REVIEW –Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

FilmJuice have my review of Alain Resnais’ iconic art house drama Hiroshima Mon Amour. Historical distance tends to result in cultural moments losing a lot of their nuance. For example, when we look back at British punk, we often struggle to see beyond the Sex Pistols and even when we do manage to escape the event horizon of their fame, we tend to only see bands like Crass and X-Ray Spex. I have a theory that when the books are closed on post-War European cinema and its contemporary art house rump, people will agree that the cultural moment peaked with Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad and L’Avventura. Sure… great films came before and after (I’ve reviewed quite a few of them) but even fifty years later, European art house film struggles to be anywhere near as beautiful, shocking, and thought-provoking as those three films. Indeed, one of my recurring moans is that many of the directors working in contemporary European art house film are little more than tribute acts grinding through gestures and ideas introduced over half a century ago.

And yet, who can blame generations of film school graduates when those gestures and ideas contain so much power?

Hiroshima Mon Amour was Resnais’ first feature-length film and the road to directing narrative features was paved with short, confrontational documentaries including Night and Fog, his damning examination of French involvement in the Holocaust. As might be expected of a feted documentarian, Resnais’ first feature begins with a series of documentary gestures in which a woman describes visiting a museum about the bombing of Hiroshima while her Japanese lover repeatedly asserts that she saw nothing at Hiroshima. The steel in his voice and the intimation of trauma it suggests set the tone for a film about memory, emotion, and the urgent need to forget:

Were someone to make Hiroshima Mon Amour today, people would say that it was a film about trauma; the trauma inflicted upon the Japanese people by the American use of nuclear weapons and the trauma of being used as a scapegoat for the years your home town lived happily under German rule. Rather than differentiating between the wartime experiences of winners and losers, soldiers and civilians, Renais links the experiences of a Japanese soldier to the experiences of a French teenager and explores the effects of trauma upon memory and, by extension, the self. Though Renais would likely not have thought of his film in terms of modern ideas about psychological trauma, he intuitively understands the ways in which trauma can distance you from people who do not share your experiences. He also understands how traumatic events can demand a form of active and self-protective forgetfulness whereby the traumatised create new stories to tell about themselves. For example, the architect is only able to function because he chooses not to talk about the destruction of his home and family. When his lover tries to start a conversation about Hiroshima, his only response is to shut her down… “You saw nothing of Hiroshima”. Conversely, the actress is only able to function because she chooses not to fall in love so deeply as to be transported back to that day when she was shaved and thrown into a basement. She recognises the need to confront these feelings and move on with her life and yet she cannot… “You destroy me. You’re so good for me”.

I’ve long suspected that my tastes are turning more and more towards the abstract. I’ve spent so long thinking about books and films that I genuinely struggle with the carefully curated experiences offered by works with strong narratives and the need to lock audiences into a single unambiguous narrative. All too often, these works feel like theme park rides only without the excitement. Like many films influenced by the experimentalism of French modernism, Hiroshima Mon Amour turns its nose up at the tricks and traps of western story-telling and encourages us to think by providing us with a stream of unanswered questions and evocative images. Hiroshima Mon Amour is one of those films that perfectly suits my current needs and tastes… it is my bag, baby.

REVIEW — The Connection (2014)

FilmJuice have my review of Cedric Jimenez’s The Connection (a.k.a. La French), a stylish crime thriller that could be described as the French side of The French Connection.

Setting aside the fact that this is a really well-made cat-and-mouse thriller set in an impeccably realised and beautifully shot vision of 1970s Marseilles, there are two really interesting things going on in this film that elevate it above your standard crime drama and into the intellectual stratosphere occupied by the likes of David Simon’s The Wire and Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet.

 

First, the film is grounded in the character study of a local magistrate who is lured into an ineffectual War on Drugs by a combination of excitement and fame. Cleverly, the film portrays the magistrate’s early ‘successes’ as fantastic nights out in which everyone drinks champagne and gets laid. This is then related back to the fact that the magistrate in question (Jean Dujardin’s Pierre Michel) has a gambling problem, thereby raising the possibility that his commitment to the job might have less to do with results and more to do with addiction:

The film suggests that Michel’s pursuit of Zampa and the insane risks he takes as part of that pursuit are just an expression of his addictive personality: Where once Michel risked everything on a turn of the card, now he risks everything by playing hunches and violating civil rights. What is the War on Drugs if not an institutionalised addiction to headlines and excitement? Maybe the reason we continue to treat addicts like criminals is that you don’t build careers in law enforcement and politics by tending to the sick.

What I really liked about this film is that while it may start off as yet another right-wing law-enforcement fantasy about a rogue magistrate trying to take down a gang by cracking balls and bending laws, the film gradually segues into a brutal critique of the assumptions underpinning this very myth. Do car-chases and fist-fights actually keep the streets clean or do they merely serve as a distraction from the intractability of major social problems and the combination of corruption and neglect that feeds them?

Second, while the film is a fictionalised account of the real-world French Connection that supplied the American drugs trade with most of its illegal heroin throughout the 1960s and ’70s, the writer and director use these fictional elements as a springboard for naming names and pointing fingers at a French establishment that allowed organised crime to flourish in the hope that it would keep French ports free from communist elements:

Jimenez’s desire to confront France’s recent political past is reminiscent of Matthieu Kassovitz’s thoroughly excellent Rebellion, a film about how Jacques Chirac allowed police to massacre protesters in an effort to win over hard-right voters in a tightly-run election. Both films are powerful, necessary and a reminder that no comparable tradition exists in British film.

When British films critique British governments, it’s usually as part of a broader social realist tradition that shows the consequences of government action rather than the combination of incompetence and indifference that informed those decisions in the first place. I also wonder whether British film’s reluctance to go after the British establishment might not be a function of the fact that many British films are made with American audiences in mind using money handed out by British institutions.

I also wonder whether British directors might not see these types of stories as more televisual than cinematic based upon the fact that Britain used to have a tradition of producing one-off dramas and plays that criticised both British society and its government.The problem is that while British TV used to have a tradition of producing politicised plays and one-off dramas, the amount of drama on British TV has now declined to the point where there’s really not much room for unpopular opinions. Of course, the excellent Red Riding trilogy was produced for TV but that came out in 2009 and I struggle to think of anything even remotely like it that has appeared since.

Girlhood (2014) – The Economics of Identity

And so ends the trilogy of films that began the career of Celine Sciamma… Like many French directors, Sciamma began her career by considering childhood and young adulthood. Her debut feature Water Lillies tells of a young girl who falls head-over-heels in love with an older girl who, despite being flattered by the attention and eager to return the flirtation, is more interested in boys. Set amidst the sun-drenched modernism of suburban France, Water Lillies captures attention both thorough its minimalist stylings and its willingness to embrace the fluidity of human sexuality. Sciamma’s second film Tomboy is no less thematically ambitious. Set against a very similar background of summertime and concrete, the film follows a young person who uses the opportunity presented by a new town and a new group of friends to establish a male identity. While this identity is inevitably shut down by a mother who forces Laure to apologise for ‘passing herself off’ as Mikael, the film ends on an upbeat note by suggesting that friendship and even love can reach across the abyss of gender binaries. Sciamma’s third film finds her returning to sunshine and concrete as well as to questions of female identity but it also shows her ambition as a filmmaker as Girlhood addresses not only gender but race and social class as well.

I usually only mention stuff like film names and DVD covers when complaining about the film industry’s pathetic attempts to jump on band-wagons and market art house films as action movies. However, the decision to release Bande de Filles (literally ‘Gang of Girls’) under the English-language title Girlhood was an absolute stroke of genius… aside from the fact that the French word ‘bande’ carries significantly less racist baggage than the English word ‘gang’, renaming Bande de Filles as Girlhood sets up a natural dialogue between this small French film and Richard Linklater’s hugely-visible and over-rated Boyhood. In fact, the dialogue between the two films is what inspired me to review them both in the same week.

Despite an effort to slipstream the marketing spend of Boyhood’s awards campaign, Girlhood is actually a very different prospect: While Linklater’s film spans over a decade, Sciamma’s covers little more than a year in the life of a young black woman growing up in the suburbs of Paris. Where Linklater’s film sprawls over 160 minutes with neither character arcs nor themes to provide structure, Girlhood seems to cram all the questions of youth into a perfectly-formed 116 minutes. It would be both easy and accurate to state that Girlhood is merely a better made and more interesting film than Boyhood but doing so would do a grave injustice to Sciamma’s talent as Girlhood is an absolutely sensational film in its own right. This is what real cinema is all about.

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REVIEW — Les Combattants (2014)

FilmJuice have my review of Thomas Cailley’s hugely engaging teen drama Les Combattants (a.k.a. Love at First Fight). Having received a standing ovation at Cannes, Cailley’s debut film went on to secure nine nominations and three wins at the French equivalent of the Oscars. Celebrated by French critics as nothing less than the future of French cinema, Les Combattants limped onto Anglo-American screens where it was marketed and reviewed as a romantic comedy (hence the stupid English-language title). Given that it is short on jokes and long on the kind of evocative, hands-off storytelling that is common in European drama and absent from the history of romantic comedy, the film received middling reviews from critics who seemed more interested in engaging with the press release than the nature of the film itself. According to Gary Goldstein at the LA Times:

There’s a better movie floating around the edges of the French import “Love at First Fight” than first-time feature director Thomas Cailley has allowed to surface. Though it’s billed as a romantic comedy, this quirky tale takes too many narrative U-turns that seem to dodge the genre’s more traditional (read: satisfying) tropes and dynamics.

There’s misprision and then there’s critical laziness. This is an example of the latter as Les Combattants is actually a fantastic meditation on Young Adult fiction and contemporary gender roles. You just need to make a bit of an effort in order to see it.

Les Combattants is built around two young adult protagonists: Kévin Azaïs‘ Arnaud whose lack of ambition and focus in no way seems to prevent his integration into a French society that is always pleased to see him. Everywhere he goes, Arnaud is offered jobs and opportunities for advancement despite the fact that the French economy is evidently still in tatters. Adèle Haenel plays Mathilde, a fiercely intelligent and incredibly driven young woman whose every attempt to secure an education or job is met with dismissive scorn. The fact that Arnaud’s white male privilege protects him from economic deprivation means that he is far better disposed to people and society than Mathilde, who spends the entire film having doors slammed in her face:

When Mathilde joins Arnaud’s family for dinner, the conversation naturally turns to the lack of jobs for young people and we see how the inequalities in French society have nurtured two very different reactions to the economic crisis: Embittered and unappreciated, Mathilde reaches the conclusion that society has nothing to offer her and so sets about preparing for its imminent demise; Pampered and protected, Arnaud has the luxury to consider a number of different career paths and so admits that he has never really thought about the collapse of Western civilisation.

Arnaud slowly falls in love with Mathilde and so decides to join her at a boot camp designed to help young adults preparing to join a parachute regiment. While Arnaud’s easy charm and happiness going with the flow mean that he fits right into a military environment, Mathilde solitary nature and intense disposition mean that the army falls out of love with Mathilde almost as quickly as Mathilde loses interest in the army. Eventually, things get so bad that Arnaud decides to abandon his shot at a military career and simply wanders off into the wilderness with Mathilde in tow.

As I explain in my review, I think that Cailley was wrong to have Arnaud discover his agency at the end of the film. I think that having Arnaud lead the pair out of danger undermines Mathilde’s character and turns Les Combattants from a film about a couple into a film about a young man. This misstep aside, I think this film has a lot of interesting things to say about gender. Particularly when you realise the similarities between Haenel’s intense survivalist Mathilde and the intensely self-reliant young women who feature in books like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, and Kristin Cashore’s Graceling.

Les Combattants suggests that women have it considerably harder than men in the current economic climate. What makes Cailley’s analysis interesting is the suggestion that these inequalities might well have a knock-on effect of how the different genders perceive society. For example, Mathilde has grown intensely self-reliant because she no longer trusts society whereas Arnaud is happy to trust society and go with the flow because his experience is of people and institutions falling over themselves to offer him jobs and opportunities for advancement. The film’s ending strikes a false note because allowing Arnaud to save the day sends the message that Arnaud’s vision of society is somehow correct whereas Mathilde’s is paranoid and self-destructive. I disagree… I think Mathilde’s wariness is a rational response to an irrational world and I can’t help but wonder whether the immense popularity of YA among women might not be a direct response to their unequal treatment at the hands of society.

Interesting stuff aside, Les Combattants is one of the better looking films I have reviewed recently, so I thought I would share a few screen grabs:

 

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REVIEW – Camera Obscura: The Walerian Borowczyk Collection (2014)

This week saw the release of Arrow Films’ Camera Obscura; a magnificent box set exploring the early work of Polish director Walerian Borowczyk. As someone who already owns quite a few luxurious box sets devoted to art house film directors, you would think that I’d be immune to the packaging-foo of independent DVD publishers but Camera Obscura has taken me completely by surprise. Aside from an impressively thick booklet, the box set contains five beautifully restored feature-length films as well as Boro’s early short films and a suite of documentaries about both him and his work. To say that Camera Obscura is comprehensive would be an understatement, FilmJuice have my reviews of:

FilmJuice’s editorial format required me to break the box set down into five separate films, which is something of a pity as Camera Obscura does an absolutely amazing job of capturing Borowsczyk’s development as an artist. The key to this process of evolution are the short films included on the same disc as The Theatre of Mr. and Mrs. Kabal.   Continue reading →

Swimming Pool (2003) – Touched by The Gods of Indecision

One of the enduring concerns of human culture is how to deal with thoughts and feelings that are not recognisably our own.

Much like the ancients, who associated odd feelings and passing moods with particular deities, Saint Augustine viewed unwelcome thoughts as something external to the self. According to Augustine, our urge to transgress God’s laws stems from a wound inflicted by Original Sin and passed down through the generations by sexual contact. Later churchmen would describe the concept of Original Sin as:

“Privation of the righteousness which every man ought to possess”

Inspired by the Augustinian concept of Concupiscence but intent upon creating a materialistic account of human nature, Sigmund Freud divided the self into different parts and invoked the concept of the unconscious as a place where unspeakable thoughts and desires boil and occasionally rise up, hammering at the walls of the conscious self. Though no longer central to scientific accounts of human nature, Freud’s account of the self remains incredibly influential. Artists and mental health professionals conspire to present the mind as a city under constant pressure from a vast and barely manageable neurochemical hinterland where entire streets pass in and out of the surrounding jungle. The question of how we navigate such a city, where we draw the line between town and country, ours and not-ours not only endures to this day but also accounts for many of the most striking literary and philosophical innovations of the 20th Century.

Like many psychological thrillers, Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool follows a character’s attempt to repress, confront and ultimately claim ownership of a series of unwelcome and unrecognisable thoughts, but as sophisticated as the film’s distinctions may be, it is never entirely clear where the film’s main protagonist begins and ends.

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Jeune et Jolie (2013) – Taking Your Sexuality Off-Grid

JJ1Art house film has always had a problematic relationship with female sexuality. Though art house directors are far more likely to construct their films around strong female characters than their Hollywood counterparts, their engagement with these characters’ sexualities is often limited to stripping an actress naked and posing her in a series of titillating tableaux such as those found in Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme D’Or winning film Blue is the Warmest Colour. The further a female character ventures from the realms of male fantasy, the more likely it is that her sexuality will be turned against her and used as a sign of encroaching madness, alienation or spiritual collapse. In art house film, sad men may become murderers but sad women will always become prostitutes.

The tragedy of problematic narratives is that they frequently outlive the social attitudes that first informed them. For example, while the films of Luis Bunuel may have been informed by the remnants of his Jesuitical education, the phrases and characters he helped to develop in films like Belle de Jour passed into common usage and came to form part of the basic vocabulary of art house film. Used and revisited for decade after decade, the character of the fallen woman is now so familiar to art house audiences that directors no longer feel the need to spell out why promiscuous women are sad women… they just show us a female character having loads of sex and allow us to fill in the blanks. We have been trained through repetition and this training followed us out of the cinema and into our daily lives meaning that, without ever having been subjected to an argument about the evils of promiscuity, our first reaction to promiscuous women is to assume that there is something terribly wrong with them.

The alternative to allowing our culture to train us is to question the values embedded in stock cinematic phrases and champion works that set out to subvert stock phrases and use them to draw our attention to the sexism and racism that is perpetuated by our own intellectual laziness. Thankfully, while the 2013 Cannes jury was content to give the biggest prize in art house film to a work that presented sexually empowered women as hollow vessels and childlike victims, another director in competition set out to pick a fight with the myth of the fallen woman. The director in question is Francois Ozon and his film is Jeune et Jolie.

 

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