Category Archives: Personal Screen

Mommy (2014)

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Last but definitely not least in Xavier Dolan’s filmography comes Mommy. This film takes up thematic threads that have been present throughout Dolan’s work, the wayward teenager, the insufferable mother, and adresses then with a new skill and maturity. Yes, the relationship is just as tense and difficult as it was in J’ai tué ma mère but it feels more genuinely troubled. The fights come from a place of suffering, a grieving widow against a mentally ill child, rather than a precocious queer kid rebelling against his emminently middle class mother and life.

The most openly striking thing about this film is the bold aesthetic choice of a 1×1 aspect ratio, a perfect square. The viewer is so used to a horizontal plane in the cinema, even the famously square and boxy academy aspect ratio was still only 5×4, that this 1×1 screen looks almost like a portrait framing. It does take a while to get used to, but like the splitscreen in As I lay Dying (James Franco), it’s only irritating for a few minutes before it becomes interesting. In this case it serves to enclose the characters visually, just as they are stuck physically in their suburban houses and emotionally in their fragile states.The film very quickly becomes a three-hander character study. Antoine-Olivier Pilon plays Steve, a sixteen-year-old with ADHD and, one suspects, many other problems, who’s just been kicked out a specialist school having seriously injured another child in a fight. His performance is very delicate for a role that could be described as nothing more than crazed violence and grimacing. Pilon’s performance, however, allows you to see a gentle, caring side to Steve – even if that caring is expressed in a creepy lack of boundaries and oedipus-like adoration of the two mother figures in the film.

These two mother figures are played by Anne Dorval, playing Diana ‘Die’ Steve’s actual mother and Suzanne Clément, playing the disturbed and bereaved mother from across the street. We’ve seen both of these women before in Dolan’s films and their performances are still excellent. This is especially true of Clément, who is almost unrecognisable between her role as the wild and rebellious Fredérique in Laurence Anyways and the shy, stammering housewife she plays here. She demonstrates a great range as an actress once again imbuing her role with a depth beyond what even the, very good, script gave her. While the issues between Steve and Die are discussed and analysed and shouted through in fights of varying severity the balance that Kyla (Clément) brings into their life is based on silence. It’s a fitting role for the woman dealing with a stammer and an inability to speak after the death of her son. We never find out what happened to this son, and Kyla refuses to speak of any topics that approach it. Throughout the film, the less is said of something, the more is understood. We know that Kyla is educating Steve to fill the hole left by her job as a teacher and the death of her child. Steve knows that Kyla needs to get out of her house, where she regresses into a stammering mess, confronted with what remains of her family.

Mommy doesn’t really have a plot, the final scenes are foreshadowed by the introductory intertitles and so there’s no suspense. Instead we are treated to an all-encompassing chronicle of moments between these three characters and their unstable relationships with each other. The greater part of these relationships passes in what is screamed in anger or unsaid, only very rarely does the conversation and emotion flow freely. At these moments Dolan has recourse to his directorial tricks. Often this is done through the soundtrack, and the film seems to almost lapse into a cheesy music video, awkwardly but effectively giving these stunted feelings a voice. Yet twice in the film Dolan changes aspect ratio allowing Steve to literally open the world back into a glossy cinematic montage when life is going well. These moments of unbridled joy are a pleasure to watch, but like any cinematic experience, they too must end and reality close back in.

  • Entertainment: 4/5
  • Artistic:               5/5
  • Intellectual:       4/5

 

Les Amours Imaginaires (2010)

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Earlier this week I reviewed Xavier Dolan’s J’ai tué ma mère and was not entirely convinced that the director merited his cult status. Yet after Les amours imaginaires I could not be more pleasantly surprised by the improvement between the first and second film. Les Amours Imaginaires follows two best friends who both fall for Nicolas, the tall blond stranger that walks into their world. It’s been said before and will be said again, as far as plot goes, the set-up is a modern day Jules et Jim complete with an ironic predisposition for kitsch vintage of that precise time.

Stylistically Dolan again takes his lead from the Nouvelle Vague, interspersing his film with faux-documentary style interviews like in Godard’s Masculin Feminin. The camera frenetically zooms in and out of these mini-confessionals to preserve the style, but the device very quickly becomes overused and visually annoying. These interview cutaways give the film a context; despite the heightened reality of slo-mos and surrealist shots perfectly framed and accompanied by loud, Italian music, this story is not unusual. It’s just one of the many failed love affairs being experienced by all young people. Every one of these stories could have had a film, it just so happens that we ended up with this one.

The film does a fantastic job of building up the stakes while leaving the character of Nicolas as vapid and mysterious as possible. His motivations and emotions are entirely unknown, and he seems like a living embodiment of “ignorance is bliss”. Marie (Monia Chokri) and Francis (Dolan) go through hell at his hands analysing where his affections may or may not lie while Nicolas simply continues in a totally separate universe unaware of any problems and accidentally making it worse. He shares a bed with the pair of them as friends, reaches out to put his arms round their shoulders and seems to act with just enough interest to turn two friends deep in unrequited love into enemies in an uncomfortable ménage-a-trois.

In the end that’s the great beauty and tragedy in this film: none of it actually happens. It’s a story of two people who project a fantasy onto the same guy, a dream which starts to encroach on reality, poisoning their day-to-day lives, ruining great moments and eventually turning the two best friends against each other. What’s even worse is that it’s normal. Everyone in the film is imagining their way to hell and as much as they seek comfort in interchangeable anonymous trysts filmed through filters, the life they imagine for themselves is quite literally more colourful than the love they can acquire.

Quite apart from all this, the film is a technical masterpiece. The cinematography is certainly still in the realm of art photography rather than blockbuster clichés but it loses the clumsy overworked feel of J’ai tué ma mere. The soundtrack lurches between classical music and vapid club beats via Dalida’s cover of Bang Bang but it marries together in a reflection of the three poles of the awkward love triangle that emerges. The references and winks towards a wider culture of art, mythology and cinema stars abound, rooting Les Amours Imaginaires as one of the many archetypical stories that everyone lives through, here rendered with mastery and style.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:             5/5
  • Intellectual:      5/5

J’ai tué ma mère (2009)

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Continuing the rough course through cinema of “watching whatever is recommended to me” I recently came across Xavier Dolan, whose films I will now proceed to watch (and review) in order of their release. That means starting off with with J’ai tué ma mere.

The film certainly bears the hallmarks of a first film, or maybe just a young film. There’s a flamboyant and ostentatious rebellion that oozes through the length of the film and needs reigning in in places. Certainly there’s a concern for style over substance that can become annoying. For example, the cinematographic trick of alienating the characters from each other in off-centre close ups is certainly intelligent and works very well, except when the off-centre framing is literally cutting off a character’s nose and forcing them to box their performance into a tiny and unnatural space.

Yet the film can be forgiven stylistic foibles through the force of emotion and honesty that propels it. It is definitely not the structure of the screenplay that guides us as viewers. The events lurch between people and locations that seem disparate and haphazard. Plotlines seem to be forgotten then woven back in at ironically unexpected moments. In this way it’s a lot more like real life than any constructed narrative. All the characters genuinely have other lives and motives that don’t just serve Dolan’s story.

At the heart of it all is the universally difficult moment when a child breaks out from under their mother’s wing. Peppering the film are moments of a monologue, shown to be shot on a DV camera but then shown to us in HD black and white – directorial conceit ran wild there. In this monologue Hubert (Dolan) outlines his true feelings for his mother, a kind of confused and forced love that inescapable and inherent. It’s not so much his mother that is controlling him or that he is trying to break away from, it’s much more his love for her that he resents. He searches for a female guide, idolising his boyfriend’s mother and even his teacher before coming round to accepting what he already has and loves, even if he doesn’t like her. Both Dolan’s performance and Anne Dorval’s as the mother hold up to scrutiny, and it’s a testament to a screenwriting talent to be able to render both mother and son with sensitivity and depth. It would have been very easy for Dolan, who is essentially acting his own teenage crisis on screen to just paint the mother as the demon he attacks in the choppy arguments littered through the film. Yet the mother is very much her own person, and not even a bad person. She loves her son; she’s just not compatible with him and it’s hurting them both just as badly.

In the end the whole film feels a little like a confessional – that fittingly ends at the “Our Lady of Sorrows” boarding school. It’s as if Dolan found himself at the crossroads of adulthood with all the questions that raises about life, sexuality, identity, art and even religion. While in the film Hubert comes to some peace through a mixture of quiet realisations and drug-filled confessions before accepting and inviting his mother into his life and his kingdom, in real life Xavier Dolan made this film. Part diatribe, part apology but full of cinematic and personal freedom.

  • Entertainment: 3/5
  • Artistic:             5/5
  • Intellectual:      4/5

Les Belles de Nuit – 1952

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One of the wonderful things about cinema is that despite the relative youth of the medium it came into being at a time that was so democratic and individualist that it seems one can never run out of it. The sheer number of filmmakers existent across the globe at any point in time means that variety really is the spice of life, in terms of style and content, when tracking back through the archives.

Thus is the optimism that René Clair’s 1952 film has left me with. Made just after the second world war, a time when French society was desperately trying to justify itself after the upheaval of it’s war regime les belles de nuit traces French history elegantly backwards. It seems as if Clair is trying to assert his contemporary France by calling up the national memory of bygone eras. We see France in the not-at-all-nostalgically-named Belle Époque, the revolutionary wars, the old monarchy and the time of the musketeers.

But les belles de nuit is not a political film, despite the potential for socio-historical analysis. The heart of the film rests on the performance of a certain foppish and endearing Gérard Philippe, down and out pianist dreaming of love. And this he does, literally. He shuts himself off from his real life in order to chase the fantasy women he sees in his dreams of the past. It’s not that his normal life is unsatisfactory, far from it – his friends worry for him, he has a beautiful girl in love with him and he’s a talented musician. The film explores what happens when someone can’t see the joy in their own life and feels the need to escape. It’s a little like a cross between Midnight in Paris and It’s a Wonderful Life.

The interest from a cinematic point of view comes from a humourous lightness of touch that removes the potential for melodrama but fails to fall into parody or silliness. Yes, the film is funny, the dream sequences complete with moving pantomime theatre sets are indulgent and kitsch – but they’re dreams and the shifting narrative sands and archetypes of dreaming are rendered so well that the humour itself becomes poetic, rather than the film hovering and to-ing and fro-ing between gags and serious moments. Every potential joke that can be made, within the limits of the natural absurdity of life, is made. Even when it’s patently ridiculous and ironic to the extreme the running gags never seem impossible, just unlucky.

Most importantly Les Belles de Nuit is enjoyable. Certainly, it opens doors to speak about artistic inspiration, the significance of dreams, the dangers of naïve nostalgia and the necessity to appreciate what you have while you have it, but when all is said and done you will still be able to put on this film, sit down and pass a good hour and a half laughing and smiling with the characters on screen.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:            4/5
  • Intellectual:     3/5

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Ce que je trouve magnifique dans le cinéma c’est que, malgré sa naissance relativement récente, il nous est venu à un moment de l’histoire si démocratique et individualiste qu’il me semble impossible de l’épuiser. C’est-à-dire que la quantité de cinéastes qui auront existé dans tous les coins du monde à n’importe quel moment donné produit une variété de styles et de thématiques vraiment époustouflante, surtout quand on le regarde avec du recul.

C’est à cela que m’a fait penser ce film de René Clair. Réalisé en 1952 juste après la deuxième guerre mondiale, époque troublée de la France après l’Occupation, Les Belles de nuit retraverse l’histoire de la France avec élégance et grâce. Il semble exprimer ce qu’est la France en 1952 à travers une mise en valeur de ce qu’elle était auparavant. Il nous montre la France de la Belle Époque, les guerres en Algérie, l’Ancien Régime et le règne de Louis XIII.

Mais Les Belles de nuit n’est pas à proprement dire un film politique, malgré la forte possibilité d’une analyse socio-historique. Au coeur de ce film se trouve le fin jeu de comédien d’un certain Gérard Philippe, tout charmant en tant que pianiste fauché qui rêve d’amour. Ceci est ce qu’il fait, littéralement. Il rejette sa propre vie pour retrouver les femmes imaginaires dont il rêve chaque nuit dans ses rêves des mondes passés. Ce n’est pas que sa vraie vie est invivable, bien au contraire – ses amis s’occupent de lui, une belle jeune fille est amoureuse de lui et il est lui-même un musicien doué. Ce film examine donc les conséquences quand on n’arrive pas à apprécier sa propre vie et qu’on sent un besoin d’y échapper. C’est un peu à mi-chemin entre It’s a Wonderful Life ­and Midnight in Paris.

D’un point de vue cinématographique l’intérêt vient du style léger et humoristique qui allège le potentiel de mélodrame en même temps qu’il évite de (se) dégénérer en parodie, voire en niaiserie. Oui, certes, le film est drôle, surtout les séquences de rêve où le décor bouge et semble tiré d’une mauvaise pantomime – mais ce sont des rêves et c’est exactement ça qui rend si bien la sensation de flou narratif qu’on sent tous dans les rêves. L’humeur elle-même devient poétique, plutôt qu’un basculement fatiguant entre le sérieux et le drôle tout au long du film. Chaque blague qui peut se faire, en tenant compte de l’absurdité indéniable de la vie, se fait. Même quand la situation devient ridicule et ironique à l’extrême, les blagues ne semblent jamais venir du royaume de l’impossible, juste de la mauvaise chance.

Mais ce qui est le plus important chez Les Belles de Nuit, c’est qu’on s’amuse en le regardant. Oui, on peut y tirer des discours sur l’inspiration poétique, la signification des rêves, les dangers d’une nostalgie naïve et surtout la nécessité d’apprécier la vie pendant qu’on la vit, mais en fin de compte ce sera encore possible de s’asseoir devant ce film et de passer un bon moment avec les personnages qu’il nous présente.

*Note from the blogger – the French translation is not a permanent feature on this blog, however more will be appearing especially for French Cinema on an ongoing basis of when I feel I can adequately express everything said in the English in French* 

 

Whiplash – 2014

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Damien Chavelle’s film boils down to one primary question: what does it take to achieve greatness? Doubtless there’s a price, as even the title suggests. Anyone moving too fast risks injury. We’ve seen a good number of these masochistic high achiever narratives in recent years but unlike Black Swan and The Social Network, for example, Whiplash steers away from the question of whether greatness is worth the price. This is more taken as evident by the two main characters and so imbues the film with a very different energy.

Whiplash is a character study of 19 year old drummer Andrew Reiman (Miles Teller). In his time at the (fictional) Schaffer Conservatory he becomes the protégé of the despotic conductor Fletcher played by J.K. Simmons. Much has been made of Simmons’ performance, which is by all counts extraordinary, his ability to switch between nurturing and terrifying while remaining a coherent and relatable human is astounding. Yet I don’t want to repeat what has been already thoroughly and more aptly lauded. Sadly much of the praise for Simmons seems to downplay Teller’s performance as Reiman, accusing him of being flat, or worse, a “blank slate”. Quite on the contrary, Teller’s performance is subtle and reels in the viewer. In the same way as the opening shot shows us Reiman from afar and the closing shot zooms in on his face we totally enter this character’s universe through the film. It’s reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman’s performance in The Graduate, making someone shy, difficult and clearly flawed into the hero we all stand behind.

In many ways Whiplash is a purification of the determined genius theme. The small side-plot where Reiman throws away a chance at a relationship is just that, a side-plot: whereas this served as Zuckerberg’s sole character motivation in Fincher’s Social Network. The only obstacle Reiman faces is his own limits and resolve. His power resides in being as self-sacrificing as possible, even seeking comfort in the arms of his father is seen as a lack of motivation and hence a weakness. His bleeding fingers from too much practice are treated as necessary battle scars and a kind of symbolic ascension to the mythical higher plane of “greatness”. Perhaps it’s a sign of residual unacceptance that these same actions, the frantic pursuit of perfection in art through self-destruction, are seen as a tragedy and framed as a slow descent into madness in Black Swan when it’s performed by a woman. Either way Fletcher’s role in the narrative falls in harmony with his role as conductor, in the long run both invisible and instrumental in teasing the potential out of this drummer. Fletcher becomes the despotic father figure finally pulling Reiman out of the nest to fly.

The script is what really shines here; it could almost be a play. It would probably be a very good play. This is not to say that it lacks cinematic elements, more that it goes a little overboard on occasion. Sitting in a cinema with eighty percent of the screen blurred in a soft-focus close up is never a rewarding experience and many scenes are filled with this kind of close-up, quick-cutting that starts to feel like time-filler after a while. The jazz scenes vary between genius and irritating. A choppy cut on every new instrument is not a new or edgy way to film music and it gets to seem a little like a cheap music video from time to time. However the film is so engaging and well structured that you can forgive. The final scene is triumphant, finishing on a drum solo it seems to perfect sum up the film, its main character and its proposed philosophy all at once. It’s not perfect, it may even be self-indulgent, but it’s daring and engaging and demands your attention and forgiveness for its faults because it may just be the closest thing to genius you get to see.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:             4/5
  • Intellectual:       5/5

Exit Through the Gift Shop – 2010

I love when a film that I always intended to watch gets bumped up my list by a particularly interesting conversation. It’s even better when the film turns out to be totally worth the watch.

2010 Exit through the gift shop (Banksy art) 07Most people I’d heard talk about this film made it seem like some kind of documentary-thriller where Banksy magically turns the tables on a filmmaker and comes out as even cooler than anyone thought he was when he went in. I guess that’s the cult of Banksy speaking, because this film really seems to, if anything make Banksy out as a bit of a fool.

There has of course, given the anonymity of Banksy and the strangeness of the story, been a lot of debate as to whether the whole film is another elaborate hoax. Whether the protagonist is actually Banksy all along or whether any of this actually happened. The arguments for none of it ever happening seem meagre, after all someone was genuinely filming street artists for over ten years. I’m not sure it entirely matters who was filming and I intend to review the film as it presents itself, as truth.

The film follows Thierry Guetta, an enigmatic French second hand clothes seller turned videographer. I don’t say filmmaker because his filming is a habit, a compulsion to record, more than any instinct to create. This man happens to be the cousin of Space Invader, the Parisian street artist and so in his obsessive quest to record and document his own life he winds up filming street art, meeting new street artists and still filming. Eventually he becomes their accomplice and is recording reactions to pieces that the artist themselves would never see. Here the film, being directed by Banksy, takes a turn for the hero-worshipping. The voiceover and editing seem very keen to insist that Guetta was on a hunt for Banksy in order to film him too. Guetta himself is without a doubt interested but seems so wrapped up in his own quest for validation and a continued permission to keep filming that he could have continued for years non-plussed had Banksy not just walked into his life and lens.

Guetta is, as Banksy states, far more interesting as a subject than any plain documentary on street art. He spent years lying to numerous high-profile street artists about a non-existent documentary he was making just to continue filming. The shots of tapes in his house show the terrifying consequences of his obsession. Boxes and boxes of tape, most of it unlabelled, containing years of his life and key moments in the history of an art movement potentially never to be found again. When Banksy takes over these archives he patronisingly tells Guetta to try some art himself. So here are our two protagonists, the hooded man who is our director and the cameraman turned subject.

Guetta takes Banksy’s advice as an order and sets off to become a street artist in his own right. His approach is to take everything he had seen his friends do but to do it bigger and better. His work is at best derivative but through manipulation and clever marketing his Warhol meets Banksy ripoffs become a huge success. Many criticise him for not making the works himself, for having the idea and handing it over to his team of employees, yet earlier we saw Banksy’s crew deconstructing a phone box and no one is throwing the same criticisms at him. Indeed, this system only serves as an argument for the place of Mister Brainwash (Guetta’s adopted street art name) within the art world. After all, Rubens didn’t paint everything himself. He sketched a structure then retouched and signed the painting his apprentices made. Was he any less of an artist?

The film Banksy produces, the film we are watching is undoubtedly the street art documentary Banksy always dreamed of. Of course, he is as a result the star and most interesting street artist that has ever lived: things must always be taken with a small pinch of salt. Strangely, many of the criticisms levelled at Mister Brainwash can equally be levelled at Banksy. He complains that MBW (Mister Brainwash) never had to find his feet as an artist, never had the years of hard graft, but where is his hard graft as a filmmaker? He’s taken ten years of someone else’s footage, slapped his own very marketable name on it and sold it to the masses. Besides, does it matter how long it takes to “find a voice”, or is that just Banksy the snob speaking, hoping that no one realises that he’s as big a scam as MBW? In the end if this buffoon of a man can become a world famous street artist overnight how can Banksy rebuff the “anyone can do that” criticisms?

This isn’t just a documentary about street art. It’s about all art, the right to create, the boundaries placed on creativity by “intellectual property”. It’s a film about artists, how we’ll never really know if they were really inspired or mad or who was ever pulling the strings. That’s for them to know or not know in their thefts and manipulations, all we can do is consume what they give us and exit through the gift shop.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:            3/5
  • Intellectual:     5/5

Toys – 1992

alcpvOt (1)Christmas time has come round again and following on from last year’s review of Love Actually I would like to once again review one of my personal christmas favourites, even if it may not be well-loved by many.

Having already directed Rain Man and Good Morning Vietnam Barry Levinson set off to direct the markedly less successful Toys. Toys is a film that demands a suspension of disbelief more heightened than one is ever accustomed to. Set in the forcibly whimsical world of Zevo’s toy factory and the equally whimsical pop-up mansion the protagonists inhabit, the film loiters in a timeless void, a story that could be just as easily set in the 50’s as the modern day. The story unfolds like a modern-day fairytale, dynastic struggles, good Vs evil and innocence in the face of war. Many people have considered this an anti-war film, which, given that the film finishes in a final battle stand-off opens an easy route to crying hypocrisy. While the film has a lot to say about war, it’s not that it shouldn’t exist. More than anything it admits the presence of war, but demands that we protect children from it, and that we do not fight without just motivation. Of course, what constitutes just isn’t really the place of a Barry Levinson film to decide but it can set the ball rolling in terms of thinking about it.

There are confused elements within the film. While clearly the new security guards and tight factory regulations introduced by the General (Michael Gambon, in a splendidly funny turn) are meant to be the forces of evil (they subtly bear a ZZ symbol on their collars) the status quo we are introduced to seems equally post-apocalyptic. In enforced pastel colours groups of workers perform repetitive tasks day after day while convinced that they have “the perfect job”. I don’t know what the happy medium between this marxist pastel nightmare and the police state enforced by the general is but there has to be one. In the end it does seem like they might be on their way, with a few concessions being made to the general in the closing montage but the idea of the factory returning to how it was is not entirely comforting for anyone apart from the anthropomorphised toys themselves.

The performances in this film tend towards pantomime, since the script doesn’t allow much three-dimensional character development, notably true for Alsatia, whose character is so entirely two-dimensional that she dresses herself as a paper doll. This does get justified in perhaps the strangest and least explained plot twist (apart from the strange capacity of Michael Gambon to spawn a black son) but I guess Joan Cusack does acquit herself quite well given the bizarre demands of the script. LL Cool J, who I know of exclusively from this film and was somewhat surprised to find is a rap artist, plays his part very well but serves almost exclusively as comic relief. The two who manage to get out of stereotypes in their performance are Robin Williams and Robin Wright who act as the romantic sideplot with Wright as a perfect foil to William’s humour. They’re great performances and really sell the heart of this odd, sweet little film.

  • Entertainment: 5/5
  • Artistic:            4/5
  • Intellectual:      3/5

Hoping that everyone had a Merry Christmas and wishing you a Happy New Year from We Can’t Hear the Mime.