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Posts Tagged ‘arthouse’

Heaven knows there are enough reasons to be alarmed by the state of the modern world, but this can manifest in some unexpected ways. ‘This is the death of cinema! We’re talking about a major director, here! Black Panther showing on three screens, and Peter Rabbit! It’s just commercial slop everywhere! Stock, Aitken and Waterman! I don’t believe it!’ cried a friend of mine, the cause of this outrage being the news that Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here was only showing at four Odeons nationwide and that we would have to go slightly further afield to see it than usual. (I hesitate to share more details of his Howard Beale-esque outburst, partly because I am not unsympathetic to the general gist of it, but mainly because he sits next to me at work and is wont to complain if he feels he’s been misrepresented on the blog.)

I have to say that for a film which at least one major cinema chain seems reluctant to touch, You Were Never Really Here attracted a decent crowd to the late-on-a-Friday-afternoon showing that we eventually strolled up to. I must admit to being slightly curious as to whether people had been drawn in because of the ostensible thriller trappings of the film, or Ramsay’s own reputation. She is not, one has to say, the most prolific of film-makers, this being only her fourth full-length movie in nearly twenty years, but she regularly gets acclaimed as one of the best film-makers working in the world today: I had almost forgotten that I saw her second film, Morvern Callar, fifteen years ago, and was rather impressed by it.

The new film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, a private security operative – basically, a mercenary – with a somewhat chequered past. After concluding his current mission, Joe heads home, where he keeps an extremely low profile as he cares for his elderly mother. Soon enough, however, a new assignment comes his way: a senator’s teenage daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) has fallen into the hands of the darkest elements of the underworld, and he is commissioned to retrieve her, ideally with the maximum incidental brutality (Joe is happy to oblige with this).

Initially Joe’s planning and preparation pay off, but very soon the job goes bad on him, and he finds that not only he but those around him are in deadly peril. And beyond even this, he may now be the only one with a chance of saving the girl.

Everyone’s obvious touchstone when it comes to comparing You Were Never Really Here with other things is Taxi Driver, and you can certainly understand why – this is a dark, brutal film, driven along by an exemplary central performance. However, as you may perhaps have been able to tell from the synopsis, there’s also a sense in which – on paper at least – the actual plot of the movie sounds like the stuff of a much more routine thriller – you can imagine Luc Besson doing almost exactly the same story, probably starring Liam Neeson. For all that this is essentially an art-house movie – that’s the kind of release it seems to have received, anyway – the structure of the story is also very conventional; you can imagine all the various screenwriting gurus and writers of craft books like How to Plot Your Movie watching it and nodding approvingly, for only in its closing stages does it really depart from narrative orthodoxy.

However, if we should take only one thing away from You Were Never Really Here, it is that it’s not just about the ingredients, but the delivery – fond as I am of a good solid no-frills thriller, no-one would ever mistake Ramsay’s film for one of those. A few years ago I read a piece discussing the whole subgenre of vigilante movies, suggesting that they basically come in two flavours: one where the use of violence fixes the world, and one where the use of violence is just representative of how irretrievably broken the world is. This is only marginally a vigilante movie, but as such it definitely falls into the latter category – there is nothing thrilling or cathartic about the film’s occasional eruptions of grisly mayhem, and Ramsay does not present them in a remotely glamorous way. As Joe lumbers into action, gripping his weapon of choice (the domestic hammer, usually applied to the skull of anyone who gets in his way), your first instinct is simply to shrink down in your seat and cover your eyes, because you know that the film is not going to shy away from the awful consequences of violence. When Joe is forced to fight for his life against a gunman sent to kill him, around the midpoint of the film, this is not some set-piece demonstration of martial arts, but a blurred and confusing chaos.

It may be off-putting to some, but the film is all obviously the work of the same clear vision – aside from a couple of scenes early on, there is very little in the way of genuine exposition, just a succession of signs and implications as to what is actually happening, and what it all means. This is especially true when it comes to Joe’s own past. The film’s Wikipedia page informs the reader very breezily of who he is and where he comes from (it also fills in a few plot details which are less than clear on-screen) – it may be that the novella by Jonathan Ames, on which the film is based, is more on-the-nose about these things – but in the actual movie, this is all presented as a series of disjointed, almost nightmarish flashbacks, some of them almost subliminal.

Despite all this, you are never really in doubt about what is happening, partly due to Ramsay’s skill, but also thanks to an intensely powerful performance from Joaquin Phoenix as a man who is, not to put too fine a point on it, deeply messed up. Joe is more-or-less sympathetic for much of the movie, but no-one in their right mind would want to be him – and this is made clear by Phoenix’s dead-eyed stare, his aura of defeat, his almost total withdrawal from the normal world of human interaction. Phoenix’s main co-star in this movie is, in an odd way, the actual soundtrack of the film (a brilliant contribution by Jonny Greenwood), and it’s almost as if we are hearing the contents of his head – driving, percussive rock when he is going into action, a more discordant, atonal soundscape when he is at the mercy of his demons.

This is not an easy film to watch, coming from a very dark place and concluding on, at best, a finely-judged moment of ambiguity. I would honestly struggle to call it entertainment, but it is at the very least a superbly crafted piece of art, that has something to say which it communicates with tremendous skill.

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Me, in the office, the other day:

‘You know, can’t decide whether to go and see Mood Indigo or the Inbetweeners sequel.’

Bloke what inhabits next desk: ‘Mood Indigo? What’s that then?’

‘You know, that French arthousey thing. We saw the trailer before Guardians of the Galaxy last week, remember?’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah, it had all that surreal stuff in it… Audrey Tatou… the couple getting married under water…’

‘Oh God yeah… who is it?’

‘That French guy… Michel… er… Michel…’

‘Oh, Michel Gondry. You kind of know what you think you’re going to get from his films, they’re very…’

‘Yeah. But I want to see what the reviews are like on Inbetweeners 2, plus it’s probably going to be packed out on the first day. I remember going to see Cowboys and Aliens the night Inbetweeners came out and some guy was trying to sneak his grandchildren into see it even though they were clearly underage.’

‘Yeah, well, be interesting to see if they take the opportunity to do some jokes about the fact it’s a bunch of guys in their late twenties playing teenagers. There’s some potential there for comedy.’

‘Mmm, not sure. The Inbetweeners does ironic, it doesn’t really do knowing.’

My respect for Bloke on Next Desk is considerable, and was so even before I learned he once met Jason Statham socially (used to work with Mr Statham’s one-time girlfriend), but I remain to be convinced of the wisdom of making The Inbetweeners 2, let alone going to see it, so off I trotted to see Mood Indigo. If nothing else this proves that my unerring instinct for making bad decisions is still fully operational.

moodindigo

Mood Indigo is based on a 1947 novel written by Boris Vian, the English translation of which is various entitled Froth on the Daydream or Foam on the Daze. You may be wondering just what any of those titles actually mean, in which case I wish you good luck with your wonderment, as I am supremely unequipped to provide any kind of explanation.

Romain Duris plays Colin, a carefree young independently-wealthy Parisian. He enjoys spending time with his philosophy-loving friend Chick (Gad Elmaleh) and his private chef Nicolas (Omar Sy). On discovering Chick and Nicolas have both embarked on the adventure that is romance, Colin decides to do the same, and after meeting the charmingly quirky Chloe (Audrey Tatou, who’s basically giving the same performance she always gives in every film she’s ever made), they embark on a breathless, whirlwind love affair. But when Chloe falls seriously ill with a life-threatening condition, it threatens to undermine their happiness forever…

So what, you may be thinking, that doesn’t sound particularly distinctive: standard issue romantic weepy, so what. Fair enough, the substance of the story is nothing particularly unusual. But there is a sense in which the actual plot of Mood Indigo is the least notable thing about it, for this is how a fairly typical scene from early in the film plays out:

Nicolas has baked Colin and Chick an enormous decorated cake. To make space to allow him to serve it, he clears the existing plates and other crockery off the table with a shovel. Colin is delighted with the cake and insists Nicolas joins them in partaking of it. Nicolas initially demurs. Then the front door rings, and as usual this is a trigger for the doorbell to turn into a six-legged mechanical insect which scuttles across the floor. Somebody whacks the doorbell-insect with a blunt implement, causing it to split into many smaller doorbell-insects which pursue and devour each other until the last survivor resumes its place on the wall. The person at the door turns out to be Nicolas, who has gone off duty to eat the cake.

The cake is cut and proves to be stuffed with pink cotton wool, along with a couple of bottles of the scent of famous philosopher Jean-Sol Partre (no, Michel, stop: my sides). Chick is a massive Partre fan and guzzles down one of the bottles eagerly. Meanwhile Colin has received a telegram from Chloe arranging a date, and…

Oh, you get the idea. The wild visual invention and whimsical surrealism of Mood Indigo is, well, relentless. My heart began to sink before the end of the opening credits as I realised just exactly what kind of a film this was going to be: probably about the moment when I realised Colin shared his apartment with a mouse, realised by an actor in an utterly unconvincing mouse costume. Then came the moment when it was revealed that Colin’s preferred method of emptying his bathtub is to drill through the bottom and allow the water to irrigate the plants in the flat below, or the revelation that his great invention is the pianocktail, a musical instrument that prepares a drink based on what tune you play on it.

Now, please don’t get the idea that I’m against visual flair or style or wild invention in films: of course I’m not. And, on some level, the sheer work-rate of Mood Indigo in this department is quite impressive. But there’s so much of it, and most of it just feels like directorial showing-off rather than anything meaningful. Gondry isn’t using the surrealism to illustrate the mood of the characters or the theme of the story – it just seems to be there because he thinks it’s clever or funny. Maybe this is a French thing, because the two French guys on the end of my row were killing themselves laughing most of the way through. I think I cracked a smile maybe two or three times all the way through.

The whimsy doesn’t even let up as the story goes on and the mood of the piece turns much darker than you might expect: the film’s unorthodoxy extends beyond surrealism, to ripping up the traditional romantic-comedy-weepy story-structure. The problem is that I found the studied non-naturalism of the story made it impossible for me to engage with it on an emotional level – unless you count being irked to the point of severe annoyance by endless, pointless surreal sight-gags. As a result I actually found it quite a struggle to stay awake to the end of Mood Indigo, which isn’t something that often happens to me, and never during a film that I’m genuinely enjoying.

Then again, this is a film from a very particular culture, and the product of a extremely distinctive sensibility. Your mileage may vary. But for me, the problem isn’t just that the visual style doesn’t always suit the story, it’s the two are frequently pulling in opposite directions, crippling Mood Indigo as a genuine story, as opposed to a collection of extravagant visual quirks. Not that this necessarily guarantees that Inbetweeners 2 will be a better film: but one way or another, I can’t imagine it being close to as annoying as Mood Indigo.

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