film

DVD Review: 'What Have you Done to Solange?'

DVD Review: 'What Have you Done to Solange?'

Arrow Video continue to impress with their Blu-Ray releases of Italian Giallo films - this time with Massimo Dallamano's salacious and disturbing What Have You Done to Solange?. The film was released in 1972 (at the height of Giallo fever) and it positions itself as one of the more intriguing exponents of the genres. Dallamano (who had previously worked as a DOP on Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars and A Few Dollars More) delivers a lush-looking, highly disturbing and suspense-rich work that is enriched by Ennio Morricone's hunting score. 

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DVD Review: 'La Grande Bouffe'

DVD Review: 'La Grande Bouffe'

Arrow Films' recent release, Marco Ferreri's 1973 extremely dark comedy La Grande Bouffe, is unlikely to leave spectators indifferent - for better or for worse. Upon release, the film divided the public, who either hailed it as a masterwork of cutting social and political satire, or condemned it, as Roger Erbert caustically put it, as as a nihilistic 'chronicle of gluttony and self-hate'.

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DVD Review: 'Eyes without a Face'

DVD Review: 'Eyes without a Face'

When Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux Sans Visage) was presented at Edinburgh Film Festival in 1960, seven audience members fainted, prompting his French director, Georges Franju, to caustically remark: 'Now I know why Scotsmen wear skirts'. The film scandalised audiences around the world, and it nearly cost a job for a dissenting English critic who admitted she rather liked it.

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Edinburgh International Film Festival '14: Five Reviews

Koo! Kin-dza-dza (dir. Georgiy Daneliya & Tatiana Ilyna)

Image courtesy of EIFF

Present day Moscow. World famous cellist and cultural snob Vladimir Chizov and wannabe hipster DJ Tolik are accidentally catapulted onto a strange and desolate planet known as Puke. How will they make it back to Earth? This is the premise of Koo! Kin-dza-dza, an animated remake of the homonymous 1986 Soviet sci-fi satire. 

It's refreshing too see an animation that doesn't have to rely on CGI or 3D, especially when it skillfully infuses a picaresque story line with the absurdist touches of Terry Gilliam's Brazil. In the dune world of Pluke, inhabitants fall into two main categories - Patsaks and Chatlanians (the latter being the dominant people), a humble match (known as a ketse) is the most valuable item, and common sense doesn't seem to apply as strict hierarchies extend to the colour of pants one wears. The two main characters must fight their way through unreliable journey companions, perennial bribes and cacophony-loving  grandmothers. The comic darkness of this dystopian universe is  occasionally provided with light relief: it's hard not too smile when Vladimir plays his cello for an unusually appreciative and rather timid Plukian creature, or when Vladimir and Tolik seem to finally make an emotional connection.

For all its analogue ambition, Koo! Kin-dza-dza is far from perfect -  clocking in at 96 minutes, it feels overlong, leaving us with the impression that the script could have been much tighter in parts. 

Seeing this film presented again in the 21st century, when the USSR has become a distant memory makes for thought-provoking viewing, as its powerful depiction of laughable hierarchical structures, corruption and racism still resonates in contemporary Europe.

Koo! Kin-dza-dza 27 June, 18:15 at Odeon 2

[Erika Sella]


Anatomy of a Paperclip (dir. Akira Ikeda)

Director Ikeda Akira has stated that his starting point  for Anatomy of a Paperclip was his wish to create the modern equivalent of a Japanese folk tale.

The quiet, submissive Kogure is certainly the kind of character that can be found time and time again in both literature and film (his body language and tubby, inexpressive appearance reminded me Italian popular cinema staple Fantozzi); the linear simplicity and even pacing of the storyline (matched by the minimalist, deliberately two-dimensional and immaculately balanced, often symmetrical shots) are also somewhat reminiscent of a parable. 

Image courtesy of EIFF

The flat cinematography also complements the deadpan humour that springs from a world that has become devoid of pleasure - this is Japan, but not as we know it. Kugore lives in a small, bare room, works in a factory (which actually looks like a converted garage) where he is repeatedly abused by his horrific boss, survives on horrible food and is regularly taunted by a couple of thugs who have a penchant for stealing his clothes. This routine is gradually eroded by the vision of a butterfly (a presence usually loaded with meaning in Japanese culture) and the consequent appearance of a woman who speaks gibberish (a 'language' that was invented by the filmmaker) and decides to move into Kogure's bedsit without an explanation.

At the press screening, a fellow viewer felt that Anatomy of a Paperclip was 'essentially a Japanese remake of Eraserhead'; while the bleak, quietly hysterical  atmosphere that pervades the film may certainly recall some aspects of David Lynch's output, I felt this statement detracts from the film's complexity. This is a mysterious and often profound film; a poignant (yet very funny) comment about human nature and the meaning of interpersonal connections. 

Anatomy of a Paperclip, 28 June, 13:15 at Cameo 3

[Erika Sella]


Displaced Perssons (dir. Asa Blanck and Johan Palmgren) 

Image courtesy of EIFF

Pelle Persson is one of the most intriguing characters I have ever had the privilege to encounter on the big screen; perhaps inspired by a childhood adventure book (having recently watched Mark Cousin's A Story of Children and Film, I was reminded of Palle Alone in the World, and not simply because of the similarity of the main character's name), he sets off to adventure as soon as he is old enough to drive, living and working in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. He eventually settles in Lahore, Pakistan, where he marries Shamin, and has two daughters. As his children reach adulthood, he finds that his liberal parenting idea clash with the local customs (the girls find they can't leave the house by themselves), and decides to return to his native Sweden. But can you ever go home again? 

This is a documentary that tackles complex issues such as identity, the meaning of national cultures and of family ties. It's hard not to like the Perssons as they face their Swedish adventure with defiance and a great deal of humour, but also with fear and maybe some regret; the camera only needs to sit back and watch them, letting the occasional title card guide us through the passing of time. We see the deadpan Shamin braving the freezing winter and unenthusiastically learning Swedish, Pelle having to prove to the local bureaucrats that he still exists in order to receive his pension, their daughter Zahra struggling with life-changing decisions. There is no place for stereotype here - both Sweden and Pakistan are represented in ways that we not normally accustomed to. We are faced with a family that don't conform to the narratives we are fed by the popular press: Pelle, Sharmin, Zahra and Mia all prove that identity is something complex, fluid and not necessarily defined by a country of birth, and that love and family really can overcome the biggest difficulties. As soppy as that might sound, there was not a dry eye at the screening - Displaced Perssons delivers the kind emotional punch that is becoming increasingly rare. Do not miss.

Displaced Perssons, 27 June, 18:10 at Cameo 3

[Erika Sella]


Snowpiercer (dir. Joon-ho Bong)

It’s quite startling that an actor better known as Captain America (AKA Chris Evans…no, not that one) to many should be the protagonist of a film that critiques Capitalism quite so overtly (if in an occasionally naïve, often daft way). The premise is a bit silly but clearly analogous: in a post-apocalyptic world, a train rattles around the world carrying three groups of people, the last humans left on Earth – an elite that lives at the luxurious front, a servile group that do their bidding, and lumpenproletariat that dwell in slum-like carriages at the rear. Evans’ Curtis leads a revolt, blood is shed and a fable of the perils of Capital emerges through action setpieces and a great deal of humour. It does feel a little lacking in nuance in its politics and is silly in that comic-book-film way at times, but is enjoyable all the same. John Hurt expertly plays the wise old man, Tilda Swinton is a hilariously grotesque Lancastrian spokesperson, Kang-ho Song amuses as the drug-addled security expert and Jamie Bell is an entertaining sidekick (if a little heavy on the Oirish Eejit schtick) to Evans’ hirsute and oh-so-tortured American hero. 

Image courtesy of EIFF

Snowpiercer may struggle to escape the inherent limitations of its form but is entertaining with both heart and head in the right place. One can’t help but feel that Harvey Weinstein has probably bludgeoned Joon-ho Bong’s film into something more straightforward for Anglophone audiences than it may have been in the form shown to audiences in South Korea and elsewhere, but entertains and manages to be not entirely brainless with it, which is more than can be said yer average comic book (sorry, graphic novel) adaptation.

Snowpiercer, 28 June, 20:15 at Cineworld 3

[Andrew R. Hill]


The Cheviot, The Stag, and the Black Black Oil (dir. John McGrath)

Buried treasure screened on Saturday afternoon as a part of Dick Fiddy of the BFI’s lovingly programmed Border Warfare: John McGrath’s Work in TV, Theatre, & Film thread at the EIFF 2014. John McGrath’s The Cheviot, The Stag, and the Black Black Oil shouldn’t work; a Brechtian play filmed live (audience and all) with inserted dramatised exterior scenes (with different actors from those in the play), contemporary interviews with real people, Gaelic folk songs, Scottish country dancing and old-fashioned one-liner comedy collide in an hour and a half that is by turns tragic, didactic, polemical and hilarious.

The play takes three instances of the Scottish Highlands being carved up by outside forces, from the Clearances through to the Victorian stag hunting playground to North Sea oil. An unashamed attack on Capitalism, The Cheviot… is a breath-taking work of deceptive complexity – detailed, rich, informative, entertaining and moving. That it was screened on BBC One is astonishing now, especially on a weekend where the BBC News has proven itself to be little more than the propaganda wing of the Tory government, failing to report 50,000 people marching from its own headquarters to protest anti-austerity measures. That the film has yet to be released on DVD is, sadly, not much of a surprise – and, no, a screening on BBC Alba in 2012 isn’t enough (and Auntie’s tack has shifted all too far in the wrong direction in the interim). Luckily, YouTube saves the day – it  really is essential viewing. 

The EIFF should be commended for unshowily yet unashamedly political programming, in an era where artists (by which I include filmmakers, musicians and writers) seem content to shy away from politics altogether, for fear of alienating audiences – audiences that are often very receptive. John McGrath certainly was no such artist and the opportunity to discover (or, indeed, rediscover) his work is an unmissable opportunity.

[Andrew R. Hill]

Review: 'Under the Skin'

Defining Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin as an alien invasion film wouldn't even begin to describe one of the most interesting cinematic excursions of the year - just as his previous films Sexy Beast (2000) and Birth (2004) challenged the limitations of their specific genres (crime thriller and paranormal drama respectively), his latest work intelligently defies a viewer's expectations.

Image courtesy of Film 4

Image courtesy of Film 4

Under the Skin is based on a novel by Michel Faber; whilst Glazer remains faithful to the book's central idea (an alien arrives on earth looking for human prey), he reduces the narrative to a very basic, almost skeletal concept, abandoning most dialogue, and offering very little explanation for what happens on screen. Suitably, the film opens with a mysterious sequence that echoes Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey:  a series of close-ups of  a variety of abstract, circular shapes (perhaps signifying the rebirth of the alien, her mutation into human form) accompanied an eerie musical piece. The mood swiftly changes as we are transported to contemporary Glasgow, where our unnamed protagonist drives around in a white transit van, occasionally stopping young men to ask for directions or to offer them a lift. The alien is played by Scarlett Johansson, barely recognisable in a black wig and cheap fur coat. The effect of combining an A-list Hollywood star that is largely associated with glamorous hyper-sexuality with a context that seems so at odds with her persona is nothing short of exhilarating.  If the director was trying to tell us something about feeling alienated by a certain environment (the film arguably follows the protagonist's perspective), he is certainly successful in his aim. Glasgow is filmed in a a naturalistic manner that borders on cinema-vérité (part of the film was shot with hidden cameras) - real situations, real people, real shop fronts, real streets, real accents. This milieu is contrasted with Johansson's well-spoken, physically attractive persona - she is not only an alien (in both a tangible and metaphorical sense) roaming the streets of a busy city much like Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle did in Taxi Driver (1975), but also a fiercely alluring star from a world so far removed from the West of Scotland. 

The alien's aggressive and unsympathetic attitude changes in the latter part of the film when she suddenly abandons Glasgow for the majestic but stark Scottish countryside. Here, surrounded by a thick mist that becomes a signifier for her sense of isolation, she morphs into a vulnerable, confused figure that becomes the victim instead of the aggressor. Interestingly, she also starts coming to terms with her human body (an emblematic sequence involves Johansson curiously observing her naked body at the mirror): is her new frailty inseparable from the human form she finally feels aligned to? Or is the violence she is subjected to a comment on her 'woman as a sex object' status? Jonathan Glazer has stated that he did not intend to tackle gender issues with Under the Skinbut there are discernible feminist undertones in the way his protagonist's body becomes a central subject (maybe even the central subject) of the film.

Under the Skin is never impenetrable, but its esoteric nature, its 'openness' and its clever mix of different cinematic elements mean that multiple interpretations become possible. Scarlett Johansson's alien takes on a journey that  partly resembles a poignant coming of age tale, even though her desire to fit in never materialises. Jonathan Glazer leaves his mark all over this strange fable: his vision is capable of polarising audiences, but it also capable to provide a distinctive film experience that knows how to reward a viewer that can approach it with an open attitude.

Erika Sella


Review: 'The Robber'

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. 

Image courtesy of Filmhouse

Image courtesy of Filmhouse

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 RunnerUltimately, 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


Review: 'The Great Beauty'


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.


Image courtesy of Medusa Film

Image courtesy of Medusa Film

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.

 

Image courtesy of Medusa Film

Image courtesy of Medusa Film

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.

Erika Sella

 

EIFF 2013: A Story of Children and Film

Following the making of his fifteen and a half hour epic documentary The Story of Film: An Odyssey - a project that took six years to shoot – Mark Cousins made the poetic film essay What is this film called Love? in just three days, a film that was a meditation on the nature of happiness (among other things). What is this film called Love? functioned as a kind of creative palate-cleanser for Cousins and, unlike the herculean effort of The Story of Film, was spontaneous, unplanned. A Story of Children and Film (that indefinite article is important) feels, in more ways than one, to be a meeting of the two films, a historiography of cinema through a personal prism, prompted by a chance incidence of home recording.

Image courtesy of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.  

Image courtesy of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.  

The film was inspired by an unplanned recording of Cousins’ niece and nephew playing in his Edinburgh flat one morning and takes its structural queues from the themes he found in this ad hoc footage (and then some). These themes encompass shyness, social class, the strop, enacted parenting, conflict, dreams and adventure (among others). In his distinctive and captivating (captivated, even) Ulster brogue, Cousins leads us through fifty-one films from Denmark in the ‘40s (Palle Alone In The World), Iran in the ‘70s (Two Solutions For One Problem), Japan in the ‘90s (Children In The Wind) and the USA of the current decade (Moonrise Kingdom); his selection encompasses directors as diverse as Bill Douglas, Charlie Chaplin, Ingmar Bergman and Luis Buñuel to explore his chosen themes.

At one point the unnatural (actually somewhat creepy) performance of Shirley Temple in Irving Cummings’ Curly Top is contrasted with Margaret O’Brien’s bum note laden duet with Judy Garland in Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me In St Louis, Cousins remarks that "We are spellbound by [O’Brien]” – we are, but we’re spellbound by this film too, entirely apposite given its subject; we marvel with childlike wonder at both children in cinema and at cinema itself. This only serves to illustrate and underline the thrust of the film, “Could it be that kids are movies? That the movies are kids?” That would be an eye-rolling moment had these questions come at the end of a film that did not so subtly nudge us towards this conclusion all the way through, and it’s a very convincing argument, beguilingly executed. Cinema in its purest experience is open to the world and open to everyone, everything; it is egalitarian, simple, profound, honest, fantastical - these qualities only get disrupted when adults (or, perhaps, ‘adults’) get in the way.

Andrew R. Hill

EIFF 2013: Leviathan

A documentary that is prefaced with a quote from The Book of Job rarely creates anticipation for a light-hearted romp. Leviathan begins with such a quote in white text on black, an extract from chapter 41 regarding the titular beast. We fade to black; deep metallic groaning as water laps in surround sound, light leaks in, red and then an image forms: waves, the deck of the boat, a fisherman’s gloved hands – our hands in fact, as the camera’s eye is the fisherman’s. We’re hauling in a catch, an enormous net, the trawler leaning toward the sea. We could go in those waves at any moment and then, apparently, we do. Have we gone overboard? No – this camera moves about as it pleases, possessing fishermen, swimming in the wake of debris, climbing nets, writhing among gawp-mouthed fish, defying gravity. The camera is our narrator. From that slow fade in, we plunge into a semi-psychedelic miasma of images and sounds, edited into a practically seamless hallucination. This is no ordinary documentary.

Image courtesy of Cinema Guild.

Image courtesy of Cinema Guild.

In acid-droppers’ parlance, this is a bad trip. The fishermen live on a knife edge, everything is poised on the brink of destruction at all times, it’s dark and it’s wet and it’s choppy as hell. The camera eye, our eye, is unflinching: fish writhe and suffocate, and are beheaded and gutted with ruthless efficiency by the fishermen – in this initial sequence – mostly faceless, sou’westered automatons. The physicality of their job combined with the harshness of their environment makes it hard to believe they’re human sometimes. In one grimly hypnotic sequence, two fishermen remove the fins from stingrays, hooking them through the eye, hacking off the fins and then throwing the three dismembered pieces into buckets - hook, hack, chuck; hook, hack, chuck; hook, hack, chuck – a (presumably) routine process in their day’s work, a routine of metronomic brutality. Later, we see blood and slurry pouring from the side of the boat, back to the sea.

The unsettling horror sequence of the first hour is abruptly interrupted and the film turns round into a more human affair. The fishermen, below deck for the most part, are now human; they still conduct their business in a well-worn manner but we can see their bare faces: physically and emotionally exhausted, damp and hollow eyed. Fish are processed, cranes are operated, incomprehensible New England gutturals exchanged. A hefty, moustachioed man in a vest blankly watches television beneath deck, he doses off and we’re in another frame of consciousness again. A slow-motion, woozy drift, the camera floats in and around the ship, in and out the black water - is this the fisherman’s dream? Is it ours?

To call Leviathan a documentary is in many ways inadequate, a convenience of categorisation. But while it does so in an extraordinary, hypnotic, hypnagogic manner, it actually cuts to the heart of its subject matter by simply showing us, unencumbered by narration or a narrative. In among the viscera of the operations of the boat, we feel the brutality of nature and the brutality of industrialised human consumption. To call Leviathan a horror film is something of an exaggeration too but it might be just as accurate as calling it a documentary: like the best horror films, one is relieved when it’s all over - but the pull of the dark currents, the impulse to plumb those depths again, recurs too.

 Andrew R. Hill  

In The House

‘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.

Image courtesy of Momentum Pictures

Image courtesy of Momentum Pictures

 

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.

Image courtesy of Momentum Pictures

Image courtesy of Momentum Pictures

 

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.