Parky At the Pictures (25/12/2020)
(Reviews of the Parky At the Pictures Top 10 Films of 202)
It was always a custom at the Other Place (still can't bear to name it after such shoddy treatment after three decades of reviewing) to end December with a survey of the film year's hits and misses. For the second Parky At the Pictures variation on this theme, we shall content ourselves with revisiting the 10 films that have made the most impact on this critic. There may have been better pictures, but these are the titles that have left an impact during an impossibly sad and difficult year for the entire planet.
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 - especially during the Christmas season? As the country hurtles towards Lockdown 3, there are still ways to connect with some of the films on general release, 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.
10) THE END OF THE STORM.
Shortly after demonstrating his versatility with Billie, James Erskine returns to his more familiar sporting beat with The End of the Storm. Chronicling the season in which Liverpool FC ended a 30-year wait for a title by winning the Premier League for the first time, this is also a tribute to the communality of the club and the part that the Kop anthem, `You'll Never Walk Alone', played in uniting players and supporters after crowds were barred from stadiums during the coronavirus pandemic.
The focus falls primarily on Jürgen Klopp, who opens by speaking about his love of the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein song that sums up his philosophy of life. Indeed, since arriving on Merseyside from Dortmund in October 2015, Klopp has used its mentality to transform the inherited squad that played out a goalless draw on his debut at White Hart Lane. Such is the ingenuity of his coaching style, however, that he has also tapped into the expertise of athletes like surfer Sebastian Streudtner, who came to the Evian training camp in the summer of 2019 and taught the players some underwater breathing techniques to help them adopt cool thinking strategies and deal with the pressure placed upon them by 450 million supporters worldwide.
Key to Klopp's change of ethos and its successful implementation have been signings like forward Sadio Mané, defender Virgil Van Dijk and goalkeeper Alisson Becker. However, regulars like Jordan Henderson and Roberto Firmino also did their bit and it's slightly disappointing that Erskine didn't canvas more players for interview, particularly as James Milner and Andy Robertson are so wittily erudite. Compliments are paid along the way to Egyptian King Mohamed Salah and local hero Trent Alexander-Arnold, but it might have been nice to learn a bit more about the dressing-room camaraderie, especially as it was so evident to anyone who watched clips from the lockdown Zoom chats on the Liverpool TV website.
As the 2019-20 season kicked off at home to Norwich City, Liverpool had to bear the added expectations of being Champions League winners and of having run Manchester City so close in amassing 97 points during the previous campaign. Things got off to a frustrating start, with Alisson getting injured during a 4-1 win and Adrián having to make his debut just four days after joining the club. Erskine might have mentioned here that he helped secure his status with supporters with his penalty shootout heroics against Chelsea in the Super Cup. But he prefers to reinforce the concept of Liverpool's global fan base by introducing us to Sofia from Auckland, Lucas, Marina and Carla from Rio de Janeiro, Laurice, Lowell, Jayden and Karma'del from Detroit, Ahmed and Adel from Cairo, Kavi, Tarika and Nainika from Kolkata and Dom and Theo from Liverpool. He also drops in on Hiroaki, whose love of the club prompted him to relocate, and Xiaoyang, who would keep watching as dramatic events started to unfold in his home city of Wuhan.
Speaking at the Melwood training centre, Klopp expounds upon the importance of defence to his attacking style of play and how he recruits players to fit the system. Mention might have been made here of his backroom staff and the roles played by sporting director Michael Edwards and the Fenway Sports Group. But this doesn't fit Erskine's narrative and we hear instead about Klopp's Black Forest upbringing and his regret that the father who had been his denied dream with Kaiserslautern never got to see him become a successful manager. He admits to being animated on the touchline and some of the anger that brought him numerous red cards in the Bundesliga spilled out when Leicester City's Hamza Choudhury scythed down Mo Salah a few weeks after injuring another player with an equally reckless tackle.
Klopp's sense of injustice would doubtless have been piqued by VAR's failure to notice a foul on Divock Origi in the build-up to Marcus Rashford's goal at Old Trafford. However, Adam Lallana's late equaliser ensured that Liverpool's unbeaten run continued and that the gap to City after eight games was an unexpected eight points. This kept expanding as Jordan Henderson - who had been brought to the club by Kenny Dalglish - drove his teammates on with captain's performances that were bolstered by the rapport with the manager that was reinforced by the leadership group he had established with Hendo, Millie, Virgil and fellow Dutchman, Georgino Wijnaldum.
However, it was the Brazilian trio of Alisson, Firmino and Fabinho who convinced Klopp to take the World Club Championship seriously and the Reds returned from Qatar with their first win in the competition after beating Flamengo 1-0 after extra time. Fears of burnout were dispelled by a sensational 1-4 win at Leicester on Boxing Day and it only seemed like a matter of time before Premier pennant would be flying over Anfield. As the unbeaten league record ended at Watford and the CL journey hit the buffers against Atlético Madrid, however, the Covid-19 situation deteriorated across Europe and football was mothballed in late March. With the Dutch and French leagues having been voided, pundits like Rio Ferdinand cynically sought to curry favour with Mancunians by calling for the English season to be abandoned, despite Liverpool being 25 points clear.
While the players stayed fit as best they could and remained in close contact through social media, the footballing authorities held their nerve and games resumed behind closed doors in June. This meant that Liverpool achieved the unique feat of becoming the earliest title winners in terms of games and the latest in relation to dates. In truth, though, they rather stumbled over the line in unprecedented circumstances, but the squad gathered to watch Chelsea hand them the crown by beating City. The Blues also played a part in a great night at Anfield, as Liverpool won 5-3 before King Kenny handed the much-coveted trophy to Jordan Henderson, who ended 30 years of hurt with his famous podium shuffle.
Closing captions reveal that Liverpool amassed 99 points in beating every other team at least once in winning the league by 18 points. Who knows what the stats might have been had the momentum not been interrupted. But, having waited so long, the fans were just grateful to be back at the pinnacle of the English game. A shot of the Champions Wall at Melwood might have made for a fitting finale, especially as the club has since left its home of six decades for a new facility in Kirby. It might also have been nicer to hear the Gerry and The Pacemaker's version of `You'll Never Walk Alone' rather than Lana Del Rey's rather affected rendition. But Erskine deftly judges the `job done, move on' mood that Klopp immediately instilled after taking his place alongside such icons as Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley and Kenny Dalglish.
Aptly titled and adeptly assembled, this is a fitting celebration of a remarkable achievement. Editor Avdhesh Mohla does a splendid job in knitting together the on-field action with the perspectives of the supporters and players, as well as the manager who worked the oracle. The international segments feel a bit samey, but they reinforce Klopp's contention that the fans were an essential part of the victory, even at a remove. Erskine seeks to depict the German as a humble messiah and his decency and normality shine through, particularly when discussing his relationship with his taskmaster father. But this was a team effort that involved all 450 million of us Koppites. The challenge now is to cement greatness by doing it again. Here's to title No.20! YNWA.
9) RAISE HELL: THE LIFE & TIMES OF MOLLY IVINS.
As America went to the polls at a time when democracy was supposedly under threat, the UK release of a documentary about a frank-speaking Texan journalist was timely to say the least. Thirteen years has elapsed since Molly Ivins died and time had not been kind to the longevity of her legacy on this side of the Atlantic. But Janice Engels put that right with Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins, an affectionate, if uncritical memoir that makes potent use of some scruffy, but nonetheless priceless archive footage.
The daughter of a Texas oil executive, Molly Ivins was christened Mary because Jim Ivins reckoned that if the name was good enough for the Mother of God, it was good enough for his child. Tall and big boned, she was something of a bookish loner at school. But she blossomed at Smith College and returned from a year at the Institute of Political Science in Paris to complete her internship on the Houston Chronicle. Having graduated from the journalism school at Columbia University, Ivins proved such a fearless critic on the Minneapolis Tribune that the local police force named its porcine mascot after her before she returned to Texas to run Ronnie Dugger's Texas Observer with Kaye Northcott.
Influenced by humorist John Henry Fault, Ivins began to rattle cages at the state legislature and attracted the attention of the New York Times. Editor Abe Rosenthal didn't quite know what to do with a writer who padded around the office barefoot in the company of a dog named Shit and packed her off to the Rocky Mountain bureau. Nevertheless, she found herself covering the funeral of Elvis Presley for a paper that opted to let her go after Rosenthal took exception to the phrase `gang pluck' in Ivins's coverage of poultry festival.
Undeterred, Ivins accepted a post at the Dallas Times Herald, where her columns became such essential reading that she was syndicated nationally and received two Pulitzer Prize nominations. Following the publication of her book, Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?, she also became a popular speaker and Engel and editor Monique Zavistovski unearth numerous clips of Ivins on sharp-tongued form. When Governor George W. Bush put himself forward for the presidency, she teamed with Lou Dubose on Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush, which earned her a reputation of being a canary in the US political coal mine.
However, as a heavy-smoking alcoholic, Ivins had health issues and she was diagnosed in 1999 with the breast cancer she would battle for the rest of her life. Courageously, she remained a vocal critic of Dubya until her death in 2007 and news anchor Dan Rather, political commentator Rachel Maddow and former governor Ann Richards and her daughter Cecile are among those appearing here to pay fulsome tribute to an analyst who could be as acerbically cruel as she was hilariously acute. That said, this might have been a stronger film if a few naysayers had been allowed to provide some counter grist,
Engel touches upon Ivins's lonely private life, but her eagerness to avoid prying keeps her from mentioning the 1995 plagiarism claims that were levelled by humorist Florence King, even though this would also have made a good anecdote. Nevertheless, this is a rousingly engaging introduction to Ivins and her writings that leaves one longing for a similar free-thinking voice in contemporary British journalism. One is also left wishing that her ghost is haunting Donald Trump, as she would have relished the opportunity to take down the Orange Orifice of the Oval Office. Good riddance!
8) PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE.
Alfred Hitchcock never quite mastered the costume film. Having tried for frothy merriment in the misfiring musical, Waltzes From Vienna (1933), he sought to capture the atmosphere of post-Napoleonic Cornwall in Daphne Du Maurier's smuggling saga, Jamaica Inn (1938), and to recreate the stifling air of detachment and decorum in 1830s Australia in his first colour outing, an adaptation of Helen Simpson's potboiler, Under Capricorn (1949). In making Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma gives the Master of Suspense a lesson in how to concoct an historical melodrama by seeking inspiration from a contrasting pair of Hitchcockian studies of scrutinised women, Rebecca (1940) and Vertigo (1958), which were respectively based on books by Du Maurier and the French duo Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac.
The influence of Choderlos de Laclos's Dangerous Liaisons and Sarah Waters's Fingersmith can also be detected in this dramatic change of pace from Sciamma, after the contemporary triptych of Water Lilies (2007), Tomboy (2011) and Girlhood (2014), which would surely have won more major prizes had it not had the misfortune to come up against Bong Joon-ho's subtitled juggernaut, Parasite.
Towards the end of the 18th century, Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is teaching art to a class of young ladies when one inquires about a painting at the back of the studio entitled, `Portrait of a Young Girl on Fire'. She is transported back to 1770 and the rowing boat taking her to the remote island home where Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) lives with her mother, the Countess (Valeria Golino), and their maid, Sophie (Luàna Bajrami). Marianne had been forced to dive into the water to retrieve the wooden box containing her canvases and had been left to make her own way to the house by the boorish crew.
Arriving after dark, Marianne is shown to her room and strips off her wet clothes before smoking a pipe in front of the fire, while she dries out her canvases. Wandering into the kitchen for something to eat, she learns from Sophie that Héloïse had recently returned from a Benedictine convent after the sudden death of her sister, who had been promised in marriage to a Milanese gentleman. Sophie also reveals that a male artist had failed to paint the portrait that the suitor had requested in order to transfer his proposal to Héloïse and she is curious to know how Marianne is going to fulfil her commission.
Surprised to find a portrait without a face, Marianne is informed by the Countess that Héloïse has refused to co-operate because she is opposed to the marriage that her sister had spurned, As they talk, the Countess shows Marianne the bridal portrait that her father had painted and how it had always disconcerted her that her image had been hanging on a wall waiting for her to become the mistress of the house. She also confides that Héloïse has been told that Marianne is a companion who will accompany her on walks along the coast and that she must study her face without her noticing.
Taken aback by Sophie's assertion that Héloïse's sister had jumped off a cliff to avoid her fate, Marianne joins her on a walk along the headland. She rushes after her when Héloïse breaks into a run and is relieved when she reveals that she had longed to frolic during her time at the convent. As they take in the view, Marianne tries to snatch glances of Héloïse's profile and avoids eye contact when she turns to shoot her an accusing look. On returning to the house, Héloïse asks to borrow a book and Marianne keeps her at the door so she can fetch a volume from behind the curtain hiding her easel.
Closing her eyes to focus her thoughts, Marianne starts sketching an outline with charcoal. She also makes a quick study during their next walk when she notices how Héloïse crosses her hands when she sits. As it's a windy day, both women have their faces covered and Héloïse refuses to lower her scarf when they stop to discuss the possibility of bathing before Marianne leaves at the end of the week. Over supper, she confides in Sophie that the assignment is proving tricky and the maid suggests that she could try being witty in order to get Héloïse to smile.
During their next excursion, however, Marianne asks Héloïse if she thinks her sister committed suicide. She reveals that she had apologised in a letter for subjecting her to a fate she could not face and Héloïse admits that she is in no hurry to become a bride. Marianne also expresses a reluctance to marry and claims that she will be content to take over her father's business. Much to her relief, Héloïse doesn't pry any further, but she does let slip that she is able to draw and quickly has to insist that she is merely an amateur.
While briefing the Countess about her progress, Marianne suggests that Héloïse should be allowed out alone to give her more time to work without having to be on her guard. She admits that she is finding it difficult to get to know her daughter, but the Countess urges her to make Milan sound exciting and concedes that she is rather hoping to be able to relocate there herself. They speak Italian together and the Countess is relieved to laugh after her period of mourning.
Marianne tries on the green dress that Héloïse had been wearing while sitting for her predecessor and she is regarding its folds in a mirror when her subject knocks at the door. She has heard that Marianne has tobacco and they share a pipe, as Héloïse reveals that she misses the music and the sense of equality in the convent. When Marianne conveys the news that she will be allowed out on her own, Héloïse avers that she will go to mass to hear the organ and the choir. Her companion opines that the organ is a melancholic substitute for an orchestra and Héloïse is envious that Marianne has attended concerts. In an effort to show how much grander orchestral music sounds, Marianne plays the `Presto' from the `Summer' segment of Antonio Vivaldi's `The Four Seasons' on the harpsichord and Héloïse is impressed by her talent and confides that she had missed her presence in her solitude.
When Marianne finishes the portrait, she burns the unfinished canvas and asks the Countess if she can show Héloïse, so that she knows the truth. She is nervous about revealing her perfidy, but is dismayed when Héloïse claims that the picture is too conventional and lacks insight into personality. Nettled by the truth of her remarks. Marianne smudges the face and the Countess is aghast. However, Héloïse offers to pose for a replacement and her mother gives them five days to make amends.
Wearing the green dress, Héloïse poses on a padded stool for Marianne to begin sketching. As she sits, she asks about Marianne's artistic experiences and whether she has ever made any nude studies or been permitted to paint a man. One night, Sophie confides that she is pregnant and Marianne helps her try to induce a miscarriage by running on the beach and making a potion from dune flowers. She reveals that she had once been in the same position and Héloïse is fascinated to know what it feels like to be in love. Work continues on the portrait and, when Marianne complains that Héloïse is proving elusive, she is surprised to learn that she also employs telltale gestures to hide her feelings. However, when they play cards with Sophie (who has her own talent for embroidery), Héloïse lets down her guard and Marianne is charmed to see her being natural for the first time.
They take Sophie to an outdoor gathering of women, where it's discovered that she is still pregnant. The women sing `Fugere non possum' (`We can't escape') and Héloïse becomes so entranced that she barely notices that the hem of her dress has caught fire. The voices remain on the soundtrack, as Marianne and Héloïse explore a cave the next morning and kiss. Returning to the house, they make love and they spend the night together. After taking Sophie to see a woman who prepares a termination potion, Marianne radically paints Héloïse ministering to Sophie in a similar pose. She also chides her for smiling while posing for the portrait and kisses her. They experiment with a drug that heightens pleasure, but Marianne is troubled by visions of Héloïse in her wedding dress after she reads aloud the story of Orpheus and Eurydice at the mouth of the Underworld.
Eventually, she tells her lover that she is disappointed that the picture is nearly finished and wishes she could destroy it to prolong their time together. But Héloïse accuses Marianne of blaming her for accepting her destiny and she rushes down to the beach to be alone. However, Sophie breaks the news that the Countess is returning the next day and Marianne rushes across the headland to find Héloïse sitting on a rock and they kiss passionately, as they know that their time is almost over.
With the portrait finished, Marianne sketches a miniature of Héloïse, who asks her to draw a self-portrait on page 28 of her book. She has her lover recline on a divan and props a mirror up against her groin to capture her expression as she gazes at Héloïse. Fighting sleep, they discuss the moments they will remember from their tryst and Héloïse confides that she had wanted to kiss Marianne from the moment she had revealed that she had known love. But they have no time together the next morning, as the Countess has already arrived. She approves the portrait and pays Marianne her fee. When she comes to say her goodbyes, she is appalled to see Héloïse in her wedding dress and she bolts for the door after a brief embrace. However, Héloïse urges her to look back and the image burns into Marianne's memory.
Back in her studio, Marianne tells her students that she only saw Héloïse twice more. The first time was at a salon at which she was exhibiting her own painting of Orpheus and Eurydice. While flicking through the catalogue, she noticed a portrait of Héloïse and her son and her eyes fill with tears when she notices that a book on her lap is open on p28. She saw her again at a concert, when Héloïse had been overcome with emotion at hearing the Vivaldi `Presto' that Marianne had played for her all those years ago.
Such is the focus on the central flashback in this exquisite film that we get little sense of what happens outside the time capsule formed in Marianne's memory. We never discover when she came to paint the picture that prompted the extended recollection. Nor, apart from the revelation that she submits items to the salon under her father's name, do we learn why Marianne is teaching a class of aristocratic young ladies. Moreover, while the salon portrait suggests that Héloïse has become a mother, we are left to speculate about what happened to Sophie's child and whether the Countess managed to make her own escape from the marital home. Does the French Revolution have any part to play in the women's ultimate fate?
These loose ends only add to the fascination of a tale told with insight and finesse by Céline Sciamma, who has acknowledged that Marianne and Héloïse emancipating and reciprocal collaboration was inspired by her own romance with Adèle Haenel. She has also spoken of the `Russian doll' effect of watching painter Hélène Delmaire producing a portrait of someone she had once loved being filmed by cinematographer Claire Mathon responding to her directions. This is clearly a billet doux to an erstwhile love, albeit one who remains a significant figure in Sciamma's creative life. But, it's also an important affirmation of the female gaze and. like Agnès Merlet's Artemisia (1997), this is also a treatise on the problems that women artists have faced down the centuries in being taken seriously by their male counterparts.
Haenel and Noémie Merlant excel, as Héloïse and Marianne sound each other out before taking the plunge to trust each other in passion and creativity. But Luàna Bajrami and Valeria Golino make valuable contributions, as two more women trapped in contrasting forms of servitude. The coast around Saint-Pierre-Quiberon and the château at La Chapelle-Gauthier in Seine-et-Marne also play key parts in proceedings, with Sciamma and sound designers Julien Sicart, Valérie de Loof and Daniel Sobrino exploiting the creaky interiors in a manner similar to William Oldroyd's use of Lambton Castle in Lady Macbeth (2016).
Mathon's camerawork, Thomas Grezaud's production design and Dorothée Guiraud's costumes are also striking, as is the hauntingly harmonious chant composed by Jean-Baptiste de Laubier and Arthur Simonini. But the picture belongs to Sciamma, whose delicate analysis of the options open to women (then and now) and measured direction allow Marianne the time to accumulate fragmentary clues about Héloïse's image and personality and commit them to memory, as well as canvas. The sequence in which Héloïse accuses Marianne of painting her according to the objectifying `rules, conventions, ideas' laid down by the patriarchal art establishment is particularly telling in the challenge it throws down to other female film-makers to reclaim the representation of women on screen and start telling their stories from their own perspective.
7) FILM TITLE POEM.
Cineastes have much to be grateful about where lockdown is concerned, as digital technology has made it possible to stay at home and still see a wide range of mainstream, independent, subtitled, documentary and experimental films. Originally shown in 2016, Jennifer West's Film Title Poem falls into the latter category and, such is the canniness of MUBI's policy of blurring the line between new and unseen films, it is being promoted as though it was freshly minted, as it has never been shown in its entirety before on an Internet platform.
Over a century ago, Italian Futurists Arnaldo and Bruno Ginanni-Corradini produced a series of nine (long lost) films in which the images were applied by hand to transparent celluloid. Around the same time, avant-gardists Viking Eggeling, Hans Richter and Oskar Fischinger started to explore the abstract potential of the moving image. Artists Fernand Léger and Marcel Duchamp similarly experimented with non-narrative forms in the 1920s after American photographer Man Ray had created Return to Reason (1923) using the non-camera Rayograph technique of placing objects directly on to light-sensitive materials.
This brand of Cinéma Pur prompted the likes of New Zealand animator Len Lye and Scot Norman McLaren to apply paint or etched images directly on to the frames of a celluloid strip. Labelled `direct' or `scratch' animation, this style was later taken up by such film-makers as Harry Smith, Tony Conrad, Hy Hirsch, Aldo Tambellini, Pierre Rovère, Dieter Roth, Takahiko Iimura and José Antonio Sistiaga. Stan Brakhage's Dog Star Man (1961-64) is often feted among the form's masterpieces and its influence can still be felt in the work of more recent practitioners like Steven Woloshen, Richard R. Reeves, Baerbel Neubauer, Cécile Fontaine, Vicky Smith, Ian Helliwell, Emmanuel Lefrant, Jennifer Reeves, Marcelle Thirache, Amy Granat and Jennifer West.
An artist and collagist based in Los Angeles, West has produced over 80 films since 2004 by distressing, damaging or destroying strips of celluloid and looping the digitised effects for projection in museums and galleries. A quick glimpse at her Wikipedia page proves most instructive, as the `radical materiality' method used in each case is outlined in some detail. Take A 70MM Film Wearing Thick Heavy Black Liquid Eyeliner That Gets Smeary (2008), which was achieved by having a `70mm film leader lined with liquid black eyeliner, doused with Jell-O Vodka shots and rubbed with body glitter'. Or Hollywood Sign Film - For Peg Entwistle (2009), which saw a `35mm interpositive dripped with holly berry juice, painted with pepper spray and silver dust using a great horned owl feather' before it was lit by headlamps, flashlights and police search lights after Shamim Momin, Mariah Csepanyi and Jwest illegally climbed on the Hollywood Sign.
The same year, West taped Peter West's 35mm print of clouds in the sky that had been covered with ink, Ho-Ho's and melon juice on to a ramp in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern so that a bunch of skateboarders could `ollie, kick flip, pop shove-it, acid drop, melon grab, crooked grind, bunny hop, tic tacs, sex change, disco flip' over it to create Skate the Sky Film. Her most recent effort before Film Title Poem was Terrazzo Floor Spiral Film (2014), which required 16mm negative filmstrips of West's double exposed images of mosaic floors and telecine machines to be taped to tables at Casal Solleric in Mallorca, Spain, where visitors `melted candle wax, wrote, scratched, smeared lipstick, rubbed soppressata, crumbled cookies, made marks with beer bottles and spilled wine on the filmstrips'.
Inspired by a re-viewing of Chris Marker's Sans Soleil (1983) and following on from a subsequent Instagram project, Film Title Poem has been dubbed `a psychic montage of my inner history of film'. Drawn from West's own collection of video cassettes, DVDs and Blu-rays, the 500+ title frames were reshot in complete darkness by torchlight from screenshots on 35mm film. Taking cues from such experimentalists as Raphael Montañez Ortiz and Carolee Schneemann, these were then tinted, etched upon, punctured and scratched by West and animators Kelsey Boncato and Sadie Marchese-Moore using `food coloring, inks, dyes, sharpies and everyday items found around the house or studio, such as shards of mirror, forks, hole punchers, vegetable peelers, push pins, toothbrushes, glass scoring tools, stencils and more'.
The results were transferred to HD video with the purpose of emphasising the materiality of the celluloid, redefining the filmic space, showing how cinema leaves imprints upon our memories and exploring how the experience of watching motion pictures has changed since the digital and streaming revolutions. Edited in alphabetical order (starting with numerals before somewhat bizarrely placing films beginning with the indefinite and definite articles in the `A' and `T' lists), the combination of flashlight happenstance and serendipitous juxtaposition meant that `the strung together words offer playful, poetic, philosophical, comedic, ironic, political, and urgent moments throughout the film'. The montage is accompanied by an audio collage pieced together from snippets of soundtracks, some of which recur to offer intriguing contrasts.
In introducing this collection of `collaged words, images, patterns and glitches' on MUBI's Notebook page, West claims to have created `a film about movies, a movie about films, a list made into a poem, a poem on film, an analogital streamer, to be continued...' She also encourages viewers to make their own `cinema-lover list', while remembering when and where they first saw the chosen titles. Most tellingly, she also urges people to reflect the fact that so many classic films are `racist, misogynist, homophic, transphobic' and `use stereotypes, clichés and many other issues around systemic racism, colonialism, the destruction of the environment, consumerism and so many other crucial issues of our times'. With the cancel ethos in the West seemingly hurtling towards a head-on collision with our cultural heritage, this is an interesting point to raise. West aims to make a new version of the film in 2016. It will be fascinating to see how much the archival landscape will have changed.
Having noticed that West has done much of the heavy scene-setting in this review, readers are entitled to ask, `Well, critic, does the film work or not?' The answer is simple. `Absolutely, but watch it yourself to see why.' Be prepared to be surprised, however, by how trendily conventional West's viewing tastes are.
The most remarkable thing about Gints Zilbalodis's debut feature, Away, is that it exists at all. After all, how many other feature-length animations have been produced by just one person? He even composed the score. No wonder it took him almost four years. It wasn't exactly a first attempt, as the 25 year-old Latvian had also produced four shorts. But he cut a few corners along the way and admits to having made it up as he went along. If, at times, it shows, this does nothing to detract from a charming and involving adventure that, ultimately, turns out to be an allegory about its own making.
Having awoken dangling from a parachute that is entangled in the branches of a bare tree, a teenage boy sees a shadowy creature approaching him across the barren wilderness (think the Iron Giant with glossily translucent tar-like skin). Unhooking the harness, he evades the entity's enveloping grasp and runs through the desert - with the monster padding steadily, if unthreateningly behind him - until he reaches the verdant uplands of the Forbidden Oasis.
Turning to see that his pursuer has remained at the circular opening in the rocks, the boy flips up the goggles he's wearing and starts to explore. He finds an old motorbike on a ledge overlooking the sea and wanders inland to find the oasis, as well as a tree bearing delicious fruit. As he swims in the cool water, the youth notices a flightless yellow bird, straining to reach the fruit on the branches that are just out of its reach. Befriending the creature, he passes through what resembles a graveyard, with tall plants towering over rows of black slabs with circles in their middle.
Noting that the creature has remained motionless at the entrance to the glade, the boy finds a rucksack hanging from a branch. In addition to such useful items as a telescope, a knife, some matches and a water bottle, the bag also contains a map that seems to reveal the existence of a port on the far side of the island. Clutching a silver key, he fires up the motorbike and feels like a child when he falls off, with the hulking humanoid looking on. He traces an image of his nemesis in the black earth and wonders how he can ever get past.
After a swim and a night under the stars, the boy tries to master the machine. But he is distracted by a flock of white birds flying overhead, which cause the yellow bird to stray too close to the entrance to the enclave. Seeing his friend in trouble, the boy pushes his way into the moiling shape-shifting mass and nurses the bird back to health. As his companion sleeps, the teenager strolls around the oasis and realises he has no option but to make an escape bid when he finds a skeleton in a cave surrounded by dirt drawings of the colossus.
Gathering provisions and placing the yellow bird in a side pocket of his knapsack, the boy revs up his bike and steers past the shape, which does nothing but turn to watch him go. Naturally, they are followed along a winding road that passes through a series of identical rock arches. But, unlike the eagle that swoops down to snatch a rabbit when they stop for a break, the monster keeps its distance (although it does wrap itself around a deer that had been grazing in a flower-filled field).
Having pulled the yellow bird from a ledge after it watched a lookalike white bird fly off into the sky, the boy dismounts to wheel the bike across a wooden bridge that creaks ominously on its impossibly elongated arches. As he rests, however, he sees the monster through his telescope and rushes to the top of an incline to push a boulder that he hopes will smash the bridge.
A white fox appears and eyes up the yellow bird, which tries to hide in the rucksack, as the youth scrambles down the slope to start pushing the rock towards the edge. Despite the efforts of the white bird to distract it, the fox spot its prey. But, with the entity already on the bridge, the boy is too busy to protect it. In trying to run, the bird flaps its wings and makes an unconvincing takeover. Indeed, it seems to be plummeting down into the gorge with the giant when the white bird flies alongside it and they soar upwards, as the music swells. Relieved to see his companion is safe, the teen picks it up and peers over the precipice into the misty depths.
Riding on, they reach Mirror Lake. Three elephants walk across the frozen surface, as hundreds of white birds are reflected in the ice. Realising it can bear his weight, the boy drives across. But the yellow bird pops out of its pocket to revel in the sensation of flight and gazes down on the dot that the boy and the bike have become from its lofty vantage point.
That night, the child dreams of the plane crash that had left him stranded. As he floats down to earth on his parachute, silhouetted figures resembling his pursuer tumble past him and he is powerless to prevent them free falling to their doom. He wakes with a jolt and, through the flames of his campfire, he thinks he sees the colossus beneath one of the arches. But, even though it's an optical illusion and he tries to drift off, he struggles to sleep because he's missing the bird.
Next day, the boy makes good progress, as he passes through a forest of tall trees. He stops when he sees dozens of black cats sitting beside a geyser and follows them down the spiralling white path after it shoots a jet of water into the air. Kneeling, he drinks with the felines, who take it in turns to lap at the pool before purringly falling asleep on the soft grass amidst some ruined temple buildings beside the Dream Well. Wooden chimes clunk gently in the breeze, as the youth settles down for a nap and dreams of the yellow bird gliding through the clouds in the middle of a white flock.
On waking, he sees a large tortoise trudging towards the geyser. The cats follow it, with one hitching a ride on its shell. They all sit to watch the water spout and the boy follows them down the snail-shell path to fill his water bottle. As the cats snooze, he wheels his bike away and speeds on (with his seemingly inexhaustible supply of fuel) to sleep rough near some fluttering prayer flags. In what appears to be a dream, the yellow bird passes over the bridge and sees the giant climbing the framework. It keeps watch, as the creature reaches the geyser and crouches in a black ball before rising up with the water.
Meanwhile, the youth has come across the wreckage of the plane. As he stares into the sheared fuselage, shadow figures with large white eyes lean out from the seats to peer at him. It starts to rain and he shelters inside the cabin and watches the tortoise plod past. He encounters it again on a steep stretch of road and flips the reptile over when it loses its balance and lands on its shell.
The way ahead proves treacherous, however, as a snowstorm whistles around the road through some high peaks. Forced to push the bike up an incline, the boy collapses in the snow, just as the beast catches up with him. It oozes over him and the somnolent child plunges downwards into a swirling black morass. However, the yellow bird has been following and it dives into the fray and hauls the boy up in its beak, as the contents of his rucksack spill out. Seen from the outside, the black ball pulses and spikes before seeming to explode into nothingness, leaving the boy lying in the snow.
As the tortoise is reunited with his wife and child, the lad comes round and hears the bird chirping. He strokes its beak with his finger before hauling himself to his feet. Through the haze, he sees Cloud Harbor on the horizon and fires up the bike for the last leg of his journey. An avalanches rumbles down the slopes and funnels along the road, as the boy strains to stay ahead of it. The white bird joins its yellow counterpart in flying overhead, as he realises that he has reached a dead end and will have to hurtle off the end of a promontory and trust himself to the sea.
Dropping like a stone, the boy sees the motorbike sinking into the depths. But he pushes to the surface and manages to swim (in what doesn't appear to be particularly cold water) to shore. Removing his goggles, he gazes into the distance and, with the yellow bird fluttering over him, he makes out people coming towards him.
Closing with admirable modesty with a credit reading simply, `A Film By Gints Zilbalodis', this is looks set to become a landmark in the history of animation. It looks magnificent, with Zilbalodis's draughtsmanship being matched only by his technical ingenuity with the Maya programme (complete with its own virtual camera) and the breadth of his imagination. The sequence with the cats and the geyser is an absolute delight and will have ailurophiles everywhere in raptures, while the mournfully wide-eyed expressions on the departed souls inside the plane will haunt many a nightmare.
The spirit of Hayao Miyazaki courses through the action, although the influence of Michael Dudok de Wit's The Red Turtle (2016) is also readily apparent. Yet there are lengthy stretches that will give some the impression that they have strayed into a video game. Zilbalodis's use of extended zooms and swooping drone shots reinforces this sense, although he is more than entitled to employ them given the modesty of his resources. Budgetary constraint also makes it possible to excuse the absence of fine detail, such as shadows, and the functional texturing of the human, supernatural and animal characters. But, in a film running only 75 minutes, the surfeit of mid-shots range tracking the bike from the side as it passes sometimes bland and repetitive scenery begins to grate. At other times, however, the landscape is spectacular and mysterious. with the Mirror Lake sequence being the standout.
Keeping the unnamed boy's expressions simple also makes it difficult to identify with him, especially as he doesn't speak and has no interior monologue. His friendship with the yellow bird is sweet, but the creature isn't exactly Tweetie Pie or Woodstock from the Peanuts strips. By contrast, the spectre is fascinating and many debates will be had about whether he is a threat to the youth or a guardian, as it never encroaches upon him when he is safe or content. It could also be a figment of a traumatised imagination and represent either the boy's survivor guilt or his fear of death (or both). Then again, it could be something more symbolic or personal to Zilbalodis. It could also be a bogey man to which we can attach our own particular meaning.
Wherever the truth lies, this marks its maker as an exciting talent and it will be intriguing to see whether he remains a one-man band (his electro-score is splendidly atmospheric, as it flits between anxiety and exhilaration) or whether he will bring in collaborators to share the digital spade work and also, perhaps, sharpen his storytelling. While we wait to find out, could someone release Zilbalodis's four shorts, please: Aqua (2012), Followers, Priorities (both 2014) and Inaudible (2015)?
5) JOAN OF ARC.
There are two reasons for perplexion surrounding the UK release of Bruno Dumont's Joan of Arc. Given that this is a companion piece to the 2017 item, Jeanette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc. why is it showing in isolation at a time of lockdown when it's only competing for attention rather than screen space? And, perhaps more importantly, why have so many critics (with the laudable exception of Sight and Sound's Jason Anderson) sneeringly dismissed it as a monumental act of self-indulgence without taking the trouble to engage with it on anything more than a superficial level? After all, it didn't win the prestigious Prix Louis Delluc for nothing,
An opening caption explains that, during the Hundred Years War, Joan of Arc led the armies of Charles VII of France in a bid to reclaim Paris from the English and their Burgundian allies. Away from battle, on the morning of Sunday 8 May 1429, Joan d'Arc (Lise Leplat Prudhomme) is praying when Marie (Justine Herbez) asks her to bless a rosary for a dying neighbour's son. However, Joan is perplexed because she doesn't claim to have any special spiritual powers and notes that the beads will be just as holy if they were blessed by Madame Jacqueline (Annick Lavieville). Preferring to do something positive, Joan goes with Marie to pray at the child's bedside.
Four months later, on 8 September (the Feast of the Birth of the Virgin Mary), Monseigneur Regnauld de Chartres (Benoît Robail) and Messire Raoul de Gaucourt (Alain Desjacques) are on the dunes discussing the prospects for the day's fighting when they are joined by Monseigneur Patrice Bernard (Serge Holvoet), who notes the arrival of Joan and Gilles de Rais (Julien Manier). He is upset because he has missed out on the looting of some wealthy villages along the Seine and corrects Joan when she curses the savagery of the English brigands by pointing out that the pillaging was done by French troops.
Left along clutching her standard, Joan watches a cloud move across the sun and a song by Christophe conveys her distaste for the brutality of battle and the fear that she has tainted her soul by ordering men to kill. She is joined by Maître Jean (Jérôme Brimeux), who asks if she has heard anything from the voices that have been guiding her. When she reveals they have not spoken to her for a while, Joan wishes she was back in Lorraine with her family Jean urges her not to let homesickness deflect her from her purpose. Joan concurs and is telling Jean to lead an attack on Paris via St Honoré's Gate when they are rejoined by Gaucourt, who is reluctant to commit men to battle without the assurance that Joan has been guided by her voices.
Obeying her command to fight, the mounted French forces face off against their English counterparts and the ensuing showdown is presented from hoof and saddle level, as well as top shooting drones in a display of equestrian choreography that recalls the images of horses on the puszta achieved by Miklós Jancsó in The Round-Up (1966). As the drummers strike up, Joan's horse performs dressage steps before the pageant plays out around her, as she closes her eyes and prays to God for victory.
The following day, a disillusioned Gaucourt reports back to Chartres and Bernard that Joan has suffered her first defeat and that he is reluctant to take the field again with direct orders from the king. They are interrupted by the arrival of the armour-clad Joan and Jean, duc d'Alençon (Benjamin Demassieux), who is carrying her standard. While they lament the setback, Marcechal de Rais stomps across the dunes to remonstrate with Joan for her lack of inspirational leadership. He reminds her that not everyone is as pious as she is and that she should promise them riches in order to goad them into risking their lives because gold will always trump glory. Gaucourt confides that he dislikes the bellicose De Rais, but warns Joan that it's dangerous talk to prefer honourable defeat to rampaging victory.
A page (Laurent Darras) rushes up to announce the arrival of Baron de Montmorency (Marc Parmentier), who has decided to quit the cause of Henry VI and asks if he can throw in his lot with Charles VII. However, the Comte de Clermont (Jean-Pierre Baude) arrives with a herald (Joseph Rigo), who reads a proclamation from the king ordering them not attack Paris, as he has contracted a truce with the English. Stunned by the news that the capital will remain in the hands of the invader, Joan is left alone on the windswept sand.
Six months later, in March 1430, in the gardens of the Château de Tremouille, Joan tells Jean that she can't bear to stand idle as the villagers of the Seine are being subjected to indignities at the hands of the English. He cautions her that Charles won't sanction further hostilities and she vows to form a volunteer band to go to their aid, if the king persists in abandoning them to their fate. As Joan walks into the forbidding grandeur of a cathedral, Christophe's sings her prayer for Charles (Fabrice Luchini) to go to the aid of his subjects. But he pleads with Joan to take a rest and not do anything reckless. She is stung by what she perceives as his treachery and asks Frère Jean Pasquerel (Yves Baudelle) to send a letter to the citizens of Orléans asking them to send supplies to the town of Melun so that she can renew battle. When she gallops across the dunes in full armour, however, Joan kicks up a cloud of dust from which her distressed horse emerges to denote that she has been captured.
Eleven months later, in late February 1431, Joan's trial commences in the royal chapel in the castle of Rouen. It's 7:30am and a quartet of choristers is singing in the organ loft (Aurélie Desain, Laurence Malbete, Augustin Charnet and José Morel) as Maître Nicolas L'Oiseleur (Fabien Fenet) and Frère Mathieu Bourat (Valério Vassallo) comment on the fact that Joan's prosecution for heresy is loaded with ulterior motives. L'Oiseleur protests that he is merely seeking to coax Joan into accepting the error of her ways so that she can be welcomed back into the bosom of Mother Church. But, as they greet Maître Fidèle Pierret (Laurent Brassart) taking his place in the stalls, Bourat wishes it was that simple, as he suspects that the English are exploiting the Church to score political points.
Pierret is unhappy that Joan is being chained to the wall of her cell, but L'Oiseleur insists this isn't his concern, as she is not being held in a Church prison. He also reassures Pierret that Joan will be given a fair trial, as the 12 members of the court have numerous degrees in theology and civil and canon law between them. Indeed, he wonders if they are not overqualified for the task of prosecuting a peasant girl, as he welcomes Jean Beaupère (Joël Carion) and his companions, Maître Nicolas Midi (Franck Dubois) and Maître Guillaume Evrard (Christophe). While eulogising about the brilliance of this trio from the University of Paris, L'Oiseleur speaks even more highly of Maître Thomas de Courcelles (Daniel Dienne), whose wisdom belies his youth.
As English trial assessor William Haiton (Yves Habert) takes his place, L'Oiseleur points out Monseigneur Pierre Cauchon (Jean-François Causeret), who is accompanied by Jean D'Estivet (Robert Hanicotte) and Maître Jean de la Fontaine (Claude Saint-Paul). As Bishop of Beauvais, Cauchon is one of the senior clerics officiating at the trial and he consults with L'Oiseleur, who confides that they will have to keep an eye on Bourat and Pierret, as they may not be as sound as they had originally hoped. Taking note and hoping that neither is willing to do anything that might jeopardise his immortal soul, Cauchon tells Messire Jean Massieu (Robert Hanicotte) to fetch the prisoner.
Before Joan arrives, Cauchon blesses the assembled and hands over the cross-examination to De La Fontaine, in the hope that he will steer the trial to as fair a conclusion as human beings can achieve. As the bishop departs, De La Fontaine asks Joan if she is willing to re-swear her oath to tell the truth. But she objects that she might not want to answer some of the questions and has no intention of sharing with anyone the messages she believes came from God Himself. On hearing this. D'Estivet jumps to his feet and declares Joan a heretic and suggests they could save themselves a lot of time by basing their verdict on this outburst and finding Charles VII guilty of heresy at the same time.
He is persuaded to resume his seat, as Haiton asks why Joan shows so little deference to her accusers and sniffs that English people know their place. De La Fontaine asks Joan about her life before she took up arms and she reveals a talent for spinning. However, she knew where her duty lay and she swerves attempts to trap her into saying that she ordered her men to kill the English. She expresses sorrow that so many died, but suggests that they would have lived longer had they not trespassed on to French soil.
When asked why she dressed in male attire, Joan responds that she had been called to do a man's job. The wily Courcelles tries to catch her out by asking why she used the Sign of the Cross in her correspondence and several others weigh in with questions designed to trick Joan into making a mistake. But she answers them all with defiant assurance and keeps refusing to disclose what the voices told her, as their words were addressed solely to her. Courcelles scoffs at her for lacking the learning to defend herself with eloquence, but Joan snaps back that God chose a simple shepherdess and that she fought and sought to escape in His Name.
Convinced that Joan is not being tried as a simple heretic, Bourat objects to the line of questioning when she is asked how she thinks she will die. Haiton pipes up again that she is impudent to demand instant results from her prayers, as the English have the decency to wait after making their requests. Courcelles snipes that there is no mention of her coming in Scripture and wonders how she can claim to be doing the Lord's work when she hasn't performed a single miracle. Joan counters by stating that her victories against the odds were proof that God was on her side, but Courcelles mocks her for not realising that her defeats suggest the contrary.
De La Fontaine asks Joan if she's a good Christian and questions whether Charles VII is also a true believer. Avoiding attempts to dupe her into doubting his sagacity as a ruler, Joan inquires whether it would be possible to be placed in a Church prison rather than a secular one. D'Estivet fumes that she shouldn't be shown any mercy because she refuses to submit to the authority of the Church. When Joan asks if the Church and Christendom are the same thing, Courcelles tries to confuse her with intricate definitions. But she avers that she's a good Christian and wants to obey the Church in all things, with the exception of revealing what was said by her voices.
Accepting that she must stay in a secular prison, Joan asks to hear Mass and receive Communion. But the dyspeptic D'Estivet leaps to his feet to protest and, when L'Oiseleur suggests that she might be allowed to confess, Courcelles objects on the ground that a sinner cannot receive mercy if they remain outside the Church. Bourat and Pierret protest that heretics are never usually subjected to this line of interrogation. But Courcelles interjects to claim that everyone in the court wishes to help Joan find her way back to the rightful path and trusts that she will recognise that they are fighting for her soul rather than seeking to condemn her. De la Fontaine concurs and wraps up proceedings, but not before he chides L'Oiseleur for speaking out of turn and making the blasphemous suggestion that someone should place themselves outside the Church in order to hear Joan's confession, even if that means she submits to their authority.
Some two and a half months pass and it's now mid-May 1431. questioner Mauger le Parmentier (Hervé Flechais) reminds apprentice Julien L'Anget (David Babin) that they have an important job to do in interrogating Joan and warns him to take his work seriously. Locksmith François Brasset (Michel Delhaye) arrives with his own apprentice, Lucien Clamet (Romain Olivier), to hand over a new buckle for the rack. As Mauger tells Brasset that his trade is slowly dying out because no one wants heretics to recant any longer, Lucien asks Julien why he settled for such a lousy job and he explains that his mother couldn't afford a better apprenticeship and he wound up being a torturer's assistant.
Arriving at the chapel, Mauger and Brasset are greeted by Cauchon and L'Oiseleur, who hope that the threat of pain will persuade Joan into changing her tune. As the other members of the court file into their pews, Cauchon reveals that Evrard will use his fabled eloquence to touch Joan's heart and make her abjure. But, when she is brought in by the guards, Joan remains as stubborn as ever and Cauchon sends D'Estivet to fetch Mauger. She refuses to be intimidated, however, and argues that she will renounce any recantation achieved by force. D'Estivet blusters that she should be found guilty without any more ado and be handed over to the secular arm for burning. Everyone turns, as Evrard rises from his seat and starts to sing. He concedes that Joan will go to Hell unless she changes her plea and she looks sadly resigned to her fate, as she turns and walks away between her escorts.
As evening falls that same day, the soldiers (Emmanuel Boutry and Didier Fournier) standing outside Joan's cell chat idly to pass the time. They wonder why St George is fighting St Michael and conclude that saints are weird. A third soldier (Florent Ramecourt) rushes up and tells his pals that he has stashed away some booze and urges them to abandon their post and party. Left alone. Joan prays before lying in the straw and contemplates her fate.
Early in the second-to-last week of May 1431, Joan is brought back to the chapel for sentencing. L'Oiseleur is invited to address her and he promises to be brief, as the trial has dragged on for months. In his windbagging way, he tells Joan that it's never too late to recant and exhorts her to think of how sad Jesus will be when he realises that he died in vain because her sins remain uncleansed. Rather than respond, Joan merely rises and walks away, with her passage over the black--and-white tiled floor being viewed from a towering top shot in the roof.
Later that evening, the guards wonder if this will be their last night outside the cell. One is certain they'll be given new duties, but the other warns him not to count his chickens, as Joan might still crack. The next day, Thursday 24 May, the three guards are waiting to be relieved with the news that Joan has been burned. However, Maître Maussois (Philippe Robe) breaks the news that she became so afraid on seeing the pyre and the large crowd that she recanted. He hints that those who had come from all over France to see Joan die were as cross as the English. But they are interrupted when John Gris (Jean-Pierre Jadas) arrives with his prisoner and she looks abashed, as the cell door is padlocked.
Joan's conscience is quickly pricked, however, and she withdraws her submission. Dressed in a simple dress and with her hair cut short, she kneels in prayer before Massieu, who asks her to pray for him. As she looks up and sways in a manner that emphasises her youth and innocence, Christophe's lyrics claim that the voices had never let her down and that she knows she has done the right thing in remaining true to their promises. A blackbird flies in to feed its babies in a nest, as she Joan makes her peace with Rouen and the film ends on a long shot of a figure tethered to a stake on the top of a small hill, as the smoke starts to billow.
Based on Charles Péguy's 1910 play, The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc, this fascinating, if flawed feature joins a long list of screen recreations of the martyrdom of the Maid of Orléans. For once, Georges Méliès was pipped to the post, as George Hatot released his one-reeler in 1898. However, Bruno Dumont has stated that Méliès's 1899 short, Jeanne d'Arc, Cecil B. DeMille's 1917 epic, Joan the Woman (with which it shares a running-time), and Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) provided more silent inspiration than such sound versions as Victor Fleming's Joan of Arc (1948), Roberto Rossellini's Joan of Arc At the Stake (1954), Otto Preminger's St Joan (1957), Robert Bresson's The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), Jacques Rivette's Jeanne la Pucelle (1994) and Luc Besson's The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999).
The aforementioned contained notable performances by the likes of Renée Falconetti, Ingrid Bergman, Jean Seberg, Florence Delay, Sandrine Bonnaire and Milla Jovovich. But even the remarkable Falconetti (in her one and only film) might have to hand over the laurel to 10 year-old Lise Leplat Prudhomme, who had played the younger Joan in Jeannette and would have been overlooked had co-star Jeanne Voisin been available to reprise the role. One might say that someone was looking over Dumont, as the decision to cast a girl almost half Joan's age pays off handsomely, as Prudhomme is simply captivating as a Joan who refuses to believe the hype about her own holiness in placing her trust firmly in God rather than in Man.
Given recent events, it's intriguing to see how often Joan takes the knee to pray. However, the emphasis is more on the treatment of young women by men in positions of power, although (80 years on from the surrender of France in May 1940) there's also a hint of the quisling mentality that saw those in thrall to the occupying House of Lancaster persecute a resistance fighter who had come to embody the spirit of the nation. Dumont is not one to give his intentions away, but the conclusion reached by some critics that this is a hollow absurdist shell of a movie would seem to be well wide of the mark.
Few have bothered to comment on the performative nature of the piece. Many have mentioned shambolic amateur dramatic productions in describing how the minor characters in the opening scenes trudge across Norman sand dunes to deliver lines in a stilted fashion that has been ridiculed as Pythonesque. But Dumont is reminding viewers that many of those who rallied to Joan's banner were simple peasants like herself, who didn't speak in the polished poetry or prose of Molière, Racine or Corneille. Moreover, by including characters like the questioner, the locksmith, their apprentices and the soldiers, Dumont is following in a time-honoured theatrical tradition that had coarse comic characters like the Porter provide some light relief from the harrowing drama in Shakespeare's Macbeth.
The majority of the players are non-professionals, with Fabien Fenet (L'Oiseleur) being a bookseller and Jean-François Causeret (Cauchon) and Daniel Dienne (Courcelles) being teachers. Yet they bring an honesty and intensity to the trial sequences, whose mood is also somewhat lightened by Robert Hanicotte's misogynist blusterings as the bigoted D'Estivet. Dumont and cinematographer David Chambille make potent use of the imposing Gothic splendour of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Amiens to make the diminutive Prudhomme look even smaller than she is.
But Dumont and co-editor Basile Belkhiri also cut in numerous close-ups of her unforgiving gaze, as she looks through the lens and challenges everyone in the audience to question how steadfast they have been in moments of trial. It's probably not intentional, but Prudhomme's piercing stare often brings to mind earnest climate campaigner Greta Thunberg, whose youth and gender have also been mocked by pompously patronising and complacently privileged chauvinists incapable of engaging her in meaningful debate.
The contrast between the chancel and the Second World War bunker used for Joan's prison has been castigated for its sledgehammer unsubtlety. But, again, we cite the idea of a nation under siege. Indeed, there's a suggestion that the jokes at the expense of the English relate to the events that took place on another Normandy beach in the spring of 1940. However, the principal target for Dumont's humour is Dreyer's silent masterpiece and such stylised recreations of Gallic mythology as Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac (1974) and Éric Rohmer’s Perceval le Gallois (1978). He isn't solely seeking to satirise, however, as he also pays homage to Roberto Rossellin's late-career historical sagas and the experimental approaches employed by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet and Hans-Jürgen Syberberg.
By all accounts, Jeannette makes pivotally anachronistic use of heavy metal music. Here, however, Dumont contents himself with the thud of drums for the impeccably choreographed battle sequences and the periodic snippets of inner monologue provided by the ethereal synth chansons of 70s balladeer Christophe, who sadly passed away from coronavirus at the age of 74 on 16 April. Waggish cineastes have made self-congratulatory cracks about cringe-inducing prog rock albums, but there are numerous musical precedents for this falsetto style of singing, with some dating back to the canonical music of Joan of Arc's own time.
Like Dreyer and Bresson before him, Dumont has frequently pondered the themes of grace and transcendence. They are readily applicable to Joan of Arc's story. But there's nothing easy about this disarmingly wittily and calculatingly austere variation on her ordeal and Dumont sometimes pushes his luck. Yet he cannily highlights the way in which Church and State continue to join forces in order to control the masses across the global religious spectrum. Moreover, he also reveals how the faith, rage and courage of a committed young woman can threaten to topple the entire patriarchal edifice.
4) PARASITE (B/W).
Before he decided to release the Oscar-winning Parasite in a black-and-white version, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho had not been one to repeat himself. Since debuting with Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000), a macabre comedy about an unemployed college professor turning on the canines running amok in his apartment block, Bong has turned his hand with equal adeptness to the serial killer crime drama (Memories of Murder, 2003), the creature feature (The Host, 2006), grim social dramedy (Mother, 2009), the sci-fi actioner (Snowpiercer, 2013) and the political allegory (Okja, 2017). Yet, while these films may be different in theme and tone, they are united by a lacerating sense of satire that denounces the growing divide between the classes in a country forever looking over its shoulder at it dangerously unpredictable neighbour to the north.
It's become unfashionable to label film-makers as auteurs, but Bong confirmed his status with Parasite, which saw him become the first Korean director to win the Palme d'or at Cannes and the Academy Award for Best Picture. Coming on top of the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs he had already won, Bong was able to reach an unprecedented audience with a howl of rage that often feels like a Korean variation on Hirokazu Kore-eda's Shoplifters (2018), another Cannes winner that approached the theme of poverty with a hint more narrative boldness and dash more disarming wit.
Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) lives in a cramped Seoul basement with his wife, Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), and children, Ki-woo (Song Kang-ho) and Ki-jeong (Park So-dam). Despite being willing to work, the Kims can only find jobs in the gig economy and make a botched job of folding boxes for a nearby pizzeria. However, Ki-woo's friend, Min (Park Seo-joon) offers him the chance to take on his home-tutoring job while he is studying in the United States. Using photoshopping skills that her father considers worthy of the Oxford School of Forgery, Ki-jeoing creates some certificates for her brother and he sets off to meet Park Da-hye (Jeong Ji-so), a 15 year-old who resides with her father, Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun), mother, Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), and brother, Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun), in an elegant, gated house with a sprawling garden in a smart part of the city.
Shown into by housekeeper Gook Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun), Ki-woo makes an immediate impression on Yeon-gyo, who decides to call him Kevin after watching him take Da-hye's pulse during the tutorial in a bid to show her how she needs to keep calm when answering exam questions. As he is leaving, Ki-woo has a sucker arrow fired at him by Da-song, a wild child with an obsession with Native Americans and an eccentric gift for art. Ki-woo tells Yeon-gyo about a college classmate named Jessica, who trained in the United States and she immediately asks him to bring her to the house.
Of course, Jessica is Ki-jeong, who impresses Yeon-gyo with her calm control over her son and her insistence that he needs art therapy four times a week to suppress his potentially psychotic tendencies. However, Da-hye is jealous because she thinks Ki-woo has a crush on Ki-jeong and he has to pay her a lavish compliment and kiss her on the lips in order to reassure her. Chauffeur Yoon (Park Geun-rok) is also suspicious when Ki-jeong asks him to drop her off at a train station rather than drive her to her door. Realising he could be a threat, she plants a pair of knickers under the driver's seat for Dong-ik to find and he and Yeon-gyo agree to replace him with Ki-taek, who poses as an experience chauffeur and friend of Ki-jeong's family.
He passes a coffee cup cornering test with flying colours and Dong-ik quickly comes to confide in Ki-taek. Thus, when they discover that Moon-gwang is allergic to peaches, the Kims devise an elaborate ruse to convince Yeon-gyo that the housekeeper is suffering from tuberculosis. They even smear a tissue with chili sauce to make it look like she has coughed up blood. No sooner has she been dismissed than Ki-taek tells Dong-ik about an exclusive domestic service called The Care and Ki-jeong puts on a droning voice to pose as the company secretary when Yeon-gyo calls to find a new housekeeper and is informed that Chung-sook would suit her perfectly.
The Kims are delighted to have found well-paid jobs with the Parks and put it down to the scholar stone that Min gave them before going abroad. But they are put on the alert when Da-song accuses Ki-taek, Chung-sook and Ki-jeong of smelling alike and they agree to use different soaps and fabric conditioners - and move out of the basement where drunks frequently stop to pee - in order to remove the smell of poverty from their clothes.
When the Parks go away on a camping trip, the Kims move into the house for a week of light, space and luxury. Chung-sook is less than amused by the prospect of having to pamper the three Park dogs, Zoonie, Berry and Foofoo, but she agrees with her husband that it's a small price to pay, especially as the Parks are so nice - for rich people. They particularly like Yeon-gyo, as she is so naive and malleable. But Ki-woo admits to having a crush on Da-hye and suggests they could even marry one day. The family is joking about how they would have to hire actors to play them on Ki-woo's wedding day when their reverie is interrupted by Moon-gwang, who shows up in the middle of a thunderstorm and asks via the intercom if she can tend to something she had left behind in the kitchen basement.
Leaving Chung-sook to answer the door, the other three snoop from behind a pillar and follow Moon-gwang into the secret room where she has been hiding her husband, Geun-sae (Park Myung-hoon), from vicious loan sharks for over four years. She explains that Namgoong, the architect who built the house, had not told the Parks about the hideaway and she had used it to keep her spouse safe. She offer Chung-sook some money to keep feeding Geun-sae, but she unexpectedly gains the upper hand when Ki-taek, Ki-woo and Ki-jeung tumble out of their hiding place and Moon-gwang captures Ki-woo calling Ki-taek `dad' on her mobile phone. She threatens to send the clip to Yeon-gyo unless they co-operate.
Upstairs, Moon-gwang has the Kims kneel on the floor with their hands in the air, while she gives Geun-sae a massage. He compares the send button to Kim Jong-un's nuclear launcher and laughs as his wife impersonates a North Korean newsreader hailing the Supreme Leader's sagacity in turning the country's last weapon on this wicked family. However, they momentarily take their eye off the ball and the Kims leap on them and not only delete the footage, but also overpower their conquerors.
At that moment, the phone rings and Yeon-gyu orders Chung-sook to cook a special noodle dish for Da-song, who is sulking because they had to abandon the campsite because of the storm. They are eight minutes away and the Kims have to use some peaches to incapacitate Moon-gwang, while Ki-woo and Ki-jeong try to remove evidence of their presence and Ki-taek drags Moon-gwang and Geun-sae back into the secret room. The former escapes just as the Parks arrive and Chung-sook knocks her cold by kicking her down the stairs and Ki-taek is able to pull the shelving back in front of the entrance before anyone notices.
Da-song (who once saw Geun-sae and thought he was a ghost) is determined to camp and fetches his teepee from his room and his parents allow him to sleep in the garden. They decide to spend the night on the sofa so they can keep an eye on him. Dong-ik thinks he can smell Ki-taek, as he has a distinctive odour of boiled radishes. But they soon start fondling each other, unaware that the Kims are hiding under the table in front of them and that Ki-taek has been nettled by the remark about the poor having a telltale smell.
When Dong-ik and Yeon-gyo fall asleep, the trio emerge from under the table, but Ki-taek nearly gets caught when Da-song sends a walkie-talkie message about not being able to sleep and his parents wake up. The Kims manage to make their escape through the garage and run through the streets in the torrential downpour. They arrive home to find that their apartment has flooded and they are only able to salvage a few possessions before the water rises too far. Meanwhile, back in the Park basement, the concussed Moon-gwang can feel herself losing consciousness and she tells Geun-sae that Chung-sook kicked her downstairs. Despite being bound and gagged, he uses the button for the hall light to spell out `H-E-L-P' in Morse code and Da-song gets the message.
Ki-taek and his children are forced to spend the night in a gymnasium and he tells Ki-woo that making plans is foolish because they never work out. The next morning, they have to accept donated clothing in order to come to the impromptu garden party that Yeon-gyu has decided to throw for Da-song's birthday. She upsets Ki-taek in the car by feeling queasy when she gets a whiff of his body odour, while Dong-ik urges Chung-sook to set up the tables quietly because Da-song is taking a nap in his tent.
Watching the party guests while kissing Da-hye in her room, Ki-woo seems distracted and wanders off carrying the scholar stone. While Dong-ik explains to Ki-taek how they are going to stage a mock Native American tomahawk fight with Da-song to boost his self-esteem, Yeon-gyu corrals Ki-jeung into carrying her son's birthday cake. Meanwhile, Ki-woo goes into the secret basement, only to be overpowered by Geun-sae, who caves in his head with the stone before making his escape. Grabbing a knife from the kitchen, he goes in search of Chung-sook, but stabs Ki-jeong in the chest instead.
This causes Da-song to have a fit and Dong-ik calls to Ki-taek for the cat keys so he can drive him to the hospital. As he tosses them from beside a profusely bleeding Ki-jeong. Chung-sook attacks Geun-sae with a meat skewer and he lands on the keys. Seeing Dong-ik react to Geun-sae's smell, Ki-taek snaps and he picks up the carving knife and stabs his employer before staggering away in a daze.
A month later, Ki-woo comes out of a coma to learn that his sister had died of her wounds. Unable to do anything but laugh, he goes on trial with his mother for fraud and various other charges. They receive a suspended sentence and he revisits the house and sees the landing light flashing out a message in Morse. He learns that his father is hiding in the basement room and sneaks out to steal food from the German family renting the property. Living in the family's renovated apartment, Ki-woo writes a letter to Ki-taek promising to make enough money to buy the house and set him free. But, while this seems eminently possible in his imagination, the truth is somewhat harsher.
Putting a bleakly comic twist on the home invasion format, this fascinating, but far from faultless film contains echoes of everything from Jean Genet's The Maids (1947) and Pier Paolo Pasolini's Theorem (1968) to Claude Chabrol's La Cérémonie (1995). Yet, for all the ingenuity of Bong's direction and the brilliance of his estimable ensemble, this often feels as calculating as the brand of `soapcial realism' that Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty peddled in Sorry We Missed You, which throws everything but the kitchen sink at a Newcastle family of four.
The characters are ciphers who exist to fulfil their role in the scenario. But, while Bong and Han Jin-won's writing couldn't be more precise in its exposition of this specific example of the chasm between the Korean classes, there's no real sense of lives being lived outside the Kim's dead-end subterranean flat that confines them below the lowest rung on the ladder and the Park's opulent abode, which was designed to show off its creator's genius rather than provide a comfortable living space. Indeed, the only time we gain a wider perspective comes when the Kims are forced to sleep in a gym with neighbours who have been driven out of their homes by sewage caused by the same deluge that barely disturbs Da-song in his American-bought wigwam.
Not a detail inside Lee Ha-jun's impeccable production design is wasted, but this reinforces the sense that Bong is manipulating the audience's response to material that has been expressly designed to balance antipathies while provoking outrage at the state of millennial capitalism and the indifference of the Haves towards the murderous struggle of the Have-Nots for the crumbs being thrown from their table. Why else would Dong-ik's software company be called Another Buck or would Chung-sook have once been a medal-winning shot putter? But what else do we know about them or their personalities or their ideals and aspirations? They are merely pieces in a fiendishly elaborate parable about the occupation of the moral high ground that is neither as funny as it could be or as disquietingly furious as Lee Chang-dong's study of working-class angst, Burning (2018).
Despite describing this as `a comedy without clowns, a tragedy without villains', Bong isn't in the same league as Luis Buñuel when it comes to bashing the bourgeoisie. But, make no mistake, this is film-making of the highest order, with Hong Kyung-po's photography, Yang Jin-mo's editing and Jung Jae-il's score enhancing the sense of accomplishment and polish. Moreover, Bong is absolutely right to rail against the inequality of opportunity in the modern world and the way in which the cosseted children of privilege are being stunted by indulgent parents straining to protect them from reality. But, with the exception of the consciously messy denouement, his approach is too neat and knowingly sophisticated to drive home the point with the rawness, raggedness and recklessness that one associates with the best satire.
And what about the monochrome, you rightly ask. Remember what we said at the beginning about Bong not being the kind to repeat himself? Well, he's actually done the b/w business once before, with his fourth feature, Mother. As before, he worked with his cinematographer and colorist to regrade the imagery and there's no doubt that the contrast between the neo-realist basement and the White Telephone townhouse is more striking. Indeed, the different textures between the two worlds brings to mind Joseph Losey's The Servant (1963), in which Dirk Bogarde and Sarah Miles launched a downstairs takeover against James Fox and Wendy Craig.
Bong has joked that his mother refused to let him go to the pictures as a boy because the local fleapit was precisely that. Consequently, he saw the masterworks of world cinema on a black-and-white television set. As he told one interviewer, `I think it may be vanity on my part, but when I think of the classics, they're all in black and white. So, I had this idea that if I turned my films into black and white then they'd become classics.'
The inkiness of the visuals tips the action into noir territory, but it also makes the humour that bit darker. It's unlikely that Bong will have seen Mario Zampi's Too Many Crooks (1959), but it bears comparison with Parasite B/W, as the underdogs get to have their day at the expense of the hissably smarmy Terry-Thomas. In describing his own response to the monochrome take, Bong confided to the Hollywood Reporter, `The first time, it felt like I was watching an old movie, a story from long ago. But the second time, the movie felt more intense; it felt [more] cruel.'
He's not wrong and there's much fun to be had for serious cineastes to watch the two versions back to back in differing orders to spot contrast responses. Of course, they would never dream of watching the original cut of John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941) with the much- and rightly detested colorised version. Proponents of this painting-by-numbers technology argued that detractors were snobs who didn't want multiplex audiences to gain an appreciation of the classics. Supporters of dubbing air similar arguments in decrying subtitles.
While he has every right to do so, Bong has achieved his alternative vision through manipulating pixels rather than lighting sets designed to register on the grey scale. Whatever the legitimacy of the gambit, it pays off on an aesthetic, as well as on a curio level. But one can only hope that he hasn't started a trend for directorchrome cuts.
Even when you have the talent of Kantemir Balagov, it helps to be well connected. A former student of Aleksandr Sokurov, Balagov made such an impression with his debut feature, Closeness (2017), that regular Andrei Zvyagintsev collaborator Alexander Rodnyansky agreed to produce his sophomore outing, Beanpole. Inspired by the stories told by Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexeievich in her oral history of women in the Red Army, The Unwomanly Face of War, this searing account of life in the immediate aftermath of the Siege of Leningrad firmly established the 27 year-old Russian as one of the rising talents of world cinema.
During the first autumn after the end of the Great Patriotic War, Iya Sergueeva (Viktoria Mironshnichenko) works as a nurse at the veterans hospital in Leningrad. She suffers from occasional catatonic episodes that cause her to zone out of consciousness and the laundry staff at the hospital simply work round her until she comes to. Administrator Dr Nikolai (Andrei Bykov) has a soft spot for Iya, who is so tall that she is nicknamed `Beanpole', as does one of his paralysed patients, Stepan (Konstantin Balakirev).
Everyone on the ward is pleased when Iya brings young Pashka (Timofei Glazkov) to see them and the wounded men do animal impressions to amuse him. One man with the lower part of his right arm missing flaps like a bird, but Pashka has no idea what a dog is because they have all been eaten during the siege. That night, he woofs happily while trying to get Iya's attention in the single room they share in a crowded building with a communal kitchen. As they romp on the floor, however, Iya has a frozen moment and Pashka's tries in vain to push her away until his little arm falls still.
Returning home some time later, still in a shuffling daze, Iya is dismayed to find Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) waiting for her. She wears a Red Army uniform covered in medals and has brought Iya some presents. Masha also has a toy dog for her son and, as she tries to coax Iya into chatting, it dawns on her that Pashka is dead. Iya fibs that he passed away in his sleep, but tells Masha that she is to blame for his loss. But the boy's mother is too dazed to react and tells Iya to get ready to go dancing.
The dance hall is closed, so Masha allows them to be picked up by Sasha (Igor Shirokov) and his friend (Veniamin Kac), who have a car. Over swigs of vodka, she tells Iya to go for a walk so she can be alone with Sasha. He's bashful and Masha surprises him by chucking her glass of spirit over him. But it has the right effect, as he does likewise and watches from the front seat as Masha removes her uniform trousers. Hauling him into the backseat, she shows him what to do and he thanks her meekly after orgasm. She tells him he's welcome, but they don't get long to enjoy their moment of intimacy, as Iya drags Sasha out of the vehicle and beats him up before slinging Masha over her shoulder and carrying her home. Sasha's pal has a broken arm, but he finds the entire episode amusing.
At a bathhouse, Iya spots a scar on Masha's belly and doesn't know what it is. She wishes they hadn't gone with the strangers, but Masha hopes she's pregnant as she wants another child. Shortly after reuniting Stepan with Tanya (Alyona Kuchkova), the wife who thought he was dead, Iya gets Masha a job as an orderly at the hospital and she maintains the pretence with Nikolai that Pashka was Iya's boy.
During a visit by Communist Party dignitary, Lyubov Petrovna (Ksenia Kutepova), however, Masha is amused to discover that Sasha is her son. Iya has to hasten one patient away after he bursts his stitches in giving Lyubov a thudding round of sarcastic applause. But Masha keels over after feeling blood trickle from her nose and, when he examines her, Nikolai informs her that her womb was removed during an operation. She asks which one, although she has told Iya that the scar was the result of surgery on a shrapnel wound while she was serving with the anti-aircraft unit to which Iya had also belonged before she was invalided out with shell shock. Masha hopes for a miracle, but Nikolai tells her to face the realities of her situation, as he recommends bed rest for post-combat exhaustion.
Masha asks Iya to bear a child for her, as she owes her for letting Pashka die. However, she doesn't want to face a pregnancy on her own and refuses. Nikolai also turns down the request by Stepan and Tanya to put him out of his misery, as he doesn't want to return to his two daughters in such an enfeebled state. His wife almost wishes he had died, as she can't afford to nurse him and he can't face the prospect of spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair in a home for paraplegics. But Nikolai seems to have a change of heart and gives Iya a vial to inject Stepan in the neck and she blows cigarette smoke into his mouth, as he gently slips away. Looking up, Iya sees Masha watching her from the next bed.
As New Year arrives. Nikolai toasts the onset of happier times. But, as he dances with Masha, she tells him that she knows how he feels to have lost a child during the war, as she was Pashka's mother. She also hands him a signed confession from Iya that she killed the boy and Stepan and she threatens to implicate them both in the latter crime unless Nikolai agrees to father Iya's child. Trapped, he agrees to come to their room and Iya makes Masha lie on the bed and spoons with her, as Nikolai mounts her. Masha flinches, as her friend whimpers gently throughout the act, as much from guilt at harming both Pashka and Nikolai as from any sense of self-pity or animosity towards Masha.
Besotted with Masha, Sasha keeps turning up with food parcels and he tries to make her smile by splashing her with water from her bucket. She's distracted, however, when Iya throws up and Masha is convinced she's pregnant. A doctor at the maternity clinic quickly disabuses her of this notion, however, and informs her that it requires repeated intercourse for a woman to conceive. On learning that Nikolai has resigned through ill health and been replaced by Olga (Lyudmila Motornaya), Iya goes into a panic, as she needs to sleep with another man before Masha discovers the truth.
Elderly neighbour, Shepelev (Dmitri Belkin), has a crush on Iya and urges her to move in with him because Sasha is spending an increasing amount of time with Masha (even helping her paint the walls green) and he hints that the room will become crowded. But Iya is in love with Masha and is charmed when the seamstress from along the corridor (Olga Dragunova) asks her to model a green print dress she is making. Masha asks if she can twirl and the sensation of feeling feminine again momentarily intoxicates her, as a beaming Iya watches her spin.
The realistion that past times cannot be revisited suddenly comes over her, however, and she rips off the dress and bundles the seamstress out of the door. Unable to help herself, Iya pushes Masha against the wall and kisses her on the mouth. She wipes the tears off her cheeks and covers her face with kisses. But Masha resists and Iya has to pin her down to the floor. Suddenly, Masha responds and kisses Iya with an urgency that scares her and she rolls away with streaks of green paint on her face, as Masha lies on her back and gasps for air, as she regains her composure and her control over her friend.
Annoyed by Sasha refusing to eat his porridge, Iya asks Masha why she keeps inviting him round. She insists he is her beau and has no intention of ending things with him. So, Iya stalks off into the night and goes to see Nikolai. While he makes tea, she strips down to her bra and pleads with him to have sex with her again, as she needs to be pregnant to win Masha back. He feels sorry for her and suggests she leaves Leningrad with him to start again.
On arriving home the next morning, Iya sees Masha preparing to meet Sasha's parents and she persuades the seamstress to lend her the green dress. Iya smiles, as she waves them off in Sasha's car. But Lyubov gives them a frosty reception when they arrive at the family's sprawling dacha in the country. When Sasha introduces Masha as his future bride, Lyubov orders them off her property. But they join her and her husband (Denis Kozinets) for lunch and Lyubov lays places for them at the table.
As they eat, she asks Masha what she does. She also inquires about what she did during the war and Masha declares that she was an army camp wife, who slept with the logistics officers to ensure she was always sheltered and fed. While Lyubov listens with steely politeness, Masha discloses that she was `married' many times and had several abortions. But Sasha knows all about her and loves her anyway. He is even fine with Iya bearing their child. But Lyubov tells Masha that she's too good for her worthless son, who will treat her like a plaything and discard her when he's bored. She avers that Masha deserves better, as she has been a war hero of sorts. However, she has no intention of allowing her or her child to become part of her family.
Smiling through the dirty window of a tram, Masha realises that they have stopped. Rumours race that a tall woman has been hit and killed and she pushes her way through the passengers to see a body under the front carriage. Racing home, she is relieved to see Iya sitting by the window. She's in one of her frozen trances and, when she comes round, Masha accuses her of being ready to walk out on her. Iya professes to feeling meaningless and apologises for not being pregnant. But Masha swears her that she won't see Sasha again and promises to stay with her and help raise their new son. Iya smiles, as Masha suggests he will have her nose and Iya's eyes. Relieved to have her friend back, Iya reaches out and they cling to each other, as the screen cuts to the murk of their uncertain future.
The Academy Award for Best Foreign Film (or International Feature as it was recently rebranded) has always been one of the least satisfactory categories. Back in February, the Oscar went, somewhat inevitably, to Bong Joon-hoo's Parasite (see above). Yet, the fact there was no room for Kantemir Balagov's remarkable film shows what a lottery this award is, no matter how commendable Pedro Almodóvar's Pain and Glory, Ladj Ly's Les Miserables, Jan Komasa's Corpus Christi and Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov's Honeyland might have been.
Everything about this harrowing study of war-scarred humanity is exceptional. The reds, greens and ochres in Sergei Ivanov's production design and Olga Smirnova's costumes lock the action into the mid-1940s, while Ksenia Sereda's alert camera repeatedly keeps framing familiar items from arrestingly original angles to coerce the audience into seeing this askance city from the perspective of its traumatised citizens. Stepan Sevastianov and Rostislav Alimov's sound design is also places the viewer in the heart of the action, from the first scene, in which Iya's fraught breathing gives way to silence and, then, the hubbub of the hospital laundry, as she emerges from her trance.
Tall and blonde, with an intensity that suggests she's somehow related to both Vanessa Redgrave and Tilda Swinton, Viktoria Mironshnichenko is remarkable as Iya, the eponymous beanpole whose precise relationship with the spikier, more durable Vasilisa Perelygina remains something of a mystery. Were they both camp followers or did Masha merely make this up to shock Lyubov in, perhaps, the same way that she invented the anti-aircraft battery, the lost husband and her revenge-driven march to Berlin to protect Iya from gossip at the hospital. We never quite discover how hard the loss of Pashka hits Masha, as she has become so used to hiding her feelings behind an inscrutable facade. Wherever the truth lies, it seems clear that Iya's love for Masha runs more deeply and unconditionally, while the latter is too locked into survival mode to allow herself to forgive or trust again.
Andrei Bykov's wearily mournful doctor, Igor Shirokov's Party brat and Ksenia Kutepova's haughty apparatchik are also finely chiselled characterisations, which suggests that Balagov is as good at handling actors as he is at blocking his frames with a painterly eye, meticulously pacing the action and boldly using imagery instead of dialogue to convey information and emotions. Editor Igor Litoninski plays a crucial role in the latter regards, but this is very much the director's triumph.
Writing in tandem with Aleksandr Terekhov, Balagov evokes memories of Fred Zinnemann's Julia (1977), Helma Sanders-Brahms's Germany, Pale Mother (1980) and Max Färberböck's A Woman in Berlin (2008), while his masterly storytelling also manages to imply the influence of writers like Fyodr Dostoevsky and Maxim Gorky and such film-makers as Alexei German and Andrei Zvyagintsev, while resisting the historical revisionism that has become the norm during Vladimir Putin's presidency. Rarely has Russian cinema captured with such unflinching candour the desecration, despair, exhaustion, cruelty and pessimism of a postwar period that has usually been presented through the prism of Socialist Realism. This is, therefore, as much a political statement as it is a work of art. It's also an act of courage, integrity and humanity that sets the bar very high for the remainder of Balagov's career.
2) ABOUT ENDLESSNESS.
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 desolte 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.
1) 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 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.