Il Divo (2008)

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Second time with Paolo Sorrentino after Youth.

Films that begin with glossaries are not making excuses for being complicated. Absolutely submerges you in the world of top-tier Italian politics 60s–80s. From recent memory would compare with The Clanexcept this is much more exciting, ambitious and breathlessly comprehensive. Throughout there’s a sort of bizarro inexplicability to actions, motives, affiliations; everything is just beyond our reach, whether through overwhelming connectivity or hilarious freakishness. Lock Stock introductions with police-file titles and monikers (personal favourite: the cardinal, “His Healthiness”) rattling around are all held in balance around the gliding, hunched performance of Giuliano Andreotti by Tony Servillo, an amazingly distinctive and outlandish turn.

It’s a bit of a whirlwind rush (although surprisingly traceable thanks to some carefully edited flashbacks); dogged by the feeling that you’re missing out on more than you’re getting, which is quite uncomfortable. As with Y, though, there are some stunning set pieces and brilliant highlights. The celebration at the 7th premiership, with the cacophony of African drums, feels decadent and unhinged, introducing Carlo Buccirosso’s performance as Milton Friedman-lookalike Chancellor of the Exchequer Paolo Pomicino – his ridiculous naked exuberance reinforced the visual similarity with Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder. Often complicated poignancy in GA’s humanity: earlier suggests importance of involuntary reactions like vomiting for evincing inner functionality; generosity with constituents is unexpectedly tender; flicking through tv channels with his wife, skipping news reports spitting his name, settling on a cheesy 70s pop concert, holding her hand mechanically in tribute.

Would reward another look, I’m sure. Would put it with Petri (especially Investigations) for scathing diagnosis. Stylistically maybe Danny Boyle in the incendiary variety.

7

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The Devils (1871)

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Second time with Dostoyevsky after The Brothers Karamazov.

Effectively dealing with the undermining of ascendant and characteristic Russian “higher liberalism” – “liberalism without any aim whatsoever” (47) – by a group of reactive and destructive young nihilists, socialists, etc. At the centre (supposedly) of the plot is Mr Nicolas Stavrogin, a man whose superficial beauty masks potentially horrifying secrets in the manner of Dorian Gray:

Our dandies regarded him with envy, and were completely eclipsed in his presence. I was also struck by his face: his hair was just a little too black, his light-coloured eyes a little too calm and clear, his complexion a little too tender and white … he would seem to be a paragon of beauty,yet at the same time there was something hideous about him. (56-7)

This initial portrait follows 50 pages of introduction, which themselves focus on the pitiful but pitiable Stepan Verkhovensky, professor, admirer of S’s mother, and windbag exemplar of that “higher liberalism” in his ridiculous pretentiousness and grandiloquent proclamations (undercut frequently by his dearest associate, our narrator). V embodies the kind of baroque and waffly sociability of the town, punctured by S’s wordlessly mocking acts of iniquity, such as comically assaulting a beloved captain. David Magarshack’s fustily labouring translation from the 50s enhances the magnetism of S’s indecencies, as the relentless social pussyfooting around him becomes indistinguishably beige.

There’s a running theme in this early section – pre a significant congregation at which S makes a scene which precipitates agitation throughout the town and initiates plot momentum – dealing with Russia’s self-ignorance. Mrs S hatches the idea for a periodical omnibus which would preserves newsworthy events in the national memory, facts published in journals which “make an impression and are remembered by the public, but then forgotten.” (137; here one echo, among many, of The Secret Agent). These are mirrored by the reams of ineffectual political leaflets which are distributed by unwilling lackeys (275).

Result is that the political insurrections can bubble occultly. The first half is peppered with mysterious events, usually heralded by the narrator as then-inexplicable and summarised with a depiction of the confusion that follows. Increasingly frustrating; narrator’s feelings are ironically mine: “all this led me to believe that something had happened before my arrival, something I knew nothing about, and that, consequently, I was not wanted and that it was none of my business.” (143) V’s son Peter takes centre stage as the mob’s ringleader, exercising a pied-piper influence over the manipulable townsfolk. He stirs up trouble and disingenuously frames this in the same terms as the narrator – “all of you know something and … I’m the only one who does not know that something.” (207-8) He trades in ignorance as currency: he intentionally inflates S’s public persona (323) while himself under his spell.

The reentry of S, at that congregation, is deftly paced; this is definitely the point at which the air of mystery is most alluring in TD. By this point (190) I was eager for S to fill the screen, to sideline the increasingly indistinguishable extras. While we get an alluring section entitled ‘Night’ where we follow S like a shade visiting and bewitching his associates, the focus (contra my synopsis) shifts instead to PV’s cabal of Four Lions-esque nihilists (less funny obviously). At first they are empty but deadly (250) but as we spend more time with Virginsky, Shatov, Lyamkin and Kirilov they get less and less interesting and less and less memorable.

Reduced to a thin series of highlights: Mary Lebyatkin’s introduction is eerie and alluring; the fête is amusingly chaotic and a good centrepiece; Shatov’s assassination is suitably black. There was one moment in the entire book which I loved: PV’s pursuit of Kirilov, the atheistic would-be suicide. It descends into a terrifyingly wordless confrontation, in which K is driven to a kind of statuesque madness, as if paralysed before the possibility of accomplishing or failing in his mission to attain the status of a god through willed self-destruction. 619.

Writing about TD is tiring. Thinking back to The Way of All Flesh – perhaps I don’t have the attention-span or patience for these Victorian wedges any more. It’s fine; definitely not Karamazov (Elder Zossima gets a shoutout 268!). Stavrogin is interesting but unsatisfying; PV is pretty annoying; Kirilov is eventually the most alluring. The chorography is opaque and the social portrait stodgy. The interruption of peasants at the end is an unsatisfactory compromise: TD could certainly do with more life (more Alyosha K etc.). More in note. Next!

5

Sandra (1965)

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Second time with Luchino Visconti after La Terra Trema. Shit French poster, I don’t care how appealing CC is – though LV is kind of asking for it with the level of sensationalism here.

It’s hard to suss this guy: a Marxist aristocrat who directed smash operas as well as probably my favourite neorealist film. Anyway, this seems worlds apart from LTT, except for continuity in the maximalist emotionality, as well as a windswept precariousness of modern man. Set largely in a town soaked in universal “provincial desparation,” according to brother Gianni, “the only town I know that’s condemned to die a disease,” the victim of actual landslides and inhumed pasts. This Stromboli connection largely takes a turn toward the latter, more symbolised aspect.

Journey from France (some Summer With Monika urban tour shots over the credits), a neutral space between the Italian S and her American husband Andrew in which they appear sedately alienated together (an opening party like the objectification in L’Eclisse). A Journey To Italy where S becomes seduced by the fossilised walls of her hometown the stale and drifting spaces of childhood home, always shot diagonally and with depth like Kane’s Xanadu. Not long before ghosts are disturbed: the maid’s face at a window like Peter in Turn of the Screw or the character from that Chris Cunningham video for Portishead.

The central ghost, most complicit in this unwanted rediscovery, is G. We meet him a scene of spectacular natural intensity, trees and hair blowing in the gale hiding S’s emotions – definitely provincial Brontë gothic. His introduction of the psychosexual angle is vintage sixties and helps complete the sense of melancholic perversion that made me think of Del Toro’s Devil’s Backbone. “You’re jealous of the phantoms of this house,” S tells the increasingly spooked A; yes, he’s “frightened of everything … as though there were something between us.” Again Antonioni in the framing, with this split visually evoked through blocking and gorgeous, wide mid-range shots. S leading A through locked doors of the past, following a paper trail of forgotten childhood communications with her brother – a “morbid game.” Fractured into different wings of the home, each member of the trio is kept awake at night by spectral whistling from the town outside.

G’s input introduces two other angles which work in fascinating contrast, each frequently threatening to overbalance the other. Most divisively, he injects a few thousand kcal worth of melodrama – CC holds her own, to be sure, especially with the operatic, black-gloved reaction to her mother’s haunted piano playing (in a visit definitely parallel with Wild Strawberries). But G’s affectations of doomed romance culminates in some pretty spicy death pangs (I do wonder how much this tone could be blamed on the unfortunate dubbing with which Mubi burdened their screening).

However, this richness is incised by genuine and sypathetic tragedy. Those secret communications were under the nose of an oppressive stepfather and poisoned mother (see Elektra myth), apparently partway responsible for the denunciation and murder of the siblings’ upstanding Jewish father, at Auschwitz. Their plotting of revenge and erstwhile illicit affections are linked as impulsive responses against this embattled isolation. Down in the dripping cellars – definitely DB and Nostalghia – they wrangle with this history: “what does a child know about passion” curses G; but they “have the same memories … hear the same music.” (cf. The God Of Small Things). A, elsewhere a haplessly drowned-out voice of reason, implores S to simply forget the past upon which a future might be built – a worryingly insidious exhortation after his earlier praise of her resilience in dealing with holocaust testimony at work (I forgot what her job was).

Certainly a weird one: no-one comes out clean in the wash, with the doomed siblings both victims and schemers, balanced against the insensitive but compassionate A and the morally ambiguous but rather foul Gilardini, the step-father. The aristocratic world, of which LV himself was a scion, is corrupted and incestuous but beautifully alluring (Buñuel also in a marble hand touched by S) and under invidious threat. I thought S worked on all of its levels.

8

Heartbeats (2010)

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First time with Xavier Dolan. “Grade A-“!

No ugliness in XD’s world (just noticed: not great initials for 2017). Great in HD: colours so full you can taste them; urbane grace in the costuming honoured with appropriately ostentatious closeups and framing. Definitely Wong Kar-wai in this modern but stately elegance, the taut emotion, and the at-times distracting foregrounding of form. Too much structural rigidity here for me – the intermittent rounds of monologues seemed only to provide illustrative context on the tensions and conundrums of relationships in a millennial world (in a way that I think could have been done in the main plot), while the oscillating bedroom-scenes were sultry (lovely cellos) but with a predictable trajectory that left me increasingly with a sense of impatience. I do wonder, though: there’s a nice touch at the end where Dolan’s Francis (standout performances from both behind and in front of the camera) attempts to prop a Bauhaus catalogue against a window but is frustratingly unable to make it sit flush on the sill. A sense of life’s stubborn informality which isn’t born out so much elsewhere, unfortunately.

That said, it is beautifully assembled. Loved the echoing approach scenes, gladiatorial comfort in armour of assembly, Dalida’s Italian ‘Bang Bang’ cover with an almost Western melancholic inevitability (maybe the wilted but defiant beauty of a tired standard revitalised?) to the film’s romantic deterioration (Some nice soundtracking by The Knife, also). Was filled with some dread after the apparently needless zooming in and out during the opening monologues but was reassured by the neatly handled (very WKW) shot of F and Marie chopping veg at the party, backs turned with only the sound of knives clacking before HEARTBEATS. The breathless closeups of chance encounters, waiting, fights are all quite intoxicatingly elliptic and disorientating in a way that recalled Moonlight. There are some moments when Dolan’s direction is amusingly present: jousting over Nicolas’ mysterious affections the camera whizzes between F and Marie as if it were an eager spectator goading each of them on.

There is a loosely-handled theme of complexity, greys between black and white: one recurring monologist discusses the spectrum of sexuality, while the ambiguity of N’s orientation is toyed with allusively, as when he criticises the “Manichaean” simplicity of a play’s characters. This culminates in a couple of extremely savage rejections (after which the eventual reconciliation comes like a reprieve), but the wells had been poisoned long before the conclusion. As these two old friends spar over a mutual interruption – N as distressingly disruptive a force as Terrence Stamp in Pasonlini’s Teorema – there’s a sort of deep-seated ugliness that grows beneath the trimmed and flourished exteriors. There’s a moment at a party, comparing birthday gifts, when I felt a rush of sadness at the spiritual state of these two – not the sympathetic and romantic sadness that comes inevitably later (or the especially poignant reflections on F’s feelings of alienated futility), but a more general sadness at the film-world they seemed trapped in, where everyone seemed totally alone. In the end they drift over to Louis Garrell (from Christophe Honoré’s ridiculous and boring Ma Mère), who I knew was in this and actually thought had played N all along, so much does he resemble Niels Schneider. Again a depressing sense of circularity.

Looked great plus I admired the low-budget simplicity and the uncompromising commitment, so feeling upbeat about XD’s other stuff.

6

Dunkirk (2017)

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Christopher Nolan is getting better at writing beginnings. The hijacked aeroplane sequence is probably the best part of TDKR, while about 40 minutes in here I was expecting D to be his best film. Fionn Whitehead’s character provides a focal point for the tension between individual and mass, emerging out onto the beach which should represent a salvation but which actually proves to be a purgatorial nightmare (a French soldier had drily wished him luck on his way). There’s a chilling wordlessness to his character matched by the eerie perpendicular queues snaking towards the waves like a Gormley piece or like groynes permanently embedded to stop the sand drifting away down the coast. The first of the set-pieces – a mad rush to get a wounded soldier onboard a departing steamer – is a nail-biting high which also works some moral complexity into the predicament of the two central infantrymen (the ethics of saving another vs saving yourself).

This opening stretch is also the strongest on a new side of CN: mass movement. Really some Kurosawa-level observation, particularly with shifts in attention among the huddled soldiers on the mole, noticing the enemy fighter overhead in ones twos then all at once. I’d say, though, that the standout here is a moment of statuesque silence: a drifting destroyer with ranks of soldiers like plastic toys, crammed and staring faceless towards us from a distance. Adding to that sense of purgatory, there is something very deathly about these apparently salvaged men.

Thought about Priestley, reassuring himself that the pastoral Britain of the past was “the real truth” that would survive the temporary nightmare of the war. He also covered Dunkirk (from Paper 6):

On 5th June 1940 he told BBC radio audiences that the most “characteristically English” aspect of the rescue journey across the Channel was the role played, not by the navy’s standard machinery, but by “the little pleasure-steamers,” at which we’ve laughed “all our lives,” and onboard which we have seen “the ladies eating pork pies, the children sticky with peppermint rock.” The literal nostos [OED “a homecoming or homeward journey as a literary subject or topos”], the returning home of Epic heroes, is figured as a scene from childhood, an example of the strangely permanent banality of British holiday tradition overcoming the temporary chaos of the war.

Dunkirk is very obviously a “homecoming” for the stranded soldiers, from a British perspective, but Priestley figures it as achieved through a resurrection (a reapplication) of the “past” Britain which thereby conquers the nightmare. In D, the nightmare of Dunkirk – for at least the middle 50% of the film – is that it wasn’t a simple evacuation, rather an abortive and constant returning to the beach: FW’s infantryman is spewed back onshore after being capsized (he watches individual soldiers try and fail to escape on dinghies) while Cillian Murphy is taken back against his will after being rescued by Mark Rylance on a civilian mission, a physical analogy to his traumatised, shellshocked psychological condition. Of course D ends with Churchill’s famous reinvigorating speech, which stresses the reality that war is not linear but cyclical with the need for mass military redeployment. The sense of returning, of failure to escape, is particularly strong here though (it being an underlying theme that CN excavates and examines quite comprehensively) for the fear of failure: the Dunkirk story is so miraculous – in a way captured by CN’s film – that we still can’t quite believe it.

It’s interesting, therefore, that CN decided to neglect personal histories and instead embellish his own imagined scenarios: terrified young soldiers waiting for the incoming tide in a beached hull; a bomber pilot (the profligate and touchy son from the BBC’s War and Peace) trapped in a stuck and sinking cockpit; a lone Spitfire struggling to land in time on a French beach. As mentioned with CM’s physical shell-shock analogy, these predicaments are usually illustrative of broader experiences, as well as being paced and interwoven dextrously enough to contribute to the ever-mounting tension. Hans Zimmer does a lot of this leg-work, too, with one of his best scores: taut and swooping, held together by a near-constant ticking.

I’ve seen complaints about CN’s characters; D is certainly his least character-driven film. He has discussed this as an intended approach:

The empathy for the characters has nothing to do with their story. I did not want to go through the dialogue, tell the story of my characters… The problem is not who they are, who they pretend to be or where they come from. The only question I was interested in was: Will they get out of it? (Wiki)

I personally found their relative, often near-silent anonymity to be appealingly general for a topic apparently impossible to cover across its breadth of individual stories. Nevertheless, Mark Rylance is the standout as a principled and pragmatic civilian volunteer; CN is right to compare FW to a young Tom Courtenay (his expressive blankness is quite Long Distance Runner); and Harry Styles actually puts in a commendable shift as a panicked francophobic infantryman.

There are a handful of moments when that cyclical frying-pan-to-fire structure creates visual similarity, with the threat of drowning recurring particularly often, but these tend to emphasise the difficulty of escape rather than create any stale repetition. The only major problem I had with D was the patchy script. It was apparently CN’s shortest screenplay by about half; what we do get is usually engaging and often poignant but occasionally overly-romanticised and sometimes quite flat. D really works better as physical spectacle. There’s no shortage of marmite patriotic energy, especially in the final stretch, but while I don’t really go for marmite I think CN appreciates the story at its civilian rather than national level. D therefore should sidestep any accusations of coldness, despite being dependably technically amazing (see the dogfights and capsizing ships in particular). Haven’t seen Interstellar yet but I’d still confidently put him up with Cuarón at the front of the pack for contemporary western blockbusters.

8

The Age of Shadows (2016)

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First time with Kim Jee-woon. Nice poster.

Interesting period for a political thriller, covering resistance efforts in Japanese-occupied Korea in the late 20s. Unfortunately, particularly for the film’s first third, the design is about as polished and anodyne as a Lindt advert with the bauble-flat sheen of a Thomas Kinkade painting. There is pressure put on Korean lackey of the Japanese police-force Song Kang-ho as an intended fulcrum for intelligence, switching his allegiances after a delicate balancing-act of persuasion; however, the script and pacing are pedestrian enough to deflate most of this significance, leaving the chocolate-box first act feeling surprisingly low-stakes, too.

Part 2 is “Train to Seoul”, with the engaging premise of Gong Yoo’s Tinker-Tailor molehunting within the confines of a lavish but segmented transnational train. While AoS struggles to shake the toothless sense of a romantic BBC WWII period drama, SK-h comes to the fore here, channelling Gary Oldman’s James Gordon in his experienced wariness; Uhm Tae-goo is good value, too, as a zealously unhinged deputy. Some tense escapes and a nice showdown (with an implausible resolution).

I think its third act saves it, to some extent, by striding briskly through an expected ending into a zippy montage of classic action sequences: there’s a train-station shootout,  some legitimately squeamish torture sequences, a Bourne-esque foxhole chase, and an eventual return to the le Carré structure via a satisfyingly vengeful tying of loose ends (set entertainingly to Ravel’s “Bolero”) and a patriotic conclusion. Glad that SK-h took the reins from the likeable but less distinctive GY, too.

Passably tense and historically interesting but visually buffed to an unhealthy sheen and rather lightweight, overall.

5

The Devils (1971)

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First time with Ken Russell.

The design is what stands out the most. Derek Jarman‘s sets are like sweeping edifices; crowds are often stacked vertically in seats or on flights of steps, architecture soars, tall flags flutter in a way that often evokes Kurosawa’s Ran (there’s an apposite sense, also, of Mordor). Especially the contrast between the baroque contraptions and costumes and the austere, alabaster architecture; something about the capacity (or even tendency) of depravity to thrive under structured constraints – this especially when considered alongside the visually consistent convent of St Ursula (this discontinuity also creates an air of atemporality which helps drag the political allegory into the present). There are some particularly standout sets: the swooning transvestite court of Louix XIII; early shots of the public plague pyres with Hard To Be A God squalor where you can almost smell the fear; the baron’s steaming and low-lit lair like something out of Star Wars; Richelieu’s Gilliam library like the vaults of a bank with nuns crawling like ants; the KKK trial; the final public execution, with its hypnotic Wicker Man totemism and Boschian sideshows like the cheering revellers spinning in the mouth of a painted dragon.

“There’s a man well worth going to hell for.” Oliver Reed is awesome as Grandier, completely magnetic and overblown. Pretty early on he delivers a speech on bodily transcendence which is lyrically Shakespearian, and this is definitely a tone which sticks with his performance. Most of his lines come in these powerful soliloquies: a tirade against national authority in the forum of Loudun; a passionate defence of his honour on trial (in which he rather chillingly evokes conflicts between an individual tyrant and national sovereignty); a plea for the people to “look at your city” screamed through a veil of flames at laughing skeletons. I think TD gains a lot from G’s very clear and honest fear of the physical pain promised to him – it tempers the bleeding romantic heroism (“I need to turn them against myself”) in such lines as “Do you love the church?” “…Not today”.

Vanessa Redgrave is perfect opposite him as Jeanne; the way she writhes under his unwitting influence, her conscience pulling her in different tragic directions as she rips the stability of the city apart like Samson – a sympathetic victim and a mad villain in one. Trapped in her half-height cubbyhole, praying and self-flagellating as her hatred and desperation grows, she’s like some creature of the sewers, a C17th Gollum or Pennywise. Obviously the absolute zenith  is the reverie before the crucifix spliced with the set-piece at Golgotha with the screaming wind, but this can overshadow her equally powerful first reverie: G gliding across the lake, J tormented under the gaze of the nuns, exposing her deformity. The bodily transcendence exalted by G is precisely what is denied her. Again, her demonstrations of fear are humanising, particularly at the exorcism, pleading that she speaks with her own voice.

Understated how funny this film can be: G fighting off an assailant with a taxidermied alligator; the fact that the bad guy looks like Warren Zevon; “bye bye blackbird!”; the pure extravagance of the king’s visit to the mass exorcism, the complete abandon by which everyone involved infuses the scene with infectious energy, laughing and screaming at the ferocious absurdity (the maggot-infested skull at the beginning recalled, for me, the sculpture at the wordless centre of Come and See). Down from these hysterical heights to the cold, tellingly sinister political symbols: the nuns almost shot in the forest like captives of the Nazis, the image of bookcases toppling behind the prosecutor as he torments G in his own house.

The single scene which appears to show any obvious restraint is of course one which, I have read, KR trimmed to attain that X rating: the crushing of G’s legs. Other censored scenes manage to suggestively imply the footage that was cut from them, such as when a self-tormenting J is finally presented with G’s charred femur. As a result, TD is, while still remaining satisfyingly intact, a dismembered but breathing testament to the savage dynamics of censorship, by which cinema can be both hurt and enhanced. In its openness and inviting, contoured incompleteness it is therefore absorbingly textual.

It’s also, surprisingly, utterly pop. An urgent plea through madness. Bold, B (look at that poster!), and brassily British. Somehow, rather impossibly, feels totally staged as spectacular enjoyment but also completely immersive as a riotously fun project to indulge in (Gilliam, again, in this sense of participation). I think its for this reason that I kept thinking of Life of Brian, a 1979 film which, considered as a potential double-bill with TD, illustrates the bizarre parallel universe that British cinema was in throughout the 1970s. TD puts a massive grin on your face even after the Dali horror of the raised, spinning gibbets and the winding path recedes behind red credits.

10