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.

Zatoichi: a colourful package of comedy, violence and drama masks an unoriginal plot and characters not always worthy of sympathy

Takeshi Kitano, “Zatoichi” (2003)

Based in part on the television and film series revolving around the adventures of itinerant blind masseur / swordsman Zatoichi in late Tokugawa Japan, Takeshi Kitano’s “Zatoichi” smoothly combines drama, slapstick comedy and extreme violence in equal measures around a not-too-original plot narrative in which a lone wandering martial arts expert comes across a community suffering from poverty, oppression and exploitation by local warlords and their gangs, and sets about freeing the poor from their tyranny. This theme happens to dovetail with Kitano’s own fascination with violence, the underworld and vengeance, so perhaps we should not be surprised that his version of “Zatoichi” emphasises bloody swordplay, the machinations of warlords and their gangs, and extreme revenge. Yet at the same time the film draws audiences into sympathy for vulnerable characters and empathy with their behaviour and motivations.

Zatoichi (Kitano) wanders into an unnamed village caught up in a war between yakuza gangs who demand huge amounts of protection money from the villagers. He finds shelter with O-ume (Michiyo Okusu), a farming widow, and her ne’er-do-well gambler nephew Shinkichi (Guadalcanal Taka) who is often the butt of many jokes in the film. About the same time, two geisha siblings (one of whom is actually a man) seeking revenge for the deaths of their parents and other family members on their family estate ten years ago arrive in the village. Zatoichi, O-ume and Shinkichi befriend these geishas (Daigoro Tachibana and Yuuko Daike) and learn about their tragic history. The geishas eventually discover that the men who murdered their parents are the same yakuza gangsters terrorising the community, and Zatoichi sets about dispatching these men. For the most part, the job is not too difficult – except that the yakuza leader has just hired ronin samurai Gennosuke Hattori (Tadanobu Asano) as his bodyguard. Hattori boasts a mean, almost demonic way with his sword and a showdown between him and Zatoichi seems set to be the film’s pyrotechnic climax.

The film builds slowly and steadily to the inevitable clash of katanas with plenty of diversions along the way. This does mean that audiences need to concentrate quite hard to follow the plot. Kitano spends much time crafting back histories for various characters including Hattori as well as the geisha siblings, touching on touchy subjects such as paedophilia and suggesting that life for ronin samurai and their families could be as hard and oppressive as the lives of lowly peasants. One feels as much for Hattori and his need to help his sickly wife as one does for the geishas, no matter how intensely and darkly their desire for vengeance burns and eats them up. Special attention should be paid to the bartender and his aged assistant father who washes the sake cups and chops the vegetables. Kitano’s own character Zatoichi differs little from the type of characters he usually plays: impassive, stoic, saying very little and giving the impression of harbouring great, often unearthly wisdom and not a few dark secrets.

The violence may be bloody but it is done quickly and efficiently (and maybe a little too artistically and cleanly in a way that screams it was done with computer-based effects) and often it is over before the audience has had time to draw breath.

One feels that Kitano packs so much into this film because the plot is not all that original and very few characters are actually worthy of much sympathy. The cinematography is often very pretty. The film seems made for a Western audience which might explain why some of the dance sequences are so long and why Kitano opted to include a Hollywood-style chorus-line musical extravaganza, complete with tap-dancing, at the end of the film. We do not learn very much about the character of Zatoichi himself, why he is blind (or pretends to be blind) and why he elects to travel alone from one isolated community to the next and to flush out corruption and oppression everywhere he goes. The theme of blindness in its various guises – including the notion that having sight often makes one blind to things that visually blind people would pick up – is not as fully explored and fleshed out as it could have been.

There is a nihilistic aspect to the film as well: some characters die undeserving and tragic deaths; and the geisha siblings are more affected by their desire for vengeance than by their suffering than they are prepared to admit, and how they will cope when the cause of their suffering has been obliterated by others is unclear.

As expected, Zatoichi goes on his way to another oppressed village in a fantasy pre-Meiji Japan and audiences will have had their fill of comedy, tragedy and drama in a colourful and stylised package.

The Thief of Paris: a tedious, lacklustre comedy of one individual’s rebellion against social hypocrisy

Louis Malle, “Le Voleur / The Thief of Paris” (1967)

A crime comedy caper starring then popular French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo and directed by Louis Malle, “Le Voleur” turns out to be a rather dull character study. Georges Randal (Belmondo), orphaned at a young age, discovers after finishing college and military training that his guardian uncle has fleeced him of his parents’ fortune and plans to marry off cousin Charlotte (Genevieve Bujold), whom Georges loves, to a down-and-out aristocrat as Georges is now too poor to marry her. Enraged, Georges steals the fiancé’s family jewels (bought with Charlotte’s – and hence Georges’ – money) and as a result a scandal involving the prospective mother-in-law is brought out into the public eye. Shamed, the families call off the engagement. From then on, motivated by a desire for social justice and vengeance, Georges embarks on a life as a professional gentleman thief. In this, he is unexpectedly aided and educated by a Roman Catholic priest (Julien Guiomar) and another professional gentleman thief (Paul le Person). Through these mentors, Georges makes many contacts, learns new skills and has several romantic affairs.

Eventually Georges recovers his fortune, becomes rich and is able to avenge himself on his uncle by expertly forging a new will while the old fellow is on his deathbed. The new will eventually restores the uncle’s house to Charlotte as its rightful owner and Georges and Charlotte are able to marry. Georges’ two mentors retire as professional thieves and Georges himself seems set for life as a wealthy self-made man. Yet Georges finds himself unable to stop his life of thieving and burglary and feels compelled to carry on, knowing that one day he will be eventually caught and imprisoned.

The pace is too slow for the plot – it should have been briskly rocketing along right up to the delicious climax where the uncle is watching his nephew rewrite the will and the old geriatric is desperately reaching for his gun to finish off the impudent fellow. At times the film seems uncertain as to whether it wants to be a straight-out light-hearted comedy or something more sober. Perhaps the surprise for viewers is that, having avenged himself on his uncle and won Charlotte back, Georges should continue with his life of crime rather than change direction and devote himself to pursuing social justice some other way by establishing factories run on democratic socialist principles for example or channelling some of his wealth into charity work. The pop faux-Freudian psychology prevalent in 1960s films though predicts that Georges will find himself unable to give up the thrills and compulsions of thieving: the very act of theft is the one occasion when Georges feels most alive which does not say very much for the charms of late 19th-century French society, displayed in all its lurid decadence thanks to excellent cinematography.

The acting is efficient without being remarkable and the plot has very few thrilling highlights (in a film about how a professional thief is born and made) which also account for the general tedium. A film about an individual who rebels against the hypocrisy and shallowness of French bourgeois society yet eventually becomes enslaved to his personal rebellion which he knows may lead him to alienation and ruin could have been very intriguing in its premise alone. Shame that this idea isn’t more fully developed and explored to its ultimate logical conclusion.

 

Mad Dog Morgan: an enjoyable if rambling film protesting against colonialism and its values

Philippe Mora, “Mad Dog Morgan” (1976)

Based on the life of an actual bushranger who plagued Victoria and New South Wales during the second half of the 19th century, this film turns out to be less a straight-out Aussie-style Western and more an impassioned protest against the colonialist settler society, its values, institutions and structures that oppressed ordinary people, created divisions that kept people apart and unable to revolt against its evils, and devastated virgin lands (and their human inhabitants) wherever it was spread. The character called Daniel Morgan aka Mad Dog Morgan (Dennis Hopper) represents one individual’s protest against British colonialism for the suffering and degradation it causes him. Initially Dan Morgan is an eager and naif Irish migrant out to try his luck in the Victoria goldfields in the 1850s – but his luck quickly runs out as he witnesses a racist attack on a Chinese-run opium den by police authorities and himself ends up in jail for six years for stealing. Prison conditions and inmates brutalise him and by the time he is released, he’s already gone a bit loco. Not long after, he goes on the run, aided and abetted by faithful Aboriginal companion Billy (David Gulpilil) and the two become infamous in two colonies for preying on wealthy landowners. Superintendent Cobham (Frank Thring) vows to bring Morgan and Billy to justice – but his brand of justice is gradually revealed to be disturbingly sadistic. For his part, Morgan’s obsession with avenging himself on those people who sent him to jail in the first place threatens to bring the crazed bushranger and his companion down as well.

The plot rambles on somewhat and the film’s climax – which actually comes after Morgan is so far subdued as to be in an incommunicado state – turns out to be worryingly anti-climactic though it is in keeping with Cobham’s cold-blooded and perverse nature and the evil that surrounds him. The message behind the film – that there’s a reason behind Mad Dog Morgan’s madness and that the authorities who pursue him are far more corrupt and mad than he could ever be (though in real life Morgan was not so heroic) – might be a bit too simplistic: Cobham and a few others like him may embody the evil that wants to cut down Morgan, Billy and all that they represent (freedom, living in harmony with nature) but to be sure, when these villains have done their time in their jobs, there will be more to take up where they leave off and the colonialist project that will despoil Australia’s landscapes and resources, and ruin the lives of Aboriginal peoples and destroy their cultures, will continue in its implacable machine-like way. What saves the film is Hopper’s bravura acting as the titular character – though it did spook some of his co-stars at the time – and the rest of the cast rise to the occasion as well to flesh out a sketchy and unfocused story-line. Few actors can be more malevolent than Thring (though he might have been hamming his role up a bit), Jack Thompson is as florid in his minor detective role as his complexion and Gulpilil is his usual fluid and stoic self: a perfect counterpoint to Hopper’s eccentric nature.

Special mention should be made of the cinematography which embraces beautiful shots of wild Australian natural scenery and the music soundtrack which features Irish-influenced Australian folk and booming Aboriginal didgeridoo music. Together with the acting, these more than compensate for the disjointed plot and the cheap production values. Despite the brutal violence and the perverted social Darwinism that informs Cobham’s thinking and behaviour towards Morgan, the film is actually very enjoyable and one finds oneself rooting for Hopper’s Morgan, even though his demise is a foregone conclusion and the actual bushranger on whom the character is based was a far more brutal and amoral figure.

The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover: a parable on the decline and fall of neoliberal British society and culture

Peter Greenaway, “The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover” (1989)

Straight away viewers can tell there’s much more simmering away in this story about a cook, a thief, his wife and her lover. This is no simple tale of a love triangle, with all its messy and emotional complications and unfortunate consequences, that forms over food and its consumption – especially when Peter Greenaway is the one shaping the narrative and the film’s visual appearance which draws heavily on Renaissance and Baroque art in a very formal and artificial way. This is a film of rage at the decline and fall of Western civilisation and British civilisation in particular, through an allegory that tells of the greed of an elite that ravages society and culture to feed its own spiritual and moral emptiness, that destroys life and imposes its rule on vulnerable people, and which can only end up destroying itself through its own gluttony.

Through means fair and foul (but mostly foul, I suspect), the mobster Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) claims ownership of Le Hollandais, a high-class restaurant run by French chef Richard Boarst (Richard Bohringer), and crudely demonstrates who’s boss by holding court at the main table every night with his retinue of thugs, gorging on food and fighting with customers who dare to criticise the food and with kitchen and waiting staff alike. Forced to accompany Spica is his timid wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) who quickly catches the attention of bookish regular customer Michael (Alan Howard) with whom she begins a secretive affair aided and abetted by Boarst. Spica learns of the affair from the girlfriend of one of his myrmidons and Georgina and Michael are forced to hide at his book depository. Spica eventually tracks down the lovers through young kitchen-hand Pup (who is also tortured) and he and his men suffocate and kill Michael while Georgina is away visiting Pup in hospital. Georgina and Boarst plot to avenge Michael’s death in a way that unravels like a 17th-century Jacobean revenge tragedy parable that traps Spica in his own greed, gluttony and violence.

The formal artificiality of the film and its self-referential nature help to smooth over much of its intense brutality and the high emotion and drama. The colours of the film – which also pervade Georgina’s quaint Victorian-styled bondage costumes, changing their hue as she passes from one part of the restaurant to another – reference the close relationships linking life, food, sex, death and rebirth. It is with the death of Michael that Georgina finally discovers her true nature and is reborn – though that new nature itself is not pure. It is with the death of the restaurant that Boarst is able to assist Georgina in paying back Spica for all the abuse and violence he has meted out to her. It is only with the death of Spica that everyone he has belittled can finally heal and become normal human beings entitled to freedom, love and a culture that prizes learning, contemplation and a love of the written word.

While the film is horrific in its extreme and gross violence and the filth and corruption that surrounds the restaurant and follow Spica and his band of murderous men, what saves it is the complexity of the characters: Spica genuinely desires to be and to have what Georgina has (refinement), even if he doesn’t quite know how to achieve it except by bullying his minions, and he weeps for what he and Georgina will never have together (children, a stable family life). Georgina changes drastically from timid put-upon abused wife to secretive and vivacious lover, to cold-blooded and vengeful bitch. Exactly what Michael offers Georgina is not too clear – it’s certainly not freedom as she keeps returning to Spica every evening – and his character more or less remains bland while he is alive (though perhaps to a woman whose husband’s behaviour goes from one violent extreme to another, the lover’s very blandness must be his most attractive quality).

The film is too long with an overly loud and shrieky musical soundtrack to be one of Greenaway’s better films. The end when it comes is abrupt compared to the rest of the movie and one isn’t too sure that Georgina, Richard and all the others wronged by Spica are justified in what they have done to him; but then, that’s the lesson of life: greed and violence corrupt people, culture and society wherever they go.

 

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

Thomas Vinterberg, “Festen” (1998)

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

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

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

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

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

Dead Sushi: wacky comedy horror film takes pot-shots at corporate culture and greed, and food obsessions

Noboru Iguchi, “Dead Sushi” (2012)

In the tradition of wacky Japanese comedy horror flicks comes this little number that takes a bizarre concept (bloodthirsty monster sushi) and milks it for all it’s worth (and then some) while managing to sneak in a coming-of-age / road movie theme in which discovering your true self and talents is the goal. Teenager Keiko (Rina Takeda) is trained by her sushi chef father to be both a sushi chef herself and a martial arts practitioner. The exacting standards her father imposes on her – plus his disdain for the fact that she was born a girl, not a boy – lead Keiko to run away from home and take up a job as a waitress at a rural hot springs resort. The other waitresses bully her and the resort owners kick her around roughly and warn her to maintain the place’s high (chortle) standards. Only the gardener Mr Sawada (Shigeru Matsuzaki) treats her kindly. A group of corporate employees from a pharmaceutical firm arrives at the resort and the guests start throwing their weight about as well. Unbeknownst to all, a former employee has followed his erstwhile work colleagues to the resort, planning to avenge his sacking on his former bosses by injecting a liquid into sushi that turns the tasty morsels into fanged ravenous critters with the power of flight!

The computer-generated gore flies freely and bloodily and the fight sequences are perhaps a little too sharp and smooth in their choreography. Most characters are as one-dimensional and stereotyped as can be – even Keiko isn’t completely plausible as the shy, put-upon doormat who becomes an unexpected heroine – and director Iguchi has to continually pile on one send-up or cliche on top of another to keep the film going. The victims of the mutant sushi turn into rice-spewing zombies, the angry researcher transforms into a giant tuna monster, two pieces of sushi propagate an army of killer baby sushi balls (which later make for a beautiful spectacle of whizzing colour as they attack a human victim) and a giant salmon roe sushi battleship flies after Keiko flinging chains and blasting fire at her!

What helps to keep the movie going, aside from the pace and the ratcheting up of more jaw-dropping silliness, is a sub-plot involving the resort owners and the sushi chef they employ, along with themes of corporate corruption and the eventual triumph of good over evil. Underdogs, be they human or sushi, perform heroic deeds and sacrifice themselves if necessary to thwart evil. No-one associated with the film, least of all the cast and the director, takes it all that seriously and the general tone is light-hearted. The film ends on a happy note with both the corporate baddies and the monster sushi brought to heel and Keiko finally discovering her life’s purpose. For all the silly fun and jaw-dropping freakishness, the film cleverly skewers plenty of cultural stereotypes in modern Japanese society: the obsession with perfection in food preparation that amounts to gastro-pornography, the control that corporations have over their employees, and men’s sexist treatment of women, among others. Like Iguchi’s other gonzo freak-fest “RoboGeisha” which I reviewed not so long ago, “Dead Sushi” in its own way critiques contemporary Japanese society and values by throwing its obsessions at it and exploiting them to the hilt.

The American Friend: an investigation into the nature of individual and collective identity

Wim Wenders, “Der Amerikanische Freund / The American Friend” (1977)

Based on the novel “Ripley’s Game” by Patricia Highsmith, “The American Friend” is at once a psychological thriller imbued with European art-house sensibilities, a character study of two men in a strange and uneasy friendship and a homage to American film noir. Art restorer Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz) is introduced to con man Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper) at an auction; Jonathan already knows of Ripley’s reputation as a dealer in forged art and snubs him by refusing to shake his hand. Miffed at such treatment, Ripley avenges himself by using news about Jonathan’s incurable blood disease to draw the unsuspecting victim into a scheme concocted together with French gangster Minot (Gérard Blain) in which Jonathan has to kill another gangster for money. Jonathan is repelled by the idea but he needs the money to pass on to his wife Marianne (Lisa Kreuzer) and their two sons in the event of his death. He is persuaded by Ripley and Minot to visit a medical specialist in Paris for a second opinion and the results (intercepted and falsified by Ripley) convince Jonathan that he really is dying and must ensure his family is financially secure. In this way Jonathan falls deeper under Ripley’s control and the two men form a close if bizarre friendship.

Meanwhile Marianne is suspicious about Jonathan’s absences and believes he is in over his head in a dangerous project with Ripley. She discovers through her own investigations that the Paris medical test results have been faked. Will she be able though to reach her husband in time to persuade him not to go any further in a life of crime and to get him out of Ripley’s clutches for his sake and that of their family?

As character studies go, the film does a good job following a man whose life spins out of control and whose decisions and actions endanger him and his family, all as a result of not shaking someone’s hand. Duped into thinking his disease is killing him, desperate to provide well for his family, Jonathan ends up spiralling into committing one crime after another. His new life brings its own strains: his physical health starts to suffer under a guilty conscience and he becomes estranged from his wife due to all the lies he tells her. Ripley is not treated simply as a catalyst for Jonathan’s downfall; as Jonathan goes farther on his road to hell, he and Ripley become close friends and collaborators. Through Jonathan, Ripley gains entry into German society that he would never have been able to achieve on his own. However the film’s events end up thwarting Ripley’s further penetration into polite pan-European circles and the American is left stranded and alone once more.

Both Ganz as the rather pathetic Jonathan, driven to distraction between competing needs, and Hopper in his particular lanky cowboy Yankee way play their characters well; Hopper’s laidback and easy-going style belies a ruthless and thuggish aspect in Ripley’s personality. The support cast more or less play stereotypes of their roles – Kreuzer is effective as a German hausfrau but goes no further to stamping her own individuality on her role.

The film features some beautiful cinematography in keeping with its art-house aesthetics but at the same time follows the demands of psychological thriller quite faithfully, if with unexpected results. It can be slow for a thriller and most of the action is bunched up in the film’s second half. The music is an important actor in the film in setting a mood and priming it audiences to anticipate an unexpected and violent move on Jonathan’s part. Just what is it really in Jonathan’s nature that drives him to distrust his family doctor, reject his wife and follow a man who initially struck him as insincere and possibly dangerous? Being terminally ill and needing better life insurance cannot wholly explain Jonathan’s motivations. Could Jonathan have secretly envied Ripley’s apparent freedom in defining himself and being his own man? Through Jonathan, viewers are challenged as to the nature of one’s identity, how a person’s public identity can be at variance with his or her real character and desires, and how one’s circumstances and history can conspire to throw him/her into a trajectory that changes the public identity but might fulfill secret desires. Jonathan’s ultimate fate though should give us pause as to how far we might be able to go in breaking out of our public personas and achieving an illusory freedom. Ripley himself appears to escape the consequences of what he has done to the Zimmermanns and to others, but he cannot escape his own internal prison.

Aside from its existential questioning, the film could also be read as an inquiry into the nature of how Germany is becoming more Americanised and the intent behind American makeover of German society, thinking and behaviour. Is there an agenda behind the gradual change in German culture towards thinking and acting like Americans? Will the outcome benefit Germans or, as the film suggests, will it result in suffering and death for those seduced by American culture?

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – Hollywood Goth drama undone by misanthropy and poor source material

Tim Burton, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (2007)

US film director Tim Burton has long been fascinated with non-conformists and outsiders, especially those outsiders who become so because they live in oppressive environments, and he has also been keen on revealing the darker aspects of human nature and society. He has obviously experienced being marginalised himself and past film work of his argues strongly on behalf of those persecuted by mainstream society because of their differences and their struggles with having to conform to unrealistic standards. The Victorian melodrama of London barber Sweeney Todd who is unjustly banished by a corrupt judge to Australia for a crime not of his own doing and who later returns seeking bloody vengeance against the judge who destroyed his family and the society that condemned him was bound to appeal to Burton.

His adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical of the tale though seems ill-advised for someone who cares about the plight of oppressed individuals; even with all the changes Burton had to make to the musical to bring the tale to the screen, the plot turns out to be superficial and focuses on spectacle, shock and sensationalist violence, and the music and lyrics are very boring and repetitive. The original melodrama itself and the musical material are mostly to blame – there really is not much substantial for Burton to work with – but the director himself does not bring much new to the film. Even the cast he assembles for the film depends heavily on two actors, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, who have worked with the director on several other films (and HBC was Burton’s de facto wife at the time as well) and who both knew what was expected of them for this movie.

Benjamin Barker (Depp) returns to Victorian London by ship accompanied by sailor Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower), having previously been imprisoned and sent away for 15 years on trumped-up charges imposed by Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) because Turpin had lusted after Barker’s wife. With Barker gone, Turpin and his valet Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall) lure Barker’s wife and daughter into their clutches; Turpin rapes Mrs Barker who then tries to kill herself and later goes mad. She is cast out into the streets and Turpin then brings up the daughter Johanna as his ward, planning later on to marry her. When Barker returns to London, he contacts his old landlady Mrs Lovett (HBC) who helps him re-establish his barbershop.

After despatching rival barber Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen) who tried to blackmail Barker, and missing a chance to kill Turpin, Barker and Lovett hit upon a scheme that benefits them both: Barker, now known as Sweeney Todd, starts killing a considerable proportion of his clients and sends their bodies down a ramp to Lovett in her dungeon where she processes the corpses through a mincing machine into meat for her pie-shop business. The couple do a roaring trade, the authorities initially suspect nothing, and Barker/Todd and Lovett start planning a future away from London with Lovett’s assistant Toby (Ed Sanders), inherited from Pirelli, in tow.

In the meantime, Hope meets Johanna (Jane Wisener) and falls in love with her; the young couple try to elope but Turpin intervenes and sends the defiant Johanna to a madhouse for women. This subplot is thinly developed, with Hope rescuing Johanna without too much trouble from a supposed prison and bringing her to Todd’s barbershop as refuge. By the time he does so, Todd and Lovett have become deranged serial murderers in their quest and Johanna is in as much mortal danger from Todd as she ever was from Judge Turpin.

The thinness of the plot and the lacklustre music, not helped much by the actors’ thin voices (but at least they try valiantly and Depp is not too bad as a singer), have to be padded out by Burton’s familiar Hollywood Gothic visual style of painting his lead actors’ faces to look haunted and ghost-like, and the depiction of London as faux-Dickensian. The violence and bloodletting are dealt with in forced comic Monty-Python style and the only real moment of horror which Burton actually does very effectively comes at the end when Toby, suspecting that Todd isn’t all that he seems to be, is led into the dungeon by Lovett who traps him there to face the full horror of what she and Todd have been up to.

The film veers between Burton’s sympathy for underdogs and the misanthropy of the lyrics, as his characters try to lift themselves out of poverty into Victorian middle-class comfort by preying on rich and poor alike. Eventually Todd’s desire for revenge and Lovett’s love for Todd and her attempts to create a family with him and Toby become their undoing. Burton obviously has fun picking up themes of longing for security and connection, desire for retribution against individual and social injustice, and the need for individuals to find a place in society that helps them fulfill other needs, throwing them all together and seeing what comes out. How the conflict that arises from the intersection of these individual needs results in tragedy. At the end of the film, the survivors of the carnage are no better off than its victims. Todd and Lovett end up being cannibalised by their own desires and scheming. What happens to Hope, Johanna and Toby remains unknown.

If there’s a message to be taken away, it seems to be that human nature is nasty and unredeemable, and even those individuals and layers of society badly treated by others are as bad and corrupt as those who mistreat them. Nothing in the movie – and I suspect in Burton’s source material, to judge from the lyrics – attempts to investigate the nature of a society that allows the rich and powerful like Judge Turpin and their hangers-on like Bamford to prey on the poor and to escape proper social justice while the poor tear themselves apart with personal hatreds and desires, as Todd and Lovett end up doing.

The bleakness of the film’s narrative, the underlying misanthropy and the sensational violence have to be covered up with a cartoonish presentation and an approach that goes for cheap laughs. None of the characters is very convincing and only the beggar woman persecuted by Lovett, along with Johanna, Toby and Hope elicit any audience sympathy.

Pieta (dir. Kim Kiduk): a cruel and absurd grotesquery mocking the poor and the marginalised

Kim Kiduk, “Pieta” (2012)

This tale of dark revenge centres around a class of people at the bottom-feeding end of the capitalist social hierarchy pyramid, those people fated to work at essential jobs paying little money, in dangerous life-threatening conditions and little hope of advancement. You know who these folk and what these jobs are: these people are subcontractors who work on projects given them by large industrial firms, or who recycle machines and other objects discarded by companies and consumers. These workers earn very little and borrow heavily simply to sustain themselves and their families but then are often unable to pay their crippling debts.

Enter Kangdo (Lee Jeongjin), a brutal enforcer working for a loan shark moneylender, going about threatening these people with severe injuries if they don’t pay back their debts. When they plead for more time, he breaks their fingers or throws them off ledges onto hard ground where their legs are broken. The money they receive from government agencies to pay their medical costs is instead claimed by Kangdo. Kangdo operates in the concrete underbelly of Seoul, in a labyrinthine maze of dreary garages, machine shops and junkyards. His personal life is as depressing and cold as his working life: Kangdo lives alone in a filthy flat in what appears to be a derelict apartment building, he has no close relationships and his diet consists of meat from animals that he kills himself, and whose innards grace his bathroom floor. A house-proud tenant he certainly ain’t.

Unexpectedly one day he meets a strange middle-aged woman (Cho Minsoo) who pursues him, claiming to be the mother who abandoned him as a tiny baby. Kangdo rejects the woman and warns her to stay away from him but she continues to pester him. He then puts her through some hair-raising tests including an incest rape which she passes with flying colours (of mostly blood-red hue). Over time, Kangdo and the woman accept each other, they start behaving as son and mother, and Kangdo starts to regain some of the humanity that he has always kept deeply buried in order to survive on the streets and to cope with being a brutal and loathsome thug. He starts to feel shame and guilt about the things he has done and he resolves to give up his brutal occupation and to start anew.

Alas, when he starts to open up and rediscover his connection to others that he had to suppress in order to survive on the streets, the woman herself discovers the full extent of his misdeeds as a moneylender’s enforcer and she determines to teach her son a lesson about accepting the consequences of his crimes and understanding how much his victims have suffered …

From then on, the plot becomes shaky and melodramatic as each of Kangdo’s past victims (or the ones we have seen anyway) return to haunt and taunt him in some way. As a result of being reunited with his mother, Kangdo returns to a child-like state and is unable to defend himself. One implausible incident leads to another even wackier one and while the plot descends into farce, earlier themes about how impoverished and marginalised people are bullied and exploited, and how capitalist society creates changes that crush, corrupt and sweep away people, and damages relationships and communities, are swept aside. Minor characters are treated as both pathetic victims, often for comic effect, or as brutal and corrupt themselves: either way, the film hardly shows much compassion and understanding for them in their debased states as they try to survive in the best way they can.

While the cinematography (filming was done with a hand-held camera) is beautifully if minimally done with well-placed shots, and the plot runs on very spare if sometimes brutal dialogue with long stretches of silent film that takes in the griminess of the life led by the urban poor in a derelict neighbourhood of tiny machine shops and scattered junk, “Pieta” frequently has an air of self-satisfaction and parody. As a Korean film, it appears to send up other well-known art-house Korean films on vengeance, redemption and dysfunctional mother-son relationships characterised by smother love, debasement and mutual psychological and physical violence. After the halfway point of the film, when Kangdo finally accepts his mother, the plot goes downhill with Kangdo progressively becoming more infantile in pleading for his mother’s life (while unaware that his mother, driven by her own demons, is playing a cruel trick on him) with unseen kidnappers. When the worst happens, Kangdo is left adrift and helpless, unable to survive on his own. The paradox is that when he was brutal, Kangdo did well enough on his own, but once he comes to know love and human connection, he reverts to the state of an infant and when the connection is broken, the only thing left for him is death. The social circumstances that led his mother to abandon him as a baby continues as heartlessly as it did before. If this paradox is supposed to be a blackly humorous comment on the human condition, I’d hate to know what a deadly serious comment would be.

The cosmic-joke nature of the film, its self-conscious cleverness and the way fate smacks Kangdo about, while leaving out any criticism of the industrial society that brutalises people and makes possible violence, corruption and degradation of individuals and society alike, leaves “Pieta” with a bad smell. Revenge may be pitiless, redemption may come with a heavy price and that price may be death, yes, but the way in which Kangdo is manipulated into debasing himself in a completely abject way is unconvincing. For all the fine acting and an undeveloped sub-plot about the purpose of existence and ordering your life away from the pursuit of material wealth, the film turns out to be an absurd and cruel grotesquery.