Some Thoughts On… The Debt (2010)

Best known as the director responsible for such safe, middle brow, award-bothering prestige productions such as Mrs Brown (1997), Shakespeare in Love (1998) and Captain Correlli’s Mandolin (2001), John Madden returns with a thriller written by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn. As might be expected from the writing team behind X-Men: First Class (2011) and Kick-Ass (2010), The Debt is a kinetic thriller that is forever promising to erupt into something a good deal more complex. However, much like both Kick-Ass and First Class, The Debt is a film that works best when it is in movement as its quiet character moments are under-written and under-powered despite some decent performances by two eye-catching casts.

Split between two timelines, The Debt tells the story of a group of 1960s Mossad agents who are sent into Soviet-controlled East Germany to kidnap a Nazi war criminal. Forced to live together, the three agents quickly stumble into a love triangle that finds the quietly intense Rachel (Jessica Chastain) having to choose between the introverted idealist David (Sam Worthington) and the arrogantly ambitious Stephan (Marton Csokas). When the kidnapping goes wrong, the three young people find themselves having to babysit an aging but fiercely intelligent Nazi who relentless probes their weaknesses and tries to set them against each other. Bookending this middle section is the film’s second timeline. Set in the 1990s, this timeframe explores the psychological consequences of the events of the film’s middle section. Still physically and psychologically scarred by her ordeal, Older Rachel (Helen Mirren) shifts uncomfortably as her daughter pays public tribute to her heroism. Meanwhile, Older David (Ciaran Hinds) is crippled by the burden of guilt and secrecy while Older Stephan’s (Tom Wilkinson) arrogant bluster has turned into tyrannical will-to-power.

The Debt features some excellent action direction and powerful sound-design that lends its fight sequences a brutal clarity that is terrifying when compared to expanses of quiet emotional desolation that dominate the rest of the film.  The scenes in which a manipulative Nazi confronts the agents are similarly impressive even though Quentin Tarantino did the same thing only better in Inglorious Basterds (2009).  Unfortunately, once the film moves beyond such genre staples, the limits to both the script and Madden’s direction start to become painfully evident.

Much of the film’s drama rests upon the tension of the plot colliding with both the characters’ back-stories and the bonds of affection that tie them together. While this occasionally works quite well (in particular the scene where Stephan seduces Rachel at the piano while the introverted David flinches in pain with every note they play), the film does not manage to pull off the bulk of its dramatic moves and because many of the film’s emotional beats fall short of the mark, many of the film’s sequences seem overly long and hopelessly flabby. Indeed, there were huge expanses of this film where time seemed to stand still as characters pouted and bemoaned some inner turmoil that never managed to feel real let alone seem particularly compelling.

The problem is that while The Debt had the potential to be an interesting genre film, the filmmakers clearly want it to be quite a bit more. Having secured a good deal of top-notch acting talent, you can sense their desire to make the most of it and maybe push for a few awards but, at the end of the day, both the script and the direction of The Debt fail to support these lofty ambitions and so a promising espionage thriller finds itself transformed into an over-long and dramatically dysfunctional exercise in thespian posturing. This film has nothing much to say about the human condition and its insistence on trying to say it for close to two hours is both depressingly and frustratingly tedious.

Some Thoughts On… Hunky Dory (2011)

Set in a Welsh comprehensive during the long hot summer of 1976, Marc Evans’ Hunky Dory tells of a bohemian drama teacher (Minnie Driver) who returns home after the death of her father and the collapse of her long-strived for career. Hoping to inject a bit of sunshine into the lives of her pupils Viv starts to pull together a version of The Tempest filled with musical numbers culled from the albums of David Bowie, Beach Boys and The Byrds. Faced with institutional hostility on the one hand and student indifference on the other, Viv strives to convince everyone of the importance of expressing oneself even when one’s life is falling apart.

Marc Evans is very much a journeyman director whose work in film (1998’s Resurrection Man and 2002’s My Little Eye) and television (2009’s Collision) has elicited some praise but not enough to make him a director with much of a following. Despite Evans’ somewhat patchy track record, Hunky Dory finds him on fine form as every shot screams ‘Long Hot Summer’ through sweat-glazed sepia tones while the film’s pacing never once slows or drags. Indeed, despite the fact that I did not think very much of this film, there is no denying that Evans perfectly understands the ‘string of pearls’ nature of genre plotting and so we are never more than a few minutes from a song or a big dramatic scene. On a purely structural and cinematic level, Hunky Dory is a very effective piece of filmmaking.  Which is strange given that pretty much every other aspect of this film fails to deliver.

The biggest problem affecting Hunky Dory is Laurence Coriat’s script. As one might expect from a coming-of-age teen musical, Hunky Dory is littered with Big Dramatic Scenes where characters learn about themselves and about life. Unfortunately, despite these scenes popping up quite frequently, Hunky Dory lacks the requisite amount of characterisation to lend these scenes the dramatic substance to which they so obviously aspire. For example, there is one scene in which the school hall burns down and Driver’s Viv rounds on her fellow teachers in order to challenge their hostility to the play. But because neither the sports teacher nor the social studies teacher are properly fleshed out, Viv’s grand exit from the room feels like a laughably childish flounce. Like most of Hunky Dory’s Big Dramatic Scenes, this was the pay-off to a dramatic arc that simply does not exist. Another example of this is the scene in which Viv finds an engraving of her dead father’s motto ‘Don’t Let The Bastards Grind You Down’. This discovery is clearly supposed to rekindle Viv’s faith in the stalled project but because neither Coriat’s script nor Evans’ direction bother to flesh out Viv’s relationship with her father, the scene feels like nothing more than a dishonest and undeserved emotional contrivance. By repeatedly trying to milk the pay-off to dramatic arcs that simply do not exist, Hunky Dory comes close to achieving the levels of hysteria found in Michael Bay’s Transformers 3 as Everyone! Is! Very! Upset! All! The! Fucking! Time! For! No! Apparent! Reason!

The weakness of Hunky Dory’s characterisation also carries across into much of its plotting as the film is littered with tensions and conflicts which, though useful in terms of moving the narrative forward, lack anything approaching psychological verisimilitude or emotional resonance. For example, when the school hall burns down the police decide to question Darren Evans’ ‘troubled’ skinhead Kenny. Discussing the fact that Kenny could not have done it, a couple of kids are confronted by Kenny’s skinhead brother who asks whether they shopped him to the police. Rather than simply saying No and going on their way, the pair decides to run off and a pointless chase ensues. Well… I say pointless but this race across town does serve to set up one of the kids discovering that his best friend is dating his sister. Because this is deemed unacceptable (for reasons that are largely glossed over), people get upset and this causes a Big Dramatic Scene with running and shouting. A scene that, again, feels utterly contrived and dramatically undeserved.

Aside from its weak characterisation and clunky plotting, Hunky Dory is also weighted down by some of the ugliest line-by-line writing that I have ever encountered. Coriat’s script is a wasteland of flaccid zingers and awkward exchanges littered with dull expletives in a desperate attempt to make it all seem a bit more real and a bit more urgent. Also deeply problematic is the film’s use of words such as “poof” and “paki”. While there is no denying that people in the mid-70s did use those terms, Hunky Dory not only strips them of their context but also fails to hold the people who use them to account. For example, one of the main characters becomes a skinhead but unlike Shane Meadows’ This is England (2006), Hunky Dory never explains what this means or why it might be a bad thing. Instead, the film presents racism and homophobia as mere local colour no different to a love of rugby or the quaintness of growing up without a telephone. Similarly, while I realise that Julia Perez’s Sylvie is supposed to be a comic character, her character’s comic impact lies in its stereotypical nature: French people have sex all the time and smoke! Ha Ha Ha! Period setting is no excuse for that kind of lazy and xenophobic writing. It simply has no place in a modern British film.

Of course, Hunky Dory is ultimately a genre piece and while it fails as both a comedy and a musical, the film might have been redeemed had its musical elements been successful. Unfortunately, they are not. Much of Hunky Dory’s marketing bumf stresses the fact that the film features classic works of 60s and 70s pop. While this may conjure up images of High School Musical (2006) meets Mama Mia (2008), the truth is that Hunky Dory’s songs are mostly quite obscure. Indeed, despite being in my mid-30s, I only recognised one of the tunes and even then it was because the tune was covered by Nirvana. Equally unimpressive are the performances of the mostly youthful cast who both lack charisma and display a terrifying tendency to wander off the note. Though some of the musical numbers are okay, none are particularly memorable and a few are faintly embarrassing. A lot of the singing in Hunky Dory is so flat that it could be Holland.

Clearly, I am not the target audience for Hunky Dory but I do see what it is that the film is trying to achieve. Inspired by the massive success of High School Musical and the TV series Glee, Hunky Dory is an attempt to do something a bit similar but set in Wales and with a slightly cooler soundtrack. Hunky Dory should have been about the power of music and performance to guide and transform teenaged lives, to find those that are lost and fix those that are broken. Hunky Dory should have been, as Driver’s character says, about the heroism of self-expression in a time and place where everybody wants you to shut up and knuckle down. Sadly, because of its weak performances, unimpressive musical numbers and astonishingly weak script, Hunky Dory is none of these things. All it is is a mess.

Some Thought On… Last Screening (2011)

Reminiscent of both Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) and the genre-art house hybridisation of Nicolas Wending Refn’s Drive (2011), Laurent Achard’s Derniere Séance deconstructs the traditional horror film only to reassemble it as a dark and brooding meditation on the delights of cinephilia.

The one thing that unites all members of a cinema audience is the fact that they are members of a cinema audience. Because of this simple tautology, audiences tend to respond well to films that praise them for their decision to go to the cinema.  What do Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988) and Truffaut’s 400 Blows (1959) have in common? They both pander to their audiences by validating their love of film. Achard’s Last Screening is also about loving the cinema but rather than praising his audience for their good taste, Achard lambasts them for their toxic self-indulgence.

Sylvain (Pascal Cervo) is the manager of a repertory cinema in provincial France. Utterly devoted to the cinema, Sylvain seldom goes out except to kill women and cut off their ears. Much like Powell’s Peeping Tom, Last Screening muses on the voyeuristic nature of cinema and Achard repeatedly assails us with shots of people staring blankly at the camera setting up a similar mirroring effect to that of Kiarostami’s Shirin (2008), where the audience sat watching a cinema audience that could just as easily have been watching them. Achard also litters his film with images of darkened figures staring at illuminated performers, further extending his explicit comparison between the voyeurism of the cinema-goer and the voyeurism of the predatory serial killer. Postmodern cinematography aside, Achard’s critique of cinephilia also extends to the film’s plot as Sylvain’s crimes turn out to be motivated by a desire to recapture the film-viewing moments of his youth. For Achard, cinephilia is clearly a source of genuine joy (he obviously adores Renoir’s French Cancan) but that joy can also turn toxic as a love of old film can result in people becoming stuck in the past or shut off to new forms and experiences. With Sylvain, Achard offers us an image of twisted cinephilia.

Though marketed as a horror film, Last Screening is really more of an art house project. Seldom frightening, seldom tense and only occasionally gory, its murders are not sensationalist ends in themselves but props in Achard’s wider exploration of Sylvain’s twisted mental state.  As you might expect from an art house character study, Last Screening’s pacing in slow, deliberate and filled with languid extended takes in which nothing much happens and nothing is said. Elegantly shot and intelligently conceived, Last Screening is a combative and genuinely thought-provoking film whose absolute lack of sentiment about film itself serves as a timely antidote to a medium that can be altogether too swift to pat itself on the back.

Some Thought On… Kill List (2011)

A little while ago, I was lucky enough to attend a British film festival designed to find foreign distributors for British films. While only a few of the festival’s films showed any promise, what they all demonstrated was the relative ease with which British thrillers were able to secure funding. Jean-luc Goddard once said that all you needed to make a film is a girl and a gun and low-budget British filmmakers seemed to be proving exactly that. Over the last couple of years, this financial trend has blossomed into a full-scale British genre revival including such works of psychological tension as J Blakeson’s The Disappearance of Alice Creed (2009), Matthew Hope’s The Veteran (2011) and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011). All of these films speak to the darkness of the human soul with a style and grace that elevate them above predictable exploitation narratives into something altogether more interesting.  Ben Wheatley’s Kill List is yet further proof of the intellectual vibrancy of the British thriller, it is one of the most effective films I have seen this year.

Wheatley began his feature-length directorial career with the micro-budgeted crime film Down Terrace (2009).  Grounded in dysfunctional human psychology, Down Terrace blurred the line between genre and traditional drama by embedding its narrative in a seemingly banal working-class environment. Wheatley’s desire to ground his films in the mundane details of everyday life continues with Kill List. Kill List opens by introducing us to Jay (Neil Maskell), a working-class man enjoying a comfortable middle-class life with his son and beautiful Swedish wife Shel (MyAnna Buring). Claiming to be suffering from back pain, Jay has not worked for eight months and the couple are now running in to the sorts of financial difficulties that put strains on even the most loving of marriages. Aware that Jay may not be completely ‘ready’ to go back to work, Shel invites Jay’s old partner Gal (Michael Smiley) over for dinner in the hope of luring her husband from retirement.

Having painted a scene of mundane domesticity in beautifully vibrant colour, Wheatley then sets about filling in the shadows. When Gal’s date for the evening pops to the loo, she turns the mirror over and carves a strange rune into the back of it.  Meanwhile, Gal and Jay chat about the old days in evasive terms until one of them pulls out an assault rifle.  Clearly, Jay and Gal’s mundane lower-middle class existence is supported thanks to a decidedly unusual career. The oddness of the boys’ day job is made all the more clear in an extraordinary sequence that transforms a mundane business meeting into an occult rite by having the boys sign their acceptance of the contract in blood. From there, the film becomes progressively more and more weird, and more and more disturbing.

As in Down Terrace, Wheatley breaks the action down into chapters by filling the screen with text.  Thus, the first hit on the kill list is ‘The Priest’ and then we move on to ‘The Librarian’ and ‘The M.P.’ before concluding with ‘The Hunchback’.  Ostensibly quite a crude piece of meta-narration, these inter-titles serve not only to anchor the narrative as the film’s narrative structures begin to fray, they also serve to heighten the sense of unreality surrounding Jay’s working life. What kind of professional to-do list features hunchbacks, priests and members of parliament? The further the film progresses, the more the fantastical encroaches upon the lives of the characters and the more the characters begin to crack under pressure with cinematography, sound-design and narrative working in unison to present a powerful and psychotropic voyage into the outer darkness.

Looking at the critical coverage this film has received, it is clear that critics have struggled to pin down the argument behind Kill List. Though beautifully realised and almost insanely tense, the film’s profligate use of familiar themes and images make interpreting it something of an uphill battle.  Is the film about Jay’s nervous breakdown (fore-shadowed by early trips to the supermarket and the doctor)? Is it a tale of morality set against an ink-black British underworld filled with mercurial figures?  Or is it simply a beautifully made thriller that borrows from the crime and horror genres to produce a cinematic experience that pushes all of the audience’s buttons at once? Obviously, Kill List is all of these things (and none) but my impression was of a film that ventures onto the same territory as the work of Thomas Ligotti.

Thomas Ligotti is one of the finest American horror writers of the last fifty years. Unfairly overshadowed by ancestors such as Lovecraft and more commercial contemporaries such as Stephen King, Ligotti’s collections of short fiction are seldom in print and seldom easy to write about. However, one of the recurring motifs in Ligotti’s work is the horror of the workplace. Short stories such as “The Town Manager” and “Our Temporary Supervisor” as well as longer pieces such as the novella My Work is Not Yet Done, reflect upon the surreal brutality of an institution that consumes most of your waking life whilst humiliating and dehumanising you from dawn till dusk. Kill List vocalises the same sense of surreal disconnection as the work of Ligotti; Jay is called upon to carry out tasks that he does not comprehend (his employer calls him “a cog”) and these tasks carry a heavy psychological burden.  Ideally, Jay would not have to work at all but in order to feed his family and keep them in the style to which they have become accustomed, Jay must return to work and do what it is that he has to do. Even when Jay wants to quit and go home, work follows him to his door.  There is simply no escaping the workplace. The film’s final denouement offers Jay the possibility of escape but makes it abundantly clear what price he will be expected to pay for his freedom.

Kill List’s denouement encompasses all of the strengths and weaknesses of Wheatley’s film: beautifully shot and powerfully scored, Kill List’s final scenes are a master class in pure cinematic tension. However, the impressionistic quality of the direction and the embarrassment of symbolic riches also create a distinct sense of directorial profligacy. Rather than restrain himself and pin Jay’s experiences down to a singular precise meaning, Wheatley ends his film in the broadest way imaginable: we know that Jay is unhappy, we know that his unhappiness is linked to issues of sanity, morality and family but beyond that the film’s emotional and psychological content is vague and elusive. Kill List makes its point with considerable style and power but as the smoke clears and the credits roll, it is by no means clear that that point might have been.

 

Some Thoughts On… Project Nim (2011)

Last year, the French documentarian Nicolas Philibert produced Nenette (2010), a film that used footage of an orang-utan and recordings taken in a zoo to demonstrate the human tendency to project human emotions onto animals. Nenette also demonstrated that human speculations about the inner lives of apes tend to tell us a lot more about the humans than they do about the apes. James Marsh’s latest documentary Project Nim ploughs much the same furrow by exploring the attempt by a group of 1970s scientists to teach a chimp to sign.

Project Nim focuses upon the story of Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee who was removed from his mother and brought up by humans in an attempt to see if treating a chimp like a human might encourage him to think and communicate like one.   Initially, Nim is entrusted to the care of a wealthy hippy family whose laid-back approach to parenting results in Nim effectively taking control of the house.  Concerned that the chimp is getting what he wants through social dominance rather than by acquiring language skills, the project director Herbert S. Terrace removes Nim from his surrogate family and places him in the care of a group of specialised teachers.  While these teachers manage to imbue Nim with an incredibly rich vocabulary, the older Nim becomes, the harder it is to control him. When Nim bites his teacher’s face, Terrace decides to end the project and place the chimp in a research facility where his life gets progressively worse.

The foreground of the documentary is devoted to a somewhat uneven engagement with the project’s ethical standards. Terrace is depicted as a shameless opportunist who uses both his students and Nim to build an academic career before cutting both adrift without a moment’s hesitation or regret.  While this foreground narrative produces a number of touching moments, it is fatally undermined by Marsh’s bizarre insistence upon reminding us that Nim is a wild animal who should not be thought of in human terms.  The result is a film that coaxes its audience into empathising with a chimp before slapping them down for doing precisely this.  Mercifully, the film’s background proves far more rewarding.

Stepping back from the details of Nim’s life, Project Nim does an absolutely brilliant job of conveying the weirdness of 1970s academic culture. For example, Nim’s original foster family included a woman who breast-fed Nim and then allowed the chimp to ‘explore her body’ as part of her informal personal research into the Oedipus complex. Predictably enough, once Nim is transferred to the care of a group of scientists, they follow the original foster mother in using Nim as a vehicle for their own desires and ambitions. One ambitious graduate student wrestled control of Nim’s education from the foster family as a means of acquiring Terrace’s attention, this lead to a brief affair that resulted in one dumped graduate student and one chimp deprived of a mother-figure. The more figures from Nim’s life the film introduces, the more obvious it becomes that while everyone was eager to do what was best for Nim, their assessments of what was ‘best’ usually depended upon what was convenient for them.  This is particularly obvious in the case of Terrace whose termination of the project results in Nim being sold for medical research.  His charge cast into the outer darkness, Terrace promptly produced a book in which he argues that Nim was nothing more than a hugely accomplished beggar who never really understood the language he was using. Unsurprisingly, the humans who come across as most sympathetic are the ones whose visions of Nim emphasise his human characteristics.  Particularly sympathetic is the Dead Head primate handler who treats Nim as just another pot-smoking fellow traveller.

The fact that our sympathies tend to lie with those who treat Nim like a person rather than an animal says a lot about our own empathic tendencies and the film’s capacity for inviting us to fall into the same trap as Nim’s original handlers.  However, as clever as this manipulation may be, the film’s refusal to engage with empathic projection head-on results in frustratingly lightweight fare. Yes, we extend empathy to a chimp because the chimp behaves like a human but so what? What does this say about us? What does it mean for our relationships to animals as a whole? Are we wrong to treat animals as humans or are those who treat chimps like animals unethical monsters? Project Nim tries to address some of these questions without getting bogged down in the sort of heavy philosophical speculation that might alienate audiences but by raising questions in such an oblique fashion and then failing to develop them in any meaningful way, Project Nim only manages to remind us of quite how much can be achieved with footage of an orang-utan and the sound of zoo visitors wildly projecting their own worries onto the indifferent figure of an ape.

Some Thoughts On… The Big Picture (2010)

Before I share my thoughts on L’Homme Qui Voulait Vivre Sa Vie, I feel under the obligation to point and laugh at the film’s British trailer. Watching the trailer, one could be forgiven for thinking that this is yet another film in the great art house/indie tradition of stories about middle-class French people who are a bit unhappy until they encounter a life-changing event that forces them to question who they are and what they do. See Romain Duris cry!  See Catherine Deneuve pout with disapproval!  See a wealthy French man fleeing responsibility in search of his true self.  Oh the terrible pathos! Mais ou est mon Cesar? While it is fair to say that this narrative is present in Eric Lartigau’s The Big Picture, the trailer completely fails to convey the fact that this bog-standard existential narrative is presented in the form of a thriller… and a deliciously odd one at that.

Paul Exben (Romain Duris) is a wealthy and successful lawyer living in the suburbs.  His wife Sarah (Marina Fois) is beautiful and his kids are charming.  His professional practice is thriving and his partner (Catherine Deneuve) has just announced that she is dying and that she is intending to sign the practice entirely over to him.  Exben has everything he needs to make him happy and yet he is miserable and he is miserable because his life is a lie.  He never wanted to become a lawyer, he never wanted to marry his wife and he never wanted to settle down in the suburbs and have kids.  He wanted to be a photographer and all the high-priced gadgets and art books in the world are not going to turn him into one.  Paul is living a lie and he hates himself for it.

Painfully aware of the deep vein of misery lurking beneath her husband’s outward shows of manic happiness, Sarah knows that Paul hates himself and so she has started an affair with a local man who did decide to pursue the dream of becoming a professional photographer.  Aware that something is wrong at home, Paul begins sniping at his wife until she leaves with the kids.  Playing a hunch, Paul visits his neighbour and winds up getting into a struggle that leaves the man dead.  Refusing to panic, Paul starts to draw up plans that will allow him to get away not only with murder but also with living the life of another person.

Lartigau treats this first act as a straightforward thriller. Full of sneaking and plotting, the scenes pop with tension as Duris uses a horrific accident as a springboard to construct a new life.  Having successfully stolen his neighbour’s identity and faked his own death, Duris flees to Hungary where he starts to build a career as a professional photographer. Once the action is transferred to Hungary, The Big Picture shifts from Highsmithian thriller to traditional art house as Duris attempts to find himself amidst the shipyards and mountain views of Eastern Europe.  Freed from the burden of his old li(f)e, Exben finds himself labouring under a somewhat different one.

As a Parisian lawyer, Exben fooled himself into thinking that he had no choice but to live the life he had. Terrified by the possibility of failure, Exben buried his dreams beneath a veneer of self-confident professionalism where they rotted into a form of self-loathing so intense that it destroyed his marriage and claimed the life of a neighbour.  As a French photographer in Hungary, Exben may well be living under an assumed identity but his real fear is that people will discover that the gifted photographer really is nothing more than a bluffer.  A chancer who bullshitted his way in the door and then used the opportunity to carve out a slice of fame and fortune. Far from being unique to Exben, these are the sorts of lies that fuel the anxieties of millions of people every day: Do we really love our partners or did we just settle? Are we really happy in our jobs? Are we deluding ourselves into thinking we can make it? When will they realise that we don’t really know what we are doing?  It is not the unique character of these lies that make The Big Picture a memorable film but rather the different ways in which Lartigau forces Exben to confront them.

When Exben first realises that he is living a lie, he reacts to a catastrophic event with astonishing calm and competence.  Masking his inner turmoil from his wife, he plans his escape and swings into action: problem solved. His escape made, he then finds himself on the receiving end of a problem that demands an entirely different approach.  While Exben can escape his first lie by becoming an action hero, his second lie cannot be solved in so straightforward a manner.  Indeed, in order to overcome the lie that he is just not good enough to work as a professional photographer, Exben has to resort to emotional exile and the slow but sure payment of dues.  As the months tick past, he slowly builds a new life for himself, a life that not only allows him to work as a professional photographer but also to look at himself in the mirror and know that he is a talented artist.

What I adore about The Big Picture is the fact that, while it shows a man overcoming self-delusion in two completely different ways, it also makes the point that self-delusion is not something that can ultimately be solved.  Not by sneaking around and not by exile and therapeutic introspection.  Indeed, having created a new life for himself as a photographer and escaped two toxic lies, Exben finds himself having to escape from a third lie, that of the assumed identity.  Again, the film shifts register.  This time from introspective art house drama to mad psychotropic Horror film.

The Big Picture’s final act finds Exben alone on an oil tanker on his way to South America.  Having fled two different li(v)es, he now finds himself poised to rebuild again.  However, one night he is locked in his room by the crew. Upon sneaking out and grabbing his camera, Exben discovers the crew about to chuck a pair of stowaways overboard in the middle of the ocean.  After snapping a few shots and deciding to challenge the captain, Exben is chucked overboard too.

The film ends with Exben having successfully faked his own death twice. No longer either a Parisian lawyer or a Parisian photographer working in Hungary, he looks across at his fellow dumpee and smiles the first unself-conscious smile of the film.  He is free… he has escaped three lives and three lies and worked his way through three separate genres… but for how long is he free?  Are lies really the sorts of thing that can be escaped or are they instead the things that make up our lives?  Exben has had more than his fair share of lives and both of them have been good ones.  Why does he think that the next one will be any better?

Given its conspicuous lack of a clear ‘take home’ message and its bewildering shifts in tone, it would have been easy for The Big Picture to come across as a muddle and a mess. While Lartigau’s direction is creditable and the film’s photography is impressive, what really holds the film together is Romain Duris’ performance.  Duris, let it be said, is not a handsome man.  He is a short man with spindly legs, a lantern jaw and hair that looks like matted pubes.  As a lawyer, he seems too young and insouciant.  As a photographer he seems overly steely and serious.  However, it is precisely because of these weird inconsistencies and tensions that Duris is perfect in this role.  As with his international breakthrough performance in Jacques Audiard’s The Beat With My Heart Skipped (2005), Duris plays a man who is at war with himself.  In both films, Duris’ character is trapped between a real life and a dream life and, in both films, there is the distinct possibility that he fits into neither.  The Big Picture raises the question that there is no single path that we ought to be walking. Lives are not things that we deny ourselves but things that we live.  Yes, life demands that we lie but so what? Duris’ brittle fragility and manic excesses make him the perfect choice for the role of a man who peels back lie after lie after lie only to realise that, deep down, there is nothing there.  Humans, it turns out, are lies all the way down.

Some Thoughts On… Beginners (2010)

Let me begin by saying that I went in to Beginners with an open heart. Mike Mills’ semi-autobiographical story of a man groping towards a sense of identity and a reliable source of happiness in the wake of parental death is pretty much where I have been living for the last twelve months. However, rather than seeing elements of my own experience in Mills’ gently affecting comedy-drama, I was struck only by the grinding mediocrity of his insights, the laziness of his exposition and the shameful over-reliance on art house narrative techniques to pad out a story that involves far too much hand-waving and not nearly enough heart-tugging or head-scratching.

Writer/director Mike Mills projects himself onto Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a professional illustrator who is struggling to put his life back together after the death of first his mother and then his father.

As Oliver cleans out his father’s house, he comes across a personal ad drawn up by his dad in the wake of his mother’s death, a personal ad written in hope of attracting some younger male lovers. Indeed, though Oliver’s parents Hal (Christopher Plummer) and Georgia (Mary Page Keller) were married for decades without a hint of either separation or divorce, Hal was actually gay. His wife buried, Hal comes out of the closet aged seventy-three and spends three years living the sort of life that he should have been living all along.  A life filled with sex, socialising, clubbing and political activism.

Oliver’s experiences nursing his father through grief, self-realisation and terminal illness are laid bare in a narrative that is inter-cut with scenes from Oliver’s present, a present in which he has embarked upon a relationship with a French actress named Anna (Melanie Laurent). By interweaving elements from Oliver’s past and his present, the film slowly points out the similarities between Oliver’s life and that of his father:

Hal grew up at a time when being gay was treated as both a mental illness and a moral failing. In the hope of living something approaching a ‘normal’ life, Hal decided to marry a woman he could not love in the hope that happiness might come to him by osmosis.  We later see Hal repeating this pattern with his younger boyfriend Andy (Goran Visnjic), whose desire to sleep with other men clearly hurts the naturally monogamous Hal. Oliver, by contrast finds himself unwilling to make any concessions to the women he dates.  Easily trapped in love’s initial dizzying updraft, Oliver soon finds himself getting bored and restless with his relationships. Incapable of understanding why he should tolerate anything other than perfect happiness, Oliver sinks his relationships and winds up alone again and again. Beginners is essentially the story of Oliver’s realisation that happiness and love are born of compromise and realism rather than rare passion and emotional perfectionism. Neither of Hal’s relationships were perfect and yet he lived a happy life.  Oliver is unwilling to put up with anything short of absolute happiness and is unwilling to compromise or work at being happy and so he winds up being far more miserable and alone than a man who was gay in the 1950s.  In other words, Oliver is as spoiled and narcissistic as he is self-involved.  This is ultimately why the film fails to convince.

Beginners’ root problem is the fact that it really does not have very much to say.  The fact that Oliver is utterly self-involved is obvious in almost every beat of the film.  We can see it in the fact that the film’s most insightful comments emerge during Oliver’s one-sided conversations with his dog, we can see it in the fact that he initially falls for Anna because she literally cannot speak and we see it in the fact that Hal’s story is used largely as a prop for Oliver’s generic brand of soul-searching. Indeed, it turns out that when a gay man spends fifty years living a lie only to snatch a few years of happiness in the shadow of terminal cancer, it really is all about the straight guy. By choosing to focus not upon Hal’s story but upon what Oliver learns from Hal’s story, Beginners reduces the social history of an entire generation of gay men to the status of props in the on-going indulgence of a generation of white, middle-class straight people whose dull and shallow problems already form the backbone of the indie canon. Worse still is the fact that, despite plundering the lives of a generation of gay men, Mills still struggles to come up with anything to say.  Oliver begins the film as a sad, self-involved narcissist and he ends the film as a sad, self-involved narcissist without budging an inch or generating a single spark of insight in the process.

Aside from the dubious treatment of homosexuality and the general lack of insight into the human condition, what most annoys about Beginners are its rare flashes of complexity. For example, Mills occasionally transports us beyond the two interweaving narratives to Oliver’s relationship with his mother. Intriguingly, despite Hal and Georgia’s marriage coming at Georgia’s insistence, Georgia is presented as the victim of Hal’s dishonesty.  Witty, wise and spunky in the best traditions of mid-century femininity, Georgia is endless lovely and this loveliness filters through into Oliver’s present in a decidedly Oedipal way. Indeed, while the foreground of the film suggests that Oliver’s unhappiness may be due to his similarity to his father, the film’s background subtly hints that Oliver’s failure to find love may be due to a lingering and yet intense sexual longing for his own mother. We see this in the way that Oliver’s seduction of Anna allows him to replay moments shared with his mother and we see it in the fact that Oliver meets Anna at a costume party where he is dressed as Sigmund Freud. The truth of Oliver’s emotional dysfunction is further hinted at in the fact that, when Oliver first meets Anna, she is dressed as a man.  Sadly, while Beginners may hint at some real emotional complexity, the hints are never connected to anything in the film’s foreground and so remain nothing more than free-floating suggestions that could just as easily be the product of a starving critical brain in desperate search of insight.

Mills’ potential as a writer/director is also evident in his willingness to play tricks with the genre.  For example, one of the most popular genre templates for romantic comedies is the story of a depressed man who learns to love again thanks to the life-changing ministrations of a quirky female love interest whose vivacity cuts straight through his emotional exile.  These quirky female love interests are generally known as Manic Pixie Dream Girls. Initially, Beginners suggests that Anna may well be such a dream girl but, as the film progresses, it rapidly becomes clear that Anna is nothing of the sort.  In fact, she is just as moody and self-involved as Oliver. In fact, if Beginners can be said to possess a Manic Pixie then the Manic Pixie in question is Andy, Hal’s Manic Pixie Dream Boy. However, while it is undeniably good news that American film has progressed to the point where it can happily transform heterosexual clichés into homosexual ones, it is frustrating to note that none of Wills’ genre-bending exertions serve any wider purpose.

Aside from being frustrating and stupid, Beginners is also a crushingly boring film.  Billed as a comedy-drama, Beginners contains few laughs and little drama. What drama it does have is stretched to breaking point by the sort of long, drawn-out silences and palate-cleansing interludes that one would normally associate with art house film. Recent months have seen numerous critics rallying to the cause of cinematic boredom as a response to the on-rushing tide of cinematic spectacle that is the Hollywood blockbuster. Critics routinely cite the work of directors such as Yasujiro Ozu, Kelly Reichardt and Andrei Tarkovsky as proof that you can make beautiful films which, because of their lack of plot, are boring. However, while I agree that slow-paced films in which nothing happens can be superb, I do feel the need to point out that none of Ozu, Reichardt or Tarkovsky’s films are actually boring, they simply rely upon a suite of visual and atmospheric storytelling techniques that require lengthy pauses to allow the audience to assimilate what they have seen.  Beginners is a boring film, not because it contains numerous pauses, but because it lacks the sort of visual, atmospheric and emotional complexity that requires careful assimilation and reflection. While Tarkovsky’s pauses allow us to realise the depth of his thinking, Wills’ pauses reveal only a lack of insight and a series of wasted opportunities.