Parky At the Pictures (29/4/2022)
(Reviews of Playground; Firebird; Saint-Narcisse; Casablanca Beats; We're All Going to the World's Fair; and The Velvet Queen: Snow Leopard)
Even if we presume that cinema-going is a thing again, the UK's various streaming platforms are still doing sterling work. In addition to subscription sites like Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, the likes of iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation are all ready to keep you entertained.
Whether you opt for the big-screen experience or some quality home time, enjoy and stays safe.
Belgian debutant Laura Wandel makes a strong impression with Playground, an unflinching study of school bullying that makes astute use of shallow focus and low angles to convey the action from the point of view of its young protagonist. More trenchant in its exploration of schoolyard politics than, say, Rudi Rosenberg's The New Kid (2015), this will evoke painful memories for anyone who endured the cruelty of their classmates.
On her first day at a new school, seven year-old Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) is reassured by older brother Abel (Günter Duret) that everything will be fine. Unconvinced, she clings to her father (Karim Leklou) at the gates and is led away by the hand by the man who had chided her father for entering the playground. Not knowing anybody, she tries to find Abel in the dining hall and is told off by a dinner lady for leaving her seat.
Outside, she spots Abel and scuttles across the playground towards her. However, he ushers her away and tells her to make some friends of her own. She is hurt because she looks up to her brother and can't understand why he isn't keeping his promise to play with her. Then she sees him being pushed around by some older boys and he is powerless to protect her when they pick on her. Fortunately, a teacher breaks up the melee. But Nora is disappointed by Abel and stands away from him when they are told to line up against the wall. She says nothing, however, when Abel tells their father at home time that he hurt his face playing football.
As the days pass, Nora finds herself befriended by Victoire (Elsa Laforge) and Clémence (Lena Girard Voss), who teach her to tie her shoelaces, after she has been embarrassed during a PE lesson in which she had fallen off a balance beam. A charming montage shows the three of them sticking together during the hell of swimming lessons and holding hands on their way into the gym. They invent a lunchtime game of guessing the shapes into which they have nibbled their sandwiches.
But Nora continues to be bothered by Abel's victimisation and is taken aback when favourite teacher, Mme Agnès (Laura Verlinden), gets backchat from the bullies when she tries to intervene during an incident on the stairs. She is also frustrated when a playground supervisor is too busy to help her rescue Abel from having his head ducked into the toilet. When it's over, Nora clings to her brother, who makes her promise to say nothing to anyone before getting a telling off from the supervisor when he explains that he had been soaked during a water fight.
Confused by Abel's refusal to defend himself, Nora tells her father that he is having problems with older boys after he is humiliated by wetting himself in the dining hall. He is furious when their father confronts some of the boys at the gates and Abel tells Nora that she's dead if she snitches again. She feels nettled by his ingratitude, as her standing with her friends had been damaged by being the pants-wetter's sister. However, such is her eagerness to be invited to a birthday party that she had denied knowing him when he sat next to her at lunch, although she defends her father when one of the girls accuses him of being a scrounger because he's on welfare.
The next time Nora sees Abel being bullied, she is playing blind man's buff. She pulls the blindfold down, as he is carried towards a dumpster on the edge of the playground, only to scrape her knee when she strays into a football game. The woman on duty (Sophia Leboutte) disinfects the wound, but refuses to allow Nora back into the playground to free her brother. As a result, she can't concentrate in class and has to hold back the tears when someone comes to collect her because Abel has been found.
Mme Agnès commends Nora for having the courage to help her brother and reassures her that his problems are not her fault. Ringleader Antoine (Simon Caudry) and his pals are ordered to apologise to Abel by the principal in front of their fathers. But Nora is embarrassed by the ritual and tells her father that she wishes he had a proper job rather than looking after them. She also gets cross when he tells her she can't go to a birthday party after she gets in trouble for ripping up the invitations when Victoire makes a point of not inviting her. Her mother insists both Nora and Abel are welcome, but their father dislikes Victoire's sulky attitude and declines on their behalf.
Having denied that Abel is her brother when he sits next to her at lunch, Nora sees him kicking his ball with a new friend, Ismaël (Naël Ammama). She feels it's unfair that she has been ostracised from her group while he has someone to play with and she strides across the playground to thump him and blame him for her woes. Abel slaps her across the face and, when the other kid tries to step in, he forces him back by the throat.
Compounding Nora's misery, Mme Agnès leaves for a new school and she is sent into the corridor by her replacement for refusing to switch desks. When Ismaël passes her crying, she asks if it's Abel's fault and can barely contain her fury when she sees Abel and Antoine picking on Ismaël during breaktime. She demands to know why he is behaving like this and stops to think when he confides that it keeps him safe. The explanation doesn't convince her, however, and, when she sees Antoine and Abel holding a plastic bag over Ismaël's head, she runs over and wraps her arms around her brother's back in a desperate hug that eventually causes him to come to his senses and envelope her with tearful relief.
Culminating in one of the most arresting closing shots in a French film about troubled youth since François Truffaut's Les 400 Coups (1959), this is a remarkable achievement that is dominated by an extraordinary performance by Maya Vanderbeque. Despite succumbing to the occasional smile, she maintains an heir of perturbed solemnity throughout the 72-minute story, as she tries to fathom why anyone would dislike her beloved brother and why he doesn't want the grown-ups to help him. However, she also has other things to worry about, as careless comments by her own friends force her to reconsider her feelings towards her doting father.
By restricting the action to the school grounds, Wandel avoids any discussion of domestic issues, such as whether Nora has a mother. This may explain her implicit trust in Mme Agnès and the tantrum she throws when her replacement asks her to move desks. But her surprise at the way other children behave suggests that she has been cosseted by a highly protective single father, whose problems may well have been exacerbated by his background.
Setting such speculation aside, one can only marvel at the naturalism of Vanderbeque's performance and the sense of authenticity that Wandel and cinematographer Frédéric Noirhomme achieve by shooting from her perspective, so that adults loom up like forbidding rocks in a sea of troubles. Equally notable is Corinne Dubien's sound design, which switches adeptly between playtime hubbub and classroom hush to reinforce the notion that Nora is forever aware of the isolation and insignificance from which she needs Abel to protect her.
Despite focussing on Nora's moral dilemmas, Wandel also examines the way in which schools shape behaviour by the degrees to which they impose discipline. She also notes in passing the extent to which parents are excluded from this process until trouble erupts and they are summoned to take responsibility for their unruly offspring. But what she does most successfully is remind us how daunting school was made to seem by fellow pupils who seemed to make up the rules as they went along.
Much has been made in the publicity for Peeter Rebane's Firebird of the fact Vladimir Putin would not want audiences to see it because it embraces the cause of gay rights. Given the ongoing war in Ukraine, anything that needles the Russian leader has to be considered a good thing. But this adaptation of Sergey Fetisov's memoir, The Story of Roman, has little to recommend it beside its message and the commitment of Rebane and Tom Prior, the lead actor who also co-wrote and produced the picture.
Some time in 1977, Private Sergey Serebrennikov (Tom Prior) and his bunk buddy Volodja (Jake Thomas Henderson) are coming towards their national service in the Soviet airforce on the Haapsalu Air Base in Estonia. They sneak out of the barracks for midnight swims with secretary Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya), who keeps hoping that Sergey will say something about their future before he leaves. However, from the moment he sets eyes on newly arrived fighter pilot, Lieutenant Roman Medveyev (Oleg Zagordnii), Sergey only has one romantic notion and he is taken by surprise when his passion is reciprocated following a couple of late-night sessions developing photographs in Roman's quarters.
Sergey has plans to move to Moscow and study acting and he is bowled over when Roman takes him to a theatre in Tallinn to watch rehearsals for Igor Stravinsky's ballet, The Firebird. However, Colonel Kuznetsov (Nicholas Woodeson) is eager for him to extend his time in uniform. Major Zverev (Margus Prangel) is less impressed, however, and, after he receives an anonymous tip-off, he warns both Sergey and Roman about the five-year hard labour sentence that anyone caught in a homosexual relationship would face.
Unable to resist temptation, Roman and Sergey remain lovers, although they have one narrow escape when the latter has to hide in the bathroom ceiling after Zverev pays Roman a late-night call. The near miss excites Sergey, but Roman refuses to jeopardise his career and abruptly breaks things off.
Overcoming the pain, Sergey throws himself into acting school, where he is befriended by Masha (Ester Kuntu). She has a crush on Sergey, but his heart still belongs to Roman and he is crushed when Luisa comes to Moscow to announce their engagement. He attends the wedding and berates Roman for using Luisa to allay Zverev's suspicions. But, when Roman comes to the capital, he is unable to resist the invitation to spend three days alone and they resume their affair at an apartment that Roman rents as a love nest.
When Volodja attends one of their parties, he catches them kissing and admits that he had made the unsigned accusation against Roman. He disowns Sergey for allowing Luisa to fritter her life on a sham marriage (when she had wanted to become a doctor), even though she still suspects nothing and enjoys mothering her son, Seryozha (Jonathan Tupay). Indeed, she continues to welcome Sergey and they even have Christmas in the flat. But seeing the family together causes Sergey a pang of conscience and he sends Roman a farewell letter.
Shortly afterwards, he learns that Roman has been killed in Afghanistan and he receives a frosty welcome from Luisa when he comes to pay his respects. Roman had told her about his feelings before he left and she blames Sergey for ruining her life. He leaves Seryozha a model plane that Roman had once given him and thinks on happier times during a performance of The Firebird.
Although it clearly means a good deal to Rebane and Prior, this Cold War drama remains frustratingly tepid throughout. Prior and Oleg Zagorodnii make a handsome couple, but they generate few subversive sparks, while the risks they face never feel particularly onerous. Part of this is down to Rebane's struggle to convey a sense of place and time and he might have used some archive news footage to bolster the story's social and military-diplomatic backgrounds. But the mix of British, Ukranian, Russian and Estonian actors stiffly speaking English seriously undermines any pretence of authenticity.
The screenplay also sells Diana Pozharskaya short, as Luisa is little more than a cipher, despite being collaterally damaged by the treachery of her husband and best friend. Of course, she is as much a victim of Soviet bigotry as Sergey and Roman, but she is made to seem peevish during her final meeting with Sergey rather than justifiably upset at being widowed and humiliated.
Mait Mäekivi manages some nice views of the forests and headlands where Roman and Sergey make out away from prying eyes. He also makes subtle use of red and blue light to contrast the intimacy of the darkroom and the dangers of the night. But the production design and costumes are more functional than evocative, while the score by Krzysztof A. Janczak errs on the schmaltzy side. A pointed touch sees Sergey assume a surname in tribute to director Kiril Serebrennikov, who was subjected to false accusations of fraud after speaking out against the invasion of the Crimea in 2014.
In the bad old days, Bruce LaBruce produced a genuinely transgressive brand of cinema. Taboos were shattered as often as clothese were shed in explicit outings like No Skin Off My Ass (1993), Super 8½ (1994), Hustler White (1996), Skin Flick (1999) and The Raspberry Reich (2004). But the Canadian shockateur has been markedly less confrontational in recent times and he now follows Otto; or Up With Dead People (2008), L.A. Zombie (2010), Gerontophilia (2013) and The Misandrists (2017) with Saint-Narcisse, a tale of family, faith and fornication set in Quebec in 1972 that all feels a little tame.
Dismayed to discover that his beloved grandmother (Angèle Coutu) had lied to him about the fate of his mother, Dominic (Felix-Antoine Duval) stops daydreaming about raunchy encounters with blondes in lauderettes and heads off on his motorcycle to learn the truth. He finds Beatrice (Tania Kontoyanni) living in a shack in the woods with a much younger woman named Irène (Alexandra Petrachuk). The locals consider them to be witches, while Dominic is given short shrift by Father Andrew (Andreas Apergis) when he notices that one of his fellow brown-cowled monks bears an uncanny resemblance to himself.
Given how much time he spends gazing at himself in the mirror and taking self-portraits with his new instamatic camera, Dominic should recognise a doppelgänger when he sees one. But he's not thinking straight because he has found a grave bearing his name, which confirms the story in one of Beatrice's letters that she had only left home because she had been informed that her baby had died.
Fiercely protective of Beatrice, the gun-toting Irène is far from amused by the mother-son reunion. But Beatrice insists on Dominic staying and she reveals over supper how she was duped by her husband about her son after he discovered she was having an affair with Irène's mother, Agathe (also Petrachuk). When she died, Beatrice and Irène became lovers and decided to hide away from the world.
Dominic uses the invitation to spy on the monks when they play volleyball in the monastery grounds and go skinny-dipping in the nearby lake. He is intrigued by his lookalike and shaves his head and beard to resemble him. What he doesn't know, however, is that Daniel (also Duval) is a foundling who is in a sadomasochistic relationship with Fr Andrew, who took him in as a youth because of his conviction that he is the reincarnation of St Sebastian.
Having spotted Dominic, Daniel confronts him in the woods and they have sex. As they chat afterwards, they speculate about how they came to be separated. Dominic also explains that while their twincest is okay because they're family, Fr Andrew's abuse of his position must be punished.
When the older monk drags Daniel over the coals for being out without permission and reminds him of the debt he owes to the monastery, the twins decide to swap places so that Dominic can teach Fr Andrew a lesson. Unfortunately, Irène takes one look at Daniel and is snoggingly smitten. Indeed, Beatrice (once she has got over the shock of discovering she had been separated from twins) has to tell them to knock it off, as they speed to the monastery to help Dominic. However, he is involved in a bloody tussle with Fr Andrew that ends with the older man dead. Dominic recovers from his wounds, though, and is last seen zipping along on his motorbike with Daniel riding pillion.
Try as he might to scandalise with images of bypassers ogling strangers bonking through a laudromat window, a monk masturflagellating to glossy underwear ads, a becotted toddler watching her mother perform cunnilingus on her pregnant lover, and twins frotting in the forest, LaBruce fails to provoke a single tut of disapproval with dispiritingly conventional queer melodrama. Bad timing means that its cloistered sinfulness can only pale beside the shenanigans served up by Paul Verhoeven in Benedetta. But LaBruce doesn't seem to any profound to say about any of the topics he tweaks in the hope of eliciting a head-shaking response.
The leads work hard, despite the photogenic Felix-Antoine Duval often seeming to be more narcoleptic than narcissistic, as he jolts back into consciousness from his latest reverie. However, the special effects that enable Dominic and Daniel to canoodle are proficiently done, even though the scene is anything but erotic. Alexandra Petrachuk does a nice line in scornful glares (although her uncontrollable adolescent lust for the unseen identical twin is much more amusing), while Andreas Apergis makes a decent stab (as it were) at his Steven Berkoff impersonation.
But the acting is as stiff as LaBruce's humour is uncharacteristically laboured. Production designer Alex Hercule Desjardins, costumier Valérie Gagnon-Hamel and cinematographer Michel La Veaux atone, however, by generating a pleasing retro feel that - thanks to Hubert Hayaud's dexterous editing - contributes as much to the reflections on mythology, duality, sanctity and solace as the literate, but arch allusions in LaBruce's script. There's nothing wrong with iconoclasts becoming more sophisticated with age, but it's a shame when this means they become less subversive and less fun in the process.
Although he has earned plaudits since debuting with Mektoub (1997), Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch remains better known for Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets (2000) than subsequent outings like Whatever Lola Wants (2008), Horses of God (2012), Much Loved (2015) and Razzia (2017). Born in Paris, but resident in Casablanca since 1993, he has enjoyed considerable festival success with a hip-hop paean to his adopted home and UK audiences can now get to sample Casablanca Beats.
Anas (Anas Basbousi) arrives in the Sidi Moumen district of Casablanca to teach hip-hop at the local arts centre. The administrator is unimpressed when he tags the classroom wall with the word `Vibes', but the students are engrossed by his first lesson, in which he explains how rap helped changed the United States and Tunisia and can do the same for Morocco.
Sleeping in his car, he gets the class to write their own raps and rips into the first two performers, even though their classmates are impressed. Anas insists their lyrics are superficial and he refuses to soften his criticisim when Mehdi (Mehdi Razzouk) bursts into tears because he lives in poverty as his father is unemployed. After the others have been dismissed, two girls wait behind to read and he wonders whether they have the nerve to perform in public.
Wearing a headscarf, Meryem (Meryem Nekkach) returns to the shanty shack she shares with her ailing mother, her strict father and the hectoring brother who doesn't like the fact she is going to rap classes. Having checked on her mother, she climbs into bed and mouths along with headphones to the tunes on her phone. In class the next day, she joins in a lively debate about whether religion and politics should be taboo in hip-hop and Anas allows the girls to shout down the boys when they start getting cocky, while making the point that people will always have different views and that change will only come from expressing opinions and winning debates.
Having watched some of his students harmonising on a street corner, Anas is delighted when the standard improves in the next lesson. A girl named Pistachio surprises him with the erudition and potency of her lyrics, while Abdou teams up with Ismail (Ismail Adouab), the lad with the sweetest voice, to draw an enthusiastic round of applause. They find Anas setting up the downstairs studio and Ismail tells him about his dream of performing to a large crowd of adoring women. He smiles at their ambition and we cut to the pair rapping to a backing track and their classmates bopping along.
When he gets home, however, Ismail is taunted for being a softie by his father, who complains about the food and leaves the siblings who had been chatting happily with their mother sitting in sullen silence. That night, he drags his sister along an alley away from the house and raps for her about how he is going to be a success and rescue them all from their father's tyranny.
Amused when Nouhaila (Nouhaila Arif) impersonates him at the front of the class, Anas calls Amina (Amina Kannan) to the front and joins the others in praising her when she finishes. However, her buzz doesn't last long, as her hijab-wearing mother bursts in while they are making graffiti designs and drags her to the car where her father is waiting because he disapproves of her rapping. Anas tries to explain that hip-hop is an artform, but is powerless to prevent Amina being withdrawn from the class.
When she returns next day and pleads with the administrator to be allowed back, Anas says he will shoulder any blame. He pairs Meryem and Nouhaila in the recording studio to work on a track about hip-hop giving Moroccan girls a voice. The session gives her confidence to tell her domineering brother that he has no right to control her and she fires off a furious freestyle as she declares her independence while crossing the railway tracks.
Dancing home through the streets with her friends, Nouhaila returns home to get bad-mouthed by the women at the place where she stays because she wears tight, ripped jeans. The class has a discussion about how Moroccan girls should dress and Nouhaila pushes back when some of the boys suggest decency should be maintained in a Muslim country, even though they protest that they dislike the idea that women should cover up to spare men from having impure thoughts. Anas reminds them that religion is banned from his class, but avoids expressing any opinion, as he sees his task as letting them learn to think for themselves.
A devout Muslim, Abdou (Abdelilah Basbousi) takes exception to the flaunting of its rules. When the conversation turns to suicide bombers giving Sidi Moumen a bad name, he defends the faith, while denouncing twisted belief. When he attends a prayer meeting that night, he is criticised for hanging out with girls and using musical instruments that are forbidden by Islam. He imagines his classmates having a dance off in the street with his co-religionists and stands up to defend rap because it enables him to make sense of the conflicting ideas that keep bombarding him.
The kids persuade Anas to put on a Positive School concert and he shows them how to make an entrance and get the audience on their side. They are excited because the hall is full. But, while the students are performing, Anas is having to deal with an angry mob outside, who regard the show as sinful because it contains girls dancing in a state of undress. He tries to reason with them, but the mood turns ugly.
The administrator is livid with Anas for staging the gig and claims his egotism has undone the years of hard work it took to get the arts centre accepted. Having gathered his thoughts while petting the stray dog that has befriended him, Anas urges the class not to give up because things only change if they make the first move. He admits that he has wasted time looking in the wrong places and reminds them that they owe it to themselves to do things on their own terms. As he packs up to leave, the kids appear on the centre roof with a sound system and they join Ismail in a defiant rap about taking control of their own destinies. Anas smiles quietly to himself, as he drives away.
Putting a distinctive spin on the standard `maverick teacher connects with misfit students' scenario, this is a lively musical drama with plenty to say about the issues facing millennials in Morocco and the wider Muslim world. A clutch of documentaries have explored hip-hop's place in a patriarchal theocratic societies, while Egyptian director Ayten Amin touched upon similar themes in regard to social media in Souad (2020). But, blurring the line between fact and fiction, Ayouch gives the action an extra crackle of authenticity by setting it in Les Etoiles de Sidi Moumen - the centre he co-founded with novelist Mahi Binebine - and working over two years with students from The Positive School of Hip Hop.
Those featured in domestic vignettes are joined in the ensemble by Zineb Boujemaa, Samah Baricou, Soufiane Belali, Maha Menan and Marwa Kniniche to generate a group dynamic that gives Anas Basbousi's classes intimacy and edge, as the students bicker, brag, belittle and berate. As a rapper who turned to teaching, he is perfectly cast as the charismatic enigma who lives in his car, eats street food and prefers to pet a stray rather than answer the muezzin's call to prayer. His deadpan delivery contrasts with the more excitable exclamations of his students, as they allow their emotions to spill over during debates that are largely more impassioned than illuminating. The peaks into the private lives of the students similarly conform to type, but Ayouch and editor Marie-Hélène Dozo incorporate them into the narrative with unaffected deftness.
They also feed off the energy of Virginie Surdej and Amine Messadi's handheld photography, which captures both the exuberance of the students and the simmer of the neighbourhood. Similarly, the raps written by Mike and Fabien Kourtzer reinforce the pugnacity and diversity of the students, as they acquire the self-confidence to speak about their very different experiences. Not that there's anything particularly novel about the situation, however.
Sixty years ago (inspired no doubt by Glenn Ford in Richard Brooks's Blackboard Jungle, 1955), social worker Kenneth More had encouraged his Bristolian charges to stand up and express themselves in Clive Donner's youthquake saga, Some People (1962). More recently, Kevin Bacon had challenged Chicagoan minister John Lithgow's dancing ban in Herbert Ross's Footloose (1984). But if a story retains its relevance, it's worth telling in different contexts, as Ayouch demonstrates with the roof finale that contains echoes of the desktop denouement in Peter Weir's Dead Poets Society (1989).
WE'RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD'S FAIR.
A far cry from Norman Foster's Charlie Chan At Treasure Island (1939), which was filmed at the World Exposition in San Francisco, and Norman Taurog's Seattle-set Elvis Presley vehicle, It Happened At the World's Fair (1963), Jane Schoenbrun's We're All Going to the World's Fair doesn't venture to a densely crowded showground. Instead, it largely remains in a teenage girl's attic bedroom, as she is lured away from the Internet's terrifying horror game by a beguiling stranger.
Having tidied her room and grabbed her stuffed raccoon toy, Poe, Casey (Anna Cobb) sits at her desk and stares intently at the computer screen in front of her. She informs her online followers that she is about to take about the challenge before reading the rules and stating three times, `I want to go to the World's Fair.' To complete her initiation, she leaves a bloody fingerprint on the screen and promises her followers that she will let them know if she starts to exhibit any effects.
Avoiding her father when he comes home from work, Casey scours the web for videos posted by those who have manifested World's Fair symptoms. The next day, she trudges into the snowy woods to record an update and explain that she wanted to take the challenge because she has always loved horror films since they helped her stop sleepwalking as a kid.
She decides to film herself sleeping, but gets up and finds a lantern to light the way to the barn den where her father keeps his gun. Here, she curls up in front of a big wall screen to play a video of a woman (perhaps her seemingly absent mother) in extreme close-up making shushing noises and fresh-airing hair strokes in order to reassure Casey that everything is okay.
A message pops up from JLB, which uses a distorted image of Casey's face to warn her that she is in trouble and needs to talk to him right away. She looks him up online and discovers he's into scary role-playing games and decides to facetime him. He hides behind a leering wraith avatar, but groomingly swears in a creepily breathy voice (Michael J. Rogers) that he is willing to help her if she has been telling the truth about her dreams. Lowering her eyes to avoid contact with the camera, Casey confirms her stories. But she is curious as to why he would reach out to her and feels uneasy when he logs out.
We see JLB lying on his bed watching a video by a kid talking about his longing for a Stitch cuddly toy. He has green markings on his forearm and he delves beneath the skin to pull out a roll of yellow `Admit One' tickets before the screen goes black and the buffering symbol appears. Videos pop up showing a youth being pulled into his laptop after intoning the World's Fair mantra, a girl claiming that she's turning plastic, and a woman brandishing a pair of black wings.
JLB sends Casey a message highlighting a moment in her sleeping footage in which her hand slides out from under the covers, as though it had been taken over by an unseen force. He says it's like something out of Paranormal Activity and urges her to stay safe and keep sending videos so he knows how she's doing.
Over the next few days, Casey posts videos of her screaming in the middle of a bedroom dance routine and giving a guided tour of her high school, when she's actually in a cemetery. She send JLB a message in which she creeps into close-up over footage of her sleeping and she insists that nothing is going to stop her from doing what she needs to do. He replies after Christmas to say that he fears the Fair is getting closer to her and suggests they talk soon. (We see shots of him in his large house, one possibly with his wife, mother or cleaner in the background, while he watches Casey's dance video sitting on the loo).
She responds with a Tarot reading, in which she questions his claim to know everything and uses the cards dealt to accuse him of being no use to her because of his anxieties. While striding into town for the new year celebrations, she records a message demanding to know why JLB hasn't come to help her. In her next posting, she covers her face and arms with luminous paint to make herself look skeletal and proceeds to pull apart the toy that has helped her sleep since she was five days old. Stomping out of the room, she returns as if she has emerged from a trance and picks up the pieces to rock remorsefully on the edge of her bed.
When JLB calls her and expresses concern that her videos have been getting intense and that he wondered whether she was going to do something drastic, Casey despairs of him for taking it so seriously, when she knows they were just playing a game. He tries to reason with her after mentioning informing the police, but she is appalled and cuts off saying that Casey isn't her real name.
Flying into a panic, he stomps downstairs, but can't settle. He tries calling Casey, but she doesn't pick up and he slumps at his desk. Over a flickering shot of Casey's face, her voice claims that one day she will simply disappear. A year later, JLB posts a message in which he claims to have met up with Casey when she came to New York for a theatre course. They had chatted over pizza and she had told him that she had got close to the Fair one night, but felt something pulling her back. JLB reveals that he had stayed up all night praying to keep her safe and he smiles sadly on recalling how grateful she had been. He hopes they can meet again one day.
From the moment the first chatroom opened, film-makers have been depicting the dangers that lurk in cyberspace. The majority have either been limp or lurid, as they take easy shots at the lonely online and the predators who stalk them. But few have shown much ingenuity in solving the problem of how to make computer screens, Skye calls and typed messages visually arresting.
Abetted by cinematographer Daniel Patrick Carbone (who directed the teen saga, Hide Your Smiling Faces, 2013), sound designer Eli Cohn, composer Alex G and production designer Grace Sloan, Jane Schoenbrun (whose 2018 documentary, A Self-Induced Hallucination, explored the phenomenon of the Slenderman creepypasta) does better than most. But they do have the advantage of being able to call on the services of the debuting Anna Cobb and Canadian horror veteran Michael J. Rogers, who enact this disconcerting cat-and-mouse game with equal measures of desolation, vulnerability and stealth. There can only be one winner and Schoenbrun deftly shows how Casey comes of self-discovered age in turning the tables by experimenting with alternative identities. Quite, however, what her ordeal says about online role-playing and whether it's possible for an anonymous or avatarial encounter to be mutually beneficial is more difficult to discern for those with no experience of or interest in a cocooning world that appears to be immersive and distancing, daunting and consoling, and harmless and murky at one and the same time.
THE VELVET QUEEN: SNOW LEOPARD.
Over the years, we Brits have been spoilt when it comes to wildlife documentaries. If it's not David Attenborough, it's the BBC's Bristol-based Natural History Unit revealing the wonders of the world around us. Vincent Munier once won the award for BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year in three consecutive years. So, debuting director Marie Amiguet has made a wise choice in her collaborator on The Velvet Queen, a quest to find a Tibetan snow leopard that is almost certain to be viewed in awed silence.
Accompanying Amiguet and Munier is Sylvain Tesson, the geographer and adventurer who acquired a reputation with the 2011 tome, The Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin on the Siberian Taiga. As Munier and Tesson venture out from their hut in the Tibetan Highlands, they hope to find the elusive snow leopard. But Munier knows that the unexpected can become visible while waiting for a quarry. Consequently, he is prepared to lie in wait with his lens scanning the horizon for the other creatures that share this ruggedly beautiful terrain.
He stalks some yak and warns Tesson that the females will disperse the herd the moment they spot intruders. Munier manages to get close enough to take some evocative photographs and to opine that each tear shed by pre-history came to form a yak. Tesson is grateful for the experience, but admits he doesn't have his companion's aptitude for the long spells of patient vigilance that he regards as a blessing away from the crowds in the city.
Alert to every cry and whistle of the wind, Munier spots a snow falcon camouflaged against the crags. He recalls photographing such a bird on a previous occasion and being shocked to see the head of a snow leopard peering watchfully from behind a rock. On one recce, he spots a Pallas's cat and the camera picks out the yellow eyes shooting a defiant gaze back across the scrub. We see plateau pikas being lined up by a Tibetan fox, while a woolly hare keeps an eye on things from a safe distance, as a bird chirps a warning to a pika about a prowling cat in its vicinity. It can do nothing, however, about the fox that digs into a burrow and drags out a squealing pika by the scruff of its neck.
Aiming for higher ground, the pair look down on a valley that is only ever seen by the odd nomadic herder. They note the blue bharal sheep watching Munier as he hides a camera in some rocks in the hope of capturing footage of a passing leopard. In a cave, he finds bear and fox droppings, as well as leopard paw prints and Tesson is so thrilled by the fact they are reading tracks like their primitive ancestors that he calls it `the oldest profession'.
The hidden camera provides nocturnal shots of a pair of horses and a fox, but there's still no sign of a leopard - although Tesson admits that they may well have simply been looking in the wrong place. As they resume their vigil, the wind whips against the rocks and creatures scamper through the cold in search of shelter and sustenance. However, they are interrupted by some inquisitive children and Tesson sketches Tizo, Gambo, Tchidou and Tjia as a souvenir. They entertain them as the hut, with Agnes Obel's `Just So' being plucked from a phone playlist.
On returning to the hidden camera, Munier and Tesson find footage of a snow leopard pausing to yawn in profile. Taking up position nearby, they spot three bears padding down an incline. They linger as long as they dare to get pictures before beating a judicious retreat. Wondering how much longer they can afford to wait, they make for another cave and pitch camp.
Munier's hopes are raised when he sees a fresh carcass nearby and, following a night of philosophical discussion about fire, life and the stench with which humanity has contaminated the planet, they catch a glimpse of a silhouette on a crag. As they watch, the leopard slinks down to feast on the raw meat. Seemingly aware of their presence, it allows them to gaze in whispered excitement, as it lies down facing them and looks dead ahead. Eventually, it sidles away and Munier is glad that their patience has paid off. Tesson, however, confides that he feels like he has stolen fire and knows that this deeply humbling experience will live with him forever.
Adding to the magnificence of the moment is the haunting score by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave that closes with the song, `We Are Not Alone', which reinforces the film's musings on the complex relationship between humanity and wildlife. Despite being revered, the snow leopard has become an endangered species because of hunting and climate change and there's something admonitory about the stare with which it regards the intruders into its space. However, the cat seems to realise that they have come to worship and it basks in the adulation, even throwing in a few rolls and stretches for the secreted night-vision lens.
Even though the voiceover rightly asserts that not everything was made for the human eye, the camerawork by Munier, Amiguet and Léo-Pol Jacquet is exceptional. But there's no magic-hour gloss in this deeply respectful film, as the focus remains on implacable terrain that is made all the more forbidding by the relentless bellowing of the wind and the bleakness of the light on the looming rocks. A whiff of pretension can occasionally be detected in Munier's narration, but one suspects that Tesson's The Art of Patience: Seeking the Snow Leopard in Tibet would make poignant reading. Waiting is, indeed, a prayer.