up in a poorhouse. He does become very religious but even there his newfound Catholicism must take second place to his pursuit of hedonism and aestheticism. At the same time he is persecuted by the very people who used to laud his plays and other writings, and his ability to live how he wants depends very much on his in-laws who control his and Constance’s purse-strings. By the way he lives his life, Wilde calls attention to the hypocrisy of the society that alternately flatters and spurns him, and ultimately destroys him. It is not difficult to see why Wilde is drawn to Catholicism: he sees in the suffering and martyrdom of Jesus Christ his own persecution, and from that obtains comfort and learns to accept his suffering as part of his destiny.

The other actors know when the spotlight is on them and when they should get out of Everett’s way. Watson is a pleasure to watch even if most of her roles these days barely challenge her abilities and are of the motherly support stereotype. Firth underplays his role as Turner and Tom Wilkinson all but steals every scene he appears in as the priest who baptises Wilde.

The film emphasises Wilde’s acceptance of the humiliations that come with his celebrity and subsequent notoriety, and his determination to live his life as he sees fit, however shallow and self-centred his decisions might be. He learns to find beauty and radiance in even the most squalid and impoverished situations. The Victorian society which condemns Wilde and casts him off for being true to his nature does not come in for much criticism.

The Image Book: a demanding critique on the role of film in contemporary Western society

Jean-Luc Godard, “The Image Book / Le Livre d’Image” (2018)

At 84 minutes, in no way is this a long film, yet it’s far more demanding of one’s attention in so many different aspects than more commercial films that are at least half as long. This film works on so many levels and probably needs to be seen at least a few times for Godard’s message/s to sink in.

On one level, the film questions and criticises the dominant role of cinema as escapist entertainment in an age where so many technologies and trends that have developed at the same time and in parallel or even enmeshed together with cinema have had destructive effects on humanity around the world: modern warfare, the development of weapons capable of destroying all life on earth, propaganda, societies dependent on technology (including cinema) and materialism to keep people distracted and unaware of their repression by Deep States. On a second level, in its use of snippets of other directors’ films, film audio soundtracks, music and paintings, Godard pays homage to directors and films that he may consider significant: I managed to pick out Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Salo”, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and Georges Franju’s “Blood of the Beasts” among the films referenced. By juxtaposing audio soundtracks from other films with the snippets of film organised collage-style, Godard creates a new narrative that, among other things, criticises Western viewpoints of Arabic-language peoples and their cultures and histories, and invites viewers to question how their opinions and worldviews have been moulded and manipulated by film in all its variety, documentary and newsreel film as well as film drama. This narrative includes a completely fictional story about the despotic ruler of an imaginary Arab country called Dofa which has no resources – not even oil or natural gas to speak of – but which lack does not stop this ruler from dreaming of dominating all the Arabian Gulf oil states.

There is much beauty, a lot of it deliberately over-coloured or overlit in ways to make the film look psychedelic and hallucinatory, as if to call attention to the power of film and film narrative to keep people in a heightened state of addiction and to change their neural networks (not always for the better). For all its experimentation, the film does present a linear narrative based on the five fingers of the hand – because the hand does much if not most of the work of the imagination and creation – with each chapter in the narrative representing some form of motion or conflict: water, trains, warfare, the law and the Western view of the Middle East.

The film’s collage nature and confrontational message make it difficult viewing for most people. I must confess I did find the middle section of the film quite heavy and tiring.

Last Year at Marienbad: a comic and often repetitive satire on the empty lives of the wealthy

Alain Resnais, “Last Year at Marienbad / L’Année dernière à Marienbad” (1961)

At times hilarious, and at other times maddeningly boring and repetitive, this film is notable for its deliberately ambiguous narrative, in which time and space are non-linear, and characters may be coming or going, living or dying at once – or have done so in the past, or will do so in the future. The whole film seems to take place in a hermetic dream-like world and characters are continually repeating themselves, in their thoughts, obsessions and memories as well as in their speech and behaviour.

The plot is very simple – but from this apparent simplicity, myriad possibilities arise and the film attempts to accommodate them all. In an opulent, baroquely decorated hotel, set in a converted country estate, where wealthy couples socialise, a man (Giorgio Albertazzi), known only as X, approaches a woman (Delphine Seyrig), known as A, and tells her that they had met exactly the year before in Marienbad. The woman has no memory of their ever having met but X insists that they have and that she told him to wait a year while she decided on whether to elope with him or stay with her husband, M (Sasha Pitoev). X constantly tries to remind her of their romance while she continually rebuffs him. In the meantime, M asserts his authority over X and various other men by beating them all at the same card game over and over. M may very well be a gangster or a spy. The various possibilities that arise in the plot include a rape, a murder and two figures running away together in the dead of night.

Through flashbacks, edits that jump from one time or location to another, and through repeated conversations and events, the film explores the relationships between the three characters. Beyond this though, the main characters remain undeveloped and mysterious, even a little sinister. The rest of the cast, playing the hotel guests, are robotic in their actions, expressionless and lacking emotion, and repeat their actions and speeches over and over. In this respect, the film may be seen as a criticism of the empty lives of the wealthy, condemned to living in an eternal present where there is no political, cultural or social historical context they can relate to and which would give their lives meaning and direction – because they have deliberately sealed themselves from reality.

The film’s cinematography emphasises the self-contained universe of the hotel: the camera glides over details in the elaborate furnishings; the architectural trimmings, architraves, arches and other extravagances; and tracks through the labyrinthine corridors towards bedrooms that are exactly the same. The gardens surrounding the hotel are laid out in a strict geometrical order, and the pools of water are mostly still and serene, but beyond the hotel’s boundaries, the forest is unruly and chaotic. The use of edits and panning conveys something of the sterility in which the characters seem to be trapped. The organ music is loud, droning and repetitive.

Though the plot and its events, and the entire nature of the hotel universe and its inhabitants, might suggest “Last Year …” should be a horror film, the whole creation proceeds with a light touch and the po-faced characters seem not to take themselves very seriously. There is plenty of comedy in the scenes in which M challenges X and others to play his card game. Even the accident in which X falls off a balustrade and part of it collapses on him is played for laughs in its deadpan minimalism. The most sinister elements in the film – M himself, the Gothic organ, even the hotel and its zombie cast – can be seen as very comic.

Climax: French society in microcosm with all its stresses, anxieties, hidden secrets and a dark puppet-master

Gaspar Noe, “Climax” (2018)

In the hands of Argentine-French director Gaspar Noe, a story about a group of young dancers hired to be part of a dance troupe to tour the US becomes a launching pad for a downward exploratory spiral into the deepest, most depraved chasms of human psychology. The young cast of hip-hop hopefuls, each individually interviewed and eagerly expressing their ambitions to take the dance world by storm, rehearse in an old school building for several days and then hold a party to celebrate. Too late they discover that the bowl of sangria punch has been spiked with LSD and they all succumb to the drug’s hallucinogenic and other more serious side effects. As the music throbs and pounds in the background, and coloured lights flash and pulse overhead, the young dancers’ psychological barriers and inhibitions give way, any desires, prejudices and grudges they hold for or against one another come out into the open, and they explode into physical and sexual violence.

Even though it’s not a long film at 96 minutes, “Climax” nevertheless can feel like an endurance test, due to the relentless, in-your-face intensity of the dancers’ suffering and helplessness under the influence of acid. It is cleverly structured in three parts: the first part, consisting of the dancers’ audition interviews, establishes who the youngsters are and their hopes and feelings about the great adventure they’re embarking on; the second part of the film, shot in one single take, showcases their energetic free-form krumping style, followed by a succession of quickly edited pieces where various dancers converse in pairs about others in their group; the third part of the film, when the dancers realise they have been drugged, is the most nightmarish and technically inventive section as the camera closely follows individual dancers, smoothly switching from one to another as they pass each other in dimly lit corridors or on the spinning dance floor. A definite narrative hierarchy is established, suggestive of a transition from stability or life through a portal into chaos and death, and investigating in cursory ways issues that evoke anxiety in modern human society: unwanted pregnancies, abortions, suicide, incest, mutilation, ostracism, death. Like the ritual it is, sacrifices are demanded by this narrative, and sacrifices in all their dreadful tragedy there are.

The cinematography may be disorienting, with the camera taking bird’s-eye views or hanging upside down, and usually following characters closely behind as they run and stumble for help, but the scenes are never jumpy or jerky, and the picture is always clear. I never felt nauseous at any time while watching the film (and I have had problems in the past watching films like “The Blair Witch Project” where the camera often jerked about). The intense, garish red and green lighting adds to the general sense of unease, disorientation, paranoia and the hellish surroundings of a school building that has seen better days.

The ethnic and religious diversity of the dancers, their varying sexual orientations, the French flag as a backdrop behind the DJ spinning the vinyl, and the anxieties, prejudices and fears the young people express as they are overcome by the combination of alcohol and acid may all symbolise 21st-century French society in microcosm, with all its hidden issues, stresses and problems, whose causes lie far back in France’s dark colonial or politically and socially conservative, often repressive past, and which threatens the delicate social balance that (now as never before) might break at any moment. One might discern that the LSD represents dark forces in French society – it has its own Deep State that may be at once separate from and linked to other nations’ Deep States – that manipulate different groups in France and pit them against one another in constant conflict and violence, all so they are easier to control and can never discover who their true oppressors are. The revelation at the end of the film of who is responsible for spiking the sangria suggests as much.

The film’s end credits are placed at and near the beginning of the film so that when it finishes, viewers are suddenly and unexpectedly thrust back into cold reality. One does not know when the nightmare really ends … or has it really just begun?

Normandy Nude: a light-hearted if flat comedy with a message about exploiting people and land for profit

Philippe le Guay, “Normandy Nude / Normandy Nue” (2018)

One of a distinctly French genre of comedy films – Cedric Klapisch’s “Back to Burgundy” is another – in which particular regions of France are highlighted for their rural landscapes, their industries and the cultures and histories associated with them, “Normandy Nude” is a light-hearted comedy that rolls out smoothly and comfortably if a wee bit too slickly. The particular social issues connected to these regions may be highlighted as well, even if in a fairly superficial way. In this film, set in rural Normandy, a village dependent on the dairying and beef production industries is struggling to survive: banks have foreclosed on farmers’ properties, some farmers have committed suicide and the train service to Paris has been cut. The village folk and the farming community have been blockading roads in the hope of gaining local and national media attention but the news media briefly flits over their plight. And then something unexpected happens.

Dairy farmer and long-term mayor Georges Balbuzard, nicknamed Balbu (Francois Cluzet), is approached by a famous American photographer-artist, Newman (Toby Jones) – a character clearly based on US photographer Spencer Tunick, famous for his large-scale photographs of crowds posing naked – and his assistant Bradley (Vincent Regan) who propose to use a local field, Chollet Field, as the backdrop to his next project. Newman wants 200 villagers to feature in the photo: the catch is, they all have to pose nude. Balbu sees Newman’s offer as an ingenious way to gain national publicity for his village so he spends much of the rest of the film trying to persuade the more conservative villagers to participate in the project.

The film is padded out by various sub-plots involving individual villagers and farmers and their various conflicts and secrets that come out into the open by Newman’s proposal: local butcher Roger, married to the curvaceous former Miss Calvados winner Gisele, frets that if his wife participates in the proposal, she will become the cynosure of all lustful men’s eyes and tries to stop her participation; two farmers with claims to Chollet Field nearly end up derailing Newman’s project; a young man returns to the village to close down his father’s photography studio and camera shop and ends up falling in love with local lass Charlotte; a family of Parisian city-slickers who have moved to the area struggle to come to terms with the isolation, the social and religious conservatism, and the allergies caused by local pollen. The local pharmacist disapproves of Newman’s project and complains to regional bureaucrats. With these and other sub-plots, the wonder is that the villagers come to life at all, and indeed most characters remain flat stereotypes. Cluzet at least holds his own as the mostly jovial mayor who bounces from one part of his realm trying to get support for Newman and at least hold back simmering frustrations and enmities enough for the project to succeed.

The film addresses too many topical political and social issues at once in a series of vignettes and skits to be convincing, and its general presentation of these topics, ranging from the destruction of France’s rural industries by a remote European Union bureaucracy and regulations to climate change and the presence of carcinogenic chemical preservatives in beef, is so superficial as to verge on cheap exploitation for laughs. It attempts satire in the treatment of the Parisians who try to ape country traditions. Probably the only issue the film succeeds in delineating to any great extent is whether French assets – the land, the people who populate it, their own bodies even, not to mention their culture and history – can and should be exploited as commodities for profit, and forced to compete with one another for money in the form of government subsidies. The film’s continued treatment of Newman’s project, the village’s response to it and how the villagers deal with their underlying conflicts that the project inadvertently exposes, tells where director Philippe le Guay’s opinion falls. While the film’s conclusion is left open and might dissatisfy most viewers, the message is clear that the villagers have resolved to deal with their most pressing problems in an open-minded way that invites compromise, reconciliation and creativity.

Back to Burgundy: a family melodrama beset by cliches and stereotypes blessed by a celebration of viticulture

Cedric Klapisch, “Back to Burgundy / Ce qui nous lie” (2017)

An otherwise rather ho-hum family melodrama of sibling jealousies featuring some rather obvious narrative cliches – the black sheep / prodigal son returning home in response to a family emergency after many years away, his sister having difficulty accepting being her father’s true heir in a family tradition where women were all but invisible, their young brother burdened with overpowering in-laws, and all of them forced to make decisions about their family vineyard business and their own personal issues that will affect their individual and collective futures – is made more appealing (and a bit too long) by a celebration of wine-making and the culture and traditions associated with it in a part of France. The cast of actors do an excellent job in turning this film into a character study; even minor characters are very memorable. The cinematography and rural settings are gorgeous as well.

The film’s narrative framework revolves around eldest son Jean (Pio Marmai) coming back home from Australia (and a shaky relationship with his partner Alicia)  and several years of travel after hearing that his father is ailing. Voice-over narrative by Jean explains why he left home originally: he fell out with dear old dad who pressured him as the eldest son and presumed successor to take over the running of the vineyard, even though over the years Dad should have seen that Juliette was the natural successor. Indeed, on his return, Jean sees that Juliette is running the business, though she suffers from self-doubt. Youngest sibling Jeremie (Francois Civil) turns up early on to berate Jean for being out of the loop for many years and reveal that he’s already a married man with a child. After the father’s death, the siblings learn from the family lawyer that they have to pay a huge inheritance tax  on the estate and they may have to sell various vineyard properties to do so. Jean is grappling with his own tax burden back in Australia where he runs a vineyard with Alicia, his estranged partner and mother of his son. In the meantime, Jeremie’s father-in-law has his own plans for the siblings’ property which amount to buying them out and employing Juliette to run the vineyards his way.

The film keeps busy (and viewers busy also) with the various parallel sub-plots in which the siblings must confront their personal fears and demons, transcend them somehow, and also work out how best to maintain the family wine-making tradition without having to sell their properties but still be able to pay the inheritance tax. The changing seasons and the cycle of the vineyards in which grape seeds are planted, nourished and protected from pests, grow into grapes and are harvested, crushed, fermented and turned into wine (though we don’t actually see the wine being sold) provide the background against which the trio try to overcome their problems and differences, resolve their conflicts, reconcile with one another and other people, and with the legacy their parents have left behind, warts and all.

Marmai, Girardot and Civil turn in excellent performances as the siblings though perhaps Civil as the put-upon Jeremie trying to please his difficult in-laws stands out just a bit more than main character Marmai does. The support cast does well too, especially in very minor sub-plots that promise to develop in some very interesting directions – for a short while, it seems that Jean is a little too interested in a young harvester employee called Lina – but which end up fizzling out early.

The film perhaps suffers from trying to hold together too many sub-plots and not concentrating enough on the siblings’ fight to keep their family property and fend off the vultures. Resolution when it comes seems a bit too pat. The pace and tone are perhaps a bit too calm and even, and minor sub-plots could have been edited out. At the end of the film, there should have been a suggestion that the siblings’ problems have not been entirely resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, that Jean and Alicia still have much work cut out to save and strengthen their relationship, and that Juliette will continue to need support and reassurance that, yes, she’s the right person to take charge of the family’s wine-making business. Jeremie’s father-in-law may be thwarted but he’ll find another way of getting what he wants. This does not necessarily mean that a sequel to the film should be in the works.

At the very least viewers will come to appreciate the work, knowledge and experience necessary to run a wine-making business and the culture and traditions that have built up around wine-making in a particular part of France. The film makes the point that traditions and progress go hand in hand, that change is needed as much as stability if a family culture of wine-making is to remain dynamic. The individual battles that the siblings have to fight to prove themselves and not simply follow in others’ foot-steps reflect this theme.

Diary of a Chambermaid: a bleak and realist comedy offering

Luis Bunuel, “Diary of a Chambermaid” (1964)

Of the Spanish director’s late-autumn career in which he directed classics like “Belle de Jour”, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” and “That Obscure Object of Desire”, this comedy is the one of the more realist and bleak offerings. Bunuel has yet another crack poking fun at and criticising the hypocrisies and hang-ups of smug middle-class culture and the Roman Catholic Church, and portrays the ease with which French society sleep-walked its way into fascism and violence in the 1930s and may still repeat that somnambulist episode.

Sometime in the late 1930s – a sleepy and dreary time in French modern history, as portrayed in the film – Celestine (Jeanne Moreau) leaves the bright lights of Paris to work as a chambermaid in a Normandy estate that has seen better days. As she settles into the quotidian routine there, she becomes familiar with the eccentricities of the family who employs her: Madame Monteil (Francoise Lugagne) is a cleaning fanatic who nurses a bitter, even self-loathing sexual repression; her satyromaniac husband (Michel Piccoli) who apparently got Celestine’s predecessor pregnant; and Madame’s aged father Monsieur Rabour who has a foot and shoe fetish. Celestine also becomes familiar with the household staff: the cook, another maid, a young girl called Claire and the Monteils’ driver and labourer Joseph (Georges Geret) who spouts racist and fascist opinions. The neighbours – a retired army captain and his mistress Rose – are just as odd and maintain a running dispute with the Monteils in which both sides constantly throw garden rubbish across their common wall.

The film moves quite slowly, at least until Rabour ends up dead in bed and little Claire is found raped and murdered in the woods near the estate. Celestine is convinced that Joseph is responsible for the child’s rape and death, and she determines to find the evidence that will incriminate him. She somehow manages to juggle Mr Monteil’s desire to get his paws on her, Joseph’s leering attentions and the captain’s sudden interest in her after he dumps Rose, all while searching for the evidence that will help avenge Claire’s tragic fate. Celestine almost succeeds but the evidence is too flimsy and Joseph is released from police custody; he then travels to Cherbourg to set up a cafe business while Celestine ends up stuck in a boring marriage to the captain.

The film can be very amusing during scenes in which Monteil kills a butterfly with a shotgun in an artful sequence of close-up scenes culminating in an explosion, and in which the pathetic Rabour strokes Celestine’s foot and lower leg while she reads novels to him. The rural scenery has a distinct look and provincial style and would look even more picturesque if the entire film had been made in colour. But the choice of black-and-white film fits in with the general tone of the movie in which the middle class’s apparent respectability and the lower class’s homely loyalty are revealed either as much more sinister and ultimately dangerous, or as emotional repression with an attendant lack of growth and maturation. The acting is very good if a little arty at times, with Joseph behaving almost vampirically towards Celestine in a night-fire scene, and Piccoli playing the hapless Monteil as he pursues Celestine in a way that invites sympathy rather than disgust.

While the events in the film don’t turn out the way viewers might hope for, they do say something about the moral lethargy that infects the characters. If the Monteils really detest one another and Madame doesn’t want to have anything to do with her hubby, why do they not separate and pursue their pleasures instead? Why does a fashionable Parisienne accept lowly work as a chambermaid in a provincial French village? Why does Celestine play off her suitors one against the other? Bunuel may be commenting on the power relationships between individuals, between different groups in society, and ultimately between one woman who would seem to have few tools (psychological and emotional as well as physical) and three men of different social levels from hers.

With a realist look, a straightforward plot and a setting in a quiet rural area in northwest France, this film is easy on the eye and the brain, and serves as a good introduction to the work of Luis Bunuel.

The Death of Stalin: an unfunny and insulting comedy satire lacking in imagination and original ideas

Armando Iannucci, “The Death of Stalin” (2017)

A British-made comedy satire about the death of Joseph Stalin and the struggle among his senior officials in the Politburo to seize power and become the new leader of the Soviet Union? I find that hard to believe and even harder to believe that such treatment of a significant historical figure – moreover, one who led his nation to victory over Nazi Germany at tremendous cost of millions of lives – from the British, that most Russophobic of nations, would be at all sympathetic to the Russians generally, let alone the victims of Stalin’s government over 20+ years of rule. Even so, I was curious to see what director Armando Iannucci has made of his subject, given that he has carved a reputation in creating funny political satires that emphasise the stupidity and self-serving nature of politicians. Perhaps he would dispel my preconceptions and prejudices and deliver something original and thoughtful as well as sharp and witty without resorting to stereotyping.

Unfortunately though I didn’t need to see the film for very long to realise that Iannucci has not bonded, either intellectually or emotionally, with the subject matter, and is lacking in the maturity and imagination needed to deal with the characters of Stalin himself (Adrian McLoughlin) and the most senior Politburo members: the sinister, self-serving NKVD chief Lavrenty Beria (Simon Russell Beale); the equally ambitious Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi); Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Stalin’s official replacement played as ineffectual and rather spineless; Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), very much a secondary character who follows the others and bends with the prevailing ideological wind; and the superfluous Nikolai Bulganin (Paul Chahidi) who has hardly anything to do at all in a crowded film. The result is a film that comes across as detached and divorced from the historical context surrounding Stalin’s last days and the years of political instability that followed his death, culminating in Nikita Khrushchev’s seizure of power from Malenkov and Beria’s downfall and execution. The major characters are little more than stereotypes of politicians corrupted by greed, stupidity and lust for blood. The actors do what they can with their flimsy characters but I did not get a sense of the real men they were portraying. Beale’s Beria in particular gives little indication of the vicious and predatory menace of the real Beria while Tambor’s Malenkov is a buffoon far away from the real Malenkov who, after being overthrown by Khrushchev in 1955, later mounted a failed attempt to depose Khrushchev in 1957: a buffoon certainly would not have had the confidence and the support of others to try to regain the Soviet leadership.

Most of the comedy in the film turns out to be slapstick or farce that sits ill with the particular situation that the comedy is supposed to criticise. Due to the stereotyping of the characters and of Soviet society generally as some post-World War II country that seems to have forgotten that the war ended nearly a decade before 1953, the comedy that arises is tired and not at all funny.

Needless to say the film plays hard and fast with historical accuracy and one senses this was done not to advance any significant messages or themes, other than the trite theme of the nature of absolute power and its effects on human beings and society (you know, the one that says when absolute power corrupts, it corrupts absolutely), but rather to push an ideological stereotype that damns Russians as a servile people doomed never to understand democracy but always to be in thrall to absolute dictators and to live in impoverished conditions marked by frequent casual violence and brutal killings. No wonder the film has been banned in Russia and some other post-Soviet countries: it is insulting to Russian people and Russian history.

Final Portrait: a character study that doesn’t delve deeply into the nature of friendship and artistic endeavour

Stanley Tucci, “Final Portrait” (2017)

Best seen as a character study and a superficial investigation into an artist’s creativity and what motivates him, “Final Portrait” is noteworthy for its lead actors Geoffrey Rush and Armie Hammer and the zest they both bring to their performances. For those looking for a plot with some excitement, an exhilarating climax and a satisfying resolution, they should look elsewhere: what passes for a plot in “Final Portrait” is Swiss-born Paris resident sculptor / painter Alberto Giacometti (Rush) inviting a friend, ex-spy and writer James Lord (Hammer) to his studio to sit for a portrait which Giacometti claims will just take up two to three hours of Lord’s time. Those two to three hours end up taking over two weeks of Lord’s time as Giacometti fusses over the portrait and keeps erasing, re-doing and re-erasing it. The old fella continually beats himself up over his apparent failure to capture Lord’s inner soul even though he spends a lot of time gazing into the American’s eyes and studying his features. (Someone probably could have told Giacometti that American spies don’t have much in the way of an inner soul.) He also spends a lot of time flirting with prostitute Caroline (Clémence Poésy) which puts him and Lord in danger from her violent pimps. While Giacometti battles with his perfectionism that prevents him from finishing the portrait properly and his chaotic personal life with his long-suffering wife (Sylvie Testud) and Caroline, Lord also spends his time with the painter observing his erratic ways and habits, trying to understand what makes Giacometti tick, and having to keep cancelling his return flight to New York just so he can see how his portrait turns out when Giacometti finishes it – if the old guy can finish it.

Rush’s performance as Giacometti is sharp and energetic if very repetitive as the film trudges on. Hammer’s clean-cut and rather conservative character acts as a perfect foil for the artist’s unconventional and messy ways. Unfortunately the way the film jumps from one day to the next, and then from one collection of days to the next, means that the evolution of the two men’s friendship and respect for each other ends up fragmented and audiences have to assume a great deal about how it progresses. Somehow all the early fighting about how Lord can’t afford to spend extra time sitting for the painting ended up on the cutting-room floor. Giacometti’s relationships with his missus and the mistress don’t make for very substantial sub-plots either; the entry of the pimps late in the film seems like an after-thought to give it much-needed frisson. All the same, the minor characters do a very good job in filling out Giacometti’s support while he agonises over his work and leaves a mess in his wake.

The Paris of the mid-1960s looks very picturesque as does the messy and dusty atelier where Giacometti paints his pictures and reworks his sculptures endlessly (and stashes all his money because he, a Swiss, doesn’t trust banks). The Hollywood stereotyping looks quite thick in parts and some of the music soundtrack is also very twee.

The film’s repetitive structure and resolution parallel the painting’s ongoing creation and eventual completion (of a sort), and just as the painting itself does not capture the perfection Giacometti seeks, so the film also doesn’t completely explain Giacometti’s fascination with Lord as a subject for a portrait or Lord’s interest in Giacometti’s work to the extent that he would willingly sit for nineteen days, sometimes in pain, when he was told he would only have to sit a few hours. The most we see is a lukewarm meeting – it doesn’t come anywhere near to being a clash – of two opposed Western cultures: the jaded, layered and convoluted culture represented by Giacometti and what it values, and the sleek, shiny capitalist culture represented by Lord. While the two men become fast friends, the film gives no indication of what each man really thinks of the other and of the world that he comes from. What does Lord really think of Giacometti’s two-timing and his chaotic home, and what does Giacometti really see in Lord’s sleek style of dress and presentation? Does each man see in the other man something that he lacks and yearns for?

A theme of mortality and staving off death is present: one gets the impression that Giacometti desperately needed to keep painting and re-painting Lord’s portrait to hold physical deterioration and death at bay. If only Tucci had realised that Giacometti’s quest for perfection was his way of holding his personal demons in check, the result could have been a darker and more interesting film.

 

 

Les Biches: a coolly elegant and stylish film on obsessive love, the fragility of identity and class tensions

Claude Chabrol, “Les Biches / The Does” (1968)

A beautifully elegant film of stylishness and subtle performances from its lead female characters, “Les Biches” is a psychological study of obsessive love leading to jealousy and derangement and of the nature of identity and its fragility. It’s also a study of class, and how one set of rules exists for the upper class who happily and nonchalantly engage in decadent activities and another exists for the lower classes.

The action seems to take place in a hermetically sealed world where only the upper class swan about freely and anyone else has to be invited in. Wealthy Parisian socialite Frédérique (Stéphane Audran) encounters a struggling street artist called Why (Jacqueline Sassard) and seduces her. The two lovers then drive down to holiday in St Tropez and stay in Frédérique’s villa which is also inhabited by Violeta the cook and two gay male room-mates. Initially Frédérique and Why have a great time as lovers. However a young architect called Paul (Jean-Louis Trintignant) intrudes on the women’s happiness: he and Why are attracted to each other but Frédérique, jealous of the burgeoning romance, seduces Paul instead and makes him her lover. Complications arise when Frédérique realises she really does love Paul and wants to be close to him 24/7, leaving Why in bored limbo. The three try to live together but Frédérique and Paul’s affair arouses intense jealousy in Why. Who will prevail over the other in claiming Paul’s attentions for herself: Frédérique or Why?

The plot is very thin and most of the film’s attractions come from the actors’ own ability to make their characters come alive: in this, Audran does a far better job than the other main actors Sassard and Trintignant. Of the three, Trintignant’s character Paul seems a bit one-dimensional and ineffectual if cautious and dead set on Frédérique for her money. Trintignan’s Paul gives every impression of being manipulated by Frédérique. The burden of carrying the film falls on Audran and Sassard and both play their parts well, with Audran having the edge on Sassard in portraying a vampiric predator who sucks the life and vitality out of both Paul and Why. The hold that Frédérique has over Why is enough to rob the younger woman of her original bohemian street artist identity and replace it with Frédérique’s own glossy but ultimately empty spirit. Eventually (spoiler alert), Why confronts Frédérique and gets rid of the socialite – but at what cost to her own sanity and stability?

The gay freeloaders Robèque and Riais provide much needed comic relief in an otherwise very insular and suffocating film and act as Frédérique’s familiars in much the same as bats might do for Count Dracula. They are also dealt with in much the same way by Frédérique as she deals with Why: when their usefulness comes to an end, the socialite throws them out of the house and sends them back to Paris. As for Why, Frédérique gives the younger woman plenty of clues (which Why fails to pick up) that she is no longer wanted. Such is the difference between someone wealthy like Frédérique who can make and break people, and those of the lower classes who are bedazzled by wealth and influence, and are made and broken accordingly.

Few films on sexual power, the class divide, upper class decadence and the fragility of identity are so subtle and coolly elegant as this one with such a small cast.