- David Parkinson
Parky At the Pictures (31/12/2021)
(The second part of the Parky At the Pictures Top 20 of 2020)
Few will mistake 2021 for a vintage year for cinema. Many of the reasons for this (but not all) are rooted in the pandemic. But, rather than gripe, we should be grateful that there were so many worthwhile releases at all and thank those film-makers and their collaborators who simply refused to let something like a global lockdown get in the way of sharing their vision.
Of course, only one title mattered this year and that was Peter Jackson's The Beatles: Get Back. Released as an epic three-parter on Disney+, this is an eight-hour précis of the footage that Michael Lindsay-Hogg amassed in January 1969 for his much-maligned, Oscar-winning documentary, Let It Be (1970). There is so much to be said. However, this is far too personal an item for this Fabs fan to review with anything approaching objectivity or clarity. Perhaps that's why John Lennon liked to call us `Bottle People'.
Instead, we'll lend a voice to the chorus calling for this miracle of the restorer's art to be released on disc in 2022 and for the remaining video and audio to be made available, so that all the effort expended in digitising every magical second isn't wasted.
And, with that, on to the Parky At the Pictures Top 10 of 2021.
Filmed on the same Istanbul streets, Elizabeth Lo's debut documentary, Stray, would make a perfect companion to Ceyda Torun's Kedi (2016). Switching the focus from felines to canines, Lo's exemplarily filmed study of life on the margins of Turkey's biggest city would also double-bill neatly with Iván Osnovikoff and Bettina Perut's Santiago-set Los Reyes (2018), another dogumentary that centred on a free-spirited, wet-nosed twosome named Chola and Football. The golden-haired protwagonist here is named Zeytin and her friendships with the devoted Nazar and a bashful puppy called Kartal are contrasted with the hardscrabble existence of the Turkmen kids from the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo, who have also fetched up on the Galata district abutting the Golden Horn estuary.
Istanbul is home to over 150,000 stray dogs and cats and citizens have resisted all attempts to control the population since an ill-fated attempt by Sultan Mehmed V in 1910 to rehouse them on an island in the Bosphorous. Indeed, since 2004, it has been illegal to capture, let alone put down strays in the city and, in spending two years following Zeytin and Nazar, Lo noted how they were shown considerably more leniency than Jamil, Halil and Aliof, the refugee trio with whom they palled up. The police certainly don't make life easy for the boys who steal Kartal from under the nose of site guard Cenan and leave him no option but to tag along with dogs to whom scavenging has become second nature.
It's not all rootling, however, as Zeytin often belies the soulful nature suggested by her beautiful eyes by romping around with the ever-willing Nazar. She also gets into a few scrapes and proves more than capable of looking after herself. Indeed, she's more at risk from the cars rumbling through the neighbourhood, although Zeytin has jaywalking down to a fine art. Her political credentials are also impeccable, as not only does she hang out with glue-sniffing refugees, but she also takes part in a nocturnal demonstration about women's rights (which is partially undermined by the sight of two dogs rutting in its midst).
While Zeytin can make a friend of anyone, the glue-sniffing Syrian boys are consistently harassed by security guards and the police, as they try to beg or hunker down for the night in dilapidated buildings or construction site huts. Eventually, they are rounded up by the cops, depriving the dogs of their caring companions. Life for Zeytin and Nazar will carry on as before. But, as we watch the closing images of a pack dashing through the countryside, it's not clear what fate has befallen the adorably vulnerable Kartal, as he was missing when the boys were released from custody.
Acting as her own cinematographer and editor, Lo has produced an urban wildlife study that is riven with neo-realist compassion. Some may consider the captioned quotations from Diogenes of Sinope to be a bit twee or might consider Ali Helnwein's score to tilt the balance towards sentimentality. But the astonishingly intimate dog-level visuals and Ernst Karel's enveloping sound mix convey the relentless harshness of streetlife, as well as the hypocrisy of those animal lovers who treat their fellow human beings with callous disdain.
Made partially as a tribute to the family pet that shared her Hong Kong childhood, Lo's film bears the influence of John Berger's essay, `Why Look At Animals?', and Donna Haraway's studies of interspecies relations. But this heartfelt, if laudably detached reflection on canine intelligence and fortitude so demonstrates the commitment and acuity of its maker that it makes one curious to see shorts like Last Stop in Santa Rosa (2013), Treasure Island (2014), Hotel 22 (2015), The Disclosure President, Bisonhead, Notes From Buena Vista (all 2016) and Mother's Day (2017), which are available to watch online via Elizabeth Lo's website.
9) NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS.
Having started making shorts around 2008, New Yorker Eliza Hittman made an immediate impression with the features It Felt Like Love (2013) and Beach Rats (2017). But it's her third outing, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, that has established the fortysomething as a major voice. The winner of the Special Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival, it was released during the first lockdown and deserved all the praise it received.
When working-class 17 year-old Autumn Callahan (Sidney Flanigan) discovers she's pregnant shortly after being heckled while strumming her version of `He's Got the Power' by The Exciters at a school talent contest, she visits a women's centre in her Pennsylvania town. A pharmacy test confirms she is 10 weeks along and, following a sonogram, she's given a pamphlet by the director (Mia Dillon) about adoption and shown an anti-abortion video before being sent home. Having failed to induce a miscarriage with pills and blows to the stomach, Autumn confides in her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), who steals money from the supermarket where they work part-time to buy bus tickets to New York.
Arriving in the city after Skylar has been chatted up during the journey by Jasper (Théodore Pellerin), the girls find a Planned Parenthood clinic, where Autumn discovers she is actually 18 weeks pregnant. In order to obtain an abortion, she has to attend a surgery across town and the scared cousins spend a night lugging their shared suitcase, riding the subway and playing arcade games because they can't afford any lodgings. Much to her chagrin, Autumn learns from the financial adviser (Carolina Espiro) that a second-trimester termination is a two-day procedure that will use up the rest of her money. She also has to go through a questionnaire about her home life and sexual history with a social worker (Kelly Chapman).
Too broke to buy food, let alone get home, the pair call Jasper, who is pleased to hear from them. He takes them tenpin bowling before they kill time in a karaoke bar, where Autumn selects the old Gerry and The Pacemakers's hit, `Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying'. Despite Skylar resisting Jasper's invitation to go somewhere private, he agrees to go to a cashpoint with her and Autumn links her cousin's fingers behind a pillar at the station, as she reluctantly gives Jasper a prolonged `thank you' kiss.
Having spruced up with lip gloss in the washroom at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, Autumn keeps her appointment and they use the last of the money to buy some lunch. Skylar asks about the operation, but Autumn keeps her counsel and they laugh together before catching the bus home to face questions from Autumn's mother (Sharon Van Etten) and stepfather (Ryan Eggold).
Although a far cry from the harrowing drama contained in Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), this impeccably calibrated reflection on the way in which young girls get to learn the bitter realities of gender politics is every bit as potent and poignant. Hélène Louvart's camera picks up each telling detail with such deftness that it takes a while to discern how much is being conveyed by what could easily be mistaken for throwaway gestures and expressions. Hittman is certainly fortunate in this regard to have discovered debutants Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder, as their rapport is realised with an intuitive impassivity that beautifully emphasises the often overlooked resilience and resourcefulness of teenage girls
Whether strumming her guitar in anguished isolation on the school stage, piercing her nose with a safety pin or fighting compartmentalised emotions while responding to the `Never Rarely Sometimes Always' questionnaire, Flanagan manages to be revealing and reserved, as she guards the secret of the baby's father and why she was accused of being a `slut' by the jock in the audience at the talent show. But, despite Flanagan keeping things closely guarded, Ryder is always on her wavelength and her unquestioning support (which is epitomised by a tender brush of her sleeping cousin's face) is rewarded with a reassuring pinky tug as she is making out against a very public pillar.
Although the sense of entitlement behind this snogging session blots his copybook, Théodore Pellerin's college student is far from the most objectionable male on display, after the exploitative supermarket manager, creepy checkout customer and the self-fondling drunk on the subway. Yet, having deftly denounced toxic masculinity in highlighting female fragility, Hittman is well aware that sisterhood is anything but all-encompassing and the contrast between the clinical staff in Pennsylvania and New York couldn't be more marked. Her anger at the patriarchy, the healthcare system and urban indifference remains controlled, however, and this restraint complements the naturalism and honesty that should make this exceptional, economical and empathetic film essential viewing on any number of levels.
It's impossible to predict what iconoclastic auteur Bruno Dumont is going to do next. Consequently, each new title comes as an unexpected challenge and France is no exception. Quite unlike anything Dumont has done before, this media satire could almost be described as conventional. But it plays with too many cinematic forms to be as straightforward as it seems and, therein, lies its fascination.
France de Meurs (Léa Seydoux) is the star correspondent for Channel i and assistant Lou (Blanche Gardin) encourages her to make a fool of President Emmanuel Macron during a press conference at the Élysée Palace. Sitting on the front row, France exchanges comic hand signals with Lou, as Macron flounders over his reply. Social media goes wild and France is feeling on top of the world as she returns home to her novelist husband, Fred (Benjamin Biolay), and her long-haired son, Joseph (Gaëtan Amiel), who is more interested in his video game.
On a trip to the Sarhel, France interviews the Tuareg chief (Youannes Mohammed) resisting ISIS. Looking glamorous in her headscarf, she has him gaze wistfully into the sky and directs two of his man to strike poses for the camera to make her report more dramatic. All the while, she giggles to cameraman Lolo (Marc Bettinelli) about the mistakes they make and draws exasperated looks from the French army commander when the chief asks her to pose for a selfie.
Flushed with pride at how the package makes her look intrepid and empathetic, France hosts a dinner party to help launch Fred's new book and they exchange meaningful looks across the table after she confides to a friend that their marriage is `so-so'. But her mood takes another downward swing when she makes the front pages after accidentally knocking Baptiste (Jawad Zemmar) off his scooter in a traffic jam.
Lou thinks it's a storm in a tea cup and is surprised by France's penitent display when she visits Baptiste in hospital and then breaks down in tears on a chat show hosted by Chouchou (Lucile Roche). Next morning, France is less than amused when Fred beams at being invited on to the same show to promote his book and she shrugs off his breakfast reassurances that the fuss will blow over.
However, France is nettled when she is accused of being `useful, but pretty' after a heated debate with a politician (Xavier Lagarde) on her show. She is also appalled to discover that Baptiste's parents (Noura Benbahlouli and Abdellah Chahouat) have no income during his three-month convalescence and insists on giving them a cheque. As she leaves their banlieue home, she admits to never having given to charity before and she becomes emotional at a function at which a fellow diner explains that it is the duty of capitalists to give to the less fortunate. Further discomfited by a fan who asks whether she holds left- or right-wing views, France feels her eyes filling as she pauses on the red carpet before rushing off into the night.
Having visited a psychiatrist to complain that she is unhappy with her life, France reports from a war zone and comes under fire in a shelled hillside town. Back at the hotel, she chides Lolo for splashing in the pool and is so angry with Fred for calling to complain about the money she gave Baptiste that she tries unsuccessfully to flirt with the interpreter, who is miffed by her surprise that he is an architect by trade and decidedly uncomfortable when she tries to kiss him while everyone is panicking because of a nearby explosion.
Two days later, after a blazing row with Fred (in which she taunts him that she earns five times his income), France quits live on air. Lou is bowled over by the online response and reassures herself that France will be able to reinvent herself, as she fights back the tears at the news desk.
She's still feeling teary when she volunteers at a soup kitchen and gets sneered at by the homeless. No longer wearing her trademark red lipstick, she meets Baptiste to present him with a new scooter and he is thrilled by the recognition she receives as they sit in a quiet square near the Eiffel Tower. He wishes he could be famous, but France looks lost as she looks towards the sky and makes the decision to book a rest cure.
The screen take on an icy blue tint, as Fred drives towards the Alpine retreat. France is enjoying the solitude on the decking when Madame Arpel (Juliane Köhler) plonks herself down in the next deckchair and begins gossiping about the famous people seeking a cure. She is led away by an attendant and France allows herself to smile, as she realises the woman Mme Arpel didn't recognised was actually Angela Merkel (Marina Tamássy).
The next morning, she is doing her own version on the PE routine taking place on the snow when she meets Charles Castro (Emanuele Arioli). He prevents her from slipping over and comments on the beauty of the view. She seeks him out later in the day and is both relieved and slightly startled that he doesn't recognise her. He is a Latin teacher and finds it amusing when people stop to ask France for selfies. Charles waits for her to emerge from a therapy session and invites her for a walk. With a snow-capped peak behind then, them hug and kiss.
Despite the risk of being recognised, France meets Charles at a café in Paris. She's late and he has to leave to teach a class. As he goes to pay, however, she sees a message on his phone from an editor praising him for the story he has written about her. France is appalled that he would stoop so low to get a scoop and spits in his face when he claims to love her.
Lou is dismayed and gripped by the article when she meets France in a park. Her lips fully rouged again, France still feels furious, but let's slip a grin when she announces that she is returning to television. Her moment is ruined, however, when Charles sidles up and pleads with her not to abandon him.
Fresh from chiding an increasingly uncontrollable Joseph about his grades, France returns to the frontline and rollocks Lolo for not framing her properly as they flee from shelling. Eager to place herself at the heart of the story, she puts herself and the crew at risk. Yet she never seems bothered about the suffering people she is reporting on and even makes obscene gestures with the microphone while waiting for Lolo to film her. She shows an equal lack of concern when she joins a boatload of migrants crossing the Mediterranean for Italy. Indeed, having filmed her piece to camera, she clambers about a support boat so she can relax in comfort until the coastguard hoves into view and she can hop back on to the raft and make it look as though she is being rescued, along with the migrants.
Recovering her poise after Charles forces his way into her car, France returns to the air to present her report and chats with Lou in the gallery as the tape rolls. Unfortunately, Lou drops her tablet on a fader and their banter is broadcast and there is an outcry that France could exploit desperate people for a story and then make fun of their plight when she thinks no one can overhear. Careful to blame anyone but herself, Lou promises France that the fuss will soon be forgotten, even though they had to fight their way through a scrum outside the studio to reach their vehicle.
Just as it seems as if she couldn't sink any lower, France receives news that Fred and Joseph have been killed in a car crash on a winding coastal road. The incident is shown in silent slow motion, with a mournful voice singing on the soundtrack. Fred loses control, as the front wheel comes loose and the spinning car is pitched over a ledge by an oncoming truck. As the camera pulls away from Fred's lifeless body, flames start to rise from the vehicle.
She can't find a tear at the cemetery and is still feeling numb when she travels to a remote farmhouse on the Côte d'Opale with a new crew. They have come to interview Danièle (Annick Lavieville), whose husband has just been arrested for the rape and murder of a young girl. France asks why she married a man who had already been jailed for assault before they met. Danièle tries to explain that she thought she could reform him and insists that someone shouldn't be judged on a single mistake. But she accepts she was wrong and wants the world to know what she endured during 20 years of marriage to a monster.
As they visit the little shrine in the nearby lane, France turns down a selfie request from a small boy and his mother. Back in Paris, she is making notes on the visit when Charles calls. She invites him in and informs him that his cruel treachery rather pales into insignificance compared to what she has recently been through. Speaking slowly and sadly, she declares that there is no point trying to live up to old ideals or to fulfil expectations, as life has taught her that only the present matters.
She suggests a walk and Charles falls in behind her. They have not gone far before a man rushes past them and kicks seven shades out of a bicycle tethered to an iron fence. He threatens to bash them, too, before strutting off, leaving France to stare into the lens for the final time and resignedly rest her head on Charles's shoulder.
There's nothing critics like more than to throw up their hands and despair over the latest Bruno Dumont offering. The Cannes screening of France was followed by boos. Yet, if Leos Carax came up with this riff on the tropes of the classical screen melodrama, it would be hailed an ironic triumph.
The mercurial Dumont is too readily dismissed by those who refuse to take the trouble to engage with him and work to uncover the message and mischief he is striving to convey. This modish saga is what Vincente Minnelli would be doing if he was still around, a `woman's picture' dripping with style and venom, as Léa Seydoux channels her inner Lana Turner through the prism of Catherine Deneuve at her most icily chic.
There are also swipes at both Cinéma du Look and those glossy 1980s soaps that were full of meaningful glares like the ones that France and Fred exchange at amusingly excessive length during the excruciating dinner party in their gallery-like Place des Vosges apartment. But the prime target is the contemporary cult of celebrity and the way in which image prevails over substance and social media outrage trumps reasoned, fact-based debate.
The war zone sequences are both savage and surreal, as the narcissistic France cares more about how she comes across on camera than the story she is covering and the people it affects. Her behaviour on the migrant boat is outrageous. Yet one could imagine such a thing happening for real, unlike the gallery chat going out live for so long. France's honeytrapping and stalking by Charles also strains credibility, as does the spectacular tragedy of Fred's car crash. But Dumont isn't seeking to depict everyday reality here. This is soap opera with a blonde, Gallic Joan Crawford suffering nobly for her public.
What makes the action so acidicly droll is that it has been couched in style of a Chanel No.5 commercial. David Chambille's photography shimmers, while Erwin de Gal's production design and Alexandra Charles's costumes are as wittily de trop as Christophe's swooning score. Seydoux's performance is also as achingly acute as it is gnomically inscrutable, with each wistful glance at the camera out-Meghaning anything in the Markle media manipulation playbook.
Whether mugging at the Macron presser or passing the buck for her galley gaffe, Blanche Gardin provides splendid support as the vaping aide who has become so desensitised by her endless exposure to the bilge sluicing around social media that she is no longer able to recognise genuine emotions or communicate in anything other than clichés and platitudes.
One can imagine dozens of actresses queuing up for these roles in a Michel Gondry-directed Hollywood remake entitled America. But no one options Dumont movies that blur lines so fuzzily that it's impossible to know where reality ends and satire begins. Besides, the US media is already beyond lampooning and who would make a film that is so openly contemptuous of its audience? The answer is obvious and that's why this is one of the best films of 2021.
7) STATE FUNERAL.
Following The Trial, Sergei Loznitsa returns to the Russian State Documentary Film and Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk for State Funeral, a compelling account of the events that transpired across the Soviet Union in the wake of Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin's demise on 5 March 1953.
In addition to 40 hours of monochrome and colour footage, Loznitsa also found recordings of the funereal eulogies and 24 hours of radio broadcasts. A Lithuanian team restored the imagery to give it a disconcerting sense of recency. But editor Danielius Kokanauskis and sound designer Vladimir Golovnitskiy played an equally crucial role in allowing Loznitsa to put his own spin on the five days that saw a multi-ethnic populace respond to the momentous happenings in Moscow in much the same way as the bemused members of the Council of Ministers in Armando Iannucci's The Death of Stalin (2017).
As Loznitsa presents the imagery without annotation, it's likely that few will know that the Communist Party took no chances in preserving the nation's grief. Rather than entrusting the task to newsreel crews, the hierarchy hired such acclaimed feature directors as Sergei Gerasimov, Grigori Aleksandrov and Mikhail Chiaureli, as well as the renowned documentarists Ilya Kopalin, Irina Setkina and Elizaveta Svilova, whose husband was Dziga Vertov.
The plan was to collate the footage into a memorial entitled, The Great Farewell. But the rapid pace of events in the corridors of power meant that the project was abandoned and the long-shelved reels were only discovered after the collapse of the USSR. A 73-minute DVD version was released in 2013, but Loznitsa has made his own selections in seeking both to expose the first cracks in the myth bolstering the dictator's cult of personality and to reveal the manner in which those who had been terrorised by Stalin were corralled by the state machine into mourning him for the consumption of their fellow citizens and the wider world.
There's an irony in the fact that several sequences take place in the same Hall of Columns that had appeared in very different circumstances in The Trial. Once again, ordinary people shuffle into this magisterial room to pay witness. But Loznitsa contrasts the reportagic black-and-white images of comrades (to paraphrase Evita) falling over themselves to get all of the misery right with lustrous colour shots that have been consciously composed to convey the grandeur of the occasion.
Indeed, the greenery surrounding the catafalque on which Stalin lay in state for three days seems ethereally lush in Agfacolor, the German stock that seems to have been preferred to Sovcolor. However, the foley work reinforces the sense of immediacy, as Loznitsa employs the creaking of the staircase floorboards, the sobs piercing the muffled murmurings, the drone of lugubrious music and the rasp of military boot leather conspire to satirise the solemnity of the charade.
At one point, we glimpse Stalin's children, Vasily and Svetlana, through the stacked wreaths and deep red floral tributes. One can only speculate about their feelings, as Stalin had hardly been a model father. But it's easier to read the rictus grimaces of the leaders from the Warsaw Pact members, as they are greeted at the airport and escorted to waiting cars to go and pay their respects. Whether by absence or design, nothing is shown of the mourning in the satellite states. Nor is there any mention of the 109 people who were killed in the crowd surge on Trubnaya Square.
Instead, we hear encomiums belting out of tinny tannoys in shipyards, factories, oil rigs and collective farms from Minsk to Khabarovsk and Azerbaijan to Tajikistan. Given that he would be airbrushed out of Soviet history within six years, it's difficult to suppress a wry smile at such rhetorical gushings as: `There is no death here! There is only eternal life! Immortality! Stalin's immortality is in his deeds. It is in Communism that we shall achieve. We shall certainly achieve it, for Stalin taught us how to!'
We see those who have survived the famines and purges that claimed 42 million lives reverentially raising Stalin's portrait like it was the closest thing the atheist Kremlin would allow to a religious icon. Occasionally, the camera catches someone looking into the lens before they trepidatiously avert their gaze and shuffle on. But, for the most part, everyone plays their part to perfection and the big lie of conformity and conviction is maintained, as Stalin is pulled across Red Square by horses and laid to rest (albeit temporarily) in Lenin's Mausoleum after interminable speeches from Nikita Khrushchev, Georgy Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov and Lavrentiy Beria (the secret police chief who would himself be liquidated by the end of the year).
In looking back so objectively on these scenes of obeisance, Loznitsa very much has his eyes on the present and the displays of power and support that are regularly choreographed in order to massage Vladimir Putin's ego and reinforce both his tough guy image and messianic status. Such totalitarian grandstanding may seem ridiculous to those in the supposedly politically sophisticated democracies. But how else has populism come to exert such a grip, despite being so demonstrably and dangerously absurd?
6) BLOODY NOSE, EMPTY POCKETS.
The Roaring 20s bar on the outskirts of Las Vegas is about to close. Bearded bartender Marc Paradis greets resting actor Michael Martin at the start of what will be a long day for patrons who have come to see this unprepossessing watering hole as a refuge from the grimmer realities of daily life. Among the regulars to roll in are the pony-tailed Lowell Landes, the bespectacled Pam Harper and Bruce Hadnot, one of the few African-Americans to frequent the premises on this melancholic morning. Ever-willing to entertain the punters, Marc strums along on his guitar to soulful renditions of Kenny Rogers's `The Gambler' and Roy Orbison's `Crying'.
Michael's rapt face is reflected in the bar mirror during this last number, which proves to be Marc's swan song, as Shay Walker takes over for the night shift. She is concerned about her teenage son, Tra, having fallen in with the wrong crowd and they chug stolen brews in a back alley, as the bar begins to fill up. Michael steps in to coax the pugnaciously drunk Ira J. Clark into heading off to work, while the 60 year-old Pam lifts her top to support her contention she's still an attractive woman. By contrast, as the boozers boast, bicker and bore across the genders and generations, Shay has to fight off a couple of admirers, as musician Pete Radcliffe and the besuited David S. Lewis square up in order to demonstrated their devotion.
Cheryl Fink, John Nerichow, Felix Cardona, Al Page, Rikki Redd, Trevor Moore, Kevin Lara, Kamari Stevens, Sophie Woodruff and Miriam Arkin pass through during the course of the evening, as debates rumble about everything from past wars and future prospects to where they will all drink when the door closes for good. There's bad blood between some of the drinkers, particularly when the topic turns to politics and the apportioning of blame for America's predicament. But a sense of unity prevails, as the revellers bundle into the parking lot to light sparklers, while Sophie B. Hawkins belts out `Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover' on the jukebox. Slowly, the malingerers begin to drift away and Michael is persuaded that he needs to find somewhere else to sleep because his home from home is about to become off limits.
It won't take long for perceptive viewers to realise as the intoxication levels rise that this isn't a documentary in the purest sense of the term. In fact, Bill and Turner Ross built the bar on a New Orleans soundstage and cast the customers after scouting around the city's various hotspots and dives. But Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets cleaves closely to John Grierson's enduringly influential concept of creative actuality, as had such previous Ross outings as 45365 (2009), Tchoupitoulas (2012), Western (2015) and Contemporary Color (2016). Anytime MUBI or the like fancies curating a Brothers Ross season, it seems safe to assume that it would be warmly welcomed.
Operating their own cameras during a three-day shoot, the siblings give the impression of eavesdropping while table-hopping. Yet they never quite avoid the suspicion that their Bukowskian barflies are improvising rather than divulging. The clip on the TV screen from John Huston's The Misfits (1961) is a bit too blatant, as is the question about the Navajo nation on the game show, Jeopardy. Moreover, Michael and Lowell feel overly erudite for accidentally encountered nobodies. That said, it's both reassuring and dismaying that the topics under discussion in 2016 remain relevant today. At least the Trump presidency is over. But, given the state of a world firmly in the grip of a mutating pandemic, the Peggy Lee lyrics over the closing credits have never seemed more pertinent: `Is that all there is? If that's all there is, my friends, then let's keep dancing.'
5) DRIVE MY CAR.
Eight features and a clutch of shorts have been inspired by the writings of Haruki Murakami. Kazuki Ohmori got the ball rolling with Hear the Song of the Wind (1982), since when Jun Ichikawa's Tony Takitani (2002), Robert Logevall's All God's Children Can Dance (2008). Daishi Matsunaga's Hanalei Bay and Lee Chang-dong's Burning (both 2018) have been afforded mixed critical receptions. Now, Ryusuke Hamaguchi's Drive My Car follows Anh Hung Tran's Norwegian Wood (2010) in adapting a Murakami story named after a Beatles song.
Actor-director Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is married to screenwriter Oto (Reika Kirishima). Their pillow talk often revolves around her describing scenes from a storyline she is working on, but their love-making has become somewhat prosaic since the death of their young daughter. Yusuke would have liked to have tried for more children, but Oto didn't want to and their chic Tokyo apartment has remained empty.
Following a performance of Waiting For Godot, Oto brings young actor Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) to her husband's dressing-room, as he is intrigued by his habit of staging multi-lingual productions. He is also taken by the fact that Yusuke learns his lines from cassettes that Oto has recorded while driving his treasured red Saab 900. However, when Yusuke drives home after a flight has been cancelled, he catches Oto and Takatsuki having sex on the sofa.
Discreetly, he checks into a hotel and flies to Vladivostok the next day. He doesn't let on that he knows Oto has cheated on him, but suspects that the plot details she whispers as they make love are inspired by her crush on the younger man. But Yusuke is adept at keeping his emotions under control. Even after he is diagnosed with glaucoma after bumping his car, he remains phlegmatic, although he gently teases Oto about the standard of her driving.
One morning, she asks if they can talk when he gets home. But he returns to find her dead from a cerebral haemorrhage and is forced to bow politely when Takatsuki attends the funeral. He's unable to forget about him, however, as, two years later, he auditions for a role in the production of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya that Yusuke is about to direct in Hiroshima. Because of a previous incident at the theatre, however, the insurance company insists upon Yusuke being driven by Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), a brusquely taciturn young woman who tries not to invade her new boss's space, as she heads towards the hotel an hour's drive away on an island.
Theatre director Yuzuhara (Satoko Abe) leaves the day-to-day co-ordination to Kon Yoon-su (Dae-Young Jin), who helps Yusuke audition Janice Chang (Sonia Yuan) from Taiwan and Lee Yoon-a (Yoo-rim Park), a Korean actress who uses sign language. They are respectively cast as Yelena and Sonya, while Takatsuki is surprisingly selected to play Vanya, even though he is too young for the role.
He and Joyce struggle to fall in with Yusuke's method of doing monotone table readings and Takatsuki invites him for a drink to talk things through. He admits to have been in love with Oto, but insists it was unrequited. Yusuke is aware that Takatsuki lost a role in a TV show because of a liaison with an underage girl and he assures him that he has never felt tempted to stray. Takatsuki confides that he is jealous of Yusuke for having been so close to Oto, but he blots his copybook by threatening a fan who took a phone snap at the bar and he's not certain that Yusuke has accepted his apology.
The rest of the cast find Yusuke's methods peculiar, but Yoon-a seems to be enjoying it. After an interview session, Yoon-su invites Yusuke to dinner and confesses that Yoon-a is his wife. He was worried she wouldn't get a fair audition if their relationship was known, but Yusuke warms to her, especially when she reveals that she tried for the play after losing the ability to dance after suffering a miscarriage. Yoon-su had insisted that Misaki joins them and she is embarrassed when Yusuke compliments her driving. In the car on the way back to the hotel, she confides that her mother had taught her to drive when she was in junior high and had learned to go smoothly over bumpy roads so as not to disturb her when she slept in the backseat.
The next day, Yusuke notices Janice and Takatsuki in the same car together and they are late. He had started to allow the others to add movements to their lines, but isn't impressed with the latecomers and orders them to resume the table reading. After the rehearsal, Takatsuki tries to apologise. But Yusuke knows his excuse of offering Janice a shoulder to cry on is untrue because they don't share a common language. He urges him to use his discretion and Takatsuki is embarrassed.
Rather than heading home, Yusuke asks Misaki for a guided tour of Hiroshima. She takes him to the recycling plant where she had first worked after her mother had been killed in a landslide that crushed their home. Yusuke admires Misaki's fortitude and resourcefulness, but she merely shrugs in her undemonstrative manner and takes him to the river, where they stop for a smoke. Misaki admits to liking the sound of Oto's voice on the tape and he informs her that she is dead.
The next day, Yusuke suggests rehearsing outdoors, as the weather is so nice and he wants Misaki to watch. Janice and Yoon-a do a scene together and the latter improvises a moment with a fallen leaf that enables each to gain a better understanding of their characters. Takatsuki recognises this and feels more of an outsider than usual. He invites Yusuke for a drink and he asks why he cast him as Vanya when he is so unsuited to the role. Yusuke admits that he no longer wishes to endure the emotional turmoil of such major roles and felt Takatsuki could learn a lot about his craft and himself by trying something out of his comfort zone.
As they wait for Misaki to pay the parking, Takatsuki chases a fan who had photographed him, but Yusuke doesn't notice. En route to the younger man's hotel, he asks about Oto and Yusuke reveals that they lost their daughter to pneumonia when she was four (making Misaki realise they would have been the same age). Their life was never the same again, but Oto found she could concoct stories while they made love and Yusuke is dismayed to hear that Takatsuki knows the tale she had told him about a schoolgirl who breaks into a classmates bedroom to hide love tokens that he might never find. Moreover, Takatsuki knows the ending, in which the girl masturbates on the boy's bed before killing a burglar who tries to rape her. She flees before anyone finds the body, but she notices that a CCTV camera has been positioned above the door and she makes her confession into its lens.
As they drive away, with Yusuke in the front seat, Misaki opines that Takatsuki was telling the truth (or his version of it), because she had grown up around liars. Yusuke offers her a cigarette and she hesitates because he doesn't smoke in the car. They open the sunroof and hold their hands in the night air, as they speed along the highway.
The next day, the rehearsals take place on stage at the theatre and Yusuke praises Takatsuki for the scene in which Vanya fires his pistol at Professor Serebryakov. But the good mood doesn't last long, as police officers arrive to arrest Takatsuki for killing the man who had tried to take his picture. He accepts his fate calmly and bows deeply to Yusuke in apology before being led away.
Outside the police station, Ms Yuzuhara tells Yusuke that Takatsuki had confessed to beating up the man who died. She asks Yusuke to save the play, but he doesn't feel he can. He asks Misaki to drive him to her home village so he can think. It's hundreds of miles away and they travel through the night. As they pass through a long tunnel, Yusuke admits that he had delayed getting home on the night Oto collapsed as he knew she wanted to tell him something that would change their lives irrevocably. He blames himself for her death and Misaki confesses to escaping from the house during the landslide and leaving her hated mother to her fate. Her face had been scarred during the incident and she had refused to let surgeons reduce the damage because she felt so guilty. Yusuke wishes he could reassure her that it wasn't her fault, but she is as guilty of killing her mother as he is of killing Oto.
They take the ferry to Hokkaido and drive along snowy roads to the ruins of the village. Misaki recognises some twisted metal as her old home and reveals that her mother used to assume the character of a kindly woman named Sachi to atone for the times when she was drunk and abusive. She misses her and wishes she had survived the landslide, but she also knew she had to escape her ordeal. Yusuke also becomes emotional, as he wishes he could see Oto again and berate her for cuckolding him and beg her forgiveness for not being what she wanted. However, Misaki assures him that Oto loved him and they hug, as Yusuke muses on the fact that everyone thinks about those who have gone before. But he believes that survivors have to deal with their pain because it helps shape them as people.
Misaki attends the opening night of the play and gazes through the darkness, as Yoon-a signs Sonya's speech about living as best we can and dying quietly so that God will pity us and grant us eternal rest. Not a pin drops, as she promises peace after suffering. But we cut to black as the applause begins to ripple and a coda shows us a masked Misaki shopping during the pandemic. She returns to the red Saab in the car park and pats the dog in the backseat. As she drives away, we are left to ponder her relationship with Yusuke, if she has one at all.
Performing has been a recurring theme in Ryusuke Hamaguchi's Happy Hour (2015), Asako I & II (2018) and Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (2021). So it's no surprise that this selection from Murakami's Men Without Women centres on an actor-director trying to familiarise himself with the text of a play while putting on a front to prevent his late wife's ex-lover from realising that he knew all about their affair. Add into the mix a cast speaking in five different languages, a non-verbal actress signing her lines and an inscrutable driver who is impossible to read and it becomes difficult to detect who is putting on a show and who is being true to themselves.
Although the source story only runs for some 40 pages, the adaptation lasts almost three hours, as Hamaguchi and co-scenarist Takamasa Oe adopt a linear approach and take the odd diversion from Murakami's road map. The car in which so many key scenes are set turns from yellow to red so that Hidetoshi Shinomiya's camera can not only pick it out on the long and winding roads in and around Hiroshima, but also spot it against the whitened landscape of a wintry Hokkaido.
Yet, while Yusuke may be a passenger in his own vehicle, he very much sets the course for the slowly unfolding drama, as he tries to navigate with impaired vision through the emotional crisis that impinges upon his ability to act. He's not alone in bearing a psychological burden, however, as Takatsuki and Masaki have baggage of their own, while Oto clearly needed to get something off her chest on the night she died. But the only person we see making it through to the other side is Masaki, although she or may not still be involved with Yusuke, who, as Paul McCartney might have put it, has found a driver and that's a start.
Hidetoshi Nishijima excels as the 47 year-old who only feels at ease at the wheel, but he is superbly supported by Toko Miura's enigmatic surrogate daughter who only landed in Hiroshima because it's where her recently deceased mother's car chose to break down. Equally important is Reika Kirishima, who speaks to her grieving husband from beyond the grave through the words of Anton Chekhov, whose play always seems to have some wisdom to impart whenever Yusuke needs it most. Masaki Okada also does well in the tricky part of the actor of limited ability who has seemingly learned nothing from his brush with scandal and his fling with a woman who needs sex to forget and create.
It's slightly gimmicky that the opening credits only roll some 40 minutes into the action, but this interlude marks the transition between the first and second acts before the third transports us off the mainland into a cocooned silence that is beautifully captured by sound designer Izuta Kadoaki. Eiko Ishibashi's doleful score is also quietly evocative, while production designer Seo Hyeon-seon works wonders with the interiors of a Saab, a Tokyo apartment, a Hiroshima rehearsal room and a Hokkaido snowscape.
Editor Azusa Yamazaki also deserves credit for the pacing of scenes and a picture that never feels a long haul at 179 minutes. But it's Hamaguchi's poetic vision and compassionate humanism that make this compelling and leave hoping that a UK distributor picks up Kiyoshi Kurasawa's wartime thriller, Wife of a Spy - which Hamaguchi co-scripted with Tadashi Nohara and Kurosawa, who won the Best Director prize at the 2020 Venice Film Festival - before his Berlin Silver Bear-winning Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy reaches our screens in February next year.
Such has been the impact of the Weird Wave on Greek cinema that it's tempting to view every film from that country through the same lens, especially when it's been directed by a former assistant to Yorgos Lanthimos. There are certainly plenty of left-field moments in Christos Nikou's debut, Apples, which offers no explicable context in appearing to be set in an alternative present devoid of digital technology or a recent past in which direct contact is the only form of human interaction. But they don't dilute the sense of melancholy that pervades this drolly deadpan, but poignant study of grief, identity and adjustment.
Seemingly the latest to fall prey to a bout of spontaneous, but irreversible amnesia, Aris (Aris Servetalis) is taken from the back of a night bus to the Disturbed Memory Unit at an Athens clinic, where he is monitored by a neurologist (Anna Kalaitzidou) from the New Identity programme. He does poorly on the aptitude tests and the doctor is concerned by the fact that no one has come forward to claim him. Faced with the prospect of an indefinite stay at the hospital, Aris agrees to join the `Learning How to Live' scheme in order to help him start afresh.
Driven to a new apartment, Aris starts keeping a photo album containing Polaroids to prove he has performed the challenges posed by the doctors via cassette messages. The first involves doing a wheelie on a bicycle and Aris completes the task by borrowing a child's bike in the park. On being sent to a fancy dress and ordered to mingle, he goes as an astronaut with a visor helmet. He also opts to pay for a lap dance on being instructed to meet a woman and become physically intimate with her.
The doctor visits the apartment with white-bearded colleague (Argyris Bakirtzis) to check on his progress, while Aris bumps into a dog named Malou from his home address. He accidentally let slip this number when buying apples and the suspicion strengthens that Aris hasn't lost his memory at all, but is merely trying to forget. But he keeps up the charade and starts hanging out with fellow patient Anna (Sofia Georgovassili) after he spots her hiding behind her seat during the scary moments at a screening of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
He feigns ignorance when she describes the plot of James Cameron's Titanic (1997), while they are driving out into the country for her next assignment. She's impressed that he knows the words to `Sealed With a Kiss' when it plays on the radio and he falls silent before she shunts the car into a tree. Having posed for her snapshot, they walk home and Anna stands on her head for 154 seconds outside her building. Aris is amused she thinks this amounts to four minutes and they agree to meet up the next day, as he realises that she will enable him to glean what to expect from each new challenge.
Fresh from diving from the lowest platform at a swimming pool, Aris fixes Anna's camera and joins her at a nightclub. He enjoys bopping to `Let's Twist Again' and accepts Anna's whispered invitation to join her for a knee-trembler in a toilet stall. However, he can't find her when the time comes for him to crash a car and he is dumbfounded when the next tape relates to casual sex in a nightclub washroom.
Switching from apples to oranges when the greengrocer (Babis Makridis) claims the former aid the memory, Aris gives Anna the swerve. But, while he lies about his own one-night stand task, he continues with the programme and finds a sense of purpose when he is detailed to adopt a dying patient in hospital and befriend their loved ones. He takes a shine to the old man (Kostas Laskos) and returns to feed him soup. As they chat about his wife's pastries, Aris admits to being widowed and he is so moved by his new friend's passing that he visits his own wife's grave and realises that the time has come for him to resume his old life. He starts by eating an apple that has remained fresh in the fruit bowl and looks sombrely into the lens.
Reference has been made to the film's release during a very different kind of pandemic, but the notion of a virus robbing people of their memories has been explored in recent times in more apocalyptic fashion by Claire Carré in Embers (2018). The opening montage of still lifes (or, more accurately, shots from a life that has been paused) suggest that Aris Servetalis is banging his head against the window frame in an effort to forget rather than remember. Thus, by showing him striving to bury painful memories under new and inconsequential ones allows Nikou and co-writer Stavros Raptis to satirise modern living and its absurd obsession with selfies, while also stringing along those viewers who have missed the initial clues as to true nature of Servetalis's spotless mind.
Anna Kalaitzidou and Sofia Georgovassili prove engaging foils, as Servetalis performs tasks that prompt a growing scepticism about both the science behind the New Identity programme and its manipulative methodology. But even the characters outside the experiment seem to be trapped in a world of narrowing horizons and this impression is reinforced by cinematographer Bartosz Swiniarski's use of the Academy ratio. Production designer Efi Birba similarly contrasts the clutter of Servetalis's own apartment with the sparse furnishings of his temporary abode, while costumier Dimitra Liakoura draws subtle distinctions between the neutral designs supplied by the hospital and his own wardrobe.
Servetalis's impassively taciturn performance is complemented by George Zafiras's measured editing and the evocative soundscape crafted by Alexander `The Boy' Voulgaris. But who is to say he will be granted an opportunity to pick up the pieces of his old life, as the pandemic is still out there and his watchful experience as an auto-amnesiac affords him no immunity.
3) SHADOW COUNTRY.
The travails of the village of Tušt are revisited in fictional form in Bohdan Sláma's Shadow Country. Echoes of one of the most famous Czech films ever made, Vojtech Jasný's scorching satire, All My Good Countrymen (1969), can be heard throughout this monochrome saga, which takes place over two decades on the border between Czechoslovakia and Austria. However, there's also a feel of Edgar Reitz's Heimat (1984) in Ivan Arsenjev's engrossing screenplay, which raises issues that remain depressing current today.
Once part of the Kingdom of Bohemia, the border country of Vitoraszko spent 600 years under Hapsburg rule, In 1920, however, it was annexed by Czechoslovakia. Despite speaking Czech, some locals attended Austrian schools. But many lost their jobs and were denied subsidies for their fields. Families were torn, although the Austrians regained the ascendancy following the Anschluss of 1938, which saw the country subsumed by the Third Reich. For the moment, however, the village of Schwarzwald remained in Czech hands. But many locals wondered, `Who are we and where do we belong?'
There seems to be a sense of unity as Karel Veber (Stanislav Majer) presents wife Marie (Magdaléna Borová) with a new sewing table at the christening of their son. Everyone dances to music with a klezmer feel, but trouble breaks out during a screening of Georgi and Sergei Vasilyev's Chapayev (1934), which Arnost Stein (Pavel Nový) denounces as Communist propaganda.
He is also outraged when Anna Svitková (Petra Spalková) produces swastikas and invites their neighbours to sign a petition to join Germany. Karel feels bound to back the move because Anna is his sister. Moreover, he has fallen on hard times since the Czechs took over and joins Anna in handing over the signatures at the border. However, his seamstress spouse thinks they should leave the village.
Having married Arnost's daughter, Elen (Anezka Kubátová), Josef Pachl (Csongor Kassai) is also becoming increasingly concerned by the tide of events, especially when his father-in-law takes a stick to Otto Kaizinger (Robert Miklus) when he offers to buy the shop to prevent it being confiscated by the Nazis.
Following the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939, Leopold Winklhofer (Cyril Drozda) replaces Jaroslav Mares (Marek Pospíchal) as mayor. He seems unconcerned by graffiti denouncing `Czech scum' and has little sympathy for Elen, when she complains of intimidation. Marie is appalled by the scuffles on the square and defies Karel when he urges her to come away. But a Nazi delegation receives a warm welcome at Anna's tavern, with Marta Lisková (Barbora Poláková) being particularly enthusiastic.
Václav Bláha (Tomás Jerábek) also forces son Franta (Miloslav Pechácek) to show his excitement, as he deems it important to stay well in with the new masters. Even Arnost presents himself in his firefighter's uniform. But Josef feels it's important to stand up to the interlopers and he strides into the pub, only to be tarred and feathered by Zwettler (Jirí Cerný) and his gang. Anna and Karel are dismayed by the affront and untie Josef and demand to know who attacked him.
Marie is disappointed with Karel for putting land access before human decency and has herself registered as Czech rather than Austrian. The likes of Jindrich Winklhofer (Michael Goldschmid) and Rudy Svitek (Adam Langer) are shipped out of Schwarzwald to join the army and the camera roves round to show that only older men, women and children now remain.
Josef is sufficiently frightened to buy a gun, but Anna is delighted with the way things are turning out and is so turned on by the sight of Alois Bednár (Ondrej Malý). But she is disgusted by a man who returns to the village having declared himself to be a Czech and he hopes to lay low during the war that he feels is inevitably coming.
By 1942, Josef is fighting with the resistance. But the mayor keeps getting complaints about him and he tells Arnost that he will find it hard to protect him and his ailing wife (Hana Frejková) because anti-Semitic sentiments are spreading. But Marie admires his courage and makes a donation to the fund for the families of detainees when she takes her son to the puppet show given by Jaroslav. Soon afterwards, however, he is arrested by the Gestapo, and promises Elen and daughter Zdena (Denisa Baresová) that he will come home safely.
Jindrich does return, but he has lost half a leg while fighting the Poles and his father is ashamed of him for being a flawed hero. Václav is also having a rough time, as his last cow has died and he's not entitled to any help as a Czech. Shortly afterwards, Franta is arrested for robbery and rape and he asks Leopold if he can join the Party and inform on his neighbours in return for some investment. Marta mocks him for not being German and he stomps out of the pub after toasting his neighbours.
The square is almost deserted, however, when the Steins are loaded on to a cart and taken away. Arnost reassures his wife, who is suffering from dementia, that everything will be okay, as she tries to turn back towards the shop. Elen joins them and Zdena kisses her tenderly, but calls after her in anguish as the cart trundles away.
Anna hears that Rudy has been killed in 1944 and she hurls stones through the window of the Nazi headquarters. Karel shepherds her away and she is consoled by her friends. Only Jaroslav keeps an eye on Zdena, however, as Leopold and a Nazi assessor go through her family possessions. The mayor asks if it would be possible to buy the house on the cheap and Jaroslav slaps him for his opportunism. He is also aghast that Leopold has withheld the news that the Steins are already dead and asks him how he will face people after the war with so much guilt on his conscience.
A cold wind greets Josef, as he returns to Schwarzwald from Terezin in 1945. Zwettler gives him a lift in a motorbike and sidecar flying the Czech flag and he is welcomed by those drinking quietly in the pub, as it undergoes a major refurbishment to remove all traces of its Nazi associations. He goes to the town hall, where Leopold and Jaroslav and announces that he has been appointed District Security Secretary.
In that capacity, he delivers a proclamation from President Klement Gottwald that anyone found guilty before a court of collaborating with the Nazis will be punished accordingly. That night, he calls on Leopold to demand the return of the Stein furniture. But the former mayor stands firm and blames Josef for putting his family in danger by siding with the partisans.
While everyone celebrates peace with a dance in the square, Karel is worried that Josef will use his new power to settle old scores. Marie reassures him that he has done nothing wrong, but he is nervous as Josef joins Jaroslav in the pub to compile a list of traitors. Bedrich Kotrba (Ladislav Dusek) urges him not to go too far,
Within days, however, Franta is leading squads of rounding up suspects for Josef to send for trial. Among them are Karel and Anna and Jaroslav is powerless to stop them because the orders have come from Prague. As she had been so actively pro-Nazi, Marta is repeatedly raped and has her head shaved before she is tossed into a barn to await her trial. Anna pleads with Josef to get a doctor, but he is in no mood for mercy.
A truck arrives carrying soldiers and Colonel Kreps (Marek Taclík) informs Jaroslav that he has come to execute necessary security measures. They order all the Austrians to leave the village and give them only a few minutes to pack their belongings. Marie struggles with a baby and her young son, Karlik (Tobias Smigura), and Zdena is told to stand back when she tries to say goodbye. She rushes to plead with her father, but he says they were asking for it and takes to his bed.
Back in the barn, the guard takes pity on Eva (Ági Gubík) and tells her to go home. She arrives to find people walking away with her belongings and her husband, Alois, hanging from a noose in the bedroom. Nearby, Ruzena Kotrbová (Zuzana Krónerová) ventures into Marie's house to find Franta and Václav taking her sewing table. Jaroslav tries to stop them, but is pushed aside. Ruzena sneaks inside to retrieve some cups and saucers and beetles away.
While Marie and her fellow refugees are informed that the Austrian border villages are full, Otto taunts the prisoners in the cellar by ordering them to sing. While they wreak their revenge, Kreps orders Josef and Jaroslav to find the Nazis guilty so he can execute them and leave. Zdena is shocked that her father could stoop so low. Bedrich is forced into representing the villagers on the judging panel, but he refuses to sign the warrant. Jaroslav also walks out before the sentence is pronounced.
Zwettler takes great pleasure in watching Karel dig the mass grave and looks on gloatingly, as Franta takes aim. Marta shouts, `Heil Hitler! Heil Christ!', as she is gunned down, as Josef remembers the promises he made to avenge the innocents who had been slaughtered in the camps.
Marie finds herself in a makeshift shelter with Jindrich and his mother, Emile (Marie Ludvíková). During mass one snowy Sunday, Jaroslav comes to apologise, but she turns away from him and he leaves in despair. After a time, an official letter orders Marie to return to Schwarzwald, with her children and Babicka Veberová (Bozena Fucíková). She sees her sewing machine amongst a pile of bric-a-brac in a barn before being driven away by Václav and Franta, who call her `trash'.
Refusing to allow Josef to lord it over her, Marie heads home, only to collapse at the scene of wanton destruction. She has to ask Josef for some furniture and he allows her a small piece of land to grow vegetables (because he is refusing her food stamps). Zdena is happy to help her carry a table home from the store and Marie accepts the cups back from Ruzena, who apologises for taking them.
Marie asks Eva to sign a petition to give the dead Austrians a proper burial. She is too afraid to commit her name, as everyone is spying on each other and innocent actions can be twisted. Despite Zdena's reproachful stare, Josef refuses to give permission and cites the millions of Jews and Red Army soldiers who had to settle for mass graves. Undaunted, Marie ploughs her plot and leaves the likes of Václav to the bad dreams that cause him to wet himself in the night.
The tables start to turn in 1947, when a government inspector (Lubos Veselý) comes to accuse Josef of executing the Austrians without tangible evidence. When he blames Anna for Elen being sent to the camps, the inspector blames Josef's own reckless resistance work for bringing her to the Gestapo's attention. He also reveals that not a single charge was brough by the residents of Schwarzwald against their neighbours during the war. Zdena pokes her head around the door in time to hear her father denounced as a prison informant, who had attempted to commit suicide. Despite his protests, he is stripped of his title and his problems mount when Franta threatens to snitch on him unless he gives him a cover story. As he wonders what to do, Zdena declares that she is ashamed of him and leaves home.
Five years later, just as Marie has made her land fruitful, an order comes to move her family into the interior. The survivors from 14 years ago gather to watch her leave and sneer at Josef, who simply wants to be left alone. As they pass the grave of Karel and the others, Marie leaves the crucifix from the house and climbs back aboard the truck carrying her possessions without a backward glance.
The secret to pulling off a film as narratively complex and densely populated as this one is to establish the key characters and their relationship to one another as early as possible. Domestic audiences will be abetted by the accents of the Czech and Austrian cabals. But outsiders will find themselves flailing for the first 20 minutes, as they get to know the layout of Schwarzwald and work out its tangled web of alliances. Once things become more familiar, however, as was the case with Václav Marhoul's The Painted Bird (2019) and Agnieszka Holland's Charlatan (2020), it's impossible not to sucked into the shifting power games, as the residents are buffeted by the brutal realities that come with each change of regime.
Sláma has already demonstrated his insight into tightly knit communities and the rural mentality in The Wild Bees (2001) and Something Like Happiness (2005). But shooting in his own village keens his perception. Thus, in admirably refusing to judge, he and Arsenjev are able to assess the actions of those both in authority and in thrall with a dispassion that is tempered by the intimacy of Diviš Marek's camerawork, as he frequently films in long takes with deep focus. He ably captures the bleakness of the surrounding countryside. But, as so much depends on domiciles and possessions, Jan Novotný's production design proves even more pivotal, as everything from Marie's sewing machine to the pub's roll-on swastika wall-covering has its telling significance.
Magdaléna Borová and Csongor Kassai have been singled out from the ensemble. But there isn't a false note in any performance or in Jakub Kudlác's score, which adeptly counterpoints the cultural fluctuations that retain their relevance in our own times, as the ramifications of the dismantling of the Soviet bloc continue to complicate the issues thrown up by the migrant crisis.
2) MY DONKEY, MY LOVER & I.
As anyone of a certain age will tell you, the two best adverts of the 1970s were produced for Heinz. The first was a charming animation voiced by Willie Rushton about a young crocodile who hides in a cupboard with the light off because he's ashamed of his fondness for expensive baked beans. In the second, Robin Bailey cooks at a campfire while discussing the new creaminess of his favourite soups with a thistle-loving donkey named Sid, who was voiced by the inimitable Johnny Morris.
Of course, film fans will tell you that the mention of donkeys should conjure up memories of Ralph Smart's Never Take No For an Answer, Albert Lamorisse's Bim (both 1951), Tengiz Abuladze and Rezo Chkheidze's Magdana's Donkey (1955), Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), Jacques Demy's Donkey Skin (1970), Emir Kusturica's Life Is a Miracle (2004) and Richard Heap's The Runaways (2018), not to mention the wise ass voiced by Eddie Murphy in the Shrek series (2001-10). But a new title now has to be added to the list, Caroline Vignal's My Donkey, My Lover & I, which was part of the official selection for the locked-down 73rd Cannes Film Festival.
Fortysomething teacher Antoinette Lapouge (Laure Calamy) is having an affair Vladimir Loubier (Benjamin Lavernhe), the father of one of the eight year-olds in her Year 5 class. She is so excited by the prospect of spending a week with her lover in Paris that she has her form sing Véronique Sanson's `Amoureuse' to a bemused group of parents on the last day of term. However, he breaks the bad news that he is going hiking in the Cévennes with wife Eléonore (Olivia Côte) and daughter, Alice (Louise Vidal).
Quickly overcoming her disappointment, Antoinette books a last-minute berth on a trek following the route of Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels With a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879). However, she is the only member of the party to have ordered a donkey and, with the exception of the kindly Claire (Marie Rivière), the others judge her six ways from Sunday when she reveals over the introductory supper that she is only making the expedition to spring a surprise on the married lover who has no idea what she has in mind. Indeed, Bernard (François Caron) and Elizabeth (Ludivine de Chastenet) disapprove so much that they suggest she goes home and spares everyone the embarrassment.
The next day, hostel bosses Annie (Lucia Sanchez) and Jacques (Maxence Tual) provide the unsuitably dressed Antoinette with her saddlebags and camping gear and introduce her to Patrick, the Irish donkey with a mind of his own. Never having been even remotely close to such a creature before, she has no idea how to make him walk forwards and she resorts to swearing when tugging and pushing produce no results. As soon as she stops for a comfort break, however, Patrick shifts into gear to tuck into the picnic she has laid out on a blanket and she chides him while they shuffle along.
She is annoyed when she is joined by Michel (Marc Fraize), who asks if she has heard from her beau and keeps shouting at Patrick to make him trot on. He lacks the social skills to realise that she resents his interference and he only departs after she makes it abundantly clear she wants to be alone. Everyone is about to finish dinner when she reaches the hostel and Antoinette is so exhausted and touched by the sight of hosts Idriss (Denis Mpunga) and Eva (Dorothée Tavernier) dancing to Lou Bega's `Mambo No.5' while clearing the tables that she breaks down sobbing. They have heard her story and tell her about Stevenson, Fanny Osbourne and Modestine the donkey in seeking to dissuade her from returning to Paris.
Next morning, Antoinette is ready to continue and seems to be making steady progress. But, high in the hills, Patrick digs in his hooves and she hits him with her crop. Feeling guilty, she apologises and discovers that he is quite content to amble along if she talks to him. She tells him about her talent for picking the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time and gives him a recaps of her romantic misadventures to date. However, they have fallen behind schedule and darkness falls with them still stranded in the woods.
When she wakes next morning, Antoinette is surrounded by an owl, a fox, a faun and a rabbit and she feels like she has tumbled into a fairytale. In fact, fate has brought her full circle to Idris and Eva's gite and Antoinette is dozing in the dormitory when she hears Vladimir's voice outside. He is horrified to see her, but maintains a poker face as Eléonore and Alice comment on the chances of bumping into a teacher in the middle of nowhere. However, Patrick makes his feelings known with a loud braying that only stops when Vladimir leaves the field where Alice's mount, Lapin, is also grazing.
Much to Vladimir's dismay, Eléonore invites Antoinette to join them on the next stage. But he is amused by the way she chats to other guests over supper and, when she sneaks out in the night because he is sleeping in the bunk above her, he joins her in the field for naked sex with Patrick looking on. Idriss admits to being entertained by the shenanigans and wishes Antoinette well when he sees her off. But the trek proves calamitous, as not only does Eléonore inform her that her husband has a high sex drive and has lots of women on the go, but she also gets dragged along when she tries to get away from the Loubiers and Patrick trots so quickly downhill that she loses her balance.
Unable to walk, Antoinette rides into the nearby town on Patrick's back. Her reputation has gone before her and everyone seems to know about the woman who hit the trail for love. A group of bikers adopt her at the hostel and Patrick carries her to a supper bar, where she gets smoochy with a gentle giant named Shériff (Jean-Pierre Martins). She declines his offer to travel on with them and is saying her goodbyes to Patrick in the adjoining field when a vet (Ludivine Bluche) rides up on horseback and persuades her to carry on to the end because she senses her chemistry with Patrick, whom she has known since his mother died in delivering him.
Having rested her ankle, Antoinette completes her journey and flops down on to the bed in her hotel. She makes a drawing of Patrick in the guest book and is distressed to discover that he has already set out on the return trip with a new hiker. Rushing up the path, she calls the donkey's name and he responds with a bellowing bray. Chasing after the creature, Romain (Matthieu Sampeur) is so touched by the sight of Antoinette hugging Patrick's muzzle that he invites her to spend the day with them and they disappear into the hazy early morning sunlight to the sound of Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson singing `My Rifle, My Pony and Me' from Howard Hawks's Rio Bravo (1959).
Without doubt, the stars of this enjoyable excursion are Pedro, Jazou and Kiki the donkeys. But the Cévennes landscape comes and close second, thanks to Simon Beaufils's painterly photography. Annette Dutertre's editing is also perfectly paced and is beautifully complemented by the clippity-clopping of Matei Bratescot's gently playful score. Nobody puts a foot wrong among the supporting cast, either, as they greet Antoinette with a mixture of curiosity and encouragement as news of her escapade precedes her.
Which brings us to Laure Calamy. Although she has co-starred in such features as Thomas Bidegain's Les Cowboys (2015), Justine Triet's In Bed With Victoria (2016) and Léa Mysius's Ava (2017), she is likely to be best known in this country as assistant Noémie Leclerc in Marc Fitoussi and Cédric Klapisch's cult Netflix comedy, Call My Agent! (2015-20). However, she will forever be remembered as Antoinette Lapouge, whether she is dressed to the nines and freaking out a playground full of parents, over-sharing on the first night with her new travelling companions, resisting the attentions of mansplaining losers or trying to laugh off Eléonore's accusations of adultery.
But, while Calamy endures her share of humiliations during her rite of passage, it's her bond with Jazou and Pedro that most delights, with the latter doing the stuntwork and the former exuding asinine charisma in the close-ups. Bravo Caroline Vignal for bringing them together and for telling her tale with a wit and allure that matches her strong visual sense, appreciation of human nature and grasp of comic pathos.
The cast and crew will know later today (12 March) how many of the eight César nominations they have converted. But, with Barbara Sukowa and Martine Chevalier likely to cancel each other out for Filippo Meneghetti's Two of Us, Calamy's chances of winning Best Actress will depend upon whether the voters wish to reward Camélia Jordana for making the transition from pop star to actress in Emmanuel Mouret's Love Affair(s) or whether Virginie Efira is overdue for Albert Dupontel's Bye Bye Morons after missing out for the aforementioned In Bed With Victoria and Catherine Corsini's An Impossible Love (2018).
Having graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a degree in Arabic and Politics, Ben Sharrock trained at Screen Academy Scotland before making the shorts Closure (2011), The Zealot (2012) and Lost Serenity (2013). In 2015, he followed his feature bow, Pikadero, with the companion piece, Patata Tortilla, which won Scottish BAFTAs for Best Writer and Best Drama.
Sharrock shared the latter with partner Irune Gurtubai. Now, after a spell making commercials and filming in Algerian refugee camps, the pair reunite for a sophomore feature, Limbo, which arrives on screen after being BAFTA-nominated for both Outstanding Debut and Outstanding British Film.
While awaiting a government decision on his asylum application, Syrian musician Omar (Amir El-Masry) lives in a safe house on Uist in the Outer Hebrides. He looks on with a mixture of boredom and bemusement, as cultural instructors Helga (Bibse Babett Knudsen) and Boris (Kenneth Collard) dance to Hot Chocolate's `It Started With a Kiss' in order to teach the assembled migrants about reading signals when approaching a woman.
The fact that the phone signal was better in the middle of the Mediterranean means that the residents have to rely on the single call box on the island to call home. Hamad (Sodienye Ojewuyi) tells Omar about how he climbs the nearby mountain once a week to keep up with the antics of a kitten he has found online. However, their chat is interrupted when the man in the phone box (Adam Abdalrhman) bursts into tears and has to be consoled.
On getting through to his parents in Istanbul (Shereen Sadiq and Hayan Rich), Omar fields questions about his application and why he can't afford to send them any money. He reveals that his broken hand hasn't healed and, consequently, he hasn't been able to play the oud he carries with him everywhere in a leather case. Wandering back towards the house, he's stopped by the teenage quartet of Plug (Cameron Fulton), Stevie (Lewis Gribbe), Cheryl (Silvie Furneaux) and Tia (Iona Elizabeth Thomson). They ask through the car window whether he's a terrorist or a rapist and make him promise to behave himself. In reward, they give him a lift home, squashed between the girls in the back seat.
Under the jaundiced gaze of a woman on an invalid scooter (Barbara Hunter), Oman watches a game of basketball with Farhad (Vikash Bhai), an Afghani Zoroastrian Freddie Mercury fanatic who has also become hooked on Friends since buying a boxed set at the donation centre. Nigerian brothers Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) and Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) also share the house and complain about delays in the processing system and the fact that they are not allowed to work without documentation.
Sitting outside on a typically windy night, Farhad asks Omar about his oud and whether he is as famous as Donny Osmond or Umm Kulthum. He offers to be his agent and helps him peel an orange, which Omar has been struggling to do one-handed. But things move slowly on Uist, with the highlight of the day being to stand in the front garden and watch the opera-loving postman (Rob Keltie) manoeuvre his van between the other properties in their remote cul-de-sac.
At their next assimilation class, Helga and Boris try to explain the term `I used to' with helpful phrases like `I used to have a beautiful house before it was blown up by coalition forces,' that might come in handy during their asylum interviews. When she asks for a volunteer to try a sentence, Abdul (Raadi Mahdi) gets a round of applause when he declares that he used to be happy before he came here, but has stopped crying himself to sleep because he has nothing left to fear.
Playing with a biff bat he bought from the charity store instead of getting a coat, Farhad accompanies Omar to the surgery hut, where they find a note stating that the doctor will only visit once a month, weather permitting. After taking down a recipe from his mother and assuring her that he had heard nothing from his brother Nabil (Kais Nashif) in Syria, Omar goes for a walk to the jetty.
Dressed in a dolphin costume, Margaret (Grace Chilton) hands him a flyer, while Mike (Raymond Mearns) asks if he's a tourist. They comment on the fact that the asylum seekers have boosted the island population by 25% and reassure him that the local racist bigot (who once bit a tourist's finger off and spat it in his beer) has just died, so Omar has no reason to be afraid of any abuse or violence. Mike also tips off Omar about cash-in-hand jobs at the nearby fish factory.
Having returned from a trip to the dunes, Omar looks at footage of his family on his phone, Later, he joins Farhad in listening to Wasef and Abedi arguing about whether Ross and Rachel were on a break when he slept with someone else. Wasef expresses his frustration because he is football mad and knows that Chelsea scouts are never going to come to Scotland and find him.
The housemates wander over to the fish factory in time to see workers being bundled into the back of a police van. Farhad vents his contempt for economic migrants, but Abedi has no idea what they are. Bumping into Helga and Boris, they notice a poster for an open mic night at the local pub. As Omar's manager, Farhad agrees to let him play at a finger buffer soirée that Helga is planning and Boris is excited by the prospect of hearing some Syrian music.
Omar goes to the supermarket to find the ingredients for his mother's dish. However, the shelves are virtually empty, despite Vikram (Sanjeev Kohli) listing the week's special offers over the tannoy. He's a Sikh and takes offence when Omar repeats Mike's term for a Pakistani. Speaking in a thick Scottish accent, he orders Omar to read from the list of banned words on the wall behind him. But he admits to not knowing how racist epithets work when they're used by people with the same skin colour. When Omar asks about whether he stocks sumac, Vikram takes a bite out of an apple and shrugs.
Farhad acquires a bicycle and takes Omar to a free range egg farm. Omar is curious to know what a `range egg' is, but Farhad is too busy looking at the chickens in a wired-off pen. Back in Afghanistan, he had a special chicken called `Freddie' and he explains how newcomers to a coop often get shunned. However, wolves aren't bothered which birds they kill and Farhad nods sadly at the sagacity of his words. He starts singing `The Great Pretender' and Omar joins in, as the lyrics speak for them both.
At the next class, Abedi practices making a phone call to ask Helga about a cleaning job. He pretends to check his diary before confirming an interview time and Farhad is curious to know whether he would get the post. Wasef sneers that he made a mess of things, but Abedi snaps back to deride his dream of playing for Chelsea, when he is too old and unskilled. Helga suggests that any ambition is worth having, but Wasef storms out of the hall.
Having has his plaster removed, Omar tries to play the oud. But it sounds awful and Farhad is worried that he has forgotten how to play. They sit on the slide in a playground and Omar claims the sound holes remind him of the family garden in Damascus. He misses the fresh apricots and notes that he never understood the proverb about apricots never coming because they always had them.
That night, Omar and Abedi watch Wasef play keepie up. Abedi confides that he isn't really his brother, as he is from Ghana. But Wasef had saved his life during their sea crossing and he had agreed to pose as siblings so that Wasef would have a better chance of claiming asylum as a 17 year-old's guardian. Shortly after Farhad steals a chicken (whom he names Freddie, Jr.), the police come to the house. Wasef bolts through the window, but Abedi is bundled into the back of a van, as snow starts to fall.
A dusting covers the long grass, as Omar phones home. He learns that Nabil has been in touch and has convinced his parents that it's safe to return to Syria. Having been involved in an altercation with the police, Omar's father is ready to quit Turkey and he implores his son to join them and fight for a noble cause. But Omar doesn't see the point of having come so far to become a martyr and he slams down the receiver.
Trudging home, he is asked by Jim (Gilly Gilchrist) to help search for some missing lambs on the next island. With visibility closing in, he stumbles on with his oud case and a torch. Through the murk, he finds Wasef's frozen corpse in a hollow, but decides to say nothing about it. Omar is so shocked that he forgets his oud and barks at Jim when he catches up with him on his buggy.
He is no more communicative with Farhad when he pops his head around the door to say he didn't win the karaoke competition. Tired of his chirpiness and his alektorophilia, Omar asks Farhad whether he ever thinks about his old life and returning home. When Farhad insists he can't go back, Omar accuses him through the mottled glass of the living-room door of being a nobody would rather have sitcom-inspired dreams of wearing a suit to work than face up to reality.
Calling home, Omar asks his mother if he did the right thing in leaving and she reassures him he did. She promises not to return to Syria while it's still dangerous, but pleads with him to phone Nabil. Climbing up to the wind turbines on the hill, Omar gets enough bars to call, but can't bring himself to leave a message.
Turning, he sees a shepherd's shack and lights a fire inside. Much to his surprise, Nabil sits down beside him. He offers him a bite of the apricot pastry and Omar asks if their mother made it. Nabil reveals that the apricot tree is long gone and they discuss Omar's reasons for fleeing. Refusing to judge, Nabil reminds his brother that a musician who doesn't play is dead. As he picks up his oud, however, Omar realises he's alone and he wanders outside to see the Northern Lights and remembers Boris's word about them reflecting the spirit of lost loved ones.
Returning home, Omar learns that Farhad's application has been successful and he apologises for being unkind to him. He one of the boatman to take him across to the next island, where he digs a grave for Wasef and recites a burial rite. When he goes to the supermarket, he is pleasantly surprised to see a single pack of sumac on a shelf. Vikram tells him it's for buying not sniffing before asking about the concert.
Omar accompanies Farhad, as he returns Freddie, Jr. to the coop and compliments him on his ill-fitting suit and clip-on tie. He's on the front row in the village hall, along with Helga and Boris, as Omar takes to the stage. His mind flashes back to the phone footage of his last performance in front of his family, but he retains his composure to play beautifully. As the sound drains away from the image in the dimly-lit hall, we see Omar striding out along a straight island road clutching his case. He still has to wait for his verdict. But, as the frame symbolically opens out from the boxy Academy ratio, he has regained his sense of direction and self.
Just as Pikadero felt like a Basque twist on the Boulting brothers comedy, The Family Way (1966), so Limbo contains echoes of Bill Forsyth's Local Hero (1983), right down to the key role played by an isolated telephone box. In some ways, Omar and Farhad are complementary characters to Goska (Zorion Eguileor) and Ane (Bárbara Goenaga), as the former pair are coaxed out of their shells by the latter twosome.
Reminiscent of Scott Graham's Shell (2012), the measured pacing is also the same, while each film opens with off-screen sounds that are eventually shown to emanate from a cyclist struggling up a steep hill and a smiley face being drawn on a blackboard.
Smiles may be few and far between in the Hebrides, but Omar and Farhad's mouth-covering game reminds us that it's not always easy to detect what's going on inside someone's head from external appearances. As Abedi is the only man to discuss his experiences in reaching Scotland, we don't know what the housemates have had to endure either in their homelands or on their travels. But each is evidently dealing with his demons, while also trying to keep a lid on the dread that they may be deported.
Despite what's at stake, Sharrock (who will doubtlessly be accused in some quarters of tackling a subject for which he is unqualified, despite having lived in Syria and filmed in holding camps in Algeria) takes a leaf out of Aki Kaurismäki's book by lacing the action with moments of deadpan and sometimes absurd humour. Much of the latter comes from Helga and Boris, whose backstory is also left tantalisingly vague. They are wittily played by Bibse Babett Knudsen and Kenneth Collard, with the opening dance sequence being a delight. But Knudsen's phone exercise with Kwabena Ansah is also neatly judged, as Sharrock sends up the asylum process while also exposing its shortcomings.
This mix of wit, warmth and woe keeps a lid on the outrage that we should feel at the casual racism on show on Uist and the utter indifference displayed by the immigration authorities, who are despicably notable by their faceless absence. Helga and Boris might offer advice on how to behave in an interview, but there's little evidence to suggest that these migrants are being given a chance to make their case.
There's certainly no counselling on offer for Omar, whose calls home serve as both therapy sessions and the source of further guilt, homesickness and exilic anxiety. At least he has someone to call, as the same doesn't seem to be true for Farhad, Wasef and Abedi, who seem to have adopted the six cast members of Friends as their surrogate families. All four are superbly played, but Amir El-Masry and Vikash Bhai are exceptional.
The sparsely furnished refuge is a far cry from Central Perk, however, and production designer Andy Drummond plays as vital a role as cinematographer Nick Cooke and sound designer Ben Baird in capturing the bleak beauty of the environs and the aura of suspended time that cocoons locals and enforced guests alike. Hutch Demouilpied's score and the astute editing of Karel Dolak and Lucia Zucchetti also contribute to the alienating ennui that eventually drives Omar to question whether he has made the right decision to flee a war zone.
Omar's spectral reunion with his sibling is perhaps the film's sole misstep, especially as subsequent use of the Northern Lights seems out-of-keepingly sentimental. But the scene in which Omar ensures that Wasef remains free by burying him on the island without the knowledge of the authorities has a potency that should leave few unmoved.