Louise-Michel (Kervern/Delépine)

Adventures in film distribution, part two.

In a fair and just society, Gustave de Kervern and Benoit Delépine’s ‘Louise-Michel‘ (2008) would have been an irresistible smash at the box-office. It would have shifted a shitload of units on DVD and featured near the top of all the year-end lists. Or it would at least have seen the light of day in the UK within a year of being made. Alas, we do not live in a fair and just society and we have been made to wait for this anarchic political comedy. (Then again, in a fair and just society, a film so driven by outrage at the unaccountability and greed of entrepreneurial capital would be regarded as a curious throwback to darker times.)

This is a very funny, absurdly funny film and it works because the politics that grounds its ludicrous plot is shot through with the non-conformist spirit of anarchism.

Kervern and Delépine do road movies. They know no other way than the (freewheelin’) highway. Their debut, ‘Aaltra,’ possibly the driest comedy ever committed to film, sent two feuding paraplegics on a wheelchair-bound journey across Europe; ‘Avida‘ had a deaf-mute ‘homme sauvage’ rampage across Northern France in a quest to recreate a surrealist painting; while the forthcoming ‘Mammuth‘ levers an ageing Gerard Depardieu back onto his Harley Davidson to gather proof of his pension contributions.

In ‘Louise-Michel‘, when the owners make them redundant overnight, a group of clothing-factory workers decides to pool their union compensation and hire a hitman to off the company head. Louise, an illiterate, gender-faking ex-convict (née Jean-Pierre) takes charge of the operation and selects self-deluding, cowardly assassin, Michel (née Catherine), but the trail leads into a labyrinth of parent companies, subsidiaries, and tax havens.

Bouli Lanners and the inimitable Yolande Moreau have far too much fun as the quixotic pair who make up in determination what they lack in wit.

Louise-Michel will be released in selected cinemas in the UK on Friday (April 1st). Go get it while you can.

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Le Quattro Volte (Michelangelo Frammartino)

‘There’s no such thing as coincidence.’ Well, maybe not if you’re a culture commentator grasping at the zeitgeist, or merely an arts journalist looking for a common thread to tie your article together. So what then do we make of the mysterious coincidence of two films about reincarnation surfacing in the same year?

Nothing, except, judging by the quality of the two, it does seem to make great cinema.

I’ve already written about the pleasures of Apichatpong’s ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives‘ and now we have Michelangelo Frammartino’s ‘Le Quattro Volte,’ a work whose subtle structures and stubborn faith in the ability of the camera to capture the essence of things repays – or requires – repeat viewing.

At first glance, you might take Frammartino’s film for a kind of ethnographical documentary, as it observes the rhythms of life around an old hilltop village in Calabria, Italy, with a painterly eye, until the on-screen expiration of its apparent protagonist, a taciturn shepherd with a bad cough, betrays its discreet fictional modulations. Something else is going on, something elusive, something – let’s face it – poetic. As one protagonist dies, the next – a goat – is born, and so it continues: the bleeting kid getting lost and finding its way to the base of a majestic fir, which is then felled and dragged to a nearby village to form the centrepiece of an annual festival; once the festival is over the tree is chopped and fed into the clamp of local charcoal burners. These are ‘le quattro volte’: four episodes presenting four incarnations of one soul: the old shepherd, kid goat, fir tree, and a sack of charcoal.

Frammartino’s vision of our cosmic interconnectedness is resolutely material, rooted in the substance of this world – none of the ghost monkeys, forlorn princesses, or anthropomorphic carp, we find in ‘Uncle Boonmee‘, nothing so exotic or supernatural. Here man exists on the same plane as the animal, the vegetable, and the mineral. We are carbon. There’s no real dialogue, the few utterances which occur are not privileged in the sound mix; the costumes of the shepherd, the charcoal burners, and others are similarly designed to make the people blend into their environment. Man’s control over this environment is evidenced and also undermined and this is a source of comedy – comedy in the spirit of Jacques Tati’s wordless orchestrations: the old shepherd defeated by a saucepan of snails, the kid goat popping up from a ditch with perfect comic-timing, and a soon-to-be-celebrated continuous sequence in which a dog disrupts a re-enactment of the Passion.

There is a touch of tourism about the enterprise: lovely folk-pastoral compositions of medieval walled villages, untouched ‘ancient’ landscapes, quaint festivals, but let’s not be ungrateful. The film is a triumph of patience (it took five years to shoot), animal wrangling, and  it has to be said, film financing. (That really did have to be said.)

Le Quattro Volte will be released in selected cinemas in the US from March 30th, but you’ll have to wait until the end of May before you can catch this tricky old goat in the UK.

a shorter version of this review was published in the Mexican web-magazine, enfilme

Le Petit Voleur, or How long is a feature film?

How long is a feature film? Eighty, ninety minutes? Two hours? Two hours ten? Seven and a half? (You know who you are, Bela Tarr.)

All of the above. I don’t mind. A film should be as long as it needs to be, and no shorter. Yes, you heard me, no shorter. More films have been ruined by the knife, cutting to contract, than have benefited, I have no doubt.

How short can a film be before it stops being a ‘feature’? Multiplexes will expect a minimum of eighty minutes, I suspect; while film festival regulations provide a simple rule: a feature film must be over one hour in length. That’s a nice round figure, and fair enough when you consider film festivals deal primarily with low-budget, independent productions which, let’s face it, sometimes have to go ‘with what they’ve got.’ But how many films of sixty-odd minutes have you seen? Not many, I imagine. Kaurismaki has given us a couple, ‘The Match Factory Girl’ and ‘Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana,’ and they’re both full value, though I wonder if he set out to make them that length or if they just end up that way.

Clocking in at 63 minutes, Erick Zonca’s ‘Le Petit Voleur‘ (1998) must be the shortest feature I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t mess around. It is an object lesson in not messing around.

Consider the opening sequence: in an empty bar, a young guy finishes a solitary beer, he turns up to work at a bakery, he’s obviously been AWOL because there’s a new kid working there and the boss fires him without ceremony, he loses the room that came with the job too; cut to a bar, where the guy tells a girlfriend he’s through with ‘work’, from now on he’ll be the one “screwing others,” she’s not too impressed, but she offers him somewhere to stay – she trusts him; they fuck; he steals her wages; and then, here’s the big one, we cut to a bunch of scumbags chafing on about other people’s wealth and we find our guy among them, listening; then they’re away ripping off some rich person’s villa.

We don’t know how our guy fell in with these scroats; we don’t know how he got there, or whether it’s the same city – it may not be, in fact. No exposition is slipped into the dialogue like a valium. We don’t need it. Our guy’s signed up for a life of petty crime and he’s at the bottom of the pecking order. We get that. And that’s all we need to get.

The betrayal of the girl’s trust is important here. By taking her wages, he commits to a course of action, he crosses a threshold. He pitches himself into a world of machismo, of crime, violence, envy, and greed. That is where we find him in the next scene. No messing about.

If ever there was a subject which suited such brutally compressed exposition … I wanted to get out of that world. I didn’t like it there. Mercifully, Zonca and his co-writer, Virginie Wagon, deliver us in little more than an hour.

A film as short as it needed to be.

 

Erick Zonca’s ‘Le Petit Voleur‘: “nasty, brutish, and short.”


Le Petit Voleur is not available to rent or purchase on DVD, outside of France, as far as I know.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Last year, Thai director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, won the Palme D’Or with ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,’ his fifth feature film and his masterpiece. Yes, ‘masterpiece’ – a word over-employed by critics in search of definitive judgements and grand statements, but don’t be intimidated – this ‘masterpiece’ is as warm and approachable as they come. An ecstatic consummation of the director’s work to date.

Apichatpong is fully at ease with his milieu; his themes of memory and myth worn lightly, examined deeply. Gone are the oblique structural conceits and ellipses of ‘Tropical Malady’ and ‘Syndromes And A Century’, replaced by a relaxed, absorbing narrative flow that carries twists and diversions and surprises without interruption.

Suffering from chronic kidney failure, Uncle Boonmee has retreated to his farm near the border with Laos to prepare, we assume, for death. His sister-in-law, Jen, and family friend, Tong, come to visit. They drink tea, sample honey, and chat. After dinner, as if drawn by the lights on the veranda, other beings arrive: the ghost of his dead wife, Huay – whose quiet materialisation in a seat at the table is one of the most delicately-handled spectral entrances in cinema – and his lost son, now transformed into a ‘ghost monkey’, a kind of animal-human crossbreed, a lost soul, with neon-red eyes. Huay has come to  minister to her ailing husband and for a while takes over nursing duties, but the following night, she leads Boonmee, Jen, and Tong on a journey through the jungle to a womb-like cave network, the place in which, Boonmee declares, his existence began.

This is a coming to terms with death, but not as we would understand it in the West. Apichatpong believes in reincarnation, the transmigration of souls: for him, the membrane separating living and dead, animal and human, is porous. The spirit world does not inspire fear in his characters because this other world has not been rejected. Boonmee, in particular, is aware that he once was part of it and will be part of it again. His son tells how he became fascinated by it, fell in love with it, and was eventually absorbed by it.

The narrative moves easily between sensuous experiences, reminiscences, flashbacks of past lives. This is what cinema was meant to do and where the medium corresponds so well with Apichatpong’s benign Buddhist metaphysics: time is a continuum, the present contains the past, and also the future. Towards the end, the film unexpectedly changes up a gear, as snapshots of military manoeuvres accompany Boonmee’s recollection of a disturbing dream of the future which is arguably a reverberation of concerns with the present Thai regime, and yet also a reflection of the past and the character’s guilt, or bad karma, for having killed – communists – while serving that same regime. In what is perhaps the only moment of conflict in the film, Boonmee rejects his sister-in-law’s defence of his actions as ‘doing his duty’. A whisper of politics in a country where it might be better not to raise your voice.

Apichatpong has described cinema as a means of transportation. His films take both audience and characters on a journey, often into the jungle, the primeval forest, where they are freed of society’s pressures and restrictions. Uncle Boonmee is his masterpiece in this sense: it is his most accomplished vehicle. In the atmospheric opening sequence, as the light fades and the sound of the cicadas envelopes us, a water buffalo gets the urge to slip its reins; while the tribesmen gather at the fire, the buffalo makes for the trees and though the buffalo is eventually retrieved, we are left deep in the forest, a mysterious primate (a ghost monkey) staring back at us. This is rich, enigmatic, stimulating and – yes – escapist, truly escapist cinema.

Bliss.

 

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is currently on release in US cinemas (I believe). It will be released on DVD/Blu-ray in the UK on March 28th.

 

a version of this review was published in the Mexican web-magazine, enfilme.


Are We Hollywood?

Listen, there’s an excellent article by Mark Harris on the paralysis currently afflicting Hollywood studios to be found in the US edition of GQ. It’s not exactly news – you’ve probably heard the song before – but here the argument is particularly cogent, the research and analysis thorough and detailed. Harris begins with an examination of the studios’ attitudes towards last year’s critical and box office smash, ‘Inception‘. To put it simply, they couldn’t deal with it.

“It has always been disheartening when good movies flop; it gives endless comfort to those who would rather not have to try to make them and can happily take cover behind a shield labeled “The people have spoken.” But it’s really bad news when the industry essentially rejects a success [Inception], when a movie that should have spawned two dozen taste-based gambles on passion projects is instead greeted as an unanswerable anomaly. That kind of thinking is why Hollywood studio filmmaking, as 2010 came to its end, was at an all-time low—by which I don’t mean that there are fewer really good movies than ever before (last year had its share, and so will 2011) but that it has never been harder for an intelligent, moderately budgeted, original movie aimed at adults to get onto movie screens nationwide.”

<Mark Harris>

A sad, dispiriting state of affairs. Until we remind ourselves (in the UK) that Harris is talking about Hollywood studios and we are not Hollywood. The Hollywood studios do have a muscular grip on our exhibition network, however. As a result, the decline in their standards does impoverish our film diet and impact our cinema-going habits, though not as much as the escalating price of petrol.

Still, there may be some small reasons for hope.

If Hollywood is no longer inclined to produce ‘intelligent’ movies aimed at adults, then there is a clear gap in the market. Let’s seize it. One anonymous studio executive is quote as saying “we don’t tell stories anymore” – well, if the great, self-proclaimed ‘story’ machine has stalled, let’s crank up our own. But let’s not think about Oscars or US Box office. We need more than a King’s Speech or a Slumdog Millionaire, which were not exclusively financed this side of the pond anyway. Harris notes that Italian and Japanese audiences, for example, have recently begun to favour local product. Good. If Hollywood has let us down, then let’s carry on without them.

So, why don’t we? Is it a language problem? Have we succumbed to a kind of colonialism in reverse? Is America our land of dreams? Have we come to believe that Hollywood is the movies?

Ballast (Lance Hammer)

Oh, the long and winding road of film distribution, independent film distribution. So few make it into our cinemas, our rental stores, our homes; so many fall by the wayside. I’d forgotten about ‘Ballast,’ Lance Hammer’s desolate debut feature which played at the London Film Festival three years ago. Despite the critical acclaim, and the ‘Best Director’ prize at Sundance, the film disappeared. I believe it was released on DVD in the US in late 2009. But now, like a racing pigeon given up for lost in the harsh Atlantic winds, it has fetched up again in the UK. It deserves a big 2.35:1 welcome for making it. (Thanks, Axiom Films.)

The flatlands of the Mississippi delta. A suicide affects the lives of three individuals: Marlee, her restive 12-year-old son, James, and Lawrence, a placid highway-store owner. That’s as much as you can say about the plot without intruding on the film’s taciturn manner, in which exposition is almost incidental, distilled drop by drop from the encounters on-screen. (It takes an hour for the actual relationship between the three principals to be made explicit.) The mechanics of story don’t really operate in this ‘zero’ gravity of information, though Hammer’s concern isn’t plot, or even character, but environment; his protagonists rooted in the bleak, dishevelled landscape – is Mississippi twinned with Bela Tarr’s Hungarian plains? – they’re implicit victims of an economic and geographic desolation, victims who nonetheless work towards a tentative agreement, a gesture of a way forward.

Yes, ‘Ballast‘ is dismal, understated and downbeat, but it’s also tender and honest and kind of beautiful.

 

Ballast is released in selected cinemas across the UK this Friday (March 18th)


Soderbergh So Long

So, Steven Soderbergh announces he intends to retire from movie-making to spend more time with his stills camera. Apparently, he just isn’t excited about getting in “the van” anymore and wants to let someone who is still excited about getting in the van get in the van instead of him. (I know the feeling and I don’t even have a van. Or a career.)

But why did he have to be so dignified about it? It all seems so calculating, so controlled. Couldn’t he have developed a substance-abuse problem, resisted arrest, hurled anti-semitic abuse at a traffic cop, or something? Couldn’t he just have waited for ‘Gorgeous George’ to retire and then signed on as his butler?

No, I think he’s going to miss the van and I think he knows it. I give him five years, tops. How long do you give him?