A Separation (2011)

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Returned to this after eight months and having watched The Past and The Salesman in the interim. Particularly after the latter, interesting to see how little legwork Asghar Farhadi’s camera is doing: in place of clever metatheatrical framing and disorientating tumbling through domestic spaces we have, here, relatively unostentatious wobblycam observation. Perhaps most notable is the confused geometry of the house’s open-plan interior, with panes of glass and doors set ajar frequently interposing communicative barriers between family members. These shots frequently entrap Termeh as she is called from room to room by her bickering parents. There are some analogous shots of the maid’s daughter through crowds at the courthouse, though T views their family as desirably nuclear despite their poverty; tempting to speculate, too, that T might favour their religiosity, with her conscientious probing and conservative dress (uniform, often). Overall perhaps this is the high-watermark for wobblycam realism: though we feel fully involved, there is no sense of ‘artistic’ intrusion; definitely a bald, unpretentious clarity in contrast to the more ruminative elegance of that other unshakeable, generational, domestic, Academy-beloved foreign-language drama from a year later, Amour.

Less the weaving of sympathies across the aisle through revelations and confessions, what actually emerges on second viewing of AS is the growing centrality of T. Much more conscious of the bogus ethical agency thrusted upon her by her father, who frequently issues her with such ultimatums as promising to confess or reconcile with his wife only if she finds him guilty. This really undercuts his apparently liberal toleration of their wishes, therefore counterbalancing his apparent vindication and the high ground above his wife which it affords him. The ending is perhaps doubly desolate, pitch-perfect: it really is unfair to make T choose.

The writing here is so much tighter than TP, and more distributively balanced too, which gives it a considerable observational edge over the excellent TS. Possibly the best film from this decade so far.

10

Scarred Hearts (2016)

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First time with Radu Jude. Apparently blends the director’s own biography with the titular semi-autobiographical work by Max Blecher, a Romanian writer who associated with the surrealists while writing from an extended and terminal stay at a sanatorium.

Most obvious strength is the use of fragments from MB’s writings (idk whether from Scarred Hearts itself or from other texts) as intertitles illustrating or undercutting the film. The way they provide commentary on scenes and snapshots is vaguely comparable to Notes on Blindness in the uncertainty of whether text illuminates visual or vice versa. In general, Emmanuel (as he is named here and in SB the book, I believe) does follow a vaguely Magic Mountain trajectory of immersion in the sanatorium’s rhythmic society, while his notes detail the psychosomatic trajectory of his deterioration. This play between the often bleak and psychologically harrowing texts and E’s more colourful and fulfilled physical life often surfaces in eddies and incongruities in the film: a prophetic fragment from Shelley on sinking and expiring, traced reverently in MB’s real notebook (we presume) over the credits, is later echoed warmly by a drunken song shared between patients, then later still in MB’s notes when he imagines the entire sanatorium drifting away into the sea and sinking like Atlantis.

The striking 4:3 framing with rounded edges comes over rather twee initially, especially since it’s mismatched with true-colour HD visuals, rendering the impression of old-time photographs (there’s a montage pre-credits) incomplete. However, the meditative camerawork and editing does suggest the fixity both of long-exposure flashbulb photography and of E’s straightjacketed immobility in his cast: he is often framed centrally and at mid-depth, while more mobile patients or orderlies bustle at the fringes or in the background. Coupled with notably repetitious adoption of fixed vantage points throughout the sanatorium, this visual stasis does lend to the sense of hauntological anachronism which is maintained by the often Caretaker-like literary fragments: “the impression that nothing is real” “the feeling of immense abandonment“. Evoking Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward or Haneke’s Amour, E’s (MB’s) sense of human physical fragility grounds the film in a patient (geddit) study of illness and failed convalescence: “he felt very glued together” is a succinct evocation of his delicacy and the importance of the doctors who seem to have assembled him. When syringes extract shocking quantities of pus from an abscess, E screaming, “a claw sank in” as if he were Prometheus undergoing daily torture. Not all the reflections are so traumatic; again, they often communicate the erosive tedium of hospital life: “The washed out day goes on, boiling with illnesses, trifles and discouragement.” Think I prefer E’s perspective to Hans Castorp’s: “There’s nothing more stupid than the pride of suffering.”

I like the way weighty real-world conversations float through the narrative, snagging on E’s quite romantic and lyrical but still attractive perspective: heated discussions about nascent “hitlerism” and Emile Cioran, debate over the significance of the afterlife to piety, disturbing sketches of political turbulence in Romania whose evocations of civil unrest and rife antisemitism make the sanatorium seem an attractively amniotic haven. Amniotic except E will not be born, rather he is slowly fading; a visit from his parents who proudly boast to a nurse of his prodigious childhood writings is particularly poignant.

Not a film with great peaks or troughs; casts its spell over a full two hours with some restrained performances and an emphasis on rhythm and flow. Notable shots are often momentary: late on, when E’s life is diminishing fast, nurses tuck in him under a duvet which they accidentally cast up over his face like a shroud before hurriedly folding it back. The initial encouragement of his father, mocking his own impending infirmity in old age with an impression of delirium, hangs over these later scenes with increasing absurdity.

A distinctively poignant portrait of a writer and his time.

7

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

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

Knight of Cups (2015)

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There’s another poster for this film which emphasises the tarot dimension (I finally like the title), as well as its religiosity and the central image of palm trees. I think this one better captures what the film is actually like.

Terrance Malick effectively takes off from everyone’s second least-favourite bit in The Tree of Life: Sean Penn wandering around Austin, eyes broodingly upturned towards the glass and girders around him.

The initiative is essentially similar: an attempt to reconnect with a point in the past at which choices were made, paths were taken (unfortunately these are phrases repeated explicitly and quite frequently in the script here) which led us to a troubled and misguided present. The important difference is character – the keystone which, KoC now makes me think, held ToL together like a mathematician’s bridge (I’m still gonna check To The Wonder for this reason). Christian Bale’s Rick has gravity in the way a vacuum does: other people are briefly pulled into his orbit, whispering admonishments or temptations to him as they pass by, before being flung out of the film’s universe. I think this connects to the lack of plot here. The momentary images which constitute ToL accrete into a developmental narrative, which at least helps us situate SP’s heel-kicking torpor at the end of a timeline. ‘Timeline’ is an appropriate word here, too, but unfortunately more in the social media sense. R is a man constituted entirely by what surrounds him, much in the same way that an Instagram profile attempts to construct a ‘self’ through views and objects.

The result is a flattened and dissolute consistency. Take any ten minutes of KoC and swap it with any other ten minutes and no-one would notice. Tarot-themed intertitles are insignificant (the section Freedom follows Death without much inconsistency), as are a procession of lovers who behave differently (Cate Blanchett is probably the standout as an incisive ex-wife) but leave equally faint imprints on the narrative.

Not much to report stylistically, besides excursions into handheld footage which at points near the beginning reminded me of the glowing patchwork of Jarman’s The Garden. Some amusing musical moments: extracts from Burial’s Kindred EP in a neon strip-club are topped for lack of self-awareness by a sample from Bisophere’s ‘Hyperborea’. Too many levels removed from the Twin Peaks general.

KoC doesn’t hold up well on the remaining trembling leg: its worldview. I don’t mind the empathetic dinosaur in ToL but the equally notorious equivalent here – Imogen Poots bestowing a flower upon a sleeping homeless man – is pretty embarrassing. It’s hard to distinguish between criticism of opulence and excavations of uncanny, perhaps unintended beauty inside that opulence (best examples are the sub-Koyaanisqatsi tableaux and elegance in the human form, particularly the tumbling acrobats at a depressing Las Vegas party). This usually isn’t helped by the continuous Lubezki-swooping, which often gives the impression of oceanic exploration but also the interiors of cathedrals (especially when covering internal architecture), which ties in with the frequent baptismal water imagery, the Bunyan references, the flimsy concluding remarks from a priest about suffering and transcendence, etc. It’s not often that I’ve concluded a film’s characters could use a little more old-time religion.

I read that SP was very annoyed at how ToL turned out because he thought the original script (which feature his character more prominently) was trimmed beyond recognition. The KoC script really is pretty dire – repetitive, vapid, mawkish, mumbled. Here are a few egregious gems:

Treat this world the way it deserves: no principles, only circumstances.

Living my life is like playing Call of Duty on easy – I just fuck shit up!

No-one cares about reality any more.

Real life is so hard to find. Where is it? How do you get there?

Shoutout also to the monologue about “taking drugs once” and consequently “seeing the world in a new way”, even “know[ing] more about the world than other people.” Feathers under armpits.

TM deserves credit for honing a very singular style and making apparently urgent and principled films. I don’t think we needed this contribution. ToL was a successful experiment; this was a failed one.

3

Amour (2012)

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Second time with Michael Haneke after The White Ribbon. Would compare the patience, the sombreness, the philosophical inquiry, the manipulation of shock like ringing glass.

The first sign of deterioration is pretty unforgettable: a profound blankness descending on Anne as she sits with Georges at breakfast. It’s an absence, a disconnection, but it feels almost like a message or a revelation. It encapsulates the future; G’s response is as desperate as he will be until the end.

I thought consistently of The Salesman because of the undermining and disquieting of domestic space. Haneke’s camera is coldly stable, but the hallways and living spaces seem to expand and contract depending on the quality of life and liveliness inside them. A reclining on the couch, both reading, reminded me of the contented flashbacks in A Single Man. Later, alone, G staggers around like a disoriented Miss Havisham, the austere perpendicularity of his house like a sepulchre. Most obvious here is the terrifying dream sequence which strikes at the couple’s deepest fear (note again that he is alone here, A’s voice muffled through the wall as he pads round forbidding corners). The standing water is a shiver-inducing image, perhaps connecting to his rendition of the Bach piece which soundtracked T’s Solaris. Both solitude and mental incapacitation are like rising damp, destabilising the architecture of a life while threatening to suffocate it, as if they were an unseen hand.

Intimacy of weakness: G and A are only physically immediate when he is lifting her. At these moments A is suspended and therefore most fragile. This image most obviously metonymises the later relationship: A is completely dependent upon G, even if she retains directive agency. The film stages their attempts to negotiate this relationship; in A’s case to assert autonomy, in G’s to take the extra weight.

MH particularly observant on dignity and the way it is conceived by onlookers. The most awkwardly timed comments from friends and well-wishers are misconstructions: “hats off to you,” says a neighbour to G; G’s pupil attempts to romanticise a visit as a moment of sadness and purity. The reality is too close to the image from a particularly striking dialogue: G narrates a funeral, with ill-judged gestures from mourners and the comic spectacle of a small urn in place of a coffin, wheeled through the grounds. A immediately responds with her first request for death. She fears becoming that undignified, misplaced memorial to be wheeled around for the attention of others.

A’s struggle to speak, like Florentina Hubaldo. Scenes like this we almost feel intrusive – “none of this deserves to be seen” says G, to his daughter, of the daily routine. Also Emmanuele Riva’s performance is incredible; kind of fearless, shocking.

This doesn’t have any of the slightly removed, costumey feel of TWR. Read that MH is writing from his own experiences (particularly of an aunt who desired euthanasia) and A feels like a personal film. It’s a level exploration of a situation which is extreme but also disquietingly common and emblematic of fundamental concerns about human relationships.

9

Skylark (2010)

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Picked up because of the publisher and the author’s name. Was actually written around 1923.

A surprising little tale: gently comic but with the eerie atmosphere of a faded photograph. First chapter introduces the bustling parents, the thick and blinded reliance on habitual duty which dominates their daily activities. They prepare to see their daughter off on a rare holiday with family, leaving them alone for a week – an almost intolerably irregular prospect. Skylark (apparently the girl, although in fact in her 30s) has the purity of heart but absent passivity of Esther Summerson – derived, however, from her extreme lack of external beauty. At the chapter’s close her father cannot meet her gaze after all the devotion evident in his attentions.

The subject of the novel practically in name only, S casts a shadow over the lives of her parents as they struggle blinking back into the world of the town they had long-since abandoned for the society of their child. She has rendered her father, especially, a ghost: “alive” only “here in the past”, in his private studies of heraldry and national historic continuity (24), looking forward only to “his approaching death” (27). S takes on a Gorey-esque domestic-gothic mythos: she returns to him in his dreams as the subject of disquieting nightmares (35) and later haunts him as an apparition after a drunken spree (165), an accusatory manifestation of conscience like Banquo.

S plays with the tension between the parents’ perception of their child and S’s own self-understanding, which is upsettingly snatched at in an account of her hysterics on the departing train; in the end her ghostly, reluctant appearance in a family photograph – in which “she appeared to be reaching out for protection from something that frightened her” (213) – manifests her outward mysteriousness as a product of this inner turmoil. She exudes human frailty and insecurity, but she’s also small as a character; I think we’re encouraged to read her this way by the faintly ridiculous image of the foppish and failed poet Ijas who “dramatised [his] minor literary disappointment into a more general and deeply rooted fin-de-siècle melancholy” before formulating the image of S and her tottering parents as the subject of a new work.

The beginning section prior to the departure is understated and slips by without much fanfare, but the reintroduction of the couple into the world of the town is intoxicating and quite poignant. Food is a central theme, internalised attitudes to luxury challenged by sights and smells. The mundane world is that of the “warm, sour milk” and grumbled complaints of the local market (37) which nevertheless blooms with colour like a Netherlandish communal scene. The town itself bustles with a teutonic regularity – as in the itinerary of appearances in the square (101) – while each character sings their own tarot identities like the types of Russian fiction (this Hungarian/Serbian world does seem an interesting confluence of western and eastern influences, which is reflected in the tastes and prejudices of the townsfolk). At the centre of the community is the King of Hungary restaurant, whose menu entices the couple into health:

Ákos straightened his back and breathed the air deep into his lungs. A sudden warmth spread through his limbs as his digestive system set to work. The food he had eaten was already filtering its fortifying goodness into his circulation. (51)

It’s as if they’ve been wound into clockwork life, ready to rejoin the rhythmic parade of the town (there are rebirth metaphors too, as in “the old man sucked at his cigar with all the voraciousness of a baby at the breast” 72). Á still interprets his desires as sin, though, as in a brilliantly amusing section of food fantasies (61) like blind Pi on the boat. The most indulgent, sensational residents of the town are like the actress Olga Orosz, drunk on the decay inherent within decadence:

Her flesh was powdery and voluptuously weary, as if tenderised by all the different beds and arms in which it had lain. Her face was as soft as the pulpy flesh of an overripe banana, her breasts like two tiny bunches of grapes. She exuded a certain seedy charm, a poetry of premature corruption and decay. (94)

There’s a generous, falstaffian humour throughout, as in the wry observation of the grace of the drunkard: “A drunkard never walks where he can fly … Nor shall the inebriate come to any harm, for the blessed Virgin carries them in an apron. But opening the gate was another matter.” (154)

The drunkard is also outside of time, time which appears to represent the world of labour: the temporal fixing of the opening description of manual preparations returns as an “inexplicable melancholy” after Á is reminded of his frivolity, late in his wild evening, by a glance at a clock (140). This runs in contrast to a kind of cultural deep time, invoked in the card game Taroc (“its roots reach way back into the past” 136) and traditional music (the landowner crying despite his wealth; “who could tell what ancient memories of wedding feasts and long-abandoned reveries the music stirred within him?” 143) This temporal shifting and sliding increases the sense of S as an expansion of Bloom’s night out in Ulysses: this is 1899 and forever, a modern moment in which life and death are at risk on personal, national and human scales. DK’s overriding preoccupation is, though, with death, and the return of S signals an “insidious” autumn (208) and a reminder of that decay lurking inside every pleasure.

8