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A Scam with Ham

Cinema is an emotional art form, and it can make you feel many things: awe, excitement, wonder, anger, compassion, terror. What doesn’t happen quite so much is a trip to the movies making you feel young, but I am happy to report that this is the effect that going to see Bill Condon’s The Good Liar had on me. I should make clear that this has relatively little to do with the quality of the film itelf, and much more to do with the fact that I went to a weekday matinee showing. It’s very unusual, these days, for me to be the youngest person at the showing of a movie (unless I’m the only one there), but I felt positively spring chicken-esque on this occasion. There was a very good turn-out for the movie (far more people than were at the teatime showing of Midway the previous day), and all in all it was an interesting opportunity to see how the more mature generation approach film-watching etiquette. So it was that I settled down to enjoy the new movie, doing my best to ignore the faint whistle of hearing-aid feedback, the less faint murmuring of people attempting to explain the plot to each other, the flashing and buzzing of un-switched-off smartphones, and the flagrant disregard of the allocated seating system.

Why so many oldies at this particular movie? Well, I suspect it’s mainly because of the two leads, Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren, who are both there or thereabouts when it comes to much-loved national treasure status, in addition to knocking on a bit themselves. One of the many slightly odd things about this film is that it does appear to be pitching very much to the older generation, but on the other hand it also contains a lot of things that this same generation reputedly have issues with, specifically graphic violence and fruity language.

The Good Liar opens with both McKellen and Mirren joining an online dating website for older folk, and it is almost immediately made clear that neither of them is being absolutely honest in their responses. But they seem to hit it off, even after they both come clean about the fact that they are not, as advertised, Brian and Estelle, but actually Roy and Betty: he is a distinguished gent with a vague, military background, while she is a former Oxford academic now enjoying life as a rich widow. They have a very pleasant lunch together and then go their separate ways, Betty leaving with her grandson (Russell Tovey).

The movie stays with Roy, however, which if nothing else allows us to enjoy more of McKellen’s performance. This is shaping up to be something really quite special, with the actor at his most sly and impish. Rather than toddling off home, he heads to Stringfellow’s nightclub, where it soon becomes apparent he is a professional fraudster engaged on a very slick long con with his partner Vincent (Jim Carter). His involvement with Betty is obviously also part of the build-up to another swindle.

But as the con proceeds and Roy does his best to dispel the suspicions of Betty’s grandson, it almost seems that he is starting to have genuine feelings for his intended victim. Could it be that the old rogue is finally growing a conscience and beginning to have second thoughts about his plan…?

Well, you know, Bill Condon is one of those people with a shockingly variable track record – he wrote and directed the rather good Gods and Monsters, back in the 1990s, and more recently was behind the camera for The Fifth Estate and Mr Holmes, both of which I thought were pretty decent movies. However – and here you must imagine the authorial voice of the blog taking on its gravest and most sombre tone – the case for the prosecution is arguably much more significant. Not only was Condon the perpetrator of the final couple of Twilight movies, he was also one of the writers of the bafflingly popular diversity barn-dance The Greatest Showman. So the question must be: which way is this particular movie going to turn out?

Confusingly, the answer to this may be ‘both’, as while The Good Liar is utterly ridiculous, it is also highly entertaining, although probably not in quite the way the film-makers had in mind. Condon and his associates were probably aiming to produce a gripping and unpredictable thriller, with quite a hard, dark edge to it. This they have not managed to achieve, because you would have to be a fairly undemanding viewer not to figure out which way this film is going well in advance of the denouement. On the other hand, the film does feature a lot of very good actors who are clearly having a whale of a time having fun with some rather ripe material. McKellen, for instance, is front and centre for most of the movie, and his twinkliness and smarminess are both set to maximum throughout. This is such a big performance – I would say he was overacting, without actually being hammy – that it does almost unbalance the movie.

Of course, I suspect the reason McKellen is being quite so extravagant with his performance is because he realises the film needs it in order to function. The film, as mentioned, does aspire to a considerable level of twisty-turniness, but the twists and turns are generally quite absurd and impossible to take seriously. There’s no point trying to be subtle and naturalistic in a story as daft as this one: you may as well go all in and at least try to have some fun with it. This is the approach that McKellen (and, eventually, Mirren) appear to be going for.

As an exercise in outrageous camp, The Good Liar passes the time very entertainingly, although I must say again that some key plot developments are very predictable. There is also the issue that the film was obviously conceived as a serious drama with a dark and quite vicious edge to it: there are moments of significant violence which jar very strongly with the overall tone of the movie. (I should also mention that the film indicates that the British obsession with events during and just after the Second World War also shows no signs of abating.) There is also something which feels a little incorrect about the structure of the climax: the thing about a good twist is that you should really be able to work it out in advance, and in this case that simply isn’t true.

Nevertheless, it’s a spry and fairly slick movie, and I suppose the nature of the story means that the predictability of some of the plot isn’t really a problem (it also compensates for the absurdity of much of the rest of it). I enjoyed watching the actors do their stuff, even if I was probably laughing in the wrong places and for the wrong reasons most of the time.

Flat Fleet

I am not ashamed to say I have a certain fondness for many of the films of Roland Emmerich, particularly his SF and fantasy output. Let me at once qualify that by saying that I’ve never much liked Stargate, and I was in Italy when 10,000 BC came out and never got to see it, and, come to think of it, Universal Soldier was about what you’d expect from an early-90s vehicle for Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren. But I did enjoy 2012, The Day After Tomorrow was likeable tosh, his version of Godzilla was a decent monster movie (just a very bad Godzilla film), and I have very little time for people who go around bad-mouthing Independence Day (even if the sequel is rubbish).

Emmerich does have a real talent for wrangling these big, slightly bonkers special effects movies; it’s his other films that I find slightly hard work. Obviously, it’s nice to be respected and treated as a serious artist – but, you know, stick to what you’re good at. Bearing this in mind I didn’t quite know what to expect from his new movie, Midway. On the one hand, this is a big, epic film with lots of special-effects action sequences – but on the other, it proclaims it is intended as a ‘true account’ of some of the events of the Second World War.

So, nothing to do with the initial marketing of Space Invaders in the US, then (though I can just about imagine Emmerich coming up with a spin on that which would suit his talents). The film is named after, and largely concerns, the naval battle at Midway in June 1942, although it opens five years earlier with a meeting between US naval attache Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) and Japanese navy officer Isoroku Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) in Tokyo. Yamamoto warns his counterpart that if the US leaves Japan with no other option, it will fight to protect its access to the natural resources it needs: the hawks in the ascendancy in the Japanese government will see to that.

This struck me as an unexpectedly nuanced and even-handed opening to the movie, attempting to give some context to the beginning of Japanese hostilities in late 1941. However, from here we proceed almost straight into the events of December 7th 1941 and the Japanese attack on the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. There are a few things to be said here: firstly, as a movie whole and entire, Midway is certainly better than the grim Michael Bay offering Pearl Harbor, which troubled cinemas in 2001 (it doesn’t seem that long ago to me, but I am depressingly aware that movies from that period are now old enough to drink) and covered much of the same material. However, the decision to go straight into the first of several major action and effects sequences is questionable – apart from Layton, we’ve barely got to know any of the characters and so our investment in the story is still quite minimal: it’s all just bangs and flashes and fairground thrills. There’s also the problem, which persists throughout the movie, that while the special effects are lavish and a great deal of money and talent has clearly gone into them, the movie still ends up becalmed in the nautical equivalent of the uncanny valley – it looks very pretty, but never for a moment do you feel like you’re watching something actually real.

Anyway, with Pearl Harbor out of the way, Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson in a wig) is put in charge of the US fleet and the movie proceeds through the events of the next few months at a brisk clip: the initial American response, which is severely limited by the fact that their main torpedo would more accurately be called a torpedon’t, the air raid on Tokyo commanded by James Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart and his chin pop up for what’s not much more than an extended cameo as Doolittle), the battle of the Coral Sea, and so on. Eventually we get to the battle of Midway itself, as American intelligence analysts figure out where the Imperial Japanese fleet are going to be making their next move, allowing the US navy to set a trap for them.

And, you know, it’s never actually dull, and it does move along very briskly, as noted. Of course, the film is kind of obliged to do this, simply because it has given itself such a lot of ground to cover, as well as the actual battle of Midway. It’s good to have a bit of context, obviously, but I wonder how much sense this actually makes to people not already familiar with the events of the Pacific war – Wilson and Harrelson rattle out the exposition heroically, but I’m not sure how much of it sticks. There is a real danger of subplot overload well before the end of the movie, which honestly feels bloated and unwieldy much of the time. Cutting a lot of the Doolittle material would have been one obvious choice, but given that a lot of this concerns the aid given to Doolittle by heroic Chinese fighters, and the Japanese occupation of part of China, I imagine that keeping all this in was stipulated by the Chinese investors who I understand provided a significant chunk of the film’s budget.

The other main problem I had with the film is that I found it rather difficult to actually warm to. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, and many of them are honestly fairly indistinguishable. Most of the movie is pitched at the same level of macho, stoic, belligerent patriotism, and most of the characters are naval personnel; there is consequently a lot of blurring together which only a few actors manage to avoid. Usually this is via some kind of prop: Wilson wears glasses and looks concerned, Harrelson has his wig, Eckhart has his chin, Luke Evans has a moustache, and Dennis Quaid turns up as Admiral Halsey with a permanent growl and a case of shingles. The de facto main character is Dick Best (Ed Skrein), one of the most distinguished pilots in American history, but the issue here is that the script makes him out to be a swaggering, arrogant loose cannon, a characterisation that Skrein happily runs with. This made him quite difficult to empathise with; I was much more inclined to identify with his co-pilot, who eventually becomes very reluctant to fly with someone who seems to have a death wish. You may be wondering who plays all the female fighter and bomber pilots: well, the Progressive Agenda Committee were clearly unable to locate the offices of the production, for they have managed to get away with not including any. The only female character of any significance is Best’s wife, who is played by Mandy Moore. I have to say this is a largely decorative role and she is much more prominent on the poster than in the actual movie.

This just adds to the sense that Midway is very much an old-school war movie, although one has to wonder if we really need all the unsubtle tub-thumping patriotism – verging, to be honest, on jingoism in places – nearly eighty years on from the actual battle. It is, of course, distinguished by modern special effects, and plenty of them, but as noted the film does often feel like you’re watching someone else playing a computer game. I haven’t seen the 1976 film based on these events – however, I would be willing to guess that it has less impressive visuals but a rather better script. This film passes the time decently, it’s interesting to look at, and it does contain a bit of history. It’s just that the actual story is not that engaging or moving – it is war as an almost totally empty spectacle. Emmerich’s films are much more fun when he isn’t trying to be so respectful.

Peak Performance

In case you hadn’t noticed it, constant reader, one of the local indie cinemas has been running a series of classic silent movies made in Weimar Germany over the last few weeks, which I have been watching when my schedule and interest levels permit. One thing about watching silent German films from the 1920s which I have commented upon is the almost irresistible temptation to start looking for some kind of historical subtext or irony, looking for hints of the film anticipating what consumed Germany and its people only a few years later. Well, you don’t have to look especially deep to find that kind of connection in Arnold Fanck’s The Holy Mountain (D-title: Der Heilige Berg), mainly because the most famous person in it is, um, not so much famous as notorious.

I would imagine that many people are vaguely familiar with Leni Riefenstahl’s name even if they are not exactly sure of what she did to earn her notoriety. I say notoriety, but this is still someone who has been acclaimed as one of the most technically gifted film-makers of the 20th century (one critic places only Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock ahead of her), while serious critics have suggested that her film Triumph of the Will is possibly the best ever directed by a woman. The very title Triumph of the Will is perhaps a clue, for the uninitiated: made in Germany in 1935, it is a Nazi propaganda movie. Riefenstahl directed a number of these, which is why she is still such a problematic figure in cinema history.

The Holy Mountain is arguably where it all started for her, however: she had previously appeared in a health and fitness documentary, Ways to Strength and Beauty, but this was her first acting role. It is a fairly natural progression for someone who was previously a professional dancer, for she plays another dancer here. One story has it that Adolf Hitler watched The Holy Mountain and found Riefenstahl’s uninhibited gyrating so mesmerising he became obsessed with her, and that it was this which eventually gave her the chance to make the documentaries she is best-known for. The world is an odd place, and often does not seem to run along straight lines.

Riefenstahl plays Diotima, who as noted is a dancer. The film opens with a sequence of her dancing on a breakwater near a rocky shore: waves crash, foam sprays; it is all clearly supposed to be very primal and significant. However, Diotima is drawn inland, to the towering presence of the Alps, where she encounters hunky, stoical mountaineer Karl (Luis Trenker) and his young friend Vigo (Ernst Petersen) while giving a performance.

I don’t know, tastes change and all that, but I did have an issue with the film’s conviction that Riefenstahl’s character is some sort of irresistible temptress and her dancing unleashes fundamental forces of desire. I don’t know what the German for ‘bad hair day’ is, but Riefenstahl seems to have been peculiarly prone to them while this film was in production, while her particular style of expressive dance mostly just put me in mind of a drunk woman trying to start a fight at a wedding reception. However, the plot requires that both Karl and Vigo have their heads very much turned by Diotima, with Karl in particular falling for her hard.

You’d think all would be lovely, wouldn’t you? Well, this might perhaps have been the case were it not for the running of a big ski race – this is a major sequence in the film, and there is a grave admonitory caption on behalf of the sportsmen participating that it was realised without the use of trick photography. Vigo does very well in the race, and as a result gets a hug from Diotima. Little does she realise that foolish young Vigo now thinks she is in love with him, while Karl is under the impression she is putting herself about a bit. He broods and suffers a lot, stoically.

Yes, it does all sound a bit ridiculous and melodramatic, and to be honest it is. What happens next does not buck this trend, as Karl and Vigo set off to climb ‘the dreadful north face’ of one of the local peaks, presumably because the distraught Karl wants to take refuge in nature, or has a death wish, or something like that. Trouble inevitably ensues, with one of those moments which recurs and echoes throughout the history of climbing lore – in the midst of a blizzard, Vigo slips and falls, and finds himself dangling from an overhang with only Karl’s grip on the rope keeping him from a terminal plummet. Karl can’t pull him back up, but if he saves himself by cutting the rope, his friend will die… (This is the same dilemma at the heart of the brilliant documentary Touching the Void, of course.)

Genres come in and out of fashion: something which was once seen as very niche and culty can rise to box office dominance, while a genre which once had hundreds of films made in it every year can slip into obscurity in just the same way. That said, they still do make westerns, even if they are most often odd, effectively art-house films, while the German bergfilme – the mountain film – seems to have long since passed into history. It has been argued that the mountain film is as essentially German as the western is essentially American, and it does seem to me that there are obvious similarities between the two forms – they are both concerned with the juxtaposition of human life and the natural world, and they are also about wide open spaces (admittedly in different dimensions). There is also a fiercely moral element to The Holy Mountain, the issue of what it means to be a good man, even in the most extreme circumstances, which is also a classic western theme.

Of course, this does mean that once The Holy Mountain really gets going, with its skiing, climbing and mountain rescue sequences, it doesn’t leave Leni Riefenstahl with much to do except hang around in a cabin back at base camp, occasionally staring with deep concern out of the window. So the film does seem to shift its centre of gravity in a fairly pronounced way, from Diotima to Karl, as it proceeds. For a modern audience I’m not sure this is as much of an issue as some of the less than subtle performances or the general tenor of the thing, which often borders on the unintentionally camp.

I think the fact that The Holy Mountain is an example of an obscure and arguably defunct genre is also an issue: watching a movie like Faust or The Golem or Metropolis these days, there is always the fact that you can see its similarities to the films it has influenced, and identify its place in the history of the genre – this can make a very old film somehow feel more accessible. More recent films about climbing have either been American popcorn blockbusters or documentaries, and bear no more than a faint resemblance to this one. It’s a curious film that doesn’t feel as if it has much connection to the modern world any more: the scenery is beautiful, and Fanck certainly knows how to compose an impressive shot, but the story and performances feel very ordinary, at best. Very much a case of historical interest only – but it does have that by the bucketful.

Basket Cases

Here’s a genuinely weird piece of promotion for a new movie: people going to see Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts at my local multiplex receive a free chocolate bar (it’s an Aero, in case you were wondering). The logic behind this seems tenuous at best, if you ask me, although it did get me thinking about what other films could potentially benefit from a similar strategy. Maybe the makers of Lion missed a trick (are Lion bars still made?). I’m not sure even a lifetime’s supply of free Twix would tempt me to see any more Twilight films, but I suppose the option is still there if they ever decide to remake Galaxy Quest, Red Planet Mars, or Marathon Man (they’d probably have to rename it Snickers Man, though). I can imagine a hook-up between a new version of Cabaret and the makers of Kit Kats, too.

The weird promotion is perhaps a sign that the makers of Aeronauts are worried about their film finding an audience, something only compounded by the fact they opted to release it into cinemas on a Monday, thus effectively giving it a seven-day opening weekend (conventional wisdom is that the more money you make on that weekend, the more people will go to see the film subsequently). Are they right to be so worried about its prospects? Well, constant reader, occasionally a film comes along which isn’t actually bad, and has points of real quality about it, but is still obviously going to struggle to find an audience. And The Aeronauts is very likely one of these.

The bulk of the film is set in and above London in 1862. Tweedy boffin James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne, ensconced securely in his comfort zone) is widely mocked by his fellow scientists and other parties for his belief that the English weather can be predicted (hmmm), and in order to prove this he needs to go up into the sky in a big balloon. To help him with this (ad)venture, he retains the help of experienced balloonist Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones). However, she has been in a bit of a slump since her husband (Vincent Perez) passed away at the end of their last balloon trip (let us just say that the marriage experienced an abrupt vertical termination) and isn’t sure she wants to have anything more to do with that sort of thing.

Needless to say, Amelia is talked round, investors are found, and on a fairly bright day the two of them (and a dog) clamber into their basket and set off into the wide blue yonder. (Slightly worryingly, only the dog has a parachute.) Glaisher is dry as an old biscuit and seems only to be concerned about his meteorological readings; he regards Amelia as being excessively frivolous and perhaps a bit foolhardy. Is there going to be a mighty falling-out at 30,000 feet? (Hopefully not a literal one.)

Well, the film has perhaps achieved something of a coup by getting Redmayne and Jones back together again, but I’m not sure this is quite a charismatic enough pairing to get people to turn out to see the movie. It has to be said, though, that much of the movie is just the two of them in and around the basket of a balloon at various altitudes, occasionally with a spot of jeopardy in the mix, though no more than you would expect from a PG-rated movie.

The movie works hard at tricking you into thinking this is a dramatisation of true events, and indeed James Glaisher was a pioneering meteorologist who went on a very important flight in 1862. However, the Amelia Rennes character is, not to put too fine a point on it, entirely made-up: the actual pilot who accompanied Glaisher and saved his life, a chap by the name of Henry Coxwell, has been written out of the film’s version of history, presumably for being just too male and heavily bearded and not facilitating the kind of empowering feminist subtext which apparently is the most important element of the film. The Progressive Agenda Committee really are very, very busy these days; I’m guessing it was also one of their ideas to make Glaisher’s friend and fellow scientist John Trew Asian. Obviously this is well-intentioned, but I’m not sure what it achieves or how well thought-through it is; it mainly just succeeds in feeling like an exercise in box-ticking and kicking me out of the story as a result.

I’m not entirely sure how long the actual flight (sort of) depicted in the film lasted for, but I get a sense it may have been less than the 100 minutes The Aeronauts lasts for. Certainly this is a film of two halves: much of the film concerns the two of them in the balloon together, as noted, but to fill in the less-eventful stretches of the journey, the film has laid in a good supply of filler (perhaps ballast would be a more appropriate term), in the form of lengthy flashbacks to how they ended up in the basket together.

To be honest, this is quite average bonnet-opera stuff, and any interest that might be stirred by Glaisher’s struggles to be taken seriously, his relationship with his parents, and so on, is sabotaged by the suspicion that, as the entirety of Wren’s back-story is completely made up, so might Glaisher’s be as well. As a dramatisation of true events, this would just about pass muster; as pure fiction, it is just a bit underpowered.

Nevertheless, the film is visually striking, with some lovely vistas as the balloon rises higher and higher – there’s a fine score, too. There are likewise some stomach-churning moments as the characters find themselves falling in and out of the basket and having to clamber around on the balloon envelope itself – the film is an unqualified success when it come to generating these kinds of queasy thrills (my companion got a bit alarmed until I told her that Felicity Jones never, ever dies in movies). But even so, they’re only one quite small element of a strange mixture of costume drama and special-effects movie. Redmayne and Jones are perfectly acceptable, but given this is not really based on a true story, and not really an action adventure, and not really especially surprising or dramatic as a drama, all The Aeronauts really has to commend it is the fact that it and its stars are generally pleasing to look upon. And you get a free chocolate bar, of course.

Bound and Gigged

Modern marketing being what it is, it’s a safe bet that you can tell a lot about the target audience for a movie from the trailers that run in front of it: to put it another way, horror movies are preceded by horror movie trailers. I think most people, given a list of the trailers showing before an unidentified movie, would be able to have a decent stab at the genre of what was to follow, unless it was some kind of weird genre-mashing oddity.

So let’s have a go: the four trailers are as follows. A ‘quality’ drama about an idealistic lawyer confronting racial inequality in America. A ‘quality’ drama about an idealistic lawyer confronting corrupt big business in America. A low-key, character-based film about ordinary people dealing with potentially terminal illness. And something about racing drivers. (By ‘quality’ drama, by the way, I mean something intended to win kudos and potentially awards as well as simply making money for the studio.)

What would you think these were running in front of? Clearly something aimed at bien-pensant grown-ups (all that social comment and political idealism), along with people who appreciate authentic drama (the focus is on character rather than genre). The thing about racing drivers is obviously an outlier and a bit of a red herring, but you do tend to find this kind of blanket advertising appearing when a studio has spent a lot of money on a film and is slightly worried about getting it back (the film in question is the forthcoming Le Mans ’66, aka Ford v Ferrari).

I think my thesis does hold together, as all these trailers preceded Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You, a film using a low-key character-based drama to make very serious social and political points. (It also features people driving quite quickly, but I doubt there’ll be a significant cross-over audience between this and Le Mans ’66.) Loach has been doing this sort of thing for well over fifty years now and shows no signs of losing his fire or commitment: this doesn’t feel like the work of a director in his eighties.

Kris Hitchen plays Ricky, husband and father of a family who fall into the ‘just barely managing’ category. (It is mentioned in passing that they lost their chance to own their own home as a result of the financial crash, and that things have been difficult ever since.) Formerly in the building trade, Ricky has decided to make a career change and is signing on as a ‘franchisee’, driving for a big delivery company. Ricky is keen, clearly desperate for the work, and perhaps not all that bright – he either disregards or doesn’t understand the ominous barrage of management-speak his supervisor, Maloney (Ross Brewster) hits him with as part of the recruitment process. He is not being hired, but onboarded; he doesn’t work for them, he works with them. None of this seems to matter to begin with, but already you fear for him.

His initial problem is raising the money to buy a van, which entails selling the car of his wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood). She is a home carer, visiting the sick and elderly in their houses, and the lack of her own transport is a major issue, but she reluctantly agrees in the hope it will lead to something better. She is on a zero-hours contract too, of course. Things are all right to begin with, although the relentless grind of working thirteen and fourteen hours a day, six days a week, soon begins to take its toll. However, their teenage son Seb (Rhys Stone) is talented but has no prospects, and his restlessness and frustration soon begins to get him into trouble with the authorities. The fact that Ricky and Abbie never see him properly only compounds this problem, and this is before Ricky is obliged to confront the realities of his new position: he has no entitlement to time off, is liable for hefty fines if he misses his delivery deadlines, and is personally liable for what happens to the contents of his van. The job that was supposed to give the family security is tearing it apart.

Well, it’s a Ken Loach movie, so you know what to expect before turning up: Loach isn’t going to entertain you, he’s almost certainly going to get political, you’re going to be made to think, you’re probably not going to emerge skipping and whistling when all is said and done. You know this is not going to be a heart-warming slice of life, but something which will most likely become extremely bleak well before the end. And so it proves, broadly speaking. You might expect the fact that Loach’s M.O. is so predictable to start working against the movie and make it less effective – I went in with my shields already raised, so to speak – but the remarkable thing about Sorry We Missed You is that it managed to get to me anyway. Loach’s thesis is very clear from the start – zero-hours contracts and the ‘gig economy’ are just devices to strip the most vulnerable members of the workforce of their rights, allowing their de facto managers to retain authority while disclaiming any responsibility for the people who work for them. (I have spent most of the last ten years on zero-hours contracts, but I’ve been lucky enough to (mostly) work for managers who treat people as people; this film has made me all the more grateful for that.)

However, the punch of the film doesn’t come from this (although some may still find the film a bit too didactic and self-righteously on-the-nose), but the simple, domestic scenes of the family together, snatching moments of happiness, but slowly beginning to turn on each other out of sheer exhaustion, frustration and stress. It is heartbreaking to watch: I have seen films about homeless children in Syria which felt less emotionally wrenching than this one. This is raw, no-frills film-making – it is all about content, rather than style – and in places Loach’s decision to cast non-professionals in some of the roles looks a little questionable. But he has discovered, amongst others, Debbie Honeywood, who gives one of the most affecting debut performances I can remember seeing.

The decision to focus on the domestic effects of the family’s situation does give the film its power, and keeps it from being too obviously a piece of agitprop – but on the other hand, it also prevents it from discussing the root causes of the situation and possible ways of ameliorating it, as this would involve being much more overtly political. Strip away the family drama – and, to be honest, some slightly contrived plotting does threaten to tip it over into melodrama here and there – and you are left with a film about workers’ rights. The main ongoing threat to these is surely the ongoing act of national self-harm this country is currently embarked upon, but Sorry We Missed You never addresses this, or even refers to the issue. As a result it feels like a film cursing the darkness with great passion and intensity, not one which even suggests there might be candles we could light. Still, an extremely powerful and moving drama.

Own Golem

We tend to think of cinema as an essentially modern art form – Terry Gilliam presented a TV series on the birth of the medium entitled The Last Machine – something quite different from the other visual arts like painting and sculpture. Great paintings and statues go back into the mists of time, usually hundreds of years, whereas most people tend to dismiss any film which is more than half a century old as unacceptably primitive. As time progresses we may have to change our perceptions on this topic. Unless the direst of predictions about the future of civilisation come to pass, a day will come in which people will look at the classic films of two or three centuries earlier, just as we look at the art of the Renaissance and other periods from long before living memory.

There are already films which have passed beyond living memory – I don’t just mean the legions of lost films, known only by their names and descriptions, although there are certainly enough of them. I mean films where everyone involved in their making has moved on to whatever comes next. Realistically, this probably includes nearly everything made since about 1940, by which point commercial cinema was already a quarter of a century old. The oldest of films do seem to come from an oddly different world, their difference and strangeness only heightened by the different sensibility that often shaped them and the differences in production methods.

Paul Wegener and Carl Boese’s The Golem was first released in 1920. Just to suggest the lengths of time involved, this places it almost equidistant between the present day (as I type, anyway) and the Peterloo massacre. It is closer in time to the deaths of Lord Byron and Beethoven, to name but two events, than it is to the present day. Perhaps one is getting carried away by the peculiar, medieval qualities of the story, but it does feel like a strange relic of a lost age. The irony, of course – and perhaps our first inkling that maybe things haven’t changed quite as much as we might imagine – is that The Golem isn’t exactly The Golem. Rather, it is effectively Golem 3, final film in a loose trilogy.

Survival rates amongst films of the 1920s being as they are, the original Golem from 1915 and the spin-off The Golem and the Dancing Girl have both been lost, and the title of The Golem has now passed to the second sequel, which was originally released as Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came Into the World). (You can see why people would opt for a less unwieldy title.) Even the 1920 version of Golem was a lost film for some time, eventually being reconstructed from various alternate versions of the negative which survived piecemeal in different locations.

One stroke of luck is that the 1920 version of The Golem is – in the modern vernacular – a prequel to the original film, which had a contemporary setting and concerned the title character being unearthed in the modern era. As the subtitle suggests, this is an origin story, set in the middle ages. The implication is that the story unfolds in Prague, which is the seat of the Holy Roman Emperor (portrayed here by Otto Gebuhr). As the story starts, the Emperor issues a decree announcing that the Jews of Prague are to be expelled from their ghetto, causing understandable consternation amongst them.

One of the community leaders, Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinruck), has seen this coming (he is the local astrologer and expert in arcana), and requests an audience with the Emperor so he can try to talk him out of his decision. In order to have a little more leverage at the coming meeting, Loew sets about crafting a massive human figure out of clay. His plan is to use magic of a questionable hue to animate this being, known as a Golem – if nothing else it will be nice to have another pair of hands about the place. (The situation is also somewhat complicated by the fact that the Emperor’s envoy, Florian (Lothar Muthel), instantly takes a fancy to Loew’s daughter Miriam (Lyda Salmonova) and commences to woo her, assiduously but discreetly.)

Well, the rite is performed and the Golem comes to life (the creature is portrayed by Paul Wegener himself), although his initial trips down to the shops are a marginal success at best. The Emperor and the royal court are duly impressed and a bit alarmed when the Rabbi turns up to see them with the Golem in tow, but when the creature saves the Emperor’s life the grateful ruler agrees to think again about his edict expelling the Jews.

All seems well, until Loew discovers an ominous warning that the Golem’s initial helpfulness may not last, and the dark magic that animated it will lead to it eventually becoming malevolent. Bearing this in mind, the Rabbi ‘deactivates’ it. All seems well, and he goes off to a service of thanksgiving for the survival of the community. But then his assistant (Ernst Deutsch) discovers what has been going on between Florian and Miriam, and angrily reanimates the Golem, telling it to get rid of the amorous nobleman…

You can probably guess what happens next, because despite the fact that its production values, pacing, and performance style are wildly different from those in modern movies, this is still very recognisably the progenitor of a noble dynasty of fantasy and SF movies – the similarities to Frankenstein are particularly pronounced, and there’s a scene near the end where the Golem encounters a small child with some flowers which faintly anticipates one from the famous James Whale version of the story. If this film is less successful, it’s possibly because Wegener’s performance as the Golem is considerably less nuanced than Karloff’s would later be – the lumbering about is acceptable, but there’s a lot of eye-popping and pouting which is pretty much guaranteed to get laughs from a modern audience (a lot of the more, er, expressive acting in The Golem has the same effect).

The themes of hubris are less pronounced, however, and Rabbi Loew remains a sympathetic figure despite his role in creating the Golem and his dealings with dark powers. It’s probably a coincidence that for two weeks in a row the Weimar movie season has shown gloomy fantasies about people forced into deals with dark forces in exchange for different kinds of power, but The Golem does acquire a strange historical irony considering the plot is ultimately driven by anti-semitism. The Jewish characters in the movie are sympathetic, as noted, but at the same time everyone takes it for granted that the Rabbi has various mystical powers at his disposal. The movie itself hardly seems anti-semitic, but the depiction of Judaism is probably not one a director could get away with nowadays.

In the end The Golem is another fairly entertaining movie – I would say there is probably a bit too much blather near the start, and not enough rampaging and carnage at the end (by the standards of a modern horror movie it is almost absurdly innocuous). Obviously it is of great historical interest, for both cinema in general and genre movies in particular: not the biggest or the best monster movie ever made, but probably the earliest that’s still with us. Worth seeing if only for that reason; not just because it is so different, but also because much of it is so recognisable.

Las Cuatro Magnificas

Day One (October 12th)

As you may be aware, I’m never averse to a bit of a chat and maybe even some badinage with the people I buy my cinema tickets from; it helps me to sustain the delusion that going to the pictures eighty times a year is somehow a valid substitute for a conventional social life. Still, it comes as a shock when one of these conversations concludes with the person selling the tickets saying ‘Good luck!’ – and this is what happened on this particular occasion.

I half turned back to them and possibly cocked an eyebrow. ‘Why do you say that?’

‘Well, it’s a bit long, isn’t it,’ he said with a grin.

Well, maybe he had a point: there are not many films which you buy your ticket for in instalments, let alone ones where you get a discount for undertaking to watch the whole thing. But we were in the curious world of Mariano Llinas’ La Flor (Spanish for The Flower), where things are very, very different from the form they usually take.

There are lots of unusual figures associated with La Flor – for instance, the film was nine years in the making, more or less – but the key one is 808. 808 what? you may be wondering. Well, friends, 808 minutes, which is a) about thirteen and a half hours and b) the amount of your finite and precious lifespan you will have to commit, if you want to watch La Flor in its entirety. Yes, the mind boggles, does it not (and this is far from the last time, should you decide to go for the full La Flor experience).

Why would anyone want to go and see a thirteen and a half hour long movie? Well, I guess for the same reason they always used to climb Mount Everest: because it’s there. Also, I suspect, out of a sort of misguided cinematic machismo – are you really serious about all forms of cinema? Really serious? You may think so, but have you actually watched La Flor? Oh, well then…

As regular visitors will know, I’ll go and see most things at the cinema, but even I was given pause by the sheer scale of the commitment required here – La Flor is not so much a movie, more a sort of lifestyle choice: the full experience involved turning out for four Saturday afternoons in a row. In the end, though, sheer curiosity won out. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the UPP was not packed to bursting when the projectionist finally got things underway: only half a dozen or so brave souls had turned out (one of whom appears to have a form of Tourette’s, which could lead to frayed tempers before we reach November). Will everyone last the course? Will friendships bloom amongst La Flor devotees? Shall we have a commemorative medal struck for everyone who makes it to the end?

La Flor opens with a shot of generous duration depicting some scaffolding at the side of the road and traffic going past. Once this has sunk in, the director and his dog turn up to introduce the film and explain the structure of it, with the aid of some diagrams he draws in felt tip. The structure of the film is rather like that of a flower, hence the title, but already a big question was forming in my head – this isn’t so much a massive thirteen hour movie as just six regular-length films bolted together, linked by the same lead performers. Why not just release the component episodes individually? Is there something special to be gained from watching the whole thing, other than a deep-vein thrombosis? Oh well. We were already committed by this point.

The first episode of La Flor‘s six is a horror B-movie concerning some archaeologists (Elisa Carricajo, Valeria Correa, and Laura Paredes) who find themselves stuck in a remote office building over the Easter weekend, keeping an eye on an Inca mummy which has unexpectedly been foisted upon them. Low-key creepiness ensues, as first the institute cat and then one of the women begins to behave extremely strangely, eventually violently so. Are supernatural forces at work? Another woman who is essentially a government-employed exorcist (Pilar Gamboa) turns up to try and deal with the situation, before making a disturbing discovery…

This is, according to Llinas anyway, ‘the kind of B-movie that Americans can’t seem to make any more’, but I’m not entirely sure the torch has been cleanly passed – at least, not to Argentina. Episode 1 of La Flor isn’t scary enough to work as a full-blooded horror movie, but not knowing or funny enough to really succeed as a pastiche or a spoof of the genre. Or so it seemed to me: we all got up to stretch our legs during the interval (only two and three quarter hours in) and I overheard some of the other voyagers enthusiastically discussing how creepy the bit with the mummy had been. (Then again I suspect they are art-house lovers and haven’t seen as many schlocky genre movies as I have.) In the end… well, the thing is that the story is not resolved – a big revelation seems imminent, and then the story is abruptly abandoned as we move on to Episode 2.

This is, naturally, a complete change of pace, and is basically the story recounted in the Human League’s Don’t You Want Me, or maybe yet another version of A Star is Born – a singing duo is on the verge of breaking up, and are preparing to record a song apparently inspired by their collapsing relationship. The setting is a little obscure (it’s mostly done in close-up, often in unusually long takes). Gamboa makes up for her late arrival in Episode 1 by making all the early running here, giving a very impressive acting and vocal performance. The lead-up to the actual performance of the duo’s duet (Hector Diaz plays the male singer) is cleverly managed, leading up to a terrific moment when the individual elements come together.

However, this is La Flor, and the quasi-musical story appears to have got tangled up with a peculiar tale about a cult attempting to find the secret of eternal youth through experimentation with the venom of a rare scorpion – this is linked, one might almost say spuriously, by Gamboa’s PA (Paredes) being mixed up with the cult, and her emotional involvement with the singers’ situation is interfering with their experiments. The tonal mismatch of the two plot threads is hugely jarring, and the two threads come together at the cliffhanger which marks the end of the first instalment of La Flor. Is there to be some resolution, or (as indicated by the director) have we reached the point where the film once again abruptly switches to a new quasi-narrative?

 

Day Two (October 19th)

Some more numbers, while we’re at it: Episode 3 of La Flor apparently lasts for five-and-a-half hours, occupying all of Day Two and overspilling into Day Three. I have heard rumours that the closing credits alone last for forty minutes (I can’t confirm this yet, as I’m writing the review a week at a time). Perhaps the most pertinent figure relating to Day Two of this voyage into art-house cinema at its most impenetrable is a meagre three, which is the number of people who turned up.

Yes, that’s half the number from Day One, which was a bit dispiriting, although at least the chap with Tourette’s syndrome was one of the no-shows this time around. Apparently the evening screenings are proving more popular, as more people are more willing to give up four weekday evenings than a month’s worth of Saturday afternoons. Funny old world, isn’t it?

Having laid in a supply of doughnuts and chocolate-coated spherical honeycomb biscuits, I was prepared for this latest encounter with La Flor, and almost at once the burning question in my mind was answered: the cliffhanger from the end of Day One was destined never to be resolved, as we were straight into Episode 3 and another new genre and storyline. This opens with another one of those extraordinary moments unique to this film – a bad guy out of stock casting, complete with dark glasses, cigarette, and submachine gun, patrols in front of a field of blossoms, managing not to notice someone sneaking up on him within the flowers until he is killed by a knife-thrower.

Yes, only in La Flor. For (I think) the first time in the film so far, all four of the leads share the screen for an extended period, as we embark upon an existential spy thriller set in the 1980s. The quartet play black-clad intelligence operatives on a mission to kidnap a scientist from a secure location. But is there something else going on? It transpires their handler is conspiring against them and another team (also of four women) has been sent to assassinate them. It all becomes a bit bleak and fatalistic, some amusingly cack-handed martial arts choreography notwithstanding, as the four leads settle in and prepare to do battle for their lives.

At this point Llinas pops up again, rather unexpectedly, and pretty much the first thing he does is apologise for the fact that this is not yet the latest intermission. He also reveals Episode 3 has another three-and-a-half hours to go, most of which will be flashbacks. He also has a go at indicating where we’ve reached in the structure of the film, not that this really means very much. Then we’re back to the story.

One thing that has already become very clear is that La Flor is not a movie gripped by a great sense of urgency. Everything happens at a very languid pace, to the point of seeming rather self-indulgent. It’s almost as if they’ve decided that, as this film is going to run for an absurdly long time anyway, there’s no need to cut anything at all – the sheer, ridiculous duration of the thing has become its raison d’etre. If you released Episode 3 on its own, without the rest of the movie around it, it would still be vastly longer than most conventional films. Never mind a lifestyle choice or a mini-film festival, you almost start to suspect La Flor is some kind of absurd situationist prank.

And then it comes along and does something genuinely accomplished and involving, like the first two flashbacks to the past lives of the agents in the main story of Episode 3. First off is the tale of Gamboa’s character, who is a mute Englishwoman (I’m not sure whether playing a mute character in a five hour narrative counts as a smart career move or not). Lots of voice-over here (it’s a bit of a feature of this episode) but the story is, as noted, a very involving one, and Gamboa continues to give eye-catching performances.

That said, the film’s attempt to capture the British idiom of speaking is hilariously misjudged, and there’s a mind-boggling sequence where Gamboa’s character is taken to meet a senior figure of the British establishment. This turns out to be a bizarre, horse-riding, cigar-smoking version of Margaret Thatcher (played by Susana Pampin), who is addressed as ‘Your Royal Highness’ by those around her. Is this a deliberate, Comic Strip-style send up, or is the film as genuinely off its medication as it seems? It’s impossible to tell.

The final mini-narrative of the day concerns the prior history of Valeria Correa’s character, a violently psychotic warrior-woman raised as a soldier by Colombian revolutionaries. This is another very strong segment in terms of its storytelling and central performance, let down once again by the film’s attempt at using the American idiom and perhaps some of the supporting turns.

Frankly, three-and-a-half-hours of the same (not exactly action-packed) story, with no sign of resolution in sight, was a draining experience, but at least it peaked late on in the afternoon, when I was running short of doughnuts. With three and a bit more episodes to come, split over the last two days of the La Flor experience, there should at least be a bit more variety from this point on. Will there be anyone else there watching it with your correspondent? We shall have to wait and see.

 

Day Three (October 26th)

Well, to my total astonishment the number of Floristas turning up for the third day of the screening was actually up on that of Day Two: four, rather than three. In addition to your correspondent, there was a Spanish guy (who hadn’t actually come to Day One), a woman from the same neck of the woods, and an Australian woman. I had to wonder why anyone would turn up to watch only the second half of La Flor, and (making full use of the camaraderie born of collective adversity that a situation like this engenders) managed to chat with both the women during the intervals.

It turned out the Australian was only really interested in seeing Episode 6 (showing on Day Four) and had turned up a week early by mistake, while the Spanish lady was watching the evening showings of Days One, Two, and Four, but couldn’t make the third night and had decided to catch it in the afternoon instead. Quirks of scheduling meant that not only had she committed to watching a thirteen and a half hour movie, she was cheerfully watching it out of sequence.

I was honestly starting to wonder if La Flor was not just a mini-film festival or a baffling prank, but actually some kind of celluloid equivalent of The King in Yellow, a fiendish construct intended to ensnare innocent cinema-goers and reduce them to a state of obsessive dementation. In an attempt to make sense of it all, in the week I had managed to track down an interview with Llanos where he explained his vision for the movie.

I gather the idea was – well, when you see a movie like (for example) Unforgiven or The Shootist, the emotional impact of the piece isn’t just derived from the script and performances. The whole past career of the main actor and your pre-existing relationship with them informs your response to the film. La Flor is apparently an attempt to create a similar effect with respect to the leading quartet – you spend so long watching them in a variety of roles that a special bond is forged with them over the course of the (very, very long) film. It’s an interesting idea, but if bonding with audiences is what these actresses are looking to achieve, I wonder if they might not have been better off going out and having conventional careers rather than just spending the best part of a decade working on La Flor.

Day Three of the movie kicks off with what may very well be a knowingly self-deprecating gag (and by no means the last) – seven hours into the movie, we are treated to a lengthy interlude of someone snoring. Soon enough, however, we are back in the depths of Episode 3, exploring the back-stories of the four lead characters.

These really are one of the highlights of the film, and Laura Paredes’ episode is possibly the best of them. She brings an irresistible soulfulness to an understated tale of assassins silently falling in love with each other between assignments – the particular stylistic quirk of this segment is that none of the four have any significant dialogue, most of the exposition being handled by a poetic, if somewhat verbose, voice-over.

The back-stories conclude with that of Elisa Carricajo, who plays a Soviet bureaucrat who finds herself tasked with finding an infiltrator intent only on causing chaos and disrupting the state (he is known only as Boris, and you can insert your own joke at this point if you really must). We are back in existential territory, as the search for the mole consumes Carricajo’s life and she finds herself roaming the endless ‘sad and filthy’ hinterlands of Soviet Russia via its railway network. When she eventually catches up with Boris the mole, he is played by Llinas himself, although by this point the film has to work much harder than that to be surprising.

Needless to say, Episode 3 concludes before any of this is properly resolved, but this too is hardly a surprise. What did take me a little off-guard was the fact that the Spanish Florista, who’d missed Day One, left the cinema during the interval and never returned. Clearly he was only interested in Episode 3, although I’ve no idea why.

It was somewhat comforting to know we were now definitely half-way through the La Flor experience, and it was just a question of what Episode 4 had in store for us. Courtesy of the kind of narrative shift that could leave the unprepared with whiplash, we go from a spy thriller genre movie to metafictional self-parody: Episode 4 concerns the travails of a frazzled film director (not actually played by Llinas himself, but there’s a deliberate resemblance), who’s bogged down six years into making an insanely ambitious art-house movie entitled The Spider, so-called because the structure of the film, when shown as a diagram, resembles one.

The main problem is his relationship with the four actresses in the movie is disintegrating; they have become difficult and demanding, complaining about the lack of a script and the fact they have to keep learning different languages for each new episode. The director realises he’d much rather go off and film trees than deal with these four, and slowly comes to believe they are actually witches intent on destroying his life.

Rather to my astonishment, this turned out to be the most enjoyable part of the film yet – it’s clever, and very funny, and really rewards anyone who’s sat through the preceding nine hours or so to get to it. The humour varies from the off-beat (there’s an extended sequence where the director records his feelings about the film in his diary, rather incoherently, while the bemused crew stand around eating bananas) to the actually absurd (the witches are of the pointy-hat-wearing, broomstick-riding kind), but the in-jokes and meta stuff hit the mark – the director decides he doesn’t want to work with the (fictional) four actresses, with the result that this is a segment in which the (real) four actresses don’t get much screen-time. What exactly is La Flor doing, sending itself up so energetically? I’m not entirely sure, but this has been the strongest day yet.

 

Day Four (November 2nd)

I was half-expecting it to be a full-on battle to the finish just between me and the movie from this point on, but the Spanish chap who missed Day One entirely and then went home at the interval of Day Three reappeared for this final encounter. I must admit to feeling vaguely disappointed by this, but even so: I can proudly claim my medal for being the only one there throughout the Saturday afternoon screenings of this movie (they will have to pry said medal from my hand in order to get the straightjacket on me).

To be honest, I was also expecting to go straight into Episode 5 today, but this just shows my dodgy grasp of mathematics – I knew that Episodes 5 and 6 are considerably shorter than the others (put together, they’re still probably shorter than any of the other episodes), and yet today’s screening was the longest yet, at over three and three quarter hours. Something else had to be in the mix, and part of that was the second half of Episode 4.

Well, I suppose it qualifies as such, but the story goes off at a weird tangent (to be honest, from this point you may as well insert the adjective ‘weird’ at any point you wish). The protagonist is suddenly Gatto, a character who briefly appeared last week, when he seemed to be a character in the B-movie the director of the film-within-the-film was working on. Either this is not the case, or the fictional realms of La Flor have begun to collapse into each other. Gatto is some sort of paranormal investigator, who is called in when a car is found up a tree. Close by are a group of madmen, whom we recognise as the film crew from the start of the episode.

This leads Gatto into investigating the disappearance of the film director, mainly through reading his diary. I am making this all sound much more straightforward and coherent than it actually is. It really does feel like we’ve shifted into yet another story, or perhaps a collection of them, jostling together without much in the way of structure. There’s the story of Gatto, told mostly through his letters to a colleague, Smith. There’s a very peculiar subplot about a psychiatric colony which has fallen under the strange, almost supernatural erotic thrall of a mysterious Italian-speaking inmate. There’s a long scene in which a woman just stares into the camera while the director declaims poetry. There’s a bit about the director collecting early 20th-century weird fiction, with a particular namecheck going out to Arthur Machen – had they bigged up Robert Chambers I would have been convinced that my theory about La Flor really being The King in Yellow was on the money. There is a segment about Casanova falling under the sway of four different women (guess who) and becoming convinced they are members of an ancient secret society.

It goes on and on like this, almost overwhelmingly so. (Is the mysteriously alluring Italian inmate supposed to be Casanova, time-slipped to the present day?) In the end it dissolves into a montage tribute to the four lead actresses. Can this be it? Is the film actually finishing nearly two hours ahead of schedule?

No, of course it isn’t. After another interval we find ourselves back at the truck stop from which the director has been making his occasional, shambolic interventions. The sense of the film being essentially finished, though, persists, as he casually sets up Episode 5 and 6. ‘The girls aren’t in Episode 5,’ he confesses, ‘which is a bit strange, but it seemed like an interesting idea at the time.’ Few film directors apologise for their own work, but Mariano Llinas may be unique for doing it within the film in question. He gets his stuff together, clambers into his car, and is off.

What is the point of Episode 5? It’s a remake of Jean Renoir’s (unfinished) A Day in the Country, about two likely lads who have a bit of fun with the wife and daughter of a wealthy bourgeois businessman on a day out. It’s made in black and white and is almost totally silent, except for a sequence at one point which abandons the ongoing plot in favour of showing highlights of an aerobatic display at a provincial air show. (Twelve hours into La Flor, you almost come to expect this sort of thing.) Telling a story without any kind of sound takes a degree of skill, and the episode is impressive on these terms if no others, but even so. I guess it’s the equivalent of that pause at the end of a concert where there’s no-one on stage, giving the crowd a chance to call for the stars to do their encore, or curtain call.

Which is, I suppose, what Episode 6 is. Uniquely, it has an end but no beginning, and is a nominally historical drama concerning four women who’ve escaped from native captivity making their way back to civilisation (the fact this is the end of a long and strange journey is obviously resonant at this point). Only the leading quartet appear (two of them appear to be pregnant at this point), but the only dialogue comes from a voice-over accompanying deliberately primitive inter-titles. ‘Primal’ perhaps would be a better word: the whole episode appears to have been filmed through a camera obscura, with an intentionally grainy, distorted image. It is a strange and unsettling experience.

And then we are done, it is all over bar the closing credits. Of course, this being La Flor, the credits last over forty minutes and accompany upside-down footage of cast and crew celebrating the final wrap on the movie, then packing everything up, getting into their cars and driving off into the sunset. In the end a solitary film-maker is left, enjoying a cigarette from the comfort of a deckchair. And then it’s all over.

Friends, I did stay for the whole of the credits, even though not very much happens. My thought process was essentially, ‘Well, I’ve stayed this long…’, and I wonder if there isn’t a sense in which the film is playing mind-games with you. Certainly it lures you in by starting relatively conventionally, only to raise the stakes in its own unique brand of strangeness as it goes on – genres bang into each other, stories multiply, narratives expand to extraordinary length, and so on. Much of Day Four felt like the film was losing any real sense of itself as a single entity, and becoming completely unravelled (not that it was ever especially ravelled to begin with).

Is watching the whole of La Flor actually justified? Well, as an act of endurance, it’s certainly something of a feat, but as a piece of art I’m not sure. The relative absence of the leading quartet for much of the second half is really at odds with Llinas’ stated aims for the piece, and it is the performances of the actresses that really lift the best sections of the film. There are parts of Episodes 2, 3, and 4 I would unreservedly recommend as terrific pieces of cinema – but there’s also a lot here which is very indifferent, and even some parts which are actively frustrating and annoying. This was certainly a unique experience – I’m just not sure I’d call it a uniquely rewarding one.