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Posts Tagged ‘art house’

Martin Scorsese, esteemed producer, director, writer, and general elder statesman of the cinematic medium, caused a bit of a kerfuffle in 2019 when he declared that the films of Marvel Studios’ meta-franchise were ‘not cinema’, likening them rather to theme parks – presumably on the grounds that they are simply a commercial undertaking, part of an endless stream of franchised product.

Well, everyone’s entitled to an opinion, of course, but the great man’s complaint seems a little peculiar given some of the projects he has lent his name to as executive producer recently. The interview about Marvel was released virtually on the same day that Joker came out, while right now Scorsese’s cachet is being used to promote yet another example of a sequel intended to capitalise on the success of its forebear: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Part II.

Well, of course I jest, albeit probably quite feebly – but there is something distinctly odd about a film which was so clearly meant for the art house getting a follow-up like this. I asked for a ticket to Revenge of the Souvenir when I turned up at the cinema and the chap on the counter didn’t bat an eyelid at it, but then they are probably used to me there. Nevertheless – obscure art house darlings don’t get sequels. Do they?

It seems they do. For those who missed it, the first Souvenir film tells the story of a young English film-school student named Julia (played by Honor Swinton Byrne), who gets a bit distracted from her studies by her relationship with Anthony, a slightly older man working in the Foreign Office, especially the fact that he turns out to be a heroin addict who (spoiler alert) ends up dying of an overdose before the end of the film. I should add that this story is told in the most restrained and unsensational manner imaginable, with scenes going off at various tangents and much attention given to Julia’s startlingly posh mum (Tilda Swinton) and other relatives.

Nothing about this screamed fertile material for a follow-up, but in some ways this hits all the targets for a good sequel: all the key creative personnel return, and the style and storyline from the first film continue seamlessly: you could probably edit the two films together into one three-hour-plus epic with the join barely showing (but I for one doubt I would have the stamina for that).

Describing the film in terms of the things that happen in the plot is probably a bit misleading, as – and here again it closely resembles the first film – it doesn’t so much feel like a story being told, as much as things happening in front of the camera in a fairly off-hand manner. But: we find Julia still coming to terms with Anthony’s death, spending time with her parents and his. The time of her graduation project from film school approaches. She enjoys a brief romantic entanglement with a fellow student.

Eventually the film settles down to focus on the film project, which – it slowly becomes clear – is an impressionistic retelling of the story of her relationship with Anthony. The school tutors are initially unimpressed by the half-finished script, and Julia is informed she can’t expect their support. (A gob-smacking scene ensues where Julia casually asks her mum for £10,000 to help out with financing the film, and Mumsy naturally agrees.) Actors are cast, sets built, and a not-entirely-trouble-free shoot gets underway.

So: The Souvenir was an autobiographical film. The Souvenir Part II is an autobiographical film about the making of an autobiographical film – perhaps The Souvenir² would have been a more appropriate title. The film is as recursive and self-referential as it sounds, but there is something strangely mesmerising about seeing another version of the events of the first film play out, not to mention a weird tension between the film’s careful naturalism and its awareness of its own identity as a piece of fiction – Julia’s own flat and the mock-up of it that appears in the film-within-the-film (which is, naturally, also called The Souvenir) are obviously both represented by the same set.

That said, the pace isn’t any quicker this time around, and if you’re not quite on board with the notion of a film which exists more as a piece of sensory and aesthetic art than as a narrative this probably isn’t the film for you. There are more obvious incidental pleasures, I should say – chief amongst them the reappearance of Richard Ayoade as temperamental auteur Patrick, given to shouting things like ‘You’re forcing me to have a tantrum!’ I really wanted Ayoade to be in the movie more, and found myself wondering why he’s never had a lead role in a movie; he certainly has the presence for it.

As the film went on I found myself pondering the prospects of a Souvenir Part III and what it might involve – an autobiographical film about someone making an autobiographical film about an autobiographical film, perhaps. In the end, however, there is a very definite sense of a conclusion taking shape – the fictional version of The Souvenir is completed and screened, and the different layers of metafictionality begin to collapse into one another. From what we see of the fictional movie, it looks like a pretentious load of old cobblers, but in a strikingly different way from the ‘real’ Souvenir; nevertheless, both feature Julia as the lead, rather than the character cast as her. Early in the film she is given a line of dialogue about her desire to make films that represent the imagination brought to life, rather than a straightforward recreation of life as it is lived – for most of the movie this feels like an ironic joke, given how naturalistic and low-key most of the action is – but Julia’s own film holds true to this. And, perhaps, the conclusion of Souvenir Part II suggests that Joanna Hogg’s films are equally works of the imagination. It certainly has all the strengths and weaknesses of the original film, but its subtle blending of different layers of fiction with reality gives it a depth and a puzzle-box quality all of its own. For many people it will doubtless just be a rather introspective film about posh people being pretentious together. But I suspect it’s a very good rather introspective film about posh people being pretentious together.

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The old joke is that the word onomatopoeia sounds nothing at all like the thing it denotes. Srang kha, lest you be wondering, is the Thai word for the same concept. In French it is the rather more familiar onomatopee; in Spanish, the jaunty-sounding onomatopeya. The great thing about onomatopoeic words is that they really cut down on the time you need to spend explaining what something sounds like – bang, boom, crash, splash, and pop are all notions it’s quite easy to get your head around.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film Memoria opens with Tilda Swinton being woken in the night by a peculiar sound which does not easily lend itself to onomatopoeic translation. She assumes it is just the result of local construction workers making an early start, but this suggested explanation is met with blank looks by her friends and colleagues, who tell her no such work is going on.

Swinton is playing Jessica Holland, a British woman living in Colombia. Some reviews of this film offer with great confidence the information that she is a market gardener; she does talk about the care of orchids occasionally but apart from this I never really got a handle on her lie of work (I assumed she was some sort of academic). Maybe the press kit for Memoria has a really informative synopsis; I don’t know. Anyway, we see Jessica visiting her sister, who is apparently very ill in hospital, talking to colleagues, and so on. Once again she hears the mysterious sound, which everyone around her is oblivious of.

It has been evident since the start of the film that this is not going to be your conventional narrative, and this is confirmed by a sequence in which Jessica goes along to a recording studio to talk to the engineer there about her experiences. Very kindly, he tries to help her recreate the sound she’s been hearing. When asked, her response is along the lines of ‘It sounds like a colossal concrete ball falling down a metal well surrounded by sea water.’ I would have said this was proof you can be very detailed with an answer without it being especially helpful, but the guy looks through his sound effects library and comes up with a close copy. However, when she goes back to see him again, nobody there has any idea who she’s talking about.

I’m probably making Memoria sound like some kind of disturbing psychological thriller – but while it has managed to score a 12 certificate in the UK (for ‘unsettling scenes’) it really isn’t that kind of film at all. There are no thrills (except perhaps on a conceptual level if you manage to figure out what’s actually going on – and good luck with that). There is very little action at all. Often the camera just seems to have been left running as it points at a street scene or a car park, across which somebody may eventually amble. Dialogue scenes usually concern Swinton talking to someone about a fairly mundane topic, occasionally interrupted by the sound of a colossal concrete ball falling down a metal well surrounded by sea water (or a close cousin of it). There are only the faintest signs of a developing plot, which take the form of various odd occurrences – as noted, someone disappears, someone else who Swinton believed to be dead turns out to still be alive – it is as if she has somehow become slightly detached from her native reality and is drifting through a series of almost-imperceptibly different parallel worlds (if this is in fact what’s going on, the film does not make it at all clear).

Revelations, such as they are, come near the end, as Jessica takes a trip into the countryside and the film seems to slow down even further. At one point, after a lengthy and possibly portentous conversation carried out in long, static takes, a character lies down on the ground and takes a nap – and the camera stays locked on them throughout while they sleep and wake up. I don’t know how long this takes but it seems like a rather long time.

Kind critics have called Weerasethakul’s style of film-making as mesmeric and Memoria as having a trance-like atmosphere. If I were to be unkind I would suggest this is just critic-speak for a rather long, very slow film where it is frequently unclear what’s actually going on. Clearly the jury at Cannes wouldn’t agree, as they gave it a prize – although possibly there was something in the French water last year, as the Golden Palm winner of 2021 could reasonably be described as certifiably bonkers.

I’m really not sure whether this is just a slow, pretentious movie which has been rather overpraised by highbrow critics, or something which is genuinely brave and accomplished and thoughtful I’m just not quite bright enough to fully appreciate. The fact that no-one seems particularly inclined to offer an explanation for the denouement of the film, which apparently sends it spinning off into the realms of science fiction, may be significant. Either way, this is not a conventional movie in any sense of the word.

And neither is the way it has been released into the world – it seems that here in the UK, we are quite blessed, in that Memoria is playing in several cinemas just near me. My understanding is that in the US at least, there is only a single print of the film on an extended roadshow release – it’s showing in one cinema at a time, for one night only, on a tour that could potentially last for years. That’s not a release, that’s an urban legend in the making.

On the other hand, it is quite fitting for this kind of film. On some level this is clearly a movie lifted (and perhaps facilitated) by another powerful, almost ethereal performance by Tilda Swinton, dealing in a quite profound way with issues of perception, the senses, memory and experience. On another, it is a mystifying and obscure experience that I would struggle to describe as satisfying. A real oddity, either way.

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Making a strong if slightly oblique challenge for the title of Weirdest Christmas Film of the Year (and a decent tilt at Weirdest Film, full stop) is Valdimar Johansson’s Lamb (Icelandic title: Dýrið). It seems like a lifetime ago that the less-mainstream offerings at this time of year around Oxford used to include vintage offerings like Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Company of Wolves and it is nice to see a film very broadly in the same vein turning up now.

Quite what kind of a movie this actually is takes a while to become apparent (and some might say that the question is never entirely resolved). It opens in the heart of a howling blizzard, only the vague dark shapes of a herd of horses visible in the distance, only hoarse, inhuman breathing audible above the wind. Whatever is abroad in the snow, it is quite literally frightening the horses.

The sheep at the nearest farm respond to all this in their usual largely-inscrutable fashion, but it is clear that something has taken an interest in them. Completely oblivious to all this are the farmers running the place, Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) and his wife Maria (Noomi Rapace): they seem outwardly content, but there is a sense of regret clinging to them which the film takes its time in exploring. (Though this is one of those movies which doesn’t seem to be in a great hurry to do anything.)

Spring arrives and with it lambing season; Ingvar and Maria devote themselves to this crucial time in their usual reserved way. (Rapace does her own veterinary stunts at this point, dragging lambs out of the back ends of sheep with her usual sublime composure.) But then one of the sheep produces a lamb sufficiently out of the ordinary to cause both of them to flinch and gasp.

What exactly makes this lamb so unusual is kept obscure for a while, but they take it into the house and bottle-feed it. I seem to remember from episodes of Blue Peter, or possibly One Man and His Dog, that this is not completely out of the ordinary where sheep farmers are involved. However, the lamb, which they name Ada, is soon sleeping in a cot and being snuggled by the couple as they watch TV. Warmth and delight seem to have entered their lives along with the new arrival. Ada’s birth mother, if that’s a term you can properly use to describe a ewe, is less happy about this, and is often heard plaintively calling for her offspring.

It very slowly and very gradually becomes apparent that Ada, while by no means a human being, is certainly not what you’d call an ordinary sheep, either – she is a mixture of the two which manages to be both unsettling and rather cute at the same time. Much of the film’s effectiveness comes from the tension between the surreal image of, essentially, a lamb-headed toddler, and the completely oblivious responses and behaviour of the two adoptive parents. The narrative driver of the second act of the film is the arrival of Ingvar’s brother Petur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), a rather shifty former rock star, and even he takes an age before he comes out with the obvious question.

As I say, the issue of exactly what kind of film this is supposed to be is a reasonable one. If we’re going to be reductionist about things, then it’s a subtitled foreign film with a stately pace and limited use of music, which happened to win some kind of award at Cannes – which lands it squarely in art-house territory as far as most people are concerned. Certainly there is an indifference to conventional exposition here that is rarely found in mainstream cinema. On the other hand, judging by the trailers which preceded Lamb to the screen – and long-term readers will recall my thesis that films are almost always accompanied by trailers from the same genre – this is either an arty drama, a full-on horror movie or another superhero-horror fusion (the trailers were for del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, Irish folk-horror film Unwelcome and the latest Marvel spin-off Morbius, which must count as a mixed bag by anyone’s standards).

All this really only matters in terms of giving you an idea of what the experience of watching Lamb is like. I wouldn’t describe it as a horror film per se, although there is certainly some bloody violence before the end and an ominous atmosphere for much of proceedings. Perhaps there is a note of self-conscious pretension to it that some viewers may find rather disagreeable; it is one of those films where you get the sense that everything has been thought through thoroughly in advance. On the other hand, for a film which seems intended to be taken as some kind of fable rather than a naturalistic drama, exactly what it’s supposed to be about is not particularly obvious. It initially seems to be some sort of parable about human exploitation of the natural world, and the inevitable cruelty and disregard for other forms of life which is involved; this may still be the case, but the arrival of Haraldsson’s character in the second act (this is such a formally stylised film it even comes with its own chapter headings) rather clouds the issue. There is also an element of (surely intentional) ambiguity around the climax of the film.

As I have suggested, Lamb is one of those films which can’t help coming across as intentionally weird, perhaps even somewhat affectedly so. It’s also a bit on the slow side, perhaps relying on atmosphere to do the heavy lifting where many films would opt for more incident and plot development, but it doesn’t quite drag – the striking landscape of a remote area of Iceland helps a lot in this respect. And the performances are all quite effective: Rapace is the star name, and she is convincing in a tricky (to say the least) part, but the two men are also quite convincing. It goes without saying that the visual effects used to realise the more outlandish elements of the film are also excellent. In the end, though, this is primarily an arthouse movie rather than anything more conventionally entertaining; it’s the kind of film that requires thought, not to mention the viewer dealing with it on its own terms. If nothing else it is a well-made curiosity.

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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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