REVIEW – Chevalier (2015)

FilmJuice have my review of Athina Rachel Tsangari’s excellent third film Chevalier.

Tsangari is a director who sits in the shadow of Yorgos Lanthimos. Lanthimos began to turn heads back in 2009 when the excellent Dogtooth used surreal imagery to paint a picture of a young generation that was being slowly crushed by the deluded ideas of their parents. Tsangari may have produced Dogtooth and given Lanthimos his big break but the fact that Dogtooth hit big while Tsangari’s first film did not means that it was easy for some critics to view Tsangari as the junior in that particular creative partnership. This is rather unfortunate as Tsangari’s breakthrough film Attenberg showed her to be by far the superior talent. Indeed, I consider Tsangari (along with Celine Sciamma) to be one of only a handful of really interesting film directors working in European cinema today.

Much like Attenberg, Tsangari’s Chevalier is funny, weird and politically astute in a way that will only become more obvious with the passage of time.

The film is set onboard a luxury yacht where a group of wealthy middle-aged men are enjoying an off-season holiday. Right from the start, the energies at work within the group are noticeably weird but things start to get really strange when one of the men suggests a competition that involves everyone awarding each other points in order to determine something resembling an objective pecking order within the group:

Unsurprisingly, the boundary-less nature of this competition serves only to accelerate and amplify tensions present within the group. This means that an already bizarre holiday gets progressively weirder and more unpleasant the longer it is allowed to last: Time and again, failure to succeed at challenges set by the group leads to loss of face and emotional breakdowns that somehow never quite blossom into either outright violence or the kind of transgressive sexual activity suggested by that image of the bloke showing his feet to someone over the internet. This is a holiday on which older men obsess about their sexual potency while younger men smoulder with resentment at the amount of control exerted over them by more senior and wealthier members of the group. Friendships rise and fall, alliances are made and broken, lies are spun and abandoned, but none of it ever seems to matter.

What makes this film so interesting and timely is the fact that it is — quite obviously — about male sexual desire and how those thwarted desires can result in the birth of political abominations.

There was an interesting piece in this week’s Guardian about the Alt-right and how Donald Trump’s head political strategist has nurtured a connection between right-wing politics and what is often referred to as the ‘manosphere’:

An online subculture centred around hatred, anger and resentment of feminism specifically, and women more broadly.

I have a lot of respect for Abi Wilkinson as a political commentator but I actually think that she has this precisely backwards… The Manosphere is not built around hating either women in general or feminism in particular, it’s a space devoted to indulging male sexual fantasies to the point where they are completely unconnected to reality. It is that disconnection from reality that fuels the resentment and anger.

The Manosphere is in some ways quite similar to the world of fan-fiction where a predominantly female crowd write stories that take characters from popular culture and imagine them not only in non-canonical emotional relationships but also in sexual relationships that are as explicit as they are transgressive. The difference between the worlds of fan-fiction and the Manosphere is that while the literary and derivative nature of fan-fiction allows women to indulge their various kinks whilst keeping a clear boundary between their kinks and their ‘real’ sexualities, the Manosphere not only encourages men to fantasise but to do so in a way that stresses the connection between the stuff they have and the stuff they secretly want.

The Manosphere encourages men to internalise their pornographic obsessions and urges them to act on those obsessions. It achieves this by forging links between the consumption of porn and the employment of sex workers on the one hand and learning how to trick desirable women into sex on the other.It’s no surprise that Reddit features so prominently in discussions of the Alt-Right as the structure of Reddit allows people to indulge their pornographic desires and their desire for political engagement without ever leaving the site. The problem with connecting the stuff you use to jerk off with the stuff you use to make decisions about your life is that almost nobody can afford endless escorts, expensive cars, exclusive gym memberships, and flash wardrobes that are positioned as solutions to the problem of involuntary celibacy.

In effect, the Alt-right is an epidemic of blue balls that has bootstrapped itself into a political movement as all of that sexual frustration has curdled into resentment at the women who refuse to play ball. That resentment has now been weaponised by political operatives in the same way 1970s Republicans weaponised the moral discontent of the Evangelical revival.

The plot of Chevalier does not explicitly mention the Alt-right but it does deal with a load of emotionally under-developed men who are incapable of controlling their sexual desires and so allow those desires to manifest themselves as a weird yearning for social domination. The film’s political edge comes from the fact that while the men battle for dominance, the real world is seen as nothing more than a set of empty buildings on a distant horizon. The sexual energies of the Alt-right are not just toxic but solipsistic in that it begins by drawing on male desire for things they cannot have and then tells them that they can have these things by brutalising women and minorities on their way to remaking the world.

REVIEW – Louder Than Bombs (2015)

FilmJuice have my review of Joachim Trier’s third feature film Louder than Bombs. I must admit to being rather disappointed with this film as, on paper, it is pretty much exactly the type of film I tend to enjoy. The film revolves around the family of a successful war photographer played by the wonderful Isabelle Huppert. After years of bickering with her husband, the photographer agrees to retire only to wind up dying in what appears to be a car accident. Without the photographer’s cycle of anxious departure and grateful return to hold the family together, the husband falls out with his two sons until a retrospective of the photographer’s career brings them all together to forces them to confront old problems.

What I liked about this film was Trier’s willingness to break with conventional style, narrative, and character-development to suggest that while the photographer may have been a different person at home and in the field, the same is also true of those she left behind. In effect, the film suggests that rather than having a ‘true self’, people have (a) an internal conflict between the person they are and the person they want to be, and (b) a series of external conflicts between the personas they inhabit and the way that other people see them. In essence, this is a film about the chaotic groundlessness of the self and why every attempt to understand each other or define ourselves is doomed to failure.I tend to like art that deals with the concept of the self and I particularly appreciate it when works ride out against the Victorian novelistic idea that people have well-formed characters that exist as part of dramatically-satisfying narrative arcs.

What I didn’t like about this film is that while Trier seemed willing to ride out against these Victorian ideas, he seemed weirdly reluctant to give up a lot of the storytelling aesthetics and narrative techniques that accompany the Victorian novelist’s ideas about selfhood:

The problem is that while Trier uses a number of clever cinematic techniques to articulate his ideas about identity, the bulk of the film remains grounded in a very traditional approach to both storytelling and character. Thus, while the film builds towards moments of family reconciliation and acceptance of hidden truths about the mother, it also wants to suggest that the mother is fundamentally unknowable and that true reconciliation is a psychological impossibility. The result is a film that contains some lovely moments and a few nice touches but feels both unfinished and half-hearted.

The FilmJuice review was originally going to be a bit longer as reading a bit about Joachim Trier’s career brought to mind an interesting quirk in the way film critics write about the industry.

Usually, when people write about the careers of creative people they tend to emphasise the individual agency of their subjects. While these types of stories have their place, they tend to downplay the extent to which the film industry requires a steady stream of supplicants who will inevitably be broken and remade to fit into whichever professional niches happen to need filling. In truth, it really does not matter what brought the likes of Chris Pratt and Ryan Reynolds to the acting profession as Hollywood will always need charming men who are handsome and easy to work with.

Hollywood has a long history of making ‘inside baseball’ films that dwell on the harsh realities of the acting profession but American film tends to pull its punches when it comes to considering the people say behind the camera. For every Living in Oblivion there are a dozen films like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Sunset Boulevard. In fact, one of the most refreshing things about the French New Wave was that films like Le Mepris and Day for Night were happy to suggest that writers and directors are often just as disposable as actors.

Looking at Joachim Trier’s career thus far, I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised if he wound up directing Oscarbait at some point in the next ten years. Louder than Bombs contains some cleverness but not so much cleverness that it overwhelms the acting and the excellent cast suggests that Trier is already proving adept at attracting bankable talent. While I won’t labour the point, I think that the careers of ambitious directors like Trier should be spoken of not in terms of personal vision but in terms of their ability to do a job and fill a professional niche. Hollywood needs people who can direct actors and be a little bit clever just as it needs people who are used to working quickly and taking orders from executive producers.

 

REVIEW — Couple in a Hole (2015)

*taps mic* Is this thing still on? Good.

FilmJuice have my review of Tom Geens’ excellent Couple in a Hole, a Anglo-French drama that set amidst the mountains and forests of South-Western France. While my critical career has not exactly been on the ascendant in recent years, I have really enjoyed the opportunity to write about films that hype forgot. In fairness, many of these films have been mediocre but every now and then, a film comes along that reminds me of why I love the medium of film and the dysfunctional artistic traditions that have grown up around it. Couple in a Hole is one of those films.

As political and economic crises make it harder and harder for young people to pursue their dreams, Western civilisation grows ever more obsessed with its own inevitable demise. Most manifest in young adult blockbusters like the Hunger Games and Divergent series, our apocalyptic fascination keeps drawing us back to stories in which the science and politics of catastrophe have been replaced with levels of emotional abstraction that speak to a yearning for absolute psychological simplicity. We don’t care whether the bombs rain down or the zombies rise up, we just want immerse ourselves in worlds where the stultifying complexity of late capitalism have been replaced with spaces where people can breathe and be themselves.

Just as TV’s The Walking Dead has spent the best part of a decade exploring the rise and fall of simple human societies and Mad Max: Fury Road imagined a radical break with patriarchal structures, films like 2015’s The Survivalist used the end of the world as an excuse to explore one man’s movement from solitude to community along with the interwoven bonds of love and trust required to make such a journey. These films are only about the end of the world in so far as they create fictional spaces where the nuances of capitalist emotional economics have been replaced with something that seems both more real and less realistic. Even outside of genre filmmaking, the end of the world has proved an enduring source of metaphorical imagery as in the case of Thomas Cailley’s brilliant debut Les Combattants where a couple need to immerse themselves in an apocalyptic landscape before they can move beyond embarrassment and confront the true nature of the feelings. Built along similar lines, Tom Geens’ second film Couple in a Hole also benefits from the lightest possible touch of the genre brush. Set in the forests of South-West France, this brilliantly acted and beautifully shot film uses apocalyptic imagery to explore the collapse of one life and the slow emergence of another.

You can read the rest of my review right HERE.

Couple in a Hole is a non-genre film that uses genre imagery and themes to explore characters and express emotional truths. In my review I pointed to Cailley’s excellent Les Combattants but another example of the form is Jeff Nichols’ superb Take Shelter starring Michael Shannon.

The combination of genre and non-genre elements rather reminds me of those genre short stories that use genre elements as a way of turning emotional states into metaphors and then making those metaphors concrete, the supreme example of the form being Sofia Samatar’s “Selkie Stories are for Losers” from back in 2013. For John and Karen, the death of their son felt like the end of the world and so their attempts to live with their grief take on a post-apocalyptic character.

The film is out on DVD in the UK this week and, by the looks of it, is also receiving a few screenings in indie cinemas. Seek it out, it is one of the best films I’ve seen in ages.

 

 

REVIEW — Sunset Song (2015)

FilmJuice have my review of Terence Davies’ intensely frustrating and disastrously miscast Sunset Song, a long-gestating adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s trilogy of novels A Scots Quair.

The novel is set in early 20th Century Scotland where a psychotic patriarch decides to become a tenant farmer. Ill-equipped for the task, he drives his wife insane and his son to Argentina leaving him all alone with his sensitive daughter Chris who leaves him to die and takes over the farm only for her life, love, and relationships to be ruined by the outbreak of World War I.

In fairness to Davies, I can completely understand why he was drawn to the project as Chris is a fantastic viewpoint character who — despite possessing some agency — winds up being completely destroyed by the harsh beauty of the Scottish landscape. As the character points out in one of many monologues delivered to a screen of waving corn, the land endures when its human inhabitants do not. The problem with Davies adaptation is a failure to strike a balance between light and shade and a complete failure to condense three complex novels down to a three act structure that fits into just over two hours:

 

The shallowness of Davies’ adaptation is particularly evident when we enter the final act where Chris’ family comes under pressure from local villagers who are enraged by the group’s failure to support the war. The problem here is that, up until that point, Davies had barely acknowledged the existence of a world outside of Chris’ farm and so he is unable to communicate why a group of isolated farm workers would suddenly feel obliged to conform to the wishes of a community that appears to have had almost no impact on their lives.

 

There are some lovely moments; the compositions are striking, the photography is beautiful and when Davies does allow some sunlight to penetrate the gloom, there is real humanity too. The problem is that he’s cut so much out of the script that he winds up relying on the actors to form a connection with the audience and neither Peter Mullan nor Agyness Deyne are able to transcend the limitations that Davies’ adaptation has imposed upon them. A shame really.

REVIEW — Tangerine (2015)

FilmJuice have my review of Sean S. Baker’s endlessly superb Tangerine.

Released at last year’s Sundance film festival, Tangerine is an intensely human and intensely beautiful drama about an African American trans woman sex worker who gets out of jail only to discover that her long-term pimp-slash-boyfriend has been hooking up with another woman. Shocked, saddened, and enraged by the fact that her boyfriend’s new squeeze is rumoured to be cisgender, the film’s protagonist rampages around North Hollywood in search of answers and vengeance.

As I explain in my review, Tangerine is a technical triumph in so far as it was made entirely with tools that are within the reach of amateur filmmakers. This means no expensive post-production processes, no experimental HD digital cameras, just a couple of old mobile phones and a lot of vision. However, aside from being a technical triumph, Tangerine is also a film about the emotional lives of trans women and so speaks to the humanity of a group that are frequently misunderstood, slandered, and oppressed even by people who would normally consider themselves progressive.

 

Aside from being a moving and insightful character study of both Sin-Dee and Alexandra, Tangerine also goes out of its way to comment on broader issues of gender and sexuality. For example, there’s a lovely scene quite early on when an elderly Native American complains to a taxi driver about his mother’s decision to name him Mia as while the name means ‘red bird’ in Cherokee, it just sounds like a woman’s name to Anglo-Saxon ears. The old man then goes on to joke that his mother might as well have looked out the window and named him after some animal droppings, such is the hardship of growing up with a name that does not fit your chosen gender. Now, imagine if your problems regarding gender extended beyond your name to your entire body. Imagine if your every effort to make your physical body and personality a better fit with your gender provoked more pain and more abuse. Imagine both of those things and you may be part of the way towards understanding what it means to be either Sin-Dee or Alexandra.

 

At time of writing the state of North Carolina has just passed a new law making it a lot easier to discriminate against LGBT people and the thin end of the wedge was the idea that protecting a trans person’s right to use the toilet of their preferred gender would somehow make it easier for rapists to gain access to women’s toilets and locker rooms.

Aside from being little more than a right-wing myth with no basis whatsoever in reality, the mere framing of this argument shows the extent to which supposedly enlightened lawmakers are willing to speak of the transgender community in the same breath as they speak of criminals and deviants.

Thankfully, the constitutional basis for these new laws is already being called into question and hopefully they will not be in place for long. However, the fact that people in this day and age could support such laws and present such arguments speaks to both the importance and the timeliness of Tangerine. This is a beautiful film and it is more than deserving of your attention.

Brooklyn (2015) – Welcome Home

Back in the studio era, Hollywood film production never really stopped. Studios invested money in sets and paid technicians, writers, directors, and actors a salary meaning that they were expected to be productive in order to recoup costs and turn a profit for studio bosses. While it may be tempting to look upon this era as an age in which films were mass-produced to a series of proscriptive genre templates, studios actually provided creatives with a surprising amount of creative leeway. In fact, one of the great joys of Golden Age Hollywood is spotting quite how many subversive ideas were smuggled out under the auspices of disposable star-vehicles.

One area where amazing work was done right under the noses of studio bosses was in films aimed primarily at a female audience. Commonly viewed as low-status and often treated as little more than a training ground for up-and-coming starlets, women’s films habitually raised vital questions about the nature of American society and the challenges facing ordinary women. Despite the Women’s Film genre being associated with the work of such luminaries as Douglas Sirk, Max Ophuls, and Josef von Sternberg, its output was frequently dismissed as either insubstantial fluff or disposable melodrama. Sadly, little has changed in this regard.

Last summer, Lionsgate films released a trailer for John Crowley’s Brooklyn, a film written by Nick Hornby and based upon a novel by Colm Toibin. Despite boasting some very significant talent, the film’s trailer made it look like an ugly heap of melodramatic clichés involving warm-hearted Irish people, home-sickness and true love. I remember seeing the trailer at a rural cinema and its saccharine tone prompting groans of disgust from the assembled audience. This, it transpires, was an absolutely stupid response on my part as while Brooklyn is undeniably a film about love, feelings, and a woman’s place in society, it approaches these topics with levels of grace, intelligence, and social awareness that are entirely consistent with some of the very best works in the Women’s Film genre. Brooklyn may be a film with tears in its eyes but its soul is molten steel.

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The Lobster (2015) – The Loneliness Games

As someone who loves and hates science fiction almost as much as he loves and hates art house film, I am uncharacteristically excited by the work of Yorgos Lanthimos. In fact, the only director who work intrigues me as much as that of Lanthimos is that of Athina Rachel Tsangari and she produced Lanthimos’ early works in return for his producing hers. Together, these Greek directors are in the process of creating something entirely new in European film and all I can really say is that it’s about damn time.

Lanthimos spent the 1990s directing adverts and music videos as well as working with experimental theatre troupes. Part of the team responsible for the Opening and Closing ceremonies of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, Lanthimos stepped up to directing features with a mainstream sex comedy that was never really seen outside of Greece. The change came in 2005 when Lanthimos directed an experimental film entitled Kinetta, which was nominated for an award at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival. Kinetta is not a great film and arguably not the best place to start when trying to get to grips with Lanthimos’ body of work but it does feature the same troubled relationship with reality as Lanthimos’ later films.

Set amidst the concrete tower blocks and sun-drenched parking lots of a holiday resort, the film revolves around a group of eccentrics who search for meaning by re-staging and filming the crimes of a local serial killer. Shot with a hand-held camera in a way that serves only to draw the audience’s attention to the artificiality of the film’s viewpoint, Kinetta creates a few memorable images only to lose them in a sea of puzzling characters, truncated narratives and a thematic package that never quite manages to find its own shape. Neither surreal enough to be allegorical nor sufficiently grounded to shed much light on questions of identity, the film seems to sit between a number of different and incompatible ontological registers.

It is easy to see why Dogtooth is the film that brought Lanthimos to a the attention of a global audience. Released at a time when the collapse of the Greek economy was just beginning, the film uses surrealistic imagery and science fictional themes to explore inter-generational conflict and the idea of Greece as a country where the young are held captive by the dreams and nightmares of their parents. Built around the conceit of a world-within-a-world that takes the power dynamics of childhood and projects them out onto a world whose political settlement had been revealed as a complete fantasy, Dogtooth solves Kinetta’s troubled relationship between fiction and reality by framing fantasy as something that can be both imposed and escaped.

Lanthimos’ follow-up film Alps took a different and considerably less successful approach to the tension between fiction and reality. Set in the real world, the film revolves around a group of misfits who rent themselves out to grieving families as a way of giving them a few extra days or weeks with the deceased. As in Kinetta, Lanthimos draws our attention to the arbitrariness of everyday life through the medium of bad acting. The group may be hired to play the deceased but their inability to either imitate the dead or deliver a line of dialogue with real sentiment drives home the idea that human lives are little more than collections of empty rituals. In fact, when one of the group begins adding to her role by fostering real relationships and making important decisions, her employers are outraged: This is not the daughter we were expecting! The reason that Alps does not work as well as Dogtooth is that rather than associating the film’s surreal imagery with a world-within-a-world, Lanthimos associates it with grief and the social transgressions born of heightened emotional states. The problem here is that while audiences can relate to the idea of childhood as a place where parents impose ridiculous ideas upon their children, the idea of people doing ridiculous and surreal things because they are upset seems somewhat unrealistic and lacking in satirical focus. Alps did not work because Lanthimos tried to resolve the tension between reality and fiction in purely psychological terms and, as in Kinetta, his surrealist methods tend to become less effective the closer his films get to conventional realism.

Lanthimos’ latest film The Lobster takes an entirely different approach to the troubled relationship between reality and fiction. Where Kinetta, Alps, and Dogtooth seemed to scurry back and forth along a spectrum that reaches from the realistic to the psychologically expressionistic, The Lobster does away with the real world in favour of a science-fictional conceit that might best be described as The Hunger Games for sexually-repressed single people.

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