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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (19/4/2024)

Updated: Apr 21

(Reviews of Jeanne Du Barry; If Only I Could Hibernate; Grace; All You Need Is Death; Swede Caroline; and Beyond the Raging Sea)


JEANNE DU BARRY.


There has been a frustrating similarity about the screen depictions of Jeanne Bécu over the last century-plus. Pola Negri set a tone in Ernst Lubitsch's wittily satirical Madame DuBarry (aka Passion, 1919) that influenced Norma Talmadge in Sam Taylor's Du Barry, Woman of Passion (1930), Dolores Del Rio in William Dieterle's Madame DuBarry (1934) and Martine Carol in Christian-Jaque's Madame DuBarry (1954). Lucille Ball vamped up the role in Roy Del Ruth's take on the Cole Porter musical, Du Barry Was a Lady (1943), while Louis XV's final mistress was respectively portrayed as a bitter schemer by Gladys George and Asia Argento in W.S. Van Dyke's 1938 and Sofia Coppola's 2006 versions of Marie Antoinette. As the writer, director, and star of Jeanne Du Barry, however, Maïwenn Le Besco makes her the agent of her own destiny in rising from humble beginnings to become the most powerful woman at Versailles.


Born to seamstress Anne Bécu (Marianne Basler), Jeanne (Emma Kaboré Dufour) was a pretty child who was painted by a number of artists. As an adolescent (Loli Bahia), she found favour with wealthy merchant Roch-Claude Billard-Dumouceaux (Robin Renucci), when Anne became a cook in his household. He showed her off at elegant soirées and paid for her education at the Convent of Saint Aurea.

However, Jeanne was expelled for reading racy books and had to become the companion of Madame de la Garde (Caroline Chaniolleau) after Billard-Dumouceaux's wife became jealous of her.


Once again, her intelligence was much prized, but Jeanne was dismissed for sleeping with her employer's sons and mother and daughter decided to try their luck in Paris. Despite refusing to disrobe for artists, Jeanne (Maïwenn) became a celebrated courtesan and moves in with Comte Guillaume du Barry (Melvil Poupaud). Both took lovers and he occasionally resorted to dunking her in the bathtub to show who's boss. But, even though she admitted to finding harlotry preferable to domestic service, she resisted the comte's eagerness to pimp her out to King Louix XV (Johnny Depp) until she was persuaded otherwise by the rapacious Duc de Richelieu (Pierre Richard).


Having intrigued the king by breaking protocol in the Hall of Mirrors by fixing his gaze, Jeanne is subjected to a medical inspection to ascertain whether she is worthy of the royal bed. Valet de la chambre, Jean-Benjamin de La Borde (Benjamin Lavernhe), instructs her on etiquette in the monarch's presence and she is amused that he doesn't take the customary `taste' of the good.


Louis is seated when Jeanne arrives and she asks if she can forego the tiny shuffle steps to avoid turning her back on him. She strokes a golden bust of the king as a child and touches his face in the same way. They kiss and he is touched by her directness. After the tryst, La Borde shows her to her chamber and wakes her next morning so that she can watch La Grande lévée through a one-way mirror. Later, La Borde takes her in a carriage to watch the king riding to hounds. He also points out his daughters, Adélaïde (India Hair), Victoire (Suzanne De Baecque), Louise (Capucine Valmary), and Sophie (Laura Le Velly), as well as the first minister, Choiseul (Patrick d'Assumçao).


Although his daughters disapprove of him dishonouring the memory of their late mother, Louis insists on having Jeanne Vaubernier (as she styles herself) by his side and hastily arranges for her to marry Du Barry when Choiseul discovers that she is commoner and, therefore, barred from court. La Borde gives her more lessons in how to behave in front of the courtiers and Jeanne is amused by the rigmarole and the readiness of those to abase themselves in order to remain in the king's orbit.


When she moves into her own apartments at Versailles, Louis gives her a Black boy named Zamor (Ibrahim Yaffa) as a companion and she delights in playing with him in the Hall of Mirrors and the fountains. She keeps the court waiting to make a grand entrance in a white gown and blonde wig and scandalises the daughters by making eye contact with the king as she curtsies. On another occasion, she dresses as a man and rides in male attire when the king hunts, holding his hand as their gallop side by side.


The narrator (Stanislas Stanic) reveals that Jeanne patronised many artists and poets and brought a new cultural refinement to Versailles. In gratitude, Louis gives her Louveciennes and frequently spends time there away from the court. However, Adélaïde refuses to accept Jeanne and seeks to use Zamor to humiliate her. But her ruse misfires and Louise (who is her father's favourite) is so appalled by her arrogance that she renounces her status and becomes a nun. This depresses Louis and Jeanne is cautioned by La Borde to watch her step, as the king has a dark side and she has enemies who will seek to drive a wedge between them.


Hurt to discover that Louis has other mistresses and that she is powerless to lighten his mood, Jeanne fears being ostracised. But the striped dress that had so appalled the sisters becomes the `Du Barry fashion' and Louis not only regains his spirits, but also begins to flaunt his affection for Jeanne in public. Adélaïde and Countess Anne de Noailles (Noémie Lvovsky) seek to enlist the help of the newly arrived Marie Antoinette (Pauline Pollmann) to topple Jeanne, who attends the dinner thrown in the Austrian princess's honour with her hair down. Moreover, she openly kisses the king at table and embarrasses the Dauphin (Diego Le Fur).


Distraught after her stepson, Adolphe (Thibault Bonenfant), is killed in a duel, Jeanne is shown kindness by the Dauphin when he offers her a seat in the royal chapel after his aunts had snubbed her. Louis lets his displeasure be known and entreats Austrian ambassador Florimond Claude, Comte de Mercy-Argenteau (Micha Lescot), to explain the Marie Antoinette that she runs the risk of alienating the monarch if she persists in siding with Adélaïde. An arrangement is made for the Dauphine to speak to Jeanne in public, but she prefers to pet a pug dog and Louis exacts his revenge by refusing to accept an invitation to watch Marie Antoinette perform a playlet as a shepherdess.


This prompts Marie Antoinette to addressing nine words to Jeanne in the garden and she runs up the Grand Staircase and into the palace to break the news to the king. Minister Emmanuel-Armand de Richelieu, Duc d'Aiguillon (Pascal Greggory) struggles to suppress as smile, as she makes her feelings for Louis abundantly clear. But their happiness is to prove short-lived, as the ruler contracts smallpox at the age of 64.

Notwithstanding the contagiousness of the disease, Jeanne, Borde, and Zamor (Djibril Djimo) remain at his bedside. However, in order to confess, Louis has to renounce her and she leaves his chamber, as a candle is lit on the balcony to show the courtiers that the monarch still lives.


Having packed hurriedly, Jeanne bolts from the carriage and the Dauphin allows her to say her farewells. Louis smiles, as she finally tells him that she loves him, and she strokes his face, as she had done on their first meeting before retreating backwards to the door. La Borde sees her to her carriage and Jeanne entrusts Zamor to his keeping. He returns to Louis's room and fights back tears when the king calls him his friend. Announcing the death and blowing out the candles, La Borde sits in silence while courtiers flock to the chapel to show their loyalty to Louis XVI.


Meanwhile, Jeanne arrives at a convent and is shown her bare cell. She would spend a year here before spending 15 years at Louveciennes. On 8 December 1793, at the age of 50, she followed her king and queen to the guillotine, supposedly asking the executioner to delay for another minute, as she had loved life too much to let it go so easily. As the narrator tells us that that Jeanne had accepted Marie Antoinette's friendship during the Revolution, when Zamor had abandoned her, the film ends with a shot of the sun through the clouds, as the old order fades and a new era dawns.


In addition to having explored her own past in the hard-hitting quartet of Pardonnez-moi (2006), Polisse (2011), Mon roi (2015), and DNA (2020), Maïwenn has also courted controversy in her homeland by opposing the #MeToo campaign. The casting of Johnny Depp as Louis XV was also dimly received in the wake of the Amber Heard trial and rumours circulated of on-set tensions between the director and her co-star. All of which makes this lavish spectacle something of a risk.


In fact, Maïwenn has produced a polished period piece in the tradition of Abel Gance and Sacha Guitry, with the use of Versailles adding visual grace to compositions that often evoke such artists as Jean-Antoine Watteau. The opening segment recalls Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975), while the latter scenes suggest the influence of Albert Serra's The Death of Louis XIV (2016). But Maïwenn doesn't overdo the courtly grandeur in order to focus on the intimacy that Louis and Jeanne managed to achieve over six years within the goldfish bowl of Versailles.


This doesn't mean that Angelo Zamparutti's production design and Jürgen Doering's costumes (six of which were produced in conjunction with Chanel) aren't as magnificent as Laurent Dailland's 35mm Kodak cinematography, but this is heritage cinema with stately restraint and the occasional flourish from Stephen Warbeck's score. Indeed, while they steer clear of the major socio-political issues in mid-18th-century France, Maïwenn and fellow scenarists Teddy Lussi-Modeste and Nicolas Livecchi stick reasonably closely to the surface facts (which is gratifying after a decade of research) and the estimable supporting cast responds to the intelligent dialogue with watchful delivery.


As for Maïwenn and Depp, they sensibly opt for quiet affection rather than grand passion in muted love scenes that are all the more effective for their discretion. There's a defiance in the way that Maïwenn plays Jeanne as a woman who retained her dignity in the face of the Versailles version of trolling, while Depp (whose passes the French test with aplomb) plays the king as a courtesanal conquest in conveying the weary melancholia of a man who had endured his share of personal pain within the isolating remoteness of Versailles. For all his metatextual value, however, he is very much the supporting turn, as the focus falls firmly on a royal progress that has as much to do with Moll Flanders and Eliza Doolittle as Madame Du Barry - which proves to be both this $22.4 million biopic's greatest strength and its most obvious weakness, as its reverential adherence to uncharacteristic classicism means it's always more involving than insightful.


IF ONLY I COULD HIBERNATE.


Having grown up in the Ger district of the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar, Zoljargal Purevdash discovered cinema at school. Abandoning plans to study physics, she earned a film scholarship in Japan, where she made an impression with the short, Over the City, Under the Sky (2010). Purevdash has since produced five other shorts - Burgundy (2013), Outliers (2017), Stairs (2020), Naked Bulb (2021), and Yellow Bus (2022) - and now makes her feature bow with If Only I Could Hibernate, which became the first Mongolian film to make the official selection at Cannes, when it premiered in Un Certain Regard.


Fourteen year-old Ulzii (Battsooj Uurtsaikh) lives in a yurt on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar with his widowed mother, Demberel (Ganchimeg Sandagdorj), and younger siblings Tungaa (Nominjiguur Tsend), Erkhemee (Tulguldur Batsaikhan), and the four year-old Garig (Batmandakh Batchuluun). They moved from the country two years earlier, only for their father to die. Now, they have to scrape cash for coal in the depths of a cold winter and Ulzii is happy to help the brother (Davaasamba Sharaw) of their elderly neighbour (Sukhee Lodonchuluun) unload his yurt when he sets up home next door.


Ulzii is a bright student at the nearby school and hopes to study physics in order to help his family. However, he resents the hold that his aunt has over them. She lives in an apartment block and needs Ulzii to put his toe in his nephew's mouth to help clear up an ulcer. This traditional method also requires a horse bridle and the aunt tries to keep it because she claims she has loaned the family lots of money and not been repaid. But Ulzii swears at her and gets home to order his mother (who has had drinking problems) to get a job.


When he takes her to an Internet centre, she refuses to consider any of his suggestions and he is cross when she gets home drunk while he is keeping his siblings occupied with a card game. Doting on Baavgai the bear-like dog, Ulzii is still a kid, but he feels the responsibility of being the breadwinner. Thus, when his teacher, Bilegt (Batzorig Sukhbaatar), informs him that there is a 5000 tugrug prize for a physics competition, he feels compelled to enter.


Overhearing gossip that the teacher was forced to leave his previous school because he got a student pregnant, Ulzii spends a night with Sharka (Batsaikshan Battulga) and Monkhoo (Umukhbayar Battogtokh), the pals with whom he goes ice skating. They bop around a small apartment room to hiphop and get drunk. Indeed, Ulzii is hungover when the teacher calls him to attend the awards ceremony for the competition. He wins third prize and is so blown away by the private school that he sets his heart on getting a gold medal scholarshop.


Demberel has other ideas, however, and announces she is returning to the country to pick pine nuts. Ulzii refuses to go and lets slip the fact she's illiterate. She's hurt by his callousness and they barely exchange a word, as she heads off by bus with Garig, leaving Ulzii to look after Tungaa and Erkhemee because he is determined that they should finish their education. In order to earn cash to supplement their child allowance, however, he has to take odd jobs between extra physics lessons.


The neighbour's brother hires him to make meat deliveries in the city, where they encounter a street demonstration about the air pollution that many attribute to yurt chimneys. Having to ask for directions to find Crystal Town, Ulzii tucks in when they stop for lunch in a restaurant. As snow falls, Sharka tries to rope him into a dodgy lumber deal, but he knows he can't afford to get into trouble. He also has his sibling call their mother, who has left her youngest with an uncle while she looks for work. However, she doesn't earn enough to send them cash and they have to use food stamps and get hold of cardboard boxes to burn in the stove. They even resort to burning tyres and 10 year-old Erkhemee competes with the odour by breaking wind when they share a bed for warmth.


Applauded by his classmates when he finishes ninth in a city-wide competition and qualifies for the nationals, Ulzii enjoys his success and is disappointed when his mother barely reacts when he calls her with the news. Erkhemee asks her to come home and Ulzii gives his nose a flicking during a finger game, while they wait for Tungaa to ask for boxes at the supermarket. Such is his focus on making money, however, that he turns down an invitation to go skating from

Maralaa (Purevdulan Natsagbadam), the classmate on whom he has a crush.


When Erkhemee develops a cough, Ulzii has to buy medication on a daily basis, as he can't afford a full dose. The neighbours give them a bag of coal and Uzlii steals wood from abandoned buildings to keep the fire going. He even sells his prized green trainers to a pal to buy provisions. Erkhemee wishes he could hibernate like a bear, as they never get sick. But Tungaa cheers her brothers up by making them bracelets.


Dismayed to hear that his mother has lost her job, Ulzii decides to skip school and join Sharka at the illicit lumberyard. He spends long days felling trees in the forest and chopping wood at the yard and dozes off in class. Realising they are struggling, the elderly neighbours invite them for supper, although Ulzii insists they are doing okay and thumps his brother when he complains.


He also admonishes Tungaa when he finds her selling bracelets at the market. She wishes he would go back to school, but he seems to have burnt his boats when the teacher comes to fetch him from the forest and Ulzii accuses him of being a paedophile. The boss is angry because he fears Bilegt will report them to the police, but Ulzii keeps his job and trudges back to work after dreaming of his mother singing a sad song in a field of waving corn.


When someone comes to fit an efficiency filter to the boiler, Ulzii is humiliated by the fact they have no coal to test it. Moreover, the electricity has been cut and he is forced to fib about his mother being out. When he gets home after another shift, he finds his dog dead beside its kennel. He is heartbroken and fights back tears when the old neighbour takes him to bury the body in the hills. Too proud to ask for help and too macho to admit he's struggling, Ulzii takes comfort from the old man's reassurance and apologises to his teacher, who arranges for him to travel to the country college where the national exam is to be held.


Travelling by coach across rugged springtime terrain, Ulzii enjoys the pre-test entertainment staged by the organisers. He seems confident during the paper and calls his mother to ask how she's getting on. Clearly, things aren't going well. But Ulzii tells her he loves her and says she can always come back to the city.


The next day, he's the last to approach the results board. His eyes scan the list before a hint of a smile crosses his lips. Back in the yurt district, he collects Tungaa and Erkhemee, along with a bag of coal, from the neighbours. As he lights the stove, his sibling get the giggles while tucking into a snack.


Ending on a delightfully unassuming note of cosy domesticity, this is a remarkable debut feature that conveys the harshness of life on the lower rungs in Mongolian society without lapsing into mawkishness or miserabilism. Drawing on her own upbringing, Zoljargal Puevdash takes evident pride in the Ger lifestyle and ensures that the tent provides a homely sanctuary even when fuel supplies run low in the depths of winter. She also deftly contrasts the outlying settlements with the high-rise blocks that have sprung up in Ulaanbaatar and notes how Ulzii is such a stranger in the city that he's entirely unfamiliar with its layout.


For all the sacrifices he makes for his siblings, Ulzii's no angel, however. His passion for physics and his bond with an encouraging teacher recall Billy Casper in Kes (1969), Ken Loach's impeccable adaptation of Barry Hines's A Kestrel For a Knave, although he was always a Yorkshire variation on Antoine Doinel from François Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959), with cinema being his obsession. One thing is clear, however: first-time actor Batsooj Uurtsaikh deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as David Bradley and Jean-Pierre Léaud, as he holds the film together with a superbly directed display of charisma, callowness, steel, and susceptibility.


Nominjiguur Tsend and Tulguldur Batsaikhan provide fine support as the tenderly protected tweenage siblings, while Batzorig Sukhbaatar and Davaasamba Sharaw are understatedly effective as the father figures who try to guide Uurtsaikh through the tough choices he has to make. Interestingly, for a woman film-maker, there are no female role models, with neither the mother nor the paternal aunt covering themselves in glory. But this also reflects how put upon women are in this unyieldingly patriarchal society.


Puevdash does make a good impression, however, and it's a crying shame that none of her shorts are available to view online. One can only hope that UK distributors will keep picking up her work in the future. The screenplay becomes a tad schematic, as rites of passage tend to do. But there's little victimising contrivance to curdle the aspirational authenticity. She's ably abetted by production designer Ariuntugs Tserenpil and cinematographer Davaanyam Delgerjargal, whose snowscapes are crisp and even before he switches to handheld mode to capture Ulzii's growing desperation in unrelenting close-up. But it's the score by Johanni Curtet that lingers longest, with hip-hop, beatbox, and twangy blues guitar elements combining with the more traditional morin khuur and throat singing passages to suggest a country edging towards modernity with frequent backward glances.


GRACE.


Despite the ongoing war with Ukraine, Russian films keep making it on to festival slates. Among the notable indie titles to emerge in recent times are Kantemir Balagov's Beanpole (2017), Nigina Sayfullaeva's Fidelity (2019), and Malika Musaeva's The Cage Is Looking For a Bird (2023). They are now joined by Ilya Povolotsky's Grace, which marks the feature debut of a director whose Berents Sea documentary, Froth (2019), was widely admired.


Against the forbiddingly dramatic mountain backdrop of Kabardino-Balkaria, a teenage girl (Maria Lukyanova) carries a plastic container of water from a stream to the rusting red van she shares with her father (Gela Chitava). Having just started her first period, she borrows a tampon from the women who had spent the night with her father and glares at him when he eventually emerges.


They run a mobile cinema and make extra cash selling bootleg porn DVDs to truckers at the lonely stops where the van gets running repairs and the girl takes Polaroids of the prostitutes. Neither she nor her father has much to say for themselves and the long drives are broken by the chatter on the CB radio about illegal fuel sales and police roadblocks.


The father speaks several languages, as they seek directions to avoid the major routes traversing the steppe. At the outdoor screenings, the girl sells beer and crisps to the patrons in their vehicles, while she sometimes reads in the back of the van or shines a handheld star projector on the ceiling. He cooks breakfast on a small stove, although they occasionally stop at greasy spoons or shopping malls, where he picks up rewritable discs to pirate films and she tries on underwear she can't afford to buy.


One night, as they are making copies in the back of the van, the father asks his daughter if she's okay. She replies cautiously, as he never usually takes little interest in her. The next day, she asks what he will do when everyone has the Internet and has no need of movie shows and he claims he will settle down to grow stuff, although she suggests they could always try their luck in Asia or Africa.


When they stop to buy books from a stall at the side of the road, the girl says she had a dream that her father had been bitten by a snake. The bookseller offers the father a bottle of hooch and recommends a village near the sea, but warns it's hardly full because so many people are heading to the cities. They get a decent turn out and the girl chats to a lad (Eldar Safikanov) who had helped her father set up the screen. He has a motorbike and she asks him to teach her how to ride it.


Meanwhile, the father chats to a history teacher, who hasn't seen her six year-old son in years. He explains that it's been 15 years since his wife died and he keeps her ashes in an urn in the van. The teacher returns home to find the kid and his mates watching porn in the attic and she looks wide-eyed at the content. Whatever she saw prompts her to call the cops from the city and the pair have to flee at first light, leaving their awning and camping stuff behind. A window is damaged, along with the laptop, but they are relieved to have escaped.


The boy with the bike follows them and catches up at a petrol station, where he asks if he can join them. He's pushed away because the father doesn't give in to threats. However, when they're pulled over at a roadblock and informed travel is restricted because of fish blight, they find rooms at a rundown weather station on the outskirts of a desolate village. The father fixes the boiler and the researcher (Kseniya Kutepova) tries to make small talk to the girl, but she clams up. Indeed, when her father asks her to fetch bread from the van during supper, she feels so mutinous that she throws a rock against the van windscreen and runs off with the biker when he catches up with them.


While looking for his daughter, the father gets beaten up by some cops. She loses her virginity in an abandoned tenement overlooking the White Sea and takes a picture of the biker's naked body before urging him not to follow her. Nothing is said when the returns to the institute and they hit the road. Taking her mother's urn out of her bag, the girl asks her father to pull over and she wades into the tideline to scatter the ashes before striding back towards the van.


Seemingly the tide has turned in the father-daughter relationship, but it's far from clear where the next stage of their journey will take them now that they've reached Russia's north eastern point. What is apparent, however, is that the country is in a sorry state, with little sense of unity or purpose, as forgotten people get by as best they can in the face of deprivation and intimidation.


In addition to capturing the unchanging wintriness of the weather, Nikolay Zheludovich's 16mm Kodak images also convey both the bleakness of a rugged landscape infested with despondent pylons and wind turbines and the benighted nature of the communities along the hinterland route in a way that recalls Robby Müller's monochrome views in Wim Wender's Kings of the Road (1976). But there's little of the romance seen in Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya's documentary, The Cinema Travellers (2016), with films on show like Alexei Balabanov's Brother (1997) and Nigina Sayfullaeva's Fidelity (2019) reinforcing Povolotsky's message about life being nasty, brutish, and short.


Whether elusively impassive in close-up or impulsively vulnerable in longer shots, the debuting Maria Lukyanova excels as the daughter defiantly nursing her resentments until seizing the opportunity to rebel. Indeed, her rapport with the gruff Gela Chitava should prove instructive to Ewan and Clara McGregor after their curiously unconvincing coupling in Emma Westenberg's road movie, Bleeding Love. The reason for the girl's antipathy is never revealed, but one suspects the mother might have died in childbirth and the father has never quite forgiven her, hence the blatant nature of his womanising and his treating her like a skivvy when there's work to do. Even his protectiveness seems rooted in the same need to avoid trouble that keeps them on byways where they're less likely to encounter the law.


In conjunction with Zurkas Tepla's disconcerting score, Povolotsky's penchant for unconventional framing and disorientating camera moves within long takes keeps the viewer on edge throughout this inscrutable, melancholic odyssey, as they ponder the secrets of the pair's past and wonder whether they will catch up with them or some happenstance on the road will finally bring them to a halt. Either way, the nameless duo seem unlikely to be getting an easy ride any time soon.


ALL YOU NEED IS DEATH.


Since making his first short in 1988, Irish writer-director Paul Duane has been around a bit. His TV credits range from Casualty and The Royal to Ballykissangel and Footballers' Wives via Secret Diary of a Call Girl. But it's his documenaries that have found critical favour, most notably Barbaric Genius (2011), Very Extremely Dangerous (2012) Natan (2013), What Time Is Death? (aka Welcome to the Dark Ages), and Best Before Death (both 2019). However, he has now made his feature bow with the folk horror, All You Need Is Death.


Anna (Simone Collins) and her Eastern European lover, Aleks (Charlie Maher), track down old Irish songs to sell to collectors. He pretends to be an outraged stranger to bail her out when she's caught recording in a bar and she steps in to seal a deal with a suspicious wheelchair-bound collector (David McDermott) who had initially refused the song they had recorded while visiting the old man (Barry Gleeson) who had tipped them off about collector extraordinaire, Marguerite Concannon (Olwen Fouéré).


Aleks and Anna attend a seminar run by musicologist Agnes (Catherine Siggins). She tells the group: `The future is picked clean. Treasure lies in the past. We find beauty where others have overlooked it.' Agnes is impressed by a ballad Anna sings and overhears her discussing the Rita with Aleks. She thinks that the person they are looking for died in Crossmaglen five years ago. But Anna and Aleks believe she might have had a daughter and she sweet-talks local Ron Stowman (Barry McKiernan) into showing them Rita's house. When they enter, they find it full of marionettes made by Rita's son, Breezeblock (Nigel O'Neill). But they also discover that Agnes has got there before them and she has to coax Rita into coming out of a wardrobe before she'll talk to them.


She takes a shine to Anna, as she is an orphan who was brought up by the nuns and sings traditional songs in a band. Moreover, she speaks Irish and swears that any songs that Rita might share with them will be for private consumption only. Asking Aleks to leave, Rita tells Anna that the song dates from a time before Irish and has been passed down by mothers without ever being written down. It concerns a curse placed by a vengeful king on the low-born mother of his child that unleashed an evil spirit into the world. Rita claims that, if the song had a title, it would be `Love Is a Dagger With a Blade For a Handle'.


Even though she didn't understand the lyrics, Anna is shaken by the song and clings to Aleks when she gets outside. As she tries to record snatches of it on tape, he realises that Agnes has made a recording and they pull her car over to check, as they drive away. She shrugs that she hadn't promised Rita not to record her, but agrees to work with Anna and Aleks, as they helped her get the song.


While they form their pact, however, Rita searches for some booze and can't stop an unseen force from forcing the green glass bottle down her throat. When Breeze gets home from giving a puppet show, he finds his mother with another bottle through her left eye. Making a couple of calls, he learns that Ron brought a Dublin girl to the house and he knocks him out and chains him to the bed in which his old grandmother had slept.


He remembers terrifying nights as a child seeing smudgy spirits around her bed and he convincing himself that she had something to do with witchcraft. Breeze recalls her disappointment that he had been born a girl and he leaves a howling Ron with a bottle of hooch on his chest, as he sets off south to find the interlopers.


In Dublin, Agnes works on translating the song with Aleks. Anna becomes worried when he fails to return her calls, but we see him seemingly become possessed after reading a translation of the lyrics and he fixes Agnes with a glare before manhandling her. As Anna becomes frantic and then angry, Breeze arrives in the city and starts making inquiries. He finds the pub singer who objected to Anna recording him and his tip-off enables him to abduct her and tied her up in an abandoned church.


Anna tells him that Agnes is evil and wanted the song for a sinister purpose. She also curses Aleks for tricking her into bed, as he was in cahoots with her all along. While Breeze searches for her, Agnes goes to the doctor with a mystery ailment he can't identify. Breeze has never heard Rita's song, as it was for female ears only, and he listens intently when Anna sings the snatches she can remember. Finding a book in the library that has been out twice in a week after never previously being borrowed, Breeze sets Anna to writing down the lyrics she can remember. Across the city, in an abandoned office space, Agnes feeds the ravenous Aleks (whose face we no longer see) and submits herself to his sexual appetites.


Breeze breaks into the library and finds Agnes's whereabouts. She is not getting larger (even though she has no womb), while Aleks (Benedict Stewardson) is becoming emaciated. Anna wants to help him, but he is content to die in this form because he will be returning united with Agnes, who tells Breeze that by translating the song she has unleashed a secret that is punishing her. Afraid of what is in store for her, Agnes thinks it's about a kind of love that existed before humans and has the power to create a hunger that could force a mother devour her own child.


Jealous that Aleks wants to combine with Agnes, Anna takes a hatchet from Breeze's toolbox and butchers him. She also hacks into Breeze's neck when he urges her to leave. Instead, she smokes a cigarette and watches as Agnes transforms into Aleksagnes. Awed by this new entity, she allows it to push her back and bury its head into her abdomen. Seemingly satiated, the naked figure strides out into the daylight.


Starting with an intriguing premise, but quickly becoming mired in tangential plot strands that merely drag out the action to feature length (such as the preposterous business with the library book and the stylised cutaways to the ancient scenario that had inspired the ballad), this is one of those horrors that is going to have cult status bestowed upon it by die-hard advocates, while it leaves others feeling decidedly underwhelmed. Much has been made of the denouement and its riffs on the maternal instinct and gender fluidity, but this will strike those not under Duane's spell as frustratingly anti-climactic, particularly as it emphasises how far contrivance has detached the plot from its starting point in plausible reality.


Nevertheless, this remains a provocative treatise on the monstrous power of love, the mystical potency of women, the ominous legacy of folklore, and the perils of cultural appropriation. The cast couldn't work harder to pull off the conceit, nor could art director Shauna McNally or cinematographer Conor Rotherham, who fashion an urban hell from everyday locations. The standout contribution, however, comes from Ian Lynch, a longtime collector of Irish folk songs who is a member of the Mercury Prize-nominated combo, Lankum. The songs he has concocted are tinglingly atmospheric, while the score blares and bores into the imagination, as Duane takes the narrative into ever-darker place.


Irish horror is currently on a roll and this is a solid contribution, alongside the likes of Aislinn Clarke's The Devil's Doorway (2018), Lee Cronin's The Hole in the Ground (2019), Kate Dolan's You Are Not My Mother (2021), Lynne Davison's Mandrake, and Brendan Muldowney's The Cellar (both 2022). Duane is an experienced director who knows how to frame a telling image and pace the action. But the screenplay might have benefited from a second opinion to give it the alchemical heft and creeping dread it's lacking.


SWEDE CAROLINE.


The best film about giant vegetables has already been made (Nick Park and Steve Box's Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, 2005), while specialist shows have already been spoofed to perfection in Pecking Order (2017), Slavko Martinov's mockumentary about poultry competitions in New Zealand. Consequently, Finn Bruce and Brook Driver's Swede Caroline was always going to be an also ran. The willingness of the splendid cast can't be questioned. But the humour of this Driver-scripted co-directorial debut rarely rises above the level of its tortuous title.


Documentary maker Kirsty (Rebekah Murrell) explains how she became involved in the world of competitive vegetable growing after attending the 2017 showcase at Shepton Mallet. The judges had given the biggest marrow prize to Alan Bumbridge (Jeff Bennett) after finding a hairline fissure in the entry submitted by Caroline (Jo Hartley). Her friends, conspiracy theorist Paul (Richard Lumsden) and disgraced gardener Willy (Celyn Jones), had been so convinced that there had been foul play that Kirsty decided to follow Jo's bid to bounceback.


In order to fund her cultivational activities, Caroline works for private detectives Lawrence (Ray Fearon) and Louise (Aisling Bea), who are renowned swingers. She hopes they can investigate when two men attack her in the night steal seedlings from her greenhouse. But their rates are too steep and she has to rely on Willy (a next-door neighbour who happened to get the incident on film) and Paul, a know-it-all who feels he owes Caroline a debt, as she had nursed him after running him over in her car.


Having stolen a marrow grown from seeds from Caroline's contender, she dubs it Ricky Hatton (because it's a fighter) and secretes it in her greenhouse. However, she still needs to work and Lawrence and Louise ask her to take some covert footage from the scene around a community centre and allotment plot that has been earmarked for closure with the support of local MP, Nigel Patterson (Steve Brody), and shifty entrepreneur, Charles Anthony (Ash Tandon).


Eager to push their case as Caroline's biggest asset, Paul and Willy insist on coming along and she is spotted by Linda (Fay Ripley), another competitive gardener, who works with her deaf brother, and Tony Knight (Neil Edmond), who pings Paul with an air rifle. Lawrence fires Caroline for her lack of discretion and she learns from another phone call that her ex-husband is dying of testicular cancer.


Needing somewhere to stay after Paul finds a bugging device in her greenhouse, Caroline lays low in the stately home that Willy's mother received in a divorce settlement. However, the case takes a turn when Lawrence and Louise disappear and Caroline and Willy find a sex tape they were making with Patterson in their ransacked home. But Paul latches on to a red herring when he finds documents from their files that show Bumbridge had lied about his movements on the night Caroline's marrow was stolen. A recce to his home merely reveals that he had been cheating on wife and they leave somewhat sheepishly.


They return to find that Willy has knocked Olga (Alice Lowe) stone cold when she had been creeping around the house late at night. Caroline wants to call the cops because things are getting out of control and Olga warns her that she's in over her head in her dealings with Patterson and Anthony. However, she's distracted by being disqualified from Shepton Mallet and by the death of her ex.


Coming home from the funeral, Caroline feels like giving up. But she discovers that Linda had voted to prevent her disqualification and Willy realises that she must have stolen the marrow because the Shepton Mallet rules state that ballots are limited to competitive categories and Linda had never previously shown marrows. On rewatching Willy's phone footage, they notice that one of the attackers had not responded to the foghorn Willy had sounded and twig that he's Linda's deaf brother.


She confesses on being challenged and admits to have left the transmitter in the greenhouse. Moreover, she lets slip that the allotment has been cursed and this leads to Paul and Caroline discovering that Anthony's company had deliberately contaminated the soil in order to acquire it as part of a development scheme. By listening to clips from the bugging device, they also discover that the pair plan to kill Lawrence and Louis when the community centre is blown up.


Breaking through a police cordon, Caroline and Willy save the day, while Paul is arrested for hitting a copper with a spade and resisting arrest. Caroline is also allowed back into the veg show and wins second prize behind Bumbridge. The film ends on her vowing to do better next year and the credits roll to Edrich Siebert and Billy Cotton's `The Marrow Song (Oh What a Beauty!)' that has more wit in its three minutes than the entire film that had preceded it.


This isn't the fault of the cast members, who valiantly strive to sell each and every gag. But the mockumentary conceit has been done to death and Driver's script finds no new angles. Consequently, too many supposed zingers come in the talking-head segments, with a `Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali' mix-up and a `Marrow-lyn Monroe' pun typifying the standard. Much of the buffoonery feels forced and it doesn't help that so much of the improv falls flat. Furthermore, the inclusion of a cancer storyline is wince-inducing, while there's a winking smugness about the swinger subplot involving a Tory MP.


Bruce and Driver clearly have an affection for the cheeky brand of British comedy that dates all the way back to the music-hall heyday. They may well also be fans of Nigel Cole's Saving Grace, Joel Hershman's Greenfingers (both 2000), Richard Laxton's Grow Your Own (2007) and Simon Aboud's This Beautiful Fantastic (2016), which all raised gentle smiles from horticulture. But they didn't pick up enough tips on narrative focus and momentum to invigorate this eager, but wayward romp.


BEYOND THE RAGING SEA.


Produced under the auspices of the United Nations Refugee Agency, Marco Orsini's Beyond the Raging Sea seeks to raise awareness of the peril facing those striving to cross the Mediterranean by small boat. In order to do so, however, the film's focus falls on the attempt of an Egyptian duo to row across the Atlantic.


Each member of the Team O² crew was an accomplished athlete. Omar Nour had represented his country on the elite triathlon circuit, while Omar Samra was not only the first Egyptian to have climbed Mount Everest, but he had also skied to the North and South Poles. Neither, however, had much experience of boats, which was a distinct disadvantage in the 2017 Talisker Atlantic Challenge, which required them to row 3000 nautical miles from San Sebastian on La Gomera in the Canary Islands to Nelson's Dockyard English Harbour in Antigua.


As race co-ordinator Nikki Holter explains the testing nature of the race, the Omars recall their intense period of training and how they prepared for every eventuality as two novices and comparative strangers in the middle of an ocean renowned for its unpredictable conditions. Samra's severe seasickness sapped their initial bullishness, as Nour was forced to undertake long shifts in order to keep them moving forward in a boat measuring 7.5m x 1.8m. He recalls the discomfort and disorientation of being permanently wet and exhausted. However, in the early morning of 22 December (eight days into the expedition), high waves and 45 knot winds caused the supposedly self-righting rig to capsize and Samr was swept overboard.


White line drawings against the black talking-head backgrounds illustrate their plight, as Samra describes being submerged and Nour recalls being upside down in a cabin filling with water. Compounding the problem is the failure of the emergency raft to inflate. But the Omars somehow manage to keep calm and focussed, as they think of ways to improve their situation and not just survive, but also continue with the race.


In the chaos and amidst high waves, Nour somehow manages to find a hand pump for the raft in a grab bag attached to the boat. While Samra undergoes a full-body cramp, Holter picks up the signal from the R2's GPS tracker and informs Nour's brother, Diaa, that there's been a problem. We hear from frantic family members, as the Omars describe the feeling of relief when a fixed-wing plane circles over them and they are sure they have been spotted.


However, it's Fahad Talkan, the Egyptian aptain of the Greek-German Kefalonia Vessel, who finds them after getting a message from Las Palmas. As the ocean is too wild, he can't launch a rib to collect them. So, Talkan manoeuvres his 35,000-ton ship so that his crew can throw ropes into the teeth of a gale. Samra manages to clamber up a broken rope ladder, with only the thought of his young daughter giving him the strength to keep going. Nour was still in the raft and felt he would be sucked into the propeller. But Talkan's skill at positioning his craft in worsening conditions over four hours and the determination of the crew meant that Nour was pulled up the 250ft side by rope and the Omars were able to bear-hug on being reunited on the deck.


Blurred footage of the nocturnal rescue makes this segment unbearably tense, even though Nour and Samra obviously survived to talk about it on camera. But rather than hear about their subsequent experiences, we cut away to meet Louay Alzouki and Mohammad Alhassan, who respectively fled from Syria and an unnamed African country and put themselves in the hands of people smugglers in order to reach Europe. Alzouki's testimony is intercut with images of his wife and the young son she was carrying when they crossed the Mediterranean.


Few details are provided into these hazardous journeys and they feel a bit tacked on, as the Omars declare their concern about the plight of refugees and how the world needs to respond because, even though they come from privileged backgrounds, they have a connection through their shared experience of sea rescue. This may be, but the leap feels too large within the context of a film that has presented Nour and Samra's deliverance as a white-knuckle ride, complete with slick computer-graphics, George Acogny's pulsating score, and razor sharp editing by Dionisis Xenos and Vincent Cattaneo.


The humanitarian message is vitally important and has been expressed with compassion and urgency in such documentaries as Gianfranco Rosi's Fire At Sea (2016), Ai Weiwei's Human Flow (2017), and Hasan Fazili's Midnight Traveller (2019). For all its good intentions, however, this nowhere near as effective in addressing the migrant crisis and Orsini might have been better leaving Nour and Samra to discuss the issue without the rather tokenistic contributions of Alzouki and Alhassan, even though their survival is every bit as miraculous and gratifying.


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