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Posts Tagged ‘drama’

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger’s Black Narcissus was released in 1947. With some films, mostly recently ones, the date of release is just another bit of hopefully-useful information. But, the world being as it is today, in the case of Black Narcissus you do have to bear in mind the context in which it was made. I have no doubt that some modern viewers will find this movie to be highly offensive and objectionable, without much of interest to offer; nevertheless, it still made it into a list of the top fifty British films ever made in a BFI poll at the end of the 20th century.

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It’s a little hard to be sure, but there’s nothing to suggest that Black Narcissus is not intended to be set in the period it was made (and some have suggested this would be thematically appropriate). The story concerns a group of nuns who are sent to open a school and hospital in a wind-swept former seraglio, high atop a cliff in the Himalayas. In charge is Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), who is young, confident, and ambitious – her (mother) superior is concerned she is not yet ready for this demanding role, but allows the appointment to go ahead regardless.

The sisters find their new home to be a demanding place to live, to say the least: the local villagers have to be paid to visit the school and dispensary, while the local English agent, Dean (David Farrar), makes his feelings on the subject quite clear – this is no place for a nunnery, and the undertaking is doomed to failure,

Stresses slowly build up both around and within the old palace. Sister Clodagh finds it impossible to entirely forget a failed love affair which led to her joining the order, while one of the other nuns, Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), develops a fixation on Dean himself. The path between religious devotion and a life in the world proves to be a hazardous one.

The first problem that some modern audiences may have with Black Narcissus is that it is a seriously-intentioned film about nuns. Commercial films about nuns nowadays are rarely serious: they tend to fall into two groups, those that are knockabout mainstream comedies (I am thinking of Nuns on the Run and Sister Act), and those aimed at – how shall one put it? – a more niche audience. Exploitation films, in other words. (Given that a new horror movie actually called The Nun is doing the rounds, I suppose we must mention this as well.)

But back in the 1940s it was perfectly acceptable to take nuns seriously and make serious films about them, even when the nuns wore extraordinary wimples like the ones in Black Narcissus. It was also okay to make films about the British Empire in which the Empire itself was presented quite neutrally, as a matter of fact rather than the source of retroactive breast-beating – Black Narcissus isn’t an explicitly imperial film, but it is shot through with the values and attitudes of empire. ‘They’re like children,’ is how the local people are described; they are also apparently ‘primitive’ and one character comments that ‘they all look the same’.

If this wasn’t enough to outrage the sensibilities of a modern young progressive, this is a film with an Indian setting in which most of the Indian performers only appear as extras (hired from the docks in Rotherhithe, apparently). Of the key Indian roles, one is played by Sabu Dastigir, while the others are played by Europeans wearing heavy make-up (one of these is an early role for Jean Simmons).

And if all this, coupled to the fact that this is a film concerned with an unfashionable moral idea (self-denial), is enough to make you dismiss it as a hideous exemplar of outdated attitudes, notable only as a warning from history – well, I can hardly stop you from having an opinion. The 1940s were different to the modern world, certainly – but personally I don’t think this is in and of itself sufficient reason to dismiss a film from this period out of hand.

If nothing else there is the film’s technical achievement to consider. The first few times I watched Black Narcissus I could only marvel at the ability of Powell and Pressberger to shoot a film on location in the Himalayas in the late 40s, let alone make it look so good. Of course, I now know better: most of the sweeping mountain vistas are there courtesy of back projection and matte paintings, the production not going further from Pinewood Studios than Sussex. And yet it has a tremendous atmosphere and sense of place to it.

Much of this comes from Jack Cardiff’s justly celebrated cinematography, filling the screen with vibrant colours; it’s a feast for the eyes. And here we come to what the film is really about. I find it hard to think of Black Narcissus as the ‘erotic’ film which so many others find it to be – the word carries too many connotations these days – but it is certainly one which is sensuous and heady with passion, especially as it goes on.

The central irony of the story is that it concerns a group of women who have chosen to devote themselves to lives of strict self-discipline, who find themselves living in a palace formerly occupied by the pleasure-girls of a bygone age. They are meant to be in the world but not of it, according to the charter of their order – neither the ascetic Indian holy man who makes his hermitage just a bit too close for Sister Clodagh’s liking, nor Dean’s dissolute hedonist, but somewhere in between the two.

And the story is about showing what a hard road they have picked for themselves. Quite apart from Sister Clodagh’s issues with her own past, the others find it hard to keep their emotions under control. A sympathetic sister gives medicine to a sick child, inadvertently placing the whole community in danger. The nun in charge of the garden can’t resist planting flowers instead of vegetables, seduced by their colour and beauty. And, centrally, Sister Ruth cannot control her desire for Dean.

Most of Black Narcissus is carried by very solid performances by Deborah Kerr and David Farrar, but it is Kathleen Byron’s remarkable turn as the unhinged Sister Ruth that lingers in the mind and really makes the climax of the film work. The film has quietly tacked between drama and melodrama until now, with occasional moments of gentle comedy, but as Ruth loses her mind it threatens to transform into full-on psychological horror, with the lapsed nun plotting murderous violence against the woman she perceives as rival.

I suppose it’s all quite symbolic: the nuns live halfway up a mountain, midway between the pure and airy vaults of the heavens and the colourful, earthy world below. The trick is to find a way of staying there. Sister Ruth succumbs to the attraction of worldly pleasures, and, well, falls off the mountain as a consequence.

The question is whether the mountainside is a tenable place to live in the first place. The film suggests not, but an ending that should feel sombre and downbeat is also quite muted: the rains come to the mountain valley, the land is revitalised, the cycle of life goes on, with or without the presence of the holy women. Perhaps retreat (in both senses of the word) is the only option for the sisters – but if they are mistaken in their ambitions, the film is at least sympathetic to them. Whatever else it is, this is a thoughtful, beautifully made film from one of the UK’s greatest cinematic partnerships.

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There was a time, nearly fifteen years ago, when I basically just got burned out as far as going to the cinema was concerned: catching every significant new release started to feel like a burden, I was acutely aware of the demands I was making on the people close to me in terms of constantly asking for lifts to and from the multiplex, and there were some other changes to the cinemas themselves which made it all seem rather less appealing. So I cut back drastically for the best part of a year, only seeing things I was really interested in. As a result there are some films which I recall seeing the trailers for multiple times, and remembering thinking ‘hmmm, that looks like it has potential’ about, which I never ended up going to see.

Another cutback looms, though for slightly different reasons: I am off to where the films are all dubbed into a foreign language for a couple of months, and long experience has taught me this is never the best way to meet a new movie. Needless to say I will be taking with me (ahem) a large trunk filled with DVDs to while away the quiet moments, and when I asked for suggestions as to what to put in the trunk, one of the suggestions was Wolfgang Becker’s 2003 film Good Bye Lenin! (even though, given my destination, a film entitled Hello Again Putin! might be slightly more appropriate) – this was one of the films that just missed the cut back in 2004, mainly due to it only getting a very limited release in my area (subtitled films always had a hard time in Lancashire – at one point, if you rang up to book tickets for one, the person on the other end would ask you if you were sure you knew what you were doing).

(Lest you be wondering, yes, it apparently is definitely called Good Bye Lenin!, rather than the Goodbye Lenin! or even Good-bye Lenin! you might expect. Just another sign of a film made by non-native speakers of English, I suppose, along with the fact that the subtitles on the DVD had rather more spelling mistakes than you might expect. What can I say, I’m never off-duty.)

So, anyway, I decided to watch this particular film before my actual foreign trip got started (eight days and counting). Mostly set in 1989 and 1990, it concerns a young man named Alex (Daniel Bruhl) and his family, who as the film opens are resident in East Berlin. Alex’s father apparently abandoned them and fled to the west some years earlier, and as a reaction to this his mother (Katrin Sass) has become a zealous true believer in the communist system. His sister (Maria Simon) is more pragmatic.

Alex himself is no fan of communism and opts to take part in a public protest one night, with two very significant consequences: firstly, he meets a rather nice young Russian nurse (Chulpan Khamatova) with whom he goes on to have a relationship, and secondly (and perhaps more importantly) the sight of him being arrested by the police and bundled into the back of a truck is enough to give his mother a severe heart attack. Poor medical attention results in her being in a coma for eight months, during which time the Wall comes down and the communist government collapses. Alex is warned by the doctors that his mother’s health is fragile and she should be spared any shocks or excitement – which will be tricky, in the circumstances.

So Alex embarks on a systematic programme of benevolent deception, getting rid of all the post-communist things that are cluttering their apartment and doing everything he can to maintain the illusion that nothing has changed in East Germany. Initially this just takes the form of transferring new food into old packaging, but it inevitably becomes more and more elaborate as time goes on. Can Alex keep his mother in the dark, even as the reunification of Germany approaches? And is he really acting for the best in deceiving her like this?

For a long time I was aware of Good Bye Lenin! and eventually came to think of it as ‘the Daniel Bruhl movie’, this being the film that really brought the actor to international attention: he has gone on to make contributions of various sizes to films as diverse as The Bourne Ultimatum, Rush, Captain America: Civil War and Alone in Berlin, to name only a handful. I’ve always found him to be an extremely watchable actor, and that’s the case here, too – he carries the movie with great aplomb, without ever doing anything too flashy or otherwise being caught acting.

That said, Good Bye Lenin! is a very accomplished film in many ways. The advertising for the film perhaps over-emphasises the comic elements of the plot, stressing the absurdist comedy of Alex trying to maintain the illusion of communism’s survival. There are indeed some very funny moments arising from this – at one point, Alex makes a cheery speech to his mother about time going by, but nothing really changing, totally oblivious to the Coca-Cola advert slowly unfurling in the window behind him – and there’s something quite fascinating about the alternate history he is forced to develop to explain all the changes happening in the city (Coca-Cola is finally acknowledged as an invention of socialism, while an economic crisis in the west has flooded the eastern bloc countries with refugees seeking a better life). Much of the humour is very understated and ironic, particularly Alex’s dry voice-over (at one point he explains how he embarked on his first mission to explore western culture, which plays over a scene of him visiting a sex shop in the west).

However, the film is never very far from a more serious moment, as perhaps befits this kind of subject matter. The film is really about the partition of Germany, and the consequences of its reunification, with the division of Alex’s own family and the heartbreak arising from this a metaphor for the divided country. And it’s very hard to escape the impression that the film is, on some level, motivated by nostalgia for some aspects of life in the old East Germany – it seems rather disdainful of the garish consumerism that filled the void left by the collapse of communism, especially famous brands like Coke and Burger King. Towards the end one of Alex’s faked TV broadcasts speaks of the westerners fleeing their materialistic lives, coming to eastern Europe in hope of something better, and you can almost imagine something like that happening.

I suppose you could argue that the film’s not-unsympathetic depiction of life under communism is part and parcel of the story, which hinges upon Alex’s mother and her love for the old system – the film views it with the same rose-tinted spectacles that she does. In the end the film stays ambivalent about the morality of the deception Alex perpetrates, as it does seem to keep his mother happy. Maybe the communist system was based on another deception, but it was not without its own kind of optimism.

In the end this is a thoughtful film, with moments of seriousness as well as humour, clearly made by people who know their cinema (there are a couple of cheerfully brazen raids on Kubrick, for instance). I wonder if perhaps you have to be German to really appreciate the emotional core of the picture, for it certainly feels like a film made in a country still trying to deal with its own recent history, but for everyone else this is still a well-made, entertaining, moving film.

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The unwary might find it a bit of a coin-toss as to what kind of crowd they could reasonably expect when turning up to a foreign language preview screening at the Phoenix – sometimes you can have the place to yourself, at others it can be busting at the seams. But perhaps it’s not quite that random: it’s not really surprising that a Franco-Belgian film should struggle to attract a crowd on the night that France and Belgium are playing each other in the World Cup semi-final (the auditorium was at about 3% of capacity for Racer and the Jailbird) while the size of the potential Polish audience in the UK is so well-known that even the big multiplexes are routinely showing commercial films from that part of the world. So maybe it’s not such a surprise that the advance screening of Pawel Pawlikowski’s new film, Cold War, should have been quite so popular. Honestly, I was lucky to get a seat – I hadn’t seen so many Poles in one place since the last time I watched the giant slalom on TV.

Pawlikowski is a film-maker whose parents moved with him to the UK when he was still a teenager. He rose to prominence in the early years of this century with English-language films like Last Resort and My Summer of Love, but his recent work has concerned itself with a more specifically Polish sensibility.

Filmed in pristine black and white, the film opens in the war-ravaged Poland of 1949, where a young people’s choir is being established to preserve and celebrate the traditional music of the peasantry. In charge of proceedings is distinguished musician Wiktor (Tomazs Kot), and one of the singers he selects for the project is Zula (Joanna Kulig), a girl whose slightly suspect personal background is more than made up for by her remarkable vocal talent.

The choir is initially successful, but things inevitably become more complicated: Wiktor and Zula begin a relationship, which one would have to describe as illicit on a number of levels, while the ethnographic idealism of the project gradually becomes tainted by the demands of its government sponsors – as well as performing the old folk tunes of the Polish mountains, they find themselves obliged to include a few numbers about the inevitable triumph of World Communism and zippy tunes about how wonderful Stalin is.

Becoming thoroughly disillusioned with it all, Wiktor sees a trip to Berlin as a great opportunity to make a bit of a change in both their lives and suggests to Zula that they escape to the west (this is still pre-Berlin Wall). But Zula is unsure about this, and the decisions that they both make will end up shaping the rest of their lives…

If you’re anything like me, the first thing you think when you hear about a film called Cold War is that it will be some kind of thriller with a mid-20th century setting. And it is true that the political situation across Europe inevitable casts a long shadow over the events of the story here. However, what Pawlikowski has created here mainly combines elements of drama and romance, in a film which is almost to some extent a diegetic musical.

I get told off for using big words on this blog sometimes, so permit me to explain what I’m on about: this isn’t one of those ‘invisible orchestra’ musicals where someone wandering down the street suddenly bursts into song with the accompaniment of a full string section. All of the songs in this film, and there are quite a few, arise naturally from the doings of the choirs, singers, and musicians it concerns. The music is strikingly beautiful and one of the things you remember most strongly from the film (I should point out that it’s all in either Polish or French, like the rest of the movie); the brief dance segments are also impressively choreographed and filmed.

Doing most of the heavy lifting in the vocal department is Joanna Kulig, for whom this film is an exceptional showcase. Not only does she get to show just what a fine pair of lungs she possesses, but the character arc of the film is also demanding and she executes it extremely well. I should also point out the almost uncanny way in which Kulig, an actor in her mid thirties, convincingly portrays someone who begins the film in (one presumes) her late teens and then proceeds to age a decade and a half in the course of the story. Kot has less singing to do, but also delivers an assured and convincing performance; the pair make for an authentic, affecting couple.

As you might expect, though, this is no chocolate box romance: Wiktor and Zula are apart for years at a time, and even when they are together things are turbulent, troubled, torrid, and possibly other adjectives also beginning with T. The narrative covers decades and takes place in many countries; this is possibly why some commentators are describing Cold War as an epic masterpiece of cinema. Well, maybe: it’s certainly a very fine film, but on the other hand it seems very odd to be describing a film as an epic when it is well shy of ninety minutes in length. It is an exceptional miniature more than anything else – in fact, I would say that it almost feels like a proof-of-concept for a much longer, more expansive and reflective film, where the characters are given more time to grow and there is more space to enjoy the settings and emotions that Pawlikoski is obliged to sketch in only quite briefly here.

This is particularly apparent as the film approaches its conclusion. It’s very difficult not to interpret this as the director’s admission that, when it really comes down to it, you can never completely sever your connection with your homeland: characters return to Poland and the Polish language in both a literal and metaphorical sense. But in strictly narrative terms, I found the conclusion of this film to be a little wanting – events and decisions taking place too abruptly to completely satisfy. The final line of the film, about the view from the other side being much more beautiful – no real spoiler out of context – is loaded with multiple meanings, and will stay with me. But I still wanted more. This is a very good film in every respect, but one which feels unnaturally curtailed in almost every respect. A more expansive and lavish treatment of this story, done with the same style and skill, could have produced something truly exceptional.

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The Phoenix in Oxford is officially in the middle of a Hitchcock season at the moment (Psycho this coming Sunday, Vertigo the week after that), but if one didn’t know better one might suspect that the cinema’s film booker was quietly running another, unofficial season at the same time: this week the place is showing not two but three films with a religious theme to them. (I enjoy a revival as much as anyone else, but not usually in this sense of the word.)

Yes, this week, currently showing at a cinema near – well, likely not you, but certainly me – is First Reformed (previously discussed hereabouts), Apostasy (a British drama about life in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses), and finally Xavier Giannoli’s The Apparition (titre Francais: L’Apparition), which will be our main focus on this occasion.

Vincent Lindon plays Jacques Mayano, who as the film opens is a deeply traumatised figure: we first find him hunched in a hotel bedroom, somewhere in the Middle East, clutching a battered and bloody camera. The situation soon becomes clear: Mayano is a war reporter, and his photographer colleague has recently been killed in action. Mayano is consumed by grief and guilt, and upon his return home to France shows every sign of being in the throes of some kind of psychological breakdown.

Then a message comes, from the Vatican no less. He is invited for a confidential meeting with one of the cardinals there. The Catholic Church has a job for Mayano, if he is prepared to take it on: a young girl in rural France claims to have been visited by an apparition of the Virgin Mary, and has attracted a dedicated following of pilgrims and other believers as a result. The girl is named Anna (she is played by Galatea Belugi) and she is a novice in the local convent. Her local priest (Patrick D’Assumcao) is a rebellious type and not being especially cooperative with the Holy Office, who generally like to keep a lid on this sort of thing, at least until it can be authenticated (Mayano is told that the Church would prefer to let a genuine case of a supernatural manifestation languish in obscurity than give publicity to something that might be fraudulent).

And authentication, or not, is what is on the cards for this particular phenomenon. How does this involve Mayano? Well, the Church would like him to participate in the process, essentially being lead investigator for the assessment panel (which also includes a psychiatrist, a priest from the local diocese, a theologian, and so on). More out of curiosity than anything else (or so it is implied), Mayano takes the job – but as he gets to know Anna and the other principals in the case, he finds himself being more deeply affected than he had anticipated – especially when it seems there may be a connection between Anna’s supposed visions and his own recent trauma…

I saw Xavier Giannoli’s previous film, Marguerite, a couple of years ago, and was rather blown away by it: a very subtle and impressive piece of work, especially in the understated shifts in tone which see a film that begins as a smart comedy end as a genuinely moving and rather tragic drama. His name rang a vague bell when I saw it on the poster for The Apparition, but I didn’t put two and two together until after seeing the film – I have to say this is probably just as well, as it would only have raised my expectations for the new movie.

As it is, The Apparition gets off to a notably assured and compelling start, detailing Mayano’s personal situation and then his summons to Rome. This all plays rather like a more naturalistic and credible version of something that Dan Brown might write, with the understated way that various church officials discuss extraordinary phenomena only adding to the impression that the film makes. You are left genuinely wrong-footed and unsure of just which way the film is going to go as it proceeds – is this going to be a slightly arty drama about Mayano’s own personal issues? Some kind of paranormal mystery, with a touch of the theological about it? Or a more conventional thriller, exploring some of the murky backstory of Anna’s visions of the Virgin?

Well, if I say that even at the end of the film, I wasn’t entirely sure which way the film had gone, you may get some idea of the problems with which The Apparition is saddled: it has a great opening, to be sure, but by about halfway through it has lost most of its momentum and cuts back and forth between a number of plotlines, with no great sense of this being a film which is in a hurry to go anywhere in a hurry. Indeed, ‘hurry’ is definitely not the word, for The Apparition is knocking on the door of being two and a half hours’ long, and this is frankly just too much. The story wanders off on odd tangents and explores obscure subplots, but there’s not much sense of anyone being in command of the narrative. When I say that by the end of the film I still wasn’t entirely clear if anyone had genuinely seen the Virgin Mary or not, and what this might mean, you may get some idea of how impenetrable the film becomes – not because it’s difficult to follow what’s going on from scene to scene, but because it’s clearly all supposed to mean something but it’s very difficult to tell what. You’re in no doubt as to Mayano’s mental state as the film concludes, but you have no real sense of it yourself, nor any real understanding of why he’s feeling this way.

Now, it would be remiss of me to suggest that there’s nothing of interest going on here at all: Giannoli takes a balanced view of the Church, comparing the genuine faith and decency of some adherents and members of the hierarchy with the willingness of others to exploit Anna for her visions, and puts this across with a light touch. The film also benefits enormously from two tremendous performances from the two leads – Lindon does just enough to suggest that beneath the surface of his world-weary journalist is a man who may actually want to believe in something greater, while Galatea Belugi is astonishingly self-assured in a very demanding role as the young devotee: I suspect she may very well be going places.

However, if so it will almost certainly be in vehicles which are better assembled than The Apparition. There is enough good stuff here for me to put it in the pile marked ‘Creditable Misfire’, and one certainly gets the impression that Giannoli managed to get reasonably close to the subtle and thoughtful film he was clearly aiming for. Nevertheless, it still looks to me like he fell some way short of his target, with the result that this is an ultimately disappointing movie on many levels.

 

 

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By one of those weird little resonant coincidences which might almost make a person believe in stuff beyond the humdrum quotidian, we currently have a situation where two films on release feature an uncanny degree of similarity in one element of the script. Were you to mosey down to your local UK cinema and say ‘I want a ticket for the film… I can’t quite remember the title… it’s the one where Amanda Seyfried has recently become pregnant but is having trouble in her marriage… can you help?’ you would be basically be taking a gamble. While this is essentially a large chunk of the premise to Mamma Mia! Oh No Not Again, currently occupying an unfeasibly large number of screens in the UK, it is also an essentially accurate description of the set-up to First Reformed.

I would say it is a very good idea to get your pregnant Amanda Seyfried films sorted out before heading to the cinema, because they are in other respects cut from slightly different cloth. The Mamma Mia! sequel is a fluffy, glittery, feel-good piece of froth that doesn’t make many demands of the brain from anywhere much higher than the medulla oblongata; its sole intent is to distract and delight. First Reformed, on the other hand… well, I’m reminded of a Stephen King quote about the literary style of James Herbert – who, according to King, performed the equivalent of grabbing you by the collar and screaming in your face.

This should not come as much surprise once one learns that the writer-director of First Reformed is Paul Schrader, a veteran film-maker long renowned as the grim observer of a certain kind of damaged masculinity: he wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, not to mention The Last Temptation of Christ. You don’t go to a Paul Schrader film for a cheery Swedish power-pop singalong. You go there to have the harsh realities of modern life scraped across your face like a handful of broken glass, and First Reformed really delivers on this score.

Ethan Hawke plays Ernst Toller, pastor in charge of the small, little-attended ‘tourist church’ First Reformed, in upstate New York. Toller has a broken marriage and an intense personal tragedy behind him; he is a lonely man, not in the best of health either physically or mentally, perhaps actually very sick indeed. As the film begins he has just begun keeping a journal of his private thoughts, primarily (it seems) to justify the voice-over which Hawke delivers throughout the movie.

The church is about to reopen for its 250th anniversary, the renovation having been bankrolled by various wealthy local businessmen. Toller is more preoccupied with the lot of one of his flock, a young woman named Mary (Seyfried). She is with child, but concerned by her husband’s response to this news. He is an environmental campaigner, though one who has now fallen somewhat into despondency, and feels it is a fundamentally selfish act to bring a new life into a world which will soon be ravaged by the consequences of human-caused climate change.

Well, this has a big impact on Toller, but how should he respond to it? The very men his church is so reliant on are industrialists and polluters on a massive scale. His superiors in the church do not seem very sympathetic either. It’s almost enough to make a man, even a priest, contemplate the darkest of notions…

So, and I’m not sure I even need to reiterate this again but let’s be on the safe side, not a great many laughs in this one. The trailer for First Reformed looked interesting, and the 94% approval rating it enjoys on a popular solanaceous review aggregator site also suggested it might be worth a look, but I was especially intrigued when a couple of people from work went to see it and came back grumbling loudly. ‘Awful. I fell asleep. It’s so slow. Not what you’d call entertainment,’ was the capsule version of their collective opinion.

Well, I can kind of see where they’re coming from, as even at the viewing I attended, someone behind me stood up at the end and announced with a huge grin ‘It was even bleaker than I’d hoped!’ You would have to be some kind of sociopath to come out of First Reformed skipping and whistling: this is a film which will test you and attempt to shred your soul. Not in any particularly explicit, horrific way – this is first and foremost a personal drama. But it is about as heavy a drama as I can remember seeing at a UK cinema, recently at least.

Initially the film seems content to deal in a sort of non-specific gloominess, as various scenes of Toller drinking too much, peeing blood and sitting in darkened rooms with his head in his hands are intercut with gloomy pronouncements about the state of environment and the theological ramifications and aspects of this. You do wonder where it is going and, indeed, what it’s actually about.

Eventually things acquire a little clarity, and it seems to me that while the film does have some interesting and perhaps challenging things to say about environmentalism and how society deals with this issue, it is really about hope and despair. How does a sensible person fend off despair these days? How can you maintain any sense of hope in the era of Trump, Brexit, accelerating climatic disaster, the collapse of western civilisation as we have known it, and the prospect of any number of apocalyptic futures?

It is, to say the least, a very considerable challenge – or so the film seems to suggest. Unsympathetic viewers might say that First Reformed goes off the deep end in the sheer scale of its darkness and willingness to toy with disturbing notions and imagery. If it were made with less commitment and focus, and had a less impressive performance than Hawke’s at its heart, it might become risible and preposterous, not to mention extremely tasteless, towards the end. The film still often feels like a calculated act of provocation against normal standards of good and bad taste, and it does make unusual demands of the viewer – there’s a sequence towards the end which had me going ‘What the hell…?’ so abruptly and thoroughly surreal is it.

The fact remains, though, that this is still clearly a highly intelligent film, the product of a distinctive directorial vision, and lifted by a superb performance from Ethan Hawke. There are big questions about faith and society being asked here, even if the answers that are given seem provisional at best. First Reformed is absolutely not for everyone, and contains material likely to disturb and perhaps even offend – but if you like some slightly more demanding, chewy material in your cinematic intake, then this is a film with the potential to satisfy you.

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You have to feel a bit sorry for the proprietors of Oxford’s premier art-house cinema, working hard to bring international movies to film-lovers in and around the city. I imagine that their hope with non-English language presentations is to lure in anyone from the same country as the film being shown, together with casual viewers who happen to be passing. And so it is quite simply the worst possible luck for their preview showing of Michael R Roskam’s Franco-Belgian thriller Racer and the Jailbird to coincide almost exactly with another, rather higher-profile Franco-Belgian get-together, of considerable local interest to boot. So it was that about three of us turned up to watch Roskam’s film while everyone else was glued to the football semi-final.

(I suppose one should be grateful the film was showing at all; the entire schedule in Screen One had been cancelled for the following evening so yet another venue could show the other semi-final match. And don’t get me started on the fact that the UK release of Ant-Man and the Wasp has been postponed until six weeks after its American debut, once again because of the bloomin’ World Cup.)

But hey ho. There we were for Racer and the Jailbird (a title which we will return to), which initially looks like it will be a familiar sort of tale in tone, if not in detail. It opens with a fragment from the youth of Gigi, a young man with a clearly troubled family background, before we meet him in adulthood. He has grown up to be that very capable Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, and has apparently become a charming and smooth businessman, even if exactly how he makes his money is a little unclear. He and his friends are visiting a racetrack when he makes the acquaintance of Bibi (Adele Exarchopoulos, probably best known for Blue is the Warmest Colour), a promising young racing driver.

Well, Gigi makes a move, rather directly, Bibi is not unwelcoming to his overtures; the film in general doesn’t hang about and cuts straight from them meeting for their first proper date to the pair of them in a fairly graphic delicto-type situation. They get to know each other as people, too: would you follow me anywhere, they ask each other, do you trust me? What’s your biggest secret, Bibi asks Gigi. I’m a gangster and rob banks for a living, ha ha, he replies.

But, of course, he’s not really joking, which sets up rest of the plot, one way or another. The lovers grow closer, and realise that something serious has begun between them. But Bibi is no fool and is aware that there are parts of Gigi’s life to which she is not privy; her father (Eric De Staercke) can tell Gigi is serious about his daughter, and gives his blessing provided he either comes clean or stops doing whatever it is that’s forcing him to lie. One last big job looms, after which they can be together…

So, yes, that title. In the original French this film is called Le Fidele, which basically translates as The Faithful – something which gives you a pretty good pointer as to the general tenor of the movie. But, for reasons which I cannot begin to fathom, for its English release it has been given (as noted) the title Racer and the Jailbird, which is a horrible, totally inappropriate name for this kind of film, sounding as it does like some kind of wacky, high-spirited comedy-thriller caper from the 1970s.

This is not a wacky, high-spirited comedy-thriller caper in a 70s kind of style. The first half of the film is admittedly a very slick and entertaining crime drama, in what seems to be a highly-commercial style intended to appeal to international audiences (I have heard it compared to Heat). I found myself idly wondering how long it would be before the inevitably inferior American remake came out, who would be cast in the two lead roles, and just how much they would tweak the story and style (the sex scenes in this film are just a tad more explicit than you tend to find in a mainstream American film, but hey, there are French people involved). In short: thoroughly enjoyed the first half.

But then the film undergoes an abrupt and profound volta, signified by the switch of main characters from Schoenaerts to Exarchopoulos, and a huge change in tone. This is much more the kind of thing you would expect to see in Franco-Belgian art-house releases, i.e., it all becomes a bit heavy and depressing. The list of tribulations visited upon Bibi and Gigi as they struggle to sustain their love is so comprehensive and extreme it might even move Job to complain providence was laying it on a bit thick. Melodrama beckons, and the film doesn’t really manage to resist its siren song.

This is a shame, not least because the second half of the film is really Adele Exarchopoulos’ opportunity to shine after playing what’s initially something of a supporting role. She’s still very good, but she has to contend with some rather suspect material in a way that Schoenaerts simply doesn’t in the first half. But the two actors are good together, have chemistry, and you do kind of want to see them end up with some kind of happiness, even if the film never quite hits you with the massive rush of emotion you get from a film like (to choose another Schoenaerts-starring romance) Rust and Bone. In the end what you get is a curious ending, rather carefully ambiguous while still definitely quite downbeat. And you come away feeling mildly disappointed, both by the lack of closure and the way in which all the promise of the first part of the film was left to fizzle away.

I find it hard to be really negative about Le Fidele (or, if you really insist, Racer and the Jailbird), simply because the first half is just so strong, and even the second half is lifted by the two lead performances. But the fact remains that this resembles a peculiar welded-together hybrid of two films with wildly different styles and sensibilities, one of them much more accomplished and rewarding than the other. Worth seeing, I think, but keep your expectations under control.

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You know you’re getting old, when those ‘You know you’re getting old, when…’ lists suddenly start to resonate with you. And to these let me add a new exponent – you know you’re getting old when actors who you think of as promising bright young newcomers suddenly start rocking up in roles where they’re playing the fathers of a new set of promising bright young newcomers. A case in point being Ben Foster, who I still think of as a juvenile character performer, pretty much, doing intensely committed things in indie films and prestige TV. (Though, of course, like everyone else these days he has done his time in dodgy mainstream entertainment too – he was rather underused as Angel in the third X-Men film, had a supporting role in the 2004 Punisher movie, and struggled through Warcraft just like the rest of the cast.)

Now here he is in Leave No Trace, directed by Debra Granik, who is best known for Winter’s Bone, the film which brought Jennifer Lawrence to the attention of the world. This being the case, all eyes are really on Foster’s co-star Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, who (once again) is a talented young actress whose first big role this is. Could it be that in eight or nine years time, it will be Harcourt McKenzie who will be appearing in sleazy sex-thrillers and being off with Joanna Lumley at awards ceremonies? On the strength of this film, I’m not sure I would bet against it.

Foster plays Will, an ex-US Marine and single parent to his daughter Tom (Harcourt McKenzie). As the film opens the pair have been living in a national park not far outside Portland, Oregon, under conditions of extreme circumspection – they routinely hide from anyone visiting the park and Will runs regular drills testing his daughter’s ability to evade anyone searching for them. Raised under this discipline, it seems entirely normal to Tom; the film makes their genuine affection and commitment to each other clear.

But then they are found by the authorities and all the usual machinery swings into action, to ensure Tom’s welfare in particular. Told it is not right for her to be homeless, Tom is confused; she has a home – in the park, with her father. They are told this cannot continue – they must live in a more conventional fashion. This is anathema to Will, and Tom initially follows his lead automatically – but slowly she begins to realise that her needs may not be the same as her father’s…

The first and most obvious point of reference for Leave No Trace, for me at least, is Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic, for both films do concern themselves with the rights and responsibilities of parenthood, specifically when it comes to what we should probably call non-standard lifestyle choices. Both films make a point of establishing that the children involved are thriving, both physically and mentally, despite (or possibly due to) being raised outside of conventional society, but the deeper question persists – to what extent do they have an informed choice in this? Is this really responsible parenting?

Of course, there are differences: Ross’ film was in some ways a slightly off-beat comedy, as well as a drama, whereas this is much more sober and thoughtful in its tone. There is also the character point that while Viggo Mortensen’s character in the Cash film was making a philosophical choice in taking his children out of society, Will is driven more by a pathological need for personal privacy – to live unseen, in a state of true independence. He is not a bad person, but he does have severe issues, and it is to the great credit of Foster that he can communicate this while still being utterly convincing as an almost completely guarded, barely expressive individual.

And this does inform the film, for it mainly concerns the rising tensions between Will and Tom as she slowly begins to perceive that, no matter how much she and her father love each other, they may have very different needs. ‘Whatever’s wrong with you, isn’t wrong with me,’ she says, in one of the film’s key moments – a moment of self-discovery and self-actualisation for Tom. These are what the film is really about, in terms of becoming an adult, taking responsibility for your own life, recognising that moment when you look after your parents at least as much as they look after you.

This is not a complex story, but it is engrossing throughout and beautifully told in its understated way. Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie is, as I have indicated, every bit as good as Foster in a really challenging role. Expect her to be appearing in a major superhero blockbuster within the next couple of years. That said, it is well-performed throughout; Foster is the closest thing to a well-known face in it, but it is filled with small, well-judged character turns. One of the most striking things about it is the fact that, for all that it is at heart a very personal story, it takes place in a vivid and completely convincing world on the fringes of American society. And it is an entirely compassionate and non-judgmental vision – no-one in it is perfect, but then who is, and everyone Will and Tom encounter is presented sympathetically. Homeless people, service veterans, long-distance truckers and trailer park residents normally appear in mainstream films only as figures of pity, or scorn, or fun, or menace, but here they are just shown as individuals, as capable of kindness and compassion as anyone else. It is a strikingly humane and predominantly positive film, given the times we are living through.

I must confess to watching Winter’s Bone a few years ago and finding it rather tough going, simply because of its thorough-going bleakness. Leave No Trace is a much more accessible film, made so by the general tone of the story and the strength of the two lead performances. This is the kind of film you wish had got a much higher-profile release than is the case, for it is extremely strong in every area. I doubt we will see many better dramas this year.

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