8 December 2008

Looking Back to 2005: Selections for the Ten Films of the Year

Continuing my look back at films and performances that made an impact on me three years ago, here are what I thought were the ten most noteworthy films from 2005. Obviously, writing about them now, in December 2008, there's the question of hindsight: Have any changes occurred? Have I revisited any, if not all, of them? And do they still hold up? My response would be: yes (since first assembling this list I got to see Ousmane Semebene's brilliant last film Moolaadé, which leapt right in and stole the no.3 spot and sadly shunted Tony Takitani out of the ten. And my revisiting of Laurence Dunmore's debut film The Libertine cemented its boldness all over again, so it claimed the No.8 spot from Battle in Heaven); yes, roughly half of the films I've seen for a second - and in one or two cases a third - time; unquestionably, yes. All these titles surely indicate, in my opinion, a healthy film year. *full comments to follow*

2005 was a strong year. Of the 134 films I saw that year roughly 30+ were worth seriously considering for the list; narrowing it down to just ten was tough. To address this I'll add a bit, after the top ten, on other films that stunned and/or surprised me. This second ten (11-20) deserve mention, too. Also, six of the ten directors of films on the list have gone on to produce work of equal distinction (or have made films with moments of note-worthy merit and flair in them) since. One (Semebene) sadly passed away; and three are yet to make follow-up films - though I'm confident future work by them will be worth catching). Overall though, this list is a way of remembering what recent films have stood out from the crowd: ten reasons to be happy cinema is continuing to make me sit up and pay attention. On with the list:

10. Land of the Dead (George A. Romero/USA)

09. Head-On/Gegen die Wand (Fatih Akin/Germany, Turkey)

08. The Libertine (Laurence Dunmore/UK, Australia)

07. The Wayward Cloud/Tian bian yi duo yun (Tsai Ming-liang/France, Taiwan)

06. The Beat That My Heart Skipped/De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté (Jacques Audiard/France)

05. A History of Violence (David Cronenberg/USA, Germany)

04. Last Days (Gus van Sant/USA)

03. Moolaadé (Ousmane Sembène/Senegal)

02. The Forest for the Trees/Der Wald vor lauter Bäumen (Maren Ade/Germany)

01. Tropical Malady/Sud pralad (Apichatpong Weerasethakul/Thailand)

Also good, in no order: Tony Takitani (Jun Ichikawa) / Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki) / Vera Drake (Mike Leigh) / Battle in Heaven (Carlos Reygadas) / Somersault (Cate Shortland) / Café Lumière (Hsiao-hsien Hou) / Serenity (Joss Whedon) / In Good Company (Paul Weitz) / Innocence (Lucile Hadzihalilovic) / The Descent (Neil Marshall)

17 November 2008

Very Good Work: Beau travail (Claire Denis/1999)

A while back I watched my first two films by two of France’s most celebrated and polemical female filmmakers, Catherine Breillat and Claire Denis: Anatomy of Hell/Anatomie de l'enfer (2003) and Beau travail/Good Work (1999), respectively. I saw them a few days apart, and whilst they didn’t have an enormous amount of clear-cut commonalities, they do share some ideological concerns. I guess I couldn’t help but view them as counterpart works in some respects.

An apparent connection I found when watching them consecutively – apart from the fact both are fascinating films from the controversial doyenne-duo of French cinema, and likewise ripe for analysis – prompted me to view them as near similitude to each other. Seeing them in such close proximity cemented the fact that both films are essentially about looking, above all else; specifically, they focus on how other people look at other people (and we looking at them both). But while Anatomy was a rather hollow exercise rammed forth with pretentious impassivity and muddied visual bluntness, Denis’ film was all fleshy cogitative swagger, enhanced by a crisply aerated clarity of image. Beau travail was also the sharper of the two in terms of what it means to be repulsed and fascinated at the same time by an exotic other. It burrowed a bit deeper. Further comparisons may or may not exist, other than the notion of visual (dis)pleasure, but Denis' was by far the better work. The act of looking is more evocatively investigated; its images have a lasting impact.

It’s indeed a handsome film to look at in formal terms. Denis’ favoured cinematographer, Agnès Godard, provides Denis’ camera a languorous and analogical look at male beauty and weakness, as filtered through its main character’s (Galoup, Denis Lavant) mostly idealised recollections. He narrates the story of his time spent in the French Foreign Legion, situated in the Gulf of Djibouti in Africa, where he leads the troops in training. Endless shots of bare-chested men running, mock-fighting and sweating through assault courses are frequent.

Denis’ camera adores these men. She tracks them in their daily grind at every juncture; the camera practically caressing their bodies as they train. From early on it’s evident that Denis is gradually developing an erotic fascination that is both incredibly distanced (in formal terms; her camera is physically at a remove from her subjects) and unfalteringly intimate at the same time (intimacy through the sense of sight alone). We know exactly how athletic each man is, how their bodies contort and their muscles flex, but we never really hear them talk, apart from snatched moments of idle conversation – It’s as if Denis is disallowing us any verbal distraction from the imagery; she’s nudging us to get our eyes to do the heavy lifting.

But if we don’t know much about the men’s inner lives, it’s because Lavant isn’t interested in them, not Denis. Events are somewhat skewed through his selective memory. That is, apart from his fixation on Sentain (Gregoire Colin) a soldier who inflames his repressed lust and occupies his singular gaze; this infatuation is a result of envy mixed with his craving the attentions of Commander Forestier (Michel Subor). Lavant is clearly in love with Sentain, and his strange and unjust treatment of him speaks volumes about the hierarchy of power these men adhere to. It’s very much about unspoken desire, of course, but we can’t seem to access it, just as Lavant can’t, or won’t, accept his feelings on any level apart from through the cruelty of furtive (though infertile) glances. But to say this is all surface longing is wrong, as what we can’t glean from the characters themselves, we piece together through the way in which Denis films them.

Landscape plays an important part in the film, too. Denis grew up in Africa (though now works out of Paris) and she clearly knows the setting well; the imagery is grounded by a great sense of place, and is as assured as it is oddly surreal. The land seems to stretch far and wide and it meets the tip of the ocean, which affords the film many shots of rampant skinny-dipping – this made me think that Denis was trying to trump Derek Jarman by one-upping his Sebastiane (1976).

Wet bodies don’t seem to interest her as much as hard bodies though. In training – usually on the seared deserts – the men hurriedly and quietly go about their procedures. The camera gets close enough to observe all the minute intricacies of their actions, but never opens up specific, logical avenues for us to see it extended beyond preordained and coded sexualised activity. It’s all pent up emotion, with little, or no, outlet. All this endless exercise is the calm before the storm, so to speak. It’s amazing how captivating it can be; there’s rarely a moment of boredom at any point. The languid rhythm of the editing mimics the men’s bodily movements. We’re lulled into a daze of oddly calm gestures, which are all the more strange because of the submerged levels of aggression they contain. These men respect one another – as comrades do – but there’s no obvious closeness. Denis does all the real bonding here, while we watch with inquisitive eyes.

And in contrast to all the gently swaying bodies in states of exertion, Lavant’s odd, spasmodic and downright fucked up dancing to Coronia’s 'The Rhythm of the Night' in the very final scene of the film is both hilariously baffling and strangely poignant all in one. In this last moment of acting out, both Denis and her main character do eventually achieve some kind of emotional release.

© Craig Bloomfield 2008

4 November 2008

Praise for the Cutaway shot in Ozu's Floating Weeds

Floating Weeds/Ukigusa (1959), Yasujiro Ozu's colour remake of his earlier silent 1934 film A Story of Floating Weeds/Ukikusa monogatari, is an incredibly beautiful film about a troupe of travelling kabuki players who arrive at a small port town "somewhere in the south of Japan" during a particularly scorching summer. The players are brought to the town to perform by troupe master Komajuro Arashi (Ganjiro Nakamura); his mistress, Sumiko (Machiko Kyo), also a player, accompanies him. Komajuro ventures off to look up his old flame, Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura), with whom he had a son some years ago. The boy, Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi), now in his late teens, believes Komajuro to be his uncle, having been told by that his "father" died when he was child.

Ozu subtly provided more substantial content that added to - and concretely advanced - his film's central narrative in several masterfully crafted and poignant cutaway (or insert) shots. There's one particular scene, bookended by two identical cutaway shots, roughly forty-five mins into the film: Komajuro is upstairs at Oyoshi's house playing chess with Kiyoshi. Sumiko visits, intending to reveal to the family that Komajuro is Kiyoshi's father. She and Komajuro talk downstairs, away from Kiyoshi (though Oyoshi is present). Sumiko strongly hints at the truth, though doesn't specifically reveal it, but enough telling details are revealed for an eavesdropping Kiyoshi to draw his own conclusions.

The scene is established by an interior low-level shot of a window with red flowers nestled in a stone rockery and a blue lampshade in front of it; rain pours down outside, just visible behind the blinds in the window (here the film's 1.33:1 aspect ratio holds the image perfectly). The scene takes place, then we return to the same shot of the window: the rain is still pounding down. Somehow all the harsh realities of family strife, and the rift that caused them, seem both all-important and needlessly trivial at the same time. The shot is no more than three seconds long, but its impact lasts well into, and beyond, the following scene.

The rain falling outside is concomitant to the rift being created inside the house. We are never not aware of it; the continual downpour is audible for the entire duration of the scene. But it doesn't signify a pathetic fallacy. At no point does it feel as if it's there to theoretically replace any of the emotional gravity - expertly invoked through the actors' commitment to the script - unearthed by the confrontation.

After the confrontation Komajuro hurriedly and angrily guides Sumiko outside to admonish her, and Kiyoshi simply sits on the stairs in resignation, staring at Oyoshi but saying nothing. Everything changes from now on. The secret now revealed has not only highlighted Komajuro's long-standing and perhaps needlessly foolish pride (hinting that he maybe shouldn't have feared rejection for being "merely an itinerant player"), but it has also opened a wound and perpetuated the emotional distance between father and son. Together these two factors, and the resulting complexity born out of them, signify the crux of the whole film; it in fact seems to pivot on these brief moments of change.

The scene is crucial because it tells us everything we need to know about the situation, about how precarious emotional family bonds can be and how hidden truths erode hopeful reconnection. It's the substantive heart of the film: everything before it builds up to this point; everything after is determined by how each character reacts here. It lasts roughly 4 mins. The duplicate shot of the window encloses this family secret, keeping peripheral characters outside of the knowledge and the family members emotionally contained in this moment. Ozu uses several stunning cutaway shots (to establish place and event, and to enhance the narrative) elsewhere in the film, but here, in this one scene, his use of them cements a significant and unalterable plot point. Between two identical images a whole world of difference has minutely shifted.

Here, more than probably elsewhere in his work, Ozu showed he was the master of the cutaway shot. He created some of the best truly great cutaway shots; ones that contained an unforced power, which lingered in my mind long after the scene had ended. This one small but significant part of the film confirmed to me his absolute control of his material. It's my very favourite moment not just in Floating Weeds but in all of his films that I've so far seen. He used the elapsing of small pockets of time to determinant effect. In mere minutes-worth of screentime our position on the story, the characters and events big and small has crucially altered.

© Craig Bloomfield 2008

3 November 2008

Short-Term Lovesong: Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs (2004)

Michael Winterbottom’s candidly explicit 70-minute digital feature 9 Songs (2004) caused controversy when it premièred at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, due to the portrayal of real sex performed in the film. The story revolves around Matt (Kieran O'Brien) and Lisa (Margot Stilley), who meet at a concert and embark on a brief, intense affair, which is depicted in all its graphic and intimate variations. The narrative is composed of a numerous series of spare, interwoven vignettes: the couple having sex in Matt's flat; specially-shot footage from Brixton Academy gigs featuring the likes of Primal Scream, Franz Ferdinand and so on (with a one-off Michael Nyman performance thrown in for a bit of variation); and Matt recollecting events from his work post in the Antarctic. The plot isn’t of high importance: it’s not so much what happens, but how it is shown. After Matt and Lisa first meet, it's wall-to-wall sex (save for the above interspersed narrative diversions).

The idea to examine the realisation and consequences of a particularly hermetic sexual liaison, money shots and all, is a fresh and welcome decision. Many filmmakers may not possess Winterbottom’s audacity here, although Patrice Chereau's film Intimacy tried a similar approach in 2001 (and John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus pushed the 'real sex' angle a step further in 2006). Scenes of the couple idly chatting in bed are filmed in a very loose style and have a slightly vérité feel. The photography (by Marcel Zyskind, who works regularly with Winterbottom) is accordingly luminous, bathing the actors in warm hues of yellow and orange. At times it was reminiscent of Nan Goldin's photographs from the late ‘70s: lovers depicted in varying states of sexual and emotional openness, eyes gazing beyond the frame in knowing recognition.

We obviously have more information than that provided by a still image, however. Our minds aren't allowed to wonder what may have taken place; we are shown every intimate, revealing detail. There is (visual) description where there could have been suggestion, and very little pause for reflection – either the couple’s or the viewers’. The wholesale explicitness isn’t always a negative thing: by allowing his camera to almost brush up against the pair during sex, Winterbottom urges the viewer to almost become implicit in their actions, to near-as-dammit feel how closely and instinctively connected these relative strangers in fact are. It's as if he wants his audience of reluctant voyeurs to be drawn out of the dark cinema and into his camera's direct glare, to admit that in the act of watching strangers in "porn" the closest viewpoint is the only one possible to fully absorb the intentions of his imagery: it's either the back-row or the front line. This does indeed allow for a more thorough, visceral sense of how deeply involved with one another Matt and Lisa are, and how we might question our distanced view of them, but it also smacks of the director drooling over his subjects. The line Winterbottom treads here is thin, but what he suggests is certainly worthy of analysis all the same.

There is a fundamental lack of development of the characters as modern, upwardly-mobile everyday people. However heightened or idealised the sex portrayed is, these two are positioned as more than anonymous porn actors (they are surely essentially intended to represent any sexually-experimental, random heterosexual couple). The sex may be real but their personalities are unremarkable and go unexplored: if they have full lives outside the relationship, we're none the wiser. What importance their jobs or families have goes unquestioned. I wanted to discover more about them besides merely what bands they liked or how trendy they were. Although a perceptive character study clearly isn't the major focus here, a better degree of character definition would enhance further interest in them as fully-functioning sexually active individuals, not just as superficial vessels for fucking.

The script veers between blandly descriptive and immature. At one point during a gig, Matt remarks: "in a crowd of 5,000 people, you still feel all alone." The quality is that of a sulky teen committing thoughts to a diary. The use of narration (confined to Matt alone) gives the film a certain structure, but no true insight is provided and it gives predominance to his character. A voice-over for both characters may have provided an equal weighting for Lisa, too. Either that, or have no narration at all. As it is, it's too infrequently used to make much of a solid impact anyway. And why make the characters' inner thoughts outwardly explicit if they are as lopsided and cringe-worthy as those already on display in the spoken dialogue?

If Winterbottom had defined the characters (and given them more room to be real sexual and emotional individuals, as opposed to merely infatuated, meandering strangers) and discarded the unwieldy tone of the Antarctic soliloquies, the film may have achieved its aim to show how sex - and the endless possibilities of desire – can affect two people in a way that can alter their lives. It’s a bold yet elusive film, with a palpable undercurrent of real kinkiness to it. But ultimately it perhaps charts one song too many.

© Craig Bloomfield 2005

2 November 2008

Looking Back to 2005: Top Ten Female Performances

Top row: 10 - 6; Bottom row: 5 - 1

10. Laura Dern as Terry Linden in We Don’t Live Here Anymore

In a strong four-hander Dern's performance stood out; she was the one character that seemed to be set apart from the rest somehow, either through the fact that she played in a few more scenes without a co-star, or that she was the only one to truly flesh out her character fully. I'm not sure if it was that I connected with her (and therefore her storyline) more, but there was something almost soulful in her fierce portrayal of a confounded wife (and mother) who is seriously not happy with her lot. Dern instills a sly fury and pathos into her role, making it much less of the token effort, a mere fourth wheel, that it could have been if played by someone without her determination and driving force. Terry was someone who needed to break free in absolutely her own way. As always, Dern excelled.

09. Mary-Lynn Rajskub as Avalyn Friesen in Mysterious Skin

Rajskub’s character is the kind of girl you might see week-in, week-out on 'The Jerry Springer Show'. Rajskub turns UFO fanatic Avalyn - a person that could have simply been laughable and pathetic - into a fully-rounded person (Araki's clear-witted writing helps here also). She's sweetly needy, instead of cloying; charming instead of indigent, right down to her subtle, not-too-quirky mannerisms and permanent walking stick. Rajskub is an underrated actress who I'd like to see move up to lead roles (she has a similar quality to Toni Collette; she's never put in a bad role). She's got heaps of talent and assured comic timing. She just needs the right role to catapult her to more weightier parts. This one should surely help.

08. Rosamund Pike as Elizabeth Malet in The Libertine

Rosamund Pike is amazing in The Libertine. I'd only seen her in Die Another Day before this, but here she holds her own amongst strong company. Her surprising and brilliantly un-vain performance (as the prim and very vain Elizabeth Malet) was astounding. There's a scene near the end of the film where she verbally spars with Johnny Depp - both have reached the absolute social nadir: she swigs wine manfully, letting it drool down her face as she spits abuse at him. She does it better than he does. She shows Malet is a force to be reckoned with; push a lady like her too far and social standing goes flying out the window. This intense scene, balanced with her earlier moments of serene composure and contemplation, made for a brave and compulsive performance. Back away and admire from a distance; she's much much more than a Bond girl.

07. Shiang-Chyi Chen as Shiang-Chyi in The Wayward Cloud

Chen doesn't exactly do a great deal in the film, but everything you need to know about her character is written all over her blank, but open-hearted face. She follows up the same role from Tsai Ming-Liang's precursor to this film, What Time Is It There?, but here she slowly and beautifully twists the character around until she ends up somewhere completely different, and sadly less happy, from where she began. It's a totally different place she finds herself in from where we thought (and surely hoped) she'd end up. The final moments of the film are hard to watch, but however dismaying Shiang-Chyi makes the film's audacious, questionable ending rind with an earned sadness. The single tear eking its way down her face in the last shot did it.

06. Abbie Cornish as Heidi in Somersault

Heidi was a character that really could've been played badly if the wrong person took the role. Abbie Cornish manages effortlessly to be many things at once here: a demure drifter, a hollow vessel for others to transfer their desires onto and an outrageous flirt, all contained behind the same pair of pleading eyes. It wouldn't surprise me if Cornish goes on to the bigger things in time; she could act many of her peers off the screen on the evidence of this role. She avoids easy dramatics and stroppy tantrums that can go with a part like this by simply bringing a variety of subtle shades to it. It's like she knew the role outright, from head to toe.

05. Valerie Tedeschi-Bruni as Marion in 5x2

From the start of the film (the end of the story) to the end (the beginning), Bruni Tedeschi's Marion changes so much, not just in those big life shifts required to show the eroding stages of the marriage, but in tiny ways that almost go unnoticed. The single, carefree woman who dances gleefully to Whigfield's ‘Saturday Night’ (hilarious song choice, that) at the end is not the woman who suffers through the - most probable - marital rape at the beginning. After the film ended, I straight away replayed it (and her performance in particular) in my mind; I realised how much of a lasting impression she immediately left . She had to shape five wildly different stages of this woman's life, in limited chunks. That Marion felt so real was down to the way Tedeschi-Bruni instinctively fleshed her character out.

04. Imelda Staunton as Vera Drake in Vera Drake

I had to put a shout out for Staunton here. She’s an actress who can inhabit this kind of role like a glove and make it feel 100% realistic (or as real as I could imagine) and, in the end, deserving of the utmost praise. It was perfect casting. Vera's frequent bustling back and forth to help out friends and family, running errands, cooking meals, having cups of tea on tap, and of course, the polemic of the film, her "assisting girls in trouble", speaks volumes about the differences between what happens on the street and what's going on behind the net curtains in Leigh's probe into '50s post-war Britain. There aren't any affected quirks or false mannerisms to the part. It's all essential to how someone like Vera is. Staunton scrunches her eyes up, and makes you feel the blind helplessness behind them, like no-one else; she turns crying into an artform; tea-making even more so. It's great to see her in a risky central role for once, too. It goes without saying that it's her best performance yet.

03. Maria Bello as Edie Stall in A History of Violence

I was in awe of just how well Bello conveyed something as straightforward as disbelief. And even more in awe of how well her character then easily accepted the secrets that surrounded her husband's past. It was more than just convincing emotional details that made her performance so good though; it was in the minor, but subtly complex particularities of the role, too. In a male-dominated film, Bello stood her ground firmly. Her clothes and surroundings were drab, but her personality and her passion for her marriage wasn't. Her outward demeanour harboured a tough, independent soul. I was totally convinced that Edie lived a full life even though very few aspects of her job, and indeed her world away from her husband (and all other areas of her existence), were shown. Bello managed to make Edie real through sheer impellent conviction and by fully enveloping herself into the part.

02. Sibel Kekilli as Sibel in Head-On

Speaking of kicking arse, Sibel Kekilli got hers well and truly booted in Head-On (in one of the most unbearably sad and harshest scenes of a film that goes to the harshest extremes in depicting a couple's tumultuous lives together). But she got up time after time, spat back and defiantly asked for more; I couldn't believe the guts this woman had. Her suicidal model of independence was one of the best characters of the year; a woman who took life by the balls and shook it up good and proper. Kekilli had this role firmly down. There's a moment where she literally stops herself in her tracks - where she is hoovering a hotel room - and looks out of the window – looking out wistfully at what her life was and now is. Without words she manages to inhabit real lived experience in a few facial gestures. Kekilli, a Turkish ex-porn star, made her "legit" film debut here. In a disheartening and ironic twist that somewhat mirrors the situation of her onscreen character, her family disowned her after seeing the film (upon discovering her former career). It was bold for her to do this role - and the performance came from a place of sincere conviction.

01. Eva Löbau as Melanie Pröschle in The Forest for the Trees

Eva Löbau enhances what is an already excellent film tenfold with her quietly stunning performance here. It's the first time in a long time where I've felt both totally sympathetic to and fully supportive of a fictional character. Which is why she gets the top spot. Löbau kinda broke my heart a little bit with her role as Melanie - a new schoolteacher, on her own and in a strange town making a life for herself. She's someone trying to meet new people, attempting to do well in a job that she feels no-one really wants her in and living as simply as she can. These things usually come as standard character-padding for this type of fish-out-of-water role in more mainstream-minded films. Löbau fully shows the character in all her good and bad attributes: Melanie was high maintenance, annoying and embarrassing, but she was also good-natured, eager and someone who is genuinely interested in other people's lives (much more so than they are with her). It's a small, quiet film with no grandstanding moments that has at its centre a performance full of humanity, complexity and charm. You don't see characters like this very often, if at all. Her car ride at the end of the film - as the Grandaddy song ‘He's Simple, He's Dumb, He's the Pilot’ fades in - was unbelievably heartbreaking and is probably my favourite moment in any film from 2005.

The subs - 11. Fatoumata Coulibaly / Moolaadé 12. Jennifer Connelly / Dark Water 13. Jennifer Jason Leigh / Childstar 14. Maggie Cheung / Clean 15. Sharon Wilkins / Palindromes 16. Lola Dueñas / The Sea Inside 17. Anapola Mushkadiz / Battle in Heaven 18. Jodie Foster / A Very Long Engagement 19. Shirley Maclaine / In Her Shoes 20. María Alche / La Niña santa

© Craig Bloomfield 2006

1 November 2008

Looking Back to 2005: Top Ten Male Performances

I like to compile a list of what I consider to be the best films and performances (and occasionally the odd technical credit) from each year. There's also a list of the worst, or, to perhaps be more diplomatic, disappointing films of 2005. I started doing write-ups for these lists last year, but have since put together basic lists for films from 2000 to 2004 as well, which I'll include when I've (hopefully) written something on them. I wanted to put these older comments on here (initially from '05, '06 and '07) in the lead up to my 2009 list (for the films from this year - as, of course, these things need to be done retrospectively). I include all films I got to see during the year that essentially received a UK release between Jan. 1st and Dec. 31st '05.

So, I'm starting with what male performances of 2005. The best '05 female performances will follow; after that the best and worst '05 films, and so on. The 2008 lists will be done at the end of January '09. Right, enough intro - on with the first batch:

Top row: 10 - 6: Bottom row: 5 -1

10. Alan Arkin as Gene in Thirteen Conversations About One Thing

Even though I didn't like the film as a whole, Arkin's performance was greatly measured and affecting. It was one of those character-driven, multi-plot-strand kind of affairs, where the cast is individually designated an appropriately emotional storyline. It got boring quickly, but was worth seeing if only for Arkin. He comes across as completely unlikeable as a difficult, workaholic office manager in a tight spot, but on a few rare occasions the camera follows him home alone too, where another side to him is discovered. He has to fire a co-worker due to company regulations and the man to get the chop is the one that Gene resents for being funnier and more popular than he is. Never have the words "I'm letting you go" felt so awkwardly put across. The conflict and pain in Gene was right there, but never overstated. His plot strand takes up a bigger chunk than the rest; this surely goes to show that the filmmakers ensured Arkin’s great work not get sidelined.

09. Sean Penn as Samuel J. Bicke in The Assassination of Richard Nixon

Penn was great in two films in 2005: The Interpreter and The Assassination of Richard Nixon. The latter had the edge; it was the far more rewarding film. It's a very Willy Loman-like act that Penn pulls off, but he's always had a vast default range of variably emotive expressions and a plethora of tics and traits that could even see him through a performance as a lamppost. Even when Bicke is staring blankly, you know that he's seething deep down inside about the state he's found himself in. All that interior fury gets distilled right up until the end where it erupts in a really bad way. The great thing is that Penn maintains a cool-headedness throughout, managing to convey both the very much evident decency in and the mounting resentment regarding the collapse of his dreams. Bicke’s no (Travis) Bickle but comes close enough to warrant at least a small comparison.

08. Birol Ünel as Cahit Tomruk in Head-On

Sibel Kekilli was great in Head-On, but she was more than perfectly complimented by Ünel as her husband. Whether he's recklessly driving into walls like a stroppy teen with a death wish or chugging down one too many beers in a club, Ünel brilliantly manages to be a self-destructive teenager trapped inside the body of a forty-plus-year-old has-been. Cahit clearly doesn't want to let go of his former self, but can't seem to function as he is either. When he gradually gets to know Kekilli's character - after she makes an indelible mark on him - the side of him to emerge was something truly unexpected. His journey felt real and entirely plausible, but it could've been portrayed so badly if Ünel missed a beat. He doesn't at all and creates a man that I wanted to see succeed.

07. Banlop Lomnoi as Keng in Tropical Malady

The two distinctly separate parts of Weerasethakul’s audacious, dreamy film are tied together through thematic hints and strange parallels. But also through one fixed character. As soldier Keng, Banlop Lomnoi has to translate the emotional arc of his character without the use of much dialogue: for a large amount of screentime he is alone in the jungle. He is pursuing what he believes to be his lover (a farmhand, Tong), who may or may not have been transformed into a mythical creature. As Keng searches, sleeps, waits and wanders around, Lomnoi made me believe that every single minute of his search either had the potential to be fraught with danger or filled with the joy of discovery. He perfectly captured the idea of loss and trepidation being at a complete remove, as if it were somehow outside of a person, following them around, but Lomnoi manages it effortlessly here, and is totally mesmerising. Just like the film itself.

06. Issey Ogata as Tony Takitani in Tony Takitani

The eponymous lead character played by Ogata was a quiet type who works as a technical illustrator. Lonely and solemn, he gently goes about his existence without much in the way of emotional interaction. That is until a woman brings him out of his shell. It’s a highly-guarded performance completely atypical to showboat-style acting (we rarely ever seem to even see his face fully) but the way Ogata plods along and shifts about reveals a great deal about his character. The film deals with death and loss as its main theme, but never in an obvious or clear-cut manner. To play a man who has to show closed-off longing and regret through the subtlest of means must be difficult to achieve without much dialogue, so the fact that Ogata convinced me of his grief with nothing more than a few words at a time and a forlorn, inexpressive face was astounding. The scene where Tony enters his late wife’s walk-in wardrobe, and how he responds to the emptiness inside, was intensely moving.

05. Topher Grace as Carter Duryea in In Good Company

Grace doesn't seem to get a lot of praise, probably because some of his films aren't too good (or maybe that he's been in so few films), but in In Good Company I thought he was simply great. His character was incredibly pushy, awkward and foolish, but these aspects of his character were shown as awkwardly sweet-natured traits of a man who obviously went about things the wrong way whilst actually trying to get it all right. I could tell that Carter didn't really believe in all the corporate speak as it came out of his mouth, he was just trying to do what he thought should be done, what would advance his career. When Dennis Quaid's character obligingly asks Carter to dinner with his family, he didn't expect a quick-fire response of, "Oh yeah! That'd be great!!" This brief exchange showed me everything I needed to know about Carter Duryea, and began the best romantic relationship between two straight men that cinema offered up in a long time.

04. Don Cheadle as Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda

I loved the way that in the more desperate and terrifying parts of this film Cheadle's character kept a level of professionalism totally in keeping with his job as a hotel manager. The terrible events of the film, that detail the effects of the Rwandan Genocide, are shown through the struggles of a man who really only wants to keep his family safe, but ends up doing much more because of the nature of his job and the environment he's in. I sweated alongside Cheadle here; I just wanted him to get through the ordeal. He managed to get the right amount of fear, frustration and panic across, whilst making it all seem like another working day. Considering the circumstances, a massive feat. It was a tightly controlled performance, without any any false grandstanding. Everything Cheadle did was expertly played.

03. Viggo Mortensen as Tom Stall in A History of Violence

Viggo Mortensen plays Tom with a careful reserve and intense conviction. You have to study his face hard to see that underneath the gruff façade an altogether different man could be lurking. At first he's the Average American Man who is as everyday as the apple pie he serves in his diner, but the unforseen violent circumstances that creep into the story change him into someone else altogether. It's like Tom has stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting straight into Interzone. I'd love to see Mortensen get awarded for this performance, although it's an unshowy and subtle piece of acting likely to be overlooked. The expression on his face as he calmly washes his hands in the river at the end of the film - just after the fatal encounter with William Hurt, and well before he returns to the family fold - wasn’t easy to forget.

02. Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Neil in Mysterious Skin

Not since River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho has the wandering gay with a price tag on his ass been so brilliantly portrayed. Gordon-Levitt is in pretty much every scene of the film (and his presence still felt in scenes without him in). He makes each one count. I hadn't seen him in anything prior to Mysterious Skin, so there was an element of true discovery to his performance. Gregg Araki didn't skimp on the icky details of the story, and Gordon-Levitt boldly took the role by the reigns. The final scene was brilliantly handled by both the main actors (the other being Brady Corbet). The position Neil found himself in - taking into account the deeply sad experiences of his life up to that point - was heartbreaking to watch. It's worth noting that a great many younger actors wouldn't surely have taken a role like this for fear of career damage, but I'm glad that there are still actors – like Phoenix before him, and Ledger and Gyllenhaal after him – who still take risks. They do sometimes pay off.

01. Romain Duris as Thomas Seyr The Beat That My Heart Skipped

For both the No.1 male and female performances of '05, I chose characters that in some respects – in either small or large ways - I've related to on some level. I've never been a piano prodigy nor have I beaten people up for not wanting to be evicted from their homes, but something about Romain Duris' performance as Thomas personally appealed to me. Other than that, it was just plainly great acting: Duris was endlessly watchable. It was all in the way he conveyed the wildly different extremes of Thomas' personality. His outlook on life was largely conflicted through two things: music and crime. These things were blurred to a degree that any attempts to simply rationalise Thomas’ actions came off as near pointless; one begat the other too closely to differentiate their cultural conflict. Thomas was an inherently complex guy caught between two worlds neither of which he was sure he belonged in, both pulling him like a tug-of-war. Ultimately it was his family loyalty and the neccessity to be a better person that affected him most - the punctured look on Duris' face in the concert hall scene at the end said everything in one deflated expression. Nothing ever got answered fully, but this was a brilliant decision on Audiard's behalf; decisions like this aren’t simplistic in art, as in life. Duris is an actor to keep an eye on. His performance here was the best by a man that I've seen all year.

The subs - 11. Jeffrey Wright / Broken Flowers, 12. Bruno Ganz / Downfall, 13. Nick Nolte / Clean, 14. Michael Pitt / Last Days, 15. Tadanobu Asano / Café Lumiere, 16. Chiwetel Ejiofor / Kinky Boots, 17. Sam Worthington / Somersault, 18. Ashley Walters / Bullet Boy, 19. Steve Carell / The 40 Year Old Virgin, 20. Stéphane Freiss / 5x2

© Craig Bloomfield 2006

30 October 2008

Murder and the Man: Vengeance Is Mine/Fukushû suruwa wareniari (Shohei Imamura/1979)

The presentation of Enokizu (Ken Ogata) as simply a man – though a serial killer – is paramount to how potently Vengeance Is Mine (1979) wields its chronological narrative to examine the mechanics of an illusive and impulsive killer’s mind. The film begins with Enokizu’s capture, then jumps back to the beginning to chart the 78-day manhunt to bring him to justice. The pivotal flashback to Enokizu’s childhood, where a Buddhist soldier is humiliating his Christian father, Shizuo (Rentaro Mikuni), in front of him, only to have Enokizu be the one to fight back, could be Vengeance’s most revealing scene; perhaps going some way to explain both the film’s English language title and the germs of Enokizu’s future murderous pursuits. Though nowhere in the film is there anything that suggests he is on a personal mission to kill those that have wronged him (his victims are mostly innocents). It’s just an impulse, a guttural desire to commit murder that drives Enokizu on in his killing spree. The childhood flashback seems to be there to merely show us that Enokizu was rebellious and troubled from an early age.

Some scenes seem intentionally underlit throughout. The lighting subtly spotlights the actors within the film’s frame. The final meeting between Enokizu and Shizuo suggests this directly; reflecting the fact that the literal background mirrors the metaphorical background of the characters – not in any trite way (in, say, that Enokizu has a murky past), but in the way that, at this point, both men have prior grievances and regrets that they are only now semi-acknowledging to one another, albeit in an indecisive and dispiriting manner. Resigned, Shizuo reveals very little, but Enokizu shares his final, most telling thought with spiteful pride (snapping, “I want to kill you,” to Shizuo at the last minute). Ogata stands throughout much of the scene, towering over his father, and thus dominating the frame. This highlights the significance of their last meeting, and concludes their fraught relationship on a sad note.

Many of the killings happen off screen. It’s not really about showing how Enokizu kills his victims, or why, but just that he is matter-of-factly doing it. It’s less a psychological portrait than one of simple, curious observation. The killings we do see are given as much screen time as moments of mundane inaction: Enokizu and two women on a ship, watching the dark waves below (him ominously commenting that, “the sea is black”); Enokizu staring blankly out of an inn window as his “girl” Haru (Mayumi Ogawa) is semi-raped in the next room, and so on. The only killing that Imamura’s camera dwells on at any length is Haru’s, emphasising her importance to both Enokizu and her place in the narrative itself; her murder is shown as a painful, desperate struggle for Enokizu. Such moments go far in telling us everything we need to know about him. Imamura displays no moral judgement of his main character whatsoever. This reluctance to judge – matched with the close attention to characterisation – is what makes Vengeance so boldly affecting as a fictional, though factually-based, treatise on murder, one that skirts around the absence of any redemptive conclusion. The restless, almost pragmatic camerawork never lets the narrative pause for too long as it tracks Enokizu through the duration of his murders. We are to keep up pace with him at each stage, even in the multiple, frenetic flashbacks that add a hurriedness to the narrative, but never halts its flow.

The best scenes - though to pick out individual scenes as more significant than others in a film where each one crucially enhances the next so richly; one scene’s immediate predecessor pushes the narrative on intrinsically from the last - are those that feature one character with a respective older opposite: Enokizu with Haru’s mother Hisano (Nijiko Kiyokawa); or Haru with Enokizu’s father. Two particular scenes (one with each pair) reveal key, emotionally relevant details about them. The scene where Enokizu is walking home with Hisano – after the two have had an almost idyllic, and financially successful outing at the boat races – is beautifully filmed and gentle in tone; broad skies and swaying grass are shot in muted, muddy greens and browns. But it hides a deeply sinister undercurrent. Both have spied a fishing hook in the water (which seems placed to act as a kind of psychic totem of their connectedness - a signifier of death), and both instinctively know Enokizu wants to kill Hisano. She nonchalantly tells him not to kill her (she has discovered, from Haru, his ruse as a professor), and then reveals a past of imprisonment for murder herself. The two seem connected almost cosmically somehow (though he does kill her at a later stage, though, significantly, this occurs off-screen).

An earlier scene featuring Kazuko (Mitsuko Baisho) and Shizuo – one of their first together, after she leaves the family home – has them initially both innocently naked in a hot spring. Shizuo is begging Kazuko to return home out of concern for Enokizu, but she only agrees to return for Shizuo’s benefit; divulging an erotic attraction to her own father-in-law in the process. The forthright, Christian Shizuo is close to being drawn in by her caresses but moves away out of religious and familial duty. The rest of the film links these two pairings together, more so the latter pair who appear inseparable; Kazuko is devoted to Shizuo in every way. The film’s ending belongs to the two of them: together they scatter Enokizu’s ashes from a cliff-top; the pieces of decimated bone are frozen mid air and linger in the final frame as the film ends. In death, it suggests, Enokizu won’t touch Japanese soil again.

© Craig Bloomfield 2007

Girls on the Sidelines: Offside (Jafar Panahi/2006)

Offside (2006), Jafar Panahi’s most recent film about a group of Iranian girls' attempts to gain entry to a crucial football match (2005’s World Cup qualifying game between Iran and Bahrain; Panahi actually filmed on the day of the match) was one of the most joyous and affecting films of 2006. It is often very funny, but the darker implications of Panahi and Shadmehr Rastin’s loose, partially improvised script permeate the edges of the comedic action. In Iran women are forbidden to enter football stadiums; if found they face arrest or possibly worse, so they resort to dressing as men to evade detection.

The first girl (Sima Mobarak-Shahi) that the film chiefly follows – from a nerve-wracking minibus ride to eventual capture by guards at the stadium gates – is only one of a handful of girls who have all been detained in a specially constructed holding pen just behind Iran’s Azadi stadium under the watchful eyes of several soldiers, who are present by stint of duty; they would all rather be watching the game themselves or be away from the army entirely, tending cattle back home. Panahi spends almost as much time listening in on the soldiers’ stories as he does the girls’ plights.

From the start the viewer is dropped straight into the expectant bustling of pre-game fever. The agitated, documentary-like camerawork creates both empathy and identification: because the game is real you feel the excitement of the occasion, and also feel for the girl, not wanting her to get caught. The whole match is just out of her and the other girls’ reach, (and also for the viewer, as we never directly see any of the game; it’s barely glimpsed in background shots). The soldiers – at the girls’ request - commentate it on; beyond duty they obviously sense a shared passion for the reason they are all present.

It’s tempting to surmise that the actual game isn’t of narrative importance, that it’s more that the occasion supplies Panahi with a social situation in which to explore themes of significance relating to contemporary Iranian women. But of course the game is important. It’s the focus of everyone’s attention, whether or not they (or we) actually get to see it. The way in which the camera so closely tracks the girls’ desperate attempts to sneak a peek at the action on the pitch creates a consuming but frustrating drama: as the film progresses we more and more want the girls to actually see the match. That’s why they’re there, and what they’ve risked so much for. Through this situation, Panahi manages to tell a story that is both incredibly relevant and sadly real. That he does it through a humorous framework is all the more commendable. The humour needles out the inherent bizarreness and exposes the unfair social restrictions of inequality.

Offside includes footage of the actual game, so its dramatic outcome could’ve gone either way depending on who won. Iran did win (1-0), so it ends on an optimistic note in one respect. Although some specific dialogue in the penultimate scene points at Iran’s wider social troubles – which this beautifully concise, small-scale depiction of female support goes some way to highlight. The final scene shows the streets of Iran as an uproarious flurry of celebratory whoops and hollers: sparklers held aloft by a sea of both male and female football fans pave the way for Panahi’s camera to follow the celebrations into the night.

© Craig Bloomfield 2006

29 October 2008

Road, Sweet Road: The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (Asia Argento/2004)

Having read the novel by JT LeRoy some time ago, I was intrigued to see what kind of film Asia Argento had turned The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things into. The film didn't reach a cinema near me on its release (although it did receive a UK theatrical release, instead of going straight to DVD - a surprise considering the near all-out bad notices it received elsewhere). But I eventually managed to get hold of a copy and it actually isn't the awful mess I was lead to believe. Far from it. It isn't a particularly great film by any stretch, but it does contain many very inspired moments.

Argento was an interesting choice to make the film. She clearly has some kind of affinity with the short stories' subject matter; her treatment of it leans more on the open-handed side, even if the outcome feels slightly apathetic at times. LeRoy's characters somehow personify the idea of indifference. They live for themselves and often feed off others without much care for the repercussions, as the solitary, archaic environments they dwell in don’t really inspire reciprocal connections.

The fragmented and listless way he pens his grim fables more around his character's behaviour patterns than constructing them around the detailed background of their lives is surely harder to flesh out on screen. Conveying the kind of luckless selfishness demonstrated by the characters in the book must be tricky to get a firm handle on. On the whole the cast pull it off, Argento especially. The bite-size vignettes of the book are here threaded together to form a loose narrative, so that the direct and concise parts of the story are now smoothed out creating an extended and ramshackle whole. It didn't really matter too much though, as this approach worked to the characters’ benefit; it may initially appear like a mis-step, but it’s ultimately in complete accordance with the style of LeRoy's prose.

In the pivotal role of Jeremiah’s mother, Sarah, Argento dangles plenty of rope to hang herself with, and gives as gritty as she can muster. She made Sarah intriguingly creepy in the same way that, say, road kill is. That's not a discredit to Argento’s acting abilities at all (I’m one a handful of people who thinks she can actually act), but it's a car-wreck performance, full of affected lip biting and furious glares, but she treads the line between trashy and defeated well. If, say, Courtney Love had taken the role it would have come across as a whole lot more eye-rollingly obvious. The line-up of cameo performances, including cultish supporting actors (John Robinson, Jeremy Sisto, Ornella Muti, Kip Pardue) and familiar, often controversial celebrity names (Winona Ryder, Marilyn Manson, Peter Fonda) fit snugly into the scheme of events nicely, too.

The photography - by sometime-Gus Van Sant collaborator Eric Alan Edwards (My Own Private Idaho (1991), To Die For (1995), Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993)) - is excellent at times. Some scenes seem intentionally underlit, especially those depicting the more seedier interiors of Jeremiah's upbringing: close-up shots of Day-Glo toys sit next to dank wallpapers; and truck cabs are, fittingly, made to look more homely than the austere hallways of Sarah's Christian father's house. It’s in aspects like this that Argento visually replicates the grimy descriptive tone of the book accurately. Certain scenes give way to flights of surreal fancy, too; red animatronic birds spew feathers over Jeremiah in times of despair, and a series of anonymous male faces flicker past the camera at one point. This breaks up the generally flat visual sheen, but also nudges the film close to looking like an arty magazine spread; if you pressed pause at any stage of the film, it would almost be like hovering over a page from a particularly drug-chic-heavy copy of 'Dazed & Confused'. Put it next to something more openly welfarist like, I don’t know, a Diane Arbus or Nan Goldin photograph maybe, and the film’s tone might lose a bit of its substance. As a sisterly companion piece to something like Gummo (1997) it feels about right.

One thing that struck me as a bit unnecessarily precious was Argento's reluctance to display her body. Not that she should, of course, and it's not a major gripe as such, as it may not have added much if she did, but it seemed integral for Sarah to be as provocative as possible, and seeing as Argento is renowned for the openness of her liberal attitudes, it was strange to see how coyly she avoided her own camera's roving eye in some instances. It was the one part of the film where she held back and showed a prudish side (maybe for the worry that the film might be too closely associated with her directorial debut, Scarlet Diva (2000), perhaps?). It felt odd taking into account her overall throw-it-all-out-there approach with the rest of the film.

I completely admired that Argento had the guts to make the film her way though. In the end it’s not anything truly amazing, or resoundingly fresh, but it contains an individual spiritedness that can be lacking in films reminiscent of this type - I'm thinking of Larry Clark's Kids (1995) and Another Day in Paradise (1997), and the faux-MTV grit of Spun (2002) here. And would she really care about critical back-slaps of approval and star-ratings anyway? I doubt that she was after all-out universal adoration. She stuck to her convictions and created a piece of work that came from the heart; deceitful or not, it was firmly in the right place as far as she was concerned.

© Craig Bloomfield 2006

Death Clicks: Time to Leave/Le Temps qui reste (François Ozon/2005)

In 2000, acclaimed French film-maker François Ozon took a restrained, poetic view of the grieving process in Under the Sand, which explored the life of Charlotte Rampling’s English professor after the sudden disappearance of her husband. In Time to Leave (2005), Ozon reassembles that earlier film’s themes and posits gay photographer Romain (Melvil Poupard) as the recipient of bad tidings: he has terminal cancer with a few months left to live. Whereas Rampling glided from tragedy to uncertainty, here the scenario is reversed; through the foreknowledge of impending death, the protagonist grieves for himself. It is the second film in a proposed trilogy: Under the Sand explored the death of a loved one; Time to Leave looks at one’s own imminent death; the third, as yet unrealised part will examine the death of a child.

The slight narrative unfolds with a forlornness that befits Romain’s condition; he briskly segues from one encounter to another in an attempt to understand the reality of his situation. Over the course of a slim 85 minutes the film gradually reveals how the news seeps into Romain’s mind: Ozon seasonably uses several fluent flashbacks to Romain’s childhood, allowing us access to his formative innocence and elegantly drawing comparisons to how he is presented to us now – a man at conflict with himself, trying to do what he deems right. Romain keeps loved ones at bay; his sister, Sophie, and boyfriend, Sasha, are two casualties of his new-found dispossession – he may appear selfish in his actions, but the sacrifices he makes are for the benefit of those around him.

With the film’s emphasis on the photographic image, it’s fitting that Ozon’s eye for delicate compositions – aided by Jeanne Lapoirie’s luminous camerawork - is evident throughout. Whether it’s the image of sleeping lovers or a sunlit park, the cinematography is tenderly distinctive, becoming darker as the finality of Romain’s condition draws near (a foreboding air looms disconcertingly over the beach in the last scene). At times it veers into shop-worn territory (images of dead flowers and unmade beds literalise the death metaphor and are reminiscent of the work of such photographers as Wolfgang Tillmans and Nan Goldin), but it also reinforces the nature of Romain’s profession.

There is a beautiful economy to the editing. Ozon regular Monica Coleman succinctly cuts scenes to act almost as bullet points, punctuating key moments in Romain’s life. The reactions of family to the news – save for Jeanne Moreau as Romain’s grandmother and sole confidant, Laura – aren’t shown, not only because Romain neglects to tell them, but also because the one reaction that matters most to Ozon is Romain’s own. Romain has a seemingly selfish agenda to put right his wrongs, and in doing so focuses on what matters to him. That Romain doesn’t come across as wholly insensitive is due to the vulnerable sincerity of Melvil Poupard’s performance; it is fearless, yet fragile. The camera, through the use of probing close-ups, scrutinises his face for every touch of emotion; there is torment behind his eyes despite the steely façade. Indeed, the acting, all round, is superb. Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, who suffered gracefully in Ozon’s 2004 film, 5x2, brings a desperate sensitivity to the small, crucial role of a waitress who provides Romain with an unexpected legacy; and Moreau is nicely wry in her brief cameo, lending a maternal shoulder on which Romain pours out his woes.

Occasionally Time to Leave teeters towards melodrama. The sentimentality imbued in the narrative propels events, but the film skillfully avoids descending into mawkishness, unlike the more saccharine moments that threatened to consume Isabel Coixet’s similarly themed My Life Without Me (2003). The story is clearly personal for Ozon (both he and Romain see the world through a lens), but this film noticeably diverges from the restrained depiction of life-changing events in both 5x2 and Under the Sand: Ozon has moved on, but not necessarily ahead. Ultimately Romain becomes a mere silhouette, reposed against a picture-postcard sunset, evaporating into darkness. This last image could have easily come across as cloying and needlessly trite, but (despite being somewhat overly metaphorical) under Ozon’s firm control it retains a spare beauty that closes the film on an elegant note.

© Craig Bloomfield 2006

28 October 2008

Life Lessons: The Forest for the Trees/Der Wald vor lauter Bäumen (Maren Ade/2005)

I saw The Forest for the Trees/Der Wald vor lauter Bäumen (2005) purely by chance. It was playing at the 2005 Cambridge Film Festival, so I went on a whim after being intrigued by a single still featured in the brochure (Eva Löbau staring wistfully out of a car window, included below). I'd been interested in trying to ferret out these kinds of unassumingly small-scale, strictly character-based films at the time, and Maren Ade's debut feature ended up being the highlight of the festival.

More often than not, simple and inflexibly straightforward narratives require a commanding presence at their centre to act as a balance to all the simplicity. But The Forest for the Trees has an almost non-entity for its lead character - Melanie Pröschle, played by Löbau. Strangely, instead of diminishing the effect of the film, her not there-ness enhances it tenfold. The whole film is about someone who disappears from the gaze of those around them, despite their best intentions. And whatever someone’s personal experience, it’s sad to say that a lot of what happens here can ring true in any social circle.

Löbau (who I’ve unfortunately not seen in anything before or since) approaches the role of a new schoolteacher – on her own in a relatively small town, making a life for herself in an overcrowded, urban comprehensive school – with a weird kind of pathetic conviction. She’s pretty much almost willingly used as a dogsbody in the job. Initially it’s as if she were a useless bag of bones shoved in bad clothing, and plonked down without being told how to function accordingly with others. Through the film she doesn’t go through any kind of social elevation, and no triumphant message resounds. Her clothes just get worse.

There are scenes that contain such accurately minute instances of estrangement or identification that they concisely penetrate right to the heart of social ostracism, resulting in some effectively poignant filmmaking: the nervous hesitation as Melanie pauses before entering her classroom for the first time (the raucous kids inside are like baying wolves to her); the ineptitude that arises when no-one wants to talk to her at a party, even though she persists and persists; and it’s in the sparse and scattered objects that litter Melanie’s poky flat like beacons of distress. The attention paid to these things is minimal, often not the direct focus of a scene, but incredibly telling.

It’s in the making of new friends that she falls flat on her arse. Melanie is so timid and socially awkward that purposeful acceptance is a constant battle. It's like Melanie sees it as her reason for being. And work merely brings a truckload of shitty problems. The thing is, the film doesn’t exactly go down the route in celebrating the meek in the way that many of those championing-the-underdog type films do, whereby the “loser” is allowed some kind of celebratory triumph by the end. Here the character just takes herself out of the situation. Ade’s camera detects Melanie out of the bustle of an overcrowded populace, tracks her in potentially awkward situations, and then, like a concerned case worker, nudges her to do something about them. The film unwaveringly shows what happens when the people around you simply don’t want you there.

I admired the approach Ade took in terms of constructing the film’s bleak, carefully orchestrated tone; it’s unstrained, unfussy and downright spartan. Much of this is achieved through the editing; its efficiency creates dramatic, and occasionally funny, moments with ease. I was amazed to discover that this was Ade’s first feature. Although I can’t quite see the overall comparisons to Fassbinder that some critics have afforded the film, it doesn’t fall shy of some allusions. (In some ways Brigitte Mira's lonely cleaning woman Emmi in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) could almost be an older version of Melanie.)

The right actress completely makes the film. In fact Löbau was, by-and-large, my favourite female performance from the last few years. It's the first time in a long time - maybe since Julianne Moore in Safe (1995), or going further back, Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence (1974), or more recently, but to a slightly lesser extent, Kate Dollenmayer in Funny Ha Ha (2002) - where I've really wanted something unbelievable, something miraculous even, to occur in a character’s life; something to jolt them off their ill-judged path to social oblivion. But a tug-of-war occurs; conversely, I wouldn't want them to behave in any other way; these women are individual to the core. Löbau broke my heart in the role. I felt both sympathetic to her, and strangely protective of her, despite sharing little of her experiences (although I do share a similar job description, so I guess I can identify with some of the film's situations, which is perhaps why I took to the film as eagerly as I did). Either way, identification can be universal. Something about Melanie appealed to me in an unfeigned and affecting way. Certain fictional creations somehow manage to strike a wholly personal chord, one that reaches out to relate beyond mere viewership.

The level of empathy or sympathy for Melanie, and how much anyone will get out of the film is obviously dependant on individual interpretation, and it also either makes the film work or closes its world off. Some scenes are almost too embarrassing to watch that you want to look away; some moments would be funny - like something out of The Office - if they weren't so painful. But through Löbau’s performance, the film has a character with whom it's hard not to feel something for (which is especially commendable considering the complex shading of personality added to the character as the narrative progresses). It's very much a small and unassuming film with no grandstanding moments; it has at its centre a performance full of complexity and awkward charm, however cringe inducing. You don't get to see characters like this very often, if at all.

Toward the end, a sequence occurs which details with simple urgency all the resignation and sheer fucked-off-ness Melanie feels. (It relates to the bit I mentioned earlier about Melanie taking herself out of the situation.) A Grandaddy song, 'He's Simple, He's Dumb, He's the Pilot', fades in on the soundtrack and something unexpected and unbelievably heartbreaking happens without much indication, but with plenty of justification in hindsight to how Melanie reached this point. It’s probably my favourite moment in any film from 2005, and possibly the decade so far.

© Craig Bloomfield 2006

27 October 2008

Mad Cow Unease: Dariush Mehrjui's The Cow/Gaav (1969)

Hassan (Ezzatolah Entezami) loves his cow dearly. It’s clear from the very first scenes in Dariush Mehrjui’s lustrous, though rough-cured film – where he walks it over hillsides and delights in washing it in a river, himself alongside it – that he’s made some kind of personal bond with it, defined sometime before the film’s narrative begins. Though, it’s his love for the eponymous cow that ultimately destroys him. He lives in a tiny, remote Iranian village with his wife and the cow, which happens to be the only one in the community. When the cow is found dead, the other villagers decide to bury it and tell Hassan that it ran away. Hassan is so singularly devoted to it that when he discovers it "missing" it sends him literally mad.

The village of the film’s setting (a real one, indicating Mehrjui as a champion of near-realism, and a forerunner to the likes of Kiarostami, Panahi etc) is treated much like a stage set (indeed, the film was taken from a play by Gholam-Hossein Saedi). The villagers assemble in their daily routine, around its central area: a rectangular, man-made reservoir surrounded on all sides by houses and a few paltry trees. Most of the action occurs here, with several scenes taking place on the hilly outskirts. Mehrjui initially maps out the location in a series of still shots depicting in a calm, discreet manner its occupants. His camera casually observes them, letting them interact with the emerging narrative as and when. The opening montage doesn’t seem typical of standard narrative establishing shots. It very much seems to adhere to its own unique template; any one of these concise still images is held for no longer than necessary; all are economical and completely unfussy, effortlessly and gracefully seguing the story forward.

The focus on the silent faces of the men and women (who witness a “village idiot” being tied up and ridiculed) show with straightforward precision what a barren, desolate place this is. The use of sound, particularly in the early scenes, was the first of many impressive things noticeable about how powerfully The Cow creates mood; how the sound is designed to immediately set the tone of the film, in conveying this quiet desolation. The wind noisily blowing through trees, that accompanies the parade of blank faces, signifies an impending unease, as each shot gently but ominously gives way to the next. It somehow distinguishes the film from other early examples of Iranian cinema of the time through a resolute individualism; while there was a similar background muteness surrounding the solitary old station master (Zadour Bonyadi) in Sohrab Shahid Saless' Still Life/Tabiate bijan (1974), the pared down diegetic sound cemented the character's loneliness, whereas the constant aural activity in The Cow suggests a busier, more communal environment.

Imagery of swaying grasses and pelting rains sit side by side the often troubling events in the film, most often those that take place on the periphery of the village, where the threat of intrusion by Boulouris soldiers is likely (though they ultimately prove no threat despite the community’s fear of them; the villagers themselves actually create and execute their own downfall, fatefully entwined in Hassan’s situation). The black and white photography is illuminating. It may feel rough around the edges (the film has certainly aged somewhat), but the stark whites reflected off the houses in daytime contrasts elegantly with the pitch black, more fast-paced nighttime scenes. This balance is achieved so effortlessly that I was struck by how fluidly it progressed the film.

The Poetic languidness at the very heart of The Cow arises organically out of the story, and is enhanced beautifully by Hormoz Farhat’s evocatively pared down score, which readily echoes the lively observation of the villagers and their relationship to Hassan. As events turn sour, and get strangely dark, the imagery loses none of its fable-like lyricism, making the more troubling aspects of Hassan’s plight all the more saddening. When he’s in the cowshed – after seeming to have had his personality somehow merge with that of his dead cow’s – the camera solely films from Hassan’s viewpoint inside, showing the villagers looking in, isolating him from them but keeping us, the audience, with him. It's a simple piece of direction, but it's entirely apt in earning our empathy. Mehrjui’s well-placed camera ensures we see how tiny the window is, crammed full of the peering faces of people that once cared more than they do now, and may never again therefater. But here, in what feels like a minor but still revelatory move (within the environment the film describes), Eslam, Hassan’s most loyal friend, brings him food. Stigma makes way for kindness. The two men momentarily catch each other’s down-turned gaze and the terrible weight of regret is visible in their eyes. It’s a small, almost throwaway moment that manages to contain a gut-wrenching force: betrayal, comradeship and loss are too briefly addressed in a mere glance.

The Cow ends on a note of hopelessness, but it doesn’t undermine any of the humility on show elsewhere in the film. If anything it underlines it. A shot of Hassan’s wife on the roof of the couple’s former home, alone and deflated by her husband's demise, shows how the resigned despondency of events in the village has replaced the joviality of the daily grind. but it doesn’t eradicate it entirely. Eslam seems to have had some sort of mini-epiphany through his observation of Hassan’s experiences. There's something, a regrettable longing perhaps, in his decisive last minute actions in the film’s closing moments that suggests Hassan won’t be forgotten. As Hassan’s wife watches Eslam walk off toward the empty desert on a probably fruitless mission of belated salvation, the realisation dawn's that the village won’t ever be the same again, but somehow still may perhaps go on in exactly the same way regardless.

© Craig Bloomfield 2006

Departing Canada: Cronenberg's A History of Violence (2005)

I never thought I’d see a David Cronenberg film that didn’t feel like a David Cronenberg film. At least on the surface anyway. Look a little deeper and A History of Violence is Cronenberg through and through. Everything is initially presented as straightforward, and not the least bit abstract: there are no gristly fish guns, penile-enhanced armpits or a talking assholes in sight. From the outset it seems as if he’s sidelined his core concerns, put them away for another day and decided to give us something simpler and, perhaps, family-orientated for a change. The emphasis is certainly on family, but it's not like Cronenberg has pulled a fast one and remodelled The Waltons as a bunch of revenge-hungry vigilantes. Although, strangely, that's not exactly a million miles from what we have here. The title, though, says it all, and despite first impressions it is certainly written in Cronenberg's signature.

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Edie (Maria Bello) live in the homely town of Millbrook, Indiana with their son Jack (Ashton Holmes) and daughter Sarah (Heidi Hayes). Tom runs a small diner, which is typically, and actually far too strangely, average. It could have come straight out of Norman Rockwell’s or Frank Capra’s imaginations. It’s a setting familiar from a countless number of rural smalltown folk-populated films that could have been made during any given year since the America of the post-war '50s idealised such places as a shorthand depiction of everyday normality. Some of A History of Violence's earlier scenes (bar, of course, its abrupt opening massacre) do superficially resemble those one-page ads from 1950s Good Living magazines.

Two gangsters - fresh from the opening shoot-out - come to Tom's diner one slow Saturday night and for reasons unknown threaten everybody inside, waving guns around like tokens of authority, seemingly intent on some random stick-up. In a quick act of intuitive (or is it?) heroism, Tom bests the thugs and kills them quickly and efficiently. It’s an apparently out-of-character act for such a well-respected and work-a-day type guy; and thus the ensuing media frenzy posits him as hero and saviour of the community. Only that this new-found public adoration, and the widespread TV attention that comes with it, brings the possibility of more gangsters, of further violence. Things have already got very icky, but it’s peanuts compared to what is on its way (in the form of Ed Harris). And it’s not so random the next time.

In a sub-plot Jack overcomes his meek nature and retaliates against his high school tormentors. The central narrative with Tom is counterbalanced with Jack‘s experiences. This goes to suggest that the capacity for violence is maybe something that can be inherited and passed down the family line. But the film never tells us this explicitly; it leaves the question open-ended. Jack could simply be imitating the family atmosphere, and lashing out because dad has "shown him the way", or it could be that the focus on their relationship, which is almost given as much weight and emphasis as that of Tom and Edie’s, or Tom’s and the gangster’s, has more serious thematic repercussions. Without these father-and-son scenes the film would lose a bit of its essential driving force; the quiet juxtaposing of the dual narrative concerns speaks volumes, albeit softly.

The film is less a commercial move onto safer ground and more a subversion of pre-established action and western genre conventions. It’s a slyly subtle subversion, but an incredibly effective one. Many saw A History of Violence as Cronenberg going mainstream. But it only reads as such when synopsised or take on face value: the meat here is firmly embedded under the flesh. With the first and second scenes of violent death, Cronenberg is proposing we take issue with the murder of a child by ruthless killers, only to see if we feel the same when the killers themselves receive their comeuppance. We are put in a position where ideas of violent disgust or satiation are combined, opposed and questioned. The key to this is in how Cronenberg manipulates these scenes through suggestive direction. The camerawork is so concisely assured and balanced throughout so as to create a deep internal dichotomy that is hard to immediately fathom, but worth the overall investment.

It’s like someone finally decided to make a film to question, or perhaps even to piss off, all those dusty old western buffs that herald an outdated film like The Searchers (1956) as a masterpiece. Long live the new breed, Cronenberg seems to suggest. The John Wayne classic is not the only film that Violence reconfigures either. The competition comes bang up to date too: it wipes the floor with Sin City (2004). For films based on acclaimed graphic novels, that use aggressive ideas with the very nature of violent acts as both a springboard for gunplay and a way of life, Violence gives us, in a deceptively simple way, a grounded sophistication and depth that Sin City, with all its false plot twist-and-turn complexity, never even had to begin with. Of course they are both very different exercises in the exploration of violent cinematic themes, but they essentially say the same - or at the very least similar – things. The difference being that Cronenberg’s film has an abundance of style and uses it to integrally push its ideas forward, to reach a fully-rounded and emotionally draining conclusion. Whereas Rodriguez and Miller’s film is all hollow trend-driven trickery that ultimately says nothing at all. Both films took up a fair share of column inches both online and in print, on their respective releases, in regards to how they treat violence, but time will tell us which one has lasting strength.

I like the fact that Cronenberg has tried something slightly different in his approach. It’s obviously not the first time he’s adapted someone else’s material (in fact he does this a great deal; 8 out of his last 10 films have been adapted from pre-existing material). But it’s perhaps the first time where his adaptation hasn’t outwardly resembled what we’ve come to expect as a typical Cronenberg. It’s what he finds deep down, at the core level, then dredges up to the surface that makes all the difference here.

With his adaptations there is always a clear and integral distinction between source material and film. Naked Lunch (1991) felt very little like Burroughs’ novel and was more accessible and interesting for it; with Crash (1996), the kinky absurdities of Ballard’s book were distilled into simple, intentionally savourless scenarios that brought out the story’s damning points in visually interesting ways. Whether he is adding, or indeed adding by actually taking away, he ploughs his own path through the use of others’ original texts. With A History of Violence he is doing the same, but it just seems out of character at first glance.

Anyway, is he supposed to repeat himself in an obvious manner from film to film? If he explored exactly the same themes verbatim in all his films wouldn’t that be sadly typical? It’s like when David Lynch (not that I’m comparing ‘the Daves’ outright, as they really do have very little in common) made The Straight Story (1999), his ideas there were different enough to appear as a new path for him, but still linked with his staple concerns to warrant the use of his established stylistic gestures (it was still very much a Lynch film, despite it not “looking at the seedy underbelly of Everytown”). The same goes for a filmmaker like Gus Van Sant. Gerry (2002), and by extention the three other films in his unofficial ‘death trilogy’, Elephant (2003), Last Days (2005) and Paranoid Park (2007), were departures in one respect but they all still distinctly felt personal, like the Van Sant of old, in that no-one else could’ve possibly made them. In comparison to these other contemporary filmmakers, Cronenberg is doing what he does best: giving us something questionable, debatable and refreshing. The result is astounding.

The acting by all is complex and understated (with the exception of William Hurt – in a funny, but terrifying cameo toward the end of the film). Viggo Mortensen plays Tom with a reserved and intense conviction; you have to study his face hard to see that underneath the gruff façade an altogether different man could be lurking. Maria Bello’s role is crucial to the overall themes of the film, and she gets every scene totally right; there’s a simple and devastating undercurrent to her performance; the occasionally straightforward ‘wife’ role hasn’t seemed more integral or as connotative as it is here (she should’ve won every supporting award going).

Backing up its title, the film indeed places violence front and centre. It asks us to question whether we are really truly safe in any real way. If something like this could happen to a guy like Tom, then it could happen to any of us. Tom’s position is that of the ‘everyman’; it is given as both straightforwardly simple and with a hint and a wink of ironic suggestion. The stylised and almost hyperreal rendering of the “normal” family scenes isn’t simply there to make the acts of violence (the many gun deaths) stand out as oddly realistic (although they do), they are there to nudge us in the ribs and make us pay attention; surely we can’t assume that the whimsical overindulgence in homespun wisdom and the stereotypically-rendered family life is to be taken on face value? It’s broadly laid out, very much there for a reason, and open to interpretation. A History of Violence deserves any, and every, kind of positive attention thrust its way.

© Craig Bloomfield 2005