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Posts Tagged ‘art house’

I enjoyed a dinner the other day with a few friends, where the wine flowed freely, the vegetable lasagne was for the ages, and our conversation ranged most agreeably over a wide range of topics: the directorial career of Neil Marshall, whether or not The Crawling Chaos would be a good name for an H.P. Lovecraft-inspired cookbook, and everything that’s wrong with the movie Passengers and its advertising material. I was fairly unstinting in my criticism of this film, which may explain the looks of mild surprise I drew when I casually mentioned I was going straight from the meal to a showing of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1975 film The Passenger, enjoying a one-off revival as part of the local indie cinema’s one-take-wonder season of films.

There is, to be absolutely clear, little to connect The Passenger with Passengers, beyond their closeness in any A-Z list of noteworthy films (and Passengers would really be on that list for negative reasons). This is one of those international co-productions (in this case, between companies from Spain, France and Italy) which has been made in English simply to make it more commercial, relatively speaking. I say ‘relatively speaking’ because, despite the canny choice of language and the presence of a leading Hollywood star in the central role, this is still hardly what you’d call mainstream cinema. The question becomes one of – what exactly is this film?

Jack Nicholson plays Locke, a (supposedly) Anglo-American journalist on assignment in a remote part of Saharan Africa. It soon becomes clear that Locke is pretty hacked off with life in general, and the fact that his mission to find rebels to interview is obviously going nowhere just adds to his frustration. This culminates in him having a spectacular meltdown when his land rover breaks down, producing the image of Nicholson on his knees in the desert which is the still photo most often used to represent this movie.

However, an unexpected opportunity comes Locke’s way – he has made the acquaintance of another man at the same dingy hotel, a businessman named Robertson, who happens to be a reasonably close lookalike for him. When Locke finds Robertson dead of a heart attack in his room, he decides to switch places with the dead man, swapping their passport photos and informing the hotel staff that it is he (Locke) who has died, not Robertson. Adopting Robertson’s identity, he flies back to Europe, only noting in passing the obituaries he has himself received.

Those close to Locke – mainly his wife (Jenny Runacre) and a colleague (Ian Hendry) – are understandably upset to learn of his apparent death, but naturally they want to to talk to ‘Robertson’ about exactly what went on out in Africa. Not wishing to speak to them for obvious reasons, ‘Robertson’ ends up going to quite extreme lengths to avoid the people looking for him. He also learns that there was a bit more to the real Robertson than he first anticipated – rather than simply being a businessman, Robertson was an arms dealer and gunrunner working with the same rebel faction Locke was attempting to contact. ‘Robertson’ takes a large cash down-payment from the rebels and then continues with his journey, doing his best to meet the appointments listed in the dead man’s diary and hooking up with a young architecture student (Maria Schneider) along the way. But he seems to be inextricably caught between the complications of the life he left behind and the one he has just entered…

This is another one of those movies which looks like a thriller when you write the plot out in synopsis, but feels like quite a different experience when you actually sit down and watch it. There is, I suppose, the faintest resemblance to The Bourne Identity or something of that ilk about The Passenger, in that it is about a man struggling to resolve who he is while making a not entirely stress-free journey across photogenic parts of Europe, but if so it is The Bourne Identity as written by Jean-Paul Sartre. There are no thrills, no action sequences, the main time that something violent occurs the camera is studiously looking away, and so on. I have seen a few different notifications on BBFC certificates in my time – strong sex, bloody scenes, injury detail, bleeped bad language amongst them – but The Passenger presumably scores its UK 15-rating mainly for including footage of an actual execution, as duly noted by the BBFC. Apart from a very coy nude scene for the two leads, the rest of it is fairly innocuous, at least to look at.

On the other hand, there is something unsettling and strange about Antonioni’s film, not least in the way it makes a point of not explaining exactly why the main characters make the choices that they do – particularly Nicholson. We’re never completely allowed into his head, which you would think would be required given some of the extreme and apparently inexplicable choices his character makes throughout the movie. On one level this film is about the temporary escape from oneself which travel makes possible, a chance to leave your normal life behind – but just what has made Locke so alienated as to want to exist in a state of permanent vacation, abandoning his old existence entirely, is never really made completely clear. His wife has been having an affair, but that can’t be it: we are left to ponder the question. There seems to be some deep sense of existential dislocation at work. Or, of course, it could just be that Locke is having a particularly spectacular and possibly somewhat premature mid-life crisis (Nicholson was 37 when he made this movie), abandoning all responsibility and acquiring a much younger girlfriend.

Whatever is actually going on here, and it certainly seems to me that there may in fact be less than meets the eye, the film stays watchable mainly due to a magnetic performance from Jack Nicholson and an engaging one from Maria Schneider. 1975 was something of an annus mirabilis for Nicholson – in the same year he also made One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – and this is one of his more striking turns: for my generation and anyone younger, we know Nicholson from movies like Batman, A Few Good Men, Anger Management and so on, where he does not exactly underplay his scenes. Here, he is unexpectedly restrained, almost a man vanishing into himself – perhaps even he is not sure of why he is doing what he’s doing – but at the same time his performance is strangely compelling. His odd non-romance with Schneider’s nameless student is also oddly fascinating to watch.

This is probably just as well, for The Passenger is in one sense a film a considerable proportion of which is solely made up of people driving around and going in and out of hotels. The photography is accomplished, however, and the film does contain a couple of brilliant moments of technical innovation – an early scene, establishing back-story, in which the setting shifts from the present day to the recent past within the same extended shot, and the extraordinary climactic scene, which lasts about seven minutes: the camera moves through Locke’s latest hotel room, glides out through the window (seemingly passing through a solid metal grille to do so), roams around the square outside, and then returns to settle on Locke’s room as seen from outside, revealing his ultimate fate. As to what his destiny is – well, once again it may be less significant than Antonioni and his writers would perhaps like to think. But the journey to get there is an attractive and fascinating one.

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We have reached that point in the year when the cinema release schedule falls into a kind of rhythm – one week, a major studio plops out one of their tent-pole movies of the summer, most likely concerning superheroes, or stellar conflict, or possibly dinosaurs, which then occupies movie-houses soaking up audiences. No-one bothers releasing another major blockbuster the following week, for the potential audience for these things is not unlimited, and this clears the way for films aimed at a different audience.

Although quite what this ‘different audience’ consists of is a little unclear sometimes. The main studio release this week, for example, is Book Club, an alleged comedy in which ‘the lives of four lifelong friends are turned upside down after reading Fifty Shades of Grey, leading them to make a series of outrageous life choices’. I can only assume this constitutes an attempt by stealth to fend off the risk of overpopulation by causing people to violently lose the will to live. (And before you complete the thought: no, absolutely not. I have done my tour of duty in the Fifty Shades trenches – dear lord, I’ve seen things which no-one should ever have to see – and it would take more than that which Diane Keaton and Jane Fonda have got to make me go back.)

So this week I went to see Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, instead. Argentinian movies like this one do not often make an appearance on UK screens, and I can only attribute Zama’s presence at a local cinema to the involvement as producers of Pedro Almodavar and Danny Glover (yes, that Danny Glover; I checked). This is the art-housiest of art-house movies, I would submit, the kind of thing which two or three decades ago would wind up being shown on BBC2 late on a Friday night after Newsnight had finished, to an audience mostly comprised of dedicated culture vultures and teenage boys fervently hoping there would be some good nudity.

Well, there is some good nudity, I suppose, but it’s all handled in a very art-housey way in that no-one makes very much fuss about it. Hardly anyone makes a fuss about anything in Zama; at least, not outwardly. The film’s traumas are mostly kept deeply internalised (though there is one very significant exception to this).

This is the story of Diego de Zama (Daniel Gimenez Gacho), a functionary in a remote South American outpost of the Spanish Empire at some time in the 17th century. We first see Zama standing on the beach, looking out to sea; he has a sword and a rather fabulous hat, and behind him some of the locals are wandering about. Despite the beauty of his posting’s surroundings, Zama is very keen to be elsewhere, and is desperately awaiting news from the King of his transfer.

The news is not forthcoming. Zama finds himself caught up in the petty schemes and politicking of the other colonial masters in his area, none of which really come to much. Zama’s only distraction from his attempts to get away is his libido, which appears to be in something of a state of hyperactivity: in addition to fathering a child with a local girl, he engages in a quietly energetic pursuit of the wife of the local finance minister (Lola Duenas).

Events conspire against him: he ends up brawling with a subordinate over a petty matter, with the deeply ironic result that the other man is sent elsewhere, with Zama left in place. Governors come and go, concerns shift: Zama seems to be stuck there in perpetuity. In the background of all of this is the near-mythical figure of the bandit Vicuna Porto (Matheus Nachtergaele). Zama eventually signs on with a mission to track this man down, in the hope this will earn him the transfer he has for so long been denied, but life away from the outpost can be savage…

As I say, this is art-housey stuff for the most part. The story takes a sort of Heart of Darkness-style turn in its closing stages, as Zama’s inner desolation is finally matched by the circumstances in which he finds himself, but for most of its reasonably substantial running-time (just shy of two hours) this is the kind of film where the fact that not very much is going on is really the point of proceedings. It is about a man feeling becalmed in life, unable to escape his situation: there is an existential dreariness to the whole thing.

The irony is that Zama is desperate to extricate himself from surroundings which, in some ways, border on the idyllic – the film is set amidst magnificently-photographed vistas of stunning natural beauty. The cinematography is beautiful, filling the film with vibrant colour whenever the camera surveys the natural world. It is less generous, however, when Martel surveys the world of the Spanish colonial masters. There is an element of quiet surrealism to this, for instance in the scenes where serious matters of state and trade are discussed with llamas in the background (even indoors), but for the most part the members of the colonial administration are depicted as shabby, rather pathetic figures engaged in a sort of cargo-cult emulation of polite Spanish society – Zama and the others are obliged to put on rather bedraggled courtly wigs while carrying out their official functions, and so on.

There is, as you would expect, a lot of implicit (and not so implicit) criticism of the colonial sensibility here – the fact that Zama has a pretty miserable time throughout certainly suggests the empire is not doing anyone any favours. But on the whole the film functions on a more personal, existential level. It seems that Zama eventually forgets exactly where he wants to get away to, the means becomes an end in itself, one which (it appears) is perpetually denied him.

This is a film of slightly eerie contrasts, of all kinds: occasionally bleak and even rather horrible sequences are punctuated by some rather mellow jazz guitar. The end result is something which washes over you, rather – a subtle movie, obviously well-made, which will probably go down very well with the art-house audience it was made for.

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