- David Parkinson
Parky At the Pictures (18/12/2020)
Updated: Dec 19, 2020
(Reviews of Liberté; The Painted Bird; About Endlessness; Patrick; and A Christmas Carol)
The majority of cinemas may be closed during these enduringly dismal days. And who, in all honesty is that big a film fan that they would risk contracting a contagious disease just to see something on the big screen as part of a well-spaced crowd? There are still ways to connect with some of the films on general release during Lockdown 2, however. In addition to Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI and the BFI Player, it should also be possible to access the titles under discussion below via iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation.
Catalan auteur Albert Serra has gone his own way since accompanying Don Quixote and Sancho Panza into the hills in Honor de Cavalleria (2006). He joined the Magi on their travels in Birdsong (2008), brought Casanova and Dracula together in The Story of My Death (2013) and presented contrasted visions of the hermit of Versailles in The Death of Louis XIV (2016) and Roi Soleil (2018). Serra remains in the 18th century for Liberté, a typically stylised provocation that has already been presented on stage at the Volksbühne in Berlin in 2018 and as a video installation entitled `Personalien' at Madrid's Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in 2019.
In a wood between Potsdam and Berlin in 1774, the Duc de Wand (Baptise Pinteaux) tells Herzog von Walchen (Helmut Berger) about the drawing and quartering of Robert-François Damiens, a domestic servant who had attempted to assassinate Louis XV n 1757. He goes into graphic detail about the savagery of the execution and the hideous nature of the victim's screams. But he also notes that three women refused to look away and opines that the revolutionary cause needs more women of similar mettle if it's not to fall into the wrong hands. Von Walchen laments that it is becoming increasingly difficult to practice libertinage and promises to raise the plight of French exiles at the court of Frederick II of Prussia.
As night falls, De Wand is joined by the Comte de Tésis (Marc Susini) and Comte Alexis Danshire (Alexander García Düttmann) in creeping through the woods in the hope of finding sexual encounters to spy upon. Rubbing the crotch of their britches, they listen out for the sound of female cries and steal through the undergrowth to find a vantage point. Elsewhere, conversations touch on bestial misdemeanours, as the well-dressed sophisticates seek to excite each other with their wit and depravity.
Sitting in a palanquin, De Wand contemplates the kidnapping of an abbess close to the king and is chided by fellow conspirator Comte Alexis Danshire (Alexander García Düttmann) for lacking the courage to carry out the deed and tie the woman to a tree so the dogs can threaten her. Snooping outside, Mademoiselle de Jensling (Iliana Zabeth) and Mademoiselle de Geldöbel (Laura Poulvet) try to eavesdrop, while devising their own schemes. Admitting to feeling like prey, the latter is the subject of a discussion between De Walchen and De Tesis, who is intrigued to know whether she is ready to leave the convent and join their cause.
Meanwhile, a well-hung army officer (Francesc Daranas) is stroked to completion by a woman sitting in a sedan chair and a passing libertine dries off his member with a handkerchief in order to savour the aroma. He is also involved as Armin (Lluís Serrat) the servant strings up De Jensling over a tree branch so that she can be drenched with bodily fluids. One of the onlookers sneers that he prefers to see pain rather than pleasure on a woman's face because it's a more honest emotion. De Tesis also shows De Jensling how to handle De Walchen and ignores her request to know why she has been brought to the forest.
A valet named Catalin (Catalin Jugravu) is spotted lingering in a clearing and he is enticed into a game with a duo who order him to undress and fondle the younger man. De Jensling requests a caning while leaning against a palanquin, while a simperingly dissolute fellow looks on with leering amusement having just masturbated in a cramped compartment while a storm rages outside. They are distracted by the screams of a naked woman being dragged to another sedan and being locked inside. One of the men also takes a whipping from a burly servant and is left in a howling heap when he refuses to continue because the welts on his buttocks are bleeding so badly. When he seeks anilingual solace with De Jensling, she delights in the power she has over him and some of the onlookers exchange disapproving glances, as he breaks down and sobs.
De Tesis confides to De Wand that De Jensling is a fine actress and she turns heads when she glides into view wearing nothing beneath a wicker cage crinoline. However, when he finds himself in a palonquin with De Geldöbel, the buttock-shredded captain fails to function (a long, dark night of the arsehole, perhaps?) and she mocks his impotence with merciless contempt. Meanwhile, the one-armed (perhaps Seven Years' War-wounded) Capitaine Benjamin Hephie (Xavier Pérez) reclines naked in a wheelbarrow while women urinate on him. More glances are exchanged as Madame de Dumeval (Theodora Marcadé) and Madame Montavril (Montse Triola) seek to recover from an exhausting night. A long shot is held on the trees as the first hint of dawn appears in the inky blue sky.
Throughout his career, Albert Serra has enjoyed a reputation for being painterly, as he teasingly suggests that the real story is happening away from the languorous action unfolding on the screen. In this instance, he has borrowed from the Rococo canvases of Antoine Watteau, François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard to bring a touch of the sordid eroticism found in the likes of Walerian Borowczyk's La Bête (1975) to the fête galante style of grouping. In focusing on tableaux, however, Serra has left room for merely the most vestigial of plotlines, as the various exiles from Versailles indulge their vices in the name of a libertinism that is far more excessive than anything seen in Laurence Dunmore's The Libertine (2004).
Essentially, we are treated to a night of ancien régime dogging and this review makes no apology for mislabelling any of the characters, as Serra has made absolutely no attempt to identify or discriminate between them. Indeed, the inability to determine the status of the individuals and how they relate to one another may serve to distance some viewers from them and make the De Sadean punishments they derive a degree of pleasure from giving and receiving seem inconsequential to the point of tedium. But, of course, there is more going on in this grotesque burlesque than a bit of periwigged perversion, as Serra appears to be exploring the banality and brutality of privilege and power without responsibility. Indeed, the impotence of these aristocratic rakes might even be compared to the limpness of the Bullingdon alumnus whose own failure to rise to the challenge has seen him steer a shamelessly chaotic course through the Brexit negotiations and the coronavirus pandemic.
Lockdown has highlighted the irresistible nature of transgression, however, with political aides, newscasters, sports stars and celebrities being as guilty of breaking rules set for their own good as readily as members of the hapless and less-advantaged public. Sporting Rosa Tharrats's unfussily elegant costumes led by the veteran Helmut Berger, the mix of professional and first-time performers courageously convey the clash between Enlightenment entitlement and the lower-rung response to this noblesse oblige. Pain and pleasure are almost indistinguishable, but the screams are deftly contrasted with the chirrup of crickets, the snap of dry twigs and the rustle of the breeze in the tree tops by sound designer, Jordi Ribas.
Shooting in long takes with three cameras (as is Serra's wont), cinematographer Artur Tort captures the sexual shenanigans from both conventional and kinky angles. But nothing is excessively pornographic and, even though Hephie is subjected to some cruel torture and Mademoiselle de Rubens (Safira Robens) wields a wounding knife, the violence is relatively proportionate. Serra may be known as a provocateur, but he's rarely gratuitous and, consequently, the most overtly bestial and scatalogical fantasies are confined to intimate tête-à-têtes. However, the decision to cast exclusively attractive women alongside some less than prepossessng men seems unnecessarily careless.
THE PAINTED BIRD.
Questions have repeatedly been asked about Jerzy Kosinski's literary output, with accusations of plagiarism and forgery dogging his reputation. When The Painted Bird was published in 1965, it was intimated that Kosinski had based the harrowing content on his own experiences during the Second World War. But Kosinski had not been a victim of the Holocaust, as the young Józef Lewinkopf had been given a false baptismal certificate by a Lódz priest so that the family could live with the support of their knowing neighbours in a handful of rural villages.
Some have claimed that Kosinski based his text on the experiences of film director Roman Polanski, while others have insisted that he passed off an obscure memoir as his own work of fiction. Whatever the truth, the material has been brought to the screen with a monochrome mix of epic scale and raw intimacy by Václav Marhoul, the FAMU-trained Czech director who is making only his third feature after Mazaný Filip (2003) and Tobruk (2008), which transferred Stephen Crane's American Civil War classic, The Red Badge of Courage, to the Libyan desert.
In an unnamed Eastern European country, a young boy runs through a forest clutching his pet ferret. He is set upon by a couple of other youths, who beat Joska (Petr Kotlár) before urinating on the animal and setting it alight. It's a cruel and brutal introduction to a character who has been sent by his parents to live with his aunt, Marta (Nina Šunevic), whose name provides the first of the narrative's nine chapter headings. She blames him for going out alone and he is so miserable with her cold comfort that he writes a note pleading with his family to rescue him and uses it as the sail of the small boat he floats off down the stream.
One morning, Marta dies while washing her feet and Joska accidentally burns down the house when he drops the lamp in shock. With nowhere to go, he hits the road and arrives at a village where he is purchased by Olga (Ala Sakalova) after she has informed her furious neighbours that he is a vampire who has poisoned their water supply. She trains him to be her assistant and paddle her skiff when she goes across the marshlands to heal the sick in nearby villages. When he falls ill, however, she buries him up to his neck in a pit and allows the crows to peck his head until it bleeds. Menaced by a suspicious villager, Joska falls into the river and clings to a log, as he floats to the home of a Miller (Udo Kier) and his wife (Michaela Doležalová).
They set him to work hauling sacks, but he is aware that the miller suspects his spouse of having an affair with their assistant (Zdenek Pecha). She gives the boy a cap that had belonged to her late son, but he is not allowed to eat at the table and sits in a corner during meals, The miller dotes on his tabby cat and returns one day with a black-and-white cat in a sack. When his wife shows signs of being aroused when the animals begin to mate, the miller overturns the table and uses a spoon to blind his rival before taking his belt to his wife. Joska crawls across the floor, as the cats start eating the scooped eyeballs.
Filling a sack with provisions, Joska hits the road. He returns the eviscerated man's eyeballs before finding a home with Lekh (Lech Dyblik), a birdcatcher who has the boy shin up trees to set traps. While out in the fields, they encounter Ludmila (Jitka Cvancarová), who approaches them naked and makes love with Lekh. Back at the cottage, he shows Joska how a flock will turn on a bird with white paint on its wings and the boy is crushed by the severity of the mid-air attack. But this is just the preamble for some local boys to gang rape Ludmila against a tree and for the womenfolk to lacerate her genitals for corrupting their morals. Lekh is so crushed by her death that he hangs himself, despite Joska's efforts to support his dangling legs.
Having released the birds from their wooden cages, the boy shuffles on into the wilderness. In a clearing, he finds a horse with a damaged leg standing beside a tumbled cart. He leads the beast to the nearest village and is devastated when one of the peasants puts it down by dragging it behind two other horses. Joska is made to serve the Red partisan brigade that raids the village for provisions and is rewarded by being sneered at by the commander (Martin Nahálka), who has him bundled into the back of a cart for delivery to the nearby German airfield, with a note denouncing him as a Jew. The officer calls for a volunteer to execute him. But Hans (Stellan Skarsgård) walks him to the end of the railway line and fires into the air, so the boy can escape into the woods.
After spending the night in a tree, Joska sees flares on the horizon and arrives at the railway track in time to see the smouldering corpses of the Jews who had been gunned down after escaping from a cattle truck. Following the example of those robbing the dead, he finds food in one of the suitcases and takes the boots off a dying child, as he his plight has taught him that there can be no room for sentiment. As he kneels beside a wounded man, however, he is knocked unconscious by a rifle butt and entrusted to the care of the local priest (Harvey Keitel) after being spared by an SS officer (Tim Kalkhof) whose boots he had shone with his sleeve as he cowered on the ground.
The cleric takes a shine to Joska and makes him an altar boy. However, he has tuberculosis and decides to billet him with Garbos (Julian Sands), a parishioner with a small farm and a distillery. Despite his outward piety, however, Garbos sexually abuse Joska and thrashes him when he catches him trying to complain to the priest. He is punished again after Garbos catches him with a knife that he found near a German bunker in the woods. But, when they go to investigate, Joska pulls on the rope tethering him to his tormentor so that he plunges into a dried-up well full of rats.
With the pervert's screams ringing in his ears, Joska returns to the village, only to find that his protector has died and his successor has him tossed into the slurry pit when he trips on the step while carrying the lectern during mass. Having washed himself in the river, the boy finds a shepherd's hut in the woods and shelters there for several days. He realises that he can't stay and packs some supplies and an axe into a bag. On crossing a frozen lake, however, he falls through the ice and is lucky to be rescued by Labina (Júlia Vidrnáková). She allows him to remain, although he is disconcerted by her moans in the night.
Shortly after he helps Labina bury the old man she lives with, Joska is made to kiss her legs and pleasure her orally. When he fails to satisfy her in bed, however, she mocks him by gyrating under her goat in the milking shed. Nettled by her rejection, Joska catches the animal in a trap and throws its head through Labina's cottage window. Alone again, he attacks an elderly man in the forest and beats him with a branch in order to steal his hat, coat and sack of supplies.
Following a devastating Cossack attack on a sleepy settlement, Joska comes under the protection of Gavrila (Aleksei Kravchenko) and Mitka (Barry Pepper), Red Army troopers who claims him as a war orphan. Mitka finds him a uniform and gets him to clean his boots to keep busy. But he is unable to prevent Joska from seeing the corpses of the Soviet soldiers who had been mutilated by the partisans in the woods. Yet, when he exacts his revenge on the residents of a farm - after having spent a seemingly idyllic time soaking up the sun in the high branches of a tree - the sniper tells the boy to remember what he has seen, as an eye for an eye is the only law in the real world.
Urged by a Red Army officer (Alexander Minaev) to always be a true Communist, Joska is sent to an orphanage, with Mitka's pistol as a going away present. Hating being confined and having to witness the bullying of a boy who has lost a leg, Joska escapes on his first night and is strapped by the director (Petr Stach). No longer afraid, however, he lies in the middle of a railway track and almost cracks a smile as a train rumbles over him. On venturing into the bombed-out town, he is slapped across the face and called an anti-Semitic name by the owner of a toy stall in the market (Filip Kankovsky) and Joska uses Mitka's gun to ensure he gets a tooth for a tooth.
He thinks he is going to get into trouble when the orphanage director summons him to his office. But he is reunited with his father, Nikodém (Petr Vanek), who gives him a tearful hug of relief. Joska remains pokerfaced, however, and spurns the dish of cabbage soup that Nikodém has prepared for him. Storming out, he smashes windows in a derelict house before huddling around a fire with the dispossessed. Looking up, he sees a child leaning on its father's shoulder, but keeps his distance from his own when they catch the bus the next morning. When Nikodém dozes off, however, and Joska sees the concentration camp number tattooed on his arm, he understands why he had been sent away and writes his name in the dirt on the window pane.
There will never be a universal consensus on any piece of cinema, but the reviews that have castigated this remarkable film for using glossy visuals to glamorise violence and trivialise the sufferings endured during the Second World War are so flabbergastingly wide of the mark that one can only refer their authors and any who might concur with them to Salvador Carrasco's Senses of Cinema article, which ranks among the year's finest examples of film appreciation.
In constructing his argument, Carrasco references Luis Buñuel's Los Olvidados (1950), François Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959) and Elem Klimov's Come and See (1985), with the latter link being reinforced by the casting of its juvenile hero, Aleksei Kravchenko, as the Red Army soldier who finds Joska in the woods. But parallels can also be drawn with Agnieszka Holland's Europa Europa (1990) and Bohdan Sláma's Shadow Country (2020), which respectively recreate the continent-crossing experiences of Solomon Perel and the events leading up to the Tušt massacre in an Austro-Bohemian border village in May 1945.
Over the course of the 169-minute running time, Václav Marhoul does make the odd misstep, most notably in the depiction of the few female characters. He also lingers over incidents that Joska doesn't see, such as the mowing down of the fleeing train passengers. But he succeeds in showing that atrocities were committed on both sides during a pitiless conflict that was driven as much by racial hatred as clashing ideologies. Moreover, he shows how survival was often a matter of luck, as vendettas and reprisals consistently put imperilled citizens on the frontline.
In recreating this Mitteleuropean hell, Marhoul is heavily indebted to production designer Jan Vlasák, costumier Helena Rovna, editor Ludek Hudec and sound supervisor Pavel Rejholec. Shooting in 35mm CinemaScope, cinematographer Vladimír Smutný also reminds us that war often happens in picturesque locales, as well as rubbled ruins and muddy tracts. He also ensures that we keep seeing things (with the odd exceptions) from Joska's perspective, which means that the barbarity we witness is reduced to its most basic levels to equate with the boy's powers of comprehension. In this regard, it's clear that Marhoul learned a great deal about how children respond to tragedy while visiting crisis spots around the world with Unicef.
Every bit as effective and affecting as Kravchenko a generation before, nine year-old Petr Kotlár delivers an exceptional debut display of grave resolve and hushed desensitisation that leaves one to wonder if the rootless boy is supposed to symbolise the migrant children whose main crime in the eyes of those far-right supporters in today's Europe is that they are not from `around these parts'. He is unfazed by the presence of such stars as Harvey Keitel, Udo Keir, Julian Sands and Stellan Skarsgård, although their presence is something of a distraction and Marhoul might have been better off casting some less familiar faces, who might not have needed so obviously to have been dubbed into the Pan-Slavic hybrid language used to blur the setting. But this attention to detail typifies a film a decade in the making that has sought to present its vision of truth with an unflinching gaze that has blinded many who hypocritically acquiesce in the violence of comic-book blockbusters. Maybe now Kosinski will accept that there was someone other than Luis Buñuel and Federico Fellini who was capable of bringing his 222-page tome to the screen.
Having been heralded by Fred Scott's documentary, Being a Human Person, Roy Andersson's sixth feature hardly comes as a surprise. But the fact that About Endlessness only runs a minute for each of the Swedish director's 76 years is rather unexpected, as one might have thought he would have more to say in what was announced as his swan song. Work may well have started on a follow up to Songs From the Second Floor (2000), You, the Living (2007) and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014), but it may well feel even more like an afterthought than this rattlebag of snippets and pensées, which considers the extent to which human nature has changed (if at all) in the decades since the closing days of the Second World War.
Opening on a shot of a couple who clinging to each other in midair as a soprano sings on the soundtrack, the action takes us to a bench overlooking a town, as a wife informs her husband that it's already September. A female narrator informs us that she saw a man who wanted to give his wife a nice dinner, as he paused at the top of some subway steps and reflected on the fact that the day before he had been snubbed by a classmate he had forgotten he had once offended.
A preoccupied waiter spills red wine on to a white tablecloth by overfilling a glass, while a female communications officer who is incapable of shame turns from gazing at the rooftops outside her office window to fix the lens with a degree of disdain. In a grey room, a man climbs into the single bed to sleep on the savings he has stashed under his mattress because he doesn't trust banks.
People standing on a sloping street look on impassively, as a chanting crowd follow a man carrying a large wooden cross, who is being whipped and kicked en route to his crucifixion. But this turns out merely to be a nightmare, from which a man wakes to some silent sympathy from a woman who offers him a sip of water. After we see a young man watching a hairdresser watering a potted tree outside her shop, we accompany the man with the Calvary complex to an appointment with a psychiatrist, whose compassion dissipates when he discovers his patient is a Roman Catholic priest who has lost his faith (and is. seemingly, sleeping with his housekeeper). In recommending that he shows gratitude for life instead of fretting about the (non-)existence of a diety, he suggests they meet again in a week.
Close to where a landmine victim is busking `O Sole Mio' on a mandolin, a proud father poses with his new baby so that grandma can take photographs. In his sacristy, the priest drinks altar wine from the bottle and demands to know why God has forsaken him before staggering into the church to conduct a communion service. We see ageing parents putting flowers on the grave of their soldier son in a desolate cemetery, while the clutching couple float over Cologne after it had been reduced to rubble by Allied bombers.
After we see a traveller being met at a remote railway station when she thought she'd been forgotten and another woman sipping champagne with a balding companion in a bar playing Billie Holiday singing `All of Me', we meet a man arriving for a blind date in the wrong bar. Soldiers tie a man begging for mercy to a post for his execution before we cut away to the sight of three young girls breaking into a joyously impromptu dance to the easy listening music emanating from a quiet café.
Having shown us a mother remove her shoes after breaking a heel on a station concourse, the narrator takes us into the darkened room where a father had come to regret the decision to protect the family honour after he had stabbed his teenage daughter to death. Another rash action follows, as a man slaps his wife at a market stall in accusing her of being too familiar with a fishmonger. Onlookers pull him away, but he strikes her again and attempts further violence before demanding to know if she is aware that he loves her.
A student attempts to explain the First Law of Thermodynamics to his girlfriend, who opines that she would rather be a tomato than a potato should their transformed energies ever meet again. Their charming naiveté contrasts with the despair in the Berlin bunker in the spring of 1945, as Adolf Hitler is greeted with a half-hearted `Sieg heil!' from three generals awaiting their fate, as the pressing sound of Red Army guns confirms that the Führer's bid to conquer the world is going to end in ignominious failure. Back in the present, passengers on a crowded bus argue about whether a man who is sobbing because he doesn't know what he wants has a right to be sad in public.
During a downpour, a father puts down his umbrella and kneels on muddy ground to tie his daughter's shoelace so she can look her best at a birthday party. The priest begs to see the psychiatrist as he has finally lost his faith and is at his wits' end. But the recepionist ushers him away because the doctor has a bus to catch. A dentist proves no more professional, as he storms out on a patient who complains of pain after being too scared of needles to be anaesthetised. He repairs to a bar, where he is one of many to mumble assent when a man listening to `Silent Night' as snow falls beyond the window declares that everthing is wonderful.
This view wouldn't have been shared by the long column of defeated soldiers trudging through the snow to a Siberian POW camp at the end of the war. Returning to the present again, the subway man is complaining to his wife that his school nemesis has got a PhD and admits to being envious that he has probably had a more exciting life. She reminds him of the fact he has seen Niagara Falls and the Leaning Tower of Pisa and even got to climb the Eiffel Tower with his bad knee. But he's not mollified. Neither is the man who tinkers with his broken down car at the side of a road winding through a flat expanse. As birds circle overhead, he looks round in the hope that someone might be coming along to help him. But he realises he's on his own, as a choir pipes up on the soundtrack and the credits start to roll.
Epitomising the Hobbesian contention that life is nasty, brutish and short, this collection of bittersweet minimalist vignettes feels as though Andersson has delved into his notebooks and filmed the fragments he found there rather than publishing them in book form, as Michelangelo Antonioni had done with That Bowling Alley on the Tiber (1986). As always, despite the absence of conventional punchlines or morals, there's much to ponder and appreciate, as both content and form are up to their customarily high standards. But a small part of the magic has gone because Andersson opted in Fred Scott's profile to reveal how he creates his illusions in his Stockholm studio
Despite the excellence of their Bresson-worthy performances, the cast will have to excuse the fact that they have not been credited above, as a surfeit of bracketed names would only have cluttered the copy without enlightening anyone bar Scandinavian casting directors. But they inhabit the grey milieux designed by Anders Hellström, Frida Ekstrom Hellström and Nicklaus Nilsson with a wintry world-weariness that is often as amusing as it is affecting. Mention should be made, however, of narrator Jessica Louthander, as her presence is so puzzling. She seems omniscient, but is often required to do no more than state the bleeding obvious. Yet the odd remark is so shrewd that one is left to speculate about her identity and the source of her insight.
Keeping Gergely Pálos's camera at a respectful and static distance from the action, Andersson (who won the Best Director prize at Venice) proves as alert to the foibles of human nature as he is to the quirks of the quotidian scene. In conjunction with co-editors Johan Carlsson and Kalle Bornan, he also achieves much through adroit juxtaposition (although Robert Hefter's sound is also key to several transitions), most notably when the bar-room optimist's reassurances preface the scene of defeated Nazis shuffling towards their doom in the Soviet gulags. Moreover, by having the parents tend the grave of a son killed in an unnamed conflict, Andersson reminds us that our leaders have learned little or nothing from the hideous wars of the 20th century.
Primarily, however, this is a gentle, mournfully poetic reminder that no matter how seriously we might take life, we are always going to be faintly ridiculous because that is humanity's inescapable fate. Yet, we have so much potential, if only we could forget our petty preoccupations and take the time and trouble to look for what is often under our noses. This deceptively deep series of miniatures also confirms Andersson's status alongside Jacques Tati as cinema's most acute observer and precise recreator of the follies occurring in the charivari passing his Studio 24 window.
This is not an easy film to write about for someone whose dislike of change is so intense that it's now shared by his cat. But Tim Mielants's debut feature, Patrick, is as much about grief and fixation as it is about the need to accept and move on. Inspired by a childhood holiday memory and riven with an air of askanced compassion, this is a far cry from Series 3 of Peaky Blinders, which is one of the many TV shows that Mielants has worked on since starting with the shorts, The Sunflyers (2005) and Desert Ski (2007). However, there's more than meets the eye to this `costume drama' set on a naturist campsite in the Ardennes.
Despite being socially awkward around the guests, 38 year-old handyman Patrick (Kevin Janssens) is content with his lot helping ailing father Rudy (Josse De Pauw) and blind mother Nelly (Katelijne Damen) run the Belgian family's camping grounds. Occasionally, they get grief from the residents' committee led by Herman (Pierre Bokma), whose wife, Liliane (Ariane Van Vliet) is having an affair with Patrick, who receives a jar of homemade jam each time he satisfies her. But things tick along smoothly enough to leave Patrick with enough spare time to make his own furniture.
No one has noticed the quality of his designs before Nathalie (Hannah Hoekstra) comes to stay with her boyfriend, Dustin Apollo (Jemaine Clement), a famous musician who has come to the Ardennes in search of a little anonymous relaxation. But, before she can encourage him, Patrick descends into a slough of despond caused by the death of his father and the disappearance from the toolshed of his favourite hammer. Haunted by the space in the wall display, Patrick sublimates his distress at losing Rudy into searching high and low for a tool that everyone assures him will just turn up.
Kindly cop Mon (Bouli Lanners) urges him to see if he can find a replacement. But a visit to the hardware store only confirms that the company has stopped producing that particular hammer. Patrick buys a replacement, but it looks wrong on the wall and bends the first nail he hits with it. He throws it away and starts making enquiries at each caravan and tent. Eventually, he discovers that Henk (Louis van der Waal) had borrowed it for a quick repair job, only for it to go missing before he could return it. The trial also leads to Bert (Peter Gorissen) before Patrick is distracted by the crisis that flares after money is stolen from the reception cash box.
As he is keen to take over the running of the site, Herman uses the theft to stir up discontent with Patrick's performance since Rudy's death. When he overhears him rabblerousing as a camp meeting, Patrick rushes to Herman's plot to search for the missing hammer. He is caught in the act, however, and Liliane watches on in disdain as the naked men fight so ferociously that they knock the caravan off its legs and tip it on its side.
Upset by the egocentric Dustin's refusal to commit and settle down, Nathalie seeks sanctuary in the toolshed. She discovers Patrick's artistic talent and offers to help him find a buyer in Brussels. He isn't interested in commercial success, although he's grateful for Nathalie's support. Indeed, every camper turns out to watch Patrick scatter Rudy's ashes in the forest and they further rally round him after Nelly announces that she is going to leave. No one can do much to help, however, when the hammer is found at a murder scene in Brussels and Mon fails to protect Patrick when a sneering detective comes to arrest him.
There's nothing inevitable about the happyish ending that sees Patrick learn that while fathers can't be replaced, hammers can. Yet the little rush of events that precedes this affirmatory revelation has an anti-climaxing effect that feels like a slight betrayal of the film's gradual accumulation of seemingly inconsequential details, such as the fact that Rudy and Bert had covertly been lovers for years. Nevertheless, despite the fact that the hammer turns out to be a MacGuffin, this still makes an engagingly off-kilter companion piece to Michael Palin's 1977 Ripping Yarn, `The Testing of Eric Outhwaite', which had similarly been infatuated with shovels.
Having piled on 40lbs for the title role, Kevin Janssens is compelling as the trustingly inarticulate innocent unable to fathom why anyone would want to despoil his Eden. He's hissably supported by Pierre Bokma, who channels his inner Mark Heap in playing the moustachio'd snake. With a pink cardigan around her shoulders, Ariane Van Vliet also amuses as the adulterous wife who won't give her husband a breakfast refill until he has drained the dregs from his coffee cup. But the entire cast deserve credit for acting so unconsciously in the nip, although it should be noted that Jemaine Clement and Hannah Hoekstra are allowed to remain clothed in order to reinforce their outsider status.
Amusingly photographed by Frank van den Eeden to highlight the various shades of beige in Hubert Pouille and Pepijn Van Looy's production design that contrast so pointedly the pasty flesh of the campers, this may not pull off all of its visual flourishes. But Geert Hellings dots the score with flugelhorn motifs that emphasise the fact that Mielants and co-scenarist Benjamin Sprengers insist on Patrick dancing to his own tune, as he picks his way through his tangled emotions to find in his unique variation on hammer time a renewed sense of purpose and peace.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL.
Another Yuletide, another screen version of Charles Dickens's 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol. There have been well over 50 live-action and animated variations since the first audience paid to see moving images flickering on to a Parisian screen 125 years ago this month. But Jacqui and David Morris have put a terpsichorean twist on the familiar fable in following up their innovative documentary, Nureyev: Lifting the Curtain (2018) by it through a combination of dance and off-screen voiceovers.
Our scene is set in a Victorian drawing-room, as three children prepare to entertain their parents and grandmother with a model theatre show. The latter (played by Siân Phillips) serves as the narrator for the familiar story of the festive redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge, who is voiced by Simon Russell Beale and danced as a young man and as an old miser by Franasowicz Jakub and Michael Nunn. As characters awaken in a street tableau, Scrooge dismisses Christmas as humbug to his nephew Fred (danced by Simone Donati and voiced by Tom Stourton) when he calls at the counting house where Bob Cratchit (Karl Fagerlund Brekke/Martin Freeman) is striving to keep warm with a candle flame.
Dismissing his clerk with a reminder to make up for picking his pocket on Christmas Day by arriving early on 26 December, Scrooge makes his way home and gives short shrift to two men collecting for charity. On reaching his front door, however, he is disturbed by the sight of his door knocker morphing into the image of his erstwhile partner, Jacob Marley (Russell Maliphant/Andy Serkis), who had died seven years ago to the day. While eating gruel by the fire, Scrooge is visited by Marley's ghost, who warns him of the grim reality of Purgatory before revealing that three spirits will visit during the course of the night with the aim of persuading Scrooge to mend his ways.
The Ghost of Christmas Past (Dana Maliphant/Leslie Caron) disturbs his sleep and takes him back to the lonely childhood when only Old Tom (Gipik) showed him any kindness. She also shows him consorting with his sister, Fan (Flora Grant/Holly Dempsey), and making merry at the warehouse owned by his benevolent employer, Fezziwig (Andrey Kaminsky/Colin Mace). However, his growing obsession with making money had cost him the love of Belle (Grace Jabbari/Carey Mulligan), while he had also lost his sister following the birth of her son.
Touched by the scenes he has witnessed, Scrooge protests that, while he might regret past decisions, he is powerless to change them. But the spirit departs and he is quickly confronted by the Ghost of Christmas Present (Mikey Boateng/Daniel Kaluuya), who takes him on a tour of festive feasts before alighting at the Cratchit abode. The family makes the most of its meagre fare and fusses fondly over Tiny Tim (Daniel Golovam/Archie Durrant), who is at the centre of the revels, despite hobbling around on a crutch. Mrs Cratchit (Hannah Kidd/Lorraine Ashbourne) curses Scrooge for the parsimony that leaves them short, but her husband reminds her that they should be grateful for what they have.
Moved by the plight of Tiny Tim and his positivity, Scrooge has much to ponder as he finds himself alone once more. But his blood freezes when he is joined by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (Karl Fagerlund Brekke), as he suspects his revelations will cut to the quick. He sees the mourners attend the funeral of a much-despised man with marked reluctance and shudders as his housekeeper joins others in stealing his belongings and selling them to a fence named Old Joe (Kiraly Saint Claire). When he asks to see a less sordid side of loss, Scrooge is dismayed to see Bob Cratchit mourning the loss of Tiny Tim. So, having seen his own crumbling tombstone, he vows to mend his ways and dances with relief on discovering he has survived his ordeal.
Poking his head out of the window, Scrooge asks a passing boy to buy the biggest bird he can find for the Cratchits. He also spruces himself up to attend Fred's party, having made a generous donation to help the poor. As the story closes, we see Scrooge carrying Tiny Tim through the streets so that he can enjoy the festivities before we return to the parlour, where the grandmother assures her listeners that the reformed Ebenezer came to embody everything that is good about Christmas.
It's the fate of every actor playing Dickens's misanthrope to be judged against Alastair Sim's iconic performance in Brian Desmond Hurst's Scrooge (1951). The Scot's burr can be detected in some of Simon Russell Beale's line readings, but Franasowicz Jakub and Michael Nunn bring a new nimbleness to a role that is reinforced by the fluidity of Russell Maliphant's laudably restrained choreography. Michael Wood's fleet camerawork and the subtly precise editing of Gary Forrester allows the sibling directors to convey the impression that the action is taking place in the imagination of the youngest child (Thea Achillea), who gazes with wide eyes at the magnificent theatre constructed by her older brother and sister.
Darko Petrovic's design certainly makes the film, as he cleverly creates collages from contemporary wood engravings lifted from the pages of The London Illustrated News to root the action in the grime and poverty of Queen Victoria's capital. But Petrovic also includes footlights in the scenes set inside Scrooge's house and ensures that the visited places have space for the dancers, as well as authenticity and atmosphere. Aneta Kharaishvili and Stevie Stewart's costumes are also a delight and wholly in keeping with the ingenuity and charm of Jacqui and David Morris's conception of a piece that continues to have a socio-political relevance in our benighted times.
Indeed, the only minor demerit is as much the fault of Dickens as their own, as such high-profile performers as Carey Mulligan and Martin Freeman don't have enough to do as Belle and Bob Cratchit. By contrast, a Marley and the Ghost of Christmas past Andy Serkis and Leslie Caron bring a touch of artistry and magic to an inspired interpretation that deserves to become a seasonal favourite. Now all we need is Spitting Image version with starring roles for those Dickensian caricatures, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg.