Parky At the Pictures (30/12/2022)
(Top 10 Films of 2022)
And so, we come to the end of another cinematic year. It's not been the best. Too many moderate titles have been over-praised, while too few foreign-language films have been widely released. Indeed, it sometimes feels as though MUBI is arthouse cinema's last line of defence against the invidious creep of digitised multiverses. But Curzon, New Wave, and others keep doing their bit to give UK audiences something other than conglomerated franchises.
As always, it hasn't been possible to see everything or review everything seen. With apologies, therefore, it should be noted that the following have had to be excluded from the 2022 list: Peter Jackson's The Beatles: Get Back - The Rooftop Concert; Jafar Panahi's No Bears; Juho Kuosmanen's Compartment No.6; Jean-Christophe Meurisse's Bloody Oranges; Jacques Audiard's Paris, 13th District; Panah Panahi's Hit the Road; Colm Bairéad's The Quiet Girl; Audrey Diwan's Happening; Ruben Östlund's Triangle of Sadness; Albert Serra's Pacification; Jerzy Skolimowski's EO; S.S. Rajamouli's RRR; Laura Poitras's All the Beauty and the Bloodshed; Martin McDonagh's The Banshees of Inisherin; Alice Diop's Saint Omer; Park Chan-wook's Decision to Leave; or Charlotte Wells's Aftersun.
Yet, despite being out of step with just about every other critic in the country, it's still possible to compile a Top 10 of films that have left an impression, in one way or another.
Several films have tested an audience's tolerance for heights, ranging from Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) and Renny Harlin's Cliffhanger (1993) to Brad Bird's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011) and Robert Zemeckis's The Walk (2015). Joining the `acrophobics beware' this week is
Scott Mann's Fall, a slightly preposterous, but splendidly contrived white-knuckle thriller that belies the fact it cost a mere $3 million.
Fifty-one weeks after witnessing her husband, Dan (Mason Gooding), plunge to his death while climbing with best friend, Hunter (Virginia Gardner), Becky (Grace Caroline Currey) is drinking heavily and taking her pain out on her father, James (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). She's pleased, therefore, when Hunter visits after a lengthy silence and allows herself to be talked into conquering her fears by climbing the decommissioned B67 communication tower, which stands 2000ft above a back end of nowhere desert.
As Hunter is a YouTuber with 60,000 followers, she insists on recording every stage of the expedition and climbing to the `tippy tippy top' in a revealing t-shirt. Despite misgivings that are not eased by an encounter with a couple of gorging vultures, Becky follows her friend up the ladder inside the creaking metal structure until they reach the height equivalent of the Eiffel Tower. Chivvied by Hunter, she scales the final stretch, but is too preoccupied to notice the odd bolt working loose as she climbs.
Once on the circular platform beneath the warning beacon, the women pose for daredevil shots for Hunter's social media outlets. They also scatter Dan's ashes and Becky thanks Hunter for helping her come back to life. As they start their descent, however, the ladder breaks loose and Hunter has to haul Becky back on to the platform. Unable to get a signal on their phones, they realise that the haversack containing their water bottle has fallen into the satellite dish beneath them.
Confident that one of her followers will raise the alarm, Hunter taps a message into her phone and removes her push-up bra to provide padding inside her baseball boot to cushion the impact of it hitting the ground. After a while, they realise that the phone must have smashed and their spirits sink further when they attract the attention of the occupants of a camper van, only for them to steal Hunter's car.
Having confessed to having had an affair with Dan before the wedding, Hunter decides to use her rope to shin down to the dish in the hope of retrieving the bag. After hanging by a thread, she makes it back to the platform and they agree to ration the water. They also attach a message to the drone that Hunter had used to record the climb. However, the battery runs low before it had crossed the perimeter fence and Becky volunteers to climb to the beacon to charge the battery from the light socket. Just as the drone is about to reach the diner where they had eaten, however, it's shattered by a passing truck and despair sets in.
Breaking with tradition, we won't reveal the ending, if only because it's something of an anti-climax. But this doesn't take away from the gutsiness of Grace Caroline Currey and Virginia Gardner's performances or the ingenuity of Scott Mann and his team. Shooting in the IMAX format in the Mojave Desert, Mann and Spanish cinematographer Miguel `MacGregor' Olaso make exceptional use of the tower, its environs and the vast expanse of sky to highlight the vulnerability of the two women and the scale of the peril they face.
Given the paucity of the budget, credit has to be given to the sizeable SFX crew, who enable editor Rob Hall to blur the lines between the live-action and effects footage. Apparently, some digital wizardry was also required to deepfake Currey and Gardner's faces in order to synch them with dubbed lines that removed the 30+ f-bombs from the dialogue, so that the film could be released with a PG-13 rating in the United States.
In the 17 years since he debuted with Down Among the Dead Men (2005), Mann has alternated between small-screen assignments and features like The Tournament (2009), Heist (2015) and Final Score (2018), the middle one of which starred Robert De Niro. But this seems set to be his peak achievement. It's certainly guaranteed cult status, even though he and co-writer Jonathan Frank might look back with a twinge of regret at their ending.
9) BOULEVARD! A HOLLYWOOD STORY.
Since debuting with Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story (2007), Jeffrey Schwartz has directed such memorably documentaries as Vito (2011), I Am Divine (2013) and Tab Hunter Confidential (2015). However, he outdoes himself with Boulevard! A Hollywood Story, which harks back to the 1950s to uncover a tale that had been lost in the mists of time.
It's impossible to think of anyone other than Gloria Swanson and William Holden playing ageing film star Norma Desmond and hack writer Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard (1950). But director Billy Wilder had wanted Mae West and Marlon Brando for the leads and had contacted Greta Garbo, Pola Negri, Clara Bow, Norma Shearer and Mary Pickford before George Cukor had suggested Swanson. During the silent era, she had been one of Hollywood's biggest stars, thanks to her collaborations with Cecil B. DeMille on such raunchy comedies as Male and Female (1919) and The Affairs of Anatol (1921).
Despite having started out making two-reel comedies for Mack Sennett at Keystone, Swanson developed into a fine silent actress and had co-starred with Rudolph Valentino in Sam Wood's Beyond the Rocks (1922) before dazzling in Allan Dwan's Zaza (1923) and Léonce Perret's Madame Sans-Gêne (1925). Having landed a nomination for Best Actress at the inaugural Academy Awards for Raoul Walsh's Sadie Thompson (1928), she had coped well with the coming of sound in Edmund Goulding's The Trespasser (1929), which brought her another Oscar nod. However, the failure of Erich von Stroheim to complete Queen Kelly (1929) - footage of which appears in Sunset Boulevard - proved ruinous for her production company and she struggled to find worthwhile roles.
The same problem had hamstrung the acting ambitions of Richard Stapley, an RAF veteran from Westcliff-on-Sea who had been signed by MGM and given his debut alongside Gene Kelly in George Sidney's The Three Musketeers (1948). He had held his own in Mervyn LeRoy's Little Women (1949), but hopes that he could be groomed for matinee stardom were soon dashed and he was loaned out to make such neglected offerings as Joseph Pevney's The Strange Door (1951), Henry King's King of the Khyber Rifles (1953), William Castle's King of the Lancers and The Iron Glove (both 1954) and Harmon Jones's Target Zero (1955).
When his contract was not renewed, Stapley decided to reinvent himself as a writer and that was when he met Dickson Hughes, who was playing the piano in a hotel lounge. Born William Hucks, Jr. in Akron, Ohio, Hughes had earned a bachelor's degree from Redlands University in California before pursuing a musical career. He suggested forming a writing partnership and started working with Stapley on a musical based on the daily routine at Time magazine.
In seeking a star for About Time, Hughes and Stapley approached Swanson in December 1953, who insisted that she would only return to the stage in a musical version of Sunset Boulevard. By the end of the week, the duo had dashed off three songs, which so enchanted Swanson that she used her contact with D.A. Doran at Paramount to secure what she believed was an option on the rights to the material.
Despite being aware that Stapley and Hughes were an item, Swanson was bowled over by the former's good looks and seems to have plotted a seduction. However, Stapley resisted her entreaties before deciding that it would be better for everyone if he made himself scarce. Upset at losing a lover, but recognising that he could now take sole credit for the project, Hughes returned to Swanson's shooting script to piece together a scenario.
Despite seeing little of his star over the next two years, he continued working on the songs and agreed to be musical director and play director-turned-butler Max von Mayerling off camera when Swanson appeared on The Steve Allen Show in November 1957 to perform `Those Wonderful People Out There in the Dark'. Several more months passed, with Hughes playing piano bar in New York while Swanson awaited confirmation from Doran. Sadly, in February 1959, she had to call Hughes and break the news that Boulevard! was dead.
While Hughes went off to contribute a song to Roy Del Ruth's thriller, Why Must I Die? (1960), Stapley reappeared in Britain under the name Richard Wyler. Having relaunched himself on television as Anthony Smith in Man From Interpol, Wyler headlined Frank Marshall's Identity Unknown (1961) before heading to Europe to star in such genre fare as Rudolph Maté's The Barbarians (1960), Riccado Freda's The Exterminators (1965), Eugenio Martín's The Bounty Killer (1966), Francesco Prosperi's Dick Smart 2.007 (1967) and Jesús Franco's The Girl From Rio (1969).
Now married to Elizabeth Emerson, Wyler also forged a reputation as a champion motorcycle rider. However, he continued to act and reverted to the surname Stapley for his roles opposite Michael Redgrave and Bette Davis in Franklin Gollings's Connecting Rooms (1970) and Barry Foster in Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972). But he realised his acting options were narrowing and, having divorced Elizabeth, he became an American citizen and devoted himself to writing.
Hughes had no idea what had happened to his old friend and was surprised when he showed up in New York in 1994 to protest that he had not given his permission for Hughes to write, score and star in a play entitled Swanson on Sunset. Over clips from the production, Laurie Franks (who took the title role) recalls her excitement at the project. However, Richard Leibell (who played Stapley) reflects that his age difference with Hughes undermined the credibility of a project that Variety described as `promising' during its workshop run at the Hollywood Roosevelt Cinegrill shortly after Andrew Lloyd Webber had premiered Sunset Boulevard in the West End.
Sadly, Hughes's play never got to transfer to the Big White Way. But he enjoyed his moment in the spotlight and continued to play music until his death in June 2005. Stapley followed in March 2010, after he had published a couple of novels and toiled over a screenplay called Tomorrow Will Be Cancelled.
In the interview he recorded with music publisher Stephen Bock, Stapley appears to have come to peace with his extraordinary story. As does Hughes in taped conversations that author Sam Staggs made while researching Close-up on Sunset Boulevard: Billy Wilder, Norma Desmond, and the Dark Hollywood Dream (2003). This was the launch pad for Schwarz's film and it makes for fascinating reading.
In addition to mining these precious resources and the abundant archive of Swanson's chat show appearances, Schwarz also spoke to Swanson's granddaughter, Brooke Anderson, film historians Cari Beauchamp and Robert Osborne, and veteran publicist Alan Eichler, who had known both Stapley and Hughes. Ingeniously, he also commissioned animations from Maurice Vellekoop, which add a little knowing kitsch to proceedings that will delight cineastes and leave them pondering what other untold tales are waiting to be discovered on the shelves of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. And, by the way, Norma was spot on about the pictures getting small.
8) A BUNCH OF AMATEURS.
In her seminal 1995 New York Times essay, `The Decay of Cinema', critic Susan Sontag opined, `If cinephilia is dead, then movies are dead too.' In profiling the ageing members of the Bradford Movie Makers group that has met every Monday since 1932, Kim Hopkins's poignant, but thought-provoking documentary, A Bunch of Amateurs, expands upon this contention by considering how the passing of a once-prevalent form of film buffery will impinge upon the very future of the production and consumption of motion pictures in this country and beyond.
As we learn from the opening montage, Bradford Movie Makers (formerly the Bradford Cine Circle) have been producing documentaries, dramas, and holiday films like Formation of the Home Guard (1939), Boadicea (1963), and Knaresborough (1969) for decades. In 1983, the club produced a thriller, Chew, and a 50th anniversary celebration, Jubilee. Today, however, only a few stalwarts remain and they, like their backstreet meeting place (with its broken weather vane), have seen better days. But their weekly rendezvous are more important than ever, as they provide an escape from the grimmer realities of getting old.
Retired carpenter Colin Egglestone can barely make it up the stairs to the screening room. But he revels in the showing of Fred Zinnemann's Oklahoma! (1955) and is intrigued by Harry Nicholls's desire to duplicate the scene of Gordon MacRae singing "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'".
Harry Nicholls has fond memories of the film, as it was the first one he saw with his wife, Mary, who is now bedridden at home with dementia. We see him taking the title role in the self-directed Captain Marvel (1979) and his sense of adventure remains strong. Colin understands his situation, as his wife, Shirley, is in a care home with the same condition. She looks in his direction when he tells her how much he misses her being around the house.
Despite being home to the National Science and Media Museum, Bradford has allowed its cinema heritage to go to pot. Old theatres have long been converted, but they remain standing like the BMM clubhouse, which has become a popular spot for fly-tippers. They owe five years' rent, as secretary Andrew Cockerill is keen to keep the coffers as full as possible. But members are aware, BMM is teetering.
As Harry films a white horse for his MacRae homage, Phil Wainman shows a small audience his first film, It Came From Somewhere Else (1999). He also made Nice Jam (2001), which he discusses with Joe Ogden, a disability support volunteer who enjoys being a part of something creative, as it helps him fend off depression.
Joe shows his new camera to girlfriend Jeanette Wilson, while Phil takes care of his brother, Chris, who has cerebral palsy. He argues with Harry over the club's tendency to take on too many projects at once. But they join forces on Appointment in Walthamstow and agree that Phil's cackle as the Grim Reaper lacks menace.
DJ and events manager Marie McCahery joins the club and proposes some money-making schemes that will also get BMM so much-needed publicity. While she spins discs at a pub rock event, Harry shows Mary some old home movies, Colin struggles to plant bulbs in his sloping garden, and Joe and Jeanette watch Harry and Meghan's wedding on the telly.
Phil and Joe compare the MacRae scene with Harry's white horse footage and worry how they're going to integrate the shots with studio cutaways. Nevertheless, they shoot Harry lip-synching against a green screen and pulling on some makeshift reins to add some authenticity. There's a bit of bickering, as Phil fusses over the lighting and Harry sweats in his plaid shirt. But everyone is pals again by the tea break.
Marie has an idea for a dance and old movie night in a local pub, while Ian is working on a promotional film to attract new members. Joe and Harry shoot their speeches, but the latter falls out with Phil (as they often do) and insults are traded. Yet Phil and Joe still do their best to make the Oklahoma! scene work, as they know how much it means to Harry. They also rally round when Colin comes to the Monday meeting with the sad news that Shirley had died earlier in the day and he couldn't bring himself to stay home alone.
While Marie goes on the publicity trail, Phil tries to tidy up the area around the clubhouse and Joe starts work with Keith Wilcock on Wicked & Lazy. Phil shoots more scenes for Walthamstow and the fun side of the club comes to the fore, as actors corpse and crew members suppress sniggers. But Colin damages his shoulder during a night shoot and they have to call an ambulance. He remains in good spirits, however, and is touched when BMM come to his house so he doesn't have to miss the Monday get together.
Christmas is coming and Phil is feeling the strain. He shows off an award he won for the effects on The Haunted Turnip (2015) and regrets that he won't be able to stay for long at the annual party. A stairlift has been fitted to help Colin and he's happy to be back with friends. It's a small affair, but the sense of camaraderie is readily evident.
Joe works with a digital editing programme to place Harry's head on the horse rider's body. But not everything works out so well, as Marie's movie night doesn't attract a single customer, with even the pair who paid in advance staying away. Andrew reports to the AGM that BMM is on its uppers, but Colin insists on painting the door to remove the graffiti and make the clubhouse look respectable. All he makes, however, is a blank canvas for someone to contribute a phallic daub.
Harry is grateful to Phil and Joe for realising his dream scene, which is finished just before Mary passes away. They had been married for over 60 years and he shows off some keepsakes from their photo album, when his BMM friends call to express their condolences.
Some fear the end is nigh for BMM and there is reluctance to close down when the Coronavirus pandemic strikes, in case they never open again. However, they abide by the rules, start video diaries, and master Zoom conferencing. What's more, they discover they are entitled to a Covid grant and use the £10,000 to build a wall to thwart the tippers and renovate the clubhouse. They worry that organisations like BMM will soon be obsolete, but also share a concern for movie-going in general, as audiences decline.
There's a solid turnout for the outdoor awards ceremony off Little Horton Lane and a closing caption reveals that Harry's Oklahoma won the comedy prize at the Burnley Amateur Film Festival. His hilarious green-screened Superman plays over the closing crawl and ends the film on a positive note by affirming that, where moving images are concerned, anything is possible.
Kim Hopkins has made some splendid documentaries, including Folie à Deux (2012), which followed the efforts of Helen Heraty to turn Grays Court in York into a boutique hotel. Chronicling another battle against the odds, her second sojourn in the county is equally engaging and raises some troubling points about film culture in the UK. While running a film society in Oxford two decades ago, it was clear that the audience for old films was on the wane and this has been confirmed since by the growing timidity of the programming by the city's arthouses. The communal appeal of cinema-going has also diminished, as streaming has made spectatorship a more individual pursuit.
All of which keeps groups like Bradford Movie Makers on the endangered list and the sequence in which the home movie night draws a complete blank is heartbreaking (where as the Media Museum when it was needed?). The Covid grant has seemingly kept the wolves and the fly-tippers from the door. But it must be a concern that there are no eager youngsters in the club to pass the torch to the next generation.
It would be interesting to know how many other amateur enterprises like BMM are still in existence. Film societies have their own national federation and Hopkins might have explored BMM's links with bodies like the Institute of Amateur Cinematographers and such other bands of enthusiasts as Burnley Film Makers. But the focus on the BMM's activities is deftly punctuated with affecting, but undewy-eyed asides on the difficult domestic situations facing several of the members. The bereavements serve to emphasise the club's social value and speaks volumes about the fragility of community ties across the country. As does the vandalism and the tipping, which contrasts with the magnanimity of a landlord whose relaxed approach to rent kept BMM afloat. Let's hope that if this ever comes to DVD, the extras will include full-length versions of some of the extracted titles. Some are dotted around the Internet and are well worth tracking down. One can only hope there are many more to come before BMM celebrates its centenary in 2032.
If Julia Ducournau set out to make a mash-up of Catherine Breillat's À ma Sœur! (2001) and Brian DePalma's Carrie (1976), it might look a bit like Cerdita/Piggy, the debut feature that Carlota Pereda has expanded from her 2019 Goya-winning short of the same name.
In a quiet village in Extremadura, near the Portuguese border, Sara (Laura Galán) lives with her genial butcher father, Tomás (Julián Valcárcel), and hectoring mother, Asun (Carmen Machi). Shy and overweight, Sara is tormented by classmates Maca (Claudia Salas), Rocío (Camille Aguilar) and (to a lesser extent, Claudia (Irene Ferreiro). They call her `Piggy' and waste no opportunity in hurting and humiliating her.
One afternoon, after Maca had posted a picture of her serving in the family shop, Sara goes for a siesta swim in the town pool. As there's no one around, she hurries to the edge, only to be frightened by a stranger (Richard Holmes) popping out of the water. Such is her alarm that she fails to notice a man's lifeless body at the bottom of the pool. Maca, Rocío and Claudia go past and the first pair can't resist mocking Sara and asking if the bearded man is her boyfriend.
No sooner has he left than Maca and Rocío try dunking Sara with a leaf net before stealing her clothes. Even Claudia picks up her towel before running off. Hurrying home in her bikini, Sara is harassed by some young men in a car and takes cover in a dusty side road. Peering around a bush, she sees a white van and is shocked to see Claudia's bloody face appear in the rear window. She pleads for help, but Sara does nothing, as the stranger drops her towel on the ground before driving off, with Claudia and friends.
Back home, Sara is scolded by her mother for getting sunburnt. She goes online and feels no pity when she sees a social media post about the `three little pigs'. However, she's wary when Claudia's boyfriend, Pedro (José Pastor), comes looking for her and reluctantly agrees to run an errand for her father. The stranger follows her into the shop and buys some of the snacks she comfort eats (and later leaves them in her bedroom).
With rumours circulating that the lifeguard was killed because he was having a fling with a missing waitress, Sara is whisked off by her mother to see what has happened at the pool. When quizzed by Civil Guards Juan Carlos (Chema del Barco) and son Juancarlitos (Fernando Delgado-Hierro), she lies and claims to have bathed in the river before snapping at Asún for doing nothing to protect her from the mean girls. Juancarlitos is convinced Sara is hiding something, but his father dismisses his suspicions.
Embarrassed by Claudia's mother, Elena (Pilar Castro), coming to the house and asking about her daughter, Sara sneaks out after supper to find her missing phone. She uses her father's mobile to track the ringtone on the dusty road, but runs into the stranger. He ushers her away, as the parents of the missing girls conduct a torchlight search and Sara is shocked when he kisses her.
Amidst the commotion caused by the discovery of the waitress's body, Sara slips away and is masturbating to pornography in bed when Pedro knocks on her window. She comes down and takes a toke on his joint, as she admits to having seen the girls at the pool. He begs her to speak up, as he is coming under suspicion. But their chat is interrupted by Elena, who implores them to help her and winds up in a scuffle with Asun when she comes out to protect her child. When the Guardia try to interrogate her, Asun proves just as stubborn, even though Juancarlitos knows she is withholding information.
Marching Sara back home, Asun demands to know why Claudia's bloody towel was in with her washing. However, they are interrupted by the stranger, who has just murdered Tomás and leaves Asun unconscious before dragging Sara into the night. He takes her to an abattoir on the edge of town, where she finds Rocío and Claudia strung up on meat hooks. Maca is already dead and they beseech Sara to free them before the stranger comes back.
Despite the fact that he alone has shown her some pity, Sara kills him with his knife and uses the rifle he stole from her father to shoot the ropes binding her tormentors. As she wanders back along the road, she encounters Pedro on his motorbike and he gives her a lift back to town without mentioning that his girlfriend is alive, albeit without her right hand.
An exceptional performance by Laura Galán (in her mid-30s) holds together this audacious psychological slasher, which plays with a raft of generic conventions without diminishing their effectiveness. Indeed, Carlota Pebreda's readiness to subvert expectation keeps the audience on tenterhooks, even as the action becomes more frustratingly formulaic in the final reel. Nevertheless, it would be nice to know what happens next, if only to the young bull that opted out of the festival run and gave Sara a fright as she searched for her phone.
If the focus on Sara leaves the secondary characters in her shadow (although Carmen Machi is splendid as her brusque mother), Pebreda is more successful at exploiting her location, with cinematographer Rita Noriega utilising the Academy ratio frame to convey the clamminess of the summer heat and the simmering tensions within a town riven with fissures and feuds. Olivier Arson's discordant score and David Pelegrin's measured editing (the throat to melon cut is a doozy) enhance the sense of unease, as we try to fathom Sara's reaction to the fact that a murderous avenger in a white van has recognised her plight and seems prepared to resolve it while accepting her for who she is, both physically and emotionally.
Although Pereda revels in the gorier moments, the real horror lies in Sara's shaming ordeal at the hands of her peers and neighbours. Forever trying to make herself look small or overlookable, Galán brilliant captures the victim's vulnerability and volatility, even as the picture rather jumps the gate during the slaughterhouse sequence and leaves the lingering suspicion that the short leaving countless questions unasked is superior to the feature that raises even more.
Echoes of Guy Maddin can be detected beneath the ticking of the timepieces in Cyril Schäublin's follow-up to his acclaimed debut, Those Who Are Fine. Despite being dominated by a watch factory, the town of St Imier in the Jura Mountains runs according to factory, municipal, telegraph time, and railway time - none of which coincide. It's 1872 and Russian anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin (Alexei Evstratov) has arrived ostensibly to conduct a cartographical survey. However, he is distracted from his dual purpose by Josephine Gräbli (Clara Gostynski), who fits unrest wheels in the factory owned by Roulet (Valentin Merz), who has threatened to dismiss anyone espousing left-leaning causes.
Gendarme Payard (Laurent Ferrero) adopts a genial approach to keeping law and order and there are no scenes of confrontation or violence, in spite of the seething sense of injustice that drives the workforce and prompts them to purchase postcards of anarcho-communist celebrities like would-be assassin August Reinsdorf from Photographer Clément (Mayo Irion). Indeed, it would appear that little out of the ordinary goes on in this secluded burgh.
Yet Schäublin keeps us fascinated in the mundane doings that are paced and composed with an off-kilter long-take precision that recalls the distanciating formalism of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. Production designer Sara B. Weingart, cinematographer Silvan Hillman, and sound designer-editor Roland Widmer all make notable contributions to a disarmingly mischievous egalitarian saga that is exceptionally played by a non-professional cast and should put Schäublin (who hails from a watchmaking family) on the map.
5) IN FRONT OF YOUR FACE.
South Korea's Hong Sang-soo should be one of those directors that distributors clamour over. Since debuting with The Day a Pig Fell into the Well (1998), he has made 28 features. But far too few of them have reached UK screens outside the festival circuit and it's deeply frustrating that Introduction failed to find any takers after winning the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay at the Berlin Film Festival. Thankfully, New Wave has landed Hong's second film of 2021, In Front of Your Face, which will touch anyone who has learned to admire his distinctive brand of existential dramedy.
After years of living in the United States, Sang-ok (Lee Hye-young) has returned to Seoul to see her sister, Jeon-ok (Jo Yoon-hee). From the way she touches her abdomen and whispers in her head what amount to small prayers, it's clear that Sang-ok is ailing. But she says nothing, even when Jeon-ok frets about how thin she has become.
They take breakfast in a café overlooking a lake and lament how little they know of each other's lives. Jeon-ok still resents the fact that Sang-ok left for America with a man she barely knew and is puzzled by her sudden return. Sang-ok explains that she has been running a liquor store in Seattle since abandoning her acting career and has spent most of her money on rent. She has no regrets, however, and is keen to see her nephew, Seung-won (Shin Seok-ho), again.
Walking through the park, they stop for a selfie by some flowers and ask a passer-by to take it. She recognises Sang-ok from the television and Jeon-ok hopes that her afternoon appointment with film director Jae-won (Kwon Hae-hyo) will lead to a part. Sang-ok enjoys the peace and quiet of the river babbling over some stepping stones. But she can't resist having a quick smoke under an ornamental bridge, as she intones another prayer to allow her to appreciate the world and stay in the present rather than dwelling in the past or stressing about the future.
They order some tteok-bokki from Seung-won's girlfriend (Kang Yi-seo) and Sang-ok spills some of the spicy red broth on her pink top. She can't remove it, but decides against going home to change before her meeting. As they leave, Seung-won catches up with them and gives his aunt a new leather wallet as a gift. He hopes they can meet again during her stay.
Taking a taxi to the restaurant, Sang-ok makes a detour to her old home. It has been converted into a boutique and the owner (Kim Sae-byuk) offers her plum tea and a seat in the garden to enjoy a cigarette. As she wanders through the rooms, Sang-ok chides herself for harking back and vows to only see what is in front of her face. She gives the owner's six year-old daughter a hug and leaves.
Sang-ok meets Jae-won and his assistant (Ha Seong-guk) at a bar called `Novel' and send out for Chinese food and liquor. Jae-won describes scenes from two of Sang-ok's films from the early 1990s and she is touched that he has remained a fan. He hopes to make a film with her, but has yet to start on the screenplay. However, Sang-ok only has five or six months to live and she laughs while trying to console the crestfallen Jae-won. Plucking at an old guitar, she leaves him to sob and slip outside to smoke.
She joins him and he pats her on the shoulder, as she lights up. Back inside, Sang-ok reveals that she had once contemplated suicide and had been dissuaded by the faces outside Seoul Station. Now, with death being so close, she has used the beauty of the world to give her strength and the belief that Heaven is just in front of her face to carry on. Jae-won asks Sang-ok to make a short film with him and suggests they spend a couple of days on the road and edit on his computer. Smilingly, she agrees and asks if he hopes to sleep with her on their travels and he nods (even though he's happily married).
His assistant returns to drive them home and Jae-won tidies up before they go. They shuffle down a narrow alley under a blue umbrella and Sang-ok pats her companion on the back. Next morning, with the rain still falling, she gets a voice message from Jae-won apologising for making a promise he can't keep and Sang-ok laughs heartily as she plays it a second time. She wanders over to the bed where her sister is sleeping and asks if she is dreaming.
While very much recognisable as a Hong Sang-soo film, there is much more to this exquisite short story than the usual earnest discussions over alcohol filmed in lengthy static takes. Sang-ok's situation makes her more direct and emotionally open than is customary in the often playfully enigmatic encounters that Hong typically favours. She has reconciled herself to her fate and doesn't want to waste time on caprices and secrets. Yet she can't hurry her sister into divulging the contents of her dream because she believes it is bad luck to reveal them before noon.
A singer who became a household name on Korean television from 1995 before all but quitting acting after launching a fashion label, Lee Hye-young is simply wonderful, as she dying woman who refuses to believe she has nothing left to live for. Her poised stillness makes her unrestrained laughter all the more poignant, as she banishes melancholy in
recognising the ridiculousness of both Jae-won's pomposity and the overall human condition. Few achieve such profundity with such deftness (and in only 32 shots). But that's why Hong's films make for essential viewing.
4) LEONORA ADDIO.
Ninety year-old Paolo Taviani returns to film-making for the first time since the 2018 death of his co-director brother, Vittorio, with this rhapsodic monochrome requiem following the remains of Nobel laureate Luigi Pirandello on their last journey from the grandeur of Fascist Rome to the rural Sicilian town of Agrigento where the author was born. Having decided against flying after the other passengers on a US Army plane refuse to travel with an urnful of ashes, an escort (Fabrizio Ferracane) takes a microcosmic train south, only to lose his companion in the baggage car. His problems don't end there, however, as he still has to negotiate with an intransigent bishop (Claudio Bigagli) and make do with a child's coffin because there's a shortage following a flu epidemic.
Following a sequence showing Pirandello bidding farewell to his children (who age before his eyes, as they cross the room to his bed), the scene cuts to Brooklyn for a dramatisation of `The Nail' (written 20 days before Pirandello's death in 1936), which shows how singing Sicilian busboy Bastianeddu (Matteo Pittiruti) wanders away from the family restaurant to murder (`on purpose') a red-haired girl named Betty (Dania Marino) with a nail fallen from a cart, after she had been involved in a fierce fight on a piece of wasteland. Filled with remorse, he vows to visit her grave annually after his release from prison.
Feeling like an outtake from Kaos, the Tavianis' 1984 anthology of five Pirandello stories, this colour vignette reinforces the themes of loss, the swift passage of time, the randomness and fragility of existence; and the relationship between representation and interpretation. For all its poignancy, it feels a little tacked on pales by comparison with the clips from Roberto Rossellini, Alberto Lattuada, Aldo Vergano, Gillo Pontecorvo, Nino Manfredi, Carlo Lizzani, and Michelangelo Antonioni that Taviani and editor Robert Perpignano expertly use to punctuate the Sicilian odyssey (there's even a homage to Stanley Kubrick). Yet it echoes Pirandello's words after the Nobel ceremony: `I've never felt so alone and so sad. The sweetness of the glory cannot compensate for the bitterness of how much it cost.'
Very much a fraternal tribute and a reflection on the Italian cinema to which the Tavianis had contributed with such distinction, this realisation of a project that dates back four decades can also be read as a treatise on reputation and legacy in a time of cancel culture. Paolo Carnera and Simone Zampagni's photography and Nicola Piovani's orchestral score capture this bittersweetness, while production designer Emita Frigato references Pirandellian theatricality. If this mosaic of moods, styles, and forms is to be Paolo Taviani's farewell, he departs on a note of nostalgic affection and resilient grace.
3) RETURN TO DUST.
Having already set The Old Donkey (2010) and Fly With the Crane (2012) in the countryside, Li Ruijun returns to his native Gansu for Return to Dust. Exploring the depopulation of rural areas and the impact the drift to the towns is having on the Chinese landscape, this is also a poignant study of companionship that aroused a degree of controversy when the ending was amended at the iniststence of the censors.
Living near Gaotai close to the border with Inner Mongolia, Youtie Ma (Wu Renlin) and Guiying Cao (Hai Qing) are forced to marry by their families. He is an illiterate farmer devoted to his donkey, while she has a limp and a bladder problem. On their first night together, Guiying wets the bed and Youtie isn't sure how to respond. Nevertheless, he accepts their lot and takes her into the sandy wilderness to introduce her to his ancestors in a paper-burning ceremony.
As they're such a taciturn pair, they are teased by their neighbours. But Youtie comes to prominence because he shares the same rare bloody type as the area boss, Zhang Yongfu, who keeps everyone in work. Intimidated by the prospect of visiting a hospital, Youtie asks if he can donate blood at the town clinic and Guiying clings to his side, as she is such a homebody. He covers her with his overcoat when she has an accident and buys her a coat of her own when he carries some of Zhang's nephew's furniture to town on his donkey cart.
Returning late, Youtie is touched to find Guiying waiting on the road with a flask of hot tea that she has warmed up twice because she's been waiting so long. He urges her to warm her hands and hop on to the cart, but she opts to walk because she doesn't want to impose on the donkey after it's had such a long journey.
They work hard on an implacable piece of land, with Guiying having to sit on the simple wooden plough to ensure it indents the soil. Borrowing some eggs from the neighbour whose TV they watch, they make an incubator from a lightbulb and a cardboard box and Guiying is charmed by the speckled light bouncing off the walls of their hut. However, they are forced to find a new home, when owner Ma Youwen returns from his job in Dongguan to claim the 15,000 yuan that is being offered for the demolition of unsightly buildings.
Collecting timbers for future use, they move into another abandoned domicile and make it cosy. They gaze into the incubator and dream of having laying hens, but Guiying is dispirited by the wheat crop struggling to take root and Youtie has to reassure her that dead shoots fertilise the others because everything has its purpose in life. He's just as philosophical when he drops a steamed bun and insists it's fine to eat because the earth would never do anything to harm him.
Driven into town at regular intervals to give blood, Youtie is glad to have Guiying's company. She asks the doctor to take her blood, instead. Even the locals notice how close the couple has become, as they carry water from the lake to make mud bricks in order to build a place of their own. They also fashion a wicket pen for their hens and are pleased that the swallow that had nested in their old home has followed them.
When a storm breaks, they rush into the night to cover the bricks and laugh when they slip in the mud. Next morning, Guiying makes a straw donkey and tells Youtie that she knew she was marrying a good man when she saw him consoling the donkey after his brother had beaten it. She knew life couldn't get any worse, living in a shed in the yard and she has been proved right. As it's so hot, they sleep on the roof that night and Guiying is moved when Youtie ties her to his belt, so she can't roll off in the night.
As the corn starts to rise, work begins on the house, with Guiying hauling cement and Youtie laying bricks. They enjoy a fish caught in the river and reminisce about a shared kindness to a mumbling man who had been despised by the other villagers. When he next gives blood, Youtie asks about payments for his neighbours, who are struggling to make ends meet and Zhang's nephew tells him to look after himself before anyone else.
While gathering the harvest, Youtie gets cross with Guiying when she proves too weak to pitchfork bales on to the cart. He pushes her over and immediately regrets his action, but can't bring himself to apologise. Instead, he claims to have loaded the cart so badly that she needs to ride on top to balance it. As they thresh together, he makes a mark on the back of her hand with a grain of wheat and says he'll always be able to find her from now on. However, she gets wheat rash and he has to bathe her in the village irrigation canal and she is scared by the speed of the current.
Shortly afterwards, the owner of their squat returns and orders them to leave so he can demolish and collect his cash. Youtie chases the swallows away to protect them and returns for the next. He and Guiying move into their own house and they have just taken delivery of some piglets when a nephew arrives to say that he has applied for an apartment in town on Youtie's behalf. He doesn't want to leave and starts ploughing and sewing for the next harvest. He jokes with Guiying about her footprints in the soil and says a peasant is tied to the land that feeds him.
Their visit to the apartment is filmed for propaganda purposes, but Youtie demands to know where he can keep his animals. Soon afterwards, Guiying develops a fever and he orders her to bed. He poaches the first egg laid by their hens and she curses her luck to fall ill for the first time in her life when she's happy.
Youtie collects the corn crop and is crossing the village when he learns that Guiying has drowned in the irrigation canal. She had come to bring him buns and toppled in during a dizzy fit. Clearly no one had jumped in to rescue her and Youtie is crushed. He takes down their `double happiness' wedding banner from the wall and replaces it with a black-edged photo of Guiying that had been taken on the day they married. Sobbing, he presses grains into the webbing of her thumb so he can find her again on the other side. As he buries her, Youtie burns the television set he had bought her as a surprise.
Having collected the last of his crops, Youtie frees his donkey and climbs a dune so that it wanders away. He is cheated by Zhang's nephew when he sells up, but seems unconcerned, as he has enough to pay his debts. Returning home, he eats an egg and lies down with his pillow beside the fire, clutching the straw donkey. The camera blurs on the light coming through the window before a coda shows the donkey returning to house in time to see it bulldozed and Yang's nephew collect the 15,000 yuan. Despite the fact no one seems to be speaking, we hear that Youtie has gone to start his new life in the town.
This is clearly a dubbed line added at the insistence of the censor to negate the impression that Youtie would rather join Guiying than move into a soulless apartment. It's a shame that the distributors didn't decide to remove it for the UK release, so that their version came closer to Li Ruijun's original intentions. But viewers should ignore it and allow Youtie to follow his heart.
He is poignantly played by farmer and occasional actor Wu Renlin, whose weathered features remain stoically impassive in bad times and good. Actress Hai Qing had to learn farming techniques and master the local dialect to play Guiying, who has been downtrodden for so long that she daren't trust herself to exhibit an emotion. Nevertheless, her growing affection for Youtie is beautifully conveyed by simple confidences and gentle gestures that always feel authentic rather than twee. Even their doting on the donkey eschews sentimentality and the creature's reappearance just as all evidence of Youtie and Guiying's life together is being levelled says more about the callousness of the community and the inhumanity of the state than any fiery tirade.
Li focusses on the harshness of rural existence and the duplicity of the middle-classes. Yet he also notes the dignity of labour and the integrity of self-sustainability, as these two discarded souls find a reason to live through each other. Cinematographer Wang Weihua captures the unforgiving nature of the terrain and the effects that depopulation are having on both settlements and the landscape. But, again, the message is left to float on the strains of Peyman Yazdanian's deft score, which reinforces the film's air of restrained desolation that keeps romanticised melodramatics at bay.
What a poignant double bill Li Ruijun's Return to Dust would make with Alejandro Loayza Grisi's Utama. Similarly centring on an ageing couple struggling to make ends meet on implacable terrain, this Bolivian saga
takes its title from the Quechua word for `our home'. As a former photographer, the debuting Loayza Grisi has a fine eye for the Altiplano landscape. But this is much more than another lament on the impact of climate change.
Long married, Virginio (José Calcina) and
Sisa (Luisa Quispe) live in a remote cabin on the Andean Plateau. He herds llamas, while she tends a small parched plot and fetches water from the village pump. They say little and sleep in separate beds, but Virginio and Sisi depend upon each other entirely and are utterly devoted, as is clear when he rests his head in her lap in the garden.
Yet, when Sisi informs him that she needs help carrying water back from the river because the pump has given up, he reminds her that this is her job, while he takes the llama to the dwindling pasture. Aware that the snow has melted from the peaks and that the seasonal rains are overdue, Virginio suggests to a neighbour that they should sacrifice an animal to `sow water on the mountain'.
Sisi is delighted when grandson Clever (Santos Choque) pays an unexpected visit. He has been raised in La Paz and doesn't speak Quechua. Consequently, he can't communicate with Virginio, who wants nothing to do with Clever because he has disowned his father for turning his back on his heritage.
Clever is concerned for them, however, and notices that his grandfather is trying to conceal a troublesome cough when he accompanies him on to the plain. But Virginio refuses to see a doctor and tells Clever that the condor plunges to its death from a mountain top when it knows it can no longer thrive. Moreover, Virginio silences Clever when he raises the prospect of moving to the capital over supper.
Up early the next morning, Clever accompanies Virginio to the village to fetch water. But the pump remains dry and they have to march on to the river. Virginio is dismayed when one of the llamas dies and he has to carry the buckets, while Clever shoulders the carcass. They arrive home after dusk, with the wind whipping up. But Virginio says nothing, even though Sisa is clearly worried.
She urges Clever to keep an eye on Virginio when they trek into the mountains for the rain ritual. He insists he is fine, but pauses en route to gaze at the snowless peak and mumble, `You're dying.' Following the ceremony, the villagers meet and are divided between those who feel the time has come to quit and those who will never leave. So staunch is Virginio in his determination that he argues with Clever in the cabin and Sisa is conflicted because she wants to appease them both.
Frustrated at having his authority challenged, Virginio leaves earlier than usual and collapses after a coughing fit. The flock wanders off and it's only when darkness falls that Sisa sends Clever to find him. He wakes on the cracked ground and staggers home alone. When he wakes next morning, Sisa and Clever are watching over him and she admonishes him for hiding his illness. She also hugs him, as she can't bear the prospect of being without him. But she is cross with him for arguing with Clever and driving him back to the city. Feeling bereft, Virginio wanders into the village and realises how many properties are lying empty.
Clever soon returns, with a doctor, who confirms that Virginio is seriously ill. However, he refuses any treatment and wanders off into the wildnerness, where he is joined by a condor, as he sits and ponders. Overhearing Clever telling Sisa that she's going to be a great-grandmother, Virginio gives Clever a pouch containing a few small nuggets of gold and entrusts him with his hat. Gruffly, he wishes him well and he is proud of him when Clever finds the llamas in a pen in the village and brings them home by himself. At supper that night, they chat happily and Sisa gives her husband a reassuring pat on the hand.
Woken in the night, Clever sees Virginio's bed empty and peers out of the window. Next morning, Sisa realises he has died in his sleep and sobs quietly, as her grandson comforts her. On the day of the funeral, she places on the coffin one of the smooth stones that Virginio had spent a lifetime bringing her. She opts to stay with the llamas and bids Clever an affectionate farewell before heading out with the flock, as rainclouds gather overhead.
Deeply moving without romanticising the plight of those seeing centuries-old traditions coming towards their end, this is a masterly evocation of a spectacular, but inhospitable place and a sombrely fond tribute to the people who have depended upon it for their livelihood. Cinematographer Bárbara Alvarez uses the full width of the screen to convey the forbidding majesty of the landscape, while Loayza Grisi frequently places humans and animals in the distance to emphasise their insignificance and their fragility in a setting that can no longer sustain them because `time has gotten tired'.
It doesn't seem to occur to Clever that his cosy city home contributes to the problems facing his grandparents. But his affection is undeniable, as he tries to persuade Virginio to consider Sisa by seeking the medical help that could prolong his life or make his passing easier for his wife. Yet, even though she would doubtlessly love to meet her great-grandchild, she stays to honour her husband's wishes and take care of the llamas, as well as tend his grave.
A real-life couple who had never acted before Loayza Grisi spotted them while location scouting, José Calcina and Luisa Quispe capture with unforced dignity the silent companionability that characterises long-term spouses who have learnt to tolerate each other's foibles. The gruff exchanges in their cramped quarters allow Virginio to maintain the illusion that he's in charge, but the small gestures and tokens of affection suggest that this is a genuine partnership. As it is with the gentle, undemanding llamas, whose ears are festooned with colourful ribbons.
Their bleating joins Virginio's rasping inhalations and the whipping wind in Alejandro Gillo's enveloping sound design, which is strikingly complemented by the jarring use of traditional Bolivian instruments in Cergio Prudencio's score. But what will linger longest are the silences between Calcina and Quispe, who have no need of words to convey what they mean.
The Empress Elisabeth of Austria was assassinated in Geneva three years after motion pictures first went on public display. She hated being photographed, however, and there doesn't appear to be any film footage of her in existence. Cinema has since sought to compensate for her absence from the archives with a series of film and television incarnations that has only enhanced her mystique.
Carla Nelsen was the first to play `Sisi' in Rolf Raffé's Kaiserin Elisabeth von Österreich (1921), which was co-written by the empress's niece, Marie Larisch. A decade later, Lil Dagover headlined Adolf Trotz's
Elisabeth von Österreich (1931), while Grace Moore gave us a singing Sisi in Josef von Sternberg's The King Steps Out (1936). That same year, Gabrielle Dorziat took over the role for Anatole Litvak's Mayerling, an account of the doomed romance between Crown Prince Rudolf and Baroness Maria Vetsera that was remade by Terence Young in 1968, with Ava Gardner as the empress. Rachel Gurney guested as the grieving mother in the outstanding BBC series, Fall of Eagles (1974), while Sandra Ceccarelli bore a mother's loss in Robert Dornhelm's teleplay, The Crown Prince (2006).
Diane Keen had essayed the young princess in the opening episode of Fall of Eagles. But Elisabeth's romanticised image was created by the teenage Romy Schneider in Ernst Marischka's Sissi (1955), Sissi: The Young Empress (1956), and Sissi: Fateful Years of an Empress (1957). Schneider came to detest the role, but she reprised it in Luchino Visconti's Ludwig (1972), which centred on Elisabeth's cousin, Ludwig II of Bavaria. Hannah Herzsprung performed similar duties in Marie Noëlle and Peter Sehr's Ludwig II (2012).
Subsequent outings have sought to challenge this idealised portrayal, including Christoph Böll's Sissi la valse des cœurs (1991), Xaver Schwarzenberge's Sisi, Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe's Sissi, l'impératrice rebelle (both 2004), Sven Bohse and Miguel Alexandre's Sisi (2021), and Florian Cossen and Katrin Gebbe's The Empress (2022), with Vanessa Wagner, Arielle Dombasle, Cristiana Capotondi, Dominique Devenport, and Devrim Lingnau respectively taking the title roles. The latter trio were small-screen productions, but the cinema retains its interest in Elisabeth, with Frauke Finsterwalder's Sisi and I (with Susanne Wolff as the empress) being preceded by Marie Kreutzer's Corsage, which goes on release in the UK after Christmas.
Vienna, December 1877 and Elisabeth of Austria (Vicky Krieps) is scaring her maids by holding her breath under her bathwater. Tightly bound in a corset to show off her slender waist, Elise attends the opening of the new Kunsthistoriches Museum with husband, Franz Josef (Florian Teichtmeister), and faints on the red carpet to avoid further questioning from the dignitaries about her health and prolonged absences from the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
In her private quarters, she jokes to cousin Ludwig II of Bavaria (Manuel Rubey) about her swooning technique and keeps the emperor waiting when he rings the bell at her closed door. He is devoted to her, but frustrated by the amount of time she spends away from court and by the gossip that her gaunt demeanour generates. Yet, Elise exercises in her private gymnasium and rides her beloved horses every day and has her maids keep precise records of her measurements.
Christmas coincides with Elise's birthday, but she resents being reminded that she is turning 40 and blows out the candles at a celebration dinner without enthusiasm. Instead, she prefers visiting the patients at a nearby asylum and identifies with one woman writhing with fury as she is tethered to a caged bed. Getting up in the night, she takes daughter Marie Valerie (Rosa Hajjaj) riding in the palace grounds, only to be admonished by her husband for risking her health after they had lost Sophie as a toddler. Elise visits her room and orders it to be cleared to avoid it becoming a shrine before agreeing to let Crown Prince Rudolf (Aaron Friesz) accompany her on a New Year trip to Northamptonshire.
She stays with George `Bay' Middleton (Colin Morgan) and spends hours riding with him in the countryside. Elise also consents to be filmed by moving picture pioneer, Louis Le Prince (Finnegan Oldfield). But she refuses to listen when Rudolf orders her to be more discreet around Bay and hurts his feelings when he realises that she values him for his compliments rather than as a potential lover. Indeed, she cuts him off completely after surviving a fall on her favourite horse and informs her maids that she no longer wishes to see her sister, Marie Sophie (Lilly Marie Tschörtner), who had chided her for taking such a foolish risk.
Back in Vienna in March 1878, Elise embarrasses Franz Josef by asking him to gaze upon her as she masturbates. But she is put out to discover that her husband is seeing 18 year-old Anna Nahowski (Alice Prosser) and has companions Ida Ferenczy (Jeanne Werner) and Marie Festetics (Katharina Lorenz) delve into her background. Hiding her face with a scarf, Elise follows Anna around the market and is nettled when she claims it's nice to have advice from an older woman.
Upset by Rudolf being dispatched to Prague, Elise argues with Franz Josef during a fencing session. He refuses to allow her to take Valerie to Hungary and Elise retaliates by jumping from a window. Disappointed to have survived without serious injury, she goes to stay with Ludwig in May 1878. The castle walls are cracked, but Elise enjoys the lack of pomp, as they ride, skinny dip, and dance together. However, she can't entice Ludwig into sleeping with her and he teases her that she doesn't want him, either. Thus, when Marie asks for permission to marry a nobleman who has proposed to her, Elise refuses on the grounds that she needs to keep her, as she is the only person who loves her without reservation.
Still feeling suicidal by July 1878, Elise is dismayed by Valerie's coldness and punishes Franz Josef by denying him access for turning their daughter against her. But Marie is equally cross with her mistress and confides in her diary that Elisabeth is treading a path so narrow that there is only room for one upon it. Her comment proves perceptive, when Elise angers the emperor by flicking the finger at their dinner guests when leaving the table early and he summons her to remind her that her duty is to support him and represent the empire - or there is no reason for her to have fine clothes and live in the lap of luxury.
Elise responds by visiting wounded troops, but embarrasses Valerie by lying down on a bed to share a cigarette with a young soldier. She asks Franz Josef to confide in her about state matters, but he refuses because he still resents having to form the Dual Monarchy because of her penchant for Hungary. He asks if there is anything he can do to make her happy and she asks for a Bengal tiger or an extension to the asylum.
Prescribed heroin to relax her, Elise retreats to her summer residence and dresses a masked Marie in her clothes to avoid doing royal duties. Feeling uninhibited, Elise cuts off her famously long tresses and shows little emotion in dismissing faithful hairdresser, Fanny Feifelik (Alma Hasun). When Franz Josef visits her, Elise claims to feel liberated and encourages him to make love to her. Yet, on her return to Vienna, she also invites Anna to tea and blesses her affair with the emperor because she wants him to be happy and feel loved.
Travelling to Ancona in October 1878, Elise gets an anchor tattoo on her shoulder. She goes sailing and ignores the crew warnings about the sea getting rough. Making her way to the prow, she jumps into the water. As the credits roll, Elise dances in slow motion, with what appears to be a moustache on her upper lip.
Such quirky details stipple the action, but this is nowhere near as anachronistic as Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette (2006), with which it's been lazily compared. Elise and Ludwig might dance to a courtier playing `Help Me Make It Through the Night' on a ukulele, while the Camille Dalmais track `She Was' recurs effectively on the soundtrack alongside a winsome rendition of the mournful Rolling Stones gem, `As Tears Go By'. But details like the tractor seen near the railway station, the modernist doorway, the swimming pool with the chrome-plated handrail, and the anchor tattoo are as punkishly playful as Elise pulling tongues at her doctor and flipping the finger at the guests she has roundly ignored while smoking behind a veil at a state banquet.
Being present at such events, while refusing actively to participate is one of the ways in which Elise rebels against the institution in which she had been entombed since the 23 year-old Franz Josef had insisted on marrying her as a teenager rather than her elder sister. In this regard, comparisons with Pablo Larrain's Spencer (2021) are vaguely valid, as both Elisabeth and Diana grew tired of being the trophy wife whose usefulness was limited to producing a male heir and with the close scrutiny of their physical appearance. In the opening sequences, Elise obsesses over maintaining the slender waist for which she had become famous. In addition to strenuous daily exercise, she also restricted her diet to thin orange slices and beef broth, while ordering her maids to ensure her corsets were excruciatingly tight.
She also sets great store by compliments that affirm her efforts to defy age and justify her status and celebrity. Her despondency when the asylum patient who had called her beautiful no longer recognises her is as palpable as her girlish glee when Louis Le Prince flatters her in order to coax her before his camera. The pair never actually met and Elisabeth disliked being photographed as much as she is shown here losing patience with a portrait painter. But Kreutzer shrewdly uses the faux handcranked monochrome footage to reveal the side of her personality that Elise had been forced to suppress. She revels in the fact that she can be seen speaking her mind without being heard and that she can cavort without having to worry about every gesture being interpreted and used against her.
Interestingly, following this moment of emancipation, Kreutzer and cinematographer Judith Kaufmann employ more handheld imagery in depicting Elise's nomadic pursuit of purpose away from the court where her advice is no longer sought by a husband who has never forgiven her for championing the cause of Hungary and foisting the Dual Monarchy upon him. Kreutzer also allows Elise to binge eat, cut her hair, inject heroin, masturbate in the bath, and coerce a trussed lady-in-waiting to stand in for her at engagements. How much of this is true is open to conjecture, but even entirely fictional incidents such as the climactic leap overboard have a poignant connection with fact, as Elisabeth was carried on to a ferry after she had been stabbed by Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni on 10 September 1898. By all accounts, Franz Josef was relieved to learn that she had not committed suicide. So, perhaps she did leap from the fencing room window and had to endure her physician congratulating her on her fortune and fortitude rather than inquiring about her mental health.
Driven to seeking affection and validation from her cousin and her riding instructor in the face of her once-doting husband's passive aggression and her children's curt disapproval, Elisabeth cuts a painfully isolated figure. Yet, as played with incisive intelligence, immersive irony, and impassive impenetrability by the ever-excellent Vicky Krieps (who initiated the project), she can also be petulant and petty. Her treatment of her sister, her confidantes, and her maids (whom she can't tell apart) is often shoddy. Her parenting skills also leave a good deal to be desired, although Kreutzer omits to mention that her mother-in-law, Princess Sophie of Bavaria, had refused to allow her to raise older daughters Sophie and Gisela.
The death of the two year-old Sophie in Budapest in 1857 is referenced after Elise takes Valerie for a midnight ride and when she notes that the portrait in her room captures little of her essence. But the complex relationship between Elisabeth and Rudolf is somewhat skirted, perhaps because it has been examined at greater length in recent mini-series. His disdain at her flirting with Bay Middleton (who was based at Althorp as a servant of Earl Spencer and fathered the future wife of Winston Churchill - you couldn't make it up) plays as much a part in Elisabeth's rebellion as Franz Josef's insistence upon her playing solely a ceremonial role in the running of the empire. Indeed, it's Bay's rejection that undermines her conviction in the potency of her beauty and sparks the existential crisis that causes the increasingly peripatetic Elise to contemplate her role, image, and legacy, as well as the value of her sacrifices, as she reaches what was the median age of death for most Austrians in the 1870s.
It proves much easier, however, for Franz Josef to remove his trademark whiskers at the end of a day's ruling than for Elisabeth to shed her regal trappings. She does bare herself for him in a last effort to connect, only for her to cool his ardour by merely offering hand relief after declaring that she's too old to have another child. When Ludwig later refuses her advances, Elise puts it down to his preference for stable boys or a sense of cousinly propriety rather than contemplate the inconsolable prospect that he is genuinely disinterested. Her conviction that beauty is the preserve of the young is confirmed by her formal installation of Anna Nahowski as her husband's mistress.
Costume designer Monika Buttinger and make-up artists Maike Heinlein and Helene Lang make a vital contribution to the physical transformation that accompanies Elise's dereliction of duty. Martin Reiter's production design is equally acute. But Kreutzer is no stranger to this subject matter, having explored society's expectations of modern women in The Ground Beneath My Feet (2019), which followed her previous collaboration with Krieps on another study of shifting self-perception, We Used to Be Cool (2016). In many ways, she has a created a version of Elisabeth that is just as fallacious as Marischka's Sisi. But she prompts us to reassess Europe's first royal superstar and consider the impact that marrying into a dynasty entrenched in tradition might have on the well-being of those who had thought they were entering a fairytale rather than a nightmare.