Impressions of … Je Tu Il Elle (Chantal Akerman)

Chantal Akerman’s first feature-length film

this is going to be difficult: explaining why I liked this film, perhaps I should just say I suspect some of the images, no, some of the image-sequences will stay with me, while those from more dramatic and entertaining films fade away

but why? the cinematography wasn’t so remarkable?
no, it wasn’t, not at all, although the long shot of the girl hitchhiking in the rain near a motorway junction was quite beautiful –

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but it’s not about ‘cinematography’ or ‘drama’, these are distractions …

so what is about then?
I think it has something to do with curiosity, simplicity, or perhaps deprivation, not being given enough information and yet seeing all you need to see …

Yep, told you it would be difficult (and I’m not going to hide behind art-speak or academic-idioms)

the film is in three parts: a young woman (played by the director) in self-imposed isolation in a sparsely furnished room, the young woman hitches a lift from a hunky young trucker, the young woman visits her ex-lover

there is practically no dramatic action in the first two parts, the young woman is alone in a room, she writes a letter, sustains herself with sugar from a paper bag, she spills the sugar, at one point somebody walks passed the window, in the second part, she listens to the trucker monologuing about his libido, they watch a thriller in a cafe, she gives him a handjob, he takes her to a bar, she watches him shave –

I loved that shot: she slides into the corner of the bathroom, leans against the mirror, and gazes up at him (she’s not a tall woman), but her expression, which we see as much in the mirror as directly, is equivocal, calm, detached, not adoring, in fact, she looks tired, slightly bored, but also fascinated as if this masculinity were something she was not familiar with –

I realized this shortly afterwards, when she arrives at her ex-lovers place, because her ex-lover is a woman, the whole of that second part was a transient encounter with masculinity, and what was weird for me, as a man, was to share her point of view, I should have been the subject, looking into the mirror, shaving, not watching another man grooming himself, I envied his casual sexual encounters, I couldn’t believe his luck when she gave him the handjob (not show, by the way), which is probably why I was relieved to discover this wasn’t where her real interests lay

there was more drama in the last part: her ex told her she would not let her stay and the girl immediately made for the exit – a manipulative character, the self-imposed isolation at the beginning was part of a similar strategy no doubt – but her lover followed and the girl loitered by the lift until she came up with another tactic: she was hungry, her lover could not deny her and from there it was a few short steps to the bed –

and one of the most remarkable sex scenes ever filmed, because it wasn’t really a sex scene, it wasn’t about sex, but emotion, the two lay naked in each others arms, all buttocks and limbs in black and white, like a classical sculpture, they held each other, stroked and wrestled, the scene lasted almost ten minutes, but they hardly did anything I would call a sex act, yet it was like utterly convincing and fascinating, yes, fascinating, in the same way the girl was fascinated by the trucker, and perhaps like her I was also slightly bored because I wasn’t in the least aroused by this sight, fascinated but not aroused, a witness to something I did not really understand

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Impressions of … Beginners (Mike Mills)

enjoyed this film, didn’t have a problem with the talking to the dog, or the subtitling of the dog’s replies, which drew adverse comments when the film was released

a nice blend of the whimsical and the serious, it reminded me a little of Woody Allen (the Woody of that great period where the gag-writer and the serious dramatist co-existed): the flashback scenes with the mother, in particular, and the game of fake deaths she plays with her son; the romance has a touch of the Annie Hall as well – did ‘Anne’ (the girlfriend) go to the fancy-dress party as ‘Annie Hall’ or was that look ‘coincidental’? (Loved the Sigmund Freud idea. Might steal that. It looked like one hell of party.)

must be one of Ewan McGregor’s best performances; for me, he excels at the smug yet charismatic (Shallow Grave), but here sad and perplexed seems to fit ery well, there’s chemistry with Melanie Laurent too – they seem to be having fun, which considerably adds to the charm

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it was an interesting (good) idea to intercut the two storylines – the swan song of his out-of-the-closet father and the post-bereavement romance, the film was about a guy trying to puzzle out why he fails at relationships as he regards his dying father, an equivocal role model, whose marriage was a joyless sham, but whose creation of a new life at the age of 75 was sort of inspirational so it is, effectively, worked out in flashback

great cartoon of the ‘past’ as a big rock crushing the ‘present’, actually, it was a pleasure being in the ‘company’ of this sad and witty graphic designer, his wistful social history told through old photos was cool, Mike Mills comes from the world of graphic design (I think), indeed, now I recall the story of the father is essentially autobiographical

the film dragged towards the end, the story didn’t have any external conflict and a lot of internal conflict was pretty vague (vaguely pretty), screenwriter Mike Mills didn’t provide director Mike Mills with the material with which to lift the pace (maybe director Mike Mills didn’t let him), one of the storylines was, for obvious reasons, without suspense, while the romance was a bit droopy, not to mention coy (it required the discovery of a copy of ‘The Joy of Sex’ to get some sauce into their love life)(was this meant to tell us it was real love?), and while it may be true and realistic for lovers to quietly take themselves off to avoid confrontation, that behaviour presents a challenge for the dramatist (and sometimes the filmmaker) – I get the feeling Mike Mills is a non-confrontational guy – as a consequence, there was insufficient ‘rising action’ as they call it, I suppose there was a gesture towards crisis and decision when Oliver (Ewan McGregor) gets off his arse and flies to see his estranged lover in New York – to achieve this he has to detach himself from his father’s dog – but the sequence was too short and too late (I think it was a question of balance: there was probably too much cute, tentative ‘getting to know you’ stuff)

I was surprised the film came in at under 100mins, it felt longer, but for the most part while it was around it was delightful and quite touching

Impressions of … Boy Eating the Bird’s Food (Ektoras Lygizos)

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Very good film.

I was under the impression this was about the current economic hardship in modern Greece, but that seems to have been a coincidence the sales agents and/or press seized on (what is this obsession with relevance? newspapers need to be relevant – art has value if it offers an insight into the human condition, it doesn’t need to be ‘relevant’ to do this and often is diminished by being too much of its time)
In fact, it’s a starving artist story, more Knut Hamsen’s ‘Hunger’ than ‘La Boheme’, the hero is a young singer (a counter-tenor?) trying to make it in the big city, who blows an audition when he passes out, from hunger, we watch him scratching about struggling to keep himself and his pet canary alive: they share meals, as you will guess from the title

we watch him closely, intimately, we accompany him: it’s one of those ‘following’ films – neo-neo-realism – often focussing on nape of the neck, a strategy popularised, I guess, by the Dardennes brothers, actually I’m reminded of ‘Rosetta’, but the protagonist here is almost the inverse – while Rosetta was a fighter, while this guy (don’t know his name), his situation seems more self-inflicted, he appears isolated in the city with no friends or relatives and, based on one side of one phone call, has a problematic relationship with his mother … do they approve of his chosen career? is he too proud to ask for help?

it’s also one of those films that makes you want to reach out and help the misguided protagonist, or slap him: on several occasions he visits – should I say ‘stalks’? – a sweet, doe-eyed hotel receptionist, but proves too shy to speak to her; for several scenes, I thought this girl must be his ex, such was his agitation, I was somehow disappointed by the idea, I felt for him, but this would’ve been too ordinary, too normal, thankfully, as it turned out, they were strangers …

their connection/attraction was articulated in one gesture: the girl imitates his tilt of the head, an excess of instantaneous meaning, which is pure cinema

there was, I now realize, very little dialogue, but there was quite a bit of action, including the camera, and the editing cut out the boring bits, as Godard once recommended, most notable was the balletic movement of the actor, it was as if the character, keeping his own company, and having no outlet for his art, had to amuse himself with movement, the way he went about removing the bird feeder from the cage was elaborate, gratuitous and at the same time expressive of his ambivalence, in another scene he ends up quite naturally perched on a kitchen unit with the notice of eviction (I think) balanced on (the nape of) his neck, I found this choreography intriguing and engrossing

it won’t have been ‘written’, that’s to say, this is a film that would have been developed with the actor and may have been unthinkable (in this form) without him, I say that with good reason, because the camera’s intimacy with him is thorough and graphic, there is one remarkable scene in which he masturbates after seeing the girl, we watch his face, his shoulder moving with that tell-tale vigour, and then we see exactly what he is doing, it’s really happening, and mor than this, we see that bird seed is not the only kind of seed he samples
now it is claimed that not to show something is more effective than actually showing it, you induce the idea or image of it in the viewer’s imagination, I would tend to agree, until now … in this scene, at the insinuation of what he was doing, I winced, but when it showed exactly what he was doing, this had more impact: I put my hands over my mouth, almost covering my eyes, as if I were implementing the censorship on myself; it had more impact because it wasn’t cheated, it was real

(this, ladies and gentlemen, is true realism, not authentic dialogue, or the presentation of a socially-relevant story in a contemporary setting; this detail, this intimacy, this commitment)

the development of the narrative was consistently surprising, although the downward trajectory was entirely expected, given his choices, and his dire situation, I imagine many viewers will be frustrated by their inability to intervene in events, demanding more information on the guy’s situation – so they can provide the solutions to prevent his degradation, or maybe to determine whether he deserves their sympathy, I’m pretty sure many people would deny this sympathy either way (it depends whether you judge dining on bird seed preferable to working in a seedy call centre) no, it really depends on your sympathy for the artist and that special kind of insanity that refuses compromise or moderation, or whether you find meaning in self-mortification, come to think of it, this type of hero is in the Bresson mould, the alienated, but pure martyr-figure, thankfully again, apart from the Bach aria he sings, the film didn’t pursue this to its conclusion

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I’d like to take this opportunity to note that this film had no ‘Story’ and yet there was a compelling and cinematic narrative …

Impressions of … Haywire (Steven Soderbergh)

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there’s something impenetrable about this film, like watching the action pressed up against the (convex) glass (of the lens), the film doesn’t let you in, and what is annoying is that the effect seems deliberate, or the makers disinterested, as if Soderbergh doesn’t care

the sound mix (or the system I heard it on) didn’t help, with the dialogue fighting to stay above the surface of the funky Lalo Schifrinesque score, Soderbergh is self-consciously experimenting with sound, dropping foley and sound effects from some action sequences to see if he can create emphasis and impact when it suddenly returns, but what this also produces is distance, you don’t feel the action half as much, and this loss is more noticeable because the production design is relatively realistic, with a very detailed and specific use of location

Soderbergh isn’t the only one exercising his technique, screenwriter Lem Dobbs (who also scripted Soderbergh’s ‘Kafka’ and ‘The Limey’) is playing a game of delayed exposition – better than premature exposition! We are playing catch up throughout, piecing together the conspiracy, but this does not significantly increase our identification with the protagonist, as it might have done (in a Hitchcock thriller). In fact, we are not being placed in the protagonist Mallory Kane’s shoes, but rather we find ourselves in the position of the innocent dude who helps her escape from the first fight in the diner. Mallory takes his car (at gun point) and, not wanting to lose it, he accompanies her. For some reason, she recounts the whole story as he stresses in the passenger seat. She tests him on it, as if she were trained him as her witness, though there is no pay-off to this at all. The kid just disappears from the plot.

it’s a chase movie told in for the large part in expositional flashbacks, so it’s significant that the protagonist effectively narrates (or cues) these flashbacks from the driver’s seat and also that she does not appear to be struggling to piece it together – it is we who are struggling! (So what is the status of the flashbacks scenes in which she is not present? Is she imagining them, guessing that they must have occurred, or has the screenwriter forgotten his own structuring device?)

it’s a chase movie so what’s at stake is obvious – the bad guys want to kill the protagonists – and yet these stakes are insufficient to make us (me) care, no effort is made to induce identification or sympathy with Mallory – all we can do is cheer her on as she kicks her opponents corrupt arses, this is not unusual in martial arts action flics, the story model is the ‘hero who will not be stopped’, but this places a greater burden on the star’s charisma, unfortunately, Gina Carano’s doesn’t register very high on the scale (neither does Steven Segal’s or Chuck Norris or JCVD, et al.), though I confess I found her very fetching and wanted to be the one she came home to after a long day’s of pointing guns at people

it also places a burden on the action: the close combat was pretty enjoyable, when the sound effects were present, in particular the quasi-sexual business with Michael Fassbender

I didn’t quite get why was she leaving her employer? This is crucial to the plot and would’ve been a way in to her character, but the exposition was opaque or perfunctory on this point, effectively, the Barcelona job, the centrepiece of the plot, was her last job (for him), and yet the script shys away from stating this – too hackneyed? Her employer knows this, but we don’t see him make a concerted effort to persuade her stay and, wait, he turns up at her apartment immediately after the job offering another gig and she doesn’t tell him she’s through, she merely complains about having to leave again so soon and not doing ‘eye candy’ roles. Why don’t they have it out there and then? Are they too poker-faced to even discuss things? Was the script hinting at a failing romantic relationship? Was she not planning to leave at all? (If so, why set her up at all? Is this last job so lucrative that he won’t need to work again?)

the plot, with its delayed exposition, exposition after the fact, was an intellectual puzzle no more than that

she retreats to her father’s isolated house in Arizona (?) or thereabouts, where an anticlimactic fight takes place, but this character is  inert, and, for an ex-military man, a writer of action thrillers (or were they military history?), surprisingly passive. Opportunities were missed with this character. He could have been the key to getting inside Mallory’s world. The story doesn’t push far enough. She has this eternally safe place, her father. It should have taken it away from her. Either by killing him, or threatening to, or alternatively, by involving him in the conspiracy, making him betray her … he could, for example, have been more of a righteous ‘patriot’ and repudiated her for her alleged crimes. Losing her Daddy would have been an emotional trauma for the hero …

you need to open the doors and let the viewer feel the warm breath of the human, if only for a moment, as they cry in despair

this film was too cool and clever for its own good

Impressions of …

Prompted by Alex Barrett’s (Night On Planet Earth) recent initiative, I’ve decided to publish my impressions of some of the films I watch, as notes, instead of developing them into formal reviews.

What appeals to me is the candour this note-writing ought to promote: the notes will reveal intemperate reactions, contradictory attitudes, prejudices, and plain misunderstandings …

Okay, so what really appeals to me is the idea that output will be increased for less input (work), but it’s the quality of candour that makes the output exciting. The work of writing a review is too often an effort to construct a coherent argument on foundations that are far from secure. We form an opinion and then we pump it up; we pre-emptively defend it. We want to prove ourselves. We want our views to have weight and value. We want to impress. And so we gloss over inconvenient or incongruent responses, we smooth out the personal and subjective in order to appear more definitive, or we amplify it with conspicuous rhetoric. In short, we fabricate.

Fabrication builds us something – not a home, more like an office; but we can gain as much, I think, by translating our thoughts into words as they roll through our mind. Lots of loose ends. Threads to pick at.

There is pleasure available in this too – if only during those moment the thoughts flow freely and uncensored, ignorant of that future when we are castigated, or ostracized, or worse, dismissed as incompetent.

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Impressions of … Broken (Rufus Norris)

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what is this? a coming-of-age drama or a suburban social realist parable? – a combo that must have made the pitch catnip for the commissioning execs at the bfi – I don’t think the film resolved these two: it plumped for the coming-of-age through line, but this didn’t really blend with the conflicts in the cul-de-sac [the setting is a cul-de-sac in North London], the two separated when they should have emulsified
still the combination did produce a thrilling first scene, when Oswald suddenly attacks Rick after his odd, but friendly exchange with ‘Skunk’, our heroine; the quirky blindsided by the aggressive – a moment so good we have to see it twice

This kind of material –  moralistic domestic suburban strife – could have been very tedious so I suppose we should be thankful the film chose to take the kid’s perspective
as consequence we get nimble non-linear editing – cutting forward, back, across (à la Donald Cammell) – which lends some (very) familiar scenes a refreshing, occasionally perplexing sense of weightlessness, then again this impressionistic style is exactly how you’d expect the ‘carefree childhood’ sequences to be filmed, apparently this is how kids experience the world …

A pleasant watch with a lovely natural performance from newcomer Eloise Laurence, Tim Roth luxuriating in his a nicely turned bourgeois role. Rory Kinnear is a powerhouse and the girl playing his youngest daughter, Martha Bryant, a terrifying little bully (oh, how my heart sank when the bullying storyline appeared), also a lovely tender moment between Archie (Tim Roth) and his Polish ‘housemaid/nanny’ involving a clothes-peg …

A pity then that after the halfway mark the fizz goes out of the story and the plot comes crashing down, literally, when Rick accidentally pushing his mother downstairs, to her death, a contrivance mitigated only slightly by not being shown, indeed, this entire sequence was (badly) contrived: a raucous house party seems to be winding down, the three hosts are dozing on the sofa, what time of night must this be, do you think? the early hours perhaps, but wait, this is also the time that Rick is brought home from the mental hospital with his mother waiting with a cake, so that can’t be right, but it doesn’t matter, the important thing is for Rick to encounter the obnoxious neighbours, who had driven him to the brink, when he arrives, an encounter which will push him over the edge, his father forgot to buy milk on the way home and so absents himself before the crucial moment, while no one in the cul-de-sac has been bothered by the loud music blaring from the home of three delinquent girls whose father was arrested earlier in the day, no disturbance at all.

I wonder how it played in the original novel … maybe the mental hospital was somewhere on Dartmoor and it was a twelve-hour round trip to collect him, maybe the two incidents didn’t coincide in quite the same way, if at all.

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Yes, this was adapted from a novel, that’ll be why it had such a large cast of characters and sought to give them most of them some dimension of humanity:
a quick study of the blurb for the novel flags some revealing divergences: the girl’s fascination with Rick, her neighbour seems, curiously, to be dramatized more in the novel than the film, here they show her regarding each other from the window opposite from time to time – (would his parents really have given Rick the front bedroom, typically the location of the master bedroom? I don’t think so) – that’s it really, Skunk is more preoccupied with going to the big school, sex, and being bullied, and her two cohorts (her brother and her ‘boyfriend’) don’t get involved in Rick’s story, did they feel the drama of the main plot was too intense and calculated they would get away with it if they layered it underneath the coming-of-age story? they were right on the first point, I suspect, and judging by the awards, they more than got away with it

But what does all this mean?
The girl, Skunk, suffers from type 1 diabetes and ultimately uses it to place herself at extreme risk (or the story uses it, I’m not sure which) in order to ‘leave and come back’ – hence the purgatorial schtick in a church filled with all the people in her life ; on the other hand, it gives us a heart-warming symmetry between beginning and end, with her father sat by her side at the incubator and when she awakes from her coma, this left me (the audience) feeling good as the credits rolled
but there was plenty middle class paranoia in the rest of it, a family of obnoxious ‘plebs’ terrorize the weak – to the point of mass murder! – and a mild-mannered self-righteous solicitor can’t do anything about it, but nature delivers her judgement on the slut making false accusations: she dies of the complications of a miscarriage, neatly also punishing her ignorant thug of a father, the solicitor meanwhile is rewarded for his quiet virtue not only with the ‘return’ of his daughter, but also with the gift of a sexy Polish nanny/girlfriend
But none of this moralizing satisfies me, especially the latter – I wanted the nanny all for myself!

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