The Levelling (2017)

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Being touted as Hope Dickson Leach’s feature directorial debut, but she’s already got a few short films under her belt.

Begins with a confused, unsettling melee; torchlit party but with a Kill List-esque folk-horror excess. This threatening provincial gothic atmosphere becomes diffused across the whole film, which takes the shocking death of the brother of our central character, Clover, as the traumatic rupture at the film’s centre. Poster above is very apt: sense of bifurcation, splitting – regret that it was her brother not her father; return to a past world; a parent and daughter who’ve grown apart. Central death like a ridge, scar-tissue which must now be traced and examined; Clover feels her way up her brother’s cold arm under a sheet, navigating the terrain of this new situation. All this in a world after the 2014 flooding on the Somerset Levels; distinctly apocalyptic unreality to the ossified homestead, unsettlingly mathematical and arbitrary floodline cutting the world horizontally in two.

Quickly turns into a wonderfully haunting investigation of spatial memory and trauma. Preserved spaces like Clover’s room (with its petrified mementos of childhood) and Harry’s room, concealed spaces like the neglected dog Milo, the scene of the suicide, the ominous kitchen. Part of the farm as a breathing entity, father Aubrey as a kind of sodden Fisher King letting presiding over stock and space. Ambient landscapes interposed, psychogeographical influence of Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant, evidence of the natural disaster in innocuous rivers and sunken flatlands. First refreshing approach is the appropriately catastrophic metaphor for real historical events effecting under-examined provincial populations and territories (all the while giving the personal drama a proper, respectful weight and autonomy).

Most important spatial dimension, though, is old idea of the traumatic return, return to trauma. This resumption of old duties takes C by surprise – “I didn’t bring any wellies” becomes symbolic in a feature-length exposition of the same metaphorical physicalisation of trauma represented by Cillian Murphy’s shellshocked soldier in Dunkirk. A’s aggressive self-defence frequently blocks C’s inquiries by invoking her past absences – “you weren’t here” for H’s death; I didn’t give you the farm because “you left” (a particularly chilling strategy given that his miscommunications enforced another of C’s absences during her mother’s death, which serves as the traumatic precedent for H’s death). His oppugnant attitude is bolstered by an apparently un-selfcritical insistence on efficiency: “You have to get up get out of bed and milk the bloody cows.” His strategy eventually gets to C, as she attacks a sympathetically probing pastor: “I’m not feeling guilt – I wasn’t even here.” What’s perhaps more insidious is the subsequent switch in A’s defences wherein he uses the past life, with which C is trying to reconnect, as a new weapon against her, evoking that brute efficiency in enjoining C to kill an unneeded calf (having jokingly encouraged her to eat shepherd’s pie earlier).

Second refreshing approach is portrait of creepily feudal or monarchic yet cooperative limbo-world of traditional British farming. Lots of talk of authority, succession. Buried Hamlet vibe was brought home to me at the point where C jumps into a ditch to rescue Milo from drowning. Frustration at resumed efficiency mirrors Hamlet’s disgust at weddings immediately following funerals. Most notably the digging connection, with H‘s first utilisations of “harrowing” in a metaphorical sense, images of buried accusing bodies (shot badgers). The rotation of familial personnel from lends weight to C’s gendered isolation and desire to forge her own career off the farm, reflecting more broadly on relationship dynamics in that novel agricultural context.

To go with the cinematography and use of ominous metaphorical shots of submerged rabbits and cattle there’s some excellent sound design: Kermode talked about the use of ambient noise in the negative space between failed communications; sparing use of interpolated music too, particularly A Silver Mt. Zion’s He Has Left Us Alone but Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms… (particularly ’13 Angels’).

Ultimately C sees the fragility behind her father’s capricious attitude; her decision to stay at the farm is rescued from an unsatisfying act of forgiveness by an acknowledgement of nuanced psychological effects of grief (she herself lashes out at a friend in her very first appearance). The fact that this reconciliation is staged as quite a sensationalist climax does ultimately solidify a slight sense of the post-Scandi noir BBC drama, a context which emerges occasionally in the ambient landscape shots and the highly-strung script (elsewhere, the screaming peaks of terror and grief are seriously gripping). However, there’s no lasting impression of genre, because this is an intelligent, beautifully economical and expertly paced drama. Keep an eye out for the name.

9

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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

Late Autumn (1960)

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Fifth time with Yasujiro Ozu after TSLSFW and Brothers And Sisters of the Toda FamilyBeautiful poster there but no idea why it emphasises the guy at the front, who must have about four scenes total; must have been a fan favourite at the time.

Probably Ozu’s fullest picture (of the above, at least) – in the first scene, disparities of gender, class, region, and (of course) generation are introduced very discreetly and succinctly. BFI guide labels this a “remake” of LS, which I think obscures the extent to which YO’s films are individual takes on the same issues – in any case, the balance here is much more level, with various groups and peripheral characters playing off each other in contrast to the centripetal LS (which is far more magnetised around Setsuko Hara). Here nostalgically meddlesome, almost mischievous men are occasionally undercut by their gossiping wives, who nevertheless very notably follow them around picking up discarded workclothes or empty bowls. Perhaps most distinctively, youth culture (or at least mid-20s) gets a fuller portrayal. While comic references to “that Presley” situate LA after the westernised explosion in youth autonomy (with some assumptions here about hemispherically comparable postwar prosperity and liberalisation), YO’s eye for behaviour and mores is most evident in the way the captivating Mariko Okada runs rings around the older group of male friends. There’s an especially poignant moment on a balcony at work (perhaps a reference to the famous TS shot) when MO’s Yuriko and Yoko Tsukasa’s Ayako question the significance of female friendship if it cannot survive marriage in a way that male relationships clearly do.

From the beginning this does feel in step with BaSotTF on account of another late arrival at a memorial service, as well as the initial impetus arising from an absent father-figure (postwar context is elucidated at the end here). The late Miwa’s associates swarm around his widow Akiko and surviving daughter Ay, explicitly taking a possessive tone on account, firstly, of fraternity, but later simply the women’s beauty. Their project is as clownish as the colluding secondary actors in FW, but they never lose this unsettling sense of intrusion; later the two husbands among them profess a wish to be widowers. The initial suggestion of Ay’s marriage is edited to emphasise her discomfort in a way sufficiently deft as to emulate the comic negotiations of LS.

For its understatement, SH’s performance here is probably my favourite of hers. While in LS she is much more reticent about her marital misgivings than YT is here, giving her the same mysterious glow as in TS, here she balances the trademark deferential passivity with reproachful engagements with Ay and more knowing, maturer conversations with the peppy MO (who I think channels the consistent dismissive pragmatism of Haruko Sugimura, of LS particularly). Occupying all the various agent and patient roles in these movements and situations, she trades the magnetically sympathetic seniority of Chishu Ryu for a versatility which reflects and enhances the film’s different social gradients.

The generational divide seems politicised. Successful professors and businessmen each, the men’s houses are as grey and uneventful as their clothing, while their friendships have become moulded around corporate interactions. Chief instigator Mamiya (Shin Saburi of Toda Family) suggests Goto as a suitor for Ay with the caveat that “he doesn’t standout” followed immediately by the recommendation “I thought of him immediately.” Ak accedes to the resultant corporatised vetting process by making symbolic gifts of her late husband’s tobacco pipes (later employed amusingly as props in a bar scene), while Taguchi later celebrates Hirayama’s proposed engagement to Ak by notifying him that “you owe us a big meal.” They seem to fit right into a city design which is YO’s most explicitly consumerist, but the urban energy is in fact provided by the outgoing youth. However, the shot of Ay’s friends hiking in sync through the hills seems like something out of a socialist propaganda film, and there’s something iconoclastic about the way Ay explicitly challenges the morals of her father’s generation (again in contrast to that reticence of SH in LS). Contributing to that fuller depiction of generational confrontation.

Full is apt but the word that came to mind while watching was Rich. However, if the remarkably rhythmic, dynamic and comprehensive LA lacks anything its the breathtaking ambient beauty of the harbour in FW, the bay in TS or the Kyoto trip in LS, or the knockout incongruity of LS‘s ending. This is very domestic, very urban, very soapy; tied-up with a bow, sidestepping the curtailed character arcs of Toda but perhaps sacrificing some degree of risk in the process. I credit it in the same way as Fanny and Alexander though, perhaps, as it seems like a summative piece, being one film which somehow nails that Ozu balance between national cross-section and human condition, the balance otherwise grandly struck by considering his films together.

8

Get Out (2017)

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It’s smart. The dynamics of racial tension operate on a few levels in Jordan Peele’s script, who has a great ear for squirm-inducingly misjudged chat, hilarious and horrible. This is clearly the focus and it’s a great topic – it makes the construction of a robotic and uncanny community inevitable – but there are a few less amusing undercurrents. Tied into the themes of underexposure and cohabitation are issues of employment inequality, even modern-day slavery – uncomfortably present notions in the mind of Chris’ Dick-Halloran accomplice, Rod, masked though they are by his conspiratorial imagination. Rod’s trouble getting institutional help, which becomes increasingly significant towards the end, also touches on the problem of high rates of AWOLity among African Americans. People have talked about these immediate issues being suppressed by the more comic observations, but I think GO shows the way awkwardly superficial relations hold a more profoundly imbalanced framework in place. For Chris, “It’s all good” (and variants) becomes a quietistic and isolating mantra for diffusing tension, especially in the more subtle interactions with the seemingly sympathetic Rose, a kind of ally-squared in this horrible context (C is really alone before he even arrives). Observant horror in the year of Romero’s death.

It’s cine-smart too. Being a horror-novice I get most of this second hand, but so will an audience of people my age; easy to enjoy alongside Edgar Wright’s TCC trilogy and Shutter Island. There’s a nice flow from the former to the latter, in a sense, with the toe-curling social negotiations gradually giving way to a mistrustful search for answers. Preceding all this is a nasty encounter with a deer which put me in mind of Von Trier’s Antichrist. Also thinking of Under The Skin during the trips to “the sunken place.” The psychotic brother definitely seemed to be going for DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie in Django, too; later, the bingo slave-auction is a horrifying set-piece. Performance-wise, Daniel Kaluuya nails the reticent discomfort as well as the gasping panic, while his mumbled incredulities after some of the more egregious social interactions are always amusing and empathetic.

But it’s also smart in terms of pace (yeah too many). JP has talked about comedy being training for writing horror; the importance of timing is evident here, with the jump-scares carefully measured (sometimes forgone altogether) to keep you guessing. As a whole, the film moves along economically too, its briskness correcting for both the simplicity of the central idea as well as its predictability. While it is somewhat predictable, the tone does shift, as mentioned, and the climax is a gutsy and well-earned blowout which is less inventive but just as entertaining withal. It’s harder to piece the narrative together in retrospect (if the abductions depend upon hypnosis, and hypnosis depends upon the subject’s comfort, why are the family so knowingly discomforting?) but questions don’t come up while you’re watching, and the way grotesque violence somehow emerges from superficial solidarity is a point in itself.

Read about the alternate endings on wiki, too. You can see the seams when the police car pulls up with the sinking reactions on C’s and R’s faces. Makes for a nice final twist when Rod gets out instead. Shame the reason JP felt the need to swap it is because stories about police brutality against young black men seemed especially close to the bone in the States at the time. Obviously dealing with different issues here but glad we can all enjoy a smash blockbuster written and directed by an (established) AA debutant which deals with the complex realities of American racism in 2017; especially in a film as fun and generous as GO.

8

Halogen Continues (2017)

Sigurbjörn Þorgrímsson died six years ago; Trip have put out this retrospective comp. Aims to cover the idiosyncratic sweep of these scattershot releases (apparently he recorded more under other aliases and in groups). RA points out in their review that the label itself is testament to SÞ’s incubation of a national dance music scene in Iceland, with Bjarki among others on its roster.

There are, broadly, three approaches on show here: skittering and acidic IDM excursions, evolving techno-tinged suites, and blissful ambient pieces. The immediately ear-catching standouts come in the second group: ‘Borealis’ is structured with the linear but weaving flow of a chase sequence or a cut from a Wipeout soundtrack, but the queasy synth tones and mechanic percussion kind of remind me of the synthetic nightmares on The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual. ‘160 Techno’ has the same vibe of pursuit but sounds more urban and nocturnal like that Studio OST album from a couple of years ago; obviously its a lot more in your face, with some big-beat synths and a few ankle-breaking rhythmic shifts which skid through hardcore and breakbeat territory. ‘303 Ambient’ is the third triplet with its low-key start which crashes into a massive techy beat and starry synths.

Of the more cerebral cuts, ‘Lag 24’ is pretty distinctive with the interplay between its Mika Vainio-esque fuzz blasts, bouncy reverbed synths and impatient polyrhythms. ‘Lag 9’ sways, running in circles as the percussion plays catchup with itself. ‘Lag 8’ is good evidence of the compositional juggling-act going on with these shorter cuts; synths are often more percussive than melodic. Almost feels like the guy’s hammering everything out on an MPC at times.

The ambient pieces are generally pretty gorgeous. ‘Autofloat’ follows ‘Borealis’ with an equally playful ease but pushed through ebbing and flowing synths; it’s got the wonder of a particularly well-lit view of the night sky. ‘Bliss’s stupefaction is more new-age, maybe Jarre via Lopatin; it’s crisp but kinda sleepy, less immersive. The more abstract closer ‘Halogen Continues’ is perhaps the grandest and most beautiful, ending things with quite a poignantly elegiac note given the comp’s provenance.

Throughout a sense of wunderkind and almost amateuristic virtuosity, like the music is happening while you’re listening to it. Distinctive throughout despite ranging from crowd-pleasers to more leftfield tinkering. Perfect album art too given the otherworldly wonderment behind much of the ambience that sometimes serves as a floor for the beats and sometimes envelopes everything. HC is a nice testament to the variety in the talent the guy clearly had; feels like an anthology. Good for a boring train journey too.

8

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

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