Parky At the Pictures (7/10/2022)
(Reviews of After Blue (Dirty Paradise); Róise & Frank; Pure Grit; and The Cordillera of Dreams)
AFTER BLUE (DIRTY PARADISE).
Underground French auteur Bertrand Mandico has been making highly distinctive shorts for two decades. In addition to an unconventional biopic of Polish maverick Walerian Borowczyk in Boro in the Box (2011), Mandico has also teased and provoked with titles like Our Lady of Hormones (2011), Odile of the Valley (2017), Apocalypse After (2018), and The Return of Tragedy (2020). Now, he follows his debut feature, The Wild Boys (2017), with the futuristic feminist fable, After Blue (Dirty Paradise).
Asked by an unseen woman to explain how they left Earth and came to inhabit the planet of After Blue, various `ovarian bearers' describe how they devised their own pre-industrial rules to create an all-female society after the men perished from in-growing hair.
Among the speakers is Roxy (Paula Luna), who has been nicknamed `Toxic' in the village because of her bleached blonde tresses. She is being teased on a desolate beach by Chiara (Mara Taquin), Luz (Claïna Clavaron) and Ivresse (Claire Duburcq) when she finds Katarzyna Buszowska (Agata Buzek) - who goes by the name of `Kate Bush' - buried up to her neck in the sand. Offered three wishes, she digs her out and is rewarded with a sexual encounter after Kate blasts the three mean girls who had gone skinny-dipping in the sea.
Spooked out, Roxy crawls under the house to smoke a hairy worm cigarette from a tin she keeps hidden. When chaos breaks out, she is asked to describe Kate to the militia. But, while she mentions her tattoo and one arm, she says noting about the eye between her legs. The elders inform Roxy's hairdresser mother, Zora (Elina Löwensohn), that Kate is a Pole and order her to eliminate her in order to atone for Roxy's reckless error.
Wandering in the cold with their mare, The Queen of Peru, the pair encounter Kate's mother (Tamar Baruch) and sister (Camille Rutherford ), who insist she has done nothing wrong and is being victimised. The mother asks Zora to become her wife and Roxy kisses the sister. But they continue their search until they discover they have no rations.
While Zora goes hunting with the rifle, Roxy makes a fire and is confronted by the ghosts of the three murdered girls. They fondle her face and she is about to succumb to the sensation when Zora returns. She has only found some stinking flowers, which Roxy and the horse refuse to eat. They watch in amazement, as The Queen of Peru seems to be transfigured in a bright light and is draped in a fine white gauze.
After a restless night's sleep, mother and daughter plod on. They see a half-dead horse and some screaming caterpillars before reaching Kate Bush's lair. This has a grotto behind a mirror, but Zora isn't in the mood to explore. However, when artist neighbour Veronika Sternberg (Vimala Pons) drops in, she is bewitched by her and they kiss. The reverie doesn't last long, however, as Roxy is tormented by the ghosts and Zora has to deliver her.
Having trimmed Roxy's neck hair, Zora goes hunting. But, in chasing a wounded dog, Roxy finds herself in Sternberg's domain and she is overwhelmed by an encounter with her blind, male model, Olgar-2 (Michaël Erpelding), who wraps his tentacles around her head. They are invited to dinner at the house Sternberg shares with Climax (Anaïs Thomas) and Kiefer (Pauline Lorillard), the assistants who help her cast her Gormley-like torsos. The room is bathed in an absinthe light, as Sternberg spits `mystic urine' and describes how Kate Bush became jealous of her idyll and how Olgar-2 is a `Louis Vuitton' android replica of her lover from Earth.
While Sternberg and Zora take a Youvence bath, Olgar-2 takes Roxy to see some paintings. He invites her to touch his body and a ball bearing slips out from his lactating nipple. However, Sternberg takes exception to Roxy handling a canvas and shoots at her.
Kate Bush comes to Roxy's bed and runs her claw-like hands over her body. Sternberg intervenes and Kate Bush disappears into the night, leaving the ghosts to criticise Roxy for missing the chance to deliver them from their torment. However, Kiefer and Climax claim to have killed Kate Bush and demand the bounty from Zora when they present a corpse. She is so relieved that she makes out with a hairy creature when Sternberg throws a `relief party'. Olgar-2 asks Roxy to return and kill Sternberg and reprogramme him so that he can see. Seeing her daughter's face being ravished by his tentacles, Zora throws a rock and damages Olgar-2.
They take their leave and come across the real Kate Bush on the road. Zora even shaves her, but she refuses to accept Roxy's assertion that she is not the corpse slung over The Queen of Peru. Mother and daughter fight after Roxy calls Zora a coward. Nevertheless, they return to the village and present their quarry to Séverine (Alexandra Stewart). The ghosts discover that Roxy now has the third eye and she explains that is why she is able to see them. They sit among the villagers, as Roxy and Zora vow to look to the future.
Aesthetically striking and laudably committed to its own absurdist logic, this will be something of an ordeal (at over two hours) for those who don't buy into Mandico's fantasy Western conceit. The backdrops designed by Toma Baqueni and Thomas Salabert feel like they've been imported from 1930s horse operas and 1950s sci-fi freakouts and bathed in colour-filtered light to create a psychedelic 70s pastiche. As for Pauline Jacquard's costumes, they vary from the Puritan to the skimpy, while the props include weapons named after fashion brands like Gucci, Paul Smith and Chanel.
Between the erotic dream sequences, there's a lot of neon and glitter, mud and gloop, as Mandico indulges himself in Barbarellaesque image distortions and a Borowczykian excess of nudity. Like Yann Gonzalez, his companion in an ongoing experimental new wave, Mandico's dialogue has a gnomic gravity that borders on the scoffably ludicrous. But the cast treats it like snatches of Baudelaire and Elina Löwensohn, Paula Luna, Vimala Pons and Agata Buzek undeniably leave an impression. For the most part, this is crass and occasionally grotesque kitsch. However, Mandico boldly sends up the blustering machismo of so much science fiction. Moreover, there's enough in Pascal Granel's lush photography and Pierre Desprat's ethereal score to suggest that this seductively Sapphic, post-Zardozian muddle is destined to become a guilty cult pleasure.
RÓISE & FRANK.
There have been a clutch of Irish-language features over the last 15 years, including Tom Collins's Kings, Robert Quinn's Cré na Cille (both 2007), Tom Moore's Song of the Sea (2014), Tom Sullivan's Arracht (2019)Seán Breathnach's Foscadh, and Colm Bairéad's The Quiet Girl (both 2021). Joining the Gaeilge list is Rachael Moriarty and Peter Murphy's Róise & Frank.
Róise O'Meara (Bríd Ní Neachtain) has barely left the house since the death of her husband, Frank, two years earlier. Doctor son Alan (Cillian O'Gairbhi) is worried about her, but more concerned that neighbour Donncha (Lorcan Cranitch) has asked his permission to start dating her. His concerns grow, however when he discovers that Róise has taken in a stray lurcher-terrier cross, whom she believes is his reincarnated father because he loves hurling (Frank was a keen player) and knows their favourite picnic spot. When he leads her to Frank's grave in the churchyard, Róise is convinced.
Alan takes the dog to the vet in the hope of finding it's owner, but it isn't chipped and, much to his chagrin, the two year-old Frank howls along to his father's favourite song on the radio on the way home. Soon, Alan is fed up with all his patients asking him about his mother and her new pet. But bashful schoolboy Maidhchí (Ruadhán de Faoite) also takes a shine to Frank, as he stops by Róise's house each morning to play hurling before the bus comes.
Initially, he's teased about playing with a mutt. But classmate Jack (Cormac Hennessy) thinks Frank has talent and Maidhchí goes on a winning streak with the school team, thanks to Frank barking encouragement from the touchline. Meanwhile, Róise has accepted Donncha's invitation to rejoin the local choir, but he winds up in hospital after being hit by a car after Frank chases him away for trying to kiss Róise on the doorstep.
The accident causes Róise to forget that St Cárthach are playing in a cup final and Alan has to fetch Frank. He's given a motorcycle escort by a Garda (Aonghus Og McAnally) who knows Róise and Mikey is the second-half hero, while Frank dances with delight on the sidelines.
Donncha, however, is furious with Frank and sedates him with a doped steak when the Garda refuses to accept his claim that the dog attacked him. While Róise searches for him, Donncha takes Frank to the pound and demands he's put down as a dangerous animal. The duty keeper thinks he's a gentle soul, however, and finds him a home with a young girl whose father has just died. Seeing them together, Róise is content for Frank (or Spanky, as he's now called) to stay and Alan is pleased to see his mother bonding with her infant granddaughter.
While there's much to charm in this touching tale, it's the performance of Barley as Frank that makes this such a delight. He catches a mean hurling ball and can pirouette on his hand legs with the best of them. But it's the intensity and intelligence of his face in close-ups that gives this Gaeltacht shaggy dog story its credence. The sequence which he exchanges glances with Róise before bounding back to the little girl who has tied her father's scarf around his neck is a heartbreaker that is also suffused with healing and optimism.
Bríd Ní Neachtain leads the human cast with wounded dignity, while Cillian O'Gairbhi does a nice line in good-natured bafflement. The subplot with Ruadhán de Faoite's red-haired outsider is a bit untidy (where are his parents, why does he hide his camán in Róise's bushes and why is he teased at school?) and his man-of-the-match performance in the final is more than a little corny. More might have been devoted to Lorcan Cranitch and his unrequited crush, as his sudden descent into dog-doping villainy is feebly contrived. And did this cross between The Littlest Hobo (1963-85) and Highway to Heaven (1984-89) really need a sniggering reference to the bathtime scene between Nicole Kidman and Cameron Bright in Jonathan Glazer's Birth (2004), in which a widow insists that her dead husband has returned in the body oof a 10 year-old boy?
Colm Mac Con Iomaire's score is enjoyably jolly, while cinematographer Peter Robertson makes the most of the verdant countryside around Ring in County Waterford. But this whimsical fable belongs wholly to Barley, who would have been a shoe-in for the Palm Dog had the film screened at Cannes.
Anyone familiar with documentaries like Anna Eborn's Pine Ridge (2013) and Jack Riccobono's The Seventh Fire (2015) or the Chloé Zhao duo of Songs My Brother Taught Me (2015) and The Rider (2017) will have an idea what to expect from Kim Bartley's Pure Grit. Filmed over three years on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, this Flahertyesque actuality unusually offers an insight into the grimmer realities of Shoshone life from a female perspective.
Twenty-seven year-old Sharmaine Weed has taken a year out from bareback horse racing because her sister, Charity, suffered a serious injury. However, she is ready to return and brothers Brandon and Kashe are more than happy to give her the benefit of their experience. In addition to caring for Charity (who is paralysed down her left side) and her young daughter, Kiara, Sharmaine is in a relationship with Savannah Martinez, whom she met on Facebook. Lesbians are few and far between at Wind River, but Savannah was having mother problems and readily moved in.
Kashe has had addiction and mental health problems, but he is now going to be a father with Amari Bercier. Sharmaine says the family has endured its share of pain and their mother has suffered the most. But Sharmaine has also been the victim of abuse, as she sombrely reveals, `from seven to eleven, it was molestation. From eleven to fourteen, it was rape.' As she dons ceremonial dress to perform a dance, she explains how she defied her mother to take her persecutor to court and the ordeal taught her that you have to prioritise yourself in life.
Determined to ride again, Sharmaine starts training. Despite being the first member of the family to get a high-school diploma, she found it hard to land a job and admits that a lot of kids succumb to temptation because they feel they have no prospects outside the reservation's casino. She has had run-ins with Kashe before now, but retains a clear sight of her goals and isn't prepared to make any concessions.
However, a confrontation with Kashe prompts Sharmaine to move in with Savannah's grandmother in Denver, Colorado. She gets a security job, but begins to feel the six-year gap because she finds Savannah's concerns frivolous and wants her to focus more so they can establish themselves. When the chance comes to buy a horse, however, Sharmaine jumps at it and she returns to Wind River to meet her handsome bay and ride her first race in two years. Brandon also returns to the track and the family comes out in force.
For the first time in her career, Sharmaine loses at a major fair event and she is frustrated that she has to start again to rebuild her reputation. She is also peeved with Savannah because she feels like an outsider and keeps seeking reassurance that she's still loved. In a way, therefore, she's relieved when Sharmaine takes a tumble and is advised to recover fully before riding again. However, things don't go well back in Denver and they drift apart after Sharmaine is lucky to escape jail for drunk driving.
Back on the reservation, Sharmaine finds readjusting difficult. She hunts with her brothers and is devastated when Kashe kills himself before seeing his son. But she bonds with Kiara again and helps Charity get back on a horse. Moreover, she prepares for the new racing season.
Ending on a note of optimism, after so much trauma and tragedy, this is a gruelling insight into life on the American margins. Noting the poverty and lack of opportunity that drives people to drink, drugs and depression, Bartley also alights upon the chauvinism that underpins reservation life and places so many women at risk from sexual abuse and physical violence. By refusing to over-emphasise the issues, however, she reveals the all-pervasiveness of the problems and the difficulty of escaping and resolving them.
She's greatly helped in this regard by Sharmaine's candour and pragmatism, as she approaches crises like Kashe's mood swings, her riding injuries and the realisation that she and Savannah are on different wavelengths with an emotional maturity and intelligence that is all the more remarkable given the nightmare she faced alone as a teenager. The odd encounter feels pre-discussed and the sequences with Savannah have a reality TV swish to them that is absent from the sections dealing with weightier matters.
Besides the towering drone shots that capture the remoteness of the mountainous milieux and the pace of daily life, Bartley keeps her camera as close as possible to the family and their countless cats and dogs without unduly intruding (hence the elliptical nature of the storytelling). She certainly succeds in putting the Weeds at their ease (even when recording their intimate voiceovers) and editor Paul Mullen creates something more akin to a textured quilt than a hard-hitting exposé. But there's nothing cosy or quaint about this family portrait.
THE CORDILLERA OF DREAMS.
Exiled Chilean auteur Patricio Guzmán completes the trilogy started by Nostalgia For the Light (2010) and The Pearl Button (2015) with The Cordillera of Dreams (2019). This is released after a three-year delay before the 81 year-old's latest documentary, My Imaginary Country, screens at 66th BFI London Film Festival.
Having reflected upon the telescopes peering into the night sky over the Atacama Desert and the sinuous 4000-mile Pacific coastline, Guzmán turns his attention to the Andes that provide his homeland's snow-capped spine. The personal/political associations may not be as inspired or insightful as in its predecessors. But this is still a thought-provoking exercise in historical geography that reveals the significance of the Cordillera de la Costa to Chile's past and the personality of its peoples.
Now resident in France, Guzmán struggles to recognise Chile each time he flies across the Andes. The country is so narrow that the mountains are visible from most points, although more people in Santiago see the subway murals painted by Guillermo Muños Vera, a friend who lives in Spain. By contrast, sculptor Francisco Gazitúa lives in the foothills and draws inspiration from the rocks, ravines, grasses and glaciers that take up 80% of Chile's land mass. He feels as though he lives inside a labyrinthine container that holds everything he could ever need.
Yet, as fellow sculptor Vincente Gajardo points out, the Cordillera is longer than it is high and represents a cultural, as well as a physical landmark, as it prompts people to explore and look beyond it. However, the peaks that protect also isolate and Gajardo believes that the national character has been forged by this dichotomy.
Volcanologist Alvaro Amigo notes that Santiago turns its back on the Cordillera, which he considers a evolutionary repository. Singer Javiera Parra compares it to a cosseting mother, who can be a touch over-protective. Writer Jorge Baradit reckons the mountains make Chile an island that has been left to determine its own traditions and attitudes.
As the Andes feature on matchboxes that have remained unchanged since Guzmán's youth, he decides to return to his old neighbourhood in Santiago. We a drone shot of the shell of his childhood home, which is now surrounded by blocks of flats. He visits another address, where he filmed The Battle of Chile (1975-79) and recalls the seismic impact of the coup led by General Augusto Pinochet that overthrew President Salvador Allende on 11 September 1973.
Jarra remembers how tense the grown-ups were and the shock she felt at the violence she witnessed and experienced. Gazitúa spent four years under house arrest, while Guzmán recalls being held in the same football stadium where he had seen Chile play Italy in the notorious `Battle of Santiago' during the 1962 World Cup. Pablo Salas was also making a documentary record of the coup and has continued to film protests in the capital. In his archive is footage of prisoners inside the football stadium, which essentially became a concentration camp.
The footage Salas captured of police brutality testifies to his courage, as Baradit laments the demonisation of the Left that resulted in a `mythological blindness' among ordinary people who let fascistic tyranny happen. He claims many of them are still under the spell that they were doing the right thing for their country and that such denial is bolstered by the crimes that weren't caught on camera. However, Guzmán calls the Cordillera a silent witness, whose rocks would speak of untold horrors. Some do, as they make up the cobbles in a street containing the names of the victims of the dictatorship.
Salas notes that the need for reconciliation in the three decades since Pinochet was arrested in London has resulted in many perpetrators getting away with their crimes. Some are still in positions of power, while others use instruments established under military rule.
Baradit and Salas highlight the Pincochet legacy of embedding institutions and selling off assets, such as the copper mines on which the Chilean economy relies. Guzmán visits the deserted building from which Pinochet ruled and compares it to a yard full of rusting cars. He curses the neo-liberal Chicago model that destroyed the economy and calcified its divisions. Guzmán is grateful to Salas for staying put and providing an unerasable archive to prove to future generations what happened in his country. And he admits to a feeling of isolation at having to make his 20-odd films on Chile from a distance.
Closing on a wish on the meteorites that have fallen on the Cordillera, Guzmán hopes that Chile can rediscover its youth and its joy. It's a poignant way to end a remarkably trilogy that has unearthed beauty in hideous shadows and one hopes it will be released as a set on disc so it can be seen in its entirety as a memorial to the 12,000 desaparecidos.
For all the majesty of cinematographer Samuel Lahu's imagery, however, the psychogeographical connections feel more tenuous, in spite of the poetic eloquence of
Guzmán and his fellow speakers. Maybe it's because, as Guzmán avers, the Andes were never revolutionary and have allowed themselves to be colonised. One spot with terraced roads doesn't even appear on maps because it's in foreign hands.
But, despite the solemn grace of Miranda y Tobar's orchestral score, Guzmán often seems to be straining for allusive effect, whether he's using a volcanic cloud to symbolise the coup, finding street grids in the cracked paintwork of abandoned cars, or comparing the `invisible trains' carrying copper from the Cordillera mines past unnamed villages full of invisible people because, `in Chile, what cannot be seen does not exist' - like the bodies buried in the Atacama and the abducted Africans, pueblos indigenas, and political prisoners lost at sea.
The political and economic structures left by dictatorship may still exist and benefit the few at the expense of the many. But Guzmán's contention that they are invisible because they are not discussed seems specious in the light of the demonstrations that Pablo Salas covers with the same fearless fidelity he brought to recording the anti-Pinochet protests. Let's hope that this new generation of activist citizens finds a way to coerce the Chilean élite into recognising the sins of the past and atoning for them.