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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (31/5/2024)

(Reviews of The Beast; The Teacher's Lounge; and Little Monsters)


In 2021, Bertrand Bonello announced that he was planning to adapt Henry James's 1903 novella, The Beast in the Jungle. However, Covid-19 prevented him from shooting with Léa Seydoux and Gaspard Ulliel, with whom he had worked on Saint Laurent (2014).

During the pandemic, Bonello made Coma (2022), with a cast that included Ulliel and Anaïs Demoustier. By a quirk of fate, she went on to partner Tom Mercier in Austrian Patric Chiha's 2023 take on The Beast in the Jungle. But Bonello was forced to recast after Ulliel was killed in a skiing accident and he had to wait while George Mackay learned French (because Bonello hadn't wanted to put undue pressure on one of Ulliel's compatriots). Consequently, The Beast arrives on UK screens with a backstory as complex as its own tripartite storyline.

Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) stands before a green screen and is given instructions by an unseen director (Bertrand Bonello) about how to react to a monster threatening her. A scream melds into the title credit before the action switches to 1910, as Gabrielle searches for her husband, Georges Monnier (Martin Scali), at a Parisian soirée. As she ventures into a studio to view paintings by an emerging young artist, she is approached by Louis Lewanski (George Mackay).

He recalls meeting her in Italy several years earlier and asks if she still believes in the secret that she had confided to him. Warily, Gabrielle admits that she still believes that something dreadful will occur and that she will be forced to suffer as a consequence. Louis is disappointed that she has gone back on her word never to marry, but he offers to watch over Gabrielle to ensure she remains safe.

Suddenly, it's 2044 and Gabrielle has become bored with her job reading the temperature of data cores. She resents the fact that Artificial Intelligence has taken over the world in the aftermath of a war caused by unfettered emotion and seeks to prove that humans can still play a valuable part in daily life. During an interview with an AI system (Xavier Dolan), it's suggested that she has her DNA cleansed in order to remove some of the memories and character flaws that might prevent her from operating impassively. Reluctant to relinquish a deep-seated conviction that she will be involved in a calamity, Gabrielle requires time to consider and bumps into Louis en route to his own interview.

As she lies down to be purified, Gabrielle seems to jaunt back to the Belle Époque, where she is strolling with Louis and discussing her husband's doll factory. They take tea and she beguiles him by describing how a doll's expression is chosen. He asks about her desire to have children and whether she has delayed starting a family in order to pursue her ambitions as a pianist. She has acquired quite a reputation and he admires the beauty of her hands. But she is anxious about the rumours that the Seine will burst its banks and flood the city - and we see monochrome photographs of La Crue.

Georges reassures Gabrielle that they will be fine when the waters rise. But she insists on practicing a Schönberg piece she fails to understand rather than discuss their future. A pigeon flies into the music room and the candles flicker, as she feels unusually afraid. The incident comes back to haunt her when Louis arranges for her to consult a medium (Elina Löwensohn) about her premonition. She tells Gabrielle that a pigeon will fly into her home as a harbinger of death and that a man in the next room will perish. One of Georges's employees comes to update him about the factory and a distracted Gabrielle prowls around the neighbouring room having troubling visions about her hand clutching a knife.

Waking in 2044, Gabrielle meets Kelly (Guslagie Malanda), a lifelike doll who has been assigned to chaperon her between purification sessions. She's unnerved by her calmness and surprised when she takes her to a hip club where people dance to pop oldies. Wandering away from the dance floor, Gabrielle bumps into Louis, who remembers her from the centre. He admits to having had second thoughts, while she fibs that she didn't go through with the process. They agree to delay things and meet again and Kelly is amused when Gabrielle says that she had once left her husband for Louis in another lifetime.

Back at the centre, Gabrielle tears up on seeing an image beamed on to a screen and the AI system suggests that part of her brain is still resisting the process. In an antechamber, she admits to an AI counseller named Sophie (Julia Faure) that she is worried that she is making a mistake in losing touch with her innermost thoughts and emotions. Sophie is sympathetic and concurs that even the most painful recollections can become precious.

In 1910, Gabrielle writes Georges a letter in which she explains that she loves him, but needs to feel something more passionate. She takes Louis to the doll factory and they are shown the different stages of preparing celluloid and porcelain dolls. Louis is asked not to smoke because the celluloid is so flammable and he is embarrassed. At the end of the tour, Gabrielle shows Louis the display room. For once, they are completely alone and he asks her again about the premonition and why she can't escape from the anxiety it causes. He takes her hand and she imagines succumbing to his embrace. But she can't respond to his entreaties and he is about to despair when the lights go out.

The water has seeped into the factory and shorted the electrics. Fire spreads quickly and Gabrielle realises that their only chance of escape is through the flooded basement. Louis goes first and assures her that she will make the 15 yards to safety. But the door is locked and he has already drowned by the time she finds him. A doll stares with an enigmatic expression, as their bodies are held in suspended animation in the sunlight twinkling through the windows.

Following an extreme close-up of the tear that Gabrielle had shed when shown an image by the AI System. we see 2014 Gabrielle strolling around a modern house that we had seen during the medium's reading. She's house-sitting while trying to make it as an actress in Los Angeles. At a modelling call, she meets Dakota (Dasha Nekrasova), who recommends that she gets plastic surgery. They pal up and agree to meet at a hot nightclub after Dakota finishes a babysitting shift. However, she fails to show and Gabrielle necks the pills she had given her to mind.

Driving across the city in her red car, Gabrielle has no idea that she is being followed by Louis, a student-cum-social media bod who is forever posting clips about the fact he is still a virgin at 30 and has no idea why women's fail to find him attractive when he is such a charmer and a fine physical specimen. He parks outside the house in the shadows, while Gabrielle chats to a friend online, plays with one of the mechanical dolls in the owner's collection, and tinkers with a fortune-telling site that popped-up when she logged on to the clinic Dakota had recommended.

Spooked by Gina the medium (Marta Hoskins) being scared for her and a phone call from the owner warning her about a snooper being seen on the premises, Gabrielle switches on the television and sees a karaoke performance of Roy Orbison's `Evergreen'. As she watches, the house starts to shake and she ventures outside to see what's going on. The neighbours seem to think the tremor is over and Gabrielle asks Louis to walk her home. She explains that she doesn't want to be alone after the earthquake, but he claims he can't trust himself with her.

Much to her surprise, he does follow her in and she sits close to him on the sofa to show that she trusts him and wants to get intimate. They kiss and Gabrielle in purification in 2044 stirs at the memory of the tryst. However, she pulls away when she realises she is fooling around with one of the neighbours and he scarpers because she is acting so strangely. The sight of a pigeon disconcerts her, as she reassures the owner over the phone that everything is fine apart from a couple of vases (one of which happens to be Ming, which she only breaks afterwards in a fit of pique).

Outside in his car, Louis talks to his camera. He is angry with himself for showing Gabrielle some compassion after he had chosen her for his victim on retribution day for all the women who had spurned him over the years. But he steels himself to stick to his plan. Inside the house, Gabrielle sees another man singing `Evergreen' and her 2044 self feels the half-remembered emotion. She contacts Sophie for solace and has no idea that she is dispassionately breaking her sick cat's neck, while they chat.

Gabrielle drifts into a nightclub that specialises in 1980s electro-pop. She asks after Louis, but the barman refuses to share any details. As in the 2014 nightclub scene, Gabrielle is sneered at by three girls sitting together. However, she feels sorry for them because they confess that they messed up and have been left with a tedious life as a consequence.

The next day, Gabrielle goes for her last treatment. As she's injected in the ear, she finds herself in a make-up chair in 2014 prior to shooting a road safety commercial against a green screen. She's clipped to a harness to lift her up to simulate a collision with a car, but the day is going to get much worse after she dances at the club. Louis follows her home and she decides to look him up online. Finding his site, she hears him lamenting the fact that he only makes love in his dreams and she remembers Gina telling her this during their consultation.

Having reassured the alarm security people that she is okay, Gabrielle has her laptop ransomed while trying to contact Gina. Now feeling frightened, she tries to regain control of her computer. Gina appears, only to refuse to speak to her while a stranger is standing behind her. Realising that Louis has gained entry, Gabrielle runs upstairs and monitors him on the four CCTV screens. A pigeon looks on, as Louis creeps through the house. Convinced he's just as scared as she is, Gabrielle offers to unlock the door if he will trust her. However, he pulls the trigger and a top shot looks down on her body bleeding in the pool, as Louis stands over her.

The sight of this scenario upsets Gabrielle and the AI System informs her that this proves she is one of the 0.7% who resist purification. It apologises to her, but she admits to Kelly that she is glad the process to remove what makes her unique has failed. Gently turning down the doll's request to make love, Gabrielle goes back to the nightclub. The 1980 neon sign has been replaced by 1963 and she is pleased to see Louis across the empty dance floor in a Pierre Cardin collarless suit. When `Evergreen' comes on, she asks him to dance. She sinks into him, only for him to reveal that he had witnessed other times they had danced to the song during his successful purification. Realising that she will never get to love the man of her dreams and destiny, Gabrielle sinks to her knees and screams, as an oblivious Louis tells her about his new job at the Justice Ministry and how he hopes they can work together.

Flipping the focus of both James's story and Chiha's film, this is an intriguing exercise in style and substance that never quite holds the attention or fires the imagination. Léa Seydoux could not be better in all three manifestations of Gabrielle, while George Mackay holds his own against two of them without ever quite generating sparks. However, he never comes to grips with the middle Louis, who is based on Elliot Rodger, the incel misogynist who shared his self-pitying manifesto online before killing six people and injuring 14 more near his Santa Barbara campus on 23 May 2014.

Bonello and co-scenarists Guillaume Bréaud and Benjamin Charbit similarly struggle to integrate his American-accented whines to camera and many will find themselves regretting that the triumvirate and editor Anita Roth had opted against teasing out the more involving Belle Époque episode a little longer. Not that the `Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' segment always compels, especially as it frustratingly underuses Guslagie Malanda, as the android escort who doesn't seem entirely in control of its more Sapphic emotions.

But, despite often seeming more influenced by David Lynch than Henry James, Bonello nimbly succeeds in weaving his themes through the timeframes, while dotting the segments with linking motifs without making them too blatant or trite. Katia Wyszkop's production design is a triumph, while Pauline Jacquard's costumes are beautifully judged. Tinkering with aspect ratios across the eras, cinematographer Josée Deshaies also excels, with her close-ups of Seydoux reinforcing the nuance that she brings to each incarnation of the doomed Gabrielle. But even she ends up stranded by Bonello's inability to decide whether he's making a sci-fi melodrama, a satire on technology and celebrity, a toxic masculinity thriller, or a cautionary tale about the ecological and psychological plight of self-obsessed, but shallow humanity, as it sleepwalks towards a disaster of its own making that it has had copious opportunities to forestall.


There was something a bit rum about the Best International Feature category at this year's Oscars. Japan's entry, Perfect Days, was directed by a German, Wim Wenders. Regardless of the fact it was made in German and centred on Nazi war crimes, The Zone of Interest was deemed British because of director Jonathan Glazer's nationality. But there was a third Geman-linked title alongside Italian Matteo Garrone's Io capitano and Spaniard J. A. Bayona's Society of the Snow, as lker Çatak's The Teachers' Lounge was the country's official Oscar entry.

The fact that three of the five nominated films had Germanic connections exposes the flaws in the voting process for a category whose recent name changes have muddied the waters when it comes to rewarding films not in the English language. Given that the category winner, The Zone of Interest, received four further nominations, including Best Picture, it was seemingly viewed as less of a `foreign' film than its competitors and perhaps denied another shortlisted title a moment in the Oscar spotlight that might have significantly impacted upon its box-office fortunes.

Had the rules been stricter, Berliner lker Çatak's third feature would most likely have lost out to either Glazer's adaptation of British author Martin Amis's final novel or Wenders's engaging saga about a Tokyo toilet cleaner. Despite claiming five prizes at the German Film Awards, it's comfortably the weakest of the trio, as Çatak and Johannes Duncker's screenplay frustratingly loses its focus in the last reel. Nevertheless, this atmospheric thriller has pertinent things to say about institutional hierarchies, chauvinism, racism, the misuse of technology, parent power, and the savviness of kids in the age of social media.

The sound of a tuning orchestra accompanies the establishing images of a well-appointed German school, as if to emphasise the thin line between harmony and discord. Still finding her feet in a new post, Polish-born teacher Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch) employs a hand-clapping ditty to start lessons with her 7th-grade class. They respond readily enough, as they trust she is more committed to their well-being than some of her more jaded colleagues. Carla has a particularly strong rapport with Oskar (Leonard Stettnisch), a quiet boy with a gift for maths, whose mother, Friederike (Eva Löbau), runs the school office. She's popular with the children and Carla comes to her when she has problems with her internal email.

Following a spate of thefts, teachers Milosz Dudek (Rafael Stachowiak) and Thomas Liebenwerda (Michael Klammer) conduct an inquiry that results in one of Clara's students being accused by classmates Lukas (Oscar Zickur) and Jenny (Antonia Küpper). When the boys in her class are forced to present their wallets, she decides that Ali (Can Rodenbostel) has been victimised and confides in fellow Pole Dudek that Liebenwerda had made a racist remark about the boy's Turkish father being a taxi driver. He refuses to speak German when summoned by the principal, Dr Bettina Böhm (Anne-Kathrin Gummich), and stalks out of the meeting having explained that Ali had money on him because he was going to buy his cousin a birthday present after school.

Shaken by the way in which senior staff like Liebenwerda and Vanessa König (Sarah Bauerett) had jumped to conclusions and surprised by the way in which a female teacher had casually helped herself to the contents of the coffee trust tin, Carla decides to do a little undercover detection of her own. Planting cash in her jacket, she leaves her laptop camera running and returns to find footage of an arm clad in a distinctive yellow-patterned blouse picking her pocket.

Uncertain how to react, Carla teaches a PE lesson that is going well until she suspects that Jieun (Padmé Hamdemir) and Luise (Lisa Marie Trense) have drifted outside for a smoke. In spite of protests, she confiscates a lighter and then has problems with the usually co-operative Tom (Vincent Stachowiak) when she catches him cheating in a test. Still feeling flustered, Carla discovers that Frederike is wearing the blouse she saw in her recording and confronts her in the office. She offers to say no more about the matter if Frederike returns the money. But she is deeply insulted by the accusation and asks Carla to leave.

Realising that she can't leave things there, Carla shows her evidence to the principal. She invites Frederike to her study, where she is so outraged at being suspected that she refuses to co-operate and is suspended from duty. Embarrassed by how quickly things have escalated, Carla tries to dissuade Dr Böhm from getting the police involved. But she is informed instead that she is now also under investigation because her recording breaches the school's privacy policy.

With Liebenwerda and Vanessa voicing their dismay at her actions, Carla seeks reassurance from Dudek. However, he's reluctant to get involved, as he has to stay neutral. Feeling exposed, Carla attends a class parent-teacher meeting and learns that rumours have been flying on the group's WhatsApp link. She tries to explain, but is interrupted when Frederike arrives in her capacity as Oskar's mother. Revealing the existence of an illegal recording, she tells the other parents that Carla is not to be trusted and she flees to the bathroom, where she has a panic attack.

Next day, Carla tries to be kind to Oskar at the end of their lesson and offers to lend him a Rubik's Cube. However, she gets flustered during their next meeting, when he tearfully offers his savings to help his mother before suddenly threatening to make Carla pay for crossing him. Siding with their classmate, the other students start questioning Carla's authority and even accuse her of demeaning them with the songs and slogans she uses to control them. They also turn on Tom (who is afraid of flunking) when he refuses to boycott homework or join a classroom go slow.

Hoping to put her side of the story and restore a little faith, Carla agrees to be interviewed by the school paper. However, even quiet students like Hatice (Elsa Krieger) pose awkward questions and she is coaxed into being reluctantly candid about Ali's accusation, her secret recording, and Frederike's suspension. The editor promises to show her the article before it goes to print, but Carla realises she has been indiscreet. On the corridor, she imagines that everyone is wearing the yellow-patterned blouse and she has to compose herself before taking her next lesson.

In the gym, she seeks to use a trust exercise to win back her class. Despite the lesson being observed by guidance counsellor Lore Semnik (Kathrin Wehlisch), Oskar launches an attack on Tom. When Carla sends him out, he smashes his way into her room and steals the laptop from her bag. Carla chases after him, but is unable to stop him from tossing the computer off a bridge into the river.

Aware that the boy is trying to protect his mother, Carla opposes further punishment. But Liebenwerda leads the call for Oskar to be suspended. He is also the most vociferous when the paper is published without Carla having seen her interview and he roundly denounces her for a lack of loyalty towards her colleagues in trying to get herself off the hook. Recognising that Carla is struggling to cope, Lore gives her a hug. But she receives no support from Dudek or the principal, who insist that their hands are tied.

Moreover, Dr Böhm decides to ban the paper and suspend Oskar for 10 days. This means he will miss the school trip to Britain and Carla again finds herself conflicted to the extent that she encourages her students to join her in an extended scream of exasperation. She's even more perplexed when Oskar comes into school as usual and refuses to leave his desk. Asking Liebenwerda to supervise the rest of the class, Carla locks the door and sits in silence with Oskar to prevent the risk of him being expelled after being forcibly removed.

Carla borrows Oskar's phone to call Frederike, but she refuses to come and collect him. At home time, she cycles up to the gate. But, as the heavens open, she opts not to wait and Carla returns to the homework she is marking with a gentle smile at Oskar. He produces the Rubik's Cube and solves it in a matter of seconds. As the closing credits roll, he is shown being borne shoulder high on his desk chair by two police officers. He remains impassive, however, as, while he has made his point, it's still far from clear how the crisis will be resolved.

The ambiguity of the ending would be more impactful if Çatak and Duncker had taken more time to contextualise their story. It's fine to confine the action to the campus, but this means we get to learn nothing whatsoever about Carla's life away from the classroom. Does she have dependents who will suffer if she loses her job or will she be forced to return to Poland if she's no longer in gainful employment? As the school is clearly suffering from a teacher shortage, this course of action seems unlikely, which robs the narrative of any sense of jeopardy.

There's also little suspense, as the thefts and the indistinctly incriminating video turn out to be mere MacGuffins. Furthermore, despite seizing the opportunity to flex their rebellious muscles, the students are hardly Midwich Cuckoos. Nor are they on a par with the unholy terrors who caused David Hemmings so much trouble in John Mackenzie's Unman Wittering and Zigo (1971). Consequently, the film rather peters out after having raised a range of emotive issues without exploring any of them in much depth.

This is frustrating, as the themes are worthy of pursuing, as they were much more effectively in Laura Wandel's Playground (2022) and Maren Ade's The Forest For the Trees (2003), in which Eva Löbau had played the teacher in extremis. But the drift also wastes the excellence of the performances of Leonie Benesch and Leo Stettnisch, as the tightly wound outsider and the studious loner who could have enjoyed a more Dead Poets Society kind of relationship had the fates and a zero tolerance policy not dictated otherwise.

An idealist who is naively driven into indiscretion by the cynical complacency of her staffroom peers, Carla undoubtedly makes mistakes. She tells her class that `The important thing to remember is that a proof needs a derivation that builds up step by step.' So, why does she feel emboldened to confront Frederiike on circumstantial evidence and not the teacher whose emptying of the honesty box she had witnessed with her own eyes (although, even here, the script leaves things vague - who's to say the woman isn't in charge of supplying the coffee and was simply reimbursing herself?). Moreover, if Carla is still so new at the school, why didn't she approach Dudek or Lore before acting impulsively on the back of Ali's prejudicial profiling and taking such unforeseenly drastic steps?

Plots have to have trigger points. But, with the brusquely insecure Carla making matters worse with each word and action, this scenario feels so calculatingly contrived in showing that schools are no longer cloistered safe spaces that it's a minor miracle the irredeemably dysfunctional institution isn't in utter chaos - like the wider society of which it has become a microcosm.

Ably abetted by cinematographer Judith Kaufmann's astute use of frame size, colour, and handheld immediacy, Çatak succeeds in making the classroom look a dauntingly lonely place. But he doesn't really do the same for the actual teachers' lounge, where the stereotypes appear more glaring than they do in the formroom. He's not helped by the over-emphatic nature of Marvin Miller's score, which often seems at odds with Gesa Jäger's measured editing. Ultimately, for all the boldness of his approach to hot-button issues, Çatak undermines his own striving for edgy realism with ill-considered gambits like the surreal identical blouse interlude and the final shot, which feels clumsily tacked on.


British cinemas seem to get more than their fair share of CGI animations from Europe. The majority are cheap and cheerful and stand a better chance of snagging an audience via disc or streaming. But it's hard to see why parents would want to shell out multiple admission fees for something as mediocre as Denis Chernov's Little Monsters.

Also known as Finnick, this 2022 outing is a briskly told tale from the maker of Super Furry Animals (2016), The Time Team (2018), and Teddy Boom! (2021). But it will seem highly derivative to fans of Pete Docter's Pixar favourite, Monsters Inc. (2001). Moreover, its scheduling will trouble those under the impression that there was an embargo on Russian films because of the conflict in Ukraine.

According to a narrator, every household has its own finnick, an odd-looking furball who invisibly ensures that everything runs smoothly. As there's an exception to every rule, Finnick (Billy Bob Thompson) prefers to live alone and dedicates his time to driving away anyone who moves into his house on the outskirts of Berg. He hope to make short work of the new occupants. But 13 year-old amateur detective Christine (Nathalie Ferare) is made of stern stuff and she soon has the measure Finnick after she grabs a tuft of his hair and he becomes visible to her.

Her peripatetic parents (Clifford Chapin and Emily Cramer) remain oblivious. But they are preoccupied with their new job, as extras on a popular crime series that is made at the local TV studio. JB (Robb Moreira) works there as a janitor, but he has ambitions to become a star villain. Unfortunately, he is fired when his bid to impress the grumpy director results in the set being destroyed and he slinks away vowing revenge.

It's not long before he strikes by causing a giant popcorn explosion that covers the streets. Soon afterward, a fiendish reversing of the town's wind turbines sends feathers floating in the air. As the only clue Christine can find relates to a driverless truck, she deduces that the villain is a rogue finn.

With Finnick's help, she sneaks into a Finn council meeting and notices how defensive

Muffin (Paul Castro, Jr.) seems when anyone mentions his human. Following the van, she discovers that JB has been basing his attacks on storylines from the show and next plans to send the Ferris wheel from the funfair careering through Berg.

Until now, Finnick has reluctantly gone along with Christine because it's bad form for a Finn to consort with humans and she has promised to return his fur as soon as the case is closed. But he has now become fond of her and joins forces with the Finns whom JB has corralled and shaved so that he can detach the big wheel in a coat that will make him invisible.

A race against time ensues, with Christine escaping captivity to confront JB at the fairground. She's unable to prevent him from setting the wheel in motion, but some nifty steering by Finnick and his pals ensures that nobody is harmed before the wheel plunges into the sea. As the story ends, Finnick makes a friendship bracelet for Christine out of his fur. He also vows to make the newly decorated house as comfortable as possible, providing he can control that virtual assistant device that keeps threatening to expose his existence.

On the surface, this sounds a jolly romp that riffs on the admirable themes of acceptance, co-operation, and friendship. But the bittily busy plot is entirely predictable and populated by too many thinly drawn characters, such as the local cool kid who tries to chat up Christine in the bakery and gets to go on a date with her having played no role whatsoever in confounding JB. His dastardliness comes out of nowhere, after he's depicted as a starstruck dweeb at the studios, where Christine's parents get offered the leads in a new programme in spite of demonstrating little acting talent prior to getting caught up in the Ferris finale.

It's always good to see kidpix with a female hero and Christine is sparky enough as the wannabe Sherlock Holmes. But the wit of her banter with Finnick clearly got lost in translation, with his retorts often seeming snidey rather than smart. The Finns have a fluffy Flanimal feel, but more thought has gone into their colourful design than their characterisation. As a result, this passes the time without leaving much impression. But it's far from the calamity that some smug reviews have suggested.

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