• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (24/7/2020)

(Reviews of The Portuguese Woman; Ghosts of War; Clemency; Alice; Love Sarah; and Dreambuilders)


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.


THE PORTUGUESE WOMAN.


One of the plus points of lockdown has been the way in which MUBI has promoted under-appreciated talents in rising to the challenge of providing viewers with plenty of new material. Over the next few weeks, space will be afforded to showcase the works of Naomi Kawase and Rita Azevedo Gomes, who have been delighting festival and arthouse patrons for several years.


Born in 1952, Rita Azevedo Gomes has long been associated with the Cinemateca Portuguesa in Lisbon. However, she has also been steadily building a reputation for distinctive features since debuting in 1990 with The Sound of the Earth Shaking, which centred on a writer whose latest story keeps intruding upon his daily life. This was followed by Fragile As the World (2001), in which a couple struggle to find the time in their enviably busy schedules for their romance, and The Invisible Collection (2009), a featurette inspired by a Stefan Zweig story about how culture survived the vicissitudes of the 20th century. These are pretty tricky to track down, but MUBI will be showing Gomes's three most recent features: the Jules Amedée Barbey d'Aurevilly adaptation, A Woman's Revenge (2012), the documentary, Correspondences (2016); and The Portuguese Woman (2017), which she has based the second of three stories in Three Women, a 1924 tome by the Austrian author, Robert Musil.


Following an introduction in the overgrown ruins of an Italianate castle, in which Passageira (Ingrid Caven) sings `Under the Linden Tree' by the medieval German lyric poet, Walther von der Vogelweide, we are transported back to an unspecified time in the 16th century to see Lord Von Ketten (Marcello Urgeghe) debate with his confrères whether to wage war on the Bishop of Trent. Having made his decision, he urges his new Portuguese bride (Clara Riedenstein) to return home with their son, as he has no idea how long he will be away or how bloody the conflict will be. However, she insists on staying in Northern Italy and takes up residence in her spouse's rundown castle perched on a rocky peak near the Brenner Pass.


Left with her maid (Rita Durão) and some other servants, Portuguesa rides in the woods and swims naked in an idyllic pool. A lackey informs her that there are rumoured to be unicorns and dragons in the vicinity, but all she sees is an eccentric fellow scavenging in a field. After seven years, she asks for a wolf cub to keep her company and the staff take it as an ill omen when a strong wind blows in through the window. Members of the household come and go, but Portuguesa remains and, when she pays a visit, widowed sister-in-law Antonie (Luna Picoli-Truffaut) is dismayed to find part of the citadel crumbling around her, But she vows to wait for her spouse, who is seen wandering among the corpses on a battlefield.


Having been wounded, Von Ketten returns to his wife, who is embroidering when he arrives. They bathe in canopied barrels to the accompaniment of a guitar and feed each other fruit brought by their servants. The fully grow wolf eat scraps from their supper table before they retire to their boudoir. However, he doesn't stay for long and Portuguesa takes up sculpting strange creatures to keep herself occupied, while she is pregnant with a second child. She also develops a fondness for cats and takes a small white kitten off the old retainer (Pierre Léon) to keep for herself.


With time hanging heavy, she is grateful for a visit from her cousin, Pero Lobato (Joao Vicente), who is travelling to Bologna to further his studies. She confides that she misses home and, during a walk in the surrounding scrubland, she tells him about an old crone who slept with her crippled son out of maternal pity. However, when Von Ketten returns from defeating the episcopal forces, he is also a shadow of his former self and Portuguesa laments the fact that his blue eyes have lost their lustre. Lobato agrees to stay until he recovers (or dies) and a pair of priests praying for Von Ketten gossip about the nature of their relationship.


While Portuguesa nurses her bedridden husband, the new Bishop of Toledo (Alexandre Alves Costa) has his portrait painted and meets with the barons who have come to witness the peace treaty. He calls Von Ketten `the Lord of Chains' because he has imprisoned so many of his men and accuses his wife of being a heretic.


Back at the castle, she brings a black cat into the bedchamber and places roots and twigs around her husband (which reinforce the rumours that she has become a witch because of her closeness to her Moorish servants). However, when Von Ketten starts to recover, he becomes jealous of Lobato and irritated by the wolf. He orders one of his minions to shoot it with a crossbow and Portuguesa is so distraught to see its pelt stretched out to dry that an ill wind blows her red hair across her face and, that night, while Von Ketten sleeps, she vows to come to his room under cover of darkness and suck his blood.


Yet, as he regains his strength, Von Ketten credits his wife's herbs with saving his life. He thanks her for her loyalty and promises her more children. But he can't give his word to stay home and avoid warfare and she is dismayed because she has spent 11 years waiting for him to make a home with her. A soothsayer (Manuela de Freitas) informs him that he will only make a full recovery if he completes a proscribed task. As she is not at liberty to reveal what this is, Von Ketten becomes frustrated. However, he climbs a rock face up to the castle and hopes to find Lobato alone.


The retainer explains that the student has already left with two wolf cubs from the kennels and Von Ketten jokes that they will study law in Bologna. Instead, he goes in search of Portuguesa. She taunts him for looking gaunt, but he declares himself tired of her strength and fragility and pushes her down on the four poster bed. When she offers little resistance, he pulls the plush red curtains around them. As we see a shot of some white rabbits huddling together, Passageira appears on the steps of a villa to sing about how wealth lies in the hands of the elite who trample on everyone else to cling to their power.


Despite being heavily indebted to Flemish and Italian art, as well as the films of Walerian Borowczyk, Raúl Ruiz, Peter Greenaway and Albert Serra, this is so similar in tone and rhythm to A Woman's Revenge that it can only be described as a classic Rita Azevedo Gomes picture. Echoes of Penelope's vigil for the return of Ulysses inform Augustina Bessa-Luís's screenplay and one can only guess at the hidden meaning of many of the allusions stashed away in the mise-en-scène. But even those unfamiliar with Portuguese culture or the works of Robert Musil will be awed by the physical beauty of a film that achieves the conceit of allowing the audience to eavesdrop on history.


Although Clara Riedenstein is used in a Bressonian manner, she ably conveys the ennui of being apart from her husband and the Portuguese seascapes that she seemingly misses more. But, such is her sense of duty, that she endures the isolation of a Spartan mountaintop eyrie in order to raise her son and be ready to welcome her beau whenever (if ever) he returns from playing soldiers. The episodes involving the wolf cub and the feral kitten are fascinating and it's noticeable that she spends more time with them than she does with her sons. With Rute Correira and Tãnia Franco's costumes complementing her red tresses, she looks as though she has stepped out of a Pre-Raphaelite canvas.


However, Marcello Urgeghe also does well as the macho baron who abandons his bride to fight the Bishop of Trent and then does little to defend her honour when she is branded a heretic and a witch. Indeed, even when she is nursing him back from the brink of death, he still has her beloved pet killed and seeks to drive away the cousin who has helped keep her sane. All of which is watched with a world-weary shrug by Ingrid Caven, the onetime muse of Rainer Werner Fassinder, who wears an anachronistic black cocktail dress while bringing her distinctive delivery style to the role of the Greek Chorus.


José Mário Branco slips a couple of his own ditties into a song score that dates back to medieval times and the same period informs many of cinematographer Acácio de Almeida's compositions. Each tableaux is a painterly delight and Gomes's aesthetic precision is a marvel to behold. Working in conjunction with Patricia Saramago, she also controls the pacing of the action, which is largely photographed with a static camera. Close-ups are also at a premium, as Gomes places the characters in their contexts in much the same way that Bruno Dumont did recently in Joan of Arc. Not everyone appreciates Slow Cinema, but this is an uncompromising credit to the form.


GHOSTS OF WAR.


Fifteen years have passed since Eric Bress made his feature bow with The Butterfly Effect (2004) and it rather feels as though his sophomore outing, Ghosts of War, has been on the shelf since then, as it has the musty, dusty feel of something that's been lying around for quite some time. Bress has been toiling on the Final Destination franchise for much of the interim. But he might have been better advised to have watched a few superior Second World War horror movies, such as Ken Wiederhorn's Shock Waves (1976), Jean Rollin and Julian de Laserna's Zombie Lake (1981), Michael Mann's The Keep (1984), Alejandro Amenabar's The Others (2001), David Twohy's Below (2002) and even Julus Avery's Overlord (2018).


In Occupied France in 1944, a US Army patrol led by Chris (Brenton Thwaites) heads across country to relieve a lookout unit that has been billteted at a chateau that had been the Nazi headquarters. They steal the teeth of the Germans killed in a landmine explosion and the pugnacious Butchie (Alan Ritchson) picks a fight with a German major (Billy Zane). When they pass a refugee column, however, they hand over the teeth to a woman in a blue-and-white striped uniform.


Failing to notice how keen their compatriots are to get out of the Hellwig residence, the sharpshooting Tappert (Kyle Gallner) and the yarn-spinning Kirk (Theo Rossi) make themselves at home, while the bespectacled, bilingual Eugene (Skylar Astin) plays the piano. He also finds a book left by a German soldier detailing the persecution of the Hellwig family. But the others are too spooked by some scrambled radio messages, the vanishing figures in a family photo and the weird things that keep going bump amidst the shabby grandeur to pay much attention.


They begin to believe, however, when a 50-strong Wehrmacht detail shows up at the chateau and the giggling ghosts of the Hellwig children drown an officer in the bath, their mother immolates another on a desk chair and their father dangles a third from a hanging rope. Butchie is wounded by a grenade and Chris and Kirk wonder if the carnage was caused by Tappert, who had sliced up some Hitler Youths in Paris while playing with a cat's cradle. However, Eugene translates from the war journal and we learn that the son (Kaloyan Hristov) was drowned in the bath, his sister (Yanitsa Mihailova) was hanged, Mr Hellwig (Shaun Toub) was torched in his chair and the bodies were left to rot.


After Chris has a nightmare in which he imagines he's being drowned by gas mask-wearing Nazis, Butchie suddenly sits up an urges his comrades to remember before he dies. Having buried him, the remaining trio refuse to spend another night in the chateau and they retrace their steps along the road and through the bombed-out village to sleep in the woods. Tappert has a nightmare about hanging and wakes to find the word `vetrulek' written in the dirt beside him. When they return to the chateau, Eugene reveals that this is a Muslim belief that those who stand by and allow evil to happen are as guilty as the perpetrators.


As the last page of the journal was missing, they don't know where to find the Hellwig remains so they can bury them. So, Chris puts flour on the floor to capture some spectral footprints and he is unceremoniously yanked across the lawn by Mrs Hellwig (Laila Banki) to an outhouse where the corpses lie. Eugene finds the missing journal page and discovers that the Hellwigs were Afghans who had hidden as many Jews as they could until the Nazis had executed them. Before she died, however, Mrs Hellwig had uttered a vetrulek curse on those who had failed to help them. But the most damning detail on the torn page is that burying the Hellwigs enables them to return to life and the GIs are fighting a desperate rearguard when...


... a rug pull plot twist occurs.


The soldiers were blown to smithereens during a tour of duty in Afghanistan and Dr Engel (Billy Zane) has been running a virtual reality experiment on them that pitches them into a conflict that had happened seven decades earlier in order to help them cope with theit post-traumatic stress. Chris wakes and discovers he has lost his legs from the knee down and relives the moment when the Hellwig family was slaughtered by Isis insurgents and the wife had blown up the American soldiers hiding in her wall for simply standing by and watching. He tells Engel's assistant, Ann (Vivian Gray), that a ghost has gotten into the machine and he begs her to let him go back into the WWII simulation so he can put things right. But we don't get to see what he does or even if it works, as the film fades to black.


A rapid rewind montage relating to the Afghan recollection joins the dots to significant details in the 1944 storyline so that they make some sort of sense. But too many viewers will still be spluttering with exasperation at the flagrant use of such a cheap gambit to care. In the `Lois Kills Stewie' episode of Family Guy that also ended with a series of shocking events being revealed as a simulation, Brian considers the deceit to be `a giant middle finger' and he wouldn't be far wrong in this instance, either.


Bress deserves some credit for having the chutzpah to attempt such an egregious sleight of hand. But he's not a good enough writer or director to pull off the feat and take an admiring audience with him. Such is the intense focus on making sure every piece slots precisely into place that there is no time to develop a sense of dread or suspense. Whether this is down to earnest concentration or arrant smugness is almost beside the point. The effect on the viewer of having been reeled in and duped remains the same. At least those paying attention will have some sense of closure, as they get an explanation of why the 1940s Tappert would claim Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy and I Was a Teenage Werewolf among his favourite horror movies, even though they weren't made until 1955 and 1957 respectively.


The grunt quintet does what it can with the threadbare characterisation and what is often laced dialogue, while the special effects are proficient, if never remotely scary. Some will commend Bress for concocting a Second World War film in which the Nazis aren't the only ones to commit atrocities, but there's no deep message about military motives and the legacy of conflict here. Antonello Rubino's interiors are decent enough, as are Lorenzo Senatore's camerawork, Eric Offin's sound design, Michael Suby's score and Peter Arundson's editing. But, in the main, this is arch as the reference to Adolf Hitler's obsession with the occult after a pentagram is discovered chalked on the attic floor.


CLEMENCY.


Born in Nigeria, but raised in Alaska, Chinonye Chukwu had a tough childhood. But she survived the bouts of depression brought on by being the only black kid in class to find her métier in cinema. She has produced a number of shorts, including Igbo Kwenu! (2009), The Dance Lesson (2010), Bottom (2012) and A Long Walk (2013), either side of her feature bow with alaskaLand (2012). However, she has been planning Clemency since 2011, when she was so dismayed by the execution in Georgia of Burger King security guard Troy Davis, who had spent 20 years on Death Row for the killing of a cop while trying to intervene in a parking lot assault,


Davis had always protested his innocence and his death by lethal injection prompted Chukwa to advocate for others in a similar position, including Tyra Patterson, who was released on Christmas Day 2017 after 23 years behind bars for a shooting she didn't commit. While in Ohio, Chukwa launched a film-making programme at the Dayton Correctional Institution to enable the female inmates to write their own scripts and produce their own short films. While mentoring these women, Chukwa and producer Bronwyn Cornelius spent three and a half years raising the funding for their own feature, which is available to view on Curzon Home Cinema.


When the execution of Victor Jimenez (Alex Castillo) goes wrong because the medic couldn't find a vein for his lethal injection, Warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) feels personally responsible. The previous 11 procedures had gone without a hitch and the prospect of a second slip-up is keeping her awake at night. Teacher husband, Jonathan (Wendell Pierce), isn't the only one concerned about Bernadine, however, as deputy Thomas Morgan (Richard Gunn) has to drive her home after a night in a bar when he has to chide his boss for always talking shop.


The next inmate in line for execution is Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), a mild-mannered African-American who spends his days drawing birds in his cell. Lawyer Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff) feels Bernadine has gone out of her way to thwart his client at every turn and vows to take the fight to the highest court in the land. But she refuses to engage with him, as sentences and appeal aren't in her jurisdiction. She is a stickler for informing prisoners of what to expect, however, and Woods is so traumatised by her clinically dispassionate description of his last day that he tries to dash his brains out against the cell wall and has to be restrained while insisting that he will choose his time to die.


Out of courtesy, Bernadine tells Lumetta when they meet in a bar, He tells her that he is quitting because he can't bear the thought of watching another client go through hell on Death Row and asks her how she can do such a tough job with such an outer show of calm. She resents the suggestion that she simply deprives inmates of their dignity as well as their liberty and regrets not being able to change the world. But Lumetta thinks she's heartless and Jonathan comes to the same conclusion when he springs a surprise anniversary supper, only to storm out after getting shouted down for suggesting they retire to spend some quality time together.


Unable to get a response from Woods when she consults him about his last meal, Bernadine stages a rehearsal run with Morgan being strapped down on the cruciform gurney. But duty officer Logan Cartwright (LaMonica Garrett) excuses himself from the detail, as he can't get Jimenez out of his mind. Bernadine has also had nightmares about him, but she refuses to let her emotions show. She shows up at Jonathan's school - after he has just read an extract from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man to his largely non-white class - to let him know she misses him, but he claims to be too busy to see her.


He returns home a few days later after Bernadine receives a letter from Evette (Danielle Brooks) announcing that Woods has a teenage son. While Jonathan and Bernadine cuddle on the sofa, Woods kisses the photo he has been allowed to keep in his cell and prison publicist Sonia (Michelle C. Bonilla) feels relieved that she has brought him some happiness. As Bernadine drives into work, she hears Lumetta going over the disputed facts of his client's case. Shortly afterwards, she is visited by the parents of his cop victim (Vernee Watson and Dennis Haskins), who want to be represented among the witnesses to the execution. When she refuses to grant the request, Mrs Collins accuses her of being childless and cold and Bernadine has to struggle to retain her composure.


Her mood is scarcely improved by Morgan informing her that he is applying for the warden's job at a prison that doesn't conduct executions. She wishes him luck and turns down his invitation for a drink at the bar because she's dining with her husband.


As protesters maintain a vigil outside the jail, Bernadine asks Chaplain David Kendricks (Michael O'Neill) to speak to Woods because she is concerned about his state of mind. He is also due to retire and he admits that his wife has been badgering him since the Jiminez incident. She wishes him well and accepts Jonathan's reasons for wanting to stop teaching. But, while the admits that she wants them to patch things up, she's not ready to leave her job. By contrast, Lumetta can't wait to go and struggles to remain positive when Woods suggests that Evette coming to visit him is a sign that his luck is going to change.


He is overjoyed to see her and they touch hands through the glass partition, as he gushes with pride at having a son. Evette tries to explain why she has stayed away until now, but Woods just wants to focus on having a family again and his need to stop hating after so many years of isolation and bitterness. But Evette insists on having her say and declares that she is not sorry for withholding affection and information, as she had to distance herself from him in order to make a life for her child. She has no regrets about her decision, but apologises for not being able to do more to help him. As Woods feels his last hope ebbing away, she tells him about the clemency campaign and, in promising to bring Michael to meet him, reminds him that he is loved.


At home that night, Bernadine and Jonathan watch Lumetta being interviewed on the TV news after he applies for a stay of execution after the parole board upholds the death sentence. He cites the Jiminez case as a reason to delay until the prison can give assurances that there won't be a repeat and Bernadine wishes that she could get through to Woods about his last meal and final resting place because he is making an already difficult job impossible by not accepting that these things have to be done. When Jonathan tries to console her, she pulls away and tearfully avers that he can't appreciate the loneliness she has to endure while supervising an execution. She pats his hand, as she wishes there was a way she could change the system and heal herself. But she knows there isn't.


Bernadine sits with Woods as he waits in chains for Evette and Michael. She pours him a glass of water, but remains silent until she has to break the bad news that the visit isn't going to happen. As Michael doesn't know that Woods is his father, Bernadine suspected that Evette would stay away and she leaves a number of messages on her phone. But she doesn't call back.


As the hours tick away, Lumetta comes to tell Woods that he has people on his side and that he is not alone. He promises to keep trying until the last second to secure clemency and the dejected Woods clasps his hands in a gesture of gratitude and fear. While Bernadine meets with the victim's parents (who have been given permission to attend after all) and Mrs Collins hugs her before regaining her composure, the chaplain sits with Woods. After a prolonged silence, he reads a passage of Scripture about the love of God and promises him that he is loved by the lawyers and protesters who have never lost faith in him. Taking the cleric's hand, Woods lowers his head and starts to sob before letting out a pitiful howl of anguish and despair.


Morgan informs Bernadine that the governor has refused to commute the sentence and she swallows hard, as she realises she has no option but to go through with the execution of a man who has moved her in an unprecedented manner. She isn't sure whether he is guilty of not. But she knows that he hasn't really stood a chance within the system that she represents and which disproportionately targets men of her colour. Only Ava DuVernay has made this point more powerfully in her 2016 documentary, 13th.


As he enters the chamber, Woods offers no resistance but deep breaths. When Bernadine asks if he has a last statement, he offers his condolences to the Collins family, while swearing his innocence. He also thanks his supporters for their efforts and tells his mother he will see her soon. But he ends by hoping that God has mercy on the souls of those who are about to take his life and Bernadine has to steel herself to retain her facade. She nods to the female medic to start the procedure and the camera fixes on her face, as she strives to keep herself in check.


A career's worth of suppressed emotions seem to flood into her mind, as Bernadine fights to remain in control. Such is the effort that Morgan has to step in to record the time of death and draw the curtain across the gallery glass. The chaplain stands beside her, as Morgan asks if she's okay. But she remains in a daze, as she strides along the corridor to her office and the film cuts to black, as she closes her eyes and gasps for air.


In that single unflinching silent close-up, Alfre Woodard gives a masterclass in concentration and nuance and, in the process, she produces some of the finest acting seen in an American film for decades. Wisely, she and Chukwa leave the audience to speculate about what is going through Bernadine's mind and which pangs are causing her the most distress. They also shrewdly resist giving any intimation as to her future, as either a warden or a wife. But they also pay the warmest of tributes to the warden and staff in the Troy Davis case, whose misgivings about his guilt caused them to ask for clemency on their part, as well as his, because they didn't think it was fair for them to have the burden of his death on their consciences.


Exceptional though she is (and her failure to receive an Oscar nomination represents an indelible mark of institutional shame against the Academy), Woodard is also surrounded by an estimable ensemble, with Aldis Hodge particularly impressing as the dead man walking whose reason for living is snatched away from him several times before he is finally strapped to the gurney. Richard Schiff and Michael O'Neill give flipside displays as men on the cusp of retirement who have respectively lost faith in his profession and never been more certain of his vocation. Wendell Pierce and Danielle Brooks also take complementary roles, as their preoccupation with their own lives reinforces the isolation felt by Bernadine and Woods. The only difference is that, while Evette has invested in her child and is able to walk away after salving her conscience, Jonathan is too embedded in his marriage to contemplate a life alone, in spite of his wife's emotional unavailability.


For a feature sophomore, Chukwa's direction is extraordinarily finessed. Her screenplay similarly addresses its racial, moral and gender themes with intelligently tacit discretion, although the decision to follow the Davis case by making Woods's conviction insecure slightly clouds the central issue, as it implies that Bernadine's views on capital punishment have been shaken by an empathetic individual rather than the corrosive accumulated strain of the 11 previous executions she has overseen.


Chukwa makes studied use of Eric Branco's subtly glissading widescreen camerawork to locate the prison characters in the narrowed confinement of their offices and cells and the corridors that connect them. But she also lets the lens convey crucial pieces of information by freeing the cast from expository speeches and allowing them to enact deeply internalised feelings rather express them. Phyllis Housen's measured editing assists in this regard, as does Kathryn Bostic's score, which combines with the cocooningly immersive sound mix in keeping the film from following such recent death penalty dramas as Tali Shalom Ezer's My Days of Mercy (2017) and Edward Zwick's Trial By Fire (2018) by indulging in sentimental liberalism.


ALICE.


Although none can hold a candle to Lizzie Borden's Working Girls (1986), a number of recent features have sought to explore prostitution from a female perspective. Joining Sylvie Verheyde's The Working Girl, Jenny Lu's The Receptionist (both 2016) and Lorene Scafaria's Hustlers (2019), Josephine Mackerras's Alice puts a fresh Parisian spin on the accidental escort story told in Luis Buñuel's 1967 adaptation of Joseph Kessler's Belle de Jour. But, despite taking first prize at the prestigious SXSW Film Festival, this laudably self-determined indie doesn't always convince on a narrative or thematic level.


Everything seems hunky dory in the small, but cosy Parisian apartment that Alice Ferrand (Emilie Piponnier) shares with husband, François (Martin Swabey), and their toddler son, Jules (Jules Milo Levy Mackerras). He gets teased by their bourgeois dinner party pals about taking an eternity to write his first novel. But he quotes poetry and kisses Alice passionately to silence the doubters.


She is all the more puzzled, therefore, when her credit cards are refused and François refuses to answer his phone. Frustration turns to dismay when the bank manager informs her that repossession proceedings have been instigated because François has withdrawn €77,480 in cash from their joint bank account. As much of this was her inheritance, Alice is crestfallen and feels very alone as she searches for clues amongst François's papers and can hear the clock ticking on the three weeks she has to find a solution or face eviction.


Eventually, she cracks the password on one of his computer files and finds the phone number for Elegant Escorts. Unable to get answers over the phone, Alice goes to a hiring session and is nonplused by how blasé owners Véra (Marie-Laure Dougnac) and Jessica (Marie Coulonjou) are about selling sex for money. Desperate to identify François's regulars, she follows Lisa (Chloé Boreham) to a café and skirts around the subject so gauchely that the New Zealander presumes Alice is a reluctant prostitute who needs a confidante and gives her a contact number.


Appalled by her mother (Marine Blake) suggesting that François slept with prostitutes because something was missing at home, Alice realises that her only chance of making some quick cash lies in becoming an Elegant escort herself. Guided by Lisa, the ultra-demure Alice adopts the name Sophia and follows a massage and mount policy that gets things over quickly and allows her to remain in complete control. She gets off to a bad start with her first client (Philippe de Monts) by dropping the money before hurting him while trying to roll on a condom. But she feels more confident with a bashful divorce lawyer (David Coburn) and Lisa is amused that Alice feels no different, in spite of having become a `fallen woman'.


She feels even better about herself after making the first down payment on the apartment arrears. But, then, François comes home and begs to be forgiven. Momentarily blindsided by seeing the pain he's in, Alice hugs him and lets him promise her that he has changed and will do anything to start afresh. When he refuses to answer her repeated demand to know why he chose to destroy their lovely life in order to satisfy his carnal urges, Alice throws him out and he leaves meekly, as Jules begins to bawl in his room.


Forced to go freelance after she fails to find a babysitter for an eleventh-hour booking, Alice meets with a multilingual agent (Rébecca Finet) who promises to find her well-paid gigs after banker Gaubert (Christophe Favre) dispatches a bailiff to her door after she misses a payment. He agrees to confirm her extension after she storms into his office and she uses François to look after Jules when Véra sends her on a last-minute dinner date. On returning home, she asks her husband why he has put their lives at risk and he mumbles something about becoming addicted after his father paid for him to have sex at 13. But she has no patience with his contention that he needed an escape from the pressures of fatherhood and a dead-end job and, when another booking comes in, she leaves him to watch his son with a made-up story about working for an eccentric American millionaire who keeps weird hours.


Amused that she can manipulate the contrite François into staying with his son while she earns money in the same way that he frittered it, Alice takes every job going to keep up the payments. But she also spends lots of spare time with Lisa, who has turned down a university place in Auckland because she'd never be able to pay for the course. They hire a boat on the canal, while discussing the fact that Lisa has been disowned by her mother and they get tipsy and jump into the water. The pair also have a wild night clubbing and Alice enjoys having a friend who isn't judgemental like Carole (Juliette Tresanini) and Ariana (Ariana Rodriguez Giraldo).


Having survived an odd encounter with an American client (Robert Burns) who wept during sex, Alice is unfazed when François similarly becomes equally needy in pleading with her to take him back. When he kneels to propose all over again, she curtly informs him that she would rather be alone. She is blunter still in ordering him to leave after he scrolls through her phone while she's in the shower and creepily avers that he loves her more now that she's lost her purity. However, when he tries to stop her from keeping an appointment and tries to force himself on her, Alice threatens to call the cops and he counters by vowing to ruin her reputation and takes Jules away from her.


Alice consults her lawyer client, who tells her to keep out of the courts, as society practices double standards and will punish a mother who prostitutes herself rather than the father who drove her to it through infidelity and theft. He advises her to make copies of anything that might incriminate François. In rifling through his PC files, however, she realises that Lisa was one of his regular hook-ups and is distraught. She accuses her of being a hypocrite who is responsible for all of her woes, but Lisa calms her down and reminds her that François is the villain not her. Lisa also suggests that she disarms her husband by offering him a second chance. But, when he returns to the apartment, François finds it empty and he calls Alice's to urge her to look after Jules wherever she is.


Closing on Alice and Lisa walking with Jules in the middle of a wooded New Zealand paradise, the action ends as speciously as it unfolds. If anything, the plot is even less plausible than the one in Safy Nebbou's Who You Think I Am (2019), in which Juliette Binoche plays a fiftysomething divorcée who poses as a 24 year-old fashion student on Facebook in order to get back at the lover who had jilted her. Good though she is in her first lead, the expressive Emilie Piponnier isn't quite in the Binoche class yet and, consequently, she's left exposed by some of the more tonally fanciful and diegetically strained elements of Mackerras's screenplay, which can never make up its mind where it stands on the motives and morality of women who become escorts and the kind of men who patronise them.


Of course, the sex work (strictly on Alice's own terms) is merely a Macguffin, as the emphasis is primarily on her discovering herself and finding a way to free herself from an unworthy husband who jeopardises her wellbeing by sleeping around, stealing her money and threatening to claim custody of her child. Intriguingly, Mackerras cast her own son as Jules and there's an element of her own experience in the subtext of the storyline, as she was forced to accept the loss of a major project with an Oscar-winning producer when she became pregnant during pre-production. In order to cope with the disappointment and demonstrate her resilience, she consciously wrote Alice as a low-budget picture she could make outside the accepted system in order to claw back some control over her career trajectory after making such a favourable impression with the shorts, A Sign, Diva (both 2007), L'Enfant perdu (2008) and Modlitba (2010).


Such was the toll taken by writing, directing and producing her first feature on her credit card that Mackerras was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue. But she has laid down a marker, with the solidity of her storytelling and the confidence with which she uses Mickael Delahaie's handheld camera to keep the audience at the heart of the action. She also draws fine performances out of Piponnier and Chloé Boreham, while Martin Swabey does well in the thankless and sketchily caricatured role of the husband who feels himself to be the victim of his own fecklessness. The script's sex-positive treatment of prostitution as a form of female empowerment is more problematic, especially as Mackerras makes Alice's encounters with largely harmless men so unrealistically sanitised, while offering only superficial insights into exploitative masculinity and hypocritical society.


LOVE SARAH.


Looking suspiciously like someone has tried to stir a sachet of Richard Curtis feel-good into a bowlful of oven-ready Great British Bake-Off, Eliza Schroeder's Love Sarah follows the lead given by The Uncertain Kingdom in urging people to swallow the disappointment of the failure to get a second referendum and make the most of Brexit, no matter what a nasty taste it leaves. Unfortunately, the pandemic has made this kind of forgive-and-forget movie irrelevant overnight, which is doubly damaging to its prospects, as Jake Brunger's saccharine scenario already fails to rise to the standards set by John Goldschmidt's so-so Dough (2016) and Ofir Raul Grazier's vastly superior Jerusalem-set saga, The Cakemaker (2017).


As Sarah (Candice Brown) is cycling to the Notting Hill bakery she is about to open with her oldest friend, Isabella (Shelley Conn), she is killed in a cycling accident. By a curious coincidence, mother Mimi (Celia Imrie) was writing a card asking Sarah to forgive her for their estrangement after she refused to lend her the money to launch the business. But there's more serendipity in the air, as 19 year-old granddaughter Clarissa (Shanon Tarbet) just happens to need a place to stay after being dumped by her boyfriend and the police find her sleeping rough in the shop.


In her day, Mimi had been a celebrated trapeze artist and aspiring dancer Clarissa has inherited her grace. But Sarah always wanted to bake and she met Isabella while training with Ottolenghi in Paris. She had also romanced fellow student, Matthew (Rupert Penry-Jones), who applies for the job of chief baker and Mimi and Clarissa persuade Isabella to overlook their past history and give him the job. He suspects he is Clarissa's father and has postponed the chance to work for a top London restaurant in order to get to know her.


Everyone seems to be getting along, with Mimi befriending Scottish inventor Felix (Bill Paterson), who has a flat opposite the shop. But there is plenty of competition in this part of Notting Hill and Love Sarah's first week of trading is disheartening. However, Matthew talks Isabella into helping him bake and fulfil the potential she has always downplayed. Moreover, after seeing Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days on Felix's shelf, Mimi hits upon the idea of making cakes for the area's many immigrant communities and customers are soon placing orders for their own little taste of home.


The Latvian kringels, Australian lamingtons, Swedish semlors and Persian love cakes are soon flying off the shelves. But, when a woman (Kamontip Krissy Ashton) places a rush order for a notoriously difficult Japanese matcha mille crepe cake, Matthew and Isabella have their work cut out. They get distracted when their close co-operation prompts them to tumble into bed together. Unfortunately, however, she sees the contracts for the rival eaterie on his kitchen units and storms back to the bakery to fulfil the matcha mille order on her own.


Despite ordering Matthew to stay away, he still convinces Clarissa to take a DNA test. The results prove negative. But the feedback on the Japanese speciality is so positive that Time Out comes to do a feature on Love Sarah and her spirit peeks in approvingly through the window, as she sees all of her loved ones getting along so well. As the story closes, Clarissa returns to her dance studio, Felix receives a warm welcome from Olga (Lucy Fleming) and Mimi's game-playing pals, and Matthew and Isabella smooch in their kitchen.


Honestly, it's enough to give you diabetes. Obviously, Aaron Reid's camerawork makes the cakes (which appear to have been baked by Ottolenghi) look quirkily delicious, while Enis Rotthof's score jollies viewers along into thinking they're having a lovely uplifting time within Anna Papa's self-consciously boho chic interiors. But this is stuffed with artificial ingredients and nothing the willing cast does diminishes the fact it feels like a pilot for a sitcom that threatens to flesh out the characters once the series has been greenlighted.


Making Mimi a trapeze artist is hilariously inconsequential. But the first-time duo of Schroeder and Brunger can't leave well alone and we get a scene in which Clarissa cons her gran into attending a beginner's class as part of her bid to establish a rapport. The script also gets all coy about the nature of Sarah and Isabella's relationship and the reasons why Mimi refused to lend them the money. But Brunger has enough on his hands making the sudden shift of focus from female bonding to multiculturalism seem anything other than a whopping (if well-meaning) contrivance to devote any more time to the matter. And then he's got to find room for the obligatory complications in the romantic subplot. No wonder he forgot to add the jokes. Poor lad! Where's Pippa Cleary when he so evidently needs her?


All snarkiness aside, Brunger's success in musical theatre demonstrates that he has an abundance of talent and it's a shame that his first cinematic venture is such an insubstantial concoction. It's nobody's fault. Sometimes, it just happens. Let's hope he and Schroeder have more luck next time and steer clear of half-baked socio-political platitudes and bourgeois foodies making a killing out of appropriating cuisine cultures.


DREAMBUILDERS.


Experienced animator Danish Kim Hagen Jensen makes his directorial debut in conjunction with Tonni Zinck on Dreambuilders. It may owe a bit too much to Pete Docter's Pixar duo of Monsters Inc. (2001) and Inside Out (2015), but it doesn't deserve the snippy dismissal it has received from certain UK critics, as it has some evocative visuals and a sound message for lockdown tinies.


Minna Mitchles (Robyn Dempsey) has been living in the country with her dad, John (Tom Hale), and pet hamster, Viggo Mortensen, since mum Karen (Alberte Winding) abandoned them to become a singer. However, the cosy chess games and leaf fights come to an end when John's new partner, Helene (Karen Ardiff), moves in with her daughter, Jenny (Emma Jenkins), who is forever glued to her phone. Not content with taking Minna's bed, she mocks her dress sense on her Insta account and demands that Viggo Mortensen is dispatched to an animal shelter.


Fortunately, the slumbering Minna blunders through the wall of the dreamstage where a blue unmeanie named Gaffe (Luke Griffin) is working her night's dream with his director (Paul Tylak). On discovering through a tin of anchovies that sleep can be used to put positive thoughts into people's heads, Minna sets out to reform Jenny. But her tinkering has some distressing consequences and she has to descend into the bowels of the reverie world to rescue Jenny and prevent the Inspector (Brendan McDonald) from sacking Gaffe.


No child can be told often enough that there's more to life than small screens and social media and Søren Grinderslev Hansen's screenplay makes the point without hectoring. Similarly, he allows Minna to find her own way to getting along with Jenny, who (of course) is nursing her own hurt after overhearing her father blame her for his decision to leave home. It has to be said that John is a pretty feeble parent, who thinks every problem can be solved by telling Minna to put on her `happy hat', while Helene feels so guilty for letting Jenny down that she has allowed her to become insufferably brattish.


But, while the grown-ups will dwell on these issues, kids will focus on the floating dreamstages that are linked by a rollercoastering narrow-gauge rail track. Some might be scared by the giant spider that chases Minna and Jenny during the climactic race against time, but there's nothing too gruesome to worry about. Indeed, it's nice to see a film that views the world from a young girl's perspective, which is something that North European kidpix do much more readily than their Hollywood counterparts.


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