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Showing posts with label Rachel Weisz. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Rachel Weisz. Show all posts

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Some Tweets and other text about My Cousin Rachel (2017) (work in progress)

Some Tweets and other text about My Cousin Rachel (2017)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2017 (19 to 26 October)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

13 June

Some Tweets and other text about My Cousin Rachel (2017) (work in progress)


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

Friday, 12 February 2016

Levity is an irresistible temptation !

This is a detailed exegesis, following a review of Youth (La giovinezza) (2015)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

11 February (link added, 19 May)

This is a detailed exegesis, following a review of Youth (La giovinezza) (2015)

* Contains many spoilers – intended for those who have watched the film *

It has been commented already [in I have to believe everything in order to make things up] that the title Youth, and Jane Fonda (as Brenda Morel), both make very delayed appearances¹.

(The title of that posting is quoting Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), responding to Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) about his gullibility. That of this one refers to a conversation between Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano) and Ballinger, when Tree says that Ballinger and he made the same mistake (he with a film where he played Mr Q, Ballinger with his Simple Songs), of 'giving in to levity'.)

The whirling opening (heard presaged in the audio, as the various logos of collaborating film companies flick through) features a song called ‘You’ve Got The Love’ (originally recorded by Candi Staton, as vocalist with The Source, in 1986 (Florence and The Machine also spent quite a bit of time with it)) :

Sometimes I feel like throwing my hands up in the air
I know I can count on you
Sometimes I feel like saying, ‘Lord, I just don't care’
But you've got the love I need to see me through

Later, we see this group, The Retrosettes (from Manchester), in the context of the acts laid on at this spa-hotel, but we are straightaway introduced to the film’s style, its immediacy with the camera on the lead singer Helen Rodgers, as everything else literally blurs behind her. These words, which speak of love, may be speaking of divine love (as The Song of Songs, part of which is set by composer David Lang as ‘just’, also ambiguously does), but they mark one end-point, the other being the fictional Simple Songs, where we have (as well as violinist Viktoria Mullova) soprano Sumi Jo, on a pure white stage and cyclorama, with lyrics such as I lose control.

Paul Dano (playing actor Jimmy Tree) had been at the hotel with Michael Caine (Fred Ballinger), and is in the audience, as Ballinger conducts this piece by royal command. What does it mean that, in the very last moments of the film, we see Harvey Keitel (Mick Boyle) with both forefingers and thumbs put together to make a view-finder, as if just appraising this shot ? Of course, we might simply see Ballinger, imagining his departed friend, in this gesture. Or we might, recalling that The Great Beauty (2013) is a film of complexity (even as to waking and dreaming), and invoke the well-known question whether The Emperor dreams being a butterfly or vice versa…

For is it not a massive suggestion that this staged moment with Ballinger, which looks unreal, is unreal ? That, all along, Boyle has been devising a film about his life-long friend (we know that what was being worked on was called Life’s Last Day), and so, when Boyle (immediately after saying I'm going to make another film) casually jumps over the balcony, we should actually be reminded more of De Niro in Brazil (1985), as the semi-mythical Tuttle, than of Ida (2013) or The Lobster (2015) :

On this interpretation, we do not really see an act of dying, but Boyle Making an exit¹(just as Beckettt has Vladimir and Estragon draw attention to their theatricality²). Is nothing that we see afterwards - where we finally leave the hotel and its environs - inconsistent with the notion that this is footage from Boyle's new film ? [Even if Boyle did die, did he exist in the first place, outside this film - its costume, hair and make-up departments, and the person of Keitel ?]

A film in which Ballinger, mysteriously told by the doctor that 'youth' awaits him outside, does visit Venice (casting off this 'apathy' that Lena talks of, and seems to adopt (please see below)), where we realize that there has been a clever misdirection – complete with Ballinger visiting San Michele, Venice's cemetery island (on the way out to Murano, Burano, Torcello...) - with our impression that his wife Melanie, Lena’s mother, is dead. (Ballinger is only in the cemetery, because that is where Igor and Vera Stravinsky are buried (as they are).) Earlier, we had seen his look (shocked at the idea ? frightened ?), when Lena says, You could bring flowers to mummy.

Quite a time before this coda, and with Mick Boyle’s challenging confrontation with Brenda Morel still to come, we had had a scene with the six heads of his collaborators and his juxtaposed, though we roam from face to face, not taking in the whole. The scene's look is assuredly impressionistic (and quite probably a film reference, yet to be placed³), as they lie together, seeking to determine what, in terms of a closing moment, the conclusion of Life’s Last Day will be.

They are meant to be working on the scenario He's on his death-bed…, as a result of which, having heard all the other suggestions, Boyle overrules, determining that the unnamed character in the film ‘doesn’t say anything’ (but, rather, that something is said to him) : in all the conversations about this film’s genesis, we never know anything other than it concerns a man, because he is (somehow) not graced with a name. Yet this scene – with its stylized notion of a script that is complete but for that last utterance⁴ (as if it really could be added in at the end, as in the game where one pins the tail on the donkey) – comes both right after we have seen Ballinger in significant conversation elsewhere.

As to the question of his apathy, the etymology takes us back to an origin in a word in classical Greek for ‘without feeling’. In relation to which, Ballinger says to his daughter both that her mother could understand her, but, he claims, I can’t, because your mother’s not here, and that he can only relate to music. (As mentioned above, Tree says that Ballinger’s mistake was in relation to levity with Simple Songs.)

He considers himself retired from conducting (and composing), but, in the spot in nature to which he returns after Boyle’s exit, we have seen him in the surreal action of conducting the alpine cows (duly equipped with bells), birds, etc. – his animation, his enthusiasm and enjoyment. Since, even at the superficial level, this is a film, we can see this happen (as it does in Mary Poppins (1964)), but it is a clue to what the film within this film means, as are the titles of other works by Ballinger, which Tree gives us : The Black Prism and The Life of Hadrian. Encyclopædia Britannica tells us that ‘Hadrian’ also appeared in the form ‘Adrian’. Could The Black Prism evoke 2001 : A Space Odyssey (1968), in which the most famous use of music is Sonnenaufgang (Sunrise) from composer Richard Strauss’ tone-poem Also sprach Zarathustra (Op. 30) ?

If so, Thomas Mann is thought to have taken Friedrich Nietzsche, who is the author of Also sprach Zarathustra, as one model for the composer Adrian Leverkühn in his novel Dr Faustus (Doktor Faustus: Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde [Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, Told by a Friend]), published in 1947, to which the titles The Life of Hadrian and The Black Prism could obliquely refer. In the review, links were made before both with this novel by Thomas Mann (concerning a Faustian pact made by a composer, often identified with Arnold Schoenberg, though might it well be Strauss ?), and also with his earlier novel Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain), which was set in what is now The Hotel Schatzalp, one of the film’s secondary locations (in Davos, in Switzerland). (Mann seems to have started the work in 1912, but it was not published until November 1924.)

Der Zauberberg’s principal character, Hans Castorp, initially goes to the sanatorium in Davos to visit his cousin (before starting his intended career in ship-building). However, there seems to be an element of ‘guilt by association’, because the cousin is being treated for tuberculosis, and Castorp, whose departure back for Hamburg (and to begin practising his profession) keeps being delayed by his being unwell, is first thought to have a bronchial infection, but is then diagnosed with tuberculosis.

He does not leave for seven years (at which time, he leaves to volunteer to serve in the army in World War I), but he has a life there, in the sanatorium and its environs, that is centred around a very varied group of inmates, just as is that of Guido Anselmi’s (Marcello Mastroianni’s) in the spa-hotel in (1963), or Boyle and Ballinger’s is in that of Youth itself (the actual location is The Grand Hotel Waldhaus Flims). Ballinger’s connection with, and difference from, Castorp or Anselmi is that he is here for a cure (hence Boyle’s and his exchange of notes about rates of micturition, in a place where – as in – we see the guests as they queue to take the waters), at a place to which he has chosen to come for more than a decade :

Ballinger, though, is not a film director, trying 'to fizz himself' into bringing to life a film that is anxiously expected, but substantially does not exist (a topic at which Seven Psychopaths (2012) fairly unsuccessfully tried its hand), but rather considers himself ‘retired’ from the activity of conducting (and composing). [It remains unclear since when that is so, even if we may guess at it from his interactions with HM The Queen's Emissary (Alex Macqueen, of all surnames !), and with his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) in her capacity as his assistant.]

As we are well aware, it is Boyle’s métier that is film-making, even if, as his cinematic testament (with which the title Life’s Last Day chimes), he ultimately desires for his female lead a woman (in the heavily made-up shape of Jane Fonda as Brenda Morel) who twice calls his last three films ‘shit’ (saying that it is everyone’s opinion of them) : in attitude and appearance, Morel does not conjure up youth (la giovinezza), but resentment, and, with her withdrawal, she renders null the task of Boyle and his team (though he does not tell them that, when he parts from them at the station).

(To a lesser extent, also, there is Tree’s realization that he does not wish to work with horror – from experimenting as an agéd Hitler, complete with the alpenstock that we see him size up and purchase when Ballinger is with him (amusing himself by setting off the cuckoo-clocks), and having adopted (as Tree said that he did with all the guests), Ballinger's mannerism with his handkerchief : as with Luca Moroder, casting off Lena Ballinger and him from the mountainside and into the air, this idea of experimentation cannot properly be taken on a literal level, but a symbolic one, of imagery...)

The choice of music (i.e. meaning other than what David Lang has composed / adapted) likewise functions on the level of imagery. Four times (from Debussy’s Préludes, Book I, No. 6), Sorrentino brings back the motif of moving pairs of notes, the first accented, the second higher, which speak of muffled and snowy quietness (marked Triste et lent, and sub-titled – exactly at the end of the piece – ‘Des pas sur la neige’ (‘Footsteps in the snow’)).

Maybe not in this order (items 3 and 4 could be out of sequence ?), the entries of the Debussy occur when :

1. General conversation in the grounds of the hotel mentions the subject of love

2. The young woman (who turns out to be operating, from the hotel lobby, as a prostitute) is dressing, as the naked man in the room leans against the wall (or a chest of drawers ?)

3. Mick Boyle and Lena are talking about her father, and she says what a strange friendship they have that he did not mention the royal request – until they go on, they are ambiguously almost talking about Fred Ballinger as if he were dead

4. The end of Boyle and Morel’s conversation is near, probably when he has already said that he will make his film without her

All of these usages of the Prélude underscore times when there is a question of relationships – having heard it the first time, in its context, echoes for us when we have the situation of (2) a client (and the uncertain expression that he has on his face), (3) of old friends, when one (Ballinger) is discussed with one (Boyle) who must be an old friend of the family as well, and of (4) former colleagues (do we suspect, also, former lovers ?), whose ways are parting, in flagrant disagreement (though seeking to hold back (further) contempt and bitterness as they finish their meeting ?).

Boyle and Ballinger, it is suggested, can be thought of as parting company : though not necessarily, or only, in the way that proceeds from calmly stepping onto a chair – and, thence, onto a low parapet - and off. Even in the literal terms of cinema (within and despite the suddenness of this action, from which, as in Ida (2013), is where its effect comes), we know that Boyle is taking leave of the film, not Keitel of life – and similarly that, although Luca and Lena (such euphony) absolutely seem to float off above the Alpine greenery way below, we know, on reflection, that people will be credited with having made us think so. (We probably do not much need to invoke the world of Holy Motors (2012), and what it there means for Kylie Minogue’s character / character within a character to fall from the heights.)

Boyle, then, is parting from Ballinger. However, this is not known to the latter, of course – unlike Morel and Boyle, who propulsively found that they have scant common ground nowadays, or that client as the sex-worker is exiting, who, however much he may regret it, knows that he struck a deal for how much ‘company’ he would get (and would have to pay more to extend it). The surprise in what Boyle does, when he has been talking in the hotel-room with Ballinger, is that he has just asserted that he is going to make another film [emphasis added], which is the claim that this exegesis has been seeking to consider.

Just before he [says about making another film and] jumps, and in response to what Ballinger said to him about what he believes [and what] matters to him, Boyle tells him that Emotions are all we’ve got. Unlike those other partings, Ballinger also does not know what has happened (or that anything has happened) except that, as a man whose career has been built around working with sounds, he hears them from below : Mick Boyle, we see, has evoked a reaction in Fred Ballinger, and has got through to him, because we can see him shaking. (Although, on a literal level, it would be an extreme way to show Ballinger the existence and reality of his emotional life.)

In the closing sequence, the command-performance concert [the link is to @YouTube - audio only, of Sumi Jo and Viktoria Mullova with an unspecified BBC orchestra] is inter-cut with shots from Melanie’s room in Venice. There, we had previously seen Melanie, looking out of the window (as Fred speaks to her, and says what they will keep as secrets). (Curiously, we may have noted, the view from the window behind her, seemingly of The Grand Canal, is a painted backdrop.) However, images of Melanie are now brought back, and she is no longer seen from the side – seeing her face fully for the first time, and in the vividness of what seems real time, we realize how she resembles Lena.

Not only that, but there is then a moment when we are with Sumi Jo in front of the orchestra, in the lush, enthused intensity of what David Lang has written as Ballinger’s early work, and Sorrentino cuts across to Melanie : as we see her, and her lips moving, they seem to merge with the words being sung in London (not least because the soprano, as she performs, has often looked – for some technical reason, rather than any other ? – to be miming). With no disrespect intended to age, or the older Melanie, one is reminded of Dylan Thomas’ poem ‘After the Funeral (In Memory of Ann Jones)’, where his final words are envisaging the time until :

The stuffed lung of the fox twitch and cry Love
And the strutting fern lay seeds on the black sill

Of course, there is also Thomas’ famous poem about his boyhood, ‘Fern Hill’ (read here by Richard Burton), and, for Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) in La grande bellezza, his own early manhood, and his first love, is a connection that he finds himself making - unexpectedly breaking down in tears at news of her death. In that film, though, Paolo Sorrentino gives us early on Gambardella’s changed perspective on the life that he leads, and we are concerned with his working out what it means to him – with a convergence (again through symbolic cross-cutting) with the saintly nun who is to be canonized, painfully climbing La Scala Santa in search of spiritual sustenance.

And Youth (2015) ? When, and because, Mick Boyle leaves the film, we have Fred Ballinger, not as a man considering that there must be something wrong with him, but believing in his invigoration : he cannot resist, when told that he does not have any problems with his health (not even his prostate), asking what Boyle said about Gilda Black, and satisfying his curiosity. Unlike Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg and its Hans Castorp, Ballinger is not going out from the clinic only with the likelihood of dying in conflict, but to remedy years of neglecting to visit his wife :

If there is an element of Doktor Faustus about him, with what seems to have been his peremptory Quiet, Melanie ! to her (and thence to the rest of the household), Boyle seemed ‘to jump ship’ on that version of Ballinger’s life, no longer seeing the attraction of a film that leads to ‘a last day’ – if only to be outside that version, and so be able to make one, embodying youth, that starts from there. That is the thesis (on the analytical basis provided above), that we have Boyle at the end, framing his shot, because he is the originating film-maker within this film, not just in Ballinger’s memory (or mind’s eye) : as with Jep Gambardella, and what he values in life, what one takes from Youth beyond these clues will be personal.


¹ At the station (of Wiesen, in Austria), just before Boyle turns out to have taken leave of the group with whom he has been working (the old filmic motif, of being revealed to be still being on the platform when the train pulls out), he has said – to counter their perceptions about the business of making films – that all have to do what Brendan Morel did In order to survive in this world, and claimed that We’re all just extras.

² Though, for notoriety at least, few works match the fact (albeit amply presaged by Chekhov, amongst others) that the activity referred to by Waiting for Godot turns out to extend, incomplete (announced, as it had been, by The Boy at the end of Act One), beyond the end of the play. For us, an often familiar audience (rather than the original, surprised Parisian one), this pair of lines (quoted from memory, as the text proves elusive) is as true :

Estragon : What keeps us here ?
Vladimir : The dialogue.

³ It is not the example that had been sought from the world of art, but Albrecht Dürer’s Christ among the Doctors (1506) comes close :

Or maybe it was M. C. Escher's Eight Heads (1922), after all (a tessellating print made from a wood-cut block) ?⁵ :

⁴ Slyly, Sorrentino does allude fleetingly to Gilda (1946) – till it turns out that Fred is reminding Mick of their seeming joint and lifelong obsession with Gilda Black : it is a film of which it is famously asserted that it was made up as it went along…

⁵ In fact, all along, it was this work (by Hieronymous Bosch)...

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

Saturday, 30 January 2016

I have to believe everything in order to make things up ~ Mick Boyle¹

This is a review of Youth (2015)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

30 January (link substituted, 19 May)

This is a review of Youth (La giovinezza) (2015)

The film is dedicated to director Francesco Rosi (who died on 10 January 2015)

The list of key-words below had probably been noted before, in white capitals, the title Youth appeared [above a division of the screen, as if in a colour-field painting, comprising the colour of a low partition-wall, its rail, and the wall behind it], and then the sky, above an Alpine view (which, one estimates, was 10-15 minutes in – it was not quick, because, by the time that it arrived, one had forgotten not having seen the film’s name [the BBFC (@BBFC) certificate does not count]) :

* Light = use of, and our awareness of, light [Luca Bigazzi is Sorrentino's cinematographer again²]
* Fluidity, of the image, and how it changed with the camera’s movement
* Composition, i.e. of shots, and the Viewpoint from which they were taken
* Transition between shots
* Tactility, in that (as did its predecessor²) it has and conveys a keen sense of our physicality / our corporeality

All of these impressed one with the film’s quality, and the care of its making : as one expected², and hoped would be so.

Points of cinematic comparison are, sadly, not hard to find, even at this time of the year, i.e. despite what worth it might be reasonable to assume that nominations for awards recognize, whereas films Based on a true story seem sufficient unto themselves (as with Tim Burton's Big Eyes (2014), at this time last year), without speech, for example, seemingly needing to sound as if anyone might have uttered it :

* This paragraph contains Spoilers (if intending to watch Trumbo) *
The choice of film is not irrelevant (even if the relevance was in someone else’s mind, in devising the trailers to show) in that Youth (La giovinezza) (2015) has Harvey Keitel as a writer / director (Mick Boyle), whereas Trumbo (2015) purports to save us the trouble of finding out why Dalton Trumbo was not credited, say, with the screenplay for Roman Holiday (1953) (and it was only forty years later that the Academy Award for ‘Best Writing, Motion Picture Story’ was credited to him). (Whereas, in 2 hrs 4 mins, one could watch Roman Holiday instead, and, on IMDb (@IMDb), there is what seems a very full biography of Trumbo (it is staggeringly longer than usual), just for the reading.)

Youth most clearly does reference both (1963) and, more fleetingly, both The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), and even Metropolis (1927). However, director Paolo Sorrentino is not being derivative of Federico Fellini, Wes Anderson, Fritz Lang ; rather, he is showing us his reverence for these films and, albeit with playfulness, asking us to share his appreciation. (Likewise, Stardust Memories (1980) - which Sorrentino clearly values - is a massive tribute to European cinema, hardly least also to [Fellini is an acknowledged inspiration to Woody Allen and his work], but it sees those films / that film through another director’s eyes (but as if through the eyes of his character, Sandy Bates). (It is sad [dare one say, simplistic on their part ?] that contemporary critics and audiences, feeling insulted, insultingly mistook Sandy Bates, and his opinions, for Allen and his.))

When it comes to The Lobster (2015), a film that achieves far less, but with far more effort, the link between Lanthimos’ film and Sorrentino’s is, as well as in the type of location (and in a first film scripted in English), in the person of Rachel Weisz : here, Fred Ballinger’s (Michael Caine’s) daughter Lena ; there as a form of emotional outlaw, without a name (but, significantly, narrating the story, one has to feel - please see the next paragraph). (If the films were, more than superficially, so irremediably different, one might have asked in whose film Weisz seemed ‘a spy in the camp’ (for, according to Wikipedia® (citing dates in Cineuropa and ScreenDaily, respectively), principal photography for The Lobster ‘began on 24 March 2014, and concluded on 9 May 2014’, and that for Youth started in Flims, Switzerland, in May [also according to Wikipedia®].)

The true point of connection is in Rachel Weisz’s very distinctive voice and the rhythms of her way of speaking. Here, she makes a striking speech as to whose status, immediately afterwards, we are (or should be) uncertain : for, literally from the first visuals to the last (and not just when it is patent), this feeling of uncertainty is built into the fabric of the film - as with Allen in Stardust Memories (or, equally, with Deconstructing Harry (1997)), or Fellini, whom Allen had used as his model. It is suggested that, in The Lobster (as has been argued at the conclusion of the review on these pages), we ought to have been watching throughout with a view to what this use of the device of a voice-over actually signifies (and not just take it for granted). (Are we meant, say, to take that element simply as read in American Beauty (1999), or even Sunset Blvd. (1950)?)

Grand Hotel Waldhaus Flims

But the connection with where Sorrentino filmed proves to be a quite different one, in that Wikipedia® tells us that the primary location was the nineteenth-century five-star Grand Hotel Waldhaus Flims, but that filming also took place in Davos (in Switzlerland), particularly at The Hotel Schatzalp - where the novel Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) is set. That novel is is highly relevant to a setting in a spa (although its characters are more unwell, e.g. tuberculosis), but it is also a link with another novel by Thomas Mann, which one thereby sees confirmed as having been in Sorrentino’s mind, Dr Faustus (published in 1947, more than twenty years later). This later work is more allusive and, even though it is considerably shorter, its subject-matter makes it feel more dense : albeit an extreme one, Mann’s composer-character Adrian Leverkühn seems a perfect reference for a character-type such as Fred Ballinger’s (Michael Caine’s)³.

Having had a prominent piece at the opening of La grande bellezza, David Lang scored Youth, and, amongst his work (particularly ‘just’), we hear such musical touch-stones as, three or four times over, excerpts from Triste et lent (number 6 from Book I of Debussy’s Préludes [the occurrences are considered further in another posting), and the Berceuse from Stravinsky’s The Firebird, with their clear associations for those who know them. With other allusions, there is a set-piece, which is reminiscent of the ‘friendly’ and wholly ‘well-meant’ honesty of Arsinoé towards Célimène (and then vice versa) in Molière’s Le misanthrope (which has been described as a ‘a fencing-match’ (of sorts)), between Keitel and Jane Fonda⁴.

Of course, we know, on the surface, that there is a film within a film, and that, as with the scene with flamingos on the balcony (for example) in La grande bellezza, there is another dimension to reality. (In fact, there is more than one film, but Paul Dano, as Jimmy Tree (developing his film-character), amounts to a sub-plot (if a major one).) In the development of the main film (the relevance of whose title cannot be overlooked, but which is not stated within this review), with Harvey Keitel (Mick Boyle) and his collaborators, Boyle demonstrates, as an analogy for Time, how a telescope (depending on at which end one looks into it) can make objects look nearer or farther :

Does that second film not seem to zoom in on the first (in which Caine and Keitel exist, and the second film is a project), right in the closing shot⁵... ? [That question is now considered, at length, in another posting.]


¹ When trying to recall the name of Harvey Keitel's character (a film-maker), one was not totally erroneously led to the name Frank Boyle...

² Having seen La grande bellezza (2013) three times [which it seems better to translate not as The Great Beauty, but as Immense Beauty] :

In Youth, we not only hear the line You understand everything with your hands, don’t you ? (spoken to a young masseuse [with whom we recurrently spend moments off duty]), but it also (as Albrecht Dürer or Godfrey Reggio may do in Visitors (2013), or some of the films that Youth references) reminds of the very tangible nature of our mortal form.

³ As does that of Daniel Auteuil’s Stéphane in Un Cœur en Hiver (1992).

* Contains spoilers ? * Finally appearing as Brenda Morel, after audaciously referred to for much screen-time – not unlike the very slow appearance of the film’s title, perhaps willing us to forget that Fonda is still absent ? (As Barry Norman once said about Henry Fonda, in The Hollywood Greats : Fonda made the heart grow absent.)

* Contains spoilers * After we have been put much in mind of the opening of Stardust Memories, with (again referencing ) what we initially see turning out to be in a screening-room - where the end of Sandy Bates’ film, much to his dismay, has been outrageously changed by the studio without his knowledge so that the characters all end up in Jazz Heaven...

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

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Trying too hard to be strange ?

This is a review of The Lobster (2015) (seen at Saffron Screen)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

13 November (quotation added, 26 December ; link to a new review added, 1 January)

This is a review of The Lobster (2015) (seen at Saffron Screen)

Director Yorgos Lanthimos (and his co-writer Efthymis Filippou) may tell us that they (intend to) subvert the notion of a film having a story with The Lobster (2015) – though they would hardly be the first, in the history of cinema, to set out to do so. Certainly, in the overlong first forty-five minutes*, they may set up a situation that is relatively internally coherent**, but it appears to be as a point of departure and contrast, and, until then, we could be frankly little less concerned or engaged with what is presented***.

In the original t.v. series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (with Arthur Pewty (Michael Palin) and his wife Deirdre (Carol Cleveland) visiting the marriage guidance counsellor (Eric Idle)), unexpectedly disinhibited behaviour was used to provoke both shock and laughter (partly through shock / embarrassment, partly through incongruity). However, it was never more than a sketch, to which an end – of sorts – was brought (after Pewty has challenged the counsellor and, being told to go away, just does so) : the script has the direction Arthur is then hit in the head with a chicken by a man in a suit of armour.

Fourteen years later, with The Meaning of Life (1983), one essentially has a loosely connected series of sketches (as The Pythons themselves describe it and its genesis in The Pythons' Autobiography By The Pythons (heard via the audio CDs of the interviews)). There, the topic is revisited, as a lesson on sex education to a class of boys abruptly changes gear and (again provoking hilarity, for the reasons given) becomes a practical demonstration of sexual technique****.

Into The Lobster, and - not for the first time - seemingly for no more than a gratuitous laugh (since the scene does not obviously have any bearing on what happens*****), Lanthimos brings this familiar conceit, and adopts it as the inappropriate behaviour of two so-called loners (Colin Farrell (David) and Rachel Weisz (Short-sighted Woman)). In the film’s initial locale (which proves not to be unique in this regard), it dealt with, amongst other things, punishments for what the regime has decided are crimes, and retribution was both swift and Dante-esquely fitted to the offence : in all of this, a curious acquiescence, and with scant notion of rebellion or refusal. (Later on, as will be explored further, there is no sign that anything is different in another place, with other just as arbitrary prohibitions, and painful practices to secure compliance.)

If Farrell and Weisz’s [characters] bizarrely behaving in company has a meaning (beyond a laugh), it is, if not lost, almost submerged. Their trying too hard to look a couple (was Seydoux also meant to be one, with Smiley ?) has now become excessive, but we never did know the conceit behind their needing to be in the company of Seydoux’s parents and play up their status : earlier on, with his flowery speech, Farrell’s character had over-acted (more laughter), but it did not seem to have counted against him, but won him congratulation (though, one must repeat, seemingly purposelessly – what was all this pretence for (other than as a clothes-horse for gags), and to show Farrell better at it than someone else confronted in a shopping-centre).

However, if we do believe the narration (and it is open to question whether we should – please see below), the draconian prohibitions seemed never to have meant anything to Weisz and Farrell (the ‘love story’ that the poster promises ?). Indeed, beyond another joke - albeit, this time, in passing - with the idea of a coded, private language, there actually seems so much freedom (and absence of surveillance or control) that we have scant evidence of needing the elaborate communicative subterfuges of which we are told in the narration (designed, by making Semaphore sound like child’s play, to amuse : as can be seen in this video-clip, linked from the web-site of, @RottenTomatoes).

In fact, having lovers with their (actually or imagined) unseen ruses is no more unique as a subject of comedy than the Pythonesque excess (and it may actually be from another Python sketch, where the team ridicules romanticism – if not from Woody Allen (doing the same with Russian literature) in Love and Death (1975) ?). For The Telegraph (though seemingly only as an endorsement, not as any review that one can conventionally find), Robbie Collin calls the film ‘dizzyingly funny’, but one has to ask, if so, how much other humour he knows, for the first part of the film, when it is not setting out to shock (which it manages with some skill), is arguably not breaking new ground, but doing no more than stringing together largely unrelated satirical material.

Too much, and not all that interestingly, revolves [the wisdom / content of] adages and truisms such as Alone in a crowd, Love will find a way, Birds of a feather flock together, Two’s company, three’s a crowd, and the film actually spends a lot of its extended opening doing no more than exaggerating, in the form of a rigid hierarchy, how those who are not in a couple can be ostracized (often in ways no less cutting than here, if more subtle). (Although we largely leave this setting behind, there is a foray back, but it also serves no clear purpose : it confronts selected people with the truth, but, at best, this sequence really only seems designed to challenge ourselves, with our on-screen desire for blood and retribution [as Haneke does in Funny Games (1997)], and not to move anything on in structural terms.)

The Lobster is well-acted and thought-provoking. It works as a commentary on the way that society conditions its population to pair off and the stigma which surrounds single people.

As a point of reference in Lanthimos' films, and not, of course, to say that he (or his co-writer Filippou) has to do the same again, their last feature-film Alps (Alpeis) (2011) (of which a review is, as yet, still incomplete) also gives us the arbitrary assumption and use of power, at times to violent effect, in a reality that resembles ours, but yet is of its own kind. (As one reviewer of The Lobster remarks (Nick Pinkerton – please see below), the world we are introduced to looks very much like our own in the present day—specifically Ireland, where the film was shot.)

Alps works by duration and disturbingly, by playing out a few strands, principally through one central character. What governs those strands, though not incomprehensible on the level of agreed rules (if agreed under threat), defies being accepted or assimilated because of what it demands. There, Lanthimos achieves his aim without additional elements, baffling us not as to those rules per se, but as to what it implies about this world that things are as they are – again, a world recognizably ours, and so it makes us ask, in our disquiet, why it came to be that way.

[This words displayed above are from a review by Neil White (@everyfilmdteled) who, seemingly insufficiently content with the demands of being Editor of The Derby Telegraph (!), every year sets himself a challenge (largely given by his Twitter-name) : to review it for his blog, trying to watch every film released in the UK, and clocking up hundreds in the attempt. He seems to have surprised himself by now warming to Lanthimos…]

If artistry does come into this film, it does not consist in an ill-judged and repeated failure to resist the temptation to tell a gag (even in the service of superficially giving The Lobster commercial credentials ?), or even in the ‘unconventional love story’ that the poster wants to promote : that part of the story may be, in terms of the rules that are accepted to apply to forbid it, subversive or transgressive, but one can still effectively ask So what ?, because, despite the blatant reference in the first few minutes, we are not talking of those in the position of a Winston Smith or a Julia.

[As alluded to above, there is underground activity, but scarcely in the same way (since it seems centred more on survival ?), and with no real rationale that the screenplay cares to give. At the same time, an absurdist claim could, of course, be made : to show what one will to challenge perceived notions of reality / rationality… Then one is in the territory of Holy Motors (2012), which, however much it may reference cinematic history, for some has a fairly tenuous basis for what it does, and one which also – much more extensively and explicitly – seeks to include discrete and disparate episodes by means of a very modest (undeveloped ?) linking device.]

Though maybe – just maybe – The Lobster is doing something, and much more subtle, that is to do with what it means to use an authorial voice (of, one has to suggest, doubtful reliability therefore) ? Partly on account of the bipartite nature of the film, the narrator is unplaced for a very long while : during that time, and in a cursorily fleeting way, the voice tells us what the loners, as a category, do that means that they behave indistinguishably and as a group. (It is another gag, this time oral, and at the expense of those who listen to electronic music (though headphones), but the jibe comes, and it goes : except to recur as a visual joke, with people in one place, but dancing separately to what they are listening to, it expendably seems to lack rootedness in the fabric of the whole.)

As elsewhere – in a distinctively brittle, almost dry, manner – we were told this so matter-of-factly, so unemotionally, that we might have started wondering why any of this is being told at all (and whether whoever the narrator is pictures it to herself as a story that, maybe unwillingly, she believes). Indeed, just after the brief initial scene, and the shot of Farrell over his right shoulder (which very gently telescopes in on him), we hear this voice, telling us what ‘he’ did, and how he chose his brown shoes : only was there the suggestion, right from the off, that this was an adapted short story or novella ?

The Lobster uses that form, and sometimes the voice-over is very present – and not always adding, but, by over-interpreting or even unnecessarily stating what can be seen, it acts to interpose itself between us and the on-screen world, i.e. an alienation technique (Verfremdungseffekt). (Other reviewers have commented on the stiltedness of the characters' speech. [So, for example, Nick Pinkerton (please also see below) writes all of them deliver dialogue in much the same mannered, tin-eared cadence : unvaryingly measured, stilted in tone, unnervingly to-the-point, and devoid of any softening niceties.] However, if one regards those who are speaking as created by, or creatures of, the narrator, that quality is put in another context : it remains, as it ever is, meaningless to talk about 'what really happened', but here the film is well nigh brought into existence by the voice that tells it.)

At other times, though, it is quite absent, and it seems possible that the device may have been abandoned, yet not, for example, with what happened in The Transformation Room : let alone how what, in general terms, is supposed to have happened there took place, we are kept outside the door that we see Farrell go through. The voice's ignorance (of what went on), that of the unknown 'she', becomes ours – but, in the first place, we only know any of this by placing credence in what the voice tells us, and we might wish to reflect on the silence and the lapse of time with which the film concludes…

Of course, the deliberate allusion to Room 101 put one in mind of Nineteen Eighty-Four, but, along with thinking that we are in the dystopian genre***, it is probably a misdirection to see Orwell here any more than to make a connection that, in a way, is just as much there with Animal Farm.

For those in search of other thoughts :

* This review (from Nick Pinkerton, of Reverse Shot), from which there have been quotations above, may tell too much for those who have not yet seen the film, but is interesting...

* Peter Bradshaw, for The Guardian, has some good points to make, but lapses - in the third to the fifth paragraphs of his review - into telling us what happens, rather than why we should be watching. (As, for example, he did with a review of The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza) (2013)).

* Finally, with the review by Demetrios Matheou (The Arts Desk), we have to bear with his worryingly getting his facts wrong (such as calling Farrell’s character John (not David), and saying that he has been widowed), but it is worth a read.


* Except on the level that the film creates a desire, for this scenario in the screenplay not to continue as it is, which is then sated – even if we scarcely welcome what takes its place, or how that resolves…

** By contrast, those who have read in David Eagleman’s small collection Sum : Tales from the Afterlives will know the superlative concision and exactness with which he conceives of numerous different futures.

*** People who only choose to look at the world within the film as dystopian are thereby easily failing to credit that elements of it, at least, operate not only on the level of satire, but also of allegory : does calling this filmed world a dystopia, by imagining it as a possible future, thereby miss its applicability, as a deliberate distortion, to our present social norms, practices and trends (such as our expectations of couples, or of single people, and how they may tend to stay with their own kind) ?

**** Other examples surely abound, but Hale and Pace (not a little obsessed with a stereotypically sexual portrayal of Sweden) could not resist confronting a British couple with a Swedish one, being unnecessarily frank.

***** * Contains spoilers * If it is what did change anything (and not what, nearer the relevant time, we hear read aloud), we never have any idea, in all honesty, whether there is an ultimate and licensed aim that their Leader (Léa Seydoux), at whose instigation they are acting, when she, they and one other loner (Michael Smiley) make it The City for short periods, pretending that they belong there.

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