(Reviews of She Will; Death of a Ladies' Man; and Fire of Love)
With Covid levels dropping, it's safe(ish) to presume that cinema-going is once again a thing - even in uncivilised temperatures. Thankfully, however, 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.
The increasingly rich vein of horror films directed by women continues to agglomerate, as artist Charlotte Colbert makes her feature bow with She Will. Echoes of both Rose Glass's Saint Maud (2019) and Romola Garai's Amulet (2020) pervade this #MeToo revenge parable, which takes the patriarchy to task for centuries of callous cruelty and cowardly abuse.
Accompanied by nurse Desi Hatoum (Kota Eberhardt), ageing film star Veronica Ghent (Alice Krige) checks into a Highland retreat in order to recuperate from a double mastectomy and reconnect with her identity. Much to her dismay, she discovers that she is to be denied the privacy she seeks because self-help guru Tirador (Rupert Everett) has booked several other guests into the main house. Veronica is relieved, therefore, to be billeted in a cabin in the grounds, where she refuses Desi's fussing by reminding her that she didn't undergo a lobotomy.
As she settles in, Veronica sees a TV interview with Eric Hathbourne (Malcolm McDowell), the director who had cast her in Navajo Frontier when she was 13 and is now scouring the country for a starlet to headline a long-awaited sequel. She scowls as he laughs off rumours of a knighthood. But the psychological scars left by Hathbourne taking advantage of her all those years ago still cause as much pain as the post-operative cicatrices that make her resent Desi's androgyny.
Despite being disturbed in the night by visions of subjugated women and some slime seeping into the cabin, Veronica insists on going to explore. Desi accompanies her and they stumble across a lochside sketching class, in which the residents use charcoal that Tirador claims contains the cremains of the witches who were burned in the surrounding woods centuries before. Suddenly seized by inspiration, Veronica smears thick mud on the paper, as she feels a connection with the earth and the victims it claimed.
Welcoming the spirits that haunt her dreams, Veronica causes Desi concern. However, Veronica assures her that she is fine and encourages her to meet up with odd job man Owen (Jack Greenlees) at the local pub. While Desi dances under the influence of magic mushrooms, the levitating Veronica allows herself to be transported to Hathbourne's house. She manifests herself, but, while he is momentarily unnerved, he insists he has nothing to reproach himself for and reminds Veronica that she owes her career to him.
Meanwhile, Owen tries to force himself on Desi. But he is swallowed up by the forest mud, just as Hathbourne falls backwards over the banister of his luxury home and cracks open his skull on the tiled floor below. Returning to the cabin, Desi is horrified to find Veronica curled up on the ground outside the cabin. She is eager to leave. However, Veronica is determined to stay, as she no longer feels any pain. Desi is halfway to the station in a commandeered car, when she turns back to fetch Veronica.
Counting Dario Argento and Edward R. Pressman among its executive producers, this is a polished chiller whose visual bravura is tempered by the measured performance of Alice Krige, as she channels the essence of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford at their haughtiest. Colbert and co-writer Kitty Percy have a lot of issues to work through and make their points with edgy precision. The odd line of dialogue rings hollow, while the presence of Rupert Everett and his cackling acolytes feels somewhat tacked on.
Kota Eberhardt's dalliance with the predatory Jack Greenlees also feels forced, as Desi seems far too self-aware to be suckered into his clumsy seduction attempt. Nevertheless, his loamy subsumption is effectively done, as is the moment when a chauvinist's hand spontaneously combusts. Editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis handles the chilling reverie images of scold's bridles and persecuted witches with a deftness that is prompted by Jamie Ramsay's stickily tactile photography and contrasts with the chanted frenzy that builds in Clint Mansell's score.
In truth, this Gothic paean to sisterly bonding feels a wee bit familiar, both thematically and stylistically. Strewn with unanswered questions, the happy ending is also a whopping cop out. But the visual risks and tonal shifts are satisfyingly disconcerting, while Krige's imposing presence makes all the difference.
DEATH OF A LADIES' MAN.
Canadian director Matt Bissonnette is no stranger to the songs of compatriot Leonard Cohen. While they can be heard at intervals in Passenger Side (2009), hile they lie at the core of Looking For Leonard (2002), the debut feature that Bissonnette and co-director Steven Clark studded with snippets from Don Owen and Donald Brittain's 1965 documentary, Ladies and Gentlemen... Mr Leonard Cohen. Now, Bissonnette returns to the melancholic troubadour's songbook to enhance Death of a Ladies' Man, which takes its title from the seminal 1977 album.
Having walked in on younger wife Linda (Carolina Bartczak) in bed with her lover, Montréal academic Samuel O'Shea (Gabriel Byrne) meets up with son Layton (Antoine Olivier Pilon), who announces he's gay. Sam is fine with this, but not being flipped a finger by a young woman reading a book at the bar. He is also taken aback when the national anthem at Layton's ice hockey game is replaced by an icecapade routine to Leonard Cohen's `Bird on a Wire' that seemingly only he can see.
Following a nocturnal conversation with his long-dead father, Ben (Brian Gleeson), Sam throws up into a wastepaper basket in front of the class he imagines is having a party at their desks. He tries to flirt with Dr Sarah Savard (Pascale Bussières), but is stopped in his tracks by the diagnosis of an inoperable brain tumour. His sense of well-being is not helped by the fact that a waitress has a tiger head when he meets actress daughter Josée (Karelle Tremblay) for a drink.
Struggling to come to terms with his death sentence, Sam spends Thanksgiving with Layton, Josée and ex-wife Geneviève (Suzanne Clément), who breaks the news that she is going to marry new beau, Jonathan (Tyrone Benskin). Sam struggles with hallucinations during the meal and gets his face slapped when he tries to kiss Geneviève in front of his father's ghost.
So, having imagined giant geese breathing fire on the city, Sam decides to take a sabbatical to Ireland to fulfil his lifetime ambition to write a Great North American novel. As `The Lost Canadian' plays on the soundtrack, Sam drives to a remote cottage on a windswept coast. Ben is waiting for him and Sam thanks him to bringing him up so well after his mother had walked out on them. However, Ben reminds Sam not to be too hard on her, as they are very alike.
By a curious coincidence, Québecois Charlotte Lafleur (Jessica Paré) is working at the grocery shop in the village and she falls for Sam's charm. While they romance to `Why Don't You Try?', Josée becomes concerned about her father and starts doing heroin with boyfriend Chad (Raphael Grosz-Harvey). She's upset when Sam fails to come home for Christmas and he has his dinner with Charlotte's Irish mother, Una (Ingrid Craigie).
Having seen off love rival, Kevin (Paul McCloskey) and got within finishing distance of his book, Sam tells Charlotte about his prognosis. But Kevin comes after them with a gun, only for his car to hit a rock as he chases them across the cliffs. He plummets to his death and Charlotte tells Sam she'll never see him again if he goes to the police. Over a drink in the cottage with Ben, Sam insists he needs Charlotte in his life. However, when Josée pays him a surprise visit, he discovers she has been a mirage all along.
Back in Montréal, to the accompaniment of `Hallelujah', Sam tells his alcoholic support group about realising that Josée was an addict and they break into a dance to `Did I Ever Love You', as he expresses his gratitude for finally being able to be a good father. Buddy Brendan (Joel Bissonnette) congratulates him on the excellence of his manuscript (as they stroll along with the Grim Reaper at Sam's shoulder).
He does a reading at the launch party and Ben and Frankenstein's Monster join in the applause. However, Chad accuses him of stealing his idea and his girlfriend and he shoots Sam in the head on the pavement outside the bookshop. Ben is there to escort his spirit to the other side, but he refuses to disclose what happens next, as they shamble away down the street.
As `Heart With No Companion' plays over the credits, one is left with a sense of frustration that such a promising premise opted to take so many ill-advised turns. Gabriel Byrne is splendid as the serial failure stumbling towards a shot at redemption, with his scenes with Brian Gleeson having a particularly witty whimsicality. But, while the supporting cast buy into the conceit, they are shackled to stick figure characters who exist solely to highlight Samuel's flaws and point him in the direction of the last chance saloon.
A wintry Montréal provides an atmospheric setting for the various Cohen-inspired reveries, as Sam becomes an audience of one, as people start to lip sync or break out into intricately choreographed dance moves. But, despite the glorious scenery, the Irish interlude is an embarrassing chauvinist fantasy that reeks of the delusions that have contributed to Sam's predicament. Granted, the encounter with Kevin anticipates the showdown with Chad, but the denouement is no more persuasive, as Sam suddenly becomes all things to the folks he has spent a life time letting down.
Even though some of the computer-generated effects fall short, Bissonnette has to be commended for attempting such an ambitious project on a limited budget. He is well served by cinematographer Jonathon Cliff and editor Matt Lyon, but struggles to integrate the Cohen tracks into the narrative, with the result that they often seem like eclectic embellishments rather than essential elements.
FIRE OF LOVE.
If we've learnt anything from the recent spate of documentaries about mountaineering, it's that there's always a peak with a climber's name on it. The same, it appears, is true when it comes to volcanologists, as director Sara Dosa and narrator Miranda July reveal in Fire of Love.
Despite growing up a mere 20km apart in postwar Alsace, Maurice Krafft and Katia Conrad met for the first time while respectively studying geology and geochemistry at the University of Strasbourg. Recognising the other as a kindred spirit through a mutual fascination with the Italian volcanoes, Etna and Stromboli, they quickly became inseparable. Marrying after an expedition to Iceland, they honeymooned on the volcanic island of Santorini and vowed to remain childless in order to dedicate themselves to monitoring the world's active volcanoes and sharing their experiences and expertise with academic and lay audiences through a series of films and books.
Dosa draws heavily on the Kraffts' extensive archive and editors Erin Casper and Jocelyn Chaput do a magnificent job of cutting between spectacular footage of billowing clouds and molten lava, television interviews and moments of undemonstrative intimacy, as Maurice and Katia stand close together on the precipice of furious furnaces, sometimes in silver protective suits that make them look like fugitives from a 1950s sci-fi movie.
Wearing red beanies, they clearly saw themselves as the volcanic equivalent of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, as they sought to bring the wonders of Nature to the wider public. Maurice was a natural showman, although his exuberance sometimes exasperated Katia, such as when he took a rubber dinghy on to a Javanese lake full of diluted sulphuric and hydrochloric acid. But she had her daredevil side (`Curiosity is stronger than fear.') and the framing of some of their imagery to demonstrate the insignificance of humanity against the Earth's mighty majesty is a match for anything produced by today's blockbuster directors.
Admittedly, the Kraffts had much better special effects, as they gradually shifted their focus from the `red' eruptions that produced such magnificent molten light shows to more deadly `grey' volcanoes like Mount Nyiragongo, whose pyroclastic flow devastated large areas of Zaire (now the Democractic Republic of Congo) in the 1977. They were keen to establish a warning system that could alert authorities to imminent incidents, especially after 25,000 perished after the Colombian government ignored their evacuation advice around Nevado del Ruiz in 1985. But the couple weren't always taken seriously by the scholastic community, as their unorthodox methods led many to question the efficacy of their findings.
Undaunted, the Kraffts continued to lead a nomadic existence before they and 41 others were killed on Mount Unzen in Japan on 3 June 1991. Werner Herzog paid tribute to them in Into the Inferno (2016) and The Fire Within: Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft (2022). Some have compared the pair to Timothy Treadwell from Herzog's Grizzly Man (2005). But a better comparison would be with Bradford and Barbara Washburn, the intrepid married mountain photographers whose relationship was impeccably chronicled by Renan Ozturk and Freddie Wilkinson in The Sanctity of Space (2021).
Slotting in a few animated interludes to fill in the odd visual gap, Dosa doffs her cap to the Krafft approach to film-making by adopting their distinctive brand of serious insouciance. Wry, sincere, but occasionally kitschy, Miranda July's consecrational commentary doesn't always do Maurice and Katia justice, as it places as much emphasis on their love story as on their volcanological achievement. Yet, while leaving us wanting to know more about the people who had become disenchanted with humanity, this is an affectionate and engaging tribute that reminds us of the terrifying beauty of a planet we continue so recklessly to take for granted.