Animal: in a ruined world, hope, tradition and openness to new consciousness can overcome despair

Jules Janaud and Fabrice le Nezet, “Animal” (2017)

In the not too distant future, in a post-industrial world, communities living on the margins of society will find new ways of accommodating and blending cyber-technologies with traditional folk customs that pass on knowledge and a sense of identity and belonging. An elderly man, Jawak (Issaka Sawadogo), lives a reclusive life in one such impoverished community, somewhere on the outskirts of Paris or Dakar (Senegal), caring for his pet, Noodle: it is a mutant cephalopod born in an environment where various toxic chemicals, some radioactive, have been dumped for a long time. The wildlife has changed in order to cope with the high levels of radiation. Half a century ago, as a child Jawak entered a radioactive zone with two friends, one of them Marcel; while exploring and looking for something, Jawak suffered an accident for which Marcel was in part responsible. Since then permanently disabled (and presumable unable to find work where he needed to be able to walk and move normally), Jawak has nursed a long-simmering resentment against Marcel (Bass Dhem) who has done much better in life.

An opportunity to settle an old score arises when Jawak and Marcel agree to match their cephalopod animals, Noodle and Bouma respectively, in a fight at which bets will be placed and money will change hands. For this, Jawak prepares Noodle carefully: he dresses the creature in warrior regalia and feeds it special food which includes his own blood as advised by a traditional healer to get rid of the anger and resentment he still feels from his childhood.

For much of the film, the action is slow and leisurely, the preparation for the fight being as much a ritual in itself as the fight is: Jawak goes to great lengths to buy the special food and feed Noodle, and to make special armour which he also paints carefully. At the match itself, Jawak in semi-traditional dress dances a ritual dance signalling the beginning of battle; Marcel on the other hand, natty in his Western suit, brings out his well-fed animal with little ceremony. This part of the film shows up the huge disparity in Jawak and Marcel’s circumstances and their attitudes to tradition and modernism: Jawak has always been poor and stayed close to his west African culture and traditions while Marcel has enjoyed a fully Westernised lifestyle with little regard for his ancestors’ backgrounds and culture.

While the film seems slow and appears not to say a great deal initially, after a second watch this viewer perceives how tradition and secret knowledge can enrich and benefit an individual and even effect a transformation that will resonate through that individual’s life for a long time. Jawak’s use of tradition to achieve several goals is skilfully and minimally demonstrated in the straightforward plot: he has his revenge on Marcel and at the same time is able to relieve his feelings of resentment, and presumably can go forward in his life. The climactic moment occurs when Noodle, appearing badly bitten and beaten by Bouma, suddenly responds to the spirit messages and nourishment infused into it and begins chasing the bigger mutant.

The acting is very good and the narrative and cinematography work together well to create and escalate tension and anticipation while at the same time working in a theme of culture and tradition providing a basis for hope, sacrifice, transformation and resurrection against astronomical physical odds. In the end, it is the state of mind and one’s openness to a new consciousness and reality that wins against brute physical force.

The Good Liar: a story of identity, reinvention and revenge shafted by a superficial script

Bill Condon, “The Good Liar” (2019)

Getting two giants of British stage and film proved to be the least of director Bill Condon’s problems; the biggest turned out to be finding a script that was worthy of Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren’s talents. Although the two actors put in very good performances, “The Good Liar” turns out to be a pedestrian work. Serial grifter Roy Courtnay (McKellen) manipulates people into handing over their finances through various deceptive schemes, usually by employing false identities. One ruse is to go on dating websites to find and scam vulnerable widows: his latest victim is one Betty McLeish (Mirren), a sweet old lady who recently lost her husband Adrian and has inherited a cool three million pounds. Thereupon the two embark on the usual round of meeting for lunch or dinner at smart restaurants, going to the cinema to see third-rate Hollywood war films or walking in the park hand in hand. When not occupied with McLeish – and to his surprise, the widow insists that he stay in her house to recuperate from a gammy knee – Courtnay teams with fellow con-man Vincent (Jim Carter) to fleece another victim, Bryn (Mark Lewis Jones), of his money in an elaborate fake offshore financial scam. When Bryn realises he has been robbed, he secretly follows Courtnay but Courtnay tricks him into following him (Courtnay) into Charing Cross tube station where the experienced grifter brutally attacks his victim and sends him into the path of an oncoming train.

From then on, Betty McLeish and Roy Courtnay become ever closer to the extent of agreeing to combine their bank accounts with Vincent’s help, to the chagrin of Betty’s grandson Steven (Russell Tovey). Betty insists on taking Roy to visit Berlin where Steven is doing research on World War II history. There, Roy is unexpectedly confronted with his past as a soldier working with a German-English translator Hans Taub, seeking a Nazi war criminal …

At this point the film becomes less credible, as not only Roy but other people he thought he knew turn out to have false identities; and on learning those people’s true identities, he is forced to accept the consequences of past heinous actions which impact on his life and transform it forever. He is literally left a broken man. We do not learn however if he learns a lesson from his past crimes, and this is one aspect of the film that detracts from it overall. We also do not learn whether Betty regrets what she believes she has had to do – or even whether she had any legal authority to do what she does – to avenge the suffering that was done to her parents and siblings more than 60 years ago (at the time the film is set) in a distant country and period. Is she afraid that what was done to her then might happen to her grandchildren? Does she even consider that what she has done in the film might come back to bite her, just as what Roy did in the past came back to bite him? Again, the film is silent on this question, and this silence diminishes the film further: there is no suggestion that Betty’s vengeance, even in the context of a society that no longer cares about the suffering of victims of past wars (unless they are favoured victims of a particular historical narrative), might not be the moral thing to do.

Details of the plot, such as the ages of the protagonist and antagonist – if they were teenagers during World War II, then they’d have to be well over 80 years of age when they meet in the film’s present – and the way in which the revenge plot is resolved, with two characters from earlier in the film unexpectedly turning up at the climax, are simply not plausible. The punishment meted out to Roy is excessive, even for someone (spoiler alert) as psychopathic as he turns out to be.

The film could have delivered a profound message on identity and reinvention of oneself, to escape a troubled past (which ends up intruding on one’s present in unexpected and unpleasant ways), and on the nature of revenge, and how it might or might not resolve suffering, but the opportunity was frittered on a simple and superficial story. As former Shakespearean actors, McKellen and Mirren are far better than this and deserve better scripts.

Knives Out: superficial examination of class and privilege in crime comedy whodunnit

Rian Johnson, “Knives Out” (2019)

At times playing like a spoof of the classic whodunnit murder mystery that takes place in a palatial mansion and the entire family, their domestic staff and guests from the highest echelons of politics, industry and society are under forced lockdown while the determined private detective pursues the murderer, “Knives Out” manages to insert a rather shallow stab into the heart of the class system in the US and various political and social issues, like illegal immigration from Mexico and other parts of Latin America, in its complicated plot. A famous mystery novelist, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), living in reclusive wealth in a ramshackle mansion, has been found stabbed to death by his housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson). Private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is hired by an anonymous figure to investigate the circumstances of the death. In his investigations which include questioning the Thrombey relatives, Blanc learns that several of them could have had motives for killing Thrombey: son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson) is cheating on Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Harlan has threatened to expose him; Harlan has cut off daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette)’s allowances for stealing her daughter’s tuition fees; the old fella has just sacked his youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) from his publishing company; and disinherited grandson Ransom (Chris Evans). Indeed, later in the film, the whole family discover during the reading of the will that Harlan has left nothing to them at all, and all the wealth, control of the publishing company and the Thrombey properties have been left to the caregiver nurse Marta (Ana de Armas).

It transpires that the night before Harlan’s death, Marta had accidentally given Harlan a fatal overdose of morphine but Harlan tells her how to avoid suspicion by giving her some rather elaborate and risky instructions. Having followed the instructions, Marta later confesses all to Ransom and Ransom offers to help her if she will offer him his original part of the inheritance. The entire family pressure her to renounce her inheritance and intend to apply the slayer rule (a murderer cannot inherit from his/her victim) but Blanc insists on further investigation. Marta receives a blackmail note together with Harlan’s toxicology report. She and Ransom drive to the medical examiner’s office which they discover has been destroyed in a fire. The police and Blanc chase the couple and arrest Ransom. Blanc and Marta travel to a location where the blackmailer has told Marta to go and Marta discovers Fran drugged and dying from a morphine overdose.

Marta later prepares to confess all to the Thrombey family and give up her inheritance but is stopped by Blanc who takes her, Ransom and police detectives to a separate room in the Thrombey mansion where Blanc reveals the identity of the true villain behind various recent events of which Harlan’s death is but one incident linked to the others.

The acting varies from average to very good with Craig giving an intense performance and de Armas portraying Marta as an innocent and saintly immigrant girl caught in the machinations of various disgusting modern-day American stereotypes: the virago businesswoman who believes everything she has achieved is all her own work; her hen-pecked husband who helped her climb to success while having an affair on the sly; the pretentious Facebook social influencer and her “progressive” and “liberal” activist daughter; and the teenager who holds “alt-right” views and spends too much time on his smartphone. Therein lies a problem: the talented cast is wasted in roles that are little more than currently fashionable stereotypes of figures in 21st-century American society as viewed from a limited Hollywood viewpoint. Even Marta appears as a stereotype of the downtrodden underdog whose family arrived in the US as undocumented immigrants. Harlan’s revised will then represents an apology on his part for the devastation that the US has historically wrought on Latin American people over the past 150 years and on First Nations people in North America for twice as long. The problem though is that de Armas’ portrayal of Marta, on whom much of the film’s plot depends, is rather flat and one-dimensional compared to the scenery-chewing performances of such actors as Curtis and Collette. Perhaps the only actor who achieves a good balance between the extremes of de Armas on the one hand and Curtis and Collette on the other is Don Johnson, who does not get much to do but is outstanding when he does it.

Perhaps the film’s plot is too long and a bit too convoluted, and its framework as a parody of the whodunnit crime genre is not quite suited to the investigation of white privilege in a hierarchical class society where race and ethnicity are used to order sort out individuals as superior or inferior. All too often various issues about illegal immigration, the question of Marta’s original country and the Thrombey family’s assumptions that despite their parasitical natures they should still inherit their patriarch’s wealth are played more for laughs when they should be treated more seriously and in depth.

Hybrids: a hybrid short film of too many cliches and stereotypes

Patrick Kalyn, “Hybrids” (2013)

This sci-fi live action short seems to have been made as a proof-of-concept film to promote an idea for a television series to film studio executives. In six minutes, a devoted mother (Daniella Evangelista), stunned to discover her daughter Abby (Kaitlyn Bernard) mutilated to death by mysterious strangers only moments after the girl kissed Mum goodbye in their garden, has become a vigilante soldier dedicated to wiping out the horde of insectoid critters responsible for the child’s death in a post-apocalyptic urban environment. Most of the film is taken up by the mother being attacked by and beating the living daylights out of the monsters with a variety of weapons. Using some ingenious hologram technology, the mother tricks a swarm of creatures into attacking her image and blows them up. She knows however that there are far, far more of those monsters where they came from and the next day will be like the previous day: she will continue hunting them and killing them until one day they will all be dead.

For a short film, the special effects and the cinematography are quite good, and what acting does appear looks adequate for the task. The music is the usual cliched Hollywood orchestral schmaltz so the less said about it, the better. Unfortunately the narrative is very stereotyped and derivative: Mum is clearly modelled on the Sarah Connor character made famous by Linda Hamilton in The Terminator series of movies. How the mother came to be such a mighty warrior skilled in handling a variety of firearms, throwing knives and swords, and karate-chopping her enemies isn’t explained very well. The monsters don’t seem very intelligent: they are looking for a “key” that is possessed only by humans and which appears to be part of their genetic make-up so they insist on killing humans to extract what they need. If one assumes the monsters came from outer space, they surely would have the intelligence (or at least the intelligence that enabled them to build the spacecraft to travel to Earth) to try to co-operate with humans to identify the “key” and try to reproduce it themselves.

The final shot of the film presents an ambiguity: some of the monsters are clearly working with humans and at this point, the realisation dawns on this viewer that the monsters already contain some human genetic material combined with other non-human genetic material. Whether the female soldier is allied with these monsters and armed humans or not remains unknown. The whole film though presents an idea that is not at all original, relies too much on physical conflict and violence, and the special effects to make this happen, and uses a plot filled with cliches about family, revenge and survival in a quarantined city. The notion of humans and extraterrestrial creatures working in tandem to eliminate other humans – perhaps because those humans don’t wish to serve as slaves to an elite in a hierarchical society – is also not original. There are too many tired stereotypes and recycled ideas in this film short and the concept it promotes most likely needs retiring.

Colony: a stereotyped sci-fi horror treatment of colonisation and possession

Catherine Bonny, “Colony” (2018)

Partly informed by the history of early European settlement in Australia, as well as perhaps stories of the treatment of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps in Germany and eastern Europe, this short film combines dystopian science fiction, horror, revenge with its unexpected consequences, and the relationship of colonialists with the land they settle and with that land’s original inhabitants. In particular, this film examines how the original inhabitants of the land react to the presence of the alien colonists and how they might punish those who damage and devastate their environment by infiltrating those they wish to strike.

In the distant future, a prison colony is established on a distant planet. Sardonically named “Heaven”, the prison colony is located near the seashore and its female inmates, under the watchful supervision of their male guards, are forced to farm vegetables and fruit in very harsh conditions. The food they manage to grow does not sustain them much and they progressively grow weak. In this prison live two sisters, Rhian (Emma Burnside) and Seren (Alicia Hellingman), the latter of whom was apparently smuggled by Rhian onto the spaceship that brought them to the desolate planet in defiance of the rules that stipulated that only fit people could board the craft. Rhian has an arrangement with one guard in which he provides whatever medicine he can in exchange for sex. As the days go by, and the two women try to negotiate their way through the hostility and jealousy of the other women prisoners, and the caprices of the guards, Rhian is drawn to the sea that laps the shores and breaks over the rocks of the coast: ghost voices and rattling sounds call to her and when she looks at the ocean, a strange light appears beneath the waves and beckons to her. When she gashes her leg on a rock and the wound is severe, the seawater heals the wound and when she retrieves an old brown apple that she has thrown into the water, it becomes green and new.

One day the guards trick Rhian into bringing Seren to them by telling her they have medicine but Rhian discovers the ruse too late. The two women fight the guards but Seren comes off the worse for her encounter and Rhian is unable to save her. Rhian vows vengeance for her sister’s death and the strange forces in the sea beckon her with promises to help – but as with her earlier arrangement with the guard, what this natural world wants from her is more than she reckoned with.

The film is rather uneven in its pacing: for much of its running time until the last few minutes, it is quite slow and leisurely, delineating the nature of the colony, the hierarchy that exists, and the two sisters’ uncertain place within it. Then violence happens abruptly and Rhian, stopped by the voices in her head, appears curiously apathetic. The conclusion takes place some time after Seren’s death – a day perhaps, maybe even a week, a month, a year later – and despite its casual tone, a few changed details in Rhian’s appearance tell us that the forces that Rhian aligns with are going to be horrific, and that Heaven will soon become Hell.

It is a pity that the film is slow to develop the relationships of the people in Heaven as they come across as stereotypes rather than people we would care about. Even Rhian ends up no more than a rather selfish and mercenary young woman, susceptible to manipulation in situations where the benefits might outweigh the costs. She ends up meeting more than her match in the alien environment but the alien possession and colonisation of her mind and body produce a stereotyped monster.

The film’s treatment of its themes and ideas turns out somewhat shallow and cliched. Perhaps if the pace had been a bit quicker and the plot tighter, the action might have been better spread out in the 14-minute running time, and the price Rhian pays for avenging her sister’s death could have been elaborated in more depth. The actors might have had more time and opportunity to explore their characters and given them more complexity as they confront the harsh prison conditions and pressures, and the unforgiving alien environment that will soon kill them viciously.

The Invisible Man’s Revenge: a messy plot and flat uninteresting characters underline this cheap film

Ford Beebe, “The Invisible Man’s Revenge” (1944)

It could have been an interesting character study about various individuals’ motivations and greed, and how far they’re prepared to go to get what they want, but this film, done cheaply and cynically to cash in on previous films based on the H G Wells’ novel “The Invisible Man”, turns out to be a mess in terms of its plotting and character development. The criminal Robert Griffin (Jon Hall) escapes from an asylum and pursues a wealthy couple, Sir Jasper and Lady Irene Herrick (played by Lester Matthews and Gale Sondergaard) whom he accuses of having left him for dead in Africa years ago and of whom he demands his share of the wealth they gained from discovering diamond fields during a safari trip. The couple trick him of his rightful inheritance by drugging him, destroying a document they find on his person that proves his claim and then booting him out of their mansion. Griffin finds refuge with a cobbler, Herbert (Leon Errol), who tries to help him with his claim but is unsuccessful. Griffin next comes across crank scientist Drury (John Carradine) who makes him invisible in an experiment. Griffin uses his invisibility to extort money and property out of Sir Jasper Herrick and to claim the hand of Herrick’s daughter Julie (Evelyn Ankers) in marriage; the fellow also helps Herbert win a game of darts at his local pub.

Griffin discovers how he can become visible again and murders Drury to regain his normal appearance. However this visibility is only temporary and Griffin must resort to killing another man to recover his appearance so he can marry Julie. The next man Griffin targets for death is Julie’s fiance Mark Foster (Alan Curtis), thus setting up a showdown between the two men for Julie’s affections.

The film intentionally makes all its characters unlikable and not at all heroic. Most characters are greedy and will stop at nothing to get what they think they deserve. Ankers’ character has hardly anything to do at all apart from looking pretty as the love interest. Hall as Griffin lacks charisma and is workman-like in portraying the deranged killer. As Griffin is already a deranged serial murderer, the film does not need to investigate the question of whether a person might remain moral if s/he has numerous opportunities to perform unethical actions without fear of punishment. (It’s possible that as a result, the film suffers from the lack of tension that such an issue would offer.) The Herricks manage to live another day but not without suffering considerable psychological trauma. Foster arrives late in the plot and bravely offers a fight but his character remains flat; he and Julie do not even get a chance to hold hands. Too much in the plot is told, not shown, violating a basic rule of story-telling. Even the sets used in the film look cheap and tired.

The film is not essential viewing for fans of horror unless they are keen to see the entire series of films (all independent of one another in plot and characters) on the Invisible Man.

Ten Canoes: morality tale, comedy and demonstration of traditional Yolngu values, beliefs and worldview rolled into one

Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr, “Ten Canoes” (2006)

An engrossing story of another story, “Ten Canoes” acts as both a morality tale and an ingenious exposition of the values and beliefs of an Aboriginal community in Arnhem Land, in northern Australia. Like good stories, “Ten Canoes” aims to entertain as well as educate on different levels: as a story about a story, it teaches the value of patience, it contains an interesting twist and warning, and it demonstrates something of how the Yolngu people interpret past, present and future time, and how the passage or flow of time is not necessarily linear in the way Westerners experience time. The role of story-telling in an oral culture like the Yolngu culture goes far beyond simply repeating a story one might have heard as a child and passing it on to the next generation: it may be shaped, changed and improvised on to fit the story-teller’s aims; its narration takes time – maybe a lot of time, as in several days, even weeks – and certain things may have to happen first before the next chapter of the story can be told; and while the story appears to be simple to follow, its message/s may be profound and complex.

The story-about-a-story is narrated by David Gulpilil whose son Jamie appears also as two characters, Dayindi and Yeeralparil. Dayindi is one of ten men on a hunting expedition to find geese and their eggs for their community. The leader of the expedition, Minygululu (Peter Minygululu), is Dayindi’s much older brother who has three wives, the third of whom is a beautiful young girl who has caught Dayindi’s eye. Minygululu is aware of Dayindi’s interest in his wife so during the expedition he tells the younger man a story of another young man much like Dayindi and known as Yeeralparil, who lived in Yolngu country thousands of years ago.

Like Dayindi, Yeeralparil has an older brother, Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurddal), who also has three wives, of whom the youngest wife has caught Yeeralparil’s eye. Ridjimiraril is a much respected hunter in the community. One day, a stranger comes from the stone country beyond the rainforest where the Yolngu live and his arrival is interpreted by the resident Yolngu sorcerer (for want of a better term) as portending trouble. While the Yolngu people allow visiting rights to the stranger, Ridjimiraril’s second wife mysteriously disappears. Ridjimiraril believes the stranger has abducted her for his own and the angry hunter kills a man from the stranger’s tribe, mistaking him for the stranger. The stranger’s tribe demands payback to avoid war and Ridjimiraril submits. After the necessary ritual is performed, Yeeralparil not only gets what he wished for but extra responsibilities result as well, and he realises that from then on his life is going to be one endless hassle after another.

Enough of the Yolngu’s traditional customs and law are explained where necessary and relevant, and viewers see how law and tradition are used to avoid unnecessary and unwanted conflict, violence leading to more violence, and bitterness and resentment. David Gulpilil plays a significant role as narrator, spicing up his telling with humour and playfulness, and insinuating that, like Minygululu, this story-of-a-story needs to take its own time in unfolding and is dependent on listeners’ own willingness and receptiveness to its lessons. In amongst the story-telling, Minygululu, Dayinde and their eight companions prepare bark canoes to travel out onto the rivers and swamps to find and hunt the geese and look for their eggs.

Various characters engage in idle chit-chat and tell one another earthy jokes about turds and flatulence. One character, the jolly elder Birrinbirrin (Richard Birrinbirrin), is obsessed with finding his next honey hit. Wives scold their husbands, gossip about people who might be having affairs and occasionally squabble over petty matters. Men make plans about where they’ll hunt or when the right moment comes to go on the warpath. All this action takes place within a worldview which regards time as circular, in which humans begin their existence as tadpoles in waterholes and return to the exact same waterholes as tadpoles when they die. Within this paradigm, people must learn to let nature take its course, to be patient and to accept what nature gives to them.

The cinematography is well done, emphasising the nature of the country where the Yolngu people live and how it is a significant character in the film in its own right. Colours fade from colour to black-and-white but not in the way audiences might expect: the fading is done to show how concepts of the past, the present and the future mean little to a people for whom the past is very much alive and from which important lessons can and should be learned and heeded.

 

The Goddess: a social realist film with natural and minimal acting, and a young rising star

Wu Yonggang, “The Goddess / Shen nu” (1935)

A year after this film was made, its star Ruan Lingyu took her life by overdosing on barbiturates, apparently as a result of her entanglement in a love triangle involving her husband from whom she was estranged and another man with whom she was living, and the vicious gossip that surrounded them all, so in some ways this silent film occupies a special place in Chinese cinematic history. Ruan plays a single unnamed mother who resorts to prostitution to support herself and her young son. During a police vice sweep one evening in Shanghai, Ruan’s character takes shelter with a gangster (Zhang Zhizhi), known as Boss Zhang, who takes advantage of her vulnerability by claiming her as his property and her earnings as money he can use to pay off his gambling debts. The woman pins all her hopes on her son as he grows up and she saves up enough money (away from Boss Zhang’s eyes) to send him to school. However her reputation precedes his arrival at the school, the other children’s parents complain and the school, over the objections of the principal, expels the child. Boss Zhang eventually discovers where the woman has been keeping her savings and claims the money. This leads to a confrontation between him and the woman which ends in tragedy. The woman ends up facing 12 years in jail and her son is taken away from her.

The story is simply and minimally told, and its purpose is to reveal starkly how harsh and miserable the lives of marginal people like the single mother, driven by poverty to take up prostitution, could be, the dangers and corruption they could fall into, and the humiliation and bullying they faced from society at large in trying to improve their lives and their children’s lives. For the period, the acting is natural and not at all exaggerated for effect. Ruan lets her facial expressions do all the acting, and the range of moods and feelings that pass over her face is remarkable indeed. One sees the depths of despair and hopelessness in succeeding scenes, yet also the fury that overtakes her character when all seems utterly lost. The entire film revolves around Ruan’s performance and a very good performance it is when one considers the actress was in her mid-20s and her skill as an actor seems to have come mostly from learning on the job. The rest of the cast does a good job in supporting Ruan’s character; Zhang in particular conveys both comedy and malevolence as the manipulative and predatory Boss Zhang.

The cinematography is something to behold, in the way it makes collages of still life scenes to demonstrate the pathos of the life the woman must lead to survive, and in the way close-ups, unusual camera angles and soft blurring are used to portray the pain or anger she feels, even if fleetingly.

While the story and its message may verge on trite, and the stereotype of the prostitute with a heart of pure gold was probably old even in the 1930s, this film is quite remarkable in its willingness to portray, in a generic way, the plight of prostitutes in 1930s Shanghai and how their reality combined with social expectations of women to expose them to further danger and deny them any possibility of improving their lives. The irony is that Ruan’s character achieves freedom and peace by further breaking the law in committing murder, ending up in jail and losing her son.

 

Diary of a Chambermaid: a bleak and realist comedy offering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kuroneko: an ordinary ghost horror story saved by expressionist cinematography and social commentary

Kaneto Shindo, “Kuroneko” (1968)

A companion piece to his earlier classic “Onibaba”, Shindo’s “Kuroneko” explores vengeance and human desires for love in the setting of a typically Japanese ghost horror story. The film also expresses an anti-war theme by concentrating on the disruptions and changes war brings to poor people and to poor women in particular. Two farm women, Yone (Nobuko Otawa, who also appeared in “Onibaba”) and her daughter-in-law Oshige (Kiwako Taichi), are attacked in their home by a group of rough samurai led by Raiko Minamoto (Kei Sato) who rape and murder them, and who try to cover up their crime by burning down the farm-house with the dead women inside. The women’s spirits then inhabit the bodies of black cats and acquire the ability to change into aristocratic women in order to attack travelling samurai and drain them of their blood in their ghost mansion set up in the bamboo grove where their farmhouse used to be.

Oshige’s husband Hachi (Kichiemon Nakamura) returns from northern Japan with the head of an enemy general which he presents to his local governor who turns out to be Raiko Minamoto. Believing Hachi’s lie that he fought the general under the name Gintoki, Minamoto makes him samurai and then orders him to find and destroy the ghosts at Rajo Gate that are preying on samurai. Oshige finds the ghosts and realises they are the ghosts of his dead mother and wife. Oshige is torn between the pact she and Yone have made with underworld demons to destroy samurai and her love and desire for Hachi / Gintoki. Her choice condemns her but saves Hachi / Gintoki’s life. Forced by the governor on pain of death to get rid of Yone, Hachi / Gintoki tries to manoeuvre his way out of his dilemma of having to kill his mother’s ghost but finds himself outwitted.

The story is fairly and straightforward and trots along at a steady pace until its last few scenes when it speeds up and becomes unhinged when Hachi / Gintoki desperately fights his mother’s ghost. It is repetitive, even ritualistically so, for much of its running time and Western audiences may find its repetitive nature tedious. What elevates this ghost story into an eerie investigation of the supernatural woven through with social commentary is artful cinematography in which the natural world, populated by bamboo forests, and a minimalist style, from the furnishings to the dialogue and the costumes, are dominant. White mists swirl through the sparsely furnished rural mansion where the ghost women live. The use of light and darkness to create the world of the ghosts as opposed to the world of humans, and to highlight the desire Oshige and Hachi / Gintoki feel for each other is notable.

The transformation of two human farm women into ghostly aristocrats through a brutal incident clearly establishes Shindo as a director concerned for the well-being of the underclasses; the transformation also suggests that ordinary people who are close to nature and who create are the pawns and playthings of the nobility and warrior classes who, removed from the natural world, can only exploit and destroy what others create. While Hachi the farm-boy is raised to the level of samurai by killing someone, his lack of preparedness for the role he is required to play as samurai – that is, to kill – becomes his undoing. Governor Minamoto who elevates Hachi to the level of samuari and thus sends the young man on his way to karma remains unaffected by the events as they unfold.

The soundtrack is significant in its own right as a character – the film’s opening scenes are done entirely without dialogue and all we hear are the sounds of people drinking and eating, and later the sounds of violence, followed by the sounds of forest insects – and features a range of music from experimental folk using taiko drums to more conventional Western popular styles.

For all the tension created by the revenge plot and the dilemmas and conflicts faced by the main characters as they must navigate their changed status, whether socially in the world of humans or morally among the demons, the film seems quite ordinary compared to “Onibaba”. The acting is not nearly so good and the plot and sub-plots seem disjointed and do not flow well. Compared to other ghost story horror films being put out by other Japanese directors – the brilliant “Kwaidan” comes to mind – “Kuroneko” is redeemed mainly by its expressionist cinematography and must be regarded as a minor classic.