Under the Sand (2000)
Director: François Ozon
Actors: Charlotte Rampling, Bruno Cremer, Jacques Nolot
Synopsis: A fifty-something Parisian couple, Marie (Charlotte Rampling) and Jean Drillon (Bruno Cremer), head down to Lit-et-Mixe in the South West of France for a short break. Jean goes inexplicably missing while swimming at the local beach, and his body is never recovered. Months later, Marie is getting on with her life in Paris, living in a form of denial about Jean’s disappearance/death, but the discovery of a body in Lit-et-Mixe threatens to challenge those fragile delusions.
Review: Less is more in this stripped-down, utterly compelling dramatisation of how a woman copes when her husband goes inexplicably missing (presumed dead) while on holiday in the South West of France. François Ozon finds exactly the right tone for telling the story, particularly in a subtly atmospheric opening stretch – played out elliptically, almost like a silent movie – as we become party to a seemingly normal, gentle twenty-four hours in the lives of Jean and Marie Drillon as they drive down to their holiday home in the South West of France, before heading to the local beach the following morning, where Jean eventually disappears. We know no more than the protagonists do, so the accumulating bewilderment of Marie – as she begins to conscience the immensity of what is unfolding on the beach as her husband fails to show – is tangible, and helps set the tone for the remainder of the film, which is a dissection of Marie’s frayed, and ultimately flawed, coping mechanism as she returns to a ‘normal’ life in Paris.
Other than Ozon’s masterful cinematic grammar, the film’s other chief asset is the mesmeric persona of Charlotte Rampling. The story simply wouldn’t work without such a compelling, suggestive presence, and her eyes and expressions alone convey so much of the complexity of this woman’s tactics of denial in the period after her husband goes missing. Equally clever is how Ozon never makes explicit the full truth of what happened to Jean: he may have died accidentally, committed suicide, or possibly – just possibly – fabricated an escape to start a new life. In a sense, it doesn’t matter what happened to Jean, but the mere existence of these different possibilities is what truly entraps Marie. In the end, things go full circle as Marie rejects the offer of certifying Jean’s death, in essence submitting herself forever more to her gilded state of denial. (June 2013)
The Kid with a Bike (2011)
Director: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Actors: Thomas Doret, Cécile de France, Jérémie Renier
Synopsis: Cyril (Thomas Doret), a feral young child – in and out of foster care – embarks on an elemental quest, aided by the acquisition of a bike, to track down his father.
Review: A return to the world of the Dardennes acts like the ultimate purifier for me – replenishing my faith in the beautiful simplicity of cinema, after the bloated panoramas of so many other films from around the world. The Kid with a Bike makes that purity almost something tangible with its whir of energy, documenting – as its classic, elemental Dardennian title would suggest – the story of a boy using a bike as conduit to find some parental care and affection.
Thomas Doret’s wild, physical performance makes incarnate his feral character’s desperate desire to grab some form of adult mentoring and emotional succour, whether that be through his constant dashes away from authority figures, and his spiritually uplifting rides on his bike, to the many scuffles he gets in as he tries to protect his bike from would-be thieves. In many respects, The Kid with a Bike has a loosely similar style and subject matter to the Dardennes’ 1999 masterpiece Rosetta, and even if ultimately, The Kid with a Bike is essentially a workmanlike re-tread of previous themes and motifs from their films, it’s still (if you’ll pardon the pun) a joyous ride. (June 2013)
Director: Michael Haneke
Actors: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert
Synopsis: An elderly couple in Paris, happily enjoying their retirement, reach a watershed moment in their relationship when the wife (Emmanuelle Riva) suffers a minor stroke. This puts pressure on the husband (Jean-Louis Trintignant) to care for her – a pressure increased by the wife’s further debilitating second stroke, and her desire not to be syphoned off to hospital.
Review: Michael Haneke’s colossal, pulverising essay on ageing and death is in many respects not the austerely beautiful ode to love that the majority of fans and commentators have taken it to be, but a deceptively sadistic and disingenuous treatment of its ‘failures of the flesh’ subject matter.
One thing not in doubt is Haneke’s absolute mastery over the cinematic medium. There isn’t a single frame, edit or camera move which isn’t highly strategised, and it certainly embellishes Haneke’s intention to suppress his two main characters within the walls of their lovely, if slightly shabby and increasingly oppressive, Paris apartment. There are moments where I think Haneke taps into something more humane and profound in his protagonists’ plight – in particular, the gorgeous scene where Trintignant is sat gazing adoringly at his wife playing gracefully at the couple’s piano, until we realise it’s an elegiac illusion, brought about when he’s mournfully listening to a recording after she’s fallen ill.
Unfortunately, I just find something inescapably sadistic and tyrannical about Haneke’s treatise on old age here. And by ‘sadistic’, I don’t mean in the colloquial sense, but in the true meaning of the word, as if Haneke cares only to compel his protagonists into a pre-determinedly grim end-game of (huge spoiler alert) the wife losing her mind and body to such an extent that she becomes infantised, and the husband struggling to maintain his dignity, hitting his wife on one frayed occasion and ultimately resorting to euthanasia. I know people will say this is a form of merciful love, but I imagine even the most tragic of degenerative deaths have a greater degree of humanity than Haneke’s bourgeois-bating depressiveness here (Haneke is betrayed by his artificial mechanics of keeping the complexity and variety of the outside world out of the story, and the friends, family members and nurses that do visit are often selfish and one-dimensionally unpleasant). (June 2013)
Thirteen Days (2000)
Director: Roger Donaldson
Actors: Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, Steven Culp
Synopsis: The Cuban Missile Crisis – as played out from within the Kennedy administration.
Review: It’s only ten years old, but still this mainstream recreation of the Cuban Missile Crisis feels awfully dated. It really is a product of the time before sensible, ‘independent’-spirited cinema could spring out organically from within the industrial cogs of Hollywood. Instead, the evidently serious canvas of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the inner-workings of the Kennedy administration, gets somewhat sullied by the cheesy grammar redolent of larger Hollywood productions – a truly awful, bombastic musical score and some weird and superficial shifts to black-and-white (presumably to remind the lesser minds in the audience that this was a moment of actual history).
It really is the Cuban Missile Crisis played out on a grand scale though – and in some respects, why not? This was after all one of the key moments of the Cold War, and perhaps the closest the planet has yet come to nuclear conflict. That very fact is ogled on portentously when director Roger Donaldson opens the film with the apocalyptic sight of a huge nuclear mushroom cloud, and any moment where military engagement comes close to occurring (the ships and subs navigating the blockade, and the spy planes flying over Cuba) get as much focus as the political machinations in Washington. Those machinations are probably the strong point of the film. Sure, the diplomatic route is sketched in broadly – it’s all military hawks versus the Kennedy boys, and Kevin Costner’s private secretary is a flaky device to act as convenient conduit to the Kennedys’ inner-circle – but it’s certainly a well-acted film. The decision to cast the relatively unknown Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp as JFK and RFK makes particular sense. Big names would shift audience attention away from the taut developments of the plot to the distracting sidegame of fawning at famous actors impersonating hugely renown historical figures. (June 2013)
Director: Justin Kurzel
Actors: Lucas Pittaway, Daniel Henshall, Louise Harris
Synopsis: John (Daniel Henshall) insinuates his way into a broken, dysfunctional family in a poor suburb of Adelaide. With a mixture of charisma and intimidation, he soon enlists the callow Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) as one of his cronies, and John’s sadistic encounters with various members of the local community get evermore brutal…
Review: Relentlessly bleak in subject matter, but almost perfect in terms of cinematographic execution, Justin Kurzel’s haunting Snowtown is perhaps one of the most convincing and complex portrayals of a malevolent psychotic that I have ever seen on film. Kurzel takes recent tastefully-modulated depictions of extreme/horror scenarios to their logical conclusions – in a sense throwing back those films’ bourgeois evasions in the process – for a simple, crystal-clear documentation of the pure banality of unbelievably savage acts (as well as seeing those acts’ profundity writ on the faces of the characters, we see the acts in their own right).
Kurzel is served brilliantly by his two leads – Lucas Pittaway and Daniel Henshall – and through expression and gesture alone, both actors are able to communicate so much. In some respects, Kurzel has manifested a complete refutation to the practice of ‘other than one’s self’ character acting. Pittaway and Henshall’s lived-in faces are the story, and I love the way that Kurzel’s camera hugs the faces of all the protagonists throughout the film, not just when they are talking or reacting, but sometimes bystanders to the seeming centre of a scene.
If you liked William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, then this film is loosely similar, revealing how an economically and morally deprived area can fall prey to a Faustian figure. But there’s something in Killer Joe‘s aspiration to a form of storytelling classicism, that doesn’t come close to the steadfast and tonally concentric vision of evil in this film. (June 2013)
The Iron Lady (2011)
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Actors: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Alexandra Roach
Synopsis: An increasingly frail and senile Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) reflects back on her life and political career.
Review: In the aftermath of Margaret Thatcher’s recent death, I wasn’t initially interested in throwing my two pennies’ worth into the online diatribe about her various political ‘achievements’. When some of my ‘friends’ on a certain social network however, mistakenly trotted out the cliché about this not being a time for personal attacks because a “woman and mother has died” I felt compelled to respond, because if Thatcher was one thing – she was a conviction politician, a woman wilfully in the public eye, manifesting policies that affected everyday lives, and she – more than anyone – would fully expect and welcome strong cogent arguments from all corners of the political spectrum about her legacy. It’s ironic then that The Iron Lady makes the cinematic equivalent of my friends’ misapplied etiquette booboo in trying to overly humanise Thatcher, and fence-sit on (if not, wash over) the majority of her highly ideologically-driven and controversial political career.
While the idea of an artsy ‘remembrance of things past’ narrative hook is always a good one, and could have carried some weight here with the obvious juxtaposition of an elderly, ailing Thatcher, against the sheer vitality of her political verve in her younger and middle-aged years, The Iron Lady spends too much time in the ‘senile’ section of the plot, and I dislike the Dennis Thatcher-appearing-as-a-benign-ghost mechanism also. It seems designed to soften the inherent darkness implicit in Thatcher’s encroaching senility, and her flashbacks might have been more poignant had they simply been remembrances or hallucinations rather than witterings to the apparition of her much-loved husband. The much parlayed stereotype of Dennis Thatcher as a uniformly bumbling, light-hearted counterfoil to his wife doesn’t get much scrutiny here, and with Jim Broadbent in the role, it has strong echoes of Iris, which made the similar cardinal sin of gorging on its female protagonist’s poignant late failures of the flesh rather than showing what made her such a colossus in the first place.
It would be unfair not to finish on one or two areas that the film does better in, as it’s not a uniformly poor piece. There’s a surprisingly good performance by Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher – it’s not tricksy at all, and if anything, gets better in the darker, more poignant moments as Thatcher’s grip on power slips and when she subsequently fades away in her old age. It’s also a well shot and directed film. I think the early scenes in Grantham (though very quick and suggestive) do a good job of characterising Thatcher’s core thrift and drive which were to be the bedrocks of her politics and rise to power. (June 2013)
Actors: Abbie Cornish, Andrea Riseborough, James D’Arcy
Synopsis: New York, 1998. Unhappy trophy wife, Wally (Abbie Cornish), finds solace and inspiration in the Wallis Simpson/King Edward collection at Sotheby’s. As she scours the paraphernalia, Wallis Simpson’s relationship with Edward is shown in flashback.
Review: Interesting, but ultimately flawed, Madonna’s portrayal of (or is it an ode to?) Wallis Simpson, suffers from a far, far too busy cinematographic grammar, and also a very clumsy and unclear framing device where a Manhattan ‘kept woman’ in 1998 gets an inordinate amount of screen-time while her story reflects back on to Wallis and King Edward’s.
Not that I advocate the tyranny of coherent, streamlined narratives, and in theory applaud Madonna’s aspirations to an impressionistic, allusive story built around two different timeframes (à la The Hours), but her all-but-contemporary Wally sequence really is too weak an informant on the main Wallis Simpson section. While Madonna seems to be positing the Wallis/Edward section as counterpoint to the commonly-held notion that Edward was the only one making a sacrifice for the union, I don’t see how it equates to Wally’s very bourgeois dilemmas of marriage to an unloving doctor (which she presumably entered into willfully), her IVF attempts to become a mother at only 28, and her obsession with Wallis. I guess the film is perhaps an ironic exposé of how personal Madonna’s interest is in the very sort of privileged, monied and transnational lives of the two lead women.
Madonna also sullies any potential message in her film through a truly frenetic, mish-mash of filmic constructs. It’s a grossly over-edited film, its musical score is far too excessive (stealing moments from the far superior In the Mood for Love), and the switch between actual archive footage of Wallis and Edward, mock newsreel pastiches, then the main fictionalisation, has no coherent purpose. (June 2013)