I always find the use of the first person in criticism a little discomfiting, memoirs or op-eds aside, but the live review seems to be a form that invites it, particularly when it’s an experience such as Friday’s gig at Stereo; its viscerally enhanced, of-the-moment nature also brings that well-worn cliché of ‘dancing about architecture’ all too readily to mind, particularly in this case. Perhaps that’s why we don’t do so many on Blasted. But here we go anyway. To reach the venue component of Stereo, the site of many of my favourite gigs, requires a descent into the bowels of the Mackintosh-designed building – we’ll go deeper still later on. The stage has been significantly lowered since I was last here (October, for an astounding Young Marble Giants) and I’ve mixed feelings about it, given how many great performances I’ve seen on (and in front of) the departed platform. There’s no choice but to get down the front now, and I’m glad we do.Read More
Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night has been described with the alluring ‘feminist Iranian vampire Western’ tagline. The description only partially fits this stylish, Jim Jarmusch-inspired feature. The protagonist (known as The Girl) is a vampire that wears a chador that looks like a superhero cape; she also wears a Breton top that recalls Godard's Jean Seberg, and favours a skateboard as her means on transportation.Read More
Another week, another Arrow Video Bava release. This time we have The Girl Who Knew Too Much (La Ragazza Che Sapeva Troppo, 1963), a film considered by many to be the first Italian giallo. While nodding firmly in the direction of Alfred Hitchock (at first impression, the title might even suggest a Hitchcock parody of some kind!), it certainly introduced some of the features that were eventually to become commonplace within the subgenre: in this case, an innocent tourist that witnesses a crime and becomes an amateur detective, a mysterious serial killer, and a convoluted plot with a twisted surprise ending.Read More
Mario Bava (1914-1980) was an influential yet incredibly underrated Italian director (or, as he would have put it, a 'humble artisan of cinema'). During his long and prolific career, he experimented with a number of different genres (horror, sci-fi, peplum, western) with mixed results. He is mostly well-known for his supernatural horror films Black Sunday (1960), Black Sabbath (1963) and Kill, Baby Kill (1966), and for consolidating the 'classic' formula of what is known as the Italian Giallo with The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1962) and with his lush, spellbinding Technicolor masterpiece, Blood and Black Lace (1964).Read More
The Robber is Filmhouse's third foray into film distribution. After the brilliant, but tragically under-exposed The Stoker and Vivan las Antipodas! , their latest offering comes in the shape of a recent Austrian thriller dealing with a daring criminal who also happens to be a bit of a national sports hero.
Director Benjamin Heisenberg was inspired by real-life bank robber Johann Kastenberger (also known as 'Pump-gun Ronnie' after his penchant for wearing a Ronald Reagan mask), but this film is nothing like your average cine-biopic.
We first meet Johann (Andreas Lust) as he is about to leave prison: we see him training, running on the treadmill he has been allowed to have in his cell. His counsellor encourages his sporting aspirations, but at the same time he warns his that running won't pay his bills. We don't wonder about what the protagonist will do once he is again a free man for very long - in quick succession he successfully robs a bank and unexpectedly triumphs at the annual Vienna marathon. The viewer is not offered any explanation on why Johann would so blatantly risk his newly-found freedom: his motives are never made clear, there are no easy explanations for any of his decisions. Is he so dependant on the adrenaline that only running can supply him with? Maybe. In a way, our robber is portrayed as something of an 'existentialist' anti-hero. As he says to his love interest Erika (Franziska Weisz) as she attempts to change his ways, 'What I do has nothing to do with what you call life'. Conjoining running with a certain kind of rebelliousness is certainly nothing new: in a way, Johann is reminiscent of Colin Smith, the disaffected protagonist of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Ultimately, though, there is nothing obvious about this man, as Heisenberg always keeps the viewer's at arms' length, making his character almost inscrutable. Even the relationship between Johann and Erika is never injected with the kind of romantic fervour (read: emotional manipulation) we are so accustomed to, their intimate, but ultimately awkward encounters making the viewer feel like a distant observer. The film could certainly be seen as 'cold' and calculated, almost an attempt to scientifically dissect its lead - a distinctive directorial choice that will inevitably alienate some casual audiences.
This is not to say that The Robber lacks immediate cinematic pleasures. Andreas Lust offers an outstanding lead performance in a role that is extremely demanding from both a physical and emotional perspective. The film is almost flawlessly paced (only the third act loses a bit of steam), with the action sequences shot with accomplished skill; robberies and ensuing chase sequences have a raw, almost visceral energy that knowingly sustain tension and keep the viewer enthralled until the film's predictably bitter end.
The Robber will be at the Filmhouse from Friday 21st March. Tickets are available here.
Starred Up - dir. David MacKenzie
Eric Love (Jack O' Connell) is a young offender who gets transferred to adult prison due to his hard to control, violent behavior - early on in the film, he earns the designation ' single cell, high risk'. By a twist of fate, his father Nev (Ben Mendelsohn) is also on the same wing......
I must admit I wasn't overjoyed at the premise of David MacKenzie's new film. Even though I am a fan of his solid body of work (including Young Adam and Hallam Foe), I wondered what else there was to add to the prison drama 'subgenre'.
Whilst Starred Up hardly brings anything new to the table, it somehow manages to tell a story that has cliché written all over it (the difficult father-son relationship, the generous but misunderstood counsellor, the corrupt prison guards) in a fresh, and ingenious manner. Yes, it is 'gritty', and yes, it tries to be 'authentic' with his handheld camera shots and 'real' location (a disused Belfast prison), but it also portrays characters that are anything but one-dimensional and that remain largely unknowable. Eric, his father and the rest of the inmates go beyond the good vs bad distinction that is usually a staple for this kind of film. Their behaviour is largely erratic and unpredictable. Similarly, counsellor Oliver (Rupert Friend) is well-meaning, but clearly has some issues of his own. Is his interest in Eric just limited to his job requirements? Questions like this are not met by easy answers: the dialogue is kept to a bare minimum, and is often simply hard to understand. The cast seem to communicate in an almost primitive way. Of course, this could be a consequence of living in an environment that is clearly dehumanising, but it also gives an impression that we are witnessing a story that is interested in human nature in its most basic form. The images on screen seem to confirm this impression: every burst of violence is carefully choreographed, and takes on a meaning that goes beyond the immediacy of the action. The film's 'naturalism' is clearly not what it superficially appears.
Starred Up ends with a shot of a revolving door (a recurrent image throughout the film): it left me wondering whether this is simply a nihilistic reference to the never-changing nature of the British prison system or more of a reflection on the vicious circle that violence often produces.
The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears - dir. Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani
Who doesn't love a Giallo? The last decade seems to have brought a massive revival for the 60s/70s Italian 'genre', Glossy DVD releases, conferences at film festivals, academic books, countless website and blogs, and Berberian Sound Studio.
Cattet and Forzani are clearly fans, as this is their second venture (after 2009's Amer) that heavily references this source material. The Giallo semiotic staples are all there: a killer with black gloves, plently of female nudity, the 'groovy' soundtrack, the Art Nouveau building (heavily reminiscent of the dance school in Suspiria), At one point, there is a very direct nod to the much-loved The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh as the protagonist 'enjoys' a sexual encounter involving shattered glass.
The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears should not be judged on the basis of its stick-thin plot (a man trying to unravel the mystery of his wife's disappearance) - beyond its excessive cinematography, and its very core, it is not a giallo, (in many of the Italian thrillers, scripts were convoluted and often nonsensical, yet fundamental part of what made them enjoyable), but rather something more akin to early Buñuel or to Jodorowsky. Yet, despite its art house aspirations, this film is an overall fail: very quickly, its 'cinema of attractions' strategy (a cavalcade of kaleidoscopic effects, split screens, blinding primary colours etc. ) appears thin and tiresome, leaving the viewer with very little to get stuck in.
The general impression I was left in was that of an over-long, humorless and very pretentious music video. A real shame seen that the filmmakers' attempt to breath new life into a still underrated genre is a valiant and worthy one.
Of Horses and Men - dir. Benedikt Erlingsson
Benedikt Erlingsson's Of Horses and Men is a funny, brutal, humane, charming film that looks at the lives of a rural community through a series of interlocking vignettes. Unsurprisingly, horses feature heavily and are central to the characters' stories, livelihoods, romances, misadventures and (in a couple of cases) deaths. The backdrop might be so barren as to border on the lunar but warmth permeates throughout, even at its most shockingly violent junctures (which are often immediately preceded by comedy that borders on the slapstick). As with the lives of these characters (their stories, their horses), the comic and the tragic interweave, are rarely far removed from one another; it is an approach that was always bound to endear the film to to a Scottish audience - the two are practically inseparable here, after all.
Of Horses and Men is a deftly executed, uplifting set of stories that looks at the characters relationships with their environment, the animals on which they rely, and each other, without ever piling on cloying sentimentality - impressive given that horses seem to be afforded a particular status that few other animals are (cf Findus lasagne-gate 2013, War Horse, etc.). The same night the film was presented at the GFF, the film did very well at the Edda Awards, the 'Icelandic Oscars'; it's unsurprising the myopic, increasingly irrelevant American equivalent overlooked a film of such wit and depth (the film was Iceland's - ultimately unselected - entry to this year's Academy Awards Best Film in a Foreign Language category) - this film sees no need to make sweeping commentary on Life. Its specifics relate to a way of life that is obscure to many, probably most, and yet this specificity creates a universality with which one can identify and enjoy without resorting to trite overstatements - it has subtleties far-removed from the majority of the string-laden statue-bait. Unfortunately, it's likely to be a case of 'catch it if you can' rather than 'while', but the sentiment remains the same.
Andrew R. Hill
After his patchy US excursion, This Must Be The Place, Neapolitan director Paolo Sorrentino returns with The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza), a portrait of the Roman haute bourgeoisie, a particularly irksome strand of the idle rich often satirised by Italian cinema and television.
Jep Gambardella (Sorrentino's regular Toni Servillo) is a journalist and one-time writer who is both bemused and somewhat terrified by turn his life has taken in the Italian capital. Early on in the film, we witness an opulent party given for his 65th birthday; he is surrounded by well-preserved and not-so well-preserved Botoxed society types, strippers, pseudo-intellectuals and wannabe 'artists'. Jep glides through life, seemingly untouched by his surroundings, observing reality with a sharp eye that becomes increasingly blearier after he begins realising that he is not getting any younger. His interior struggles are slowly revealed in the strange dichotomy that characterises the film; part lavish widescreen essay on what beauty really means, part criticism of contemporary Italian society. Sorrentino juggles these grand ideas with dexterity for the most part: we laugh as Jep verbally takes self-satisfied artists down a notch or two, and we are left almost breathless by accomplished cinematography as the camera caresses a variety of Roman locations and monuments. It's almost as the director had it in mind to create a perfect art house film for non-Italian audiences, that works both as a satire of the post-bunga bunga Italy and as a sophisticated 'postcard' of the 'Eternal City'. In a way, it is rather satisfying seeing the decline of this writer's home country brought to the big screen – not many directors have attempted this in recent years. As it is rather well-noted, one of the most repulsive aspects of Italian popular culture is the questionable treatment of women on television, film and the press. Sadly, Sorrentino fails to address this issue as all his females characters are borderline idiotic 'objects of desire' (Ramona, the stripper who brings Jep back in touch with reality is hardly a bright spark), vacuous egotists (Stefania is a radical writer who is only successful because she slept with the leader of a political party), or reassuring and desexualised mother figures. Riddles of The Sphinx it ain't.
The Great Beauty has attracted comparison with a couple of Federico Fellini's masterworks, specifically La Dolce Vita and 8 ½: Whilst these might seem like obvious reference points, the episodic structure of the film, the male protagonist at a crossroad, and the surreal little touches all inevitably make us think of those milestones. It might be worth remembering that Fellini wasn't one for easy resolutions – unfortunately this is where Sorrentino lets us down. Towards the end of the film, we are introduced to a character, a 104-year-old nun who can apparently speak to animals and perform various miracles - she reminds Jep that 'roots are very important'. We are subsequently led to believe, albeit in a vague and semi-mystical way, that our protagonist can find solace in a return to the past/his home town. After 2-odd hours of philosophical (and admittedly, rather entertaining) meanderings, this almost feels like a betrayal - a rushed ending that leaves us very unsatisfied. Sorrentino has attempted something rather courageous with this film - a love letter to a city, a study on disappointment and death, a witty mockery of a crumbling world - but he doesn't have the discipline to hold it all together to the end. If you are unfamiliar with his work, perhaps you should start with the far superior Il Divo.
'The question is: how to give human life its historical importance at every minute.' Cesare Zavattini (writer of Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D)
Shun Li and the Poet is a 'small', ordinary, everyday story about people trying to connect with each other and with their surroundings. It's also one of the most arrestingly charming films the Italian film industry has produced in the last ten years.
Evoking the spirit of Neorealism, this film captures something about contemporary life by the Venetian lagoon (it is set in Chioggia, a coastal town 25 km south of Venice with a strong local tradition) through its attention to mundane details and the precision taken in depicting a place obviously close to the director's heart. It is not coincidence that the film-maker in question, Andrea Segre, has a background in documentary-making and sociology; he is also a 'local boy', and clearly knows his milieu inside out. This is not the Italy of postcards, of BBC food programmes: Chioggia looks misty, earthy, desolate. Its streets, even its pubs, get flooded. Its inhabitants are stoic, non-nonsense people who have an ambiguous relationship with the new, 'cosmopolitan' aspects of their everyday life.
The 'new' is represented by Shun Li, a young Chinese immigrant who is sent to work in a local pub by the traffickers who brought her to Italy. Osteria Paradiso is a typical small town Venetian pub, the kind of place where local fishermen have been frequenting for generations. The protagonist, a silent and rather introverted woman, is seen as isolated and hanging on to the more traditional aspects of her native culture through the figure of ancient poet Qu Yuan; at the beginning of the film she is even ridiculed by a fellow immigrant ("Why do you care about these things? We're in Italy now!'). This changes as she begins speaking the local language and understanding her customers' very peculiar and personalised drink orders, she appears to be building a tentative bridge with her new surroundings.
She finally makes a real connection with one of the fishermen, Bepi, a Croatian who moved to Chioggia thirty years earlier. He has integrated well in the locals (he is known as 'the poet' for his way with words and rhymes), but somehow he still views himself as an outsider. Their fragile and ephemeral relationship is portrayed with subtlety and is genuinely moving – the scene where she visits his fishing hut sticks out as one of the key moments in the film. It is also a chance for the subtle, but highly effective cinematography to shine in its full glory: for the first time we see the sun, and our eye lingers on the mesmerising beauty of the mountains on the horizon.
Predictably their friendship is looked at by the townsfolk with suspicion – what can this quiet Chinese woman want from the elderly Bepi? The Chioggians live side by side with the Chinese community, but it is taken for granted that the two shall never make contact. In the film, the lagoon takes on a powerful symbolic meaning. Chioggia is surrounded and often engulfed by waters that are effectively 'trapped' and separate from the sea; it is a place that is worn out by its own habit and resistant to any sort of change.
Despite its exploration of themes such as xenophobia and labour exploitation, Shun Li and the Poet never feels didactic or finger-waving: Andrea Segre has succeeded in waving together a film that will haunt this writer for a long time.
Shun Li and the poet is available on the Filmhouse Player.
Last Tuesday EIFF hosted an interesting lecture led by Scottish film scholar Colin McArthur; the talk was titled 'What Sort of (Scottish) Film Culture Do We Want?' and it was expected to build on what the Scotch Reels event had covered back in 1982. McArthur launched a bit of an attack on Tartanry, and used Murray Grigor's Scotch Myths to prove his point. Scottish cinema has undeniably made a lot of progress on the international stage in the last 30 years, but the question of representation remains: what sort of image do you want to project? How do we see ourselves?
It is an issue which Jamie Chamber's Blackbird bravely tackled. It is a film enamoured with Scottish history and a certain type of traditional culture; it is also a film that asks questions about the role of these traditions have to play in a contemporary setting.
Blackbird follows the tribulations of Ruadhan, a young man living in a nameless fishing village in the South West of Scotland. He lives on a decrepit boat moored on a hill and is bewitched by found objects belonging to a seemingly distant past and by folk songs sang by the village's elders. Obsessed with preserving a culture that is slipping away as older people die and youngsters flee to the cities, he soon finds himself at odds with his neighbours and friends. He is saddened by what he sees as the intentional erasing of the past (perhaps exemplified by the belongings of deceased songbird Isobel being thrown in a junk shop) and by the inevitable advent of the new (in the form of a bistro selling hummus and olives).
It is a negotiation between the past and the present, the local and the global that reminds us of Bill Forsyth's Local Hero, although Chambers' approach is definitely less whimsical. The Edinburgh-born director is clearly fascinated with traditional songs and with the village's culture; his camera lovingly lingers on symbolic items like seashells, and captures the sad beauty of something that is about to disappear.
Blackbird is not only pleasing on the eye, but also features some great performances from the supporting cast – chiefly from Norman Maclen, who plays the unsentimental and very witty Alec with tantalising enthusiasm.
Unfortunately, the film's merits are somewhat muted by a script that at times relies too much on moments of 'high drama'; Ruadhan's character becomes defined by constant bursts of anger (his stubbornness is maybe admirable, but blinkered, and his attitude is questionable at best) and loses the subtlety that might have helped the Blackbird live up to its initial promise.
Nevertheless, it is a film that should be praised for a memorable and vivacious portrayal of a village caught between fondness for a strong tradition and willingness to find a place in the modern world. It doesn't provide any easy answers (the resolution feels rushed and unbelievable), but it is a timely reminder that folk culture deserves to be safeguarded and carried into the future.
Avanti o popolo, alla riscossa
Bandiera rossa, bandiera rossa
Avanti o popolo, alla riscossa
Bandiera rossa trionferà.
Avanti Popolo didn't need to do much to capture this writer's imagination. From the very first sequence, director Michael Wahrmann defies his audience's expectations – we are inside a car, investigating a run-down neighbourhood of São Paulo, and we get a chance to hear fragments of 1960s and 1970s Latin American music coming from the radio. Suddenly a man appears in the middle of the road; he doesn't seem hear the car honking, he doesn't move. Is he drunk, or maybe just lost?
As it turns out, that man is our protagonist, André , a man returning to his paternal home after breaking up with his wife. His father, played by the recently deceased Carlos Reichenbach, is pretty much a recluse living with his curiously named dog Whale. We soon learn the family has suffered a loss in the shape of Andre's older brother, who disappeared in 1974 after returning from the Soviet Union.
The notions of memory, loss and family trauma permeate everything in the film: the two main characters' stilted conversations and long silences, the Super 8 films André finds in the house, the old scratched vinyl the absent brother used to own. They are intrinsic to shot composition and mise en scène, to the muted, faded colour of wallpaper and furniture, to the pacing of the action. André tries to connect with a withdrawn father figure who won't (or maybe can't) deal with the past; in his attempt he gets a Super 8 projector mended - all technological devices in the film don't seem to work, perhaps hinting at the impossibility of ever really relating with something that is no longer present.
The positioning of the spectator is also something important and interesting; we unearth the family's history little by little, through glances, comments and small details. The camera is usually static and the direction intentionally undynamic, but we can't help but feeling involved in the quietly unfolding father-and-son conflict.
Like real life, Avanti Popolo also has its moment of light and humour. When André meets the technician who tries to fix his projector, he indulges in a light-hearted and at times sardonic conversation after he finds out that the latter is the only exponent of the semi-ridiculous Dogma 2002 movement. Indeed, references to recording, representing and cinema abound in the film: even the other Avanti Popolo (a 1986 bitter-sweet and surreal Israeli comedy) gets discussed.
After the father refuses to watch a film featuring his missing son, we get another Super 8 clip, this time of a theatre in complete ruins. A narrator (the director? the protagonist? his brother?) tries to play Avanti Popolo (the Italian song) for our benefit, but realises his record is scratched, so starts singing it himself. His voice is somewhat atonal, and soon cracks as the man is overwhelmed with emotion. It is an apt ending for a formally complex yet very moving work that deals with recent Brazilian history and its lost left-wing legacy in a non-didactic and completely personal manner.
“This apartment is very aware of itself”. A throwaway comment; a not-so-casual insight into the realm of one of the EIFF's biggest films.
Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha has so far been received with glowing reviews – critics have even invoked the spirit of 'sacred masters' like Woody Allen's Manhattan (it's shot in black and white and deals with the emotional struggles of aimless pseudo-intellectuals), and François Truffaut's Jules et Jim (the plot is episodic, the opening montage has a light-hearted freshness that recalls the early work of the French director, and we even hear the work of much-loved composer Georges Delerue).
Greta Gerwig plays Frances, a 27-year-old who lives in New York and works as an apprentice for a modern dance company. She seems reasonably content with her life until her best friend Sophie decides to move on with her life and leave their flat. Frances soon realises that she is not equipped for dealing with the challenges of adulthood (“I am not a proper person yet”): she is clumsy, has a penchant for saying the wrong things at the wrong time, and is constantly defined by her closest male friend as 'undateable'. We follow her journey through five different locations – the film is structured in five chapters, all opening with a title card providing the new address Frances lives at: Baumbach seems obsessed with the concept of personal space and what it says about people. The protagonist's struggles begin when she can no longer afford the flat she shared with her best friend and end when she finally gets her own place and puts a label with her name on to her new post box (she can't quite fit her full name in the provided space – a visual gag that not only gives the film its title, but perhaps also a comment on her skewed attempts at being a 'proper' adult).
Even if at times she seems a bit like a a stereotypical 'adorkable' lead character, it's hard not to sympathise with Frances, as she is surrounded by self-absorbed and narcissistic rich pseuds. Unfortunately this is when film's lightness of touch becomes a weakness. Just as we begin to see our protagonist crack under the pressures she faces and we start scratching beyond the bitter-sweet hipster surface, Baumbach goes for the easy way out and opts for a lazy sugar-coated resolution. It's a shame, because the sequences that have real emotional depth could have conjured a much more interesting portrayal of what is like to grow up and realise that your dreams might be unachievable. The sequence where Frances awkwardly describes her ideal relationship is genuinely moving as her idealised vision of love completely contradicts what we have seen on screen; her meeting with a disillusioned and drunk Sophie in their old college surroundings is also an impressive portrayal of the fragility of relationships.
The Filmhouse adds another string to its bow with a foray into distribution. Its debut release, The Stoker, takes a cold hard look at the ashes of post-Soviet Russia. Erika Sella rakes through the soot and the dust.
It’s small wonder that the Filmhouse is a highly regarded institution is Scotland (and the UK): home to the Edinburgh International Film Festival and the world’s oldest film society, the Edinburgh Film Guild, it has recently expanded its remit to film distribution.
At a terribly competitive time, when ‘10 out of 127’ distributors hold ‘the monopoly on the theatrical marketplace’ , The Filmhouse have decided to step up to the challenge of picking up and releasing little-known films that quite often get left behind by the traditional commercial model. The choice for their first release is indicative of a relaxed yet highly selective attitude to the industry.
Aleksey Balabanov’s The Stoker was never going to be an easy on the eye art-house favourite. The film was made in 2010 and first premiered outside its native Russia at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2011, before quietly disappearing off the radar. At first glance, it doesn’t appear to be something that was made with an international audience in mind: even though the film deals with universal themes such as isolation and bereavement, its director is relatively unknown outside his native land, and the plot presupposes that its audience will have at least a basic knowledge of Russia’s post-Soviet history, as well as a passing familiarity with the country’s culture.
At its core, The Stoker has got quite literally a burning heart - an oven, something that in Russian folklore represents life, vitality, the family milieu. Balabanov turns this symbol on its head: his protagonist, an ex-military Soviet hero of Yakut extraction (Major Skryabin), works all day and night by a furnace, often turning a blind eye to some local gangsters who use the facilities to incinerate their dead enemies.
Much of the film’s humour stems from the deadpan attitudes that accompany brutal acts - ironically, this is a double -edge sword, as it is also one of the film’s most tragic aspects.
The Stoker is set in the early 1990s, right after the fall of Communism – a time when Russia was essentially run by oligarchs and the Mafia. In a way, it’s no wonder that the film rejects any sort of aesthetic pleasantry: there is something almost lurid about what we see on screen. St Petersburg looks like an anonymous industrial town; flats and houses look inhospitable; men and women (even the objectively attractive ones) seem repulsive; every shot has a grubby, almost ghastly quality to it.
On top of all that, we are also subjected to an extremely repetitive instrumental guitar score that almost drowns out key conversations. While it’s hard not to be irritated by this seemingly incongruous jaunty, folk-infused theme, one has to recognise that its cheapness ends up complementing what we see on screen. Some reviewers called the Balabanov’ s choice of music ‘suicidal’; it’s clearly something that will test an audience’s patience, but it’s also a very brave directorial move.
Actors behave like malfunctioning androids, hardly displaying any emotions at all; the main hitman, ‘Bison’, only utters one sentence throughout the whole film. There is a general sense of malevolence, as relationships and interactions are clearly based on nothing more than reciprocal exploitation. The only exception to this rule is Skryabin: a powerless observer, honest and clearly selfless (he gives all his earnings to his daughter even though this means he has to live by ‘his’ furnace day and night), he puts his head down and carries on in a world that has gone topsy-turvy. At one point, though, things really get too much, even for him.
It’s obvious that even the most basic rules human society is built on are out of the window. Balabanov disposes of most of his characters (the body count is rather high) with little remorse and occasionally in a tragicomic manner. Skryabin’s last lines in the film finally sum up the disarray we have been subjected to: “ This isn’t war. Was is different. There you have us versus them. But here, it is us against us”. Skryabin is referring to his experiences in Afghanistan, but he could easily be talking about post-Communism Russia: gone are the old antagonists of Soviet propaganda, now it’s the time for an inner, and in some ways much more uncomfortable, battle.
For all its (admittedly quite dark) humour, The Stoker is a demanding watch, and it’s easy to see how the film could have disappeared if The Filmhouse hadn’t picked it up. However, its underlying savagery and ugliness feel necessary - the late Balabanov clearly wanted to provoke a reaction in the viewer. And ultimately, this is what elevates The Stoker from a mere gangster film to a striking and thought-provoking commentary of what his country looks like today.
‘The house of fiction has in short not one window but a million’ – Henry James, preface to The Portrait of a Lady, 1908
François Ozon’s In The House has been described by critics as a ‘psychological drama’, ‘a tantalising comedy’ and even as an ‘enjoyable romp’. It’s hard to deny that, so far, the French director’s output has been nothing short of diverse – he has comfortably jumped from the heart-wrenching chamber piece 5x2 (2004) to the camp farce that was Potiche (2010). However, this does not mean that Ozon is a mere ‘genre tourist’: like many great auteurs, he had recurrent preoccupations (in his case, the malaise of the bourgeois family), and an identifiable style. His new film, a compelling melange of black comedy and melodrama, is in many ways ‘classic’ Ozon; part satire, part coming of age story. In The House elegantly tip-toes amongst different genres, explicitly referencing both Woody Allen and Pier Paolo Pasolini in the process.
Fabrice Luchini stars as Germain, a middle aged literature teacher disillusioned with the perceived lack of writing skills amongst his pupils. Whilst marking homework, he is reinvigorated only by one essay, penned by the mischievous and quick-witted Claude, who has wangled his way into the middle class home of his school friend Rapha just to spy on what he caustically (but somewhat enviously) describes as ‘the perfect family’. Germain and his wife Jeanne (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) are both appalled by the boy’s morally questionable and often lurid investigation, although they don’t do anything to try and put a stop to it. Germain, who is a ‘failed writer’ himself, finds he has a new aim in his life and actively encourages Claude by offering post-school writing classes.
From this moment on, it becomes clear that the film’s real protagonist is the notion of storytelling; Ozon has fun dissecting the nature of creativity and the boundaries between reality and fiction. Germain tells Claude that his prose needs to become less observational (at one point the student admits: ‘This is what I see’) – he essentially suggests he should impose a narrative on what he is experiencing. The teacher’s literary guidance becomes more and more important (almost suggesting a skewed Virgil-like figure), to the point when he is physically introduced in Claude’s fiction (a device used to great effect in Annie Hall). Perhaps Germain is also manipulating what the audience is seeing – are we experiencing the story through is eyes? Is the lurid tale one of his own making, a verbalisation of his own frustrations? It seems like a fair question since Claude is never on camera on his own telling the story; he is always prompted (if not directed) by his teacher.
The situation quickly becomes potentially tragic, as the young pupil goes one to two steps too far in his attempt to cynically interfere with other people’s lives – at one point, he even reminds us of Terence Stamp’s nameless character in Theorem: he attempts to desecrate the family home and almost destroys it. This potent premise is perceptibly softened by the drily humorous exchanges between Germain and Jeanne (the seemingly happy accomplices) and by the self-reflexive nature of the film, as references to literature (Celine and J.D. Salinger are quoted in key moments) and the act of writing are always omnipresent. It’s a technique that allows the viewer to develop a certain amount of detachment, in an almost Brechtian sense. It makes us leave the cinema wondering about the nature of both writer and reader, and of both filmmaker and viewer. Why are we compelled to watch something that we consider questionable?
The answer lies with the somewhat sentimental yet pivotal finale. Claude and Germain are gazing at an apartment block (modelled on the one in Hitchcock’s Rear Window), observing its inhabitants and wondering who they are and what they are doing. Ozon’s message is clear: for better or for worse, we all need to create stories to help us make sense of what surrounds us.