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.


Continue reading →

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.

REVIEW – The Fallen Sparrow (1943)

“To shoot people, sweetheart!”

And with those words… my heart soared with joy.

Richard Wallace’s The Fallen Sparrow is very much an overlooked gem.  One of a series of novels by Dorothy B. Hughes that were adapted for the screen during the hey-day of the film noir, The Fallen Sparrow is a demented psychological thriller in which a tortured veteran of the Spanish Civil War cuts a swathe through New York high society as he attempts to solve the (possible) murder of the man who helped him escape the clutches of the Gestapo.  As the veteran moves from reconnecting with his old friends and into a world of sinister academics and crusading noblemen, the lines between reality and delusion blur and then finally disappear.  Boasting a fantastic script and some rather surprising performances, The Fallen Sparrow deserves its place in cinema history.

Videovista have my review.

REVIEW – The Dinner Party (2009)

Videovista have my review of Scott Murden’s The Dinner Party, an Australian psychological thriller.

Though rather unyielding in tone (it contains no changes in tempo or plot twists that might vary the mood or allow the degree of tension to vary), the film contains a really insightful commentary on the potential of friendship, love and politeness to enable the worst kinds of transgressive behaviour.  In essence, the film is an assault on the glaze of consent and agreement that we apply to all of our social interactions.

Nice to see an Australian film filtering through to UK release too.

La Moustache (2005) – L’Avventura Begins Again

When Michelangelo Antonioni premiered his film L’Avventura at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, it was met by a chorus of boos and cat-calls.  It is easy to see why – L’Avventura is nearly two and a half hours long and despite its backside-destroying length, it contains very little actual plot.  Instead of a narrative, Antonioni presents us with a series of frayed edges that he picks at in a rather half-hearted manner : A girl is in conflict with her father.  A girl disappears while exploring an island.  People attempt to organise search parties.  Couples bicker. Dramatic arcs are initiated but never resolved.  The film radiates a sense of lethargy and detachment echoed by that of its characters – Everything about it is seemingly laid-back, directionless, self-indulgent and spoiled.  Watching L’Avventura it is possible to picture Antonioni sitting in his director’s chair and sighing heavily before wearily dragging himself to his feet and issuing a few half-hearted and half-arsed instructions.  “I suppose we should get back to work” he says distractedly.  Of course, the exquisite shot composition, careful location selection, control of tone and fiercely intellectual engagement with the language of cinema itself make it abundantly clear that there is absolutely nothing half-arsed about L’Avventura.  Its refusal to be anything approaching dramatic is quite deliberate.  Its slow pace is quite intentional.  Its emphasis of tone and atmosphere over plot and characterisation quite carefully planned.  L’Avventura, along with Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961), managed to set the thematic and stylistic agenda for the emerging tradition of art house cinema.  It started a conversation that continues to this day.

In his editorial to the April 2010 issue of Sight & Sound Magazine, Nick James addresses this conversation by pointing out that it may have run out of steam.  Art House keeps returning to the same topics in the same manner and, as a result, the techniques pioneered by the likes of Resnais and Antonioni are starting to grate :

“Watching a film like the Berlin Golden Bear-winner Honey (”Bal” Semih Kaplanoglu, 2010) – a beautifully crafted work that, for me suffers from dwelling too much on the visual and aural qualities of its landscape and milieu – there are times, as you watch someone trudge up yet another woodland path, when you feel an implicit threat: admit you’re bored and you’re a philistine. Such films are passive-aggressive in that they demand great swathes of our precious time to achieve quite fleeting and slender aesthetic and political effects: sometimes it’s worth it, sometimes not. Slow Cinema has been the clear alternative to Hollywood for some time, but from now on, with Hollywood in trouble, I’ll be looking out for more active forms of rebellion.”

L’Avventura and Marienbad‘s rejection of the traditional language of film was not merely ground-breaking, it was culturally earth-shattering.  To this day, people think of art house cinema in terms of long takes and wordless shots of scenery designed to capture some fleeting emotional moment.  My girlfriend, for example, does not share my love of art house film, which she refers to as “Boring Films” as though they constituted some separate cinematic genre like a thriller or a horror film.  Which, of course, they absolutely do.

Another front of the battle waged against Hollywood by art house cinema is that fought by Michael Haneke.  As I pointed out in my review of The White Ribbon (2009) – Haneke’s career has been dominated by a deep ambivalence towards genre.  Haneke keeps making films that are ostensibly works of genre but every time he makes a genre film, he makes sure to deny us the kind of emotional closure that comes from conforming to familiar methods of genre story-telling.  He rewinds the tape when someone escapes in Funny Games and he never allows the mystery to even resemble anything that might make sense in Hidden.  If L’Avventura rejects many of the forms and methods of traditional cinematic story-telling, then Haneke’s films satirise and attack those very same forms.

However, as James’ editorial suggests, it is 50 years since art house cinema began to wage its war against the norms of Hollywood.  Hundreds and hundreds of films have been made in the mould cast by Antonioni.  Is the language of  art house cinema still dangerous or is it just another ossified set of genre conventions in desperate need of deconstruction?  The fact that films as empty as Carlos Raygadas’ Silent Light (2007) can compete at Cannes suggest that rebellion must take a different form and find a new angle of attack.  As my reviews of the films of the Cannes-winning Apichatpong Weerasethakul have suggested, I think that his recombination of genre tropes, art house techniques, mystical sensibilities and visual art aesthetics may prove fruitful going forward… but the battle needs a similar kind of second front as that provided by Haneke.  Enter the cruelly overlooked French drama La Moustache by Emmanuel Carrere, based on his novel of the same name.  It is a film that takes aim at many of the conventions of art house cinema and the crudely psychological register that so many of those films operate in.

Continue reading →

REVIEW – The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)

Videovista have my review of Dario Argento’s rather splendidly weird The Stendhal Syndrome.

Oddly enough, despite being a fan of Horror and a fan of world cinema, I had never really encountered the films of Dario Argento before seeing this film.  I have seen films inspired by his works and gialli that tried to copy it but I had never actually experienced proper Argento before.  Needless to say, I loved it: A psychological thriller about a descent into madness that brilliantly doubles as a scathing critique of Italian attitudes to women.  Great stuff.