In The Handmaiden, South Korean provocateur Park Chan-wook returns to his native language and production model after 2013’s rather unsuccessful Stoker, and reaffirms his reputation as one of contemporary cinemas most striking stylists. Like his pictures I’ve always had something of a twisted love affair with his work, naturally I’ve seen them all, dating back to his off-kilter Joint Security Area and frequently gasped and groaned at the fusible encounters but never left the dalliance completely satisfied. He’s still best known for the Vengeance trilogy which afforded us with the disturbing Oldboy as the central piece of his taboo busting triptych, a breakthrough international hit which is still regarded as one of the finest films of the 2000’s, which managed not to be tarnished by an utterly redundant Hollywood remake a few years back. Now he’s back with a stunning new film which for shorthand I’d liken to Dangerous Liaisons intertwined with a light smattering of The Duke Of Burgundy, with a keen mastery of Hitchcockian manipulation as seen in the gothic inflected mysteries Rebecca and Psycho.
Flayed and defrayed from the novel Fingersmith by Welsh writer Sarah Waters the tale has been decanted from nineteenth century Britain to the Japanese occupied Korea of the early twentieth century, as tightly compressed into its title card signalled three act journey as a chubby Victorian debutante is strung into a heaving herring bone bodice. Tamako (Kim Tae-ri) has been newly recruited into the domestic service of mysterious Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), displaced in their remote yet beautiful Japanese / British architectural influenced Very quickly this arrangement is revealed as a sulphurous masquerade, as a conman (played by Ha Jung-woo) operating under the sobriquet of Count Fujiwara, is clandestinely engineering a wicked scheme. He has secretly hired Tamako – real name Sook-hee – from a family of con artists to assist and eavesdrop on his seduction of Lady Hideko, and then committing the fragile porcelain creature to an asylum in order to purloin her sizeable inheritance. I don’t think I’m giving too much away to reveal in a film poisoned with grifters and built on furtive foundations of deceit that a transition act functioning early twist is absolutely spectacular, literally sending shivers up the spine, subsequently unleashing a slithering narrative which had me enthralled for the next few hours.
Finally another missed screening from last years LFF is lassoed like an errant bucking mare, and boy was this a frequently hilarious, tender yet tensile, brilliantly realised piece of work. It took a mere twenty minutes to thoroughly seduce me, on pure aesthetics alone production designer Ryu Seong-hee and costume designer Cho Sang-kyung’s work is equally breath-taking. Working in unison they craft an intricate marriage of detail, shade and geometry in the frame which warms a cradle – or perhaps cauldron – for Chan-wook to cook his perfect command of succulent semiotics, duplicitous desires and erotic deceit. Normally I don’t warm to his films beyond the beauty and craft, and maybe his lightly perverted sense of humour, but he has seriously upped his game on structure, information exposition and empathic viewpoints. Two sequences in particular, crucial transition scenes between the films signalled three act structure are viewed from differing perspectives with new duplicitous inflections and signals which frankly are the very lifeblood of what cinema was invented for, perfectly aligned against Jo Yeong-wook’s glorious Philip Glass reminiscent score.
Within further levels of duplicity and control the film also flirts with upon the colonial assimilation between Japanese and Korean culture during the first half of the 20th century. I can’t even remotely pretend to be au fait with the historical and cultural context to make any revealing comments, but even simple policies such as Sōshi–kaimei ーpressurising Koreans to change their family names to Japanese equivalents – are clearly illuminated and deepen the themes of control, coercion and appropriation. This being a Chan-wook joint the film moves deftly into its erotically taboo areas, pulsing with the repression seething underneath those constrictive garments, which never descends into the morass of exploitation or mere titillation. Just to be a completely pretentious jerk (stop nodding) the use of negative space after certain plot contortions was just sublime, and while I sometimes find it difficult to appreciate the nuances of a performance when the film isn’t in my native tongue both the leads are terrific. Carefully and gracefully they both slowly piece a jigsaw of aligned characters motivations and drives, hacking through their shared webs of subterfuge with a stiletto sharpened passion.
Visually The Handmaiden is bathed in the semiotics of the fear of castration, of literal patriarchal poisoning and menstrual defiance, just one movement of this film alone could potentially impregnate a decade of academic gender studies papers across an entire Ivy league syllabus. Chan-wook revels in Freudian dream image symbology which are nested in peepholes, keys, butterfly hairpins and a bestial, squirming octopi which naturally reflects back on this infamous moment. Like all of his films (and to my mind most of the South Korean movies I’ve seen) it’s just a little too long and could suffer a twenty-minute trim, although I note that there is already a directors cut doing the rounds with extra footage taking the piece to just shy of three hours. In light of articles like this, charting the incremental move from screens for new productions it is welcome to see a film which absolutely had to be seen on the biggest possible, not just because of Hollywood CGI pyrotechnics and carnage, but to fully wallow in an experience where the design, sound and cinematography have been attuned in an essential big screen, shared experience. As far as the Menagerie is concerned this is Park’s best film to date, taking his craft to a higher level, a filmmaker at the peak of his powers – sure, I’ve enjoyed Logan, Get Out and Moonlight over the past few months, but as it stands as we move into peak blockbuster season this is my pick of the year so far;
As the shards of summer slowly slip toward the shadowing eaves of Autumn I had hoped to turn my attention to more intellectually stimulating fare, as I don’t know about you but I’ve drank my fill of franchises, superheros, remakes and reboots for many seasons to come. Slightly overshadowed by the sad demise of its Metronome distributor The Childhood Of A Leader arrived in London on the ebbing crest of a Cannes conflagration, enjoying positive plaudits from across the critical spectrum. I confess to missing the hubbub around the film back in July, but I have picked up on the recent spate of articles citing it as one of the best films of the year, compounded by Cannes jury member Jonathan Demme pull quotes that sealed the deal for a cinema visit. Citing debut director Brady Corbet as ‘reminiscent of a young Orson Welles’ is not the sort of praise that one should be throwing around with any sort of indiscriminate abandon, as that sort of message is Pavlovian dog whistle enticement to a cinephile crowd that has been long starved of any celluloid nourishment. Now safely ensconced in the heart of Westminster I have a rich choice of the capital’s cinemas at my beck and call, so this week I took a leisurely stroll across St. James Park to the stately Curzon in Mayfair for my first and long overdue movie visit for a couple of weeks. I entreated just one, individual viewing of the films trailer to whet my appetite, and truth be told I don’t think that preview alone without the surrounding praise would have convinced me of the films relative merits. Recent box-office successes like Suicide Squad and Batman Versus Superman have been cited as evidence that the public don’t pay attention to ‘serious’ critics, the sort of elitist, broadsheet cultural capo’s whose commentaries bemoan the lack of originality or non-formula reheats of past successes and genre gentrification. Well, as far as I’m concerned that challenge cuts both ways as I found this film to be an intriguing subject rendered redundant by some grating storytelling choices, ineffectual writing and hideous mangling of psychology, not a terrible film but also one in no way worthy of the praise it has been awarded.
The title cards bisecting the film first shelled my suspicions, heralding a rather peacock strutting import to just how precious the film is going to be, encapsulating each severe tantrum that our little terror unleashes while diluting any organic flow or dramatic tension. After a portentous montage of ominous newsreel footage of marching brigades, Luftwaffe blitzkriegs and shattering trench warfare the film alights in France, 1918, where US President Woodrow Wilson is in Paris to sign the Treaty of Versailles, an intended bandage to heal the seeping wounds of the catastrophic destruction of the First World War. Diplomatically decanted to this foreign country is a haughty American played by Game Of Thrones alumni Liam Cunningham, with his unnamed European wife (The Artist’s Berenice Bejo) and their 7-year-old son, Prescott, played by the ironically named newcomer Tom Sweet. Soon the little treasure is seen indiscriminately throwing stones at exiting parishioner of the local church, the reasoning of his behavior and motives unclear. Perhaps the move to a lonely country chateau has upset the sensitive child, with only a few servants to keep him company while his parents attend to their adult affairs, only the amiable and vaguely maternal housekeeper Mona (Yolande Moreau) and his new teacher Ava (Stacey Martin) in Prescott’s orbit and able to provide the wayward child with a sense of moral guidance. These questions, however, are moot as its quite clear from the start that he’s a petulant, narcissist wrong ‘un, the genesis of which is obliquely suggested by his parents aloof demeanor and hinted emotional and physicial infidelities. Here, in its oblique psychological posturing is where the film fails to provide any logical or dramatic infrastructure on which to build its intended horrifying character study, rendering The Childhood Of A Leader as more a puzzling, ponderous work, rather than an incendiary portrayal of the genesis of 20th century tyranny.
As a structure bisected the film into a sequence of ‘tantrums’ is as simplistic and causal as befits the films ideology, a cod -application of some sort of pseudo Freudian neurosis emanating from Prescott being mistaken for a girl due to his unconventional hairstyle, sprinkled with a dash of Oedipal adolescent yearnings and some authoritarian parenting. Well, I say authoritarian but I’d judge the child’s treatment as spectacularly tame compared to the norm of the period – the only act of violence occurs as more of an accident than any intentional anger – so judging by this thesis its a wonder that the entire Middle Class of Europe wasn’t populated by hordes of psychopathic tyrants, after they were either called a sissy or suspected that one of their parents wasn’t entirely enslaved to the matrimonial bed. The period detail and decor are handsomely mounted, and Prescott aside all the adult performances acquaint themselves with the necessary historical gravitas, but the second major stumbling block is Sweet’s performance which seems to be praised across the board, so once again I find myself at inscrutable odds with my brethren. I found his take frankly verging on the comedic, I even thought I could see him glancing off screen at certain points, seemingly yearning for some real-time in-scene direction, and of course it is with the director rather a child performer is where the blame must lie. Corbet has not only permitted a substandard performance to oppress his film he also riddles scenes with some rather perfunctory dialogue which can’t quite decide if its searching for the naturalistic or the stylized poise of Brecht or a Mamet, before petulantly stomping into its final section where some drama is yielded from Prescott’s war of attrition with his unrepentant mother, while also hinting at some deeper family secrets and clandestine couplings which lurk beneath the surface in an unexcavated and therefore largely redundant fashion.
At the risk of sounding like some pretentious jerk I blanched at the director citing his influences from the pantheon of Bresson, Dreyer and of course Kubrick, noble intentions all which the films confused narrative edifice and visual massing doesn’t even remotely equal. I’ve also seen an interview with the director where he carelessly dismisses modern entertainment such as (especially) Fincher’s Gone Girl as a mere ‘mass market entertainment’, its all rather sneering and elitist and making him quite stupid as he completely overlooks the gender politics, the social critique of marriage, the class and social expectations in the 21st century which that film instinctively harbors, coating the with a thriller narrative and some gfirst class technical and production values. Less manufactured, less product formulated material is welcome of course, even as a mere palette cleanser especially after such a wretched summer, but simply positioning yourself against a system is not the same as generating a genuinely successful film on the art-house margins of the industry, as in the final analysis this film is rather trite and simplistic, which actively plunges into the realms of the embarrassing in its final coda. I’ll say no more for fear of spoilers but this is where some of the debut director delirium drenches the film in pretentious platitudes, including deliberately nausea inducing camerawork, a so-called twist which is as apathetic as it fails to retract back to earlier development, and Scott Walker’s highly intrusive score actively becomes enraged and starts yelling ‘THIS SCENE IS SO IMPORTANT’ into the audiences ears, with all the subtly and nuance of serial killer chainsaw attack. Maybe I’m being a little unfair but this was such a disappointment after the critical celebration, and as I was actively seeking something a little more stimulating than yet another multi million dollar CGI catastrophe, but like its central subject A Portrait Of A Leader is an exemplar of all things mere sound and fury, signifying nothing;
This is quite a illuminating discovery, some filmmakers collective of some such which covers the work of some well regarded, upcoming cinematographers. Lens choice is not a ingredient that could covered in most reviews, so I found this fascinating;
I’ve also found a new movie to christen my new work environment, with the Curzon Mayfair a ten minute walk from Parliament Square across the patrol bliss of St. James Park I reckon I’ll be able to squeeze this in before the weekend;
It pains me to merely post another trailer, but having spent the weekend reading through the slow disintegration of Western civilisation I have been somewhat distracted. I did however manage to get to the cinema to see something of a classic, and I’m trying to work through my schedule to catch The Neon Demon this week. The possibility of infiltrating Independence Day II did cross my mind but I think I am finally getting to the position where, just like the last X-men picture, if the reviews are just so universally atrocious and the trailers look terrible I just can’t be bothered and will wait for the inevitable small screen disappointment. So until then here is the Cruise;
Herzog’s amusing performance and some well executed action set-pieces aside I didn’t particularly care for the original Jack Reachr picture, but this could be a vaguely distracting piece of entertainment…
Inevitably the backlash has been arrested with a backlash, with some defending Malick’s recent mystery. I’m still percolating, and as I said I think I need another couple of viewings, but it has been playing on my mind beyond the surface issues. At the very least an American director interrogating and refracting on previous world cinema heights is to be celebrated, a quite rare incident these days, as illustrated here;
Maybe Marvel should give him the first slot in phase 4, although they’ve probably missed a trick with the imminent Dr. Strange movie. His take on yet another rebooted Fantastic Four picture might make it right, complete with a philosophical Silver Surfer and an imperious Galactus silently pondering the nature of the infinite, the indiscriminate cycle of birth and death, although this pitch might not be as wise as my nomination of Sophia Coppola to direct a Halo Jones adaption. OK, OK, hear me out – Malick directs mildly Angry Birds 2?
You might think I need my head examined, committing to a BFI season in the midst of probably the most intense month of new release essentials I can recall since I started this blog, but what can I say other than here we are. Despite two or three essential new films hitting multiplexes every January weekend (next weekend alone has the choice of The Assassin, The Big Short or Room) I was also drawn to the BFI’s exhaustive Jean Luc Godard season, mostly to challenge myself and my previously conceived cinematic palette. Like a lot of boisterous cinephiles I spent my late teens and early twenties seeing as much of the officially recognized ‘canon’ as I possibly could, mercilessly devouring as much Dreyer and Bergman, Fellini and Kurosawa as I possibly could, a crash course in self-taught film studies which didn’t necessarily operate within a competent or robust framework of film history and its technical and formal evolution. Like any starry eyed celluloid wetback I wasn’t mature enough to fully digest the vast majority of what I was seeing, and many of my early formed opinions and peccadilloes have remained imperviously intact – Lang, Lynch, Leone, Bresson, and Malick will never be unseated from the Menagerie hall of champions, plus the immediately embedded likes of Carpenter and Kubrick who remain the all time unimpeachable omnipotent titans. I used to think for example that Francis Coppola, Ridley Scott and Oliver Stone were among the greatest directors to have lived, now I recognize their fantastic individual contributions are not remotely in the same league as the overwhelming achievements of Tarkovsky or Powell, Wilder or Hitchcock. It’s only as you get older, as you mature and are exposed to a wider menu of material and crucially revisit key texts with the benefit of life experience that previously underwhelming figures begin to make sense, as initial antipathy starts to thaw and previously impenetrable styles or statements slowly unveil their treasures. Now that’s not to say that I don’t reserve some critical faculty, I don’t find every director quoted on the Sight & Sound list as above reproach, and despite ‘getting’ Eisenstein and Fellini to name but two I can admire their essential contributions yet don’t particularly care for their work on any emotional or personal level, although with the former I’d be surprised if anyone found his formalist breakthroughs even remotely ‘moving’ like, say, a Frank Capra or a Truffaut picture. They are different beasts with different prey, with fur and talons that hunt through different ecosystems, their repeated themes and styles preferable to some and not others due to our own individual movie musing constitutions – I loathe musicals even when Scorsese makes one, and no doubt some equally passionate cineastes dislike horror pictures like Psycho or just because the subject matter doesn’t map to their personalities. This is all my extremely roundabout and exhausting way of saying that I’ve never particularly cared for Jean-Luc Godard but was aware of his importance, but in the spirit of a new year I thought that revisiting some of his better known works on the big screen might be an illuminating experience – and it was.
In that light I’ve decided to restrict myself to a light touch when it comes to this season, and I’ve only selected two films, both of which I vaguely enjoyed when I first saw them on TV, for this hesitant return to everyone’s favorite nouvelle vague crypto Marxist provocateur. Godard adapted Contempt from the 1954 novel of the same name by Alberto Moravia, in what is widely considered as one of his most personal films, which despite its lukewarm response was come to be regarded as a masterpiece of 1960’s European cinema. The story, as much as there is a conventional story rests on a disintegrating marriage between Parisian screenwriter, Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) and his beautiful wife Camille, played by Brigitte Bardot at the apex of her international fame and sexpot popularity. At the time Godard’s marriage to actress Anna Karina was also in a tabloid covered turbulent difficulty, with Godard accepting this directing commission from producer Carlo Ponti without final cut or complete control of script or casting. In the film Paul is summoned to Rome, to the glorious Cinecitta studios in order to spruce up a screenplay for a prestigious adaption of Homer’s The Odyssey that’s floundering in production, directed by the great Fritz Lang who plays himself in an early and beloved instance of intertextual tinkering. The puppet master of the drama is Tinseltown producer Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance), a blustering personification of Hollywood’s baser commercial instincts, who becomes quite excited at the prospect of more scantily clad maidens, battlefield mayhem and murder and its box office potential instead of Lang’s high minded classical fidelity to the ancient text. Suspicions arise that Paul is engineering a dalliance between Jerry and Camille in order to secure his employers fiscal affections, dismissing her reluctance to be pimped out despite the couples poor financial position. So the modern meets the ancient as artistic ideals clash against commercial realities, set against a declining studio system which Lang personified that by the 1960’s was inevitably fading into history.
My return to one of Godard more famous films from his fifty year (and counting) career was a thoroughly satisfying experience, with a glistening, freshly struck new digital print that is touring the country. The immediate items to discuss is Godard’s playful disregard for convention, constantly reminding you that you’re watching an artificial construct, a movie, through humorous and good-natured asides and affectations – strange shatterings of mise-en-scene, dialogue exchanges which emanate from a fictional movie world rather than any non-fictional fulcrum. This was still new in 1963, this was way before the self-referential spasms of Scream or Tarantino as the obvious antecedents, but rather than ape well established postmodern forms Godard struck out in his own unique direction, before such a cultural concept had even been widely identified or accepted. Contempt, to give it its English translation is an intimate film with a long middle stretch which is just Bardot and Picoli prowling their Mediterranean apartment, arguing and debating their relationship in a heightened and slightly artificial manner, but still managing a sense of universal appeal as their suspicions and vulnerabilities come under the cameras close scrutiny. In the wider plot the immaculately groomed, monocle mounted artist Lang is a representative of cinema’s conscience, asserting the fidelity to the source material and marshalling his intellect to take the text through the simulacra of the screen his noble almost saintly purpose, with Palance’s boorish producer a mirror to the venal aspects of the industry and its lust for the lowest common denominator, signifying the disgust of the title. The fictional bleeds into the real with the history Godard being forced to cast Bardot against his wishes and being instructed to include a nude scene to placate the investors, but he somehow turns the salacious into the sublime, through his formal command of the improvisation grasp of film form. He digs the rabbit hole digs further with a startling use of colour through Raoul Coutard’s ravishing sun-kissed photography, the blues, the whites and reds standing in stark contrast to the palette costume and props signified of their importance with foreshadowing of their narrative purpose and individual character temperatures. The visual accedes to the aural with a similarly spritely use of sound and music, this is the common refrain that runs throughout the film in a jargon of scene selections. In other places the score cuts dead as if the composer was shot dead off-screen, it’s quite humorous and jarring, constantly reminding us that we’re watching a movie, jostling a cosmopolitan shape to the entire film which churns at every appreciative conscious and subliminal level.
I’d be failing in my journalistic duties if I didn’t advise that the newly struck digital print is just sublime, those colours pop out of the screen and it looks as fresh as a Marvel franchise picture. Yes, naturally you see a very slight change in grain and degradation of quality in some scene transfers which presumably is struck from a deteriorated master, but overall the new format injects fresh vitality into this vibrant art-house masterpiece. Bardot was the contemporary equivalent of some Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift or Rhianna hybrid back in 1963, the ‘it’ girl who dominated the discourse in the tabloids and media landscape, and indeed Godard was accused of selling out by the intelligentsia by accepting this high-profile assignment. In her brief introduction to the screening Anna Karina made some rather strange remarks, that Godard assaulted Ponti after production which resulted in a broken leg, although the court case at the time found him innocent of any grievous intention due to the witnesses closing rank with Godard – I hope the statute of limitations has expired on that one as Godard is still knocking around. I can’t help but place Le Mépris within that fine prestige of films where insiders offer a scathing insight into the industry, from Truffaut’s Day For Night, Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, Minnelli’s The Bad & The Beautiful, Altman’s The Player and more recently Cronenberg’s Map To The Stars, the rather on the nose title of this film makes his objective opinion brutally clear. He’ll never be in my top pantheon of directors but being older and wiser I can perhaps more fully appreciate Godard’s achievements in this early phase of his career, that mischevious breaking of the fourth wall, the strange flashes of surrealism and glitches in narrative logic are less irritating and more charming than I recalled, and I’m actively looking forward to the next BFI visit for another of his 1960’s pictures. Also, talk about prolific, Le Mépris was his sixth film since his feature debut in 1960, and in the first seven years of his career alone he directed fifteen texts – two more than Stanley managed throughout his entire career fifty year career. In the opening of the film Godard quotes the eminent cultural theorist Andre Bazin, stating that ‘cinema is better than real life, that it is the real world as we imagine it‘, now that’s an assertion that the Menagerie can fully endorse;
So we perambulate to one of the great masterpieces of our age, a film swirling within the heady apogees of humanities artistic achievements, equal to the doomed, hexed romance of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, of Welles mosaic genius and structural synthesis of Kane, or with Kubrick’s epoch sprawling visionary science fiction odyssey – a poor fella and his kid look for a bike in Rome. First of all no, this isn’t a bio-pic of Lance Armstrong’s Tour De France winning team circa 1999 to 2005, the first time I saw Bicycle Thieves was as part of the syllabus of my Film Studies A level, when the whole apparatus of Italian neo-realism formed one arc of four coursework strands. As a rather immature adolescent the prospect of a black and white, foreign film with subtitles and no-one famous and everything filled me with nothing but crushing boredom, and if watching the damn thing wasn’t like so completely unfair then the prospect of writing a 1,500 word essay on the film ignited howls of ‘I hate you’, slammed doors, sour faced pouting and bursts of screaming suicide threatening hysterics. Naturally I was wrong, there are clear and compelling reasons for the films enduring legacy, so as part of an impromptu exercise I thought I’d pop down to the South Bank* and revisit the film on the big screen. As his highest profile masterpiece the film is the centre piece of a retrospective of Vittorio De Sica, one of the key figures of early post war European cinema, whose subsequent films such as Two Women, Shoeshine and Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini have charmed generations of filmmakers and critics, if not always finding much of an audience beyond his Neapolitan homeland or the dusty tomes of some vintage movie periodicals.
Shot in post war Rome on furtively sourced odds and ends of discarded film stock De Sica’s humanist masterpiece is the inverted antidote to the Hollywood blockbuster, a film which rushes a peloton direct to the heart with nary a camera trick or subtle plot curve to divest it of its simple, elegant energy. The story is as modest as its characters threadbare shawls – a distraught father Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) anxiously seeks work and recompense in order to feed his family amid the poverty stricken slums following years of conflict. One modestly lucrative method of employment is as a bill poster, traversing the city to glue announcements and adverts upon shivering walls and within dust choked plazas, as the capital slowly attempts to regain its feet and regenerate from many years of damage. To conduct such work the employers insist on a form of transport, to be able to fulfil their contracts all across the city, so the family sells their final meagre possessions to be able to purchase a bike and hopefully secure a more stable financial future. As you may guess from the title Antonio’s bike is stolen, instigating an anxious search of the city with his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) in tow, leading to a heart-breaking climax which is up there with E.T. going home, Mr. Lowry’s psychiatric retreat into fantasy in Brazil, or the terrorists massacring millions of innocent public sector workers in their intergalactic 9/11 known as Star Wars. Goddamn Rebel scum……
I think it was the great Stanley J. Kubrick who made the insightful distinction between form and content, recognising that Eisenstein exemplified the former with montage, with the cutting, the grammar of film indicating political affiliations to connect meaning and emotion through a sequence of associations. On the flipside Chaplin was all content, all pathos and humour, the drama steered through plot, the human condition writ large on those mournful, searching eyes. Bicycle Thieves follows this path, plucking at the heartstrings through simple emotional connections, as a desperate search for something as pedestrian as a bike takes on near mythic proportions . The film and the entire neo-realist movement is a remarkably organic volte face to the so called ‘White Telephone‘ cinema of Mussolini’s reign, the cinematic equivalent of 1980’s American soaps, as muzzled melodrama and status obsessed classicism obscured a culture in the thralls of fascist suffocation – see also the Nazi regime mountain films.
Neo-realism is a film movement which literally sprang phoenix like from the askes of the previous regime, using non-professional actors, shot on real Rome streets with real exteriors and locations, awarding the dramas a physical immediacy and social conscience which has been imitated and extended all across the world. One of his De Sica’s primary skills was in crafting performances, his films are all about the actors and the characters journey, so the films focus on common people, their interactions and struggles appealed to a broad audience, particularly in those difficult post war years as Antonioni and Bruno’s poverty stricken journey rang a chord within many countries and communities. Their frantic search offers the city in microcosm, as they attend church, neighbourhood meetings and even a brothel in a closing scene, but the sense isn’t to make a political point of the crushed proletariat scrabbling for morsels among the debris, less than a objective truthful presentation of the world as is, for once focusing on the common man and his son, bonding through a shared struggle. This is a small, quietly affecting film which appears as a conscious rejection of fascism and fantasy, when you’d have thought the exhausted societies of Europe might have been clamouring for a heady draught of escapism such as was offered by Hollywood in its musical heyday. It remains the most consciously political genre of cinema, purely by virtue of its environs – usually the proletariat, the social order under examination, with its oratory finding sympathetic ears in Iranian cinema, with the Dardenne brothers, through some Argentinean directors (see my new find of 2015 Pablo Trapero) and Indian cinema, or just think about Ken Loach’s socially aligned work here in the UK as another localised example.
I do have a long term ambition to cover the frequently lauded all-time greats here at the menagerie, not because they are necessarily my all-time favourite movies, but perhaps more as an intellectual challenge to pit my puny rhetorical wits against the commonly accepted global canon – although there are variations across the various polls a handful of films almost always make appearances. We have covered Vertigo, Tokyo Story, Citizen Kane and 2001, and one day I’ll get around to Potemkin, The Seven Samurai (next year gentle reader), Greed, The Searchers and La Règle du jeu, although having re-watched that on DVD again last year I honestly can’t see what all the fuss is about – evidently I’m a philistine. As you might imagine Scorsese is a huge fan of the neo-realist canon, a movement emanating from his ancestral home just as he was born in the badlands of the Bronx, and with the likes of La Terra Treme and Rossolini’s trilogy (Paisan, Rome Open City & Germany Year Zero) you can see the echoes in some of his films – you can learn more in his comprehensive documentary My Voyage To Italy. Bicycle Thieves is clearly a masterpiece of world cinema, like Chaplin its design and definitions hum across the decades and crucially across cultures and creeds, as we all have families, we all squabble, we occasionally experience financial woes and have parents who must at some stage fall from their childhood erected pedestals. Personally when we studied the neo-realist cluster I was more deeply moved by Umberto D which took as its story the travails of an elderly man wandering the same decaying environments, attempting to retain his dignity amidst the squalor, but I haven’t had the courage to see that again for almost twenty five years so perhaps the time is ripe for a revisit. Time’s a funny old thing isn’t it? I expect it took me weeks of torturous foot dragging and indifferent research to write my coursework piece on the film back then, whereas now I can vomit a 1,500 word piece in a few of hours. Talk about getting on your bike;
* Brucie bonus – as I quietly reading my book, waiting for the previous screening to conclude I was rather amused to see Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay exit NFT1, having just concluded a Q&A on their new film 45 Years. Which was nice.
Here is a tres bien little primer on that second French revolution of the 1950’s, and how we are still benefiting from the formalist fractures to this day;
Oh lord please forgive me for I have sinned, it has taken me over a month since receiving a screener for the Berlin Silver Bear Award winning film Stations Of The Cross to finally get around to seeing one of the more quietly acclaimed films of 2014. Structurally the film has supplicated form to follow content – it is a divided into fourteen individual scenes, each representing the various phases of the journey that Christ took when bearing the cross to the crucifixition. Even more fascinating is that each of the fourteen scenes runs as one, uninterrupted take adopted with a tableau framing, there’s no cuts, no close-ups and therefore no shifting movements of a characters power within each scene. Of course it might be worth outlining the actual content, it’s a German film about a very strict Christian family whom in the 21st century forbid their children to watch TV or listen to music other than Gospel due to potential satanic influences, however these ogres clearly love their family and cannot see the dangers of foisting their beliefs onto adolescents growing up in the largely secular 21st century. One of the teenage girls Maria (an aching performance by Lea van Acken) begins to be torn asunder between her indoctrinated faith and the growing feelings she has for a boy in her class, a tussle which manifests itself in a medical malaise that quickly becomes severe;
Some have interpreted this as a powerful assault on religion, a charge the director Dietrich Brüggemann has rejected, I think it’s fair to frame the film as a condemnation of extreme religion, of when common and perfectly natural bodily reactions are pulled into conflict with the metaphysical – just think of any of those media stories of a patient refusing some medical treatment on religious ground, or rather more fury-inducing parents forbidding lifesaving transplants or transfusions for their critically ill child. The common cinema touchstones are Dreyer (evidently the marketing department are leaning heavily on this as you can see above) and Bresson which is praise I do not offer without all necessary gravitas, but the final, devastating scenes are powerful enough to invite such comparisons, of an implacable superior being remaining silent in the face of supplicant sacrifice. Highly recommended as a film of its time, where fanatics of all denominations somehow still feel justified in inflicting their beliefs and ideology onto other people’s bodies and adolescent minds;
Whilst I was pleasantly surprised to receive an invite to the Industry Seminar on the Southbank featuring none other than mega-media mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg on Day Six I had other plans, there was just no way I was going to risk missing one of the most provocative and fascinating films of the year;
Ok, here we go. I think by now we all know I’m something of a specialist of challenging and outre cinema, of material destined to turn stomachs and cause appropriate offensive in lesser gnarled spirits, but my god although I’d heard this was a ‘tough’ watch I wasn’t expecting such a hardcore experience. I’m not kidding but this film actually shook me up as it is very much in the vein of Irresversible, A Serbian Film, or god help us all Marley & Me. It certainly ‘earns’ its violence, is not for a single nanosecond exploitative and is a remarkable piece of cinema, I just never, never want to see The Tribe again. Here is a complete change of tack, not even remotely related to the LFF, which will hopefully distract us from the darkness;
Reviews have been a little ‘meh’ from a very selective North American run, I just like the attention to detail with the production design which makes it look like fun., hopefully in a Galaxy Quest kinda way. I will say however that I caught a film at the LFF (review incoming) which has Liv Tyler playing a middle aged mom, and boy did that make me feel old. When did she get into that casting bracket? So finally for today although I have been thwarted from attending festival events such as Q&A’s and Masterclasses this year, another casualty of some unfortunate schedule clashes, the LFF have hosted some intriguing seminars such as this;