Cannes 2017: Jupiter’s Moon [Jupiter Holdja]

Hungarian auteur Kornél Mundruczó has produced an undoubtedly confrontational, high-concept refugee thriller, but the persistent religious symbolism and heavy-handed Christ metaphors don’t quite come together to make a satisfying whole. It’s a picture for Cannes: grand, sometimes beguiling and momentarily overwhelming. But Mundruczó’s direction lacks control, and it’s hard to be sure whether this mishandling concerns the film’s moral clarity or broader sense of purpose. This is certainly a display of lofty ambitions – how do we locate meaning in contemporary, Godless Europe? – but the plot mechanics do not provide the trajectory to meet them.

Events start claustrophobically and encouragingly. Migrants hunch together in a truck, chickens squawk among them, and next – the heaving mass are on boats, split apart, with stark dystopian echoes suggesting an imminently grim future. The boats take incoming fire; men, women and children go under. Panic and survival. Silence and death. The intensity, close-ups and sense of disorientation of this opening sequence resembles the unbearable Son of Saul, directed by fellow countryman László Nemes. Among the migrants is the significantly named Aryaan (Zsombor Jéger), a wide-eyed young man who survives drowning and several gunshot wounds to the chest, courtesy of the odious, corrupt policeman László (György Cserhalmi). Panting uncontrollably after a few long-distance sprints, Aryaan begins to defy natural law, while László, wrought with disbelief and fear, stalks him onwards. The objectionable Dr Stern (Merab Ninidze), who enters the ad hoc camp to ostensibly provide medical relief for refugees, offers Aryaan some conditional help. Dr Stern’s motivations range from the financial to the self-serving. The good doctor – proponent of Enlightenment rationality yet morally grotesque – must assist his miraculous newfound cash-cow as László and the government forces close in.

The gravity-defying technical effects are breathtaking, and twirling Aryaan high above the sprawling city is an image difficult to eradicate. The film builds tension like a thriller in quite conventional ways: in chases, near misses and ominous pursuits. A late act of terrorism is indicative of the film’s genre splicing and to a certain extent its waywardness. The motivation for the scene is intellectually dubious. Metaphysical talk of religion, God, the nature of existence and the assertion of value are sometimes achieved with a bit of a twinkle – Aryaan’s father is a carpenter, after all. But Mundruczó largely takes it seriously, and well he might given the range of themes: the refugee crisis, tyranny in Hungary, police corruption and the modern loss of morality. Such seriousness requires control and focus, however, and while the film constantly grasps for the celestial outer reaches, the angels of restraint and profundity remain firmly within Earth’s atmosphere.

★★★ 

Joseph Owen

Cannes 2017: Blade of the Immortal [Mugen No Jūnin]

The quantitative extent of Takashi’s Miike’s prolific output is nothing if not stunning, and Blade of the Immortal, reportedly the Japanese director’s 100th film, also stuns in its particular way. It’s difficult not to leave the cinema with your body slightly heavier, your head a little lighter. The pace is relentless and the violence consuming. To be comprehended, the death toll needs reducing to the power (much like Miike’s filmography). Aside from the mathematically disposed, most will struggle with exponentiation on such a scale.

This is a revenge tale with two interwoven trajectories of redemption. Manji (Takuya Kimura) is a better-than-average samurai who, for reasons which require little courtesy, is cursed with immortality by a crooked old woman – Manji prefers the terms “bitch” and “cow”. She forces hideous parasitic worms into his body, for context. The Faustian pact is set as the wriggly maggots heal the warrior’s wounds and reattach any mutilated limbs. This happens a lot. In fact, the same thing happens a lot: sword fight, death, anguish, repeat. It’s quite endearing and seeing the poor man near the end, barely standing and quietly perplexed at the umpteenth battle, is a symbol for human empathy the world over. The monochrome opening sequence, the only aspect which differentiates the film from the subsequent nonstop bloodletting, depicts the grim death of our protagonist’s sister. Manji’s guilt-ridden quest for his own demise brings him into the path of a young girl named Rin (Hana Sugisaki) who seeks to avenge the death of her parents, murdered by the merciless and slightly androgynous Anotsu (Sôta Fukushi), leader of an ISIS-style, ideologically pure death cult. The explicit mirroring of Rin and the sister Manji failed to protect isn’t original, but as a device to propel the action along and ground the characters’ motivations it offers just enough substance.

Based on a series of Manga comics, the film captures the cartoon violence and humour of its source material. The admirable choreography of the fight scenes result in regular heaped masses of the dead, providing an amusing counterpoint to the intensity of the preceding free-for-alls. The cinematography is uniformly excellent, and the fallen regularly look like figures in a sombre Brueghel scene. Miike has a stab at cerebral concerns, interrogating the morality of the various combatants – how can one legitimise their murderous wrongs, while damning others for similar crimes? – but, on the whole, the film aims for the viscera – this is incessant, silly and entertaining fare.

★★★★

Joseph Owen

Cannes 2017: Let the Sunshine In [Un Beau Soleil Intérieur]

Opening the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar at Cannes, Let the Sunshine In is a strange, disjointed picture. It trundles along without much cohesion, but there are some perceptive moments among the anxious interactions and wordless exchanges. Few love lives are more interesting for contemporary cinema than those of the depressed, wealthy, metropolitan middle class. Director Claire Denis firmly focuses on this never-neglected cadre of the self-absorbed. We get to see pity, aggrandisement and righteousness across several fraught romantic encounters. We rarely see much else.

Juliette Binoche is excellent as an exposed, overwrought artist working her way through a litany of briefly flickering and quickly souring relationships. In the explicit opening we see Isabelle (Binoche) reaching the rapid denouement of a conventionally contorted sexual encounter. As we are affronted by their nakedness from the beginning, the characters look somehow more grotesque with their clothes on. Isabelle produces acclaimed artwork and we once see her staple a canvas to the floor. She has a young daughter who briefly flickers onto screen through a car window. The film does not linger on these elements, both aspects hovering indiscreetly as faltering inconveniences in Isabelle’s love life. Denis instead centres on the protagonist’s search for a relationship with depth, or at least with understanding. By marginalising Isabelle’s other lives the film seeks to methodically unpick her hapless engagements with men. And what a roster this is: bastard, hypocrite, philanderer, coward and pleb. A comprehensive topography of male awfulness! Almost no one is likeable – a friend seems reasonable and cheery and she is summarily dismissed within two minutes of screen time. Isabelle soldiers on, seeking either dignity or satisfaction, never both, and the film engages when depicting her quest for fulfilment. Such quests are rarely sentimental. Near the end, grand French thespians Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Gérard Depardieu make seemingly improvised cameos as quarrelling lovers, and the film’s appendix consists of a hilariously staccato and slowly evolving seduction scene with Depardieu’s therapist-cum-psychic.

Loosely based on Barthes’s fragmented A Lover’s Discourse, the film is co-written by Denis and novelist Christine Angot. Some of the dialogue is sharp but it’s often difficult to care about these characters. Perhaps this is Denis’s satirical point, and the circuitous conversations, beset by extended awkwardness and grating repetition, invite us to laugh rather than empathise. Binoche lies at the fulcrum of the film and she gives us the full range: frustration to melancholy, tearfulness to fury. Depression is difficult to depict, but there is a truth to Isabelle’s stubbornness and vulnerability. Eventually, and not unexpectedly, we glimpse a prosaic form of happiness.

★★★

Joseph Owen

 

London Film Festival 2016: The Ghoul

This psychological thriller appears to be half a film, or at least one episode of a ten-part TV series, and perhaps that is the point. It sees incompleteness as profundity, ambiguity as intelligence. The unreliable narrator is a timeworn device in contemporary fictions, and there is usually fun to be had in second-guessing character motivations. The Ghoul of the title is itself untraceable – a manifestation of mental illness, a supernatural entity, or a physical being bent by evil machinations. But by possibly being all of these, intrigue in the film is diluted. The allusions are unexplored rather than subtle, and the Ghoul becomes supplanted in our minds by the Goya etching, though the plot offers little in the way of monsters and less in the way of reason.

The opening is impressive: a suitably reticent detective, Chris (Tom Meeten), investigates a domestic crime scene. An intruder has shot two residents repeatedly. A basic forensics check estimates the pair did not die instantly; in fact, they inexplicably continued to approach the assailant after multiple, undoubtedly fatal, gunshot wounds. First-time filmmaker Gareth Tunley produces a sharp introduction here, and the scene seems to promise a conventional police procedural. Our expectations are quickly upended, however: Chris, he of moody silences and downward head tilt, begins to work undercover, attending the sessions of some dodgy psychotherapists (Niamh Cusack, Geoffrey McGivern) who are somehow linked to the case. Chris meets Coulson (Rufus Jones), a bipolar sufferer also under the therapists’ care, who believes that the therapists’ motives transcend the merely criminal.

Tunley clearly joys in obfuscating Chris’s fluctuating descent into deceit, the occult and clinical illness. But while discarding a conventional plot structure, Tunley never truly embraces the strangeness of his protagonist’s psyche. The suburban noir setting is altered by camera shifts that are irritating rather than bizarre, the representation of depression sometimes feels slightly broad, and one of the supposedly sinister characters spouts Partridge-isms that induce hilarity instead of unease. Budget constraints are no doubt an issue in some respects, but the film’s lack of focus seems to run deeper: it is dour when it should be arresting and subdued where it should be fantastical.

Verdict:

Joseph Owen

The Ghoul does not have a UK release date yet.

For further information about the 60th London Film Festival visit here.

Read more reviews from the festival here.

Watch the trailer for The Ghoul here:

London Film Festival 2016: Die Geträumten [The Dreamed Ones]

That both the lives of Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan ended tragically and separately adds a significant poignancy to the pair’s postwar correspondence. Fed through years of creative antagonisms, personal recriminations and persistent rivalries, the poets’ love letters articulate an experience particular to central Europe in the 20th century – the precarious space described by Heidegger, the countries caught in the pincers of untrammelled modernity, and the Jewish people at once reclaiming, reconciling and remembering the horrors of the Holocaust.

Director Ruth Beckermann fuses together a trained, documentary sensibility and a scripted reconstruction of the poets’ intellectual and emotional sparring. Two actors, played by Anja Plaschg and Laurence Jupp, verbalise, interpret and wrestle with the poets’ decades-long dialogue. Jupp is actorly, confident and good-humoured; Plaschg is raw, emotive and sombrely thoughtful. Each plays two parts: poet and actor. Beckermann’s direction emphasises physical proximity and intimacy as a way for the actors to transcend their roles: Bachmann and Celan’s written relationship is prefaced by a brief love affair, never rekindled; Plaschg and Jupp’s relationship is forged only in the intense immediacy of the recording studio, a professional and artistic connection unconsummated. The camera imposes itself on the actors’ faces, capturing the subtleties of expression as each begins to embody the poets’ experience – that European experience – coloured by their own fluctuating and spontaneous frissons. At one point, Plaschg reads aloud Bachmann’s angst as “collapsing under the burdens”. This seems right: the aesthetics of horror, the age of rupture, discontinuity and shock.

But what can be concluded from Beckermann’s attempt to unveil the process of recording poetic transcripts, of rearticulating the past? The direction is stylish, if uninspiring; the acting is solid, if unintriguing. The premise does not convince – that we should compare the lives of Bachmann and Celan to those of a distorted Plaschg and Jupp. The European experience maintains, perhaps, but temporality is linear, not universal, and it is glib for the film to imply that Bachmann, Celan, Plaschg and Jupp can necessarily speak to one another. This may be a glorified radio play, or a curio of literary scholarship, but there is little to suggest in the material a 90-minute feature film.

Verdict:

Joseph Owen

Die Geträumten (The Dreamed Ones) is released in select cinemas on 2nd December 2016.

Watch the trailer for Die Geträumten (The Dreamed Ones) here:

https://player.vimeo.com/video/177619260

Cannes 2016: Gimme Danger

I covered Cannes Film Festival this year, and I will be posting my reviews here weekly. My pieces are on a website known as The Upcoming and have been published in something called Swipe magazine.

By most accounts The Stooges revolutionised rock music in the late 60s and early 70s. Jim Jarmusch, in close collaboration with frontman Iggy Pop, offers a relatively conventional documentary of the band’s history, encompassing the traditional rock star career fluctuations: initial musical success, the descent into drugs and – for some in the tale – a significant reversal of fortunes. Jarmusch’s evident love for the music, and his artistic respect for Iggy and the other band members, both enlivens and inhibits the film. It rollicks along at quite a pace, being both affectionate and funny towards its cast of talking heads, and the roll call of obituaries is particularly heartfelt. But the bad times are passingly referenced more than explored (although this is no hagiography), and because the story is told chronologically and mostly straight there is little space for visual or thematic invention.

For fans of The Stooges, however, this is a treat: an album-by-album analysis of the band, an in-depth exploration of the member rotation and residency changes, and a tribute to their musical influences as well as their descendants to the punk throne. But there is no doubt that Iggy is the star. His olive, defined torso appears in various states of wear throughout the film, the only constant throughout the aesthetic metamorphoses during his career. (He’s dropped the dog collar, now.) Iggy’s limber, visceral stage performances are displayed immediately, but his intelligence, articulateness, self-confidence and musical ability also shine through. However, it would have been interesting to see a slight digression into his solo career, and a larger emphasis on his personal and professional partnerships with the likes of David Bowie, which produced some of the great pop music of the late 20th century.

Gimme Danger repeatedly returns to the opening riff of The Stooges’ most famous song, I Wanna Be Your Dog, in live performances and within the soundtrack, encapsulating both the advantages and limitations of Jarmusch’s ode. The track is a brilliant showcase of the band’s seismic impact and singular talent, but it also inclines you to go elsewhere and simply listen to the music.

Cannes 2016: La Larga Noche de Francisco Sanctis [The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis]

I covered Cannes Film Festival this year, and I will be posting my reviews here weekly. My pieces are on a website known as The Upcoming and have been published in something called Swipe magazine.

Closing Un Certain Regard for this year’s Cannes is La Larga Noche de Francisco Sanctis, an understated, almost minimalist, short feature written and directed by Argentinian pair Francisco Márquez and Andrea Testa. Clocking in at just over 80 minutes, the film presents a succinct Orwellian narrative of one man’s unexpected and dangerous mission that takes him deep into the witching hour. There are some artful touches, and the silent, noir-like atmosphere produces several strange, tense episodes. But the film is as slight in substance as it is in running time, and the imposing grey palette rarely offers an opportunity for much visual intrigue.

Diego Velázquez stars as the titular Francisco Sanctis, an unassuming hard worker who supports his traditional nuclear family in 1970s Argentina, a country which remains under the rule of military dictatorship. He has no evident political allegiances. In fact, middle-aged Francisco is the archetype of normality, perhaps even banality. His dreams extend to a job promotion; instead he receives a novelty gift box from his employers, despite his continued excellence and efficiency in the workplace. One evening he is given surprising information about two individuals who will “disappear”. Out of character, Francis is compelled to help, and his journey commences across Buenos Aires and into the night.

Velázquez adequately conveys first Francisco’s confusion towards his burden and subsequently his quiet determination to complete the ad hoc obligation. The apparently overriding metaphor of Argentina’s dictatorship is not sharply drawn out, however, and the general effect of the film is muted rather than thought-provoking. The production values are low, with some scenes, particularly those which take place in the car, appearing stagy and amateurish. There is a germ of an interesting idea regarding state authoritarianism and political repression, but this minor effort cannot quite locate its significance nor satisfyingly portray its consequences.