- David Parkinson
Parky at the Pictures - In Cinemas (18/10/2019)
Updated: Nov 18, 2019
Reviews of Non-Fiction; Good Posture; Ladyworld; La Flor; Tell Me Who I Am; and Home
Following a couple of collaborations with Kristen Stewart on Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) and Personal Shopper (2016), Olivier Assayas turns his attention to the world of publishing in Non-Fiction. Centring on the chic Parisian chatterati, this could be mistaken for an archetypal French arthouse picture, with plenty of erudite philosophical musing and oodles of adulterous intrigue. But this upmarket soap is also a 16mm experiment in auto-cinema that explores sources of inspiration and the impact of digital media on the future of traditional forms of cultural expression and exchange,
Scruffy bearded novelist Léonard Spiegel (Vincent Macaigne) meets editor Alain Danielson (Guillaume Canet) at his Vertheuil Editions office and discuss the online reaction to a book that has made few attempts to conceal its contempt for the ruling élite. Léonard despairs that so few people actually read books and fears that their fear of writing will lead to a dumbing down backlash that will impoverish society. But Alain suggests that Twitter would have been popular under the Ancien Régime, as a means of sharing salon witticisms. They agree to disagree and, because, Alain is paying, Léonard eats well and expensively at lunch.
As they chat, Alain drops hints that Léonard's back catalogue has not been performing well and even describes one tome as a `worst-seller'. Léonard shrugs and takes comfort from the fact that they didn't have to chop down many trees to publish it. He avoids a discussion of his ailing first wife and confirms that consultant spouse Valérie (Nora Hamzawi) is still working for David (Nicolas Bouchaud), a radical left-wing politician who enjoys being in the media spotlight. However, Alain also skirts the issue of Léonard's latest manuscript and it's only when they return to the office that he mentions in passing that he has decided to reject it.
Alain gets home to find TV actress wife Selena (Juliette Binoche) cooking supper for a soirée with writer Maxime Caron (Laurent Poitrenaux), who appears content that his blog is more widely read than his books. He suggests that e-readers are the future, despite Selena insisting that she would rather buy a paperback. But Alain points out that his new digital transition specialist, Laure d'Angerville (Christa Théret), is convinced that such devices are the future because they are lightweight and can carry an entire library. Moreover, older readers (who make up the bulk of the book-buying population) like having the option to use larger text if they need it. He confesses that he is coming round to the idea of a literary world without print, with a publishing house being an online entity that hosts novels and blogs and saves money on design, packaging and distribution.
After the guests have gone, Alain tells Selena that he has dropped Léonard and she is disappointed, as she thinks he's a good writer. He complains that he keeps writing about his affairs and that this effort was particularly sordid. As they get ready for bed, Selena asks for some advice, as she has been asked to continue her role as a cop in a TV series. She admits to having become bored with the show, but acknowledges that people currently seem to like boxed sets more than movies. Alain doesn't seem particularly interested and seizes on the fact that their young son can't sleep to read him a bedtime story.
The next morning, Léonard tells Valérie about Alain's decision. She is far from sympathetic, however, as she has to meet with some strikers at a steel mill threatened with closure and organise David's support for a mayoral candidate. When Léonard grumbles that he had hoped for a more supportive response, she tells him to rework the text or find a new publisher before leaving in a hurry without a goodbye kiss. Across the city, Laure admits to Alain that she is aware that she is viewed with suspicion by the rest of the staff, as her proposals could cost them their jobs. Over drinks, she insists that texts and tweets are the new haiku and that Alain should publish a radical new work as a phone app to shake up the market.
Over lunch on the set of her show, Selena confides to a friend that her heart isn't in her work. She also avers that she thinks Alain is cheating on her, but isn't sure whether she's ready to toss away 20 years of marriage. What she doesn't reveal, however, is that she is having an affair with Léonard, who has just had an uncomfortable experience during a bookshop appearance when he is criticised for so blatantly modelling a character on his ex-wife that she has stated online that she felt raped by the text. As he doesn't use social media, Léonard has no knowledge of the heated debate taking place online and his attempts to defend the right to use his life for his art are scathingly challenged by a couple of uncomplimentary customers.
Alain and Laure attend a symposium on digital publishing at the library in Arles. Blaise (Antoine Reinartz) expresses his excitement at Google placing the world's biggest library at the disposal of the world and calls it a democratisation of culture. However, Alain sees it as a hijacking of our collective cultural memory to sell data to advertisers and Laure wishes he wouldn't be such a fuddy stick in the mud. Yet, while he fundamentally disagrees with Laure's views on repurposing libraries and pandering to millennials who always want something for nothing, Alain is very much attracted to her and sneaks into her hotel room.
As he dresses the next morning, he compares the situation of a publisher defending the ideas of deceased writers to the pastor in Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light (1963) continuing to hold services in an empty church. Laure accuses him of clinging to outdated concepts, but he insists that he is merely trying to stop reckless youth from making irreversible decisions that everyone will come to regret. He holds his line during a Q&A at the symposium, as the cost of books is broached, along with the rise of Expresso presses that enable volumes to be printed on demand.
Back in Paris, Selena spends the night with Léonard, who thanks her for boosting him with Alain. He is sure that he hasn't realised that the heroine is based on his wife because he told him she was modelled on a chat show host. Selena is less than flattered by the comparison and ticks him off for being a poseur by having a fellatio scene set at a screening of Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon (2009) when it really happened during JJ Abrams's Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). He admits that he based the scene in Seville on its Wikipedia entry and Selena suggests that they should go there. They kiss on the street outside a bar, but quickly look round to make sure no one has noticed them. Léonard wonders whether Alain turned down his book as an act of revenge for cuckolding him, but Selena is convinced he knows nothing about their fling.
That night, Valérie arrives late at a gathering and is appalled that nobody knows about the campaign she's working on, even though it's been on the news. But she's even more dismayed when they accuse David of being a cynical politician in backing strikers because it's good for his image. As Léonard receives a text from Selena containing a Star Wars poster, the conversation drifts on to online opinion and how people only tend to read articles that coincide with their beliefs. Valérie argues that the public is not so entrenched in its views and that committed socialists like David can make a difference. However, Carsten (Jean-Luc Vincent) declares that we are in a post-truth world and suggests that people have tired of politicians forever failing to keep their promises.
Returning to their apartment, Valérie curses their friends for siding with Carsten, who is a smug radio pundit who has had a bestseller with a book entitled The Swamp. She asks Léonard if he supports David and gets cross with him when he says he doesn't excite him and that he prefers theoretical chaos to practical order. Suddenly, Valérie asks her husband if he is cheating on her because she noticed the speed with which he deleted the Star Wars text and refused to explain why it made him smile. He assures her that he would never deceive her and she responds that she loves him precisely because they can never agree on anything.
Selena and Alain go to see Vertheuil boss Marc-Antoine Rouvel (Pascal Greggory), whose guests love her TV show (even though they call it Collision instead of Collusion). She explains that, even though she totes a gun on raids, she is less a cop than a `crisis management expert'. Marc-Antoine takes Alain for a walk in the garden and reveals that he has received an offer for the company from a telecom tycoon who made his money running online dating sites. He laments that the e-book market that was meant to make him a packet has dipped and that the few people who are reading prefer to use their phones to additional devices to carry around with them. Aghast that such an established publisher could abandon print altogether, Alain tries to argue that book sales are up. But Marc-Antoine is only interested in protecting the interests of his shareholders and is tempted to sell.
Alain breaks the news on the drive back to Paris and Selena teases him for putting all his eggs in the digital basket. He congratulates her on pitching Léonard's book to Marc-Antoine's girlfriend and she defends it, even when Alain points out that it objectifies the heroine. Treading cautiously, as she doesn't know if the affair has been rumbled, Selena feigns surprise when Alain claims that the character was based on a newsreader with whom Léonard had a brief liaison. Relieved that her secret appears to be safe, Selena insists that she had no problem with the White Ribbon or Seville bathhouse sequences.
Meanwhile, Laure's girlfriend, Amélia (Laetitia Spigarelli) informs her that she has found her texts from Alain. She defends her right to sleep with anyone she wants, but assures her that she won't be at Vertheuil for long, as she has been headhunted by a major continental digital outfit. When she next sleeps with Alain, she scolds him that he wastes too much time pandering to smug critics when nobody reads them any longer because they take their cues from the celebrities they follow online. He reminds her that most of the likes on social media pages are generated by paid hackers, but she counters that people are more discriminating than he thinks. The trick is to make an online article or blog post go viral by filling it with lots of keywords that will be picked up by search engine robots designed to guide browsers to their clients' sites. Alain finds it depressing that the world will be governed by algorithms, but Laure assures him that it already is.
Back at the office, Alain gives Laure a necklace as a leaving present. She asks how he knew and he tells her that he has already found her replacement. He also lets slip that he was an admirer of her writer father and she confesses that she joined the company to try to save literature not bury it. However, she reminds him of the line in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's The Leopard about things needing to change in order for them to stay the same. Alain ponders the line and marvels that it is more relevant now than it was when it was written in 1958.
Time passes and Léonard's novel is published. He signs a copy of Full Stop for Selena, who jokes that it sounds like the end of his career. They meet in a quiet bar and she calls a halt to their six-year relationship. He is stunned, but agrees not to use it in his next book. Still reeling, he does a radio interview, in which he is shredded by the presenter for setting a comic sex scene during a film about the rise of Nazism.
Valérie is teasing him about how badly he did when she gets a call from David asking her to meet. He reveals that he has been caught leaving a prostitute's camper van by the police and hopes that they won't go public with the charge. She is disappointed in him, as she had expected him to live up to his reputation. When Léonard admits to his affair with Selena, however, she is only surprised that he could seduce a famous actress, as she had known about the infidelity because he rather gives himself away by writing auto-fiction.
Some time later, Léonard and Valérie visit Alain and Selena at their beach house. Léonard lets slip that he has been there before, but Alain seems not to suspect. He serves barbecued fish and Valérie expresses her regret that Selena's Collusion character is going to be killed off. She says she doesn't act for people to veg out during boxed-set binges and Valérie counters that such show help people relax. Alain points out that adult colouring books sell for the same reason and Léonard despairs that such things even exist and shrugs when Alain suggests people need an alternative to his brand of feel-bad fiction.
Over coffee, Alain tells Léonard that Full Stop is being released as an e-book. He tells him this is good news, as authors like romance novelist Nora Roberts sell like hot cakes at bargain prices. Léonard asks if there will be an audio book and suggests Juliette Binoche as the star reader. Selena says she knows her and agrees to mention it to her agent. While sitting at the water's edge, Alain informs Léonard that Marc-Antoine is not selling because the telecom tycoon was merely using him to flush out an Italian target. He asks how his new novel is coming, but Léonard proves coy.
Stopping their scooter in the trees on the way home, Léonard thanks Valérie for not giving away the fact that he is writing about his affair with Selena. She suspects she will be furious (as we saw Selena tell Léonard she will destroy him if he bases another character on her), but Léonard shrugs that auto-fiction is all he knows. Valérie shakes her head at him and breaks the news she's three months pregnant. He's taken aback because they had tried IVF treatment without success. But she assures him he's the father and he admits to being pleased.
With its original titles, Double Vies, it would be easy to label this as a very French film. Yet it says much more about the creeping effects of globalisation as it does about specifically Gallic mores, as seemingly everyone these days uses social media and relies on their phones for information and entertainment. While they can't stop themselves from pontificating about culture, commerce and politics, the bourgeoisie assembled in this satirical lament exhibit their famously discreet charm when it comes to more personal matters. Everyone seems to suspect that their spouse is cheating on them, but they avoid confronting them on the matter in case their own infidelity is exposed.
Given that Léonard and Valérie have been trying for a child for some time and she refuses to believe in miracles (especially as their sex life has been all-but dormant), it's tempting to suggest that David may well be the father of her child. Yet Valérie comes across as the only principled person in the picture and it would be a shame if her integrity should merely be a badge of convenience.
Comedian and columnist Nora Hamzawi is perhaps the standout performer in an esteemed ensemble, as she conveys a sense of quotidian reality that is absent from the gadabouting of Juliette Binoche's jobbing actress, the auto-narcissism of Vincent Macaigne's slobbish novelist, the inscrutable passivity of Guillaume Canet's complacent publisher, and the Machiavellian machinations of millennial tekkie Christa Théret. But all and sundry handle the bon mots and remarques surnoises sprinkling Assayas's Rohmeresque dialogue with aplomb, even though they provide more of a summation to the ongoing digital debate than adding anything new to it.
With production designer François-Renaud Labarthe reinforcing the aura of authenticity with his cosily cluttered apartments, swish offices and crowded cafés, Yorick Le Saux is able to keep his camera on the characters and catch the barely perceptible slips of their masks. But for all the visual finesse and thematic intelligence, it's the skill with which Assayas switches between cultural and domestic comedy and moderates the subsequently shifting tones that makes this so patently the work of a master film-maker.
As the daughters of famous fathers, Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer have been friends since childhood. Despite his many achievements as a screenwriter and novelist, John Mortimer was best known for the comic tomes that spawned the ITV series, Rumpole of the Bailey (1978-92), while actor-cum-satirist John Wells hit peak form writing the `Dear Bill' letters for Private Eye with Richard Ingrams before playing Denis Thatcher opposite Angela Thorne in Anyone for Denis? (1981).
Oxford connections abound, with John Mortimer having been educated at the Dragon School and Brasenose College, while Emily studied English and Russian at Lincoln and John Wells began performing in cabaret while at St Edmund Hall. Having flat shared in London in their twenties, Dolly and Emily kept in touch while their acting careers developed.. But a meeting at the Sundance Film Festival sparked the idea for the sitcom, Doll & Em (2014-16), in which Mortimer plays a famous actress who hires best friend Wells as her assistant. Now, the pair have hooked up again on Wells's directorial debut, Good Posture.
Having just broken up with her boyfriend, Nate (Gary Richardson), over a refusal to grow up that is epitomised by her inability to sort out the recycling, directionless film school graduate Lilian (Grace Van Patten) moves into the Brooklyn brownstone where reclusive British novelist Julia Price (Emily Mortimer) lives with her musician husband, Don (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). During an uncomfortable supper encounter, Julia makes it clear she has no interest in Lilian and rather resents putting her up as a favour to her widowed father, Neil (Norbert Leo Butz), who is living in Paris with his new girlfriend, Celeste (Emmanuelle Martin).
Don is more welcoming, however, and, having shared a joint with Lilian in her bedroom, he shows her the shed he built to play his music. No sooner has he strummed the first chord on his guitar, however, than Julia calls on his mobile to order him back into the house to dance attendance. He leaves after a midnight argument and Lilian finds herself having to cook Julia's meals and water her plants after she starts leaving sniping notes in her journal complaining about her habit of using the robes and toothbrushes she finds in the shared bathroom. Nettled by being dubbed `the entitled oaf'. Lilian starts referring to Julia as Miss Haversham and jokes about having great expectations for their relationship.
She also gets to meet George (Timm Sharp), who lives in the basement, walks Buddy the dog and disapproves of Lilian's inexpert attempts at housekeeping. Moreover, Lilian discovers that Nate has started dating Laura (Condola Rashad) and, in a bid to impress her, she fibs that she is making a documentary about Julia with her full co-operation. Realising she has backed herself into a corner, she pens a note asking Julia if she would mind being profiled. But she scrunches it up, as she knows she'll refuse and, without bothering to read any of Julia's books, starts shooting clandestinely with the help of Simon (John Early), a local cameraman who keeps changing his name in a bid to sound cool and who introduces himself to Nate as Lilian's new lover.
Renting a small dance studio nearby, Lilian and Simon (who is currently going by Sol) interview Neil's friends, Zadie Smith and Jonathan Ames, who recalls seeing a wistful look that Julia had once given the young Lilian and her mother at a literary party. He also lets slip that Neil is in New York and that Celeste is pregnant, but Lilian is preoccupied by the notes she had found in Julia's room, in which she mulls over her potential as a human being and as the model for a character. Touched by references to her intelligence and creativity, Lilian hunkers down on Julia's bed to read further and is woken some time later by a phone call from her father and she tiptoes out of the room, with Julia pretending to be asleep in the bed next to her.
During her interview, Zadie Smith mentions Julia having lost a baby after settling in New York and the interest in a young mother and her daughter that inspired her novel, Good Posture. Lilian tells George that her mother left home when she was a child and died before they could get to know each other again. He confides that he saw his grandmother being kicked to death by a horse and Lilian teases him about his anecdote being a pathetic pity pitch. Nevertheless, he brings it up while chatting to fellow dog walker Pauline (Mary Holland), while they're strolling around the autumnal park, and she is touched, but taken aback by the oddness of the tale.
Julia leaves Lilian a signed copy of Good Posture and she is pleased to see herself described as `lovable' in the dedication. But George warns her that she is playing with fire by making a documentary behind Julia's back and reminds her that she will have nowhere else to go if she is evicted. His words hit home almost immediately, when Lilian comes across Sol wittering to Julia about the film and how they feel they have blindfolded her and led her back into the real world after years of solitude. Feeling sorry for herself, Lilian steals a Chinese takeaway from a neighbour's steps and tries to flirt with George, who is anything but receptive.
Novelist Martin Amis tells the camera that happiness rarely inspires great art and opines that Leo Tolstoy is alone in being able to write about contentment with any sort of conviction. Lilian is certainly far from happy, as Julia stops writing her notes and makes no attempt to address Sol's revelation. But, having hit a low during lunch with Neil and Celeste, when they make it clear they don't want to share an apartment with her, Lilian begins taking steps towards a new start. Having found a snapshot of her younger self with her mother in the pages of the book, she sits out in Don's shed and picks out a song on his ukulele, with Julia keeping an eye on her from her window. Lilian also gets a job in a coffee shop and is pleased to hear that George and Pauline have set up their own dog-walking business.
While watering the plants, Lilian reassures them that her moving out will be mutually beneficial. But she gets a surprise when Julia invites her in when she brings up her last supper and they sing her song together sitting on the sofa. The next morning, Julia meets up with Don to walk Buddy. Julia packs her bag and, having learned a few lessons, she shuffles along the leaf-strewn street to whatever awaits her next.
Wittily scripted and directed with measured assurance, this represents a solid start behind the camera for Dolly Wells. Echoes of Lynn Shelton, Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig can be heard in a scenario that also owes its debts to Woody Allen's brand of relaxed highbrow-inflected storytelling. But, while Wells isn't necessarily able to impose her personality on the material, the presence of Emily Mortimer reinforces the connection with the kind of themes and tones the pair established in Doll & Em.
Deftly designed by Charlotte Abbott to suggest the sense of partitioned insularity that characterises Lilian and Julia's relationship, the action is unobtrusively photographed by Ryan Eddleston, who captures the gentrified air of the Bedford-Stuyvesant district that has changed a lot since Spike Lee filmed Do the Right Thing (1989). He also gets to film the docu sequences in grainy boxes that make Smith, Ames and Amis appear to inhabit a different world from the one that Lilian is trying to make sense of (albeit on her own unreasonable terms). It says much for Grace Van Patten's performance that she makes the brattish twentysomething even vaguely empathetic, although we gradually get to warm to her through the scribbled banter with her waspish hostess. The supporting turns are also astute, with Timm Sharp's moustachioed and socially gauche George and John Early's gushingly camp luvvie being particularly amusing.
Ultimately, it's all a bit flimsy and devoid of any sort of socio-cultural context. Even the insights into the creative process are a bit wan, while there's something a tad smug and shoehorned about the literary cameos, despite editor Adelina Bichis neatly slotting them into the action as chorus inserts. Yet, there's no doubting that Wells has a good eye and ear, as well as a knowingly light touch when it comes to directing actors. It will be interesting to see how far she strays from this kind of familiar territory in her next outing.
A disaster is the least of the problems facing the entombed birthday party guests in stage veteran Amanda Kramer's feature bow, Ladyworld. Co-scripting with Benjamin Shearn, Kramer makes a virtue of her theatrical background by confining the action of what has might have been called `Lady of the Flies' to a single stylised setting. But, while this may not be particularly cinematic, Kramer uses the camera to focus on the bold performances of her estimable ensemble.
As rumbling, creaking and crashing sounds rush in on each other over a black screen, we are introduced to Olivia (Ariela Barer) and Dolly (Ryan Simpkins), who have been attending an unsupervised birthday party when what appears to be an earthquake cuts them off from what's left of the rest of civilisation. Clinging to an antique doll, Dolly wonders about calling their parents and whether they would even be able to rescue them. But the twosome quickly becomes an octet, as hostess Eden (Atheena Frizzell) is joined by Piper (Annalise Basso), Blake (Odessa Adlon), Romy (Maya Hawke), Amanda (Tatsumi Romano) and Mallory (Zora Casabere).
Refusing to accept that they are trapped underground and would be better off conserving energy and waiting for help, Piper suggests they go looking for a way out. All they find, however, is a cat with a loud purr that exacerbates Piper's sense of panic until it runs away. When Romy somehow hurts her ankle in the kitchen, the girls gather around a long table (framed to resemble Leonardo Da Vinci's `The Last Supper') and Dolly suggests that nobody is allowed to talk unless they are holding a piece of crystal from the shattered chandelier. As Eden refuses to take charge, Piper proposes herself for leader. But Dolly opines that Olivia would be a better choice and she is voted into a shaky ascendancy by a narrow margin.
Unable to make phone contact with the outside world, the teenagers are made to feel more uncomfortable by Eden's revelation that she saw a strange man in the house during the quake. They try to restore the electricity, but have to rely on the conveniently large number of torches they manage to find around the house. A number of candles are also unearthed, including those on the top of Eden's cake, which is divided among everyone after Piper blows out the tiny flames. She causes a commotion when she steals Dolly's doll and bites its face before kissing Dolly full on the lips to calm her down. But the fun the others are having by performing a floaty kind of dance is quickly curtailed when Olivia realises that Eden is missing.
Olivia takes Piper to one side to stop her from trying to scare everyone by claiming that a male predator is biding his time to attack them. But she refuses to be silenced and, having warned them about the malevolence of the cat that had scratched her, she peels off her top to remind the others that they are no longer little girls, but women. They try to sleep, but Blake becomes fixated on a painting depicting a woman whose back is covered with maggots and pus. She explains its meaning to Olivia, who is happy to dismiss it as ugly art and glad to have someone who appears to be on her side.
After a night huddled together, Romy has an imaginary conversation with her mother about why she has been out all night before rubbing flower petals on her body in lieu of washing. Close by, Olivia and Piper have a barely civil discussion about pretty girls wanting to be smart and smart girls wanting to be pretty. Olivia dislikes the fact females always need male approval and suggests that they have been trapped in the pretty/smart rivalry to keep them subservient. But Piper points out that she has missed out mean girls, who can thrive whether they are smart or pretty.
While Olivia and Blake scour the kitchen for food, Romy pretends to call school to explain why she won't be coming in today before using the washing machine as a toilet. Amanda and Mallory tease Dolly before joining Piper in her dressing-up-means-growing-up game in the bedroom. They also put on lots of make-up and mock the other three when they hear a helicopter passing overhead and make fruitless efforts to get themselves noticed. When Dolly begins to whine, Piper pulls the hair of her doll and Olivia forces her to apologise and orders her to accept the fact that she is not in charge. In a bid to reinforce her control over Amanda, Mallory and Romy, however, Piper smears their underarms with deodorants and brands whoever it was who used the toilet (it was her) a stinky pig.
When Olivia discovers how dirty her feet are, she has to fight back tears. She tries to convene a meeting, but Piper (who has been taunting the cat) gets her cohorts to chant a song about `the ladies of the canyons' to drown out Olivia's efforts to establish some order. She refuses to believe there is a man in the house, but Romy asks her to explain what has happened to Eden. If she has escaped, she would have brought help and, as they haven't been rescued, this can only mean that she has been killed by the intruder.
As Olivia and Blake bite into a lipstick for sustenance, Romy sends a text to someone (perhaps a sister or a boyfriend) apologising for her bad behaviour towards them. She had wanted to spit in their face, but now she just wishes she could see them again. Mooching around, she opens the door to the cellar and screams out that she has seen the man. Piper and her cronies decide to lure him out of his hiding place by cavorting around in their underwear so that his lust will betray him. Dolly is drawn over by their antics, but they snap out of their frenzy when Piper opens the door and screams because she has seen Eden's body.
Jumping to the conclusion that the stranger must have killed her, Piper issues everyone with a knife from the cutlery drawer. She makes Amanda, Romy and Mallory practice overpowering and stabbing their foe and, when the lights suddenly come back on, they set upon Blake when she strays into their room and make her nose bleed by slamming her into the wall. When she turns round in astonishment, Piper bundles her through the cellar door and Olivia is powerless to stop her. On seeing what they have done, Dolly yells at the other girls that she hates them all.
Olivia tries to calm her down, as they sit at the big table and wonder what to do next. Piper punishes Mallory by making her stand on her head for mentioning Blake's name. She continues to bang on the door and make pathetic cries, but Piper is more intent on defending the bedroom from Olivia and Dolly and she sends the others on a scavenger mission for clothing before barricading themselves inside with the intention of making themselves so terrifying that the interloper would be more scared of them than they are of him.
They also steal the doll and Dolly's withdrawal tantrum prompts Olivia to attempt a powwow. She persuades Dolly to let her clean her face so that they look presentable. But Piper and her painted acolytes are unimpressed and Mallory and Amanda pin Olivia down while she produces the doll from under the bed. Slowly, she starts to undress it and Amanda and Mallory begin stripping the hysterical Dolly. But Olivia grabs her and pulls her out of the room and locks herself in a cupboard while she tries to work out what to do.
She apologises to Dolly for being unable to save her, as she struggles to regain her composure. After a while, she starts investigating her cramped surroundings and begins looking in a bag. Opening the door, she finds Romy leaning against the wall. Sneeringly, she tells Olivia that she has been a bad leader and demands to know why she didn't listen to her when she first suggested that everyone should remain equals and fend for themselves.
The moment that Olivia reveals she might have found a way out, however, Romy appears to change her tune. But she doesn't follow Olivia into the cellar, where she begins trying to remove the cover of an air vent. As she toils, Piper and the other girls creep up behind her with otherworldly stealth. They pin her against the wall and Piper presses her face against Olivia's as she struggles to get free. Suddenly, a side wall collapses and bright light floods into the room. Olivia peers upwards, as Piper sinks to the floor and Romy, Amanda and Mallory stand away from her and contemplate what they have done and the consequences they will face if they are about to be delivered from their ordeal.
It's impossible to imagine this determinedly different and unapologetically arch picture being anything but divisive, if not positively polarising. On the purely technical side, the poor quality of the sound seriously lets the side down, as it's often difficult to discern what the performers are saying, which is a pretty major drawback for a piece so dependent upon the audience appreciating the reasons for the breakdown in order and the taking of sides. These decisions might have made more sense if we had known more about their pre-party dynamic, as the girls don't seem to know each other very well. But, just as we have to accept Eden's unexplained disappearance, so we have to go along with the unlikelihood of her having invited so many dislikable classmates, if, indeed, that's what they all are.
Taken in conjunction with the narrative's slack grasp of passing time and the haphazard pacing, this slenderness of characterisation is endlessly irksome, with Mallory and Amanda (who happen to be played by the only non-white actresses) being nothing more than pawns in Piper's power struggle. Moreover, take away Romy's imagined messages and Blake's passing obsession with the painting inspired by Greek mythology and they would also join the ranks of the cardboard cutouts.
Yet the performances are uniformly committed, even though the focus primarily falls on daddy's girl Ariela Barer, curly-blonde innocent Ryan Simpkins and the self-servingly vicious Annalise Basso. That said, their motives are rarely apparent, despite Kramer having revealed that this is less a study in survivalism and supremacy, as was the case with William Golding's novel, than an exploration of the pressures and prejudices that come with adolescence and the realisation that all young girls eventually have to face that their bodies are going to make them objects of `desire, lust and potential assault'.
This is a potent theme and Kramer deserves considerable credit for tackling it in such an unflinchingly individual manner. She is ably abetted by production designer Noel David Taylor and cinematographer Patrick Meade Jones, who draws inspired contrasts between the cramped nature of the setting and the width of the frame. Several tableaux squeeze the seven survivors into the image in order to draw attention to the space in which they are confined. But the blocking in some of the compositions clumsily draws attention to itself, such as the half-face close-up of Piper sitting on the loo.
The girlish banshee chants, gasps and howls on the soundtrack also feel like a miscalculation, especially as the ambient aura is so slipshod. But the contributions of supervising make-up and hair artists Carson Stern and Tania Becker are considerably more impressive. What's so dispiriting, however, is that this audaciously innovative, if not entirely successful picture will almost certainly be seen by such a tiny audience across the UK that the provocations in its form and content will almost go unnoticed.
We'd be here from now to Christmas if we tried to give Argentinian Mariano Llinás's 809-minute epic, La Flor, the usual Parky at the Pictures treatment. So, we shall have to content ourselves with a brief rundown and a bit of context and analysis in the hope of tempting you to spend 14 hours at the Ultimate Picture Palace, over four shifts on 23 and 30 October and 6 and 30 November. Apologies to those who started their journey on 12 October that we were not there to accompany you (blame the London Film Festival). But newcomers could still fetch up at the UPP on 19 and 26 October and 2 November and not be entirely disadvantaged at missing the first instalment. You can always go back on 23 and pick it up as you go along. It's that kind of film.
Indeed, in his opening spiel to camera, Llinás is at pains to point out that this entire viewing experience is designed to test the audience's patience and endurance. But even those who make it through to the end will have only spent a fragment of the nine years that Llinás and his cast devoted to the making of this unique picture. `I'll try to explain what this movie is about,' he says standing in front of some empty billboard frames on an busy rural road. He even attempts to sketch out the layout for us in a notebook and produces a drawing that vaguely resembles a flower (the Spanish word for which, of course, provides his title).
You'll be none the wiser, however, as four of the six stories come without endings, while one starts in the middle. Only one is a linear completist's dream and you have to wait until Episode Five to see how it plays out. It was based `on an old French film', but the other vignettes flit between themes, styles and genres. No wonder Llinás looks increasingly dishevelled during each of his subsequent appearances. By contrast, his quartet of leading ladies, who play different characters in each sequence, seem to relish the challenge presented by what are quite clearly the roles of a lifetime. After all, they were written specifically for them after Llinás saw Elisa Carricajo, Valeria Correa, Pilar Gamboa and Laura Paredes performing together as a troupe called Piel de Lava in a play entitled Neblina.
Right, let's get started. Episode One follows the consequences of archaeologist Dr Lucía Conti (Paredes) receiving a crate containing a recently unearthed mummy from her disreputable colleague, Giardina (Germán de Silva). When assistant Yanina (Correa) begins to examine the cadaver, she is taken aback by the fact that it has fake eyes and becomes possessed by the female mummy's malevolent spirit. A cat also comes under its fluence and, following a brutal incident in which Yanina exacts revenge on a man who tries to attack her, Giardina urges Lucía and her assistant Marcela (Carricajo) to summon an exorcist named La X (Gamboa). She drives out the evil, but we are left to ponder the revelation that the mummy is one of three queens, as this is where the narrative abruptly stops.
If the opener had the feel of an old Hollywood exploitation cheapie, Episode Two takes playful potshots at the musical. Longtime romantic and singing partners in the duo Siempreverde, Victoria (Gamboa) and Ricky (Héctor Díaz) have reached the end of the road and want to go their separate ways. After all, they have been together so long that nobody can remember how they met and we get three different versions of their origin story and the songs it has inspired. However, their manager, Frank (Alberto Súarez) is determined to hold Ricky and Victoria to a contractual obligation to record a final album. The ambitious Andrea (Correa) spots a chance and volunteers to duet with Ricky, as Victoria is distracted by the fact that her close friend, Flavia (Paredes), has become involved with a cult led by Isabella (Carricajo) that places unshakeable faith in the rejuvenating powers of scorpion venom. When Isabella abducts Flavia, Victoria leaves her to her fate and, refusing to allow Andrea to supplant her, she agrees to make the record with Ricky.
We shift into espionage mode for Episode Three (which is the longest, at 342 minutes), which is set in the 1980s and centres on a mission to free a captured rocket scientist that spy master Casterman (Marcelo Pozzi) is controlling. He gathers five crack agents for his team: 301 (Paredes), a onetime NATO assassin who is bashful about her romance with a fellow agent, whom she tells everyone is her husband; La Niña (Correa), a revolutionary troubleshooter who sold her soul to the CIA; Agent 50 (Carricajo), a once high-ranking KGB spy, who famously unearthed the mole who was betraying Soviet secrets; Barbara (Debora Zanolli), a knife-thrower with an unerring aim; and Theresa (Gamboa), a mute Englishwoman whose faith in Communism has been shaken.
No sooner has the unit embarked on its search for Dreyfus, Agent 50 eliminates Barbara because she suspects she is working for someone else. Theresa is also driven to kill when they are tailed by two strangers. What they don't know, however, is that Casterman doesn't trust any of them and has sent a second team to dispose of them. However, Fox the helicopter pilot (Agustina Muñoz) is unconvinced by the validity of her orders and she swaps side before the dawn raid can be launched.
Naturally, us Brits would love to see more of the cigar-smoking Margaret Thatcher (Susana Pampín) and her extravagantly moustachioed inner circle But, surely everyone else would want to know how the showdown turns out? Yet the denouement is of no interest to Llinás, who whisks us off to Episode Four. This should actually teach him to be careful what he wishes four, as it turns on an egomaniacal director (Walther Jakob), who has spent years working on a film entitled, The Spider. He has had such problems with his four stars (naturally played by Gamboa, Paredes, Carricajo and Correa) that he becomes convinced that they are witches. Of course, he's right and, when he tries to replace the producer with somebody more sympathetic to his cause (Andrea Garrote), he mysteriously disappears after his car is found up a tree.
It turns out that the entire ensemble forms a coven (one of whom even has a broomstick) and they proceed to bump off the interloper producer and bring in Gatto (Pablo Seijo) to complete the shoot. The Italian is a parapsychologist (even though he appears to be confined to an asylum) and he is curious to know what has happened to his predecessor. On reading through his notes, he becomes convinced that the four stars of the movie are the witches to refused to fall under the spell of Giacomo Casanova. Shortly after making his deduction, however, Gatto is knocked down and killed by a sinister black car.
Although this seems as though this storyline has a beginning, middle and an end, don't be fooled. The monochrome and largely silent Episode Five is the sole whole and it was based on Jean Renoir's unfinished 1936 vignette, Une Partie de Campagne (can you see what Llinás is up to yet?). This is such a peculiar digression that our four usual suspects fade from view, as a mother (Gaby Ferraro) and daughter (Milva Leonardi) are preyed upon during a day out in the country by a pair of bikers playing at being gauchos (Esteban Lamothe and Santiago Gobernori). A divorced father (Mathías Feldman), who is visiting an air show with his son (Ramón Marquestó), makes a beeline for the women. But he manages to get lost in the woods.
Such is the gleeful self-reflexivity of the exercise that one wouldn't be surprised if he fetched up in Episode Six, even though it takes place in the 19th century and centres on Sarah S. Evans (Carricajo), who has managed to escape from the hostile tribe that has been holding her captive. As she makes her way back to civilisation across implacable terrain, she is joined by a Creole woman (Gamboa) and a Mestizo girl (Correa) and her mother (Paredes). At one point, they bathe together in a mountain stream, as captions over the often indistinct, almost pointillist images suggest that we are looking at the first found footage.
Two of the women are pregnant (Paredes and Correa) and a caption suggests that one man has sired both children. Such instances at throwaway chauvinism do little for its #MeToo credentials. But, rather than becoming engrossed in the fate of the fabulous foursome, you need to turn your attention to the 40-minute credit crawl (which has to be the longest in screen history), during which the text moves at varying speeds over an inverted image of a sunset over the pampas, as the director and his cast and crew bid each other a fond (and, perhaps, not entirely unrelieved) farewell. This could is a reference to the views created by early optical devices like the camera obscura or the fact that the world has been turned upside down during the decade that Llinás and his cohorts have spent on this labour of love. But, as the picture eventually rights itself, this could be one last gag at the expense of those respectful arthouse aficionados who insist on remaining in their seats until the crawl has ended. Maybe the DVD will come complete with an insert blooper reel to deter the quick getaway merchants.
There's just a suspicion that Llinás has run out of inspiration by this juncture. His final joking interjection suggests that the project has taken its toll on him, but there's a meandering quality about the closing pair of plotlines and the interminable credits that suggests he is stringing us along. The absence of his stellar quarter from the fifth episode (tellingly, the only one supposedly relating a complete story) certainly saps the audience's morale, as the sheer brilliance of Pilar Gamboa, Oaura Paredes, Elisa Carricajo and Valeria Correa - who, literally, age before our eyes in a kind of twisted timelapse experiment that makes Richard Linklater's Boyhood (2014) look like kids' stuff - helps keep us going during some of the lengthier longueurs and more baffling aggregations of references and symbols.
Such digressionary gambits are not unusual in literature, as demonstrated by Jan Polocki's The Saragossa Manuscript, which was filmed with such innovative vim by Wojciech Has in 1965. But Llinás appears less influenced by the page than by the screen, as he lurches at leisure between episodes as though flicking between them with the world's slowest channel changer. At times it feels like we have stumbled into a webcast series or the fragmented remnants of a demented boxed set. Yet, the laugh is on us and the way in which we consume popular culture in a supposedly attention deficient age of endless choice and instant gratification that has seen binge watching become a thing. Llinás is mocking the way we plonk ourselves down in front of whatever's on the box and either pick up the gist as we go along or switch over to something more stimulating.
In addition to his wonderful leads, he has plenty of other willing conspirators. Production designers Laura and Flora Caliguri particularly need to take a bow, especially as the latter also collaborated with Carolina Sosa Loyola on the costumes. Cinematographers Agustín Mendilaharzu, Yarará Rodríguez and Sebastián Cardona also merit mention, alongside editors Alejo Moguillansky and Agustin Rolandelli, sound designer Rodrigo Sánchez Mariño and composer Gabriel Chwojnik. And credit also to the indie collective, El Pampero Cine, which backed the project.
Citing Jean-Luc Godard's Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1989) as an inspiration, Llinás is no stranger to long films, as he proved with the 245-minute, 18-chapter Historias Extraordinarias (2008). One can only wonder if he's working his way towards an all-day sucker with his next outing. Perhaps he could do an anthology film with Miguel Gomes, Peter Greenaway, Lav Diaz and Béla Tarr? Whatever the case, La Flor stands as an undisputed and defiant masterpiece by a knowledgeable, audacious and stylistically questing cineaste. It demands to be seen. By the way, has anyone thought about showing it in a double bill with Jacques Rivette's Out 1: Noli Me Tangere (1971), which runs for a mere 773 minutes?
TELL ME WHO I AM.
Having won the Grierson Award for Best Newcomer with Garnet's Gold (which was shown on the BBC's Storyville strand as The Lost Gold of the Highlands, 2014) and having been named one of BAFTA's Breakthrough Brits, Ed Perkins received an Oscar nomination for his live-action short, Black Sheep (2018). He makes his bow on Netflix this week with Tell Me Who I Am, a documentary inspired by the acclaimed memoir written by twins Alex and Marcus Lewis, which traced their remarkable journey over the previous 35 years.
In 1982, 18 year-old Alex Lewis hit the road so hard with his head during a motorbike accident that he emerged from a coma with no knowledge of anything other than the fact that he had a twin brother named Marcus. He returned to the large half-timbered house called Duke's Cottage in Sussex that he shared with his parents, but has no idea who the stiffly distant man and the deeply distressed woman were. Alex's father made no effort to visit him in hospital, while his mother was in denial about the fact that she had become a complete stranger. But Alex knew he could trust Marcus and accepted everything he told him during the slow process of restarting his life with a blank slate.
As he mastered skills like bicycle riding, Alex began asking questions about the family dynamics. He realised that his mother was a larger-than-life character in every sense and developed a fondness for the numerous Chihuahua that he had called `rats on legs' before the crash. Marcus also filled him in about childhood holidays to France and Alex constructed recollections around what he was told and assumptions of normality gleaned from the television.
Navigating around the house proved trickier, however, as there were areas to which the boys were denied access. Indeed, the pair essentially lived in the shed, but didn't mind too much, as it kept them away from their father, who had a ferocious temper. Like his wife, he came from an aristocratic background and the house was often filled with lords and ladies partying into the night. But this became `normal' to Alex, as he had nothing to compare it to. Consequently, as he started to reconnect with old friends, he began obsessively taking photographs, in case he would also start to lose his short-term memory.
As they decided to limit the extent to which people knew about Alex's condition, Marcus used to give him thumbnail sketches about the people he was going to meet so that he could keep up a pretence of having remembered them. Even his girlfriend had been erased and he jokes that he managed to lose his virginity to the same person twice. But even Marcus could withhold things and Alex was struck by his refusal to grant his father's dying wish to be forgiven for everything he had done. He was equally puzzled when Marcus showed no emotion when their mother succumbed to a brain tumour five years later. Such was their bond, however, that he didn't feel the need to rationalise their differing feelings.
When the brothers started to clear out Duke's Cottage, however, questions began to come thick and fast, as they found in the attic piles of unopened birthday and Christmas presents from friends and relations that their mother had never passed on to them. They also discovered jam jars full of £50 notes, cupboards full of sex toys and a secret compartment in a wardrobe that contained a photograph of the naked twins at around 10 years old. Their heads had been cut off the print and Alex was dumbfounded, as he had no notion that anything untoward had been going on.
Act Two starts to make things clearer, as Marcus becomes the principle narrator and he explains that he had taken a conscious decision to withhold the truth about their boyhood from Alex after his accident so that he didn't have to re-process the trauma he had been fortunate enough to forget. Opting to omit rather than elucidate, he found he was able to control the drip of information that his sibling would accept without any deeper curiosity. This tactic worked until Marcus was 32, when the inquiries became more complex and Alex (who couldn't always remember what he had imparted) felt forced to start fabricating in order to keep his twin's world sweet.
The secret that Marcus had kept to himself was that their mother (and not their father, who appears, somehow, to have been oblivious to what was going on) has abused them until they were 12. Fighting back tears, he insists that he did the right thing in protecting his vulnerable brother from memories that would only damage him. He avers that he hopes that Marcus would have given him the same gift of blissful ignorance and makes no apology for the decision, seemingly in the face of opposition from others, to play God. After all, it suited him to embrace voluntary amnesia, as it was better to co-habit Marcus's world than his own.
Unfortunately, the discovery of the decapitated photograph changed everything, as Marcus asked if they had been sexually abused and Alex had to nod in the affirmative before walking into the garden. They had cried together, as Marcus tried to make sense of the revelation. But, much as he was shocked that `mummy' could have been a paedophile, he was even more appalled by the fact that his twin had betrayed him by covering up for her. Marcus also felt cheated, however, as he had spent so long creating a cocoon for them both that he was devastated by having to re-confront his own pain and attempt to deal with the resentment that Alex was now feeling after he had been through so much to shelter him.
As Marcus refused to divulge details, Alex felt abandoned and uncertain about how much to believe of what he had been told. He was, essentially, being forced to start again a full 14 years after losing everything and, in the face of the deafening silence, he decided to do some delving of his own. While rummaging around the house, he found passionate letters from his mother's many lovers, several of whom held significant positions in society. But nothing shed any light on what he and his brother had endured.
The discoveries brought on suicidal thoughts that he only learned to suppress after meeting the wife who would help him find a new path. Marcus also married and each twin has two children of their own. They also forged a successful business partnership and collaborated on a 2013 book entitled Tell Me Who I Am, with ghost writer Joanna Hodgkin. Yet Alex could never persuade Marcus to open the Pandora's Box he had slammed shut in the mid-1990s, even though he had come to the conclusion that he had handled things badly and wishes he had been honest from the outset so that they could deal with the ramifications together.
To this point, the twins have spoken separately. But Act Three brings them together, as they sit opposite each other at a table under a bright studio arc lamp. Alex asks why Marcus has deprived him of the right to know the truth and he explains that he had been protecting them both (although, primarily, himself) by remaining tight lipped. While he can't break the silence face to face, however, he has recorded a message that he is willing for Alex to see to that he can shatter the lie and get on with the rest of his life with their full bond restored.
In an unnecessarily theatrical gesture, Marcus waits in the wings, while Alex views the footage using headphones. But what follows must have taken enormous courage, as Marcus finally felt the need to go public with information he has kept private for almost half a century. There's no need to state the contents of the speech, much of which Alex had already guessed in advance. When Marcus rejoins him, he recalls how it has all ended after he had made his own way home from the London home of the `famous' artist he had resisted when he was 14. Their mother never imposed upon either of them again and the film ends with the brothers hugging over the table. Curiously, no mention is ever made of their mother or father's first names.
There are those who have an in-built resistance to confessional documentaries, as the viewer is always required to become a prying voyeur hanging on the protagonist's every word in order to discover how they might have suffered in the past. Maybe such squeamishness derives from a disquiet over the `right to know' culture spawned by the cynical tabloids or the `share all' mentality encouraged by equally unscrupulous social media outlets. But the naysayers appear to be in a minority, as such skillfully made features as Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans and Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation (both 2003) have tempted others to appropriate the template to relate sorry sagas of their own.
Whether from prurience or compassion, audiences and critics alike have responded positively to the docu-aesthetic approach and human interest angles of these films. But grumblings about the overuse of archive material and talking heads have prompted some directors to adorn their narratives with visual embellishments that often make it impossible for the viewer to know whether what they are watching is authentic or artificial. One might call this meld of fact and recreation ficto-actuality or reconstructed reality. Whatever the term might be, such calculated sleight of hand only increases the sense of unease generated by these `now it can be told' infotainments.
By echoing (by design or coincidence) the format employed by Tim Wardle on Three Identical Twins (2018), Ed Perkins finds a way to illustrate the testimony presented to camera with static stoicism by Alex and Marcus Lewis. The blurry images composed by cinematographers Patrick Smith and Erik Wilson to resemble half-remembered home movies are undeniably ingenious and they are adroitly edited by David Charap to the discomfiting accompaniment of the score composed by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans.
For all their technical dexterity, however, the visuals coax the audience into responding in a prescribed manner to the revelations on the audio track. Of course, what the Lewis twins had to endure was unspeakable and unimaginable and they have every right to make it public. But there's something dubious about arranging the material in three `acts', as if this were a melodrama, and using the last reel for a big reveal that Alex probably should have heard off camera first. Whatever the misgivings, however, it's impossible not to feel sadness for what the twins have been through (both together and in isolation) and one can only hope that they find peace in the years that lie ahead.
We've already had one film indebted to Oxford this week and Good Posture is joined by Jen Randall's Home, which would never have been made if Sarah Outen hadn't started rowing in 2004, while studying biology at St Hilda's College. That said, she had been a member of the kayaking club at Stamford High School. But our patch can lay a second claim on Outen, as anyone familiar with her story will know, because of her connection with a certain farm in Blewbury.
On April Fool's Day 2011, 25 year-old Sarah Outen embarked upon a challenge entitled London2London: Via the World. The plan was to spend two years cycling, kayaking and rowing across Europe, Asia and North America, via the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. In total, the journey would take her over 20,000 miles. But Outen had form, having become the first woman and youngest person ever to row single-handedly across the Indian Ocean. That crossing, between Fremantle and the Mauritian island of Bois des Amourettes, took 124 days in a 19ft boat called Serendipity. But this was an epic undertaking that would severely test her physically and psychologically.
Supported by fellow kayaker-cum-camerawoman Justine Curgenvan, Outen completes the 107-mile paddle to Calais, where she swaps Nelson the kayak for Hercules the cycle. At all times, forward progress has to be completed under Outen's own steam (`I am the engine') and she is very precise about the starting point for each day's endeavour. Curgenvan is one of a team of 10 covering aspects of health, safety and logistics, finance and the media. Eighteen months of preparation has gone into the expedition, as well as the training to prepare Outen for her ordeal.
At Veurne in Belgium, the support car leaves Outen to it and she films herself for the transcontinental leg, as she explains how she has always had a keen conception of the need to race against time after watching her father succumb to rheumatoid arthritis. Consequently, she postponed plans to teach in order to have adventures while she still could. Things don't always run smoothly, with intransigent Polish border officials causing her to add 25 miles to her route because they refuse to let her go 100m across the frontier under her own power. However, kindly locals give her bed and breakfast and she makes it into Ukraine.
After eight weeks, Outen reaches Russia, where warnings about perils prove unfounded. But she has been dealing with being far from home since first being sent to boarding school at the age of eight. Indeed, her sense of self-sufficiency and well-developed resistance to failure give her an enviable drive and determination, as she cycles on to Kazakhstan in the hope of reaching the Sea of Japan before the winter freeze sets in. There's no danger of catching cold in the stifling heat, however, and Outen confides to her camera that she felt low on the fifth anniversary of her father's death and had to invokes his indomitable spirit in order to renew her flagging sense of purpose on the dusty steppe.
Now 5700 miles from Tower Bridge, she crosses into China, where she is joined by Gao Yua Guang to help her communicate and navigate her way across his homeland. He is good company and very useful in the more remote places where foreigners are treated with deep suspicion. But he is also slow and `the king of punctures'. She soon realises, however, that he is the embodiment of happiness and, having quit a business studies degree to do something useful with his life, he is also the kind of person that Outen is seeking to inspire with her odyssey.
Gao's race is run in Beijing and Outen is left to end the Chinese leg alone. She is heartbroken at being forced into crossing the border back into Russia on a bus, as these six miles mean that she can't complete her journey entirely under her own steam. But she ploughs on regardless and is pleased to be reunited with Justine, who earns the nickname `the Machine' after she coaxes Outen through a 30-mile open-water crossing in Nelson to the Russian island of Sakhalin after Hercules developed a bearings problem. Paddling again after months of pedalling takes its toll, but Outen is made of stern stuff and, even though she is starting to feel the emotional strain of the enterprise, she takes succour from the fact her body is holding up and she has Hercules back.
As the winter closes in, Outen and Curgenvan have to make a 25-mile crossing to Japan. But local exclusion zones make the trip tricky and they have to double back on themselves and hitch a ride with a Russian boat in order to comply(ish) with the law. The diversion adds time and raises the stress levels, but Outen is in no mood to let Russian rubrics get in her way. She is rather running on empty during the last paddle on drifting currents before a winter break, but she makes the Japanese mainland and flops on the sand after covering 11,000 miles in seven months.
After a period of recovery, training and volunteering, Outen is ready to tackle the Pacific in May 2012. She has packed her rations into her rowing boat, Gulliver, and practiced capsize and roll drills should the worst happen in choppy seas. However, having celebrated her 27th birthday, she runs into Tropical Storm Mawar on Day 25, which causes her to overturn several times and inflicts so much damage upon Gulliver that Outen is forced to accept a rescue from the Japanese coastguard. Leaving her craft behind, she flies back to Britain to live with her mother.
As angry black scrawls cover the screen, Outen is beset by a combination of grief for her father, a sudden loss of purpose and a crushing sense of defeat and failure. Fortunately, she met Oxfordshire farmer Lucy Allen and their romance not only proved a great healer, but it also inspired her to resume her journey in a new boat named Happy Socks. On leaving Choshi on April 2013, Outen plans to head to Vancouver and become only the fourth boat to complete this trip. Such is her sense of destiny rising that she proposes to Allen over the radio.
Following four months of unhelpful currents and unpredictable weather, however, morale and energy levels have dipped and the team recommends a change of target destination to Adak in the Aleutian Islands. It's a shorter distance, but still an exhausting one and, despite becoming the first woman to row from Japan to Alaska, stepping ashore in Alaska after 150 days feels more like a relief than an achievement.
After six months back in Blighty with Allen, however, Outen's enthusiasm has been re-ignited by the prospect of accompanying Curgenvan on a kayaking jaunt through the Aleutians to Homer, Alaska. Their relationship has its ups and downs during this arduous and perilous paddle, as Outen is nowhere near as experienced as her companion and her mistakes cost them time. However, their sisterly bond remains intact during the three-month expedition, as they survive the waters and the occasional brush with over-inquisitive bears.
The next seven months are spent in the saddle, as Hercules carries Outen 6000 miles across Canada and the United States. As a vicious winter bites in, she begins to wonder why she is clinging so tightly to her dream and the rules she has imposed upon herself. She also suffers from flashbacks to the near-calamity in the Pacific and she is relieved when Allen flies out to join her for an eight-week cycle ride to Minneapolis. A tearful farewell only drives Outen to get home and start her new life as soon as possible and she sets off on the last stretch across the Atlantic from Chatham in Cape Cod.
Buoyant and comfortable in her surroundings aboard Happy Socks, Outen makes light of the fact she has drifted for around half of the 500 miles she has rowed in the first 18 days. She is free of the allergies that made the last part of the Pacific lap so draining and chatters happily into her camera, as she records the marine and bird life checking her out. She still has asthma to contend with, however, and risks running out of inhalers if she keeps making such slow progress because of the adverse conditions. Frustrated, but helpless, Outen begins rationing her supplies and has to use a chopping board to make a replacement rudder after the original is snapped off in a storm. With her communication rig also playing up, she begins to contemplate the unthinkable.
A brief encounter with the French yachtsmen bringing her food and medicines convinces Outen that she still has the resolve to persevere. She finally manages to take the plunge into the ocean (after two abortive attempts) and feels positive when she realises that she is closer to Falmouth than Chatham. But the threat posed by Hurricane Joaquin persuades her to accept a lift from a passing cargo ship. She is distraught at being forced to leave Happy Socks and accept the fact that she won't be able to pick it up later, as the tracking device has been removed and the cabin door has been left open. Nothing can stop the tears from flowing, but Outen knows the time has come to move on, after an unscheduled stop in Montreal.
Although the line has been broken, Outen can't quite let go of the loose end. Thus, in October 2015, she sets off from Falmouth on Hercules for a fortnight cycle to Oxford. She has a peloton of well-wishers to speed her on her way and she films herself whizzing past the New Bodleian on Parks Road en route to meeting Krissy, the kayak who will take her along the Thames to Tower Bridge and journey's end. As she passes through Reading and Teddington, she reflects on the different person she has become in the four and half years of toil. Curgenvan gives her a final embrace on the water before she accepts the plaudits. She even finds herself on Clare Balding's TV show.
As closing captions chalk up the 24,400 miles that Outen traversed, a more sombre note draws attention to the fact that she suffered a breakdowns six months after her triumphant homecoming. A third mental crash followed in 2018. But she has also navigated this `messy, delicate process' with the help of Allen. They married in 2016 and honeymooned in Alaska before settling on the farm with their three donkeys. Outen is currently training to be a children's psychotherapist and plans to use outdoor therapies to help her patients. She continues to wander, but her solo adventures are now behind her.
We also learn that Gao has become a father and that Justine remains a machine. But the most serendipitous piece of news concerns Happy Socks, who washed up on the coast of Ireland three months after being cut loose. She was rebuilt, repainted and sold to a new owner to take another tilt at the seas that couldn't sink her. She was not alone in proving her durability, however, as Gulliver was found by some Filipino fishermen in 2018, after six years of bobbing along on the crest of a wave. His discovery brought on another bout of post-traumatic stress for Outen, but his survival also contributed to her deepest sense of healing.
Given the amount of footage that Outen must have amassed, Jen Randall and assistant editor Matt Hardy deserve a hearty pat on the back for making this patchwork picture so cogent and compelling. Of course, they were able to draw on the 2017 tome, Dare to Do, which also inspired the voiceover that complements the visceral potency of the imagery with an unvarnished honesty that makes Outen such a kindred spirit of Tracy Edwards, whose own Transatlantic travails were chronicled in Alex Holmes's Maiden (2018).
It's hard to imagine anyone not being humbled or inspired by this remarkable film. Randall had done something similar with Psycho Vertical (2017), which followed Andy Kirkpatrick's 18-day bid to solo climb El Capitan in Yosemite. However, the paddling elements also bring to mind Chris Lucas's The Yukon Assignment (2017) and JJ Kelley and Josh Thomas's Paddle to Seattle (2009), which each centres on a two-man expedition. We shall eagerly await whatever Randall does next, while also wishing Sarah and Lucy happy trails, wherever they take them.