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Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Ever-ambitious¹ Aimard wows with authenticity

This is a review of Pierre-Laurent Aimard's solo piano recital in June 2014

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

24 June (updated, with link, 6 July)

This is a review of a solo piano recital given on Monday 23 June 2014 at The Maltings, Snape, by Pierre-Laurent Aimard during the 67th Aldeburgh Festival (@aldeburghmusic) – relayed live on Radio 3 (@BBCRadio3)

Also on Aldeburgh...

A swaying, snarling, even spitting Schubert for our times

The Humphrey and Andy Show (Britten on Camera)

The best £13 ever spent !

Why are all concert / recital programmes not like this, mixing memory and desire, as Eliot once wrote ?

That was written at the end of the first half, but it could have been inspired by later seeing the Aldeburgh music booklet ‘Leaving a legacy in your will’, which has Eliot on the back cover (You are the music while the music lasts (which seems sure to be from Four Quartets)), and the words Make Your Mark¹ on the front :

If Pierre-Laurent Aimard (PLA – just as Kristin Scott Thomas is always KST in these postings) has not made his mark on people’s consciousness to-night, that of the bewitched audience at The Maltings, Snape, and in those listening to Radio 3 (@BBCRadio3), he never will !

PLA at The Friends' Reception

(One almost hesitates, having perfectly seen those fingers and hands crossing, separating, interlocking, even one above the other, to go to the Radio 3 web-site and Listen Again (for seven days only), but, as one of my fellow occupants of the front row suggested, one wants to hear again the juxtapositions that PLA has made here.)

He has built on the wonderful curation in past Aldeburgh Festivals, both in partnership with the amazing Tamara Stefanovich (on both one and two pianos), and his solo piano non-stop miscellanies, which had seemed, until last night, to be ground-breaking music marathons. Not that they were not, but PLA has now shattered the unhelpful image of separateness in and between composers and their compositions, and, with the sheer dynamism with which he interpreted these two, differing halves, thrown down a sort of gauntlet to the question of what we listen to – and why : with the first sounding as though it contained some Scriabin (although it actually did not, because studies of his, exquisitely rendered, had only been scheduled, according to the running order, after the interval), the second with a complete short set of pieces by Bartók, whose score alone (and not exclusively) was remarkable for resembling pyramids, upwards triangles of notation.

Afterwards, when a couple was heard comparing this Festival very positively with previous ones², they appeared (unless they were talking about another performer) to be saying that PLA’s response is an intellectual response, not an emotional one, whereas one could not agree less. Yes, he is clearly a shy man (on the level of being unassuming, but proud of what he has the conviction to attempt, and succeed with), but he clearly accepts that a public face is part of performance (as, maybe, Glenn Gloud could not), and he entered into this recital as another John Ogden (who, one is glad, is being recalled just now on Radio 3) :

No one who saw Ogden, for all that he had these feats of memory and technique at his fingertips (pun intended), could doubt how brilliantly he felt the music in his soul. (Quite apart from whether having the experience of worlds known to Alexander Scriabin [the programme prefers the spelling 'Skryabin'] allowed Ogden to enter into the landscape of his harmony, and make so many remarkable recordings that we can go to³.) With PLA, one could see the pleasure, joy, surprise, anguish and discomfort with what all this music, at its height, had to say to him from the page.

He has little physical resonance with the look of Ogden on stage, but there was a resemblance in that he had clearly fixed the order of works in his head not only so that he could transition into the next one as the page-turner moved the concertina, booklet or collection of pages that was (as the case might be) the score, but be fully present to the music in each case :

And this was not ‘compartmentalization’ at all, in no sense a glib characterization of the next composer, but internalizing the essence not only of the moment, but also of the connection that he had, in scheduling the works, made with what went before : the quotation from Eliot is so relevant here, that, whilst the music – in each case – lasted, he was not only with it, but was it.

A butterfly on the lavender in the lovely garden at By The Crossways
(where The Friends' Reception was held)

Performers as different as Stile Antico (@stileantico), Britten Sinfonia (@BrittenSinfonia), and (to name but one other pianist) Vladimir Horowitz⁴ all have had their notion of a sequence, but the programme of PLA’s two halves was curated in such a way that we only (especially if one had a clear view of PLA’s hands, and where he was on each score) incidentally noticed the practice-elements in these various Études, such as octaves, chimes, dissonances, or even what, at the beginning of the very first piece, presented just as a simple scale (and how it developed from there !).

He had not, of course, not just jumbled these pieces all together, and the programming alone deserves enormous acclaim (though could another have brought off delivering it ?), alongside the precision and pianism with which PLA played. (Some might have wanted to follow the listing, to see what he was playing, where ‘we had go to’, but that seemed unnecessary (although one was partly still playing The Radio 3 Guessing Game, when, having switched on during a piece, one tries to guess what it is, before it is announced).)

More so than through enviable technique and stamina, it was in the integrity, the conviction that this should – and would – work. Rarely, then, in a second half will we have heard the top note struck and stroked to such effect, but entirely integrally and organically, as much as finding pentatonic scales, or bell-notes, and chimes. PLA did seem to be saying two things very clearly :

Why do we need opus numbers, keys, and sets of pieces so often brought to us as sets⁵, etc. ?

More importantly :

Why, in all these things, do we seek what divides music from music ?

Do not just take @THEAGENTAPSLEY's word for it that this recital excelled - read The Guardian's review, which gave it five stars, and with the following extract from which one cannot at all disagree !

Yet he will surely never make a more heartfelt tribute to Ligeti than this recital, where he placed the Hungarian composer squarely in the context of the piano greats. This was an exquisitely constructed programme, interlacing 12 Ligeti studies with 12 by Debussy, Chopin, Bartók and Scriabin, first paired and then heard in blocks of three. It made for spellbinding listening.

Rian Evans

Also on Aldeburgh...

A swaying, snarling, even spitting Schubert for our times

The Humphrey and Andy Show (Britten on Camera)


¹ In the good way, that of extending an ambit, here that of musicality and the true life that is, and is of, music.

² Not, though, that they seemed in any way let down with them, but highly impressed this time, whereas, at The Friends’ Reception on Sunday, someone had sounded a note that there had been uncertainty about how successful of this year, but that it – and PLA – had proved him or her wrong.

³ An excellent choice, made available by gullivior, is his interpretation of Beethoven's Opus 111...

⁴ Who could seem almost impatient to move on to the next piece in a recital, and not to be ruffled by applause…

⁵ In a recent piano recital (15 February) in King’s College Chapel (@ConcertsatKings), Leon McCawley (@leonmccawley) had brought us Rachmaninov’s whole Opus 32 (from 1910) in his second half, Thirteen Preludes, and, stunningly nice though it was to hear them through (the familiar and the less familiar), they made no connection of this kind :

Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Brahms were still the other side of the interval, in another place. And, with the Songs Without Words, there had seemed little feeling for the three pieces played : how often (and what does it tell us ?) might we have been to a recital where we could take or leave staying after the interval ? (Yet, to give an example, Sodi Braide’s all-Liszt second half redeemed a performance at Cambridge Summer Music Festival where one had initially felt exactly that.)

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Monday, 23 June 2014

A swaying, snarling, even spitting Schubert for our times

This is a review of Ian Bostridge and Thomas Adès in Schubert’s Winterreise

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

This is a review of a performance at The Maltings, Snape, of Franz Schubert’s Winterreise (Op. 89, D. 911) by Ian Bostridge and Thomas Adès on the evening of Sunday 22 June 2014 in the 67th Aldeburgh Festival (@aldeburghmusic)

One might have imagined that the theatrical nature of to-night’s Winterreise at The Maltings, Snape, was Nicht für alle – but when Adès had sounded the final moment of calm, beyond bereftness, and had maintained long his final position on the keys (holding the reaction off), the vivid acclaim proved otherwise.

And seventy or more minutes had passed without seeming so, taking us to Der Leiermann quite, it might almost have felt, by surprise – could we really be at journey’s end already (wherever we actually were in time, that is)… ? Had we not been immersed, and begun to lose track of the number of song-settings by around the seventh – and why, anyway, was the figure of thirty-two floating around in the mind (or was that from The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 ?) ?

In ‘Gute Nacht’ (1*), right at the start of Wilhelm Müller’s sequence (though there were originally only twelve poems), there might have been some wonder at Bostridge’s extreme enunciation of clusters of letters at the ends of words such as gemacht / Nacht, and then, in reverse order, Nacht / gedacht**.

The initial impression was that maybe Bostridge had reacted to some criticism of his German by over-accentuation – but no, with further listening, diction in other places was more interior by far, not simply quieter, and, although (with the hall’s fine acoustic) it must have, seemed in danger of not reaching halfway up the side-stalls, let alone carrying to the back of the raked seating :

Something more complicated was going on with the voicing of this piece, which not only looked back to Bostridge’s recording with Julius Drake of ‘Erlkönig’ (D. 328) (on the EMI album Schubert Lieder*** in 1998), but also to his acclaimed appearances in so much Mozart, so much Britten, even as Caliban in Adès’ own much-lauded opera. (And, as Bostridge was in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, fitting to be reminded of a Director of Studies at Cambridge, who once expressed the belief that the separate characters in The Rape of Lucrece are different parts of one person – and the concomitantly repellent implication that Shakespeare had composed a fantasy of rape.)

Bostridge was bringing what amounted to a semi-staging to this late work of Schubert (hardly anything later than the year of death, and correcting the proofs of Part 2 of the song-cycle), but almost within the conventions of the concert-hall : done-up dark suit, single buttoned and almost a less-showy dinner-jacket, white shirt, but no tie for Adès or him.

Sometimes leaning on the curve of the Steinway grand as if this were cabaret (and sounding not a little Kurt Weillish), sometimes feeling like about to dive into it, under its lid (yet not as at a word-prompt, but as if his lost love and heart might be there), other times advancing upstage, at yet others writhing, contorted, and seeming to start disintegrating. Which, of course, is at the heart of Winterreise (after – and painfully leading on from – [Schubert’s setting of] Müller’s optimistic and enthusiastic Die schöne Müllerin (no sly self-reference there).

Or, more than two centuries later, at that of Beckettt in Molloy**** (and the other two novels of that trilogy, or even in the earlier work Mercier and Camier), though one was reminded most of that writer’s more famous and actually once cultured ‘men of the road’ in Vladimir and Estragon (affectionately, Didi and Gogo) : Could Bostridge possibly be seeing himself as a Vladimir, first of all seeing that special tree (‘Den Lindenbaum’ (5)), but with difficult feelings because of the mismatch with what is rooted in memory ?

That was the first really lyrical voicing, with Lieder-type gestures and tone, but it led, for example, to :

* ‘Wasserflut’ (6), with a massive, expressionistic stress on Haus (the ultimate word of the lyrics)

* Looking back on the town, as the departing man leaves it behind (‘Rückblick’ (8))

* The heart’s unfettered reaching out, in rapturous hope, when ein Posthorn klingt (in ‘Die Post’ (12)) – more clamorous lyricism

* The fixéd resignation / resolution (in ‘Der Wegweiser’ (20)) of :

eine Straße muß ich gehen,
die noch keiner ging zurück

Maybe at this point a different note set in – or perhaps as early as ‘Der greise Kopf’ (14)*****, contemplating the poet’s happy illusion of being old (because of frost on the hair). From then, diese Resie not seem to be demanding of Bostridge in the same way, and the slightly reeling and slurred Tom Waits down tone, contrasting with the defiant up voice that clearly and angrily states how the traveller has been treated, had evaporated – the feeling of ill-treatment had been early, starting with ‘Die Wetterfahne’ (2), and seeing Cressida-like inconstancy in the weather-vane signalling a change of direction (indicated by what is described as ‘[ein] Schild’, a crest or shield), and in the cynicism of the wind-changed beloved’s parents :

Was fragen sie nach meinen Schmerzen ?
Ihr Kind ist eine reiche Braut.

Yet this living so deeply with the role (no less than that, say, of Lear, where there is some respite) must have been at, and continued to be at, a price : at the end of Winterreise, when Adès and he went off, Bostridge seemed physically reduced from being already slim – though perhaps it was just the back view – and looked depleted, almost lamed.

Just one minor hesitation…

Yes, we can be plunged into this winter-world, but (especially if we do not know it, and struggle to follow the unremitting text in the concert-hall’s relative gloom) do we best find our emotional direction with Schubert’s work here ? Coming to the performance with our maybe hurried occupation of seats, our life outside the hall, brought into our seat ? – until, though, we relax into the offered music. No, we definitely would not have demanded more of Bostridge before Winterreise, but could we not have had a momentary taste of the composer just for piano, just to get us in his sound-world ?

As it was, it transpired that Adès, as accompanist, had read back into the early sections the spiky strangeness of the close, with his brought-out bass-figures and what seemed quirkily anachronistic stress, but could we have followed him better, and alone first, with a suitable Impromptu or two, to remind ourselves of the Schubert who after all strove, not least in Rosamunde (however fragmentarily his efforts usually survive, outside Radio 3’s (@BBCRadio3’s) Schubert marathon, as ‘incidental music’), to be part of theatre ?

Or even Liszt transcriptions of some songs, to take us away from the text-based, score-based literalism with which we might have approached what, it turned out, was anything but a hide-bound Winterreise, but a dangerous encounter with the part-like nature of the self…

A review of the following night's marathon solo piano recital by Festival director Pierre-Laurent Aimard is now available here


* The numbering denotes the positioning of the poems of the song-cycle (as against Müller’s sequence of poems).

** Not here, but later, is where sounds were almost launched at the front rows of the stalls, right below Bostridge : ab in ‘Gefrorne Tränen’ (3), and, probably next, überdeckt andausgestreckt in ‘Auf dem Flusse’ (7).

*** The initial recording, to which a Volume II was added (in the release in 2001).

**** ‘Rast’ (10) talks of sheltering in a charcoal-burner’s house, and there is such a person in Beckettt’s Molloy

***** In the closing two lines, we have confirmation that this is a definite departure, eine Reise :

Wer glaubt’s ? under meiner ward es nicht
auf dieser ganzen Reise !

Also on Aldeburgh...

Ever-ambitious Aimard wows with authenticity

The Humphrey and Andy Show (Britten on Camera)

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Post-Concussion Syndrome

In the wake of this review of Concussion (2013)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

12 June

* Contains spoilers *

In the wake of this review of Concussion (2013)

One can just imagine it* !

They’ve got on set, they’ve filmed fifteen set-ups, and suddenly realize that – apart from a discussion at the party, with its idle prurience about how one ‘becomes a lesbian’ – they have overlooked something…

At stages such as script-meetings, revisions, read-throughs, etc., it is incredible that no one spotted the panther on the porch, the slug in the sauna – undetected, because noticeable only by not being present** : Concussion (2013) had missed an element.

Or it is later on, after other stages such as rushes, previews, re-edits, focus-groups, that a film almost totally peopled by undressing, de-stressing, caressing, congressing… is seen, despite all this, to have a flaw : who is divorced from all the sybaritic intensity, thereby making this not a State-side Blue is the Warmest Colour (La vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 et 2) (2013), but more like Jeune et Jolie (2013) – which no one*** should call Young and Beautiful.

Yet it is, say, Jeune et Jolie meets the world of (the far less successful, but French) Bright Days Ahead (Les Beaux Jours) (2013), for this is more comedic… In fact, it has all the fluffiness of films such as Pretty Woman (1990) – but between women. Whence 'the marketing problem' : No key token man in sight !

For the lecherously nosy guy at the party is just a libidinous cameo (with a plot-purpose to sate our priapic needs about Abby), and Abby’s partner Kate’s (Julie Fain Lawrence’s) divorcing client, desirous of a ‘shitty’ loft (as Justin calls it), barely registers - alongside Lawrence - in their brief scenes. Even with Justin (Johnathan Tchaikovsky), Abby’s (Robin Weigert’s) handy friend with tools, there is nothing about him that compellingly foregrounds him.

Yes, in terms of the plot, he is not inconsequential – though we have to credit that, when he suddenly suggests sleeping with other women for money, it is somehow passed off as natural that he does so now, but without seemingly having referred to such things before. For all that, he has no presence as any sort of ‘arranger’ of Abby’s liaisons, because he is really only an intermediate between the matter-of-fact, but barely mysterious, The Girl (Emily Kinney) and her.

So, the question arises :

Could Justin have been made into a male part, at the last minute, to make this less like an all-female film, as Stranger by the Lake (L’inconnu du lac) (2013) is - and is happy to be - an all-male one… ?

What are the dynamics that makes that role necessarily that of a man (just as it was asked before whether it matters that Abby’s partner is not a man****) ?


* Well, at any rate, @THEAGENTAPSLEY did.

** Like the universe’s missing anti-matter ?

*** Since ‘jolie’ means pretty (feminine form), not beautiful (and Marine Vacth, lovely and accomplished though she is, is not (yet) beautiful...

**** Some reviewers assume, because of some comment about Kate’s surname, that Abby and she are married – unlikely, perhaps, since a court only ruled in New Jersey at the end of last year that gay marriage must be allowed.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

In praise of Praise

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

12 June

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

What is Catalan cinema ?

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

9 June (updated 20 August)

What is Catalan cinema ?

[Now, in 2017, with its own sequel : What more is Catalan cinema ?]

Update : click here to go to outlines of three Catalan films
at Cambridge Film Festival 2014 and links to reviews

In advance of the 34th Cambridge Film Festival (#CamFF via @camfilmfest), and also of a screening at London’s ICA (@ICA) on 27 June of El bosc (The Forest) (2012) (a film that had its UK premiere when shown at last year’s Festival¹ as did three other Catalan films), here is a little look at where films like this come from geographically, temperamentally, and emotionally…

Some may know that Barcelona, the second largest city in Spain, is the capital city of Catalonia though it’s really, in Catalan, Catalunya but forget Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) for giving you any more than an architectural montage to emulate that of Manhattan (1979) (or be a precursor to Woody Allen’s love-smitten depiction of Paris at Midnight from 2011…)²

But it probably may help little more to think of the inevitable Gaudí, let alone Juan Gris’ connections or with the Catalan form of Gris’ adopted name and a birth-right to Barcelona Joan Miró. Maurice Ravel (French, but with a Basque-Spanish heritage of a birthplace in territory somewhat distant from Catalunya, but likewise where France adjoins Spain), may give us some feel of Spanishness at times, but perhaps the quirky figure who provides a way in to this cinematic tradition is Salvador Dalí.

This blog-posting began with five ‘S’ key-words, and Dalí truly, as the phrase has it, ticks the boxes for all of them and, with the infamous collaboration with Luis Buñuel in Un Chien Andalou (1928) (not forgetting L'âge d'or (1930)), is rooted in cinema. Dalí may have moved away from what Buñuel became a celebrated master of, but his showmanship and theatricality resembles aspects of film familiar, say, from the great Italian directors, and it is hard to believe that he has not been an inspiration in his home region.

Overview of Cambridge Film Festival's 'Catalan strand' in 2012 and 2013

Looking personally to the 2014 Festival (#CamFF), there is full confidence in Ramon Lamarca that he will have found and curated some powerful and challenging films, no doubt examining the nature of reality, or of the little-appreciated conflict that is The Spanish Civil War (Guerra Civil Española). As well as ending the life of poet and playwright Federico García Lorca, and providing the substance of Ernest Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, it not only tore Spain apart (with the help of General Franco’s allies in Germany and Italy), but has laid down a seam that underlies the history of Spain in our postmodern era, and which film-makers in Catalunya have been especially open to explore :

Directors such as Ken Loach, working with screenwriter Jim Allen in Land and Freedom (1995), have brought a British perspective on seeking to fight pro-fascist Nationalist forces, but Jesús Garay’s Eyes on the Sky (Mirant al Cel) (2008) delves less into the politics and the pointlessness of brother against brother, but rather, and very movingly, into the ‘visceralness’ of what it means to tick down to something that changes individual lives for ever : although Garay is from Santander, not Catalunya, again this is in the very North of Spain.

Set in the civil war like his film, but from the point of view of a landowner with pro-fascist leanings (or, probably more accurately, inherited anti-communist feelings ?), The Forest (El bosc) (2012), through its embodiment of place and with its vivid special effects, evokes another world, another dimension, from the perspective of which professed love and care can be examined, and in and through which a transformational and redemptive influence can operate. Similarly, in a way in the post-war period, and with packed Festival screenings, Black Bread (Pa negre) (2010) hits us right at its close with a boy’s realization of what his true position in life has been.

On another level, and in Venice, we again have finding the truth in The Redemption of The Fish (La redempció dels peixos) (2013), as Marc (Miquel Quer) tracks down his past, and is seduced and misled by the shapes, shadows and reflections of La Serenissima : so many of these films revolve historical and familial disputes and allegiances in a rich and productive way. In V.O.S. (2009), we have that theme translated into the playful and malleable notion of relation and relationships, in and out of making a film that crosses the barrier between ‘life’ and ‘film’ in a way as inventive and thought-provoking as Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). And, but one might need to read further with the links below to reviews on this blog, The Night Elvis Died (La Nit Que Va Morir L’Elvis) (2010) teases apart the layers of reality (not least with its quiet homage to Paris, Texas (1984))…

Here (out of the eleven films shown in 2012 and 2013 - UK denotes UK premiere) are links to this blog’s reviews of most of the films (with @THEAGENTAPSLEY's tag-lines, and additional key-words) :

2012 Black Bread (Pa Negre) (2010)

A naturalistic, but haunted, story of a child’s perspective on betrayal, sex and anger

Civil war Childhood Respect Reprisal Poverty Loyalty

2013 (UK) Eyes on the Sky (Mirant al Cel) (2008)

Movingly mixing documentary, acting, and faux-documentary to dig into past pain

Bombs Barcelona Dante Time Heights History

2012 The Body in the Woods (Un Cos Al Bosc) (1996)

An unfolding with turns, twists and unprincipled practices

Sexual orientation Investigation Murder Disguise Corruption Desire

2013 (UK) The Forest (El bosc) (2012)

An account of a civil war through how the hated better-off classes fared

Magical realism Twisted love Collectivization Other worlds Symbolism Unreal feast

2012 The Night Elvis Died (La Nit Que Va Morir L’Elvis) (2010)

Finding the truth, when it is well hidden, by intuition and insight

Mental-health stigma Friendship Corruption Blood Unreality Amnesia

2013 (UK) The Redemption of the Fish (La redempció dels peixos) (2013)

Connectedness and disconnection, reality and illusion, in Venice

Contact Closeness Deceit Truth Reflection Ripple

2012 V.O.S. (2009)

A film within a film or is one as real as the other ?

Acting Film-making Real time Couples Attraction Meta-textuality

2012 Warsaw Bridge (1990)

The whirl / ennui of yet another publishing event, and what it leads to

Connections Publishing Society Glamour Politics Water


¹ It had two screenings, at the second of which the film’s director, Óscar Aibar, was in attendance and answered questions.

² For one thing, Penélope Cruz (easily the best part of the film, and whose deserving an Academy Award (for María Elena) was undeniable) and her now husband Javier Bardem (by no means the worst), although Spanish, are not from what (since 1978) has been an Autonomous Community or ’nationality’ within Spain.

For another, according to the trivia of Wikipedia’s web-page for VCB, Allen had funding for a film to be shot in Spain, and so adapted a script that he had written years before, which was set in San Francisco : judge for oneself what Catalan (or even properly Spanish) feel one has from the film and, more importantly, whether the character of Juan Antonio (Bardem) resembles a convenient stereotype of Mediterranean mores (to drive the plot in a rather Jamesian, ingénues-abroad way)…

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Friday, 6 June 2014

Venus in Fur - or Martin Clunes naked ?

This is a review of Venus in Fur (La Vénus à la fourrure¹) (2013)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

5 June

This is a review of Venus in Fur (La Vénus à la fourrure¹) (2013)

Once one has seen Mathieu Amalric look amazed – with boggle eyes – a few times, it ceases to be nearly as amazing. Just as his looking as perky to please as a spaniel, or a couple of other states evoked by the face, does not really effect a transition in what is a dramatically flat situation, of switching between a handful of modes. And, regrettably, Emmanuelle Seigner has to do much the same - a bit as if the full schema of Eric Berne’s Games People Play had been limited to toppling over between a few mood-states (not the whole gamut implied by the principles of transactional analysis) :

Though, for those who praise Locke (2013), the lack of anything going on is a virtue, and here, except for a fairly predictable game, nothing is (actually) of a game-changing nature. (If it were, Martin Clunes, say, would be out of a job in a film such as Staggered (1994) – for many a best man’s prank is many times more elaborate than what happens here.)

Yet what is of great relevance here is that what Polanski has directed feels little like a film, but a film of a play (as with August : Osage County, which (throughout) struggles a little more not just to be a series of interiors). We could even cut out David Ives altogether, as middleman (qua author of the play), and go to this seminal novel – if one did not suspect that its claims to importance are as overrated as those who say that Cleland’s Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure is a towering work of world literature… (Although one scarcely insists that a middling text cannot be transformed to make a dazzling screenplay, of course.)

By contrast with what, from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, is called variously a novel and a novella (of uncertain length), what about the enterprise Stanley Kubrick embarked on (with Frederic Raphael) in what proved to be his play film – broadly adapting Arthur Schnitzler (Traumnovelle) in Eyes Wide Shut (1999) ? Given what Polanski has given us, even what IMDb tells us about Venus in Furs (1969), in all truth, sounds as though it has more ‘going for it’ (currently rated 5.8, versus 7.2 for Polanski), if one forgets that the first and second sentences, together, seem confusing ! :

A musician finds the corpse of a beautiful woman on the beach. The woman returns from the dead to take revenge on the group of wealthy sadists responsible for her death.

This is Méret Oppenheim’s classic, provocative piece, Object (1936), (which is owned by MoMA, The Museum of Modern Art, New York)

The very opening of the film, with the boulevard, the trees, the train, wanted to be promising, but even the conceit that followed straight after, as we veer right, was much more akin to Mary Poppins (1964) than anything to which we would ever give our heart or soul** – or maybe we would give it willingly to what might present as a patent French confection, such as Amélie (2001), but has actual depths.

Ultimately, one judges for oneself (by going to a screening, maybe staying to the end, although more wildly tempted than either of the characters, perhaps, just to leave), but the triangle of forces of Polanski, Amalric and Seigner have been brought to bear on the Ives text in such a way that even saying Putain de merde ! seems not quaint, but outlandish. And it is not that Vanda's (Seigner's) oscillation between ditzy initial presentation and divinity is not done with some force, some panache, but that is half the problem :

For Polanski too ostentatiously relies on Alexandre Desplat’s rather nasty score to add something that just is not there in the script, with the result that any attempt at dramatic irony (which, in any case, is rarely best employed as a sustained gambit ?) more closely resembles a strong sense of predictability – and also merges with one's not caring what happens.

As mentioned², the plot requires Thomas (Amalric) to be alone when Vanda arrives, but there is no sense at all that anyone else has ever been there, let alone a string of unpromising auditioners – and these two, by the direction in which one moves at the other’s direction, do not even know their stage left (as seen from the stage, facing front) from their audience left (as seen from the auditorium, facing front). Are they film actors, pretending to be actors, pretending to be, respectively, writer-turned-director³ and actor… ?

Or something more archetypal, more primal, though that notion vanishes as soon as one tries to rely on it too much, let alone when we have had thrust in the face of our credulity all the outfits and other tat that are suddenly brought into this place… ?

As already suggested, people drifting in and out of roles, and the resultant power-play, seems so stale, especially if it is Carnage (2011) again, but light on the (would-be) levity ?


¹ Note that definite article – in French, one cannot just say Vénus à la fourrure, any more than, in Italian, one can have Grande Bellezza on its own (The Great Beauty (2013)).

² That film ends in reverse of its beginning, and so does this one – a well-worn way of symbolizing that the spell cast by The Prologue at the start of Henry V, or by Prospero, has been broken by or at the end.

But, one has to ask, to what effect use this device, and was it not, in all likelihood, just to tweak the play’s opening by being in Vanda's view-point as she enters, rather than her coming in and surprising Thomas, already there ?

³ Though, as Thomas labours the point, he has adapted, not written, the text for the play, so that we can sense – as if we do not abundantly – his pliant nature, poorly masked by inflexibility as a strategy…

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Thursday, 5 June 2014

The ruin of me

This is a review - in a Tweet - of Blue Ruin (2013)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014
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5 June 2014

This is a review - in a Tweet - of Blue Ruin (2013)

Should you want further justification, or to argue that @THEAGENTAPSLEY should have stayed in Screen 3, bitterly, to the end, then Tweet !

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Funnily enough, no Ginsberg in the entire film ! - or is there ?

This is a review of Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014
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5 June (5 May 2015, Tweet embedded)

This is a review of Howl’s Moving Castle (Hauru no ugoku shiro) (2004)

A non-exhaustive of some key-words and principal themes in response to the screening of Howl’s Moving Castle (Hauru no ugoku shiro) (2004) last night in Picturehouse Cinemas’ (@picturehouses’) We [heart] Miyazaki retrospective :

* Hieronymous Bosch (c. 1450–1516) – paintings of his, such as The Garden of Earthly Delights or The Temptation of St Anthony, for The Castle itself

* Prometheus stealing fire from the gods – when Sophie, in the most florid location, sees back to a younger Howl (equally the third Harry Potter book, with the time-turner, and Harry mistaking his own Patronus

* Light / fight / fire / fireside / hearth

* Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books – for the sense of compassion for one’s foes, and for the notion that Howl, as warned by Calcifer, may not be able to change back, if he persists

* Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales – the topos of the loathly lady in ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’

* So, also, Cocteau’s gorgeous La Belle et La Bête (Beauty and The Beast) (1946) (and one is beggared by the existence, according to IMDb, of a new take on the story !) - in Sophie’s loving Howl unconditionally, but failing to see her beauty, only his

* Sophie / Granny and Howl / Monster Howl have a connection across time and space - just as with Chihiro / Sen and Haku / Dragon Haku in Spirited Away (2001)

* Abundant flowers – also a feature of Spirited Away, and, more poignantly and sparingly so, The Wind Rises (2013)

* The alpine feel of the non-urban scenery – this could be Austria, or, as @jackabuss sees it, Snowdonia

* Contrasted with the slimy horribleness of the oozing men, made sinisterly jaunty by straw boaters or top hats

* The magical contract that binds someone to another – familiar from J. K. Rowling’s Dobby, but also Spirited Away

* The warfare and war-mongering – a link to that Narnia notion of doors into other worlds that @jackabuss also located, not least since The Pevensey Four have been evacuated on account of The Blitz

To be continued…

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

A safe space […] where we can dance ?

This is a review of Jimmy’s Hall (2014)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

2 June (updated 3 June, following Ken Loach's masterly Q&A, as hosted by The Arts Picturehouse's (@CamPicturehouse's) own Jack Toye (@jackabuss))

This is a review of Jimmy’s Hall (2014)

Director Ken Loach first began working with screenwriter Paul Laverty on Carla’s Song (1996), then My Name is Joe (1998), since when (including this one) they have made ten further films together*. Their previous film was The Angels’ Share (2012), but, certainly once we are out of Glasgow, it occupies significantly different territory in terms of historicity and emotional depth from that of Jimmy’s Hall (2014) (even if it is rooted in the world of rare malt whisky, and lost or ‘mothballed’ distilleries) :

The Angels' Share romps with its central conceit, whereas Jimmy’s Hall broods over its. In between, Loach made The Spirit of ‘45 (2013), though…

The opening sequence proper – with just a rill of bright water as variation from the slow process of Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward) and his effects, being hauled along the winding road – complements other moments of transit in the film, just as 1922 (located by the ‘ten years earlier’ of a caption to come around ten minutes later), is an adjunct to understanding where we have begun : parallels, paths, not mapped out, but taken (not lightly), and then What are the sequelae… ?

The story-telling montage has told us much already, with news-reel footage** from New York City of the early-to-late 1920s, showing the boom and bust of The Great Depression : when, after a pivotal moment a good while later on (to which we return anon), Jimmy refers to what happened with The Wall Street Crash, we both have those images, and they have already helped us understand his own history. Personal experience as motivation for campaigning for change, but pitted against the masters and pastors (as we heard them succinctly referred to) and what they wish to protect.

Without a doubt, in Jimmy’s impassioned plea to reject greed in favour of motives such as love, Loach and Laverty are appealing to our times of austerity and downturn. They are pointing the lesson that – though, of course, the film never uses any such word – sustainability, and people being able to have something that they can rely on to ground a worthwhile life, are what being alive should be about, not facing eviction for missing a payment of rent…

In Jim Norton, as Father Sheridan (on ‘the pastor’ side of things), Loach has gone with an inspired choice, casting Father Ted’s Bishop Brennan as the man from the church who is pushing, with landowners / high-ups such as O’Keefe (Brían F. O'Byrne), for the status quo, even embracing (in words, at any rate) the cause of Irish country dancing so that he can denigrate American jazz for (supposedly) seeking to supplant it. Norton has more fire, of a zealous kind, just in his eyes than many another actor would have in the whole of enacting a towering tirade, and he makes a perfect complement for Jimmy (and has his foil in Father Seamus).

Yes, the exact detail may be fable, with exaggeration, conflation or invention, but no one is claiming that this is a bio-pic (whatever defines one), any more than with Saving Mr. Banks (2013). It is a telling of the origins of The Pearse–Connolly Hall 1922, Co. Leitrim, filmed on location there, and in Co. Sligo (which, Ken Loach seemed to be saying in the Q&A, was where the replica was built). It is the telling of Jimmy Gralton (who died on 29 December 1945), even if, in part, fictionalized.

At the start of the film, when the cart has had to interrupt the dancing that Father Sheridan later affects to approve, Jimmy apologizes for having missed ‘Charlie’s funeral’ (his brother) – it is just a fleeting moment, as his mother acknowledges the words, but it hints at exile, exile where his mother may have been under the care of pastoral visits from Sheridan. Loach, who is sceptical of authority and what it does to people’s motives (as in the powerful film Hidden Agenda (1990), set in Northern Ireland at the time of the troubles - and, interestingly, with Jim Norton again and centrally, as Brodie to Brian Cox's well-intentioned Kerrigan), makes Sheridan much more than a one-dimensional figure of self-interest in utilizing police, the landed classes and even the visit of The Papal Legate, Cardinal Lorenzo Lauri, and the 31st Eucharistic Congress to further his aims : whatever arm-waving his fellow priest Father Seamus (Andrew Scott) may make, it is he, though not wavering from his opposition, who comes to a grudging respect for Jimmy’s courage.


Laverty’s story-telling also makes us work, needing to listen to what else is said in passing, and giving us, without compromise, the politics of the 1920s and 1930s, following the end (of which captions told us) of The Civil War : the world that he shows has a vivid disconnection between the rule of law (represented by the court and its judgements) and what happens when power is exercised on the ground, but concertedly coming together in the closing scenes. Just as with the earlier films referenced (in particular Land and Freedom (1995)), we may not exactly follow the ins and outs of the political machinations, but we see again the broad thrust of unholy alliances, betrayals, and seeking self-determination.


At the centre of this world, for part of the time and offering hope (as does the enthusiasm of Marie (Aisling Franciosi)), is Oonagh (Simone Kirby), and our piecing together her story, in the context of the reasons for Jimmy’s absence and return. In particular, the heightened reality of the moonlight scene - if one surrenders to it - is electrifying, and part of the sure use of light in this film***, as also when Jimmy sets foot in the building, and starts opening the shutters. At one point soon after, not necessarily through our inattention, but seemingly in a wish to show how little separates the two initial time-periods, we hesitate, because the subdued colours are suddenly gone (though their brilliance was always suggested by Oonagh’s hat, as she cycles away in the gloaming from Jimmy's homecoming), to say when in time we are.

The credentials of Jimmy’s Hall to be a well-made feature are compounded by little technical things such as sparing use of soft focus, but varying the depth of field from a tight one (within which faces are brought in and out of sharpness), or a more generous one to encompass the wider sweep of a scene – and the full-throated whirl of the dance (inside the hall, as against outside on the road), whilst letting us imagine that we see Jimmy show us some dance-steps, but doing much of it by suggestion from the waist (or thereabouts) up.

Other hallmarks to notice are the quality of the writing and editing, the extent to which – in the two scenes where there is discussion in the hall – the debate is on multiple levels (as in Land and Freedom), for and against, and how violence (or the threat of it) tinges the hope that Jimmy’s supporters give him, and he finds in Oonagh. The performances from Ward, Kirby, Norton are strong, and committed to the truth of this film as one feels that McDonagh and his crew, led by Brendan Gleeson, are to that of Calvary (2014).

Ultimately, how we respond to this piece of work here should depend less on what Jimmy’s politics (we see him take stock when leafing through a book by James Connolly) may have been than on his principled care for others : though Loach and Laverty present scant favourable view of the likes of Sheridan and O’Keefe, they give enough idea of the complexity of the political situation in The Republic, and, as with The Spanish Civil War (in Land and Freedom), how alignments and changing coalitions not only affect the course of history, but individual human beings.


* Sources : IMDb’s page for Laverty, and Loach on Loach (Faber & Faber (ed. Fuller, Graham), London, 1998, p. 78) in the excellent Faber series where directors talk about their films, broadly chronologically.

About Laverty, Loach says Then Carla’s Song came out of the blue. Paul Laverty, who had been working as a civil rights lawyer in Nicaragua, got in touch with us about doing a script after he had been there [p. 105].

** As deftly assembled as in Spirit of ’45 – or, for that matter, interspersed in the two time-periods of Land and Freedom (1995) (Loach working with Jim Allen, just before starting with Laverty).

*** Several people in the Q&A commented on how well light had been used, and Loach had nothing but praise for cinematographer Robbie Ryan (who is not even given a credit on IMDb's web-page for the film !), who, we were told, had largely used available light (shooting on Kodak stock).

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)