Parky At the Pictures (10/4/2020)
(Reviews of Who You Think I Am; Nona, If They Soak Me, I'll Burn Them; The Iron Mask; The Whalebone Box; and The Grand Bizarre)
Cinemas may be closed during these dismal days. But there are still ways to connect with some of the films on general release over the next few weeks and months. In addition to Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI and the BFI Player, it should also be possible to access the titles under discussion via iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation. WHO YOU THINK I AM. Juliette Binoche has been the streaming star of the first month of the Coronavirus lockdown. Having held her own against Catherine Deneuve in Hirokazu Kore-eda's The Truth, she now plays a spurned lover hiding behind an online avatar in Who You Think I Am, Safy Nebbou's tantalising, if not entirely satisfactory adaptation of a 2016 novel by Camille Laurens. Films about Internet impersonation have been surprisingly few and far between since Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost's controversial documentary, Catfish (2010). This French offering may not delve particularly deeply into its thorny subject, but it's markedly more thought-provoking than such American counterparts as Tyler Perry's Nobody's Fool and Ian Samuels's Sierra Burgess Is a Loser (both 2018). Anxious because her psychiatrist has had a stroke, fiftysomething Parisian literature lecturer Claire Millaud (Juliette Binoche) is cautious about opening up to locum, Catherine Bormans (Nicole Garcia). However, she tells her about her relationship with ambitious architect Ludovic Dalaux (Guillaume Gouix) and how he used his photographer assistant, Alex Chelly (François Civil), to break up with her over the phone. Confessing to Catherine that she finds social media to be both a shipwreck and a life raft, Claire explains how she set up a bogus Facebook account under the name Clara Antunès and likes lots of Alex's photos to lure him into a conversation. She makes Clara a fashion intern in her twenties and she comes to enjoy the thrill of seeing Alex's green light come on his Facebook page. Moreover, she becomes so fixated with reeling him in that she has less time for her sons, gruff teenager Max (Jules Houplain) and the sweetly prepubescent Tristan (Jules Gauzelin), who report back on custody visits with their father, Gilles (Charles Berling), who is now living with Claire's niece, Katia (Marie-Ange Casta), whose photo she has used for her online profile. Catherine asks Claire why she hid behind another woman's face and she admits to wanting Alex to think she was young and beautiful, especially after he had commented on her youthful voice when they had spoken on the phone. But Claire had withheld her number and Catherine posits that she has not come to terms with the fact that her looks have faded and that she is using this liaison to bolster her self-esteem after Ludo dumped her. However, Claire digs out an old phone and uses this to chat with Alex and they have a moment while she is in the supermarket. Fresh from lecturing about Marquise de Merteuil in Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Claire gets tipsy at a party and dances with wild abandon without paying any heed to the other guests (who are mostly of her own age). She calls Alex the moment she reaches the car and lets him believe she's in bed. They have phone sex and Claire calls him `mon amour' after she orgasms. Suspecting that Dr Bormans disapproves, she insists that she misses the intimacy of physical love and felt no qualms about exploiting Alex for their mutual pleasure. However, she finds excuses for them not to meet and has to send him a video of Katia doing a pole-dancing fitness class in order to allay his suspicions. Feeling the need to connect with Catherine, Claire tries to get her to reveal some details about herself, such as whether she has children or has ever slept with a patient. But Catherine reminds Claire that she is her therapist not her friend and urges her to tell her more about Katia and why she chose to use her as part of her deception. She merely shrugs, however, in explaining that she had raised her as a daughter after her parents had been killed in a helicopter crash. Claire also seeks to throw Catherine off the scent by claiming that she had gone to live in Norway. But Claire's need to open up has become so great that she waylays Catherine on her office doorstep and reveals that she has allowed Alex to become the centre of her universe. She even talked to him on her phone headset in the university library, despite the disapproving stares. Yet, when he returned from a two-month trip to Goa with Ludo, she had chickened out of a meeting at a public park and had been crushed when he had looked right through her in searching for Clara. Moreover, when she had been interrupted by her sons while talking to him, Claire had invented a live-in boyfriend and broken Alex's heart. Having seen him close-up at Montparnasse station and followed him to the bus, Claire knew she had to end the relationship and left a phone message that she had accepted her boyfriend's marriage proposal and was going to live in Brazil. She seems relieved to tell Catherine the truth. But the tale took an unexpected twist when she hooked up with Ludo and he informed her that Alex had killed himself by driving off a cliff. It goes off at another freakish tangent when Claire hands Catherine the manuscript for a novel entitled, True Secrets, in which she imagines an alternative ending to Clara and Alex's story. In this scenario, Claire sees Alex at the station when he comes to meet Clara, but introduces herself on the bus as Ludo's old flame. She asks him to take her picture for the cover of her new book and tells him all about herself as he works. When they meet up to view the results of the shoot, Claire kisses him and they quickly become inseparable. However, when Alex whispers that the thing he likes most about Claire is her voice, she is stricken with a mix of panic and pain. She sends Alex a text from Clara claiming that she has returned from Brazil and wants to see him. But, while she sees the barely concealed look of shock on his face, she is hoisted by her own petard, as she had failed to hide Clara's phone and Alex hears it buzzing when he returns to the apartment to call her. Realising that Claire and Clara are one and the same, he fights back tears of confusion and fury. On returning to the café where Claire is waiting, he shoots her such a stern look that she rises from the table and backs out into the road, where she is hit by an oncoming car. Catherine closes the manuscript and feels so concerned for Claire that she asks why she denied herself happiness even in a fictional form. Feeling like she no longer has anything to lose, Claire confesses the truth about Katia and claims to have used her youth and beauty as a form of compensation for having lost her husband of 20 years and her happy home life. She can't explain why Katia had turned on her or why Gilles had abandoned her, but their betrayal had devastated her and her sense of self-worth has never recovered. With Claire in psychiatric care, Catherine tracks down Ludo to a building project near the sea. He admits that he had recognised Claire's voice when Alex had played him one of Clara's voicemails and he had tried to let his buddy down gently by suggesting that Clara was too good to be true. Ludo's sowing the seed of doubt had prompted Alex to delete his Facebook page. But, when Claire contacted him and sounded him out about Alex, Ludo decided to teach her a lesson by telling her that Alex had killed himself over some bimbo he had met online. Caherine is appalled by such a casual act of callous spite, but she is relieved to be able to tell Claire that she didn't drive a man to his death, as Alex is living in the south with his partner and new baby. As her locum term is ending, Catherine bids Claire farewell and reassures her that there is no such thing as a definitive ending and that circumstances can always be changed. Claire nods and watches the doctor walk through the grounds of the institution where she's recuperating. No sooner has she gone, however, than Claire produces Clara's phone and dials its sole number. Despite Binoche's customary excellence, nothing quite rings true about this pseudo-Hitchcockian melodrama concocted by Nebbou and co-scenarist, Julie Peyr. To a degree, they can take refuge in the fact that they were constrained by the original material. But things not being as they seem has become Nebbou's leitmotif, after he had grieving mother Catherine Frot believe that Sandrine Bonnaire is raising her lost daughter in Mark of an Angel (2008) and had Benoît Poelvoorde's Auguste Maquet grow tired of being much more than an anonymous amanuensis to Gérard Depardieu's Alexandre Dumas in Dumas (2010). What makes the Shyamalanian plot twists more palatable, however, is the fact that the action contains echoes of two recent Binoche vehicles, Claire Denis's Let the Sunshine In (2017) and Olivier Assayas's Non-Fiction (2018), while the relationship between Binoche and shrink Nicole Garcia recalls the unconventional therapy sessions involving Fabrice Luchini and Sandrine Bonnaire in Patrice Leconte's Intimate Strangers (2004). Nevertheless, Nebbou never quite achieves a persuasive balance between psychological thriller, gyno-generational satire and novelettish potboiler. Consequently, it's likely that audiences will be split equally between those who gasp with shock at novel Claire's tragic auto demise and those who need to suppress an incredulous guffaw. Exquisitely photographed by Gilles Porte, Binoche conveys Claire/Clara's emotional shifts with alternating radiance and vulnerability. François Civil also makes a decent fist of the tricky close-up in which Alex slips from tempted guilt to disabused humiliation, while the deskbound Garcia makes a fine foil for Binoche until she's saddled with the cornball encounter which reveals that her patient hadn't been the only person playing dangerous revenge games. The emotional lurches are perceptively coded in Ibrahim Maalouf's score, while Cyril Gomez-Mathieu uses lots of glass and reflective surfaces in Claire's apartment to force her to take the long hard looks she keeps evading in Dr Bormans's office. Such deft details add to the intrigue. But Nebbou allows himself to be distracted by the self-conscious cleverness of the conceit to present any worthwhile insights into the perils and isolating nature of social media and the fact that our supposedly emancipated society hasn't got round to coining a male equivalent to the pejorative term, `cougar', NONA, IF THEY SOAK ME, I'LL BURN THEM. Coming a couple of weeks after Oliver Laxe's Fire Will Come, Camila José Donoso's Nona, If They Soak Me, I'll Burn Them also centres around a combustible firestarter. However, the Chilean writer-director has based her main character on her own grandmother, Josefina Ramírez, who is cut from the same cloth as the protagonist played by the Berlin Best Actress-winning Paulina García in Sebastian Lélio's Gloria (2013), which he reworked as Gloria Bell (2019) for Julianne Moore. An English-language remake of José Donoso's third feature seems unlikely, but the choice role at its core would certainly spark a scramble among American actresses of a certain age. Having been forced to beat a hasty retreat from Santiago after tossing a Molotov cocktail into the home of someone who has crossed her, 66 year-old Josefina (Josefina Ramírez) leases out the first floor of her house and gets her daughter, Gigi (Gigi Reyes), to drive her to the coastal town of Pichilemu, where she had bought a second home in 1973, shortly before Salvador Allende was overthrown by Augusto Pinochet. We see lots of scratchy Super 8 images that appear to come from Josefina's happy(ish) family past before she's shown hailing a cab to drive to the local hospital. She tells the driver that she dislikes the resort (perhaps because her neighbours fell in so readily with the coup against Allende?) and particularly loathes the black sand on the beach, which clings to the skin and makes everything look dirty. Josefina has an appointment with a specialist and, while she waits, she takes a cloth out of her handbag and cleans her shoes. Dr Pinto (Sebastian Pinto) informs her that she needs a cataract operation and she asks what he means when he reassures her that it's a procedure that is often performed on women of her age. Cutting from digital footage to boxy, but less distressed Super 8, we see Josefina having drops put in her eyes. She leans back over the sink and smokes, while her granddaughter, Camila (Camila José Donoso) asks if she is feeling okay. Despite having been told to rest, Josefina hangs out her washing and responds to Camila's question by running through the daily chores that a woman has to do. Jokingly, she avers that she keeps up her spirits by looking in the mirror to have a good laugh at her `metamorphosis'. She insists that she finds ways to keep busy before changing the topic of conversation to the neighbouring houses that recently caught fire. Coaxing Camila into a walk, she shows her the charred buildings and relishes the details of the blazes while pointing out the tree that should have been cut down to slow down the flames. Back indoors, Josefina tells her granddaughter that women with false teeth should stay away from discotheques because the lighting will expose their secret. She laughs when they consider how the lights would affect a woman with dentures and a glass eye They play dominoes and Josefina does a sit-down dance at the kitchen table to a song on the stereo and Camila is pleased to see her in such high spirits. When they go into the garden, Nona is persuaded to sit on the swing and she sways gently towards the camera, while chatting about a neighbour who used to watch her on the swing. Wearing curlers and a plastic protection patch over her eye. Josefina also does some gardening and poses with some foliage framing her face. Alone for the night, Josefina does some chores around the house before pushing the stove in front of the locked door. We hear dogs barking and the distant sea rolling, as darkness descents on this sleepy little town. The next day, Saida (Paula Dinamarca) comes to help Nona with her washing and she shows her how she wipes her feet on an old pair of pyjamas before going into the house. Josefina tells her how she used to set fire to barricades of tyres during the dictatorship to bait Pinochet's security forces. Saida is sceptical response, but Nona insists that she made her feelings known in refusing to have her liberties curtailed. During the night, someone drags a wooden chair across the floor and we see Josefina standing in the garden and staring at a fire burning off screen. She gazes intently into the distance and listens, as the flames crackle. Discussing the incident with a neighbour the next morning, Josefina makes no mention of her nocturnal ramblings and claims not to have heard the blaze until it woke her up. In a rare expression of compassion, she claims to feel sorry for the occupants of the scorched property, who seem to have lost everything. Having refused to answer the door to firemen doing a night check on her street, Josefina fields a call from her granddaughter in Santiago. She tells her she is in a hotel in Santa Cruz so that she can be on time for her appointment the next morning. But we only have her word for it. Back in Pichilemu, Nona inspects the site of the latest fire with a neighbour and they lament that the town council won't do a thing to help with the clean-up. An alarm alerts the duty crew at the fire station and they attend another blaze. The following morning, the insurance investigator announces that the fire was started intentionally. While driving in the cab with two younger women, Josefina questions their claim that the fires are the work of the Devil and she pointedly puts the blame on human beings who ignored the warnings of their parents not to play with fire. Having called Camila to ask her to bring some hair dye when she next visits, Nona watches the TV news coverage of the fire that decimated the town of Saint Olga in the Maule region in 2017. Concerned for her grandmother, Camila drives from Santiago to collect her. She is stopped and searched at a roadblock. In Pichilemu, Josefina gives a statement to an investigator about the negligence of her neighbour from across the street in leaving the garden to grow out of control. He writes down her remarks about careless cigarette butts and promises to be in touch. While out walking, Josefina chats to the shirtless young men erecting fire-retardant buildings for the community. Her harmless flirtation filters into Josefina confessing to Gigi that she got tired of being stalked by a jealous suitor named Pedro (Eduardo Moscovis) and, after he had flooded her home while she was out with another man, Josefina had wreaked her revenge by hurling a Molotov cocktail into his truck. The film ends, as it had begun, with the red-coated Josefina lobbing her homemade incendiary in spitefully satisfied slow-motion. The action is no more excusable after 85 minutes in her company, but it has become more understandable, as this fiercely independent widow - who had refused to buckle under Pinochet's tyranny - kicks back against the macho schmuck trying to control her. Playing what is purported to be a variation on herself, Josefina Ramírez has a natural screen presence and it would be fascinating to see her performance in Naomi Campbel (2013), which José Donoso co-directed with Nicolas Videla before making the documentary, Casa Roshell (2017), which also considers the topic of gender identity. Abetted by cinematographer Matías Illanes and co-editor Karen Akerman, José Donoso switches between formats without any readily evident rhyme or reason. But it's the occasional shifts away from Josefina's purview - such as the fire station interlude, complete with a four-way split-screen passage of CCTV footage - that jar most and prevent this from being as consistently gripping as Lee Chang-dong's pyro-saga, Burning (2018). Similarly, the repeated use of contextless characters in single scenes makes it difficult to fathom who these people are, especially as Josefina seemingly hasn't been in Pichilemu for several years, if not decades. Nevertheless, Nona is an intriguing, if never exactly engaging character and it would be fascinating to know which elements of her consciously sketchy, but slyly subversive backstory are based on fact. Indeed, too much significant action occurs off screen. The Pinochet dictatorship and the wildfires that ripped through Chile in 2017 did happen, of course. But José Donoso never cheapens these tragedies in fashioning a warts and all portrait that leaves us guessing as to the identity of the pyromaniac who somehow keeps sparing Josefina's property. THE IRON MASK. One of the problems of covering available (ie VOD) films during the current lockdown is being confronted with sequels to unseen originals. Oleg Stepchenko's The Iron Mask is the follow-up to the same director's 3-D adventure, Viy (2014). This also went by the title Forbidden Empire and was based on the 1835 Nikolai Gogol story that Konstantin Yerchov adapted for Soviet audiences under its publication title in 1967. To make things that little bit more complicated, the sequel is also known as Viy 2: Journey to China and The Mystery of the Dragon Seal (which is actually the title on the print seen). But enough nomenclatural shilly-shallying,. In a dizzying opening resumé, we learn that tea comes from the eyelashes of a Chinese dragon, who was once fought over by the protective White Wizards and the aggressive Black Wizards. The latter were led by the Two-Faced Witch, who captured the Master and the Princess who had been entrusted with the dragon's seal and had them imprisoned on opposite sides of the world. Got that? Okay then, on we go. In a dungeon in the Tower of London in 1700, the redcoated James Hook (Arnold Schwarzenegger) delivers meagre rations to three prisoners: Master (Jackie Chan), the elderly Grey (Christopher Firbank) and an iron-masked Russian (Yuri Kolokolnikov). When a homing pigeon flies through their window grille, Iron Mask finds a letter, whose mirror-writing he reads in a pool of drinking water. It was sent by famed cartographer Jonathan Green (Jason Flemyng) to Emma Dudley (Anna Churina) and outlines the details of his encounter with the monstrous, multi-eyed Viy during his passage through Eastern Europe to the court of Peter the Great. It also reveals that he has been thrown in jail and Iron Mask adds a message to Lord Dudley (Charles Dance) declaring that he is the true tsar and has been falsely imprisoned by his enemies. Despite resenting his daughter's dalliance with Green, Dudley sends English ambassador Charles Whitworth (Rutger Hauer) to secure his release and Green asks senior courtier Menshkov (Pavel Volya) that fellow prisoner Chen Lan (Xingtong Yao) is also set free to accompany him on an expedition to the Far East in order to complete his map. Reunited with his special carriage (which is fitted with a revolutionary measuring wheel), Green overcomes some Cossacks with the help of Chen and the Viy, a tiny monkey-like winged creature. He also has time to scribble another missive to his spouse, who immediately heads to the Tower to demand Peter's release. Hook is busy conducting his daily fight club fitness regime when Emma arrives, but he allows her to speak with Peter in his cell. Her presence causes the old man to die and, as Hook's guards remove his chains, Master and Peter seize the opportunity to make their escape. It's far from straightforward, of course, as Hook is not prepared to be the first warden to let a prisoner flee the Tower. Moreover, Master has to search a giant wall of drawers to find the tea dragon's seal. But he succeeds in passing this to Peter, who completes his getaway with the aid of Emma's coach. While she and Peter are stowing away on a ship bound for China, Master and Hook face off on the Tower's metal runway. Despite being hampered by a chain, Master proves elusive and a dab hand at fighting with his fists and the sword that Hook gives him to prevent him from damaging one of the items in the precious collection of historical weapons that includes Spartacus's helmet and the spear of Alexander the Great. However, he is overpowered and clapped in a new set of irons in his cell. Meanwhile, as Chen (who is actually Master's daughter) is crossing the frozen Lake Baikal, the disguised Emma helps Peter escape from a cage in the hold of the ship in time for him to help the diminutive captain (Martin Klebba) steer it through some rugged rocks while being buffered around by a ferocious storm. Also aboard are ninjas Zhongyi (Mark Luu), Zhongzhe (Charles Luu) and Zhonghao (Lance Luu), who had been freed from the Tower by Hook for getting the better of him in a fight. They take the helm, while Peter has the mask removed and Emma realises that Green was right in his assertion that a conspiracy had taken place to keep the rightful tsar off his throne. Having followed the Silk Road and seen the Great Wall of China, Green and Chen reach the port where merchants from around the world come to purchase tea. Chen is appalled to see how the Black Wizards and their henchmen are treating the plantation workers. So, she abandons the slumbering Green and lets down her hair to challenge the grasping treasurer (Yu Li), as he collects bags of gold from the terrified townsfolk. He brushes her aside and returns to the Witch (Ma Li), who is wearing a mask so that the people believe she is really Chen. She captures Green and uses him as bait to entrap the real Chen, who has hooked up with her old friend, Li Hong (Mengmeng Li), as well as Peter and Emma, whose ship has docked in the port. They make preparations to attack the Witch's lair, using the technology that Chen has learnt from Green. However, he has been caught snooping by the Witch and he is placed outside the tea dragon's cave as a sacrificial offering. When Emma protests his innocence, she is arrested by the treasurer, while Peter is drugged by the Witch when he goes to her court in an attempt to distract her from Chen's aerial attack using a fleet of umbrella-powered flying machines of Green's design. While the ship's crew waylay the minions operating the false dragon, Chen finds the real creature in some distress in a cavern. Freed by the ship's captain, Green and Emma try to escape across a rope bridge, only for one of the Witch's henchmen to sever the ties. They manage to clamber to safety, while the captain joins the aeronauts seeking to disarm the mechanical warriors who use sound, smoke and electricity to subdue their foes. Seeing the tide begin the turn, the treasurer beats a retreat to the palace to protect his stash of gold. But the Witch has already laid claim to it and she pushes him off the golden gondola suspended beneath a large paper lantern that enables her to float away from Peter. Using the seal, Chen rejuvenates the dragon and rides on its neck, as it swirls around the balloon. The Witch falls on to the roof of her palace, where two of her handmaidens use Princess masks to make Chen think the Witch has phenomenal fighting skills. In the tussle, the Witch grabs the seal and informs Peter that Chen is the impostor, But the Viy recognised Chen and steals the seal to summon the dragon to swoop. The Witch stabs both Green and the Viy, but plummets into the sea in trying to snatch back the seal. At that moment, the chains snap on the Master, who invites Hook to China to learn that the omniscient dragon's secret is not the power of the seal, but love. This may seems a rather trivial message to impart at the end of two hours of exhausting, if rarely exciting action. But, as Jackie Chan's summation is just about the only non-expositionary speech in the entire picture, we should be grateful for its reflective profundity. Clearly dialogue is not the strong suit of Stepchenko and co-scenarists Dmitri Paltsev and Alexei Petrukhin. But they tell a rattling good yarn, even if they do sometimes seem to be making it up as they go along. There are long stretches in which key characters vanish, only to reappear for a quick catch-up before being re-consigned to the margins. Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger certainly fall victim to this haphazard structuring and it's rather sad to see them lumbering through a fight sequence that has been staged to mask their reduced prowess. Being a martial arts movie, the combination of He Jin's skilled choreography and Petr Zelenov and Arsenii Syuhin's razor-sharp cutting on action has consciously been designed to dupe the audience into thinking that it's seeing more fist-flying combat than it actually is. But Jackie and Arnie are so obviously going through the motions that it's hard to enter into the intended spirit of fun. The `now you see them, now you don't' approach to storytelling also hamstrings Jason Flemyng's intrepid cartographer, who makes so little impression that few will feel tempted to go in search of his previous outing. Xingtong Yao just about holds things together once the action settles in the Chinese port, but the subplot about Zhongyi and his devoted ninja brothers clutters up an already busy denouement. This is driven along by Aleksandra Maghakyan's irksomely anachronistic heavy metal score and the pugnacious editing. But everything is cut so rapidly that there's no chance to achieve any rhythm and slam-bam effect undercuts any sense of spectacle. Despite occasionally making moving human figures look as though they have been motion-captured, Ivan Gudkov and Man-Ching Ng's photography is competent enough, although the quality of the CGI effects leaves much to be desired, with the resuscitated dragon being far more striking than the winsomely cute Viy. Markedly more impressive is Artur Mirzoyan's production design, which gives the adventure the Munchausenian feel that is sadly lacking in the narrative. However, as the Witch merely splashes into the sea rather than being dashed on the rocks, one rather suspects that Stepchenko has a third instalment up his sleeve. THE WHALEBONE BOX. Quests have loomed large in the cinema of Andrew Kötting, whether he's travelling by pedallo with Iain Sinclair from Hastings to Hackney in Swandown (2012), tracing poet John Clare's trek from Epping Forest to Northamptonshire in By Our Selves (2015) or imagining a journey taken by Edith the Fair (the wife of King Harold Godwinson) from Waltham Abbey to Battle in Edith Walks (2017). Of course, Kötting started out on the road with Gallivant (1996), an account of the clockwise trip he took around the English coastline with his 85 year-old grandmother, Gladys, and his seven year-old daughter, Eden, who has the rare genetic disorder, Joubert Syndrome. Eden has since become a fixture in her father's films, whether appearing as herself in the installation In the Wake of Deadad (2006) and the documentaries Louyre: This Our Still Life and A Portrait of Eden (both 2011) or playing a character named Dorothy in The Sun Came Dripping a Bucket Full of Gold (2014) and By Our Selves. She has even directed her own animated shorts, It's All in the Mind (2016) and Forgotten the Queen (2017), with the help of Glenn Whiting. But Eden finds herself on her most enigmatic odyssey to date in Kötting's latest outing, The Whalebone Box, which teasingly blends fact and folklore, dream and memory, and poetry and pinhole photography to beguiling, if occasionally baffling effect. Following the first of many intertitles from Philip Hoare's book, Leviathan or, The Whale, the camera records an image of the whalebone box before we cut away to an extreme close-up of Eden Kötting sleeping. On the soundtrack, a performance by Scottish poet-singer MacGillivray (aka Kirsten Norrie) of `Murdered Mermaid Song' alternates with lines from `The Moment I Saw You I Knew I Could Love You', a litany used in Andrew Kötting's 2010 installation collaboration with Leslie Hill and Helen Paris. Reinforcing the notion that what is about to follow is part of Eden's dream, we cut away from monochrome archival footage of a young girl pretending to be a fairy in her garden to a hovering shot of Eden sitting in an armchair in the woods. She is wearing a garland of flowers and has a rifle resting on her lap, as she peers through a pair of binoculars and reveals that the first image she can remember involved her searching for a whale in her memories. Eden swears her statement is true and we see her surveying the scene through her binoculars around the skeleton of Hope the blue whale that occupies Hintze Hall at the Natural History Museum. On the audio, we hear writer and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair explaining how sculptor Steve Dilworth found a whale caught up in a fishing net on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides and used some of the bones to create a box that has assumed mythical properties over the three decades it has been in Sinclair's possession, as he has never lifted its lid. However, he has decided to make an 800-mile round trip to return the box to the beach where Dilworth found the stranded mammal and Andrew Kötting agrees to accompany him, along with pinhole photographer, Anonymous Bosch. On reaching Brigflatts in Cumbria, the travellers take a detour to visit the cemetery where northern poet Basil Bunting is buried. He's heard reading a snippet from his autobiographical work, `Briggflatts', before we see MacGillvray cradling the box and emitting her mermaid cry. The next day, Sinclair opines that she has imparted the weight of the ocean depth into the box, which feels unquestionably heavier as a result of being enchanted into another substance. Cutting away from Eden trying to look past her father through her binoculars, we hear a female voice describing how a strip of film was found in a whale's belly before we fetch up at the British Museum. Eden has come to see the Franks Casket, a whale's bone chest dating to Anglo-Saxon times, whose carvings are, according to the audio guide commentary, open to almost limitless interpretation (`the opportunities for multivalency are rampant'). Eden proclaims that the Franks Casket allows the narrative to be seen on its outside, whereas the whalebone box devours narrative like a black hole. Following Sinclair's diversion through a snowy wood, we see Eden sleeping in her bed and hear the mermaid wail echoing out of half-heard lines of verse and other audio detritus. One male voice refers to the materials used to make the black box flight recorders used on aeroplanes and this seems to spark a flight of fancy, as Sinclair takes us to the ruined fortress of Montségur in Languedoc, which he reveals has had a major impact on his writing, even though he has never visited it before. Ignoring a metal chain blocking their path, Sinclair and Kötting climb a crumbling stone staircase, with Bosch in hesitant pursuit. As Sinclair reveals that Ezra Pound and TS Eliot once visited the site, Bosch urges Kötting to be careful on the unrailed pinnacle that affords a splendid view of the surrounding Pyrenees. The box sits on the dashboard, as a car heads through Scotland. Cutaways show Eden dreaming (once with her floral crown on her head), as a man (possibly Kyunwai So, aka Paper) speculates on the soundtrack about what she might be dreaming about. Sinclair places the box on some rocks (having earlier laid it on a mound of earth) and it seems to levitate inside on of Bosch's pinhole snapshots. Eden has confided that Sinclair told her that there was `unwellness' on the island and that he hoped that the box would bring some positive energy. But she now lets slip that, the further north the voyagers go, the narrative is set to become increasingly incoherent (which will amuse those who have found it anything but accessible to this juncture). To prove the point, the ensuing passage proves to be an unfathomable collage, in which Bosch wonders why Eden is aiming her rifle at him and a female speaker (possibly Ceylan Ünal) ponders the meaning of the home-movie footage of the children pretending to be angels and demons. There's another reference to black boxes and more of the Scottish countryside passes the car window, as Eden comments on the fact that Sinclair has a bald spot. As we hear Philip Hoare discussing the liminal import of whales, we see a school cresting the waves in monochrome footage and watch a figure clad in white carrying the whalebone box along the seashore to the accompaniment of a scene from an unidentified drama about Pandora's Box. But we're about to nip off on another excursion, as Sinclair takes us to Sway Tower in the New Forest, which was constructed out of concrete using Portland stone by Anglo-Indian lawyer-cum-spiritualist Andrew Thomas Turton Peterson, who used to climb the edifice in the hope of communing with the angels. Sinclair wonders whether they re-energise the box. But, as he holds it up, Eden cackles that he has got the wrong box and tatty shards of cardboard hang down from its lid as she reveals that this is a box from inside her dream. The voice of Orson Welles as Father Mapple referencing Jonah in John Huston's film of Herman Melville's Moby Dick (1956) is drowned out by Hoare linking whales with the cosmos and Prospero's imaginings in William Shakespeare's The Tempest. A whispering female voice asks the sleeping Eden what she can see, while her father and Sinclair pay their respects at the grave of Scottish poet, Sorley Maclean. Eden uses a walking frame to stride along a breakwater and she enjoys seeing the waves crash over the railings. The mention of memory takes her back to the woods, where Kötting can be heard giving her directions about leaning back in her chair to look at the sky through her binoculars. A fleeting mention of Schrödinger's experiment with a cat in a box is followed by Sinclair placing the whalebone box on a ledge of a viewing platform looking across to the islands. On the ferry over, he holds it over the water and hopes that its return can improve the lives of the inhabitants, as they have been having a tough time. A cutaway shows Eden participating in a recreation of the opening body in the pool sequence from Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950). She ponders what Sinclair meant about the box being a ticking time bomb, we see old TV documentary footage of abandoned houses on the `island of rust'. We also see inside Dilworth's studio, where his `Hanging Figure' is suspended from the ceiling and, hear an audio clip about the mysterious box at the end of Robert Aldrich's 1955 adaptation of Mickey Spillane's Kiss Me Deadly. Sinclair visits the Callanish Standing Stones on Lewis to pass some remarks on writing and death and how it is better to believe that we pass into some sort of afterlife rather than merely being nailed down inside a box. Eden declares that the whalebone box has become Sinclair's animal battery, as it has absorbed his emotions and experiences and has taken on a life of its own in coming to reflect his. A composite shot shows a whale seemingly bobbing through the air in a woodland clearing before we see the box sitting in a distorted close-up with a flame seemingly burning on its lid. We cut away to footage of fishermen slicing into a beached whale, as MacGillvray's haunting shrieks remind us of the sensitivity of animals who deserve to be treated with greater respect. A sense of disappointment greets the word `Finis' after a prolonged shot of Eden shivering in bluish light on the beach, as she asks her father if it would be possible to take the whale home. But don't duck out before the credits have rolled, as Kötting has a surprise up his sleeve. As Sinclair explains that he has buried the box on the western side of the island, Eden reveals that it was found a year later inside the belly of an imaginary whale. She continues that it was placed inside another box in a library and we see a closing shot of the whalebone box in a display case in the Middle Temple Library. Make of it what you will - and there will be as many theories and interpretations as there are exasperated cries of `what the eff was that all about?' But it's impossible to deny that this ambitious and deeply personal enterprise is as poetic as it is puzzling. In typically gnomic fashion, Kötting calls this collage of Super 8, 16mm and pinhole imagery and its accompanying soundscape of eclectic magpied pilferings `an exercise in hauntological confabulation'. And who could blame or gainsay him? For those who have spent the last 25 years trying to put Kötting's oeuvre in a box, he has beaten them to the punch, as there are echoes throughout of a career's worth of themes, concerns, preoccupations and techniques. Meanings are more elusive, however, in an `implied' narrative that is also a `journeywork and fugue' and a `delirium and experiment'. Kötting spent two years on the edit, which is as intricate and immersive as Philippe Ciompi's astonishing sound mix. Few film-makers are as committed to finding new ways to make an audiovisual connection. But the secret to watching his work is to go with the ebb and flow, indulge the quirks and recurring motifs, delight in the company of Eden and Sinclair, and scramble back for significance if you've still got the intellectual inclination or the emotional energy. THE GRAND BIZARRE. The name Jodie Mack won't be familiar to many filmgoers. Although born in London in 1983, she studied at the University of Florida and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago before taking up a teaching post at Dartmouth College. As she told Filmmaker Magazine, her early outings were `goopy, gunky, excited, fast-paced animations', in which she followed the example of Stan Brakhage by sticking things to the surface of the film strip. She found the inspiration for Dusty Stacks of Mom: The Poster Project (2013) in the warehouse of her mother's failing rock memorabilia business and Mack uses the same associational montage technique in The Grand Bizarre, an animated featurette about `fabrics, objects, and how they travel and represent culture in faraway lands'. Reinforcing Mack's preoccupation with `discarded materials, cultural detritus, and waste', this is not an easy film to describe, as stop-motion images incessantly tumble in on one another to the accompaniment of an electronic soundtrack that it is pitted with distorted sounds from everyday life. The visuals are dominated by patterned textiles, but there are also references to various order systems that help humans negotiate their world, including alphabets, symbols, musical notation, barcodes and maps. At a time when little seems to make sense, the sensory overload on offer here might just afford viewers willing to go with the flow a much-needed hour of pleasure and puzzlement. Opening with a shot of a blazing bonfire, the film settles into a pattern of rapid-fire, stop-animated images of fabrics. Some lie on surfaces, others re crammed into suitcases that are loaded into cars and carried on to trains and boats. As if to reinforce the notion that textiles know no boundaries, we see a row of spinning globes suggesting a world in perpetual motion. What appears to be a stop-motion variation on time-lapse photography is employed to capture birds swarming around a tree behind a low white wall that is used as a display space for a shifting exhibition of patterns that even continues into darkness. A relatively static passage of close-ups highlights the intricacy of the weaving and stitching involved in an array of brightly coloured designs. More time-lapse footage reveals shadows encroaching upon items laid in the sunshine on wrought iron garden benches, walls or washing lines. As the jumble of textiles and babel of signs and characters intensify in speed, it becomes possible to pick out ornate back tattoos that contrast with the bars of colour in the less exotic fabric designs and the geometric shapes leaping from the pages of rapidly flipped books. Amidst more spinning orbs and the odd swiped and bouncing globe, pieces of cloth spill out of filing cabinets and sit on book rests. Long lengths pass through a factory printing press and an ensuing montage compares human dexterity and mechanical efficiency. Rolls are loaded on to lorries and taken to warehouses, shops and market stalls around the planet to make clothing, cushions, curtains and carpets. Humanity hurtles past in the daily hubbub and barely seems to notice the piles of neatly folded fabrics that rise and fall with an accompanying sound that resembles reposeful breathing. Shots follow of materials laid across park benches and the frames of bicycles and motorbikes. This sets wheels in motion and a sequence showing activity at a container port gives way to shots of fabrics travelling on various forms of road, rail and river transport. Hues, textures and patterns flicker furiously like the bunting flapping over a sea wall before an amusing segment shows rugs and towels taking over the steps of grand public buildings or slinking down house stairs. Scarves and rugs flap on washing lines before an American train whistle sounds over a witty shot of squares of colourful cloth being pulled along on a line like locomotive carriages. As the noise of rush-hour traffic takes over, a slower procession of dowdier pieces snails across the frame. As a line of cloth flops into some long grass, a flashing medley is counterpointed by the sound of textile machinery before a chain of diaphanous materials wafts upwards as though being coaxed by a snake charmer. The languid elegance of this image gives way to a relentless barrage of montaged patterns and signifiers that ends with a shot of strips of fabric floating on the rotors of a spinning ceiling fan to create the impression of a rainbow swastika. A more sedate passage follows, in which the items are separated by black screen edits that allows the viewer to appreciate the colours and designs on display. But the pace soon picks up again for a dizzying visual assault that contrasts with the methodical whirring and clunking of a piece of machinery on the soundtrack. Once again, the speed slackens and fabrics are held on screen for several seconds in all their woven glory before a sneeze presages the closing credits. Having already made such textile-based flicker films as Posthaste Perennial Pattern (2010), Point de Gaze, Persian Pickles, Blanket Statement #1 (all 2012), and Blanket Statement #2 (2013), Mack started filming this exceptional experimental essay on the global textile industry in 2013. Over the next five years, she visited 15 countries, including Mexico, China, Poland, Turkey, Greece, Israel, Morocco and Indonesia. As she was using a 16mm Bolex camera, her shot length was limited to 25 seconds. Yet, she managed to amass six hours-worth of footage (amounting to tens of thousands of individually photographed images) and decided to edit it down to 60 minutes so that it would fit on a 16mm reel. However, having taken the trouble to write lyrics to the 10 songs she composed for the soundtrack, Mack discarded them after reaching the conclusion that they sounded too preachy and would distract the viewer from the visuals. This exhaustingly meticulous methodology gave Mack complete control over the audiovisual content, which touches on everything from consumerism, globalisation, de-individualisation and commodification to the ethics of documentary and ethnographical film-making, the connection between commerce and creativity, the difference (if any) between art and craft, and the impact that travel and tourism has had on indigenous economies and cultures. The inclusion of several back tattoos or `tramp stamps' enabled Mack to consider how symbolic meaning can be decoratively devalued and this fed into the wider discussion of cultural appropriation that was sparked by the textiles and how their designs are copied and pastiched by multinational companies seeking to cash in on the vogue for ethnic chic. It would appear to the avant-garde dabbler that Mack has been influenced by the flicker effect utilised by such pioneering Structuralists as Peter Kubelka, Hollis Frampton and Paul Sharits. This cine-quilt is certainly a patchwork, which notes the importance of the grid and the diamond in the core designs that have proved inspirational the world over. Mack intends such allusions to be politically provocative, but she resists soapboxing to avoid scaring of those seeking to view the images solely on an experiential level (if this is actually possible). As with any worthwhile film, this isn't always an easy watch. But its joyous and overdue tribute to the fabrics and their makers can be engaged with at a level to suit everyone.