The Prestige: fussy plot with flat characters turns on class and cultural rivalries of its setting

Christopher Nolan, “The Prestige” (2006)

Rather fussy if good-looking film about duplicity and duplications, duelling and an all-consuming devotion to one’s art, “The Prestige” is a crime thriller with science fantasy elements. Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are two magicians apprenticed to master magician Milton (Ricky Jay) with Cutter (Michael Caine) as his engineer. Much of the film is told in flashbacks and at its beginning Borden is being tried and sentenced for the murder of Angier. The film then ducks to the events that lead to Borden’s trial: Borden complains to Angier and Cutter about Milton always playing safe with the same old magic tricks and Angier and Cutter put up reasons for Milton not wanting to risk his popularity and reputation via new and possibly dangerous tricks. One night a performance goes wrong and Angier’s wife Julia (Piper Perabo) dies; Angier blames Borden for the woman’s death and from then on the two men go all out to ruin one another’s performances, career and personal life, and steal ideas from each other as well. Then Borden surprises everyone with his act The Transported Man which Cutter believes must involve Borden using a double; Angier then tries to go one better with his own doubles but his act never sustains itself due to his own jealousies and Borden trying to wreck it.

Angier then pursues the famous scientist Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) to get him to make a teleportation machine that he believes Borden uses in his version of Angier’s trick. Tesla, needing the money after being financially wiped out by Thomas Edison, makes the machine and Angier takes possession of it before Edison’s myrmidons destroy Tesla’s laboratory.

Angier reappears in London with an updated version of his Transported Man trick: the teleportation machine creates duplicates of Angier who drown in water cells beneath trapdoors. Borden goes below stage during one such performance and, still feeling guilty over Julia’s death, tries to save one such duplicate. He is immediately framed for murdering Angier, is tried and sent to jail. While in jail, he is visited by an agent of Lord Caldlow (the true identity of Angier) who offers to care for his child Jess if he will yield his secrets. Borden is given Angier’s diary and realises he was framed. Unfortunately this news isn’t enough to save him from the gallows and Caldlow/Angier takes custody of the now-orphaned Jess, her mother having committed suicide earlier in the film.

It would seem that at this point Angier has the upper hand over Borden but things don’t quite pan out his way. At least conventional expectations about who’s the hero and who’s the villain are dispensed with: both Angier and Borden are fairly reprehensible men not above using the women who love them – Julia, Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) and Sarah (Rebecca Hall) – as unwilling pawns in their private spat. Both Angier and Borden make enormous sacrifices in their mutual self-destruction pact and both lose the love of two women. In their duel, Angier and Borden reveal themselves as hollow and amoral. The film’s moral centre resides in Cutter who must decide between being loyal to Angier or to Borden: whichever he chooses is important for the sake of Borden’s child Jess who could end up in a poor-house for orphans if he chooses unwisely.

The acting from the two male leads is solid and the supporting cast acquit themselves well. The characters though are so sketchy in a plot with so many complications and twists that perhaps it’s too much to expect the actors to devote time to drawing out some positive traits that could endear their characters to the audience. In this respect, Caine probably comes closest to making a real human being out of his character.

The film pays much attention to historical detail and captures something of the spirit of the late 1800s with its atmosphere of rivalry on several levels: during this period, the US, Germany and other nations were competing with the British Empire for colonies, trade opportunities, building railways and developing industries; and Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla were locked in a professional rivalry, though it wasn’t as violent as the film suggests. At the time the film is set – it must have been some time about 1899 or after as Angier visits Tesla in Colorado Springs where Tesla moved in 1899 – there were several inventors around the world engaged in building aeroplanes and trying to make the first controlled flight in a heavier-than-air vehicle. There is another rivalry alluded to in the film, and that is one of class: Borden represents the working class, willing to get his hands dirty, adventurous and on the look-out for new ideas; Angier represents the upper class who sees no reason to change and adapt to a new world. It is inevitable that these men, originally friends, should clash; their duel is that of the old established order with a particular set of values being challenged by a new order and new set of values. Both the old and new orders have their attractions but also their faults and at the centre of both, ethics can be lacking. The job for the audience is to decide which side they’re on and what values they should bring to whatever claims their loyalty.

There is yet another rivalry at work and that is the rivalry between magic, deception and secrecy on the one hand, and science, technology and openness on the other, and the film makes much of the fact that science and technology to people untutored in their principles, logic and workings can appear as magic; at the same time, magic is explained throughout the movie with logic.

As with other Christopher Nolan films I’ve seen, “The Prestige” substitutes a convoluted plot with many themes and plays and variations on the themes for rather flat characters lacking in feeling. Although the film is good-looking and reflects its setting quite faithfully, it tends to be of a piece with other Nolan films like “Inception” and the Dark Knight trilogy, and might even be seen as a test run for Bale and Caine for their roles in the Dark Knight films.

The Proposition: film essay and character study of British imperialism and colonialism, and the brutalisation that results

John Hillcoat, “The Proposition” (2005)

A gritty and visually stunning film essay on the combined effect of nineteenth-century British imperialism and Victorian mores, colonialism and a harsh, unforgiving environment on the individuals residing within, “The Proposition” is singer / writer Nick Cave’s meditation on the Western movie genre in an Australian colonial context.

Police captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), recently assigned from England to take charge of a lonely desert town somewhere in the Queensland colony, has just captured two brothers of a rebellious Irish family the Burns after a crazed shoot-out that leaves nearly everyone either dead or deranged. Knowing that both brothers have an older brother on the lam wanted for heinous crimes of rape and murder, and desiring to civilise his little patch of Australian territory with his wife Martha (Emily Watson), Stanley presents one brother Charlie (Guy Pearce) with a stark choice: go after big brother Arthur (Danny Huston) and kill him within 9 days before Christmas Day or the police will hang baby brother Mikey (Richard Wilson), a bit of a simpleton, on that day. Charlie accepts the proposition and goes out to apprehend Arthur but not before he nearly loses his life and is saved by Arthur and his gang: an unexpected twist that severely tests Charlie’s loyalty to both his brothers, his moral principles and his desire and determination to lead a life free from the history of past British-versus-Irish conflict and violence and how this has brutalised his family through the generations.

While Charlie hunts Arthur, Stanley has problems of his own to contend with: he tries to use reason to get rid of a greater evil (Arthur) and give Charlie and Mikey a chance of redeeming themselves but opposition from his own police troopers, police superintendent Eden Fletcher (David Wenham), his own wife Martha (Emily Watson) – who demands justice for her dead friends killed by the Burns brothers – and the townspeople force him to flog Mikey. Interestingly the flogging turns the townspeople against Stanley, causes Watson to faint and encourages insubordination among Stanley’s troopers.

In the meantime police sergeant Lawrence and his men, sent out by Stanley to find some Aborigines who have killed a white man, slaughter a group of natives and in turn are killed by Arthur and his side-kick Samuel, but not before Lawrence tells Arthur of Stanley’s proposition to Charlie. The Burns gang later breaks Mikey out of jail but, weakened by the flogging, the boy dies and Arthur swears vengeance on the Stanleys.

The actual plot with its proposition centre-piece and the unforeseen karmic consequences that result is an interesting intellectual exercise on paper and for those who understand Nick Cave’s inner universe; for the general public, it’s perhaps a little abstract and doesn’t generate much excitement. There’s a conventional climax of violence but the true climax is quiet and shattering as Charlie and Arthur share one last moment of family togetherness – in the sense that members of a family mafia can experience it – before Charlie faces existential emptiness in a vast and bleak though beautiful landscape that reflects his pain and his past bad luck, born of history, back at him. The movie is best appreciated as a character study bringing together the British imperial project and its presumptuous attitude to tame and subjugate a land and its people, the effect of that project on its subject peoples, and the effect of isolation and coping with a harsh desert environment on that project and the people as well.

What makes the character study effective is both the acting and the ambiguity of the characters themselves and what they represent: Hillcoat assembled an international cast of fine actors, some of whom inevitably are under-utilised. Pearce and Winstone are the stand-outs as protagonist and antagonist who agree to a Faustian deal that will tear them apart physically and psychologically. Pearce plays his character straight and only hints at the internal anguish Charlie is suffering: perhaps he was not the best actor to play this role and Wenham, playing a minor character, might have done a better job. Winstone is the much better actor in his role: representing Enlightenment reason in a limited and flawed way, believing perhaps that people are not born bad but can be encouraged to rise from badness to goodness, he attempts to give Charlie and Mikey a chance in a way that he hopes will advance his career as well as redeem the two; but local prejudice and resentment against him and his wife as naive English snobs, his own self-serving ambitions as a leader and his wife’s own inability to come to terms with her nature and upbringing conspire against him. I probably make Stanley sound too good: he is tender to Martha and tries to protect her but one has to ask why he brought Martha out to Australia in the first place.

John Hurt as bounty hunter Jellon Lamb intent on killing the Burns brothers has a very small role but fills it to the full with deranged malice; Emily Watson plays Martha Stanley intelligently and with substance: the character though represents an aspect of English civility trying to bring order and refinement to an alien environment but doomed to fail because it doesn’t understand its own roots of violence and repression, let alone the unforgiving demands of a new country and the skills required to survive there; so in effect Watson’s effort amounts to very little. The Aboriginal characters are portrayed with some sympathy given that the script is focussed on the white characters; it is interesting that the Burns brothers, murderous renegades thought they are, treat their Aboriginal friend humanely and even use white people’s distrust of black people to their advantage to break Mikey out of jail. The most interesting character is Arthur, a poet and philosopher as well as murderous psychopath, thanks to Huston’s steady and under-played performance: one sees that in another land, another century, Arthur could have been an intelligent, sensitive and capable leader of men. In a brutal country which understands only the language of invasion, violence, subjugation and discrimination based on class, ethnicity and race, Arthur becomes the freest of all men, obeying 0nly his own morality and musing on his place within the Australian landscape and the universe, and in that he is the most dangerous.

The Australian landscape is a significant character in the film and gives it a distinctive ambience and flavour: it is a harsh and unyielding landscape yet a beautiful one that invites people like Arthur to contemplate its mystery and beauty and their relationship to its treasures. In a way perhaps the true protagonist and antagonist in this film are – ahem, Nick Cave couldn’t resist a little joke here! – Arthur and Martha: one understands true beauty, the other is in thrall to an artificial beauty and refinement. They might have made a nice couple but they carry too much cultural baggage and their meeting in the film is very, very brief.

 

 

The Bellies: delightful film about human greed and avarice, and how materialistic societies eat themselves

Philippe Grammaticopoulos, “The Bellies / Les Ventres” (2009)

Delightful short film inspired in part by Rene Laloux’s animated work, “The Bellies” features a simple story about human avarice and arrogance in controlling nature, and how eventually nature and unacknowledged guilt prevail over greed and materialism. An unnamed gentleman, gross and piggy-eyed, gorges on snails for lunch at a restaurant; his fellow diners, all much the same as he is, eat the same meal in a bizarre co-ordinated Mexican-wave mass action. After lunch he goes back to the company laboratory where visitors await him: he explains the process by which small snails are genetically engineered to grow into ginormous gastropods for human consumption and takes his admiring guests on a tour around the facility. After the tour ends and the gentlemen sign a deal, the self-satisfied owner walks around the facility grounds where giant empty snail shells abound. On a whim, he crawls inside one such shell to assure himself he’s not hearing strange ghostly noises …

The animated figures are CGI-created while the backgrounds look as though they’ve been done with pencil and paint. Special effects are computer-generated. The figures don’t appear at all realistic but they are meant to satirise self-satisfied bourgeois conformity. There’s no speech but sprightly and playful acoustic music accompanied by sound effects emphasise mood and create, sustain and build tension. The whole cartoon has a very clean, spare look in keeping with the sanitised and conformist future society portrayed.

The last third of the film is the most surreal and really fits in with a dream-like Laloux-inspired universe: our piggy-eyed company director is forced to suffer as his factory-farmed snails have suffered and must run for his life. The film makes a point about how pursuit of materialist pleasure ends up eating you, how ultimately a culture based on gluttony will cannibalise itself. The giant fork that pursues the man turns into a creepy spider predator with a life of its own.

It’s a little slow and drags out the story in parts, especially during the graveyard scene where the company director starts thinking he’s hearing distant voices … but overall “The Bellies” is an entertaining piece with a surprisingly deep message about a future, materialistic society and how it dooms itself into extinction.

The Skin I Live In: tricked-up film about identity change misses some deep lessons about obsession, control and revenge

Pedro Almodóvar, “The Skin I Live In / La Piel Que Habito” (2011)

Georges Franju’s sci-fi horror classic “Eyes without a Face” was overdue for a remake with updated cosmetic surgery and stem cell technologies and, seeing as how these days the Spanish are making the arthouse flicks that the French used to be so good at, it’s fitting that Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar has remade that film in his own wacky Almodóvar way. Familiar motifs such as the narrative posing in flashback form, family skeleton secrets falling out of closets and reconciliations between mothers and children flesh out the original “Eyes …” plot and break every known moral convention to explore issues about identity, especially identity based on superficial criteria such as facial appearance and beauty, and stereotypes about gender.

Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is a brilliant plastic surgeon whose wife was disfigured in a fire when her car caught alight. Although he saves the wife’s life and repairs what damage has been done to her face, she later kills herself by defenestration in front of their daughter Norma. Norma becomes psychotic and stays that way for years until doctors judge her well enough to attend a wedding and its reception with her father. The girl meets Vicente (Jan Cornet) and the two sneak off into the garden for a pash. While making out, Norma hears the wedding singer warbling the song that had been playing when her mother threw herself out the window and the girl has a severe reaction. Vicente, frightened, runs away and Ledgard, searching for Norma, finds her catatonic in the garden. With the girl regressing permanently to her psychotic state, Ledgard hunts down Vicente, imprisons him and subjects him to a series of cosmetic surgery operations that include castration, a sex change and other changes: the result is the lovely Vera (Elena Anaya) who becomes the focus for Ledgard’s obsessive desires and manias.

The script is skilfully written and proceeds at a fast pace yet by using a narrative structure of a series of introductions followed by flashback history, it sets before viewers a bunch of characters of whom we form first-impression opinions; all of these impressions are undermined by the film’s second half which takes the form of memories seen through Ledgard and Vera’s dreams. We begin to understand the true horror of Vera’s experience at the hands of Ledgard who experiments on her as much out of curiosity and thirst for career fame and advancement of scientific knowledge as for vengeance. There could have been some very instructive lessons delivered about the seductive nature of scientific inquiry and how it can blind people to issues of ethical responsibility, exploitation of subjects (especially human subjects) and abusing their freedom and rights, and about the nature of freedom itself: can a person experience freedom and individuality even while imprisoned in an unwanted body and sexual identity and surrounded by another beautiful prison layer (Ledgard’s palatial home)? We see Vera educate herself with yoga and art while trapped in her beautiful jail; would Vicente have become a more educated person if he had not been captured and tormented the way he has been? Who is actually more free, Vera or Ledgard? – Vera believes herself the prisoner but Ledgard, in thrall to his obsessions and desire for vengeance, may actually be the less free of the two. But this movie being an Almodóvar movie, deep lessons about obsession, revenge and power and control over other people are avoided; we get instead a moderately convoluted story that piles shock upon shock and laugh upon laugh while the background reverberates with the invisible noise of shattering moral conventions and continuous breaches of audience tolerance.

Visually the film is beautiful and, despite the use of muted blues and green, flamboyant in that distinctive Almodóvar way: there is an added clinical precision that wouldn’t be out of place in a Cronenberg film, thanks to the subject matter and its treatment in the plot. Banderas does an excellent job as the quietly manic doctor / researcher who is as reasonable as a mad man can be, and Anaya acquits herself well as his victim. Maria Paredes as Ledgard’s housekeeper (and secret biological mother) Marilia helps to keep the plot going smoothly. Minor characters are little more than cardboard cut-outs; even Vicente rarely rises from ardent young would-be lover and wronged prisoner.

“Eyes without a Face” was a deep, thoughtful film, efficient and almost minimal in its delivery, turning on the issue of free will; “The Skin I Live In” may be more glamorous and arty in appearance, and the plot may twist and turn effortlessly with the skill and grace of a dancer, but I find this effort an inferior film compared to Franju’s effort. Tricksiness in plot and themes is never a good substitute for substance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Medea (dir. Lars von Trier): human struggle against forces of Nature and God in a beautiful and emotional film

Lars von Trier, “Medea” (1988)

Originally made for TV and with a script based on that other famous Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s adaptation of Euripides’s play “Medea”, this Lars von Trier film is a beautiful and sombre piece where people struggle for existence in a harsh and unforgiving land. Here Nature is a sinister, unknowable force and those who, like the central figure Medea (Kristen Olesen), can command its control are regarded with awe, fear and hatred. In this version of the Greek legend, Jason (Udo Kier) is preparing to marry the princess Glauke to secure his future and that of his two small sons. The teenage Glauke is suspicious of Medea and fears Jason still loves her so the girl convinces her father King Creon to banish the older woman. The King allows Medea time to pack her things and leave Corinth with her children. Medea however has other plans which include destroying Creon and Glauke and denying Jason any chance of future happiness by refusing access to their children … alive.

The film is slow and highly absorbing with many outdoor scenes set in a flat, bleak landscape alive with rain, wind, sea water, sand and grass all alive, bleeding into one another and brimming with malevolent intent. There are at least two shots of lone figures walking in the distance over moving sand or grass: both are very surreal in look and atmosphere. Backgrounds may be bleached or coloured strangely and some scenes hark back to the 1920s – 1930s in their layering with more natural figures in the foreground against a pre-taped background in a homage to Dreyer who had planned to make the movie himself but never was able to work on it. Close-ups offer an intimate, immersive, almost voyeuristic tone to the movie. The film stock used reveals soft lines and a soft white outdoors light; a fairy-tale quality to the movie is the result. Colours are usually muted and limited to dark tones and brown and blue colours, and the style of the film is rustic in a way that suggests the action takes place in Iron Age Denmark, parallel with the Roman empire in time and space.

The acting from the two leads Olesen and Kier is superb: Olesen dominates much of the film with a highly expressive emotional range that covers grief, anguish, sullenness and desire for vengeance. Kier is almost as good as the cynical Jason who thinks he can score one over Medea, claim Glauke as his bride and keep the kids but ends up losing everything he treasures; in the film’s last ten minutes, completely dialogue-free, he madly dashes about in circles on his horse and then on foot in the blowy grasslands, finally stabbing blindly at the ground, his spirit broken while Medea prepares to sail away. The actors who play Creon (Henning Jensen) and Glauke (Ludmilla Glinska) are quite good in their limited roles.

In this famous story, the moment when Medea despatches her two sons is always chilling and needs care to act and film well; von Trier treats the scene with restraint and pathos. As with many other scenes there isn’t much dialogue and the pain on Medea’s face as the children die is too much to bear. It’s creepy to watch too as one of the children is a willing helper in both his and his brother’s deaths. The suffering and deaths of Glauke and Creon are cleverly foreshadowed by the behaviour of Jason’s horse which was scratched by the poisoned crown that Medea gives to Jason as Glauke’s bridal gift: the animal goes mad and races out of the palace to a beach where it convulses and dies.

Men are revealed as having no control over their destiny but are instead manipulated by women suspicious of one another and fearful that the other may steal her man. This might say something about the nature of the society in which Glauke and Medea live: a society where women surrender their lives completely to men and depend on them totally for their security and well-being. It’s a society where men call all the shots and women are helpless so they must resort to subterfuge to get their way. A man may plan well but all his plans will come to nought due to unseen deception and the Fates don’t care at all what happens to him.

Of all the films by Lars von Trier I have seen – I have seen five others (“Breaking the Waves”, “The Idiots”, “Dancer in the Dark”, “Dogville”, “Antichrist”) – “Medea” is the most emotionally moving, the most flowing without formal separation into chapters as with many of his films and the most visually beautiful and abstract. There is an authenticity here that his later work lacks and his treatment of women is more sympathetic and less ambiguous as well. “Medea” may well be the best film he has ever made.

Compared with Pier Aolo Pasolini’s version of “Medea”, the Danish film is smaller in scale and more intimate overall but nowhere near as complex and ambitious in concept.

 

Medea (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini): rich film of social analysis and the oppression of women

Pier Paolo Pasolini, “Medea” (1969)

This film will always be a personal favourite of mine for its exploration of a human society and the kind of woman it produces, who, transplanted to another society built on completely different values which rob her of most of her powers save that of love, must respond with a terrible and deadly vengeance when the man she loves disowns her. “Medea” is based on Euripides’s play of the famous Greek legend in which Jason, attempting to claim his rightful inheritance as King of Thessaly from his uncle Pelias, is sent away by the other man to the Kingdom of Colchis on the eastern shores of the Black Sea to retrieve the famous Golden Fleece. Accompanied by a group of heroes (the Argonauts), Jason arrives in Colchis and meets Medea in a temple: they both fall in love. Medea helps Jason to steal the fleece and take it back to King Pelias who rejects it. The couple are forced to live in exile for ten years in Corinth where Jason, concerned for their sons’ future, decides to marry Glauke, the daughter of the King of Corinth, and repudiate Medea. Medea, furious at Jason’s betrayal, destroys his future happiness and leaves him a lonely and disconsolate man with nothing.

Everything about this film I find original and stupendous: it often has the look of an anthropological documentary and the most significant scenes are ones not in the original story. The centaur Chiron (Laurent Terzieff), who embodies both the rational, intellectual side of humanity and its savage, irrational animal side, tells Jason of his royal inheritance and predicts that he will travel overseas in search of the Golden Fleece. Here Pasolini tells us that thinking a thought and making it concrete in speech or (later) visualising it is a necessary first step in carrying it out: the concept precedes reality. An early highlight of “Medea” is a fertility ritual in which a young man is sacrificed while the royal family of Colchis including Medea (Maria Callas) undergo ritual humiliation from the common people. The sacrifice’s flesh and blood are used to bless and nurture the crops and the soil in the fields. Medea is revealed as the child of a society based on animism, ritual and attachment to symbolism, a society in which life serves the gods and every action demands a reaction and has consequences. People’s thoughts are governed by emotion, custom and impulse; identifying closely with nature and perceiving no boundaries between themselves and natural phenomena, folks may not always understand why they act the way they do – they see a sign from the gods and simply have to obey. The Golden Fleece possesses meaning and power for the citizens of Colchis. Jason (Giuseppe Gentile), coming from a society of reason, logic and intellect which perhaps is disconnected from its irrational, emotional side (he never seems to understand why he fell in love with Medea), steals the fleece but realises that once he takes it away from Colchis, the fleece means nothing to him or to his uncle. In Colchis also, Medea is powerful as a sorceress and speaks to the sun, the land and water; in Greece however, she loses her powers and is reduced to the role of a traditional housewife. The second significant scene is one in which Medea, dreaming, communes with the sun which energises her to plan her revenge against Jason: she leads her servants in a ritual in which her nurse, interrogating her, helps to rouse the necessary psychic energy she needs to carry out her plan to the full, subvert the social structure that took away her sorcery skills and reclaim her full feminine powers.

Symbolism is very powerful in this film: Medea’s clothes and her costume changes signify the various changes in roles she undergoes and indicate changes and developments in the film’s plot. The two deaths of Glauke are no mistake: the first death, in which she burns, is the visualisation of the spell Medea casts over the wedding gift for her; the second death in which Glauke leaps off a wall is the actual death. Glauke (Margareth Clementi) says nothing but her face reveals all: on donning the wedding clothes, she becomes aware of another woman’s anguish at having given up everything including her royal inheritance for love, only to be spurned. Overcome with guilt and grief, the girl commits suicide.

The acting is very naturalistic and convincing, and the casting is unusual: Callas in her mid-40s at the tail-end of her opera singing career is a mesmerising beauty and there are many camera shots and close-ups of her sculpted face and beautiful eyes as she sits or stands. Her face and body language alone – she has few lines of dialogue – convey the full range of Medea’s emotions from romantic love, lust, submission, motherly love and tenderness, despair and distress at betrayal and loss, and full-blown rage. This is acting as it should be done. Gentile, much younger than Callas and with no previous acting performance I know of – he was actually a triple jumper who won a medal at the 1968 Olympic Games – is astonishingly credible and uninhibited as Jason: lover, warrior, loving father, yet cynical enough to desert Medea for political reasons. As with Callas, Gentile is given little dialogue yet he seems a man of much substance and complexity.

The music is important to the film: Pasolini didn’t care too much about which cultures he nicked his music from so we are treated to Persian orchestral or Moroccan music, Japanese shamisen soloing, droning Tibetan Buddhist monk singing (reminiscent of Hungarian singer Attila Csihar when he performs with US drone metal band SunnO))) and its offshoot projects Grave Temple Trio and Burial Chamber Trio) and possibly folk music influences from Bulgaria and other lands. In scenes depicting Medea’s Colchis heritage, the male throat-singing roars and droning bugles come to the fore and they create a rich, sensuous, rippling sound. It’s creepy and exhilarating at the same time, pulsing with raw life-force.

Most scenes are shot like dioramas and the rich and sometimes static look of the film invites comparison with Sergei Parajanov’s “The Color of Pomegranates”, Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” and some Kenneth Anger films I’ve seen. A golden sheen suffuses the film with many scenes apparently shot at sunset and twilight. The flavour is exotic with a fresh, raw feel that comes with the use of non-actors and much improvisation, and the desert settings (much of the film was made in Turkey) take viewers back to a time when civilisation had barely begun to spread across the eastern Mediterranean region.

The social analysis hidden in this film – Pasolini had socialist views and disliked materialism and globalisation – makes the left hemisphere of my brain reel excitedly while the right side is enthralled with the film’s layered beauties, the sights and sounds, and distinctive style. Pasolini must have known one day that I would watch the film for it seems perfectly made for someone like me; but that’s the way I believe great films should be done – they should be done for yourself and for maybe five other people on the entire planet who think the way you do and hold the values you hold.

 

The Page Turner: a pleasing though cool psychological study of revenge through music

Denis Dercourt, “The Page Turner” / “La Tourneuse de Pages” (2006)

A cool, elegant psychological study of revenge, this film will certainly speak to a lot of people hard done by judges or examiners more concerned with flattering their egos or bolstering their reputations with their friends than with finding and appreciating genuine and original talent when it hits them in the face. A socially ambitious working-class couple who run a butcher’s shop lavish piano lessons on their only daughter Mélanie and the girl proves to be so talented that she qualifies to sit for a strict practical piano exam which if passed will be her entrée into a brilliant career as a concert pianist. Unfortunately Mélanie fails the exam when a judge on the panel judging her performance distracts her unnecessarily. Melanie gives up her dream of ever becoming a pianist and breaking out of her working class background.

Ten years later, Mélanie (Dèborah François) joins a Paris law firm as a temporary intern and meets one of the partners there. He (Pascal Greggory) happens to be looking for a temporary babysitter for his son while he’s off on business in November and Mélanie offers to babysit. The time comes, Mélanie moves into the partner’s country mansion and realises his wife is none other than Ariane Fouchécourt (Catherine Frot), the famous concert pianist and the same judge who distracted her during her exam. Ariane is planning to relaunch her career as a pianist with a chamber music trio after suffering psychological problems as a result of a past car accident and needs someone to turn the pages of her sheet music while she plays. Mélanie happens to be the perfect choice.

The scene is set for a complicated psychological duel that drags in Ariane’s son Tristan (Antoine Martinciow) and husband and her chamber trio partners as innocent collateral damage. Mélanie, quiet and discreet, quickly discovers Ariane’s weaknesses and sets about using them to destroy the older woman. There are suggestions that she experiences some inner conflict in doing so: she develops a warm friendship with Tristan and is attracted to Ariane who also has feelings for her, and these relationships have the potential to derail her intention to get even. In one scene, she appears to want to drown the boy but thinks better of it. François is an ideal choice as the po-faced Mélanie whose watchful, intent eyes and blank expression speak what her voice will not: how she can use what she observes of Ariane’s dependence on her husband, Tristan, friends and herself to her own advantage. Genuine respect and love for Ariane and her family seem to be present though the apparent warmth may be part of Melanie’s ruse. Frot’s Ariane is both a counterbalance and complement to the shuttered Mélanie: Ariane is nervy, fragile and self-absorbed to the point that she fails to listen to her violinist’s warnings about Mélanie.

Admittedly the plot is implausible: it’s by sheer luck Mélanie comes in contact with Ariane ten years after their first encounter and then in circumstances that favour Mélanie at nearly every turn. The film throws out numerous suggestions as to how the plot will resolve itself but most hints are dead-ends, their only purpose being to add a little more tension here and there. The film leads you to expect violence with shots of people chopping meat and the presence of an indoor swimming pool in the country mansion implies a drowning death which never happens. Mélanie’s ultimate revenge on Ariane occurs with the perpetrator being absent rather than present which is unexpected, though the relevant scenes are cleverly set up.

“The Page Turner” though is very low on tension and suspense and part of the reason is that Mélanie maintains a blank countenance and calm aloofness throughout the film, revealing her natural personality in only one scene where she meets an old boyfriend. Even in the film’s final moments there is only a faint change in her face’s expression. All characters, even Tristan, tend to be stand-offish towards people they’re familiar with; the cellist in Ariane’s trio is cool towards his wife but tries to seduce Mélanie (a relative stranger). The overall cool and stiff acting indicates the life that Ariane, her family and social circle lead is hollow and lacking in genuine warmth. Ariane and Tristan try to fill this hollowness with music and amusements; the husband in his way tries to be close to Ariane who is too absorbed with her own pursuits to respond. At the same time, the general style of acting and the film’s emphasis on action and behaviour revealing the stresses professional musicians are under in performing music publicly can be quite cold, cerebral and alienating towards non-French audiences more used to open displays of emotion and expression as indicators of character under duress. Even the film’s look with clear, calm views of the mansion, its tennis court and surrounding fields is cool, intellectual and refined.

The film might have been stronger if more attention had been given to Mélanie’s relationship with her parents both together and individually, with the contrasts between her ambitious mother and easy-going father played up. Then the differences between the social layers that Mélanie travels between would have been prominent. We learn nothing of Mélanie’s impressions and ultimate opinions of Ariane’s family and their wealthy life-style: is she glad that, in a way, Ariane’s thoughtless behaviour actually freed her from the pressured hothouse life of a concert pianist? – and in causing injury to Tristan by forcing him to play piano faster, is she trying to do the same for the boy?

The men in the film are passive yet hold the power that the women rely on: Mélanie’s father pays for her music lessons that Maman insists on and Ariane depends on her husband for shelter and the stability she needs to pursue her music. The men seem happy and satisfied with their lot while the women are brittle and strive for more.

Overall this is a pleasing little gem whose main assets are its two star actors Frot and François playing strongly delineated if restrained characters in an elegant plot in which the victim becomes a bully and the initial bully becomes a victim. Issues of class in French society, how an individual can move from a lower level of society into a higher level, what sacrifices are needed to progress socially and whether that person actually loses more than gains in personal integrity and security through such progress, are among the film’s concerns. Where the film fails is in showing the effect that pursuing revenge must be having on the avenger herself: the enigmatic coda carries a subtle hint that Mélanie is finally free of her social fetters but at what cost? She appears as empty and lacking in feeling and personal authenticity as the people and social level, represented by the Fouchécourts, she has come to despise.

 

 

Exiled: gangster movie about honour, loyalty and brotherhood celebrates life in the face of a chaotic and indifferent universe

Johnnie To, “Exiled” aka “Fong Juk” (2006)

Set in Macau territory just before its return by Portugal to China in 1998, this gangster film is a well-constructed and stylised work drawing on film noir and Westerns in its investigation of honour, loyalty, brotherhood and self-sacrifice. Gangster Wo (Nick Cheung), in exile for trying to kill Boss Fay (Simon Yam), has just settled in Macau with his wife (Josie Ho) and newborn child. On hearing that Wo has returned from overseas, Fay orders Blaze (Anthony Wong) and Fat (Suet Lam) to kill him but their efforts are thwarted by Wo’s pals Tai (Francis Ng) and Cat (Roy Cheung). After a brief fight in Wo’s new house, the four men reconcile with Wo: it turns out all five of them were childhood friends who grew up together and became hitmen together.

Hiding from Boss Fay who is furious that Wo is still alive, the five men take on an assignment to kill Fay’s rival Boss Keung but this fails spectacularly in two highly choregraphed series of bullet blasts. Wo is severely injured in both attacks and his friends rush him back home where he dies. Wo’s pals then flee and by happy accident pull off a gold heist at Buddha Mountain – a job they had rejected earlier in favour of killing Keung – and the foursome look set to retire from a life of criminality permanently. Unfortunately in the meantime Wo’s widow has embarked on her own form of vengeance against her husband’s friends by establishing contact with the brothel owner who gave them the assignment to kill Keung. Fay and Keung immediately take her and her child hostage and threaten to kill them both if Blaze, Fat, Tai and Cat don’t return. The quartet don’t even think twice that they’ve been set up – they know they must save Wo’s widow and son.

The film’s style is very artistic with carefully staged sets and action: even the neighbourhood where Wo lives is very picturesque though depopulated in the manner of a ghost-town in Western movies where everyone hides beneath the windows in saloons, saddlery shops and stables though here they’d be hiding behind doors of tea shops, video rental places and consumer electronics retailers. Unusual camera angles including bird’s-eye points of view and slanted viewpoints where people have to look down or look up are a feature as are also camera shots that emphasise shadows and drawn curtains in night-time scenes of suspense. Viewers are continually aware of the environment Blaze and his gangster pals move in, whether it is the lavish hotel with its internal balconies, the grim desert they flee to in a stolen car after Wo’s death or the semi-tropical greenery at Buddha Mountain where the men hijack the van carrying the gold bars. Of course the shoot-outs are carefully choreographed, often in slow-motion as if to mimic the highly theatrical sword-fights of Chinese historical dramas, but the artwork isn’t done to excess and the gunfights are over in a matter of minutes and look fairly realistic, at least until people get up and viewers realise the professional hitmen are either incompetent shots or deliberately avoided hitting certain folks like, you know, the main characters. The preceding stand-offs may be done to excess jokingly, with several camera shots of hands sliding soundlessly into holsters to pull out guns, particularly in the restaurant and underground clinic scenes.

The overall effect of To’s direction and the film’s theatrical style is to create a self-contained universe where self-interest and greed rule, and gangland networks are riven by shifts in loyalty and rivalry, and to survive in and make sense of such a world where anything and everything can happen, and luck determines whether one lives or dies, men must make and stick to their own code of ethics that emphasises blood-brother friendships and loyalties even though this can be used against them (as happens in “Exiled”) and may lead to their own downfall and death. Constant and unexpected plot twists stress the random and capricious nature of the universe in which people must find and give meaning to their rat-race lives; the whole film becomes a series of sketches with each sketch having consequences that set up the next sketch. Coin flips drive the point home rather too obviously; this viewer had the impression that the coin-flip results simply legitimise what the gangsters have decided to do anyway. A running gag with two cops emphasises the ineffectiveness and corruption of police in this world and the heist scene where Blaze and Co co-opt a guard shows how casually ordinary people can slip into a life of crime when the wider world is so suspicious and indifferent to the individual that a person can be judged a criminal just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

One would expect with the emphasis on plot that characters will be cardboard stereotypes and the acting correspondingly bare-bones minimal and efficient. Even the clothes worn conform to gangster-movie stereotypes with Blaze wearing the obligatory sunshades and tan-coloured trenchcoat and his mates in black leather. With most of the cast the minimal acting is the case but Wong stands out as the world-weary and cynical tough-nut Blaze despite doing and saying very little that’s out of the ordinary for his character. Ho as Wo’s wife is the other main acting highlight – she has a silent scene to herself which is heartbreaking in its anger, sorrow and sense of wasted life – and her personal pursuit of Blaze and Co, while not well defined, is a subplot that parallels the quartet’s quest for justice for Wo. Like the men, the women in the “Exiled” universe must make their own way and secure their niche in life in whatever way they can, often by prostitution or by becoming gangsters’ molls: either way won’t necessarily provide long-term security and comfort but it’s often the best the women can do.

The musical soundtrack is a mix of urban blues, Spanish-style acoustic guitar melodies and plaintive harmonica tunes that link “Exiled” to its Italian spaghetti Western inspirations. Other sounds in the film such as the thud of dropped bullets are beefed up in volume to sustain suspense and tension; they may also be a referential joke on To’s part that recalls previous Hong Kong gunfight action flicks.

For all its references, influences and cardboard cut-out people inhabiting a familiar noir world of bureaucratic and police corruption and complacency, mafia communities that make huge demands on one’s loyalty but give little in return and individuals who try to come to grips with the chaos that abounds in this world, “Exiled” never feels like a stale stitch-up job and is actually very absorbing. Perhaps it’s because in spite of their circumstances, Blaze and his fellow gangsters live life to the full in the knowledge that the next five minutes may be their last. The reckless way in which they live their lives and throw caution to the winds doesn’t guarantee a long life expectancy but they do it with enthusiasm and child-like enjoyment. The film finds room for slapstick comedy that serves to defuse tension and which makes pertinent social comments about police conduct and definitions of masculinity. Perhaps surprisingly for a gangster movie filled with violence and bloody deaths, “Exiled” is a celebration of life.

Fermat’s Room: a light and entertaining if not completely satisfying film about professional rivalry and intellectual obsession

Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sapeña, “Fermat’s Room” (2009)

Three brilliant mathematicians and an inventor, each already having solved a difficult problem, are invited to dinner together with a mysterious host called Fermat (Federico Luppi) in a barn on a remote island. Given pseudonyms of Galois, Hilbert, Oliva and Pascal, the foursome enjoy their meal with Fermat who then invites them to solve an enigma. Suddenly Fermat’s cellphone rings, he answers and has to excuse himself from the meeting in order to go to hospital to see his injured daughter. While he is gone, the guests discover he has locked the door and they are trapped; another cellphone and they answer it to find out that they are to solve a series of mental puzzles and riddles, each within one minute. If they run out of time or get the wrong answer, the walls in the room move towards them, shrinking the room. The quartet quickly realise they must solve the riddles and at the same time work out why they have been brought together by Fermat in the one place to be killed.

The actual puzzles in the film are not very complicated and many viewers will be able to solve them faster than the supposed geniuses do, though they have the luxury of not facing certain death if they take their time or get a wrong answer. The film quickly slips into a formula with Oliva (Elena Ballesteros) doing most of the brainwork on the riddles while the other characters (played by Lluis Homar, Santi Millan and Alejo Sauras) try to work out the connections among themselves and between one another and Fermat. In the meantime as the room becomes smaller, the guests try to stop the unseen hydraulic presses from pushing the walls closer to them by piling and arranging the furniture in ways to counteract the push. Past professional jealousies, the single-minded pursuit of an answer to an age-old intellectual enigma, an unfaithful lover, a car running into a pedestrian and other personal peccadilloes arise in the various back-stories that the foursome spill out to one another.

As might be expected the plot contains a red herring and a twist in that the real villain is not who the foursome suppose him to be. The twist relates to the general theme of professional rivalry and single-minded competition, and the fear that one’s lifework, built up over many years, even decades, can be eclipsed or demolished by a young upstart’s brilliant discovery. After the twist, the film then becomes a mad dash to escape the room with perhaps not even half the riddles the guests are supposed to solve having been completed. The true climax actually comes very close to the end of the film with those guests who have managed to escape pondering whether some papers they have taken with them should be published under one person’s name or another name. Some viewers will be able to guess that there is a third alternative.

In spite of the action taking place in just one ever-shrinking room, the movie doesn’t feel at all claustrophobic and the characters remain more or less level-headed as they work out the puzzles and work out their connections to one another. This can be a disadvantage to some people’s enjoyment of the movie: they may find the relative lack of emoting gives the impresson of the guests as being not too concerned with their dilemma. The acting can be uneven and Homar and Millan, playing Hilbert and Pascal respectively, flesh their characters out better than the younger Ballesteros and Sauras who play the young ex-lovers Oliva and Galois. Some viewers may query why two mathematicians have to be young and, in Galois’s case, tempestuous and testosterone-charged; they probably need to read something of the life of the real Évariste Galois, the brilliant mathematician who died at the age of 20 in a duel fought on behalf of a woman.

There is suspense and the puzzle-solving can be very absorbing and entertaining so the film moves more quickly than a synopsis of the plot would suggest. The whole project might have worked better and with more depth if there were more players (two, maybe three more people would do) and the room had been expanded to a maze with shifting walls. There could be a couple of deaths along the way – they need not be shown in all their gory glory – which would ratchet up the suspense and tension. The characters could have tried to beat the game rather than go along with it, with consequences both beneficial and detrimental to their survival. As it is, being Piedrahita and Sapena’s first full-length feature film together and made on a small budget, “Fermat’s Room” is an entertaining if not very satisfying film. The conclusion can be very hurried and some loose ends remain, well, loose.

 

Witchfinder General: dark and serious low-budget exploration of corruption, abuse and violence

Michael Reeves, “Witchfinder General” (1968)

Loosely based on the exploits of the English 17th-century witch-hunters Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne, this movie is a dark low-budget exploration of personal corruption, abuse and violence in a society wracked by civil war and the collapse of political stability and law and order. Hero and villain alike are undone by taking the law into their own hands, no matter how justified the reason may be. In the year 1645 Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) and assistant John Stearne (Robert Russell) roam eastern England hunting out witches in various villages: their techniques include brutal torture to induce false confessions of men and women accused of witchcraft. They ride toward a place called Brandeston and a trooper come from there, Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), who has just visited his fiancee Sara (Hilary Dwyer) and her uncle John Lowes (Rupert Devies) the village priest, shows them the direction. Once there the witch-hunters round up Lowes and others accused of witchcraft, throw them into jail and torture them sadistically. In spite of Sara’s attempts to save her uncle, he and the other accused are executed and Hopkins and Stearne move on.

Marshall returns to Brandeston, learns from Sara what has happened to her uncle and vows to hunt down Hopkins and Stearne. From this moment on the movie becomes a cat-and-mouse game in which Marshall risks his career – and possibly his life – pursuing the witch-hunters who in turn plan to trap Marshall and Sara by accusing them of witchcraft. The double plotting sounds very silly but the serious tone of the movie, the level of credible violence that has occurred by this point in the film and the depth of characterisation make the second part of “Witchfinder General” no laughing matter and indeed quite powerful as viewers are left to wonder how intense and melodramatic the climax will be when Marshall and Hopkins confront each other.

Though made for commercial purposes on a small budget, the film has excellent production values: the cinematography is good with long stationary shots that take in wide swathes of peaceful countryside with historic buildings that give the movie a distinctive English flavour, and the few bright colours of the film which tends towards dark colours and shadows hold up well after over 40 years. The use of long static shots gives the film a staged look which may well be the intention – the Puritan rulers of England from 1649 to 1660 closed down all theatres – though there is one excellent scene in which Stearne stumbles into a forest after taking a bullet in his arm: anticipating his pain, the camera pans away from him to the forest background while he extracts the bullet and screams, then pans back to him. Reinforcing the film’s commercial intent, the music soundtrack is very dramatic, overbearing and old-fashioned in style with melodies straight out of American horse operas: the association with Westerns may be deliberate as here, the government as represented by Marshall and Hopkins are routing out elements hostile to it just as the US government routed out and shoved indigenous Americans into reservations two centuries later.

For a highly melodramatic plot in which screaming is an unfortunate constant, the acting is restrained and well done with notable performances from the male leads. Price is grim and implacable as Hopkins yet commanding, charismatic and not above exploiting Sara when she offers sexual favours or cheating on others including his assistant. Russell is suitably nasty as the vicious  Stearne. Ogilvy acquits himself well in the meaty role of Marshall and his final scene is a surprise shocker. The main characters are delineated in detail so that though they commit unspeakable atrocities, viewers at least understand their motives, however gross they are, and can indentify with them: Hopkins and Stearne are unlikeable but we all know of people who would behave in similar ways in similar contexts.

The film doesn’t attempt to explain witchcraft but instead focusses on the accusations, the use of torture and particular torture methods by witch-hunters and the punishments they carried out. For all that there is a theme of how witch-hunts (figurative as well as literal) can occur in insecure societies and how some individuals can use violence, ignorance and belief in rumour for selfish personal reasons. Torture and violence take a toll on people’s psychology, corrupting and degrading them as a result. Viewers may feel relieved that the movie versions of Hopkins and Stearne are punished for exploiting people but Marshall gives up his humanity and is no better than his enemies. No-one can feel happy about his fall from grace and the hint that the social and political situation in England at the time, stressed by the voice-over narration at the movie’s start, is in part responsible for Hopkins and Stearne being able to flourish and create havoc is strong. In spite of the film’s age – the acting, the film’s style and even some accents can appear old-fashioned to modern audiences – the intended message is as important as ever and is more so in an age of continuous war across western Asia and northern Africa, ongoing global economic crisis that slowly grinds people into poverty and a cowed news media peddling propaganda, scare stories and lies, all of which surely benefit political and economic elites who are careful to hide their motives and interests.

The real-life Matthew Hopkins was much younger than the man who appears in the film and assisted John Stearne who was originally a landowner and farmer. Hopkins died from pneumonia in his late twenties in 1647 though there has been an intriguing rumour that when general opinion in England turned against him, he emigrated to the Plymouth colony in eastern North America and instigated witch-hunting activities that led to the Salem witch trials.