My Twentieth Century (1989)

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Early piece from Ildikó Enyedi, watched as a film night with M.

Hard not to love at the start. Second Run released this recently, which makes connections between Edison’s lightbulb parade and the cover of Pictures of the Old World inevitable. The beauty of the cinematography is very different here, though: every shot could be paused and made into a participant’s documentary snap; we’re made to feel like part of the story in every vignette. This despite some overtly cinematic stylings, as in the early montage of technology and exploration, as well as the dog-eared situations like a train encounter, a boat rendezvous, shopping for necklaces. The conceit of the twin girls split on a Christmas night is lovably Dickensian, while the typographical labelling gives this a weirdly 21st-century ironic edge.

Casting Dorota Segda in both roles eventually feels unnecessarily confusing. Discussion with M revealed how many mistakes I had made, which is a problem when the theme of split-but-connected women’s experience revolves around cases of mistaken identity (usually at the expense of Oleg Yankovskiy’s reticently bewitched suitor. Again with the timelessness: couldn’t work out how the guy from Nostalghia had aged so well).

Then cracks and bumps begin to appear. Early references to the place of Hungary at the turn of the century are swerved around by an intriguing contrast of clandestine and aristocratic peripateticisms (an anarchist ghosting across Europe meets a listlessly aristocratic traveller). A Clockwork Orange montage sequence with an unwilling dog is amusing but forgotten. What was the Trouble In Paradise-style necklace switcheroo about? Most egregiously, and ultimately most disappointingly, the flaunted themes of women’s experience, technological change and providence are revealed to be cardboard set decoration, flat and decorative rather than investigated. M objected to the apparently hesitant imbalance between the misogynistic lecturer’s breathless characterisation of women as entirely sexual beings (a funny setpiece, nevertheless) and Dora’s repetitive seductions.

But because of its glittering, almost chocolate-box beauty, and its cosy silliness, it slips by and down with a warm charm. I did enjoy it the whole way through; it was only after it finished that it became increasingly hard to love.

6

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The Childhood Of A Leader (2016)

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Was pretty disappointed with this for about 45 minutes. Patient to the point of being stolid, with a lot of boring diplomatic conversations and the obstacle that is Liam Cunningham’s wobbling false-moustache American accent. It establishes a pretty emulative Haneke atmosphere with a sprinkling of The Others or The Turn of The Screw and The Shining, as far as the young boy is presented.

The focus begins to shift towards Berenice Bejo’s mother (very Kidman at points), and takes a psychosexual turn that begins to cut through the historical furniture-arranging. The young boy’s magnetic quality becomes more sinister (like a Teorema‘s Terrence Stamp in the making) as his will becomes more erratic and uncontrollable. The Vermeer interiors (a couple of shades of Velazquez’s Las Meninas, too) are matched by impressionistic exteriors, which coldly light a rural world of almost ritualistic tradition and anachronistic poverty; perversion of this house in this setting.

Then the adrenaline really kicks in and it suddenly becomes taut, ice-cold. Fanny and Alexander, which is set up so clearly in the draped passages between baroque rooms, is inverted in a moment – which crystallises one of the three central “tantrums” – where the boy appears defiantly coquettish and undressed before his father at the ominous negotiations. His capricious rebellion is exercised through amplifying the gender misconceptions which torture him; he inflicts his pain on others as he appears like the ghost of Alexander’s father across rooms. Something about his wordless apparition, his stance and departure is momentarily terrifying. The film becomes full of moments like this, minor peaks which are somehow extremely threatening – another standout is the moment depicted above, where the boy wordlessly tries out an injured arm, silhouetted before a mirror. His pivoting, slow-motion blows somehow germinate the image of Hitler flailing at a podium; it’s not always clear with these moments exactly how they produce their effects, which marks them out as the work of a bizarrely accomplished debutant director. Everything gets tighter, particularly the mother’s relationship to the boy: there’s a beautiful moment where she practically begs him to be her friend, unhappily reaping what she sowed (this is the break which reflects back onto an earlier moment in which the boy races away from his mother’s discipline but inexplicably turns and runs back to her for comfort [this in turn reflects upon a sinister dream the boy has had in which the halls that he will someday fill appear blank and haunted without his mother’s presence]. I kept thinking about fort-da, for some reason).

A lot has been said about Scott Walker’s score – which is integral, and fits perfectly at all times. I would contribute that a lot of the early refrains, especially, sound like demented nursery sing-song melodies, repeating like a broken singing doll. In sum it’s is like a blend of Hermann and Greenwood; there’s a lot of consonance with There Will Be Blood, especially in the final section which threatens to turn into a parallel sequel to the film from the “bastard’s” point of view. The patience of the takes has become totally dread-inducing by this point; the forestalling of the inevitable final appearance is almost unbearable. The finale itself is initially somewhat baffling, a potential bum note, but it finds a home within a boldly framed impression of the chaos still to come.

Ends up sidestepping all assumptions. There are clues and illustrations left satisfyingly tangential (the possible exception being the dangling passing threat from the ejected maid Mona), which reflects positively back on the earlier examples which landed a little more flatly (the recurring black horse, Ada’s breast beneath the cloth).

Needs a second viewing; never seen such a turnaround (like In The Bedroom x a thousand).

7

La Léon (2007)

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Santiago ‘you should see the’ Otheguy. Made 3 notes for this one; it sort of slips by quietly and mysteriously, with a cold but intense sensuality. I kept thinking of the (now quite referential) flashback sequences in A Single Man, chiefly because of the way the black and white combine with the widescreen framing – as here – to create a kind of sun-baked heat, itchy mid-afternoon tension. Figures are often framed here with swathes of forest or river or reeds on either side, embedded in their environment as they work or walk or play football. It’s a different route to realism; certainly not naturalistic, but with plenty of the weight of Lav Diaz (though the pacing is more Antonioni, or Antonioni-via-Ceylan). Embrace of the Serpent comes to mind, too, because of the setting’s glittering forms and the stability of the perspective.

All very alluring. The story is suitably languid: a reedcutter on a North Argentinian island settles into reclusion to avoid attracting attention to his bookish interests and homosexuality, but is unable to shake off the conflicted attentions of a bullying ferryman who channels his frustrations into nativist agitation against quietly invading “misioneros,” to perilous effect. The story slips along like the silent river cutting across the island, edited evenly with only a few alerts: the cut to the first sex scene is judged perfectly; there’s a fantastically tense foreshadowing of revenge on the ferry; the final confrontation tightens to a breathless high pitch. A smart 80-odd minutes, in total.

Cumulative, not explosive. A great little story entwined around an engrossing social relief, beautifully shot.

8

Stockholm My Love (2016)

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Mark Cousins’ feature debut, I believe.

To reduce it to what I know: an awful lot of stuff in here about exile and witnessing. NC’s initial attitude is almost one childishness – she is “bunking off school” by neglecting to give a lecture on architecture, a confession she addresses to her father in these early scenes. She hides in the mist (and, childishly, behind her hair in some of the closeups) but I think the film attempts to convey not avoidance but self-scrutiny. The beginning of her story has its roots in her father’s experience as an immigrant and her own history growing up in a borrowed environment: “it’s as if I’m not allowed to be here.” The central trauma itself – the death of an old Swedish man on the bumper of her car exactly one year ago – is a living wound, “more here than here” – a paradox which simultaneously evokes preoccupation and relegates actual, contemporary lived experience, which elsewhere seems “distant” in all directions. Later, at the passage that perhaps forms the crux point about which her journey of self-absolution/acceptance pivots – a trip to an occluded woodland church – she relates the Bible’s story of real-life cities built to house accidental killers, residual like “refugees” in muted worlds.

Some interesting play with perspective. A full range from grainy, Inland Empire handycam to crystal slow-mos. I thought I’d nailed it when my general early impression of skateboard videos appeared to be validated by a visit to a park, but in retrospect this range puts me more in mind of upmarket vlogs, particularly Casey Neistadt’s. This makes sense given the blend of diaristic (essayistic) confessional and aleatoric hymn to the city, and it’s an approach that puts MC and his film right in the present, which keeps the experimentation feeling fresh. What is less fresh is the interplay between the narration and NC’s onscreen presence; her acting is extremely impassive (to some extent called for by her character’s emotional state) which makes it hard to connect her even to such an impassive script. There are a few moments where she briefly breaks into actual speech, which feel incongruous to a telling extent.

I did enjoy spending time with the city (which is listed as cast in the opening credits). There’s a good breadth between ambience (sometimes timelapse, at points interestingly [as above] aleatoric, where observed extras appear to be unwitting) and textural particularity. And a soothing, if not exactly unforeseeable, jog through the city’s history and the national character which is expressed in its persistent lines and regularity, its quiet social optimism and atmosphere of responsible freedom. It made me want to live there.

Distinctive but wobbly.

6

A Ghost Story (2017)

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Hipster bullshit. Saw this at UPP with Steve. Establishes a post-Tree of Life environment of suburban peace through patient pacing and misty ambience. A couple wrangle with mysterious melancholy (some Wong Kar-Wai in these highly-strung exchanges) before Casey Affleck, the husband, perishes in a car crash. He is whimsically clad in the pictured archetypal ghostly costume; all focus on his personal experience after death is borrowed and intentionally childish, extending to a take on the Taylor Swift meme of figures communicating wordlessly between isolated houses. Hammy and unsatisfying reflections on loss and (im)permanence ([be]longing) swirl around this central, simpering irony. At the beginning, though, there are some interesting prospects for examination of the intransigence of grief, extending to (and pushed through) a pointedly interminable scene depicting Rooney Mara’s indulgence in kummerspeck with CA’s besheeted presence hovering out of focus. This isn’t followed through, however, as RM leaves the set, giving way to CA’s dissatisfying ponderings on regeneration and residual presence. There’s a cameo from Will Oldham which comprises a garbled diatribe on humanity as a ‘brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness’, hanging on with a whiff of watery hauntology. There are also some unintentionally guffaw-prompting missteps, as in CA’s successful attempt to diffuse an argument with RM by insisting upon his tuneless and flatulantly insubstantial musical endeavours. All the jump-scares (the extent of the film’s spookiness, besides a brief but effective poltergeist interlude) are equally unwarranted and unwelcome. Ultimately the message was entirely covered – and then some – by the yet-imperfect short film Plastic Bag by Ramin Bahrami, which at least had an appealing sense of humour. Usage of rounded 4:3 framing seems more Instagram than Scarred Hearts.

A film which is never more than you expect it to be.

3

Love Is The Devil (1998)

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First time with John Maybury. A study for a portrait as much of George Dyer as it is of Francis Bacon – which is great, because Dyer’s is a fascinating story. The film this put me most in mind of was Fox and His Friends: the complex antagonism of the bonds that bind the couple, against the gaps which divide them, stretches their mental states in painful directions until one of them really snaps. Keeping GD relatively centre-stage is appealing because it bolsters the comment that FB really didn’t acquit himself well personally in this period: their sadomasochistic dynamic is cruelly inverted away from the bedroom, with FB and his cabal of cackling grotesques bullying GD into dependency and internal destitution. FB describes the liberating ecstasy of entirely abdicating one’s will in the service of another man, but the tragedy of the bigger picture is that people can’t stay irreducibly small forever.

The film’s other strength is its refraction of GD’s mental decline through improvised Baconian imagery (the artist’s estate wouldn’t permit JM the use of any of his actual work). It suggests that Bacon was a feeder, witnessing his visions vicariously. GD’s haunting premonitions of abstracted destruction – a man hunched and bloodied all over with a handkerchief hat, slipping off a beam into darkness – evokes William Blake’s sketch of soul of a flea. Other ice-bath moments of second sight include a narcotically shot nightmare (awakening No!) and a shrinking into darkness which reminded me of Glazer’s effects in Under The Skin. I could have handled more of the feverish effects, either as A Field In England-style psychedelics or Jarman’s absurd vignettes.

Jacobi is uncanny, visually, as Bacon, and revels in a revolting Capote-esque haughtiness hammed up with affectations towards tragedy. Next to Craig’s gurning fits of convulsions his painterly reveries come off a bit Simon from Spaced at times. The highlight is a patiently shot morning routine, with toothpaste giving way to polish for hair and extensive make up, figuring Bacon’s self-fashioning as congruent with his art. His shakespearian interior monologues form intriguingly illustrative if sometimes opaque interludes.

Like Jarman it’s very visual, and the script is at times a little stiff. Not sure I was entirely happy with the accents on show either.

Great score from Ryuichi Sakamoto.

7

Lolita (1962)

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Adapting this book from such a distinctively wordy author, a book with such a quotable opening, Kubrick holds off on the narration rather ostentatiously. The first half breezes through snippets and vignettes in a way which emphasises suggestion and unspoken thoughts. The Haze household – which surely ranks as the most bewitching set here, above the briefly glittering Kane-esque clutter of Clare Quilty’s mansion – has a distinct upstairs/downstairs dynamic which evokes the Overlook: Charlotte seems largely confined to the lower half, unable to rein in the secrets and impulses which simmer behind the locked doors and drawers in the bedrooms.

Launching the film in this environment, again, points to questions of repression and secrecy. The line which kept tugging at me throughout Lolita was race. Charlotte’s opening spiel – a pitch for Humbert’s tenancy – flaunts the “Dutch and English stock” of the New Hampshire neighbourhood. She is nevertheless reliant on Louise, the peripheral figure of the black maid who leans across one shot in service and isn’t seen again. She is one of a cast of bit-part African American characters, all of which act as help, each more damaging to Humbert’s cause than the last. The comic porter at the hotel is the most obvious, refusing to keep his voice down during the slapstick routine of erecting the makeshift campbed at Lolita’s feet in which H will inevitably have to sleep. Later, at the hospital, a black nurse physically restrains H as he writhes at the discovery of his stepdaughter’s kidnapping. Their position as manual workers emphasises the way their labour, their presence, underpins and reinforces the elaborate social structures above them. They’re the clockwork behind the frontispiece, to be heard but not seen. Guilty consciences.

Charlotte – symbolic of the religiously tormented, mortally devoted, repressed and industrious middle class – takes the weight of the film’s racial critique of America: her daughter’s ironic sieg heil sticks out in this context. Opposite her is the film’s European influence, embodied most extravagantly in Peter Sellers’ psychologist persona – basically a dry run for his Nazi Strangelove with his clipped but leering anatomical obsessions (“she has got ze curvatures…”). 20th Century European racialism, a fixation for the jewish Kubrick until Schindler’s List put paid to his frustrated plans for a holocaust picture, is sublimated into a clownish act, a mask which any fool should see through (H’s earnest and concessionary responses are integral to the comedy of the scene). Charlotte’s racism, on the other hand, is never less than coldly and understatedly sinister. It’s a striking binary which I think (having not read L) plays into the theme of H’s character: that real villainy is not the kind which comes with a warning label; it’s complicated and insidious and there’s a bit of it inside everyone (Quilty obsessively and ironically labelling H as “normal”).

Elsewhere: that domestic setting really is awesome; love the vertical panning every time someone uses the stairs. C trapped in a memory palace like an unsympathetic Juliet of the Spirits. Sellers is awesome, while Sue Lyon’s performance grows and twists with the changes of scenery and season. Made a load of notes but I can’t remember what any of the rest of them mean.

Second-tier? I assumed so but I’m not sure now.

8