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.

The Battle of Algiers: excellent and powerful film dramatisation of the Algerian drive for independence

Gillo Pontecorvo, “The Battle of Algiers / La Bataille d’Alger / La Battaglia di Algeri” (1965)

Filmed 50 years ago, this Italian film drama of the Algerian independence struggle against France in the late 1950s remains as relevant today in the post-9/11 world as it did for audiences living during the decline and end of the colonial era when Britain and France gave up their empires in Africa and Asia. The film, influenced by the Italian neo-realism pioneered by Roberto Rossellini and other directors in the 1950s, combines crisp, matter-of-fact drama, imaginative and brilliantly shot cinematography, excellent acting, a highly evocative music soundtrack and a plot left deliberately sketchy to emphasise the film’s messages, of which the most important is that a people’s desire for liberation and independence will always succeed in spite of the repression it is subjected to.

The bulk of the film follows a young man, Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), from his early life as street thief who becomes radicalised as a freedom fighter when as a prisoner he witnesses the guillotining execution of a political prisoner. After being released, he applies to join the National Liberation Front (hereafter referred to as the FLN, its abbreviation in French) and is given a test by FLN leader Jaffar. The test confirms Ali’s commitment and from then on he is part of a clandestine network of cells in which each member knows only three others: the person who recruited him and the two people he is required to recruit.

The film does not dwell much on Ali’s advancement to the topmost level but instead follows various resistance fighters who kill police officers as part of a general protest against the forces of law and order who are the front-line of the colonial society that treats the Algerian people as serfs and denies them access to their own lands and resources. The film clearly shows the segregated nature of the city of Algiers: Europeans live in one part which revels in wealth and leisure while the majority Arabs and Berbers are forced to live in crowded labyrinthine conditions in old buildings with primitive infrastructure and transport. The French drive cars while the Arabs and Berbers must still use animals for transport. The murders of the police officers lead to greater repression and the police themselves resort to bombing a section of the Muslim quarter. People die and from then on, the FLN uses terrorism, encapsulated in a section of the film where three Muslim women doll themselves up in Western clothes and carry bombs into cafes and an Air France office, to protest the continuing brutality. Violence from one side begets violence from the other until Paris sends in Colonel Matthieu (Jean Martin) to impose martial law on the suffering Algerians. Determined to wipe out the FLN, Matthieu resorts to arresting and torturing people to gather information about the FLN, and systematically hunts down its members until he and Ali La Pointe finally confront each other in a chilling and cold-blooded climax.

The contrast between the Algerians’ poverty and the colonialists’ lavish lifestyle is highlighted by the cinematography which captures the paranoia and terror the Algerians feel as French rule becomes ever more violent and intrusive. The music, composed jointly by Pontecorvo himself and renowned composer Ennio Morricone, also captures the terror and drama of the film. Scenes of torture are filmed in a sensitive manner that demonstrates the victim’s suffering without dwelling too much on the violence and gore.

While Pontecorvo is sympathetic towards the Algerians, the film shows both oppressors and oppressed as humans with all their flaws and good qualities. Ali, Jaffar and the other leaders of the FLN stubbornly hold out to the very end and Matthieu, for all his admiration of them, is steely in his determination to eradicate them. Surprisingly, Matthieu has the clearest understanding of the conflict between France and Algeria: the French are hell-bent on keeping Algeria as their colony and denying the Arabs and Berbers a share in the colony’s wealth. As long as this situation lasts, there will always be conflict and suppression. One would think that, having fought in the Resistance against Nazi Germany during the Second World War, Matthieu might sympathise with the Algerians’ desire for liberty; yet he puts his loyalty to France ahead of any feelings he may have for the Algerian cause or the admiration he has for individuals like Ben M’hidi, one of the FLN leaders, for his moral stance. As the only actor in a cast of non-actors, Martin makes his colonel stand out as a man who suppresses his humanity and compassion for evil disguised as unquestioning loyalty to the State.

One aspect of the film that is not too clear is the role of the media in changing public opinion in France to favour and support Algerian independence which eventually pressured Paris to grant Algeria its freedom in 1962. Apart from that, the film shows how the colonial authorities use propaganda to try to break the spirit of the Algerians. After destroying the FLN, the authorities obviously believe they have broken the back of the independence movement; unfortunately the film does not go on to say (and this is a major weakness of “The Battle …” and the structure of its plot) what the authorities did next, that might have resulted in a resurgence in the Algerians’ cry for  freedom and independence. One assumes that the French colonial authorities did not do much to give Algerians a greater say in their governance and control of their land and resources, but continued to harass them with police state brutality and petty bureaucratic regulations, and that the French living in Algeria continued to live in blithe ignorance of the tensions simmering even more among the people they treated as their servants.

The film’s complexity in its themes and technical values has stood the test of time, even if the actual visuals look dated. It has been used as a manual by both terrorist groups and governments alike, not always in the way that Pontecorvo and his cast would approve. Violence and brutality always beget more violence and brutality, and both bully and victim end up more traumatised and psychopathic in their natures. The film still has power to move contemporary audiences into sympathising with ordinary people’s desire to control their own lives and resources, and not to live as slaves.

Tess: flat characters and subdued approach in adapting novel to screen ensure a slow-moving trudge

Roman Polanski, “Tess” (1979)

Closely based on the original Thomas Hardy novel “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”, which serves as an indictment of Christian religious hypocrisy, male oppression of women and the British class system, Roman Polanski’s “Tess” is a slow-moving, subdued film, as diffident and almost colourless as its heroine, played by a teenage Nastassja Kinski. Kinski’s awkwardness and lack of experience in a lead role show very strongly here. Fortunately she is surrounded by capable actors like Leigh Lawson (who plays Alec) and Peter Firth (playing Angel Clare), along with a large cast playing characters representing most layers of late 19th-century rural British society and memorable landscapes that change with the seasons and mirror the fortunes of the young Tess from the time her father is told by his local parson that his Durbeyfield family is descended from noble ancestors and that the Durbeyfields may have wealthy relatives who have recently moved into the local community.

With that news,  Tess is compelled by her parents to seek out these rich cousins and she soon meets Alec. Alec’s family has actually bought the d’Urberville name and family crest but Tess’s innocence does not immediately pick this up. Alec becomes infatuated with Tess and  manipulates her into a situation where he is able to seduce (or rape) her. Tess becomes Alec’s mistress for a time but is unable to live with the snide talk of the servants and workers behind her back and she returns home to her family. She gives birth to Alec’s child who survives only a short time. After the baby’s death, Tess finds employment with a dairy farm. She meets Angel Clare, the educated son of a pious preacher, who falls in love with her and persuades her to marry him. After their wedding, Angel confesses his past to Tess and she forgives him; when she confesses her past, he is astounded that the pure unsullied woman of nature he had idealised has turned out to be human after all. His heart grows cold towards Tess and soon he leaves for Brazil to embark on a missionary venture, effectively abandoning his wife. Destitute, Tess returns to her family and discovers her parents are not well. Her father dies and the Durbeyfields are evicted from the family home. Alec, having found out about Tess’s baby and marriage to Angel, and hearing that she has been abandoned by him, offers succour. Tess rejects him at first but is forced by circumstances to accept his help – on the condition that she becomes his mistress again.

Eventually of course, Angel returns from Brazil, his missionary venture having failed and he having suffered greatly as well. He seeks out Tess to beg forgiveness of her but his arrival puts her in a dilemma. How she resolves her dilemma seals her fate and from then on, an untimely death awaits her.

In the novel, Tess is a spirited and passionate young woman but in Polanski’s film, Kinski’s Tess seems drained of all character: that may be an unfortunate consequence of miscasting and Kinski’s lack of experience in a lead role. Tess’s actions become rather inexplicable as a result and audiences who do not know the book may find her violence a jarring surprise. A significant theme of Hardy’s novel – Tess as a woman being the child of nature, the innocent girl who is destroyed by human society through religion, sexual oppression and industrialisation – falls by the wayside. Polanski’s film does not play up the subtle differences between Angel Clare and his parents enough to highlight Clare’s superficiality and hypocrisy: Clare is intended as an example of an enlightened and liberal thinker who is not so tolerant and liberal when he learns of Tess’s past history, while his parents, who initially appear to be interested only in hobnobbing with the rich, are actually quite forgiving of others’ foibles. For all the time he spends on screen, Firth’s Clare behaves in ways that are rather puzzling. The only really consistent character is Alec who, beneath the wealth he flaunts and his shaky morality, actually cares for Tess’s well-being.

Significantly, Alec is associated with the arrival of industrialisation that was to transform rural agriculture and the lives of peasants dramatically, and not always for the better. Industry removes humans from nature: the milk produced by the dairy farm where Tess works must be adulterated with water because townsfolk are unable to stomach it. Alec lives and moves in a world where nature is shaped to obey humans utterly and he expects Tess, the woman of nature, to acknowledge him as her master as well. Thus, the symbolism of Tess’s murder of Alec (spoiler alert) is tremendous: nature asserts its power over humans, humans react to that power by crushing it and taming it. Tess’s action cannot go unpunished by society (else the chaos that the society fears is unleashed) and that punishment is death.

While the cinematography is beautiful and immerses the viewer in the life of late 1880s rural Britain, and the changing seasons and their moods, it cannot save the film from being something of a trudge through the plight of a young woman trapped by her circumstances, the double standards of the society in which she lives and her own innocence and impulsive behaviour. The flat characters and Polanski’s subdued and technical approach in adapting Hardy’s novel to the screen are the problem.

Mr Turner: a microcosm of 19th-century British society through the life of J M W Turner

Mike Leigh, “Mr Turner” (2014)

I confess I always have the time of day for the under-rated British actor Timothy Spall who always had the talent to be a leading man but was always relegated to minor character roles or playing second fiddle, due perhaps to his basset-hound looks. At last in “Mr Turner”, Spall gets to play the leading man, the famous early 19th-century landscape painter and water-colourist J M W Turner who was turning out Impressionist paintings of the sea and early abstract art before either became recognised and accepted genres. The film covers about three decades of Turner’s life just before his father William died leading up to Turner’s last breath in which he utters “The sun is God”. Turner the character might have been talking about himself as there is hardly a shot in which he does not appear and the camera follows him zealously as he travels from his home in London to Margate and then Chelsea, and various parts of the English countryside including Dover and the New Forest, searching for artistic inspiration and suitable subjects to paint, and dallying with two mistresses and the maid who faithfully serves him.

There is no definitive plot as we would understand it: the film makes its audience voyeurs into Turner’s life (mostly fictionalised but based on what is known of his personal life) as he goes about his business, public and private, and the narrative arises from a collage of snapshots tracing Turner’s life from the mid-1820s to 1851 when he died. The film marks the passing of time by making references to the significant technological, social and historical events of the day: the steam train’s appearance marks the 1830s, Queen Victoria appears in one scene and Turner mentions the Crystal Palace, opened in 1851, in a late scene. All major actors in the film give riveting and often quite emotional portrayals but in a minimalist way. The women in Turner’s life occupy major roles here: there is his maid Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), suffering from psoriasis and probably more besides, but always there for him, however badly he treats her, and secretly in love with him; and there is Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), the twice-widowed landlady who becomes Turner’s second mistress. There is another mistress Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen) who had two daughters by Turner. A running theme throughout the film is the way Turner treats his women: he lies to them all and dies without their ever being told that they are rivals.

As well as the acting, the cinematography is outstanding with many shots set up to resemble paintings with formal compositional elements. Turner the character is posed in scenes that later become the basis of the paintings that made him famous. The film emphasises Turner’s interest in light and the way in which light governs the mood of a painting which in turn can influence the way people look at the painting. Turner is seen taking an interest in the scientific developments of his day, even going so far as to invite a Scottish woman scientist into his home, and in his old age venturing into a shop to have his photograph taken just so he can see the challenge the daguerrotype – the forerunner of the camera – poses to his profession. One sees here in a subtle way how changes in technology signify the passage of time in this film that otherwise seems to flow without reference to it.

In spite of no obvious plot and the film’s length, “Mr Turner” does not bore: Leigh’s preoccupation with the minutiae of life in the early 19th century and the characters’ conversations, conducted in the idiom of the time, keep viewers occupied – well, maybe not all viewers but this viewer certainly was occupied. There are references to artistic competition and one-upmanship between Turner and another artist, John Constable (James Fleet); Turner’s friendship with Benjamin Haydon (Martin Savage), a fellow artist of brusque manner who was always in debt and who committed suicide in 1846; and Turner’s acquaintance with the pretentious art critic John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire).

The film does not completely capture or even try to explain the complexity of Turner or why he acts the way he does, nor does it examine why how he became interested in light and how to capture the fleeting moment in a scene that made his paintings distinctive and at times abstract. The desultory nature of the film in which some moments of Turner’s life are highlighted and others ignored mirror Turner’s own interest in catching a particular moment in the day when the sun shone on a landscape in a particular way. Something of the way in which an artist can be held in public esteem, only to fall into public mockery, can be seen in the film’s later treatment of Turner in which as an eccentric old man, he sees people turning away from him, making fun of him in music hall revues and his paintings valued at a paltry 100,000 pounds by an American businessman.

The film does rise and fall with what viewers can gain out of watching the film. Some viewers will be bored by an aimless parade of diorama scenes and will wonder what the whole point of the film is, having no obvious story to tell and saying nothing profound about Turner’s motivations or character. The film shows a microcosm of the world in which Turner lived, how his relations with his women reflected something of the hierarchical social order of Britain, how his career rose and fell with public approval of his work and how eventually the world left him – as it does other artists, scientists and other significant contributors to human culture and society – behind. In that alone, the film has actually said something quite profound.

Timbuktu: a fragmentary set of parallel tales whose overall message is unclear

Abderrahmane Sissako, “Timbuktu” (2014)

Set in northern Mali some time after the downfall of Colonel Muammar Ghaddafi’s regime in late 2011, “Timbuktu” is a set of parallel tales of people’s lives in a rural village claimed by Islamic jihadist fighters. The director Sissako initially had wanted to make documentary films and much of “Timbuktu” has a very naturalistic setting and looks very much like a documentary. The film’s narrative is presented as a snapshot of what could be happening in any village located in contemporary sub-Saharan Africa where nomads, fisherfolk and farmers live, trade and discuss France’s fortunes in the FIFA World Cup with or without Zineddine Zidane.

The central figures in the film are a Tuareg herdsman, Kidane, and a surly Bambara-speaking fisherman, Amadou. Much of the film’s tragedy centres around these two men and their families. Early on we are introduced to Kidane’s wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and their only child and daughter Toya who is almost a teenager. The couple have (sort of) adopted a boy, Issan, who herds Kidane’s cows together with the rest of their community’s cows. One day one of these cows, GPS, splashes too far into the river and is tangled up in Amadou’s nets. Amadou, fed up with the cows constantly blundering near his nets day after day, spears the cow dead. On hearing of the cow’s death, Kidane confronts Amadou and in spite of Satima’s advice to go unarmed and just talk to him calmly, gets into an argument with the fisherman. The two men end up fighting and, well, what do you know, Amadou is accidentally shot. Kidane flees in horror, leaving Amadou to die in agony. The jihadists in the village discover Amadou’s body, carry out their investigations and Kidane is subjected to narrowly interpreted Shari’a justice.

The rest of the film hangs off the story of Kidane: we discover that he and his family moved away from the village because two jihadists, Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri) and his driver Omar, were visiting Satima every day despite her being a married woman: a little too often then, for Satima and Kidane’s comfort. The friendship between Abdelkrim and Omar is played for laughs – Omar is trying to teach Abdelkrim to drive and knows about his smoking habit which, being haram, Abdelkrim is trying to hide from him – but also shows up the basic social inequality between them: Abdelkrim is an outsider, considerably older than Omar and supposedly more religious, yet Omar seems more knowledgeable about the ways of the world and how it works, and is constantly winning their games of one-upmanship.

There are other stories of the villagers: an eccentric lady dresses up in her finery and walks the streets to the amazement of the village children; four friends in their 20s meet surreptitiously in the evenings to play music and sing but are caught by the jihadists doing so and lashed publicly; and the village imam (Adel Mahmoud Cherif) defends the village’s customs and traditions against the narrow Wahhabi interpretation of the Qu’ran and Islam brought by the jihadists. More insidiously the jihadists force the villagers to give up playing soccer, execute a couple for committing adultery and compel local village beauty Safia to marry a man of their choice against her family and the village imam’s objections.

Although the film can be very absorbing and the child actors playing Toya and Issan are very appealing, the fragmented nature of the stories playing in parallel tells audiences very little about why the jihadists are able to march in unopposed by government authorities and take over the running of the village. An early scene in which the jihadists take someone hostage and which promises an interesting little story remains isolated from the rest of the film, its narrative and its development neglected. One imagines that Abdelkrim might scheme to get rid of Kidane and try to marry Satima himself and arrange Toya’s early marriage to boot but the potential conflict between the jihadi and the herders remains unexplored. The relationship between Amadou and his wife or family never gets off the ground and viewers have to assume the mean-spirited fisherman is related to a woman who while selling fish refuses to don gloves when ordered to do so by the jihadis. The way in which a narrow interpretation of Islam is able to corrode local custom and tradition is shown to good effect and also points up a number of contradictions that ground contemporary Wahhabi jihadism: it relies on modern technology and foreign money to survive and implant itself in a village that hitherto has tolerated and welcomed people speaking different languages and coming from different cultures and traditions.

The fatalism expressed by Kidane on learning of his fate for having killed Amadou is noble and in its own way defiant but is ultimately inadequate to defend Satima and Toya against the attentions of the jihadists. On the other hand, several jihadists act as if they joined their cause purely for selfish reasons and their ignorance of Islamic tradition and etiquette shows up in an early scene when they blunder into the village mosque in their shoes with their weapons hanging off them. If a person had to choose between learning Islam off Kidane or from the jihadists, I know which one of the men I’d recommend.

The desert landscape is a significant actor in the film as well: though it doesn’t figure in the parallel stories, it’s always present in the sand, the dust storms and the people’s dependence on water.

The fragmented nature of the film’s narratives and the minimal presentation in which dialogue is sparse and characters convey more feeling through subtle movements and changes in facial expression will be a puzzle to most viewers outside Mali and Mauritania (where the film was shot) wondering exactly what message/s “Timbuktu” is intended to communicate. While the film obviously riffs off on issues such as modernity-versus-tradition, old-versus-young, the battle of the sexes and the oppression of women by the narrow Wahhabi Islamic tradition brought by the jihadis, viewers are left to wonder what they’re supposed to think of the snapshot-like portrayal of a generic sub-Saharan village being invaded by malign forces backed by Saudi Arabia and the West. It is no surprise to learn that one of the jihadi fighters in the film has come all the way from Libya where since Colonel Ghaddafi’s overthrow, the land continues to lurch from one disaster to the next, politcal chaos reigns, people sink deeper into poverty and youngsters try to find meaning and purpose by joining jihadi fighters in Syria; and all of this activity receiving unspoken approval from NATO.

Frantic: a cool and not at all frantic lightweight homage to Hitchcock

Roman Polanski, “Frantic” (1988)

For a film proclaiming itself “Frantic”, this suspense thriller is surprisingly cool, calm and collected as it follows its hapless protagonist doctor with an air of bemusement. This is definitely not one of Polanski’s better films: the plot, stretched out over two hours, is very lightweight and its characters are more representative of various stereotypes than real people. The film works as both homage to Alfred Hitchcock and a comic expression of a theme dear to Polanski’s heart: the outsider, displaced for some reason in a society that treats him/her with indifference and sometimes hostility, having to navigate his/her way through that society and come to grips with it in order to solve a problem.

Dr Walker (Harrison Ford) and his wife (Betty Buckley) have just arrived in Paris to attend a conference. While settling in their hotel room, trying to cope with jet lag, the couple find they have the wrong suitcase. They make some calls to the lobby and the airport and then Walker decides to take a shower. While he cleans himself, the missus answers a call at the door and disappears. Initially Walker thinks his wife has popped out for a while but as the time passes by, he realises something is amiss. His realisation soon turns into alarm and he reports her missing to the police and then the US consulate but the authorities treat his plight with blank-faced unhelpfulness. Walker takes matters into his own hands and searches for his wife despite not knowing how to speak French and brushing up against the local people’s assumptions about Americans being stupid and crude. With the help of a young woman Michelle (Emmanuelle Seigner), whose case was swapped accidentally at the airport with his wife’s case, Walker discovers he and his wife have stumbled into an amoral underworld of spies trading dangerous secrets for money and using innocent and ultimately disposable people. Not only is his wife’s life in danger but Walker finds that he and Michelle are also targets for intimidation and violence.

Several familiar Hitchcockian ploys and devices are at play here: McGuffin elements are plentiful and Dr Walker represents a fairly typical if very middle class everyday man thrust suddenly and unexpectedly into a world (indeed, two worlds) unfamiliar to him. He first has to navigate the world of nightclubbing, easy drugs, prostitution and lax morality to find the first clues that lead him to Michelle and then tread warily through another even more secret corrupt and violent world of espionage. Unfortunately this scenario is treated rather unevenly and superficially, and viewers get no sense of Walker ever having to question the perhaps narrow and conservative morality he was brought up with and takes for granted. There is also no sense of Michelle being forced to question the values and morality of her world; she remains essentially a feral child throughout the film.

A major problem with this film is the one-dimensional characters who are more symbolic than real. Ford does what he can with his role as middle-aged and respectable white Anglo-American tourist of somewhat limited horizons thrust into scenarios both embarrassing and helpful to him. In order to find his wife, he must rely on a young woman of dubious reputation and mix with her social scene. This pairing of unlikely opposites is worked for comic effect in some scenes in which Walker and Michelle come across his medical colleagues who think the two are having an affair. As the film proceeds from Walker’s point of view, we are not treated to scenes where Michelle’s friends think she’s got a rich sugar daddy and try to press her to get money off Walker. Now that would have been amusing to see! Michelle initially presents as a stereotypically defiant goth girl who fell in with a wrong crowd as a teenager and survives by her wits and taking on quite dubious jobs like being a drug mule; she sort of has a heart of gold beneath the cynicism. Her streetwise instincts however become her undoing. Ultimately there’s no sense at all that Walker and Michelle have changed much as a result of meeting each other and having to work together to get what they want. All other characters are essentially props that help the action along and flesh out the scenery.

Polanski’s mischievous sense of humour is evident in scenes that involve a small statue, a replica of a much larger one familiar to New Yorkers, carrying the detonation codes for a nuclear bomb and Walker’s attempt to negotiate with some American diplomats. However the humour is not much comfort in a film that seems very hollow and which Polanski could have done better had it carried more fire about the duplicity and corruption of the world of espionage, and how it endangers the lives of innocent people who are accidentally caught up in it.

 

The Ghost Writer: a straightforward story that deals fleetingly with the nature of US-UK relations

Roman Polanski, “The Ghost Writer” (2009)

Circumstances surrounding this film were peculiar enough in themselves: in travelling to the Zurich Film Festival as a special guest for the film’s opening, Polanski was arrested by Swiss authorities and held in house detention pending possible extradition to the US for evading jail time back in 1977 over unlawful sexual intercourse with an underage teenage girl. (I have reviewed a documentary on this case by Maria Zenovich, “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” elsewhere on this blog.) Polanski’s awareness of the corrupt conduct of the judge presiding over his case surely informs “Ghost Writer” with a substance the novel on which it’s based may not have. Both the film and book are based on recent events involving former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (1997 – 2007) which included his decision to join US President George W Bush in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, ostensibly to punish and remove that country’s president Saddam Hussein for continuing to possess chemical weapons.

Directed with Polanski’s usual aplomb, “The Ghost Writer” is driven almost entirely by its story and characters. It moves quickly and smoothly – maybe just a bit too smoothly – to its climax. Moments do exist where the action might seem a bit forced but the logic of the narrative and some thinking on the audience’s part assure their relevance. A mediocre writer (Ewan McGregor) is commissioned by a book publisher to ghost-write an autobiography for former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), reviled by the public the world over as a lapdog of the US and for taking his country into a disastrous invasion and war that cost hundreds of British soldiers’ lives and thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of other people’s lives. The ghost-writer, never named, discovers that a previous ghost-writer who worked on the autobiography recently died in very strange circumstances and that he has to pick up where this writer left off. He (our hero, that is) discovers various anomalies in Lang’s past history while researching and as he follows the trail of irregularities, he realises that his predecessor must have been murdered and that Lang, wanted by the International Court of Crimes for war crimes, must have been an intelligence asset for the US and the CIA which points to an important question: who recruited Lang and who was his handler?

The plot turns out to be straightforward and astute viewers will be able to finger the culprit long before McGregor’s writer does. It’s the actors who hold the audience spellbound throughout the film. McGregor plays a not-too-bright writer who initially is uncommitted in most aspects of his life: he broke up with his girlfriend years ago and drifts along; and if he had any misgivings about working for a war criminal, they were on semi-permanent vacation when he took on the job. However his basic decent nature and his curiosity drive him on, eventually his sense of justice is aroused, and he determines to uncover the truth. In short, in true Hitchcockian tradtion, the ghost-writer is an ordinary person like you and me thrust suddenly into an unreal world where good and evil can’t be distinguished from one another and he must choose one side or the other. The stakes are high and everything rides on making the right decision. As the ghost-writer delves deeper into the mystery behind Lang’s recruitment, dark forces begin to move against him. McGregor is surrounded by good actors who relish the opportunity to play ambiguous characters: Olivia Williams is good if a little histrionic as Lang’s estranged and dissatisfied wife and Tom Wilkinson is suitably creepy as the CIA recruitment officer. Brosnan injects a little Ronald Reagan into his portrayal of the Blair-like Lang and though he does not have a lot of screen time, this role might actually be seen in the years to come as one of his best if not the best in a career that’s mostly been full of Hollywood fluff.

With Polanski at the helm, the film employs plenty of black humour and viewers will notice deliberate parallels with Hitchcock plot elements: there’s a car chase, there are McGuffin characters and elements not important in themselves but which set the ghost-writer on his path and point the way, and there is a blonde woman who may or may not be on the side of angels. The music soundtrack carries a wry, somewhat amused attitude as if distant gods on Olympus are watching the little insects scurrying below them with interest and are placing bets on the likely outcome. Throughout the film there is a sense of paranoia and suffocation in the world that McGregor’s character has entered, and it’s also very insular: the man who assassinates Lang turns out to be a former soldier who appears at least twice earlier in the film protesting the loss of his son in one of Lang’s wars.

Due to the film’s emphasis on characters focused solely on their own self-interest and the small world which they inhabit, “The Ghost Writer” cannot deal with any larger issues arising from those it and its source novel touch. There is never any mention of the suffering of the Iraqi people or of the reasons the US, the UK and other nations combined to invade Iraq. The “special relationship” that exists between the UK and the US is never mentioned, let alone examined or criticised. Only McGregor’s character grows in moral stature and viewers are likely to warm to him as a future hero. Unfortunately this being a Polanski film, Polanski has a Chinatown-type ending waiting for the ghost-writer: that’s not very Hitchcockian!

Mayerling: lavish visuals cannot hide workman-like script and direction, and wooden acting

Terence Young, “Mayerling” (1968)

Better known perhaps for directing three James Bond films in the 1960s, the British director Terence Young turned his hand to making a historical romantic tragedy, albeit one padded out with political intrigue and spies galore. “Mayerling” has big production values and lavish historical styling but all the costumes, palaces, pomp, rousing romantic orchestral music and those spies cannot hide a slow, workman-like script and subdued wooden acting. The film’s plot is very loosely based on actual events: in the late 1880s, the Crown Prince Rudolf (Omar Sharif) of the Hapsburg empire, sprawling across much of central Europe, is unhappily married to Princess Stéphanie and pursues an aimless life of pleasure with an endless parade of women, wine and morphine addiction. He clashes with his father, the Emperor Franz-Josef (James Mason), over politics: the old feller prefers to rule his multicultural subjects in typical iron-fisted authoritarian patriarchal style, in which hierarchy, order, stability and Catholic worship are the order of the day, while junior imagines a curious mix of being an enlightened social progressive with liberal politics and at the same time ruling as a divinely ordained king. (Probably not so very different from what Prince Charles of the United Kingdom imagines he’ll be one day.) To that end, Rudolf is entangled with a group of revolutionaries who want to separate Hungary from the rest of the Austrian Hapsburg realms and install him as King; the crown prince and his buddies differ in the details as to how a future Hungarian king and parliament will get on and whether they’ll be on equal political terms.

While the co-conspirators can’t agree on whether Hungary should remain part of the empire and Rudolf’s duties as King of Hungary have yet to be nutted out, the crown prince wavers between wanting a more active role in Dad’s political and diplomatic affairs and dallying with his actress girlfriend. Unexpectedly, into his life enters the young Baroness Maria Vetsera (Catherine Deneuve) with whom Rudolf falls deeply in love. Their affair soon becomes public and threatens the stability of the empire. Rudolf is forced to choose between continuing as Crown Prince and upholding what his father believes is important but renouncing his affair, and renouncing his claim to the throne and leaving the empire with his lover for an uncertain and rootless future.

For a long film (over 2 hours) with a fairly bare-bones plot, “Mayerling” should have had considerable character development but Young’s stodgy story and direction don’t give Sharif and Deneuve very much to play with. Deneuve’s Maria is a colourless, almost weepy girl and Sharif, doing what he can with Rudolf, delivers a competent performance but without demonstrating to the full the crown prince’s lack of courage and will. The film strains to build up a supposedly unhealthy Oedipus complex relationship between Rudolf and his Empress mother (Ava Gardner) but the interaction between the two seems no more and no less than what a 19th-century aristocrat Catholic prince and his empress mum would do. Supporting actors flit about: the most impressive of these is James Robertson Justice, doing comic relief as an avuncular if rakish Prince Edward of Wales, future King of the British empire. James Mason looks as if he’d rather be elsewhere but perhaps as an emperor perplexed at his son’s restless behaviour and inability to stick the course as an inspector-general of the imperial army, he can do no other than look perpetually embarrassed. Gardner is good as the empress who never quite grew up herself and whose own restlessness influenced her son and special mention must be made of Genevieve Page who plays a match-maker of sorts between Maria and Rudolf.

The plot and sub-plot are not substantial and viewers can get a feeling that the sub-plot revolving around Rudolf and the revolutionaries was tacked on to attract a serious audience interested in history. The film earnestly tries to make a point about progressive politics versus political conservatism and the choice governments have to make between maintaining order and stability but risking staleness and decay on one hand, and giving people political rights and freedoms but risking conflicts such as majority rule and rights over the rights of minorities and potential mob rule on the other; this theme however remains shallow and undeveloped. It’s not only Rudolf who is wishy-washy about wanting to have his genuine Sachertorte and to eat it all without the responsibility and self-discipline he has to develop to achieve authenticity and a life of true values.

At least if the plot, sub-plot and themes prove as fragile as Deneuve’s angel looks, viewers can feast their gaze on the overly long scenes of ballet, waltzing and street riots during formal parades.

 

 

 

Clean: a tale of caution and redemption lacking in spark and realism

Olivier Assayas, “Clean” (2004)

Rare are the movies in which two main characters happen to be father and his daughter-in-law yet just this month I’ve already seen two: Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” and Olivier Assayas’ “Clean” which stars the French director’s ex-wife Maggie Cheung as Emily Wang, a washed-up cable TV music show host whose musician husband dies from a drug overdose. The commercial music media blames Wang for giving her husband the drugs he used to kill himself and Wang herself spends time in prison for drug possession. After her release, Wang tries holding down a number of dreary jobs without success while also attempting to reconcile with her young son who is in the care of his grandparents Albrecht (Nick Nolte) and Rosemary (Martha Henry). Rosemary herself is dying and Albrecht does not know if he can cope as sole custodian once Rosemary is gone. After many setbacks and personal crises, a glimmer of hope appears for Emily with a possible career as a singer beckoning in San Francisco and Albrecht throwing his support behind her.

The movie is a conventional treatment of a drug addict struggling to pick up the pieces of her life together after a major tragedy and trying to reform and fit into a world she doesn’t really care for. The movie dallies between portraying a character who must face up to responsibility for her life and her son, who must negotiate life’s tough paths without a man on whom she leaned for support, on the one hand and on the other a message about finding something you love to do and which allows you to develop your talents and let you fly. Cheung delivers a fine and moving performance as Wang with all her flaws and brittle personality: a woman who has been self-indulgent perhaps for too long and who is learning the hard way about having to compromise her individuality in a world that cares as little for her as she does for it. Nolte gives just as fine a performance as Albrecht who empathises with Wang and is willing to give her another chance when all her friends in the music business distrust her and withdraw support at the last moment. Wang finally learns who her real ally is.

It should be said also that just as Wang starts changing her attitude and habits, Albrecht also undergoes a change in his attitude towards his daughter-in-law when he discovers his wife is terminally ill. His willingness to change helps Wang to grasp an opportunity to advance in a new career related to music. Some viewers may object that Wang might be returning to an environment where she will once again be exposed to drugs or to the stresses that encouraged or pushed her into drug addiction. However the music Wang performs in the film’s final scenes seems as far away from the new-wave / post-punk music scene that Wang and her musician husband had favoured originally as the dead-end retail jobs Wang had pursued earlier in the film.

Apart from the two leads’ performances, the film lacks spark and is over-earnest in its character study of an ex-junkie trying to rebuild her life. The pace is very glacial and the style is very flat. Not personally knowing any drug addicts or ex-addicts, I cannot comment on how realistic the film is but it seems rather peculiar for the main character not to be in rehabilitation or seeing a social worker or counsellor while weaning herself off drugs. Cheung looks rather too healthy most of the time and for her to run to familiar friends and places where she and her husband got involved in the drug scene in the first place would seem rather counter-productive. Perhaps the movie’s script-writers were imagining Wang as an Asian version of Marianne Faithfull or Nico; they’d have been better off perhaps talking to ordinary ex-junkies who eventually made good and basing Wang’s character and story on their stories.

Hidden: a film about guilt, trust, colonial exploitation and manipulation of signs is overburdened by art and cleverness

Michael Haneke, “Caché / Hidden” (2005)

An imaginative if overly layered thriller about a couple threatened by an unseen and unknown stalker, Michael Haneke’s “Hidden” is a film about guilt and how its projection onto others can have the most catastrophic consequences that can last for generations. Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche) are a middle-aged Paris couple with a teenage son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky), whose snugly bourgeois life-style – he’s a TV show host, she works for a publisher – is disturbed by a series of sinister videotapes and drawings being left on their door-step that suggest that someone is spying on them. Georges interprets the drawings and cassettes as referencing past childhood memories and deducts that someone called Majid, whom his parents once adopted as a child and then had institutionalised after a chicken decapitation incident, is the culprit behind the parcels. Through one of the videotapes he and his wife view, he tracks down Majid (Maurice Bénichou), now a grown man, and harasses him. The ugly contact between the two men leads to disaster for Majid, a simmering enmity between Georges and Majid’s young adult son and tension in Georges’ marriage and family life that may not have a good resolution.

Through Georges and Anne’s reactions to the videotapes, we see how they become two quite unpleasant and unsympathetic characters and the effect their behaviour has on each other and on their teenage son who soon becomes alienated from them. We see how the marriage has been slowly falling apart over the years, to the extent that when Georges visits his mother and she asks after his wife and son, he admits that he does not know very much about what his wife does. The arrival of the mysterious parcels is the catalyst for the marriage’s disintegration as Georges refuses to share important information with his wife and she starts to doubt his love and loyalty for her. We see the initial stirrings of an affair Anne may have with one of her and her husband’s social circle, a man who happens to be married to another of their friends; thus, the couple’s social circle may eventually break up. Pierrot already suspects his mother is unfaithful.

Georges’ feelings of guilt over the way he and his parents treated Majid as a child, and his mother’s attitude towards Majid’s welfare – she does not remember the episode when he speaks to her about it – is a metaphor for France’s treatment of its colonies in Africa and elsewhere, and how the French pretend not to know or remember how their subject peoples were often dispossessed of their lands and other resources, expected to adopt French culture, and suffered alienation from their own cultures as a result. The metaphor can be extended to other European and Western countries that also founded colonies on other continents and robbed the indigenous peoples there of their lands and destroyed their cultures. Majid’s meeting with Georges and Georges’ subsequent harassment of him and his son lead to personal disaster for Majid, at which we question who is really the victim and who is the bully in the wider post-9/11 context that the film was made in and which it subtly references for Western audiences.

The film is remarkable in the way Haneke stages several shots so as to appear like a stage drama in which the audience is forced to be complicit in the action, in the manner of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous film “Rear Window”. Viewers are invited to speculate on who is sending the videotapes and the drawings, and even to anticipate what will happen next. The low-key and quiet nature of the film itself forces it to be a character-driven piece dependent on the skills of the actors, and in this endeavour, Auteuil, Binoche and Bénichou do not disappoint. A death scene is treated almost as Greek tragedy in its stage-drama shot; the audience is almost expected to act as a Greek chorus. The film’s slow and easy pace and its cool, almost icy style mirror the bourgeois class’s studied indifference to emotions and unresolved inner conflicts that can erupt unexpectedly over innocent things. The events that occur during the film and Georges’ interpretation of them leave him in an infantile state as he withdraws into a cocoon-like bedroom, takes sleeping tablets and curls up in bed.

Comparisons between Haneke’s film and Alfred Hitchcock’s work are apt: the videotapes and drawings themselves serve as MacGuffin devices that in themselves have no meaning except for Georges who imposes a personal narrative based on unresolved guilt on them. The fact that he and wife Anne work in media-related industries, in which truth can be edited and shaped by canny producers and directors to fit narratives that appeal to audience expectations and exploit their desires and fears, is significant: here Georges, initially the exploiter of dreams and desires, ends up being the exploited one. The irony is that having been exploited, Georges is then driven to more acts of lies and exploitation to drive away and repress his fears further to no avail.

The film’s closing scene in which Pierrot meets Majid’s son and has a conversation with him can have many interpretations including a conspiracy and reconciliation; it rather spoils the thriller template that the film hangs from but then that’s my problem to deal with. If anything, the film is overburdened by Haneke’s intellectual gaming with the audience and over-layering of the idea of “hidden”. A little less cleverness on Haneke’s part tooling the plot and its implications and references, and “Hidden” would have been a perfect film.