Sous Le Sable (2000) – Everyone Needs a Little Cup of Stars

SLS1There are few situations to which the opening lines of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House are not pressingly germane:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.

Often spoken of as a ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House is more rewardingly read as a portrait of a fragile mind under intense pressure. Scarred by decades of servitude to a sick and deranged mother, Eleanor Vance is a woman who carries her reality with her like a snail carries its shell. While the novel’s melody is dominated by Hugh Crain’s house and the miseries that befell his family, the harmony is all about the way that Eleanor picks things up and uses them to fashion a world more comforting and endurable than absolute reality. Everyone needs a little cup of stars.

One of the great joys of Jackson’s novel is the way that she manages to blur the boundaries of the real, the supernatural and the outright hallucinatory without ever bothering to draw attention to the lack of subjective difference between these different categories. For Jackson, this uncertainty is so universal that it simply does not merit commentary… it’s all one big sordid mess. Many films and books have been drawn to this ambiguity but while great works such Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw or Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl add their own ingredients to the ambiguous brew, most works that use these tropes yearn for clear dividing lines between the metaphorical and the concrete, the material and the fantastical, the sane and the insane, the true and the false. This is why you are more likely to encounter the carefully nested realities of films like Inception and Jacob’s Ladder than you are the happy ambiguities of a film like Total Recall or The Descent. Though definitely a film with a clear dividing line between reality and fantasy, Francois Ozon’s Sous le Sableis a film that is intensely relaxed about the ambiguities of madness.

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The Sight of the Hunted: German Expressionism and Night of the Hunter

night of the hunter poster

FilmJuice have published a lengthy piece written in celebration of the recent re-release of Charles Laughton’s legendary Night of the Hunter.

This piece was a real joy as it gave me an excuse to not only rewatch the film for the first time in a while, but also to do some research into Laughton’s life and refamiliarise myself with some of the better works of German Expressionist cinema. I wrote quite a lengthy piece about German Expressionism for Videovista a few years but my understanding of that particular cinematic milieu has solidified somewhat and hooked up with some much larger thoughts I’ve been having about the relationship between psychological realism and fantasy in the psychological thriller genre. In my original Videovista article, I spoke about Expressionism in terms of:

Expressionism emerged as a reaction to impressionism. Impressionism, as practised by the artists Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir attempted to break down the boundaries between subject and background in order to produce paintings that were almost like snapshots: images that were exacting reflections of the world itself. Expressionism reacted against impressionism by rejecting the call to represent the world ‘as it is’. Instead, expressionists favoured representations of the world that ‘expressed’ the artists’ attitudes towards the subject matter. They did not reflect the world, they abstracted from it. A key work in the development of expressionism is Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream (1893), in which the insane flowing colours of the background, the pale featureless visage of the screamer and the dark figures in the background express not merely a person screaming but rather a state of inner turmoil, paranoia, alienation and insanity.

Now I say far more straightforwardly:

The most influential work of German Expressionist cinema is undoubtedly The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Told entirely in flashback by a man who turns out to be an inmate in an insane asylum, Robert Wiene’s film is a hypnotic mess of light, shadow and unsettling angles. Too fantastical to be real and yet too raw to be fictitious, Caligari’s story of love, murder and sinister sleepwalkers is best understood as an emotional landscape, a realistic portrayal of what the real world feels like to the person telling the story. The light and darkness of Caligari’s world are absolute because they are absolute in the mind of the madman just as they might be in the mind of a child. This is the exact same idea that lurks behind the myriad eccentricities of Laughton’s Night of the Hunter.

Rather than seeing the film through the gauze of southern gothic, I view it as a quite explicitly psychological piece: The fantastical nature of many sequences and effects are not reflections of a world that is in itself fantastical but rather a reflection of how that world feels to the children and how children (and everyone else for that matter) use the culture they have consumed in order to make sense of the world around them. It is only natural that the world should resemble a fairy tale when the only time you have heard of evil priests and murderous ogres is in the pages of just such a children’s story. Far from being limited to the children’s worldview, Night of the Hunter occasionally switches to other worldviews such as those of the mother, a friendly drunk and a horny teenaged girl. This is a film that not only reaches back to a cinematic vocabulary that was largely unknown to 1950s American audiences, it also takes those Expressionistic techniques and takes them to the next level. Night of the Hunter is a film that is literally decades ahead of its time.


A Hijacking (2011) – Don’t Look, Don’t Cry

AHijackingAs DVD box sets and online streaming slowly replace broadcast TV as primary delivery systems for televised drama, industry people have begun to cast about for the next great thing to fill middle-class evenings. After the Golden Age of American TV came the discovery of gritty French crime dramas such as the magnificent Spiral, the abortive popularisation of Italian dramas such as Inspector Montalban and the increasingly potent and influential Nordic gold rush including The Killing, The Bridge and Those Who Kill. Less showy but more substantial than many of these post-Wire police procedurals is Adam Price’s Borgen, a political drama about the first female Danish Prime Minister that eschews the infantile patriotic sentimentality of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing in favour of real political engagement with Denmark’s many social and political problems. Given the success of Borgen and ‘Nordic Noir’, it is hardly surprising that the Danish film industry should attempt to use the visibility of Danish TV to help promote their national cinema. Aside from being written and directed by one of Borgen’s writers, Tobias Lindholm’s A Hijacking (Kapringen) is so filled with Borgen cast members that I suspect Lindholm may have driven up to the set in a large van and kidnapped them using promises of gravlax and crispbread.

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REVIEW – Plein Soleil (1960)

pleinsoleil10A little while ago, I was planning on writing a book about psychological thrillers. I thought it might have been a good idea because I wanted to read a book about psychological thrillers but nobody appeared to have written one. While the project was eventually dissolved by the dawning realisation that nobody would publish a book about psychological thrillers written by me, my attempt to pull together a list of great psychological thrillers brought me into contact with Rene Clement’s Plein Soleil. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s classic existential novel The Talented Mr Ripley, Plein Soleil struck me as a fascinating misprision… a failure to comprehend the original intent of a work that nonetheless produced something of considerable beauty. FilmJuice have my review of Plein Soleil, which is now available in the UK for the first time in altogether too long.

Set in the strange demimonde created by wealthy American socialites slumming it in Italian hotels, Plein Soleil tells of a penniless young man who attaches himself to a much wealthier man with a far more forceful personality. In Highsmith’s original text, the relationship between Ripley and his prey is a sort of existential magnetism, a void that attempts to fill itself by consuming a much more substantial person. Intriguingly, Clement and Delon present Ripley not as an existential void but as a sort of unquenchable hunger… a man with nothing who wants everything and who will stop at nothing in order to get it. Indeed, even Anthony Minghella’s stylistically dull adaptation of the book presented Ripley as a sexless figure whereas Delon’s Ripley is all about Marie Laforet’s fragrant Marge:

Delon’s Ripley is an absolute masterpiece, a creature of malign and yet unfettered grace, the male libido chiselled into marble and made socially acceptable by the strategic use of smart haircuts and tailor-made suits. Think Bond unhitched from Queen and Country.

Another thing that struck me since filing the review is that Plein Soleil has a very similar setting and cast of characters to Antonioni’s now burdensomely-canonical L’Avventura; both are about beautiful people in a beautiful place and both films use that beauty to highlight the beautiful people’s complete lack of interiority. In L’Avventura, the mediterranean is a dull grey slate dotted with jet black protuberances while that of Clement is a washed-out nightmare where only the most brutal and beautiful fear to tread.

Re-visiting Plein Soleil was a real treat that only continues to confirm my feeling that Anthony Minghella’s Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning Talented Mr Ripley is actually the weakest of all the Ripley films while Clement’s adaptation and Liliana Cavani’s take on Ripley’s Game remain sadly under-rated.

Secret Defense (1998) by Jacques Rivette

secret-defenseDirected by Jacques Rivette (one of the big beasts of the French Nouvelle Vague) Secret Defense is best understood as a sort of inside-out psychological thriller. What I mean by this is that while most psychological thrillers use the language of film to convey what it feels like to be in a particular psychological state, Rivette’s film looks beyond what the characters are feeling and focuses instead upon the insane realities of what it is they are doing.

The film opens as research scientist Sylvie (Sandrine Bonnaire) is approached by her younger brother Paul (Gregoire Colin). Obviously troubled, Paul presents Sylvie with photographic evidence suggesting that the charismatic and ambitious Walser (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) might have been involved in the death of their powerful father. Initially dismissive of her brother’s conspiracy theories, Sylvie soon becomes worried that Paul might be planning to do something stupid and so decides to ‘save’ her brother by travelling across the country in order to kill Walser herself.

At this, point, most directors would have used either the relationship between the siblings or their historic links to Walser as a means of exploring Sylvie’s character and explaining her decision to seek revenge on her brother’s behalf. However, rather than following this well-trodden path, Rivette devotes twenty minutes of the film to a largely dialogue-free train journey during which Sylvie sleeps, tries on sunglasses, changes trains and gets drunk. The sheer crushing boredom of this section beautifully demonstrates the depths of Sylvie’s madness and obsession whilst keeping her actual emotional state firmly at arm’s length. Indeed, the reason Secret Defense runs to a colossal 170 minutes is that each of the film’s revelations comes only after a succession of missed phone-calls, awkwardly silent breakfasts, gloomy afternoons spent sitting around, and seductions embarked upon solely to give the characters an excuse to not talk to each other. In fact, this cycle of avoidance, confrontation and acceptance repeats itself endlessly throughout the film but without much insight ever being gained.

The point of the film is that it takes considerable time and energy to both keep and reveal family secrets. Much like the intelligence services alluded to by the film’s title, Sylvie works hard to break through a wall of silence and once that wall is finally breached she pointedly refuses to reveal the family’s secret to her troubled younger brother. There’s simply too much at stake and he wouldn’t understand anyway.

By focussing upon the characters’ actions rather than their exact motivations, Rivette emphasises not only the irrationality of the characters’ actions but also the social nature of many psychological states. When Walser finally lets Sylvie in on the family secret, Sylvie lashes out at her mother and then immediately forgives her; it is as though she has passed through a veil from one world into another where secrecy and even murder make perfect sense. Thus, the decision to keep the characters at arms’ length results in a truly devastating psychological truth: all human behaviour seems irrational and insane when deprived of its cultural and psychological context.

REVIEW – Manhunter (1986)

THE ZONE has my review of Michael Mann’s recently re-issued psychological thriller Manhunter.

To put it simply, I adore this film. I adore the moody electronic score, I adore Dante Spinotti’s ridiculously colourful cinematography and I adore the way that Michael Mann lines up his shots. However, what I particularly love about this film is the way that it treats the character of Hannibal Lecter as a painstakingly-repressed dark side rather than a scenery-chewing panto dame:

 When Graham visits Lecktor in the hospital, we are told it is because he is hoping to rekindle the creative fires that allow him to project himself into the mind of a killer. However, rather than simply visiting Lecktor in the hospital, Graham reaches out to the disgraced psychiatrist in the hope that his superior understanding of human nature might shed some new light on the case. This act of deference to Lecktor’s superior expertise is deeply troubling when considered alongside Mann’s cinematic blurring of the line between psychologist and psychopath. Indeed, by having Graham turn to Lecktor as part of his own creative process, Mann seems to be suggesting the existence of a symbiotic relationship between the two men. In fact, one could interpret the scene as a sort of vision quest in which the creatively frustrated Graham turns to his painstakingly repressed dark side in order to unblock the empathic powers that will allow him to solve the case.

Mann’s take on Lecter is particularly fascinating as this film was adapted from Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon (1981) before Harris even wrote The Silence of the Lambs. In other words, this is a vision of Red Dragon that is completely untainted by the decision to reinvent Lecter as some kind of brain-eating antihero. Released on an absolutely flawless Bluray that makes it look like a brand new film, this re-issue offers an excellent opportunity to rediscover one of the best and most under-rated psychological thrillers of all time.

REVIEW – Babycall (2011)

FilmJuice have my review of Pål Sletaune’s psychological thriller Babycall.

The film tells the story of a mother and child that are placed in a witness relocation programme after their abusive husband and father is sent to prison. Intensely nervous and over-protective, Anna refuses to allow her son to sleep in her own bed until she purchases a baby monitor that allows her to hear him sleep. However, once the monitor is plugged in it begins picking up horrific sounds of abuse coming from another device in the same apartment block. Assisted by Helge, a man whose status as the son of an overprotective mother allows him to understand the woman’s desire to protect her son, Anna begins investigating the source of the noises only for her entire life to begin unraveling.

At the heart of Babycall is the complex, unhealthy but ultimately humanising relationship between Helge and Anna. Fresh from her success as the original cinematic Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Noomi Rapace offers us a veneer of faceless maternal anxiety that slowly peels away, revealing more and more humanity as Anna becomes more and more detached from reality. Similarly impressive is Joner who manages to find strength, courage and likeability in a character whose life has been defined by a cowardly willingness to apologise for the actions of a monstrous and tyrannical parent. These twin performances, though entertaining to watch in their own right, provide a sound human basis for what could all too easily have been a directionless attack on abusive parenting. The power of Babycall lies not in the decision to confront the issue of abusive parenting but rather in the capacity to make these types of parent appear sympathetic. Indeed, we feel for Anna because she is afraid and because she loves her son but when that love produces individuals as broken as Helge, we have to ask whether maternal love is really the unambiguously positive thing we have always assumed it to be.

Flawlessly paced, psychologically compelling and full of brilliant twists and turns, Babycall is not only a fantastic psychological thriller, it is also a very brave film indeed. Without wanting to give too much away, it might be worth seeing Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long (2008) before you see Babycall as both films tread quite similar ground (albeit in very different ways).

People with an interest in well-executed psychological thrillers might also want to check out Sletaune’s previous film Next Door (2005), which I reviewed over here.

The Book of Human Insects (1970) By Osamu Tezuka – The Horror of Limitless Potential and Unfettered Change

It is impossible to dangle one’s toes into the waters of Japanese sequential art without, sooner or later, encountering the name of Osamu Tezuka. Aside from being a hugely prolific and influential artist who inspired generations of authors, Tezuka was also one of the first Japanese comics artists to enjoy commercial success in the West with series including Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion. However, despite the child-friendliness of Tezuka’s greatest successes, many of his finest works are decidedly darker and a good deal more complex. An excellent example of this is Tezuka’s recently translated The Book of Human Insects. Set in 1970s Tokyo, the novel offers a darkly compelling portrait of a woman with a remarkable capacity for re-invention. Ostensibly a psychological thriller about a Mr Ripley-like femme fatale who feeds upon Japan’s predominantly male intelligentsia, The Book of Human Insects resonates most when read as a critique of post-War Japanese society.


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REVIEW – Secret Behind The Door (1947)

THE ZONE have my review of Fritz Lang’s classic psychological thriller Secret Behind the Door starring Joan Bennett and Michael Redgrave.

Based upon Charles Perrault’s fable Bluebeard, Secret Behind the Door explores the process through which a couple get to know each other.  After a whirlwind romance, Bennett’s character marries Redgrave’s secretive and intense architect.  After a rudely interrupted honeymoon, Bennett’s character arrives at the architect’s home and finds him sharing it with two other women and a son from a previous marriage. As in the fable, Bennett’s character begins poking around in her husband’s background until she discovers something sinister.

Bluebeard is perhaps better known in its native France than it is in the Anglo-Saxon world. One reason for this is that it is one of those stories that paints women as a race of incessant and toxic meddlers whose refusal to follow simple male instructions result in the destruction of everything.  Think of Else to Lohengrin. Think of Eve to Adam. Because of the story’s misogynistic roots, generations of feminist authors have been quick to reclaim the role of interfering spouse and cast it in a more positive and transformative light such as the one that bathes Jane Eyre in Charlotte Bronte’s novel. Neither misogynistic nor feminist, Lang’s adaptation of Silvia Richards’ screenplay presents Bennett’s character as a wonderfully ambiguous figure who ‘fixes’ her husband for reasons all of her own. However, while the characters are engaging and the plot is fascinating, what really grabbed me was Lang’s decision to use a voice over as the primary means of communicating inner states:

Watching Secret Beyond The Door and noticing Lang’s tendency to simply pause the action and linger on his actor’s faces while their voiceovers are delivered, I was struck by how little has changed in the way that directors communicate interiority. Indeed, while directors of Lang’s generation paused so that voiceovers can be delivered, contemporary directors simply pause and allow audiences to fill in their own voiceovers. Doubtless many art house films could be transformed by using these little pauses and gazings into the middle distance to deliver short voiceovers in which characters speak directly to the audience. Clearly the basic grammar of cinema has not evolved that much since the days of Lang, it is just that nowadays art house directors tend to outsource exposition to audience speculation.

Secret Behind the Door is a flawed gem and its arrival on region-free DVD is long overdue. This is a must for anyone who enjoys psychological thrillers and an absolute necessity for anyone who loves Fritz Lang’s film noirs.

Some Thoughts On… Retreat (2011)

Kate (Thandie Newton) and Martin (Cillian Murphy) are in trouble.  Married for a number of years, the couple’s relationship has been soured by the loss of a child resulting in them visiting an isolated island retreat in the hope of forcing themselves to have a proper conversation. Unfortunately, once the pair arrive on the island things go from bad to worse as instead of forcing them to communicate, the isolation offers up a myriad of displacement activities including fishing, running and the writing of incredibly bitter articles about why their marriage is doomed.

Slowly retreating into paranoia and mutual resentment, Kate and Martin are jolted out of their bitterness by the arrival of a wounded soldier.  Jack (Jamie Bell) informs the couple that a terrible pandemic is sweeping the world and that their only hope is to barricade themselves into their house and seal all the windows. Understandably sceptical, the couple play along on the grounds that even if Jack is lying, he is clearly a dangerous man who needs to be handled with care.

As he boards up the windows, Jack sets about playing on the couple’s fears and desires.  Initially, he plays upon Martin’s presumed masculine desire to protect Kate and to wear the trousers.  He then moves on to attempting to seduce Kate by suggesting that she resembles his late wife thereby tapping into both Kate’s frustration and her presumed feminine attraction to tough guys with a softer side.  While the couple remain sceptical about Jack’s claims of a pandemic, Jack’s ability to play Martin and Kate off each other does allow him to gain the upper hand, a position he begins to use quite skilfully once he finds Kate’s laptop and reads all about the couple’s marital difficulties.

Retreat is a film all about a relationship struggling with the cancer of distrust.  For a while, Jack’s ability to tap into the couple’s fears seems so uncanny that one begins to think that he might be some phantom either supernatural or psychological in nature and while the film regrettably down-plays this aspect of Jack’s character, there is a very clear evolution in the nature of the fears he uses in his attempts to manipulate the couple. For example, initially knowing nothing of the couple, Jack draws on quite widespread fears such as disease as well as a husband’s fear that he cannot protect his wife.  However, as Jack gets to know more about the couple, his lies become a whole lot more specific.  While I regret the fact that the script did not allow us more of a peak behind Jack’s thought-processes, I would still argue that Jack is the best thing about this film.  In fact, Bell’s performance is spell-binding and constitutes a timely reminder of why his name continues to carry a good deal of buzz despite its tendency to be attached to terrible films. Sadly, while Retreat offers Bell the opportunity to shine, the same cannot be said of Newton and Murphy who are forced to contend not only with a tangible lack of chemistry but also a tragically under-written script.

Retreat’s suffers for the fact that Martin and Kate’s relationship never feels unique enough to be real. This is somewhat odd given that the film takes a long time to settle into ‘thriller’ mode allowing oceans of space for the development of its central relationship. However, despite ample time and some real acting talent to draw upon, first-time director and co-writer Carl Tibbetts never quite manages to make the relationship progress beyond the merely generic. The problem is that while the idea of a couple struggling to stay together after the loss of a child is a firm grounding for a film about trust, it is not a particularly original idea.  In fact, the idea has featured in so many films that by the time Tibbetts and his co-writer Janice Hallett get round to it, it feels dated and generic.  This means that, in order to make the relationship seem real, the script and the actors needed to personalise it to the point where we feel that Martin and Kate are more than genre figures. Sadly, because neither Murphy and Newton’s performances nor the script bring that specificity to the table, Retreat’s central relationship fails to engage meaning that the film’s primary dramatic arc is as dead as Martin and Kate’s un-named child. The failure of this central relationship has a knock-on effect on the rest of the film.

The lack of emotional substance to Kate and Martin’s relationship means that Jack’s attempts to play on the couple’s mutual distrust is more interesting than it is emotionally compelling and because we are forced to engage with this unevenly paced thriller on intellectual rather than emotional terms, the film’s fundamental lack of depth becomes increasingly problematic as time goes on.

Retreat is, at root, a psychological thriller and as such it is part of a genre that thrives on the new.  Script-lead, these films typically rely for their effectiveness upon their capacity to surprise audiences through narrative innovation. This means that each new psychological thriller needs to work that little bit harder to break through to an audience raised on Basic Instinct, The Tenant and Memento. In fact, these three films demonstrate quite how much pressure there is on writers to generate something new.  Basic Instinct shocked mainstream audiences with its explicit sexuality, The Tenant shocked audiences with its inherited surrealism and Memento shocked audiences with its bizarre structure and psychological quirkiness.  One could argue that there is a screen-writing arms race raging in the psychological thriller genre and that this arms race has forced screenwriters to skew the genre away from the psychological and towards the fantastical.

As humans, we are trapped in a prison of pure subjectivity.  We know how we feel and we know how we see the world but we are forever separated from our fellow humans and we can never really know how they feel, what they see or what they think.  Because of this gap between minds, humans have developed an incredibly sophisticated of the human mind that we use to attempt to infer what it is that other people are thinking.  This model in referred to by philosophers as Folk Psychology.  The folk psychological model that we draw on as individuals is determined both by our individual experience and by our cultural history.  Indeed, one reason why the characters in classical plays frequently appear stilted and weird is because authors wrote them with radically different folk psychological models to our own.  Because our need to interact with other humans has forced us all to become amateur psychologists, we humans tend to have a pretty good nose for bullshit when it comes to characterisation.  In fact, one could argue that the challenge of characterisation is that of walking a tightrope between writing characters that we recognise as human and characters who act in individual enough ways that our folk psychological model is forced to adapt and encompass these new artistic insights into the human condition.  Unfortunately, our innate capacity to smell bad characterisation is something of a problem for writers operating within a genre that thrives on novelty and the unexpected.  Memento works as a psychological thriller because its central character feels real despite suffering from a condition that is genuinely novel from an artistic point of view but there are not that many psychological conditions that satisfy these twin demands.  As a result, many recent psychological thrillers have tended to rely upon a narrative twist grounded not in human psychology but in either fantasy or the madness of the main protagonist.

By anchoring a plot in magic and madness, a screenwriter is effectively admitting to throwing the rules of drama out the window. Once magic and madness have been invoked, audiences can never quibble about plot as all quibbles can be defused with a terse ‘of course it doesn’t make sense… it’s magic’.

Retreat attempts to double bluff its audience by raising the possibility of the fantastical only to resolve to a set of rules that are ultimately purely psychological; Jack is neither a phantom nor a delusion, he is just a desperate man with a knack for playing on people’s fears. Tibbetts and Hallett’s decision to forego madness and magic in favour of an old school Cape Fear-style psychopath is refreshing but it does show quite how sophisticated our folk psychological model has become, particularly in the light of numerous films that have set out quite explicitly to fuck with our capacity to read people.  Despite some neat ideas, Retreat never feels smart enough to scratch that genre itch.  It never surprises, it never wrong-foots, it never moves us out of our psychological or emotional comfort zones and it never for even an instant capitalises on its potential.  Perhaps if Martin and Kate had been better drawn then the film might have been more emotionally involving.  Perhaps if the script had explored Jack’s motivations a bit better then the film would have been more interesting but for a psychological thriller hoping to find an audience in this day and age, Retreat is nowhere near psychological enough.