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Posts Tagged ‘Marion Cotillard’

Annette begins with an orchestra and singers preparing to make a recording; instruments are plugged in and tuned, everyone seems to slowly be getting ready for the moment of truth. Observing from the control booth is the director, who looks a lot like Leos Carax (this role is played, in a strikingly well-judged bit of casting, by the director Leos Carax). He asks if it would be possible to start.

And so they begin, singing a song on the topic of starting. Very quickly, however, the key members of the band (the instantly recognisable figures of Ron and Russell Mael, aka Sparks), the backing singers, and so on, all get up and proceed out of the studio into the street. And I do mean proceed: this is a procession in the classic style. The Mael brothers cede their position at the front to Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, and Simon Helberg, but the parade continues out into the streets of Los Angeles, the lyrics addressing the anticipation inherent in beginning-of-movie moments like this, but also including the reasonable request that the audience ‘shut up and sit’. Eventually Driver and Cotillard depart to get into character and things become marginally less odd for a while.

(The closing credits of the film feature another procession by the cast and crew, this time politely wishing the audience a safe trip home after the movie, a thoughtful touch which is rather more endearing than the usual post-credits scene.)

Annette is a musical directed by Leos Carax, based on a story and with songs by Sparks, so this is never what you’d call a conventional movie experience for long. Adam Driver plays Henry McHenry, a misanthropic stand-up comedian not entrely unlike Andrew Clay or Bill Hicks, while Marion Cotillard plays operatic soprano Anne Defrasnoux. Henry and Anne have recently begun a relationship and fallen deeply in love with one another: they sing a song about this, called ‘We Love Each Other So Much’, which – in authentic late-period Sparks style – largely consists of the title repeated over and over again, albeit with the couple in increasingly startling situations as they sing the line.

Soon the news breaks that Anne is pregnant, and the world awaits the birth of the child. (I particularly enjoyed the singing obstetrician and chorus of midwives who appeared at this point to perform a song largely about breathing and pushing.) The baby is named Annette, but her arrival marks a change in the fortunes of the couple: while Anne meets with success after success, Henry finds it hard to maintain his edginess and his career struggles as a result. And so they decide to take Annette with them on a fateful boat trip…

‘Not mainstream’ was my partner’s considered opinion after watching Annette, and this strikes me as a very accurate assessment of the kind of film this is. Of course, few films have the capacity to become beloved crowd-pleasers in quite the same way as a great musical can, but I suspect the relentless weirdness of Annette will prove a bit of a barrier to mainstream success.

It’s not quite the conventional ‘sing a bit, talk for a bit, sing a bit’ musical, for one thing: this is practically sung through, which always produces some slightly odd moments. The effect is something akin to actual opera, with all the strangeness associated with that – Driver, Cotillard and Helberg play the only developed characters, so a lot of the time they are interacting with choruses made up of supporting roles – the audience of Henry’s stand-up show get a song with the lyrics ‘Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha!’, the police interrogate people to music, and so on.

What of Annette herself, you may be wondering? Well, just in case a slightly self-referential rock opera starring people without trained voices and with music by Marc Bolan and Hitler lookalikes isn’t offbeat enough, baby Annette is played by a wooden puppet. It is fair to say this is a slightly creepy wooden puppet (though still not as unsettling as the CGI baby in the last Twilight film). As the film goes on it proves to be the case that there are sound artistic and metaphorical reasons for the baby to be played by a puppet. But this doesn’t make the various scenes of Driver and Cotillard putting the puppet to bed, and so on, any less bizarre.

The baby puppet only really becomes prominent in the later sections of the film, by which point the plot has soared to such heights of extravagant madness that it probably registers less than it would in a film with a more naturalistic plot. Someone is murdered (they keep on singing even as they are being done in), someone comes back as a vengeful ghost, Annette the baby puppet turns out to have a borderline-magical gift which leads to her becoming the subject of much attention, and so on.

I think the non-naturalism of the movie musical is one of its greatest strengths, but there’s non-naturalistic and then there’s Annette. This is one of those rare movies fully in the self-aware, presentational mode, which is open about its own artificiality. Normally this is a recipe for camp, pretentiousness and a rather desperate reliance on irony, but – and this is probably Annette’s greatest achievement – the remarkable thing about this film is that it still packs a significant emotional punch in its key moments. Much credit must go to the actors, particularly Adam Driver (especially since most of the songs seem to be pitched rather higher than he seems comfortable with), but of course the Mael brothers deserve praise for an inventive score which includes some extraordinary pieces of music.

I was hoping to see rather more of Ron and Russell on screen during the film, but apart from the opening and closing sequences they stay behind the scenes, except for a brief cameo as aeroplane pilots. But the film does have the mixture of wit, playfulness, and sincere emotion that is the hallmark of much of Sparks’ music. The central metaphor of the film is an effective one, and if the things it has to say about modern culture are not terribly original, it at least puts them across well.

This is a soaringly weird and often deeply strange film, but also a rather beautiful and affecting one. It’s a coming together of such special and diverse talents that it’s almost certainly a unique, one-off piece of work – not that this shouldn’t instantly be clear to anyone watching it. I doubt there will be a more distinctive film on release this year.

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Back a couple of months ago when they first announced the re-opening of the cinemas, the lack of new movies was supposedly going to be made up for by the reappearance of many old classics to lure people back into the habit of going to the flicks. In Oxford at least this never really happened, as most of the cinemas are still shut and will stay that way for nearly another week – the Phoenix showed a revival of Spirited Away (which, to be fair, they seem to do about once a year anyway) and a screening of The Blues Brothers and that’s about it. (Would I have been tempted out by the promised showing of The Empire Strikes Back? We shall never know. I wouldn’t have wagered against it.) Maybe this would have paid dividends, however, as I am pleased to report that this week’s cinema attendance was up from two to five, possibly because the film on offer was another revival, if perhaps not quite a golden oldie: Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception.

Of course, there are revivals and revivals, and it is telling that the spruced up Inception re-release was preceded not just by a short retrospective film concerning it, but a preview piece for Nolan’s latest, Tenet. I am beginning to worry that expectations for Tenet are running impossibly high – even if it weren’t for the fact that the film has taken on a kind of totemic significance as the First Big Post-Lockdown Release, the look and feel of the publicity is leading people to think it is somehow a spiritual successor to Inception itself. Living up to this will be a stern test of even Nolan’s abilities.

I say this mainly because Christopher Nolan is possibly my favourite living film director: no-one currently working in mainstream cinema has the same track record when it comes to making films which are not just technically proficient, but also sophisticated and resonant, taking what look from some angles like glossy genre pictures and turning them into something affecting and mind-expanding (even Dunkirk, which is the first Nolan film I was significantly disappointed by, is still made to the highest of standards).

And (as you may have guessed) Inception is my favourite Nolan film: I saw it on its opening weekend ten years ago, staggering back to my digs in a due state of happy disbelief straight afterwards. I watch it once a year or so, on average: I seem to have ended up with two copies of it on DVD, although I have no real recollection of where the second one came from.

What makes it so special, in my eyes at least? Well, let us consider the situation pertaining at one point towards the end of the film. A group of people are on a plane, sleeping. They are dreaming that they are in a van in the process of crashing off a bridge. Some of the dream-versions of themselves in the van are asleep, dreaming they are in a hotel where gravity has been suspended. The dream-versions of some of the people in the hotel are also asleep, dreaming they are in an Alpine hospital surrounded by a small private army, with whom some of them are doing battle. Others are asleep, and are dreaming they are exploring an infinite, ruined city of the subconscious mind. So, just to recap: they are on a plane dreaming they are in a van dreaming they are in a hotel dreaming they are in a hospital dreaming they are in a ruined city. The miraculous thing about Inception is not merely that this makes sense while you are watching it, but it actually feels entirely logical and even somewhat straightforward.

One element of this film which I feel is too-little commented upon is the playfulness of it – a very deadpan sort of playfulness, admittedly, but even so. The main characters are thieves and con-artists, for the most part, and there’s a sense in which Nolan himself, as writer, is pulling an elaborate con-trick on the audience. A writer I interviewed many years ago suggested to me that writing pure fantasy is essentially cheating at cards to win pretend-money: a pointless exercise. The internal mechanics of Inception are pure fantasy: the story is predicated on the existence of technology allowing people to dream collectively, which is entirely fictitious (and the film naturally just treats it as a fact, not bothering to even suggest how it works). Yet Nolan comes up with underlying concepts and principles for the dream-sharing experience which are so detailed and plausible you buy into them without question, even though this requires the film to teach them to the viewer, in some detail, starting from scratch. Simply as a piece of expository work it is a startling achievement: militarised subconsciousnesses, dream totems, the ‘kick’ used to waken dreamers – all of these are very significant to the plot, and the script elegantly explains how and why without slowing down or seeming unnecessarily convoluted (I’m not going to pretend Inception isn’t convoluted or somewhat demanding for the viewer, but the rewards are more than worth it).

Just conceiving the world of the movie and then communicating it to the audience to tell a story of guys on a mission to break into someone’s subconscious mind and plant an idea there would be a noteworthy achievement, but threaded through this is a much less procedural and genuinely moving story of guilt and grief: main character Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is haunted by the memory of his dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) – but, this being the story that it is, this becomes literally true. In the dream worlds memories and metaphors have genuine power and existence, and the dream motif which dominates the film seems to me to mostly be there to facilitate this metaphorical level to the story – the heist-movie trappings are yet another mask, or con trick.

And yet there is another level to the movie, too – or perhaps another way of looking at it. For what is going to the cinema at all if not an exercise in collective dreaming? The idea of dream-as-movie is another pervasive one – Nolan uses the standard techique of beginning a scene with two characters already in place to indicate the discontinuities of the dream world. And the dream worlds the characters descend through, getting further away from reality as they go, resemble increasingly outlandish kinds of thriller – initially something quite gritty and urban, then the slick and stylised interior of a hotel where a complex Mission: Impossible-style scam is attempted, and then finally the Bond-like action in and around the Alpine fortress. Is it a coincidence that the next Bond film to be released featured a lengthy sequence in a ruined city bearing a striking resemblance to the subconscious realm of this one? Perhaps a compliment was being returned.

Great script, great direction: superb cast, too, many of them doing what is surely amongst their best work. You watch it now and are suddenly aware that Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, to name but two, seem to have dropped out of sight as far as mainstream cinema is concerned; even Tom Hardy seems to be only doing one film every two or three years, and those mostly blockbusters. (You look at Hardy in this film and realise that he does seem to be doing his audition piece for Bond: he seems either unaware of the fact that he’s not the main character in this movie, or deliberately choosing to ignore it.) I suppose there is still the consolation of Ken Watanabe making Transformers and Godzilla movies in the meantime.

For something to really grab my attention it usually has to be very big or very complicated, or preferably both: Inception meets these criteria, and then some. Every time I watch the movie I see something new, some new angle or connection or little piece of trickery, usually in the least expected of places. Add Hans Zimmer’s score to all the other things I’ve mentioned and – well, I suppose it is theoretically possible that Inception is not the best film of the 21st century so far. But I cannot think of another candidate.

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Yet another sign that winter is on the way comes in the form of someone having a crack at the Bard. On this occasion it is Justin Kurzel setting his sights on Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays yet one not much explored by film-makers since the Polanski version well over 40 years ago. Unlike many a modern go at Shakespeare, and indeed Kurosawa’s feudal Japan-set take on the story, Kurzel sticks to the original mise-en-scene, more or less.

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Quite how close to Shakespeare Kurzel keeps his movie overall is an interesting question, though. The story is the one you may already know – a witches’ prophecy lures fearless warrior Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) into contemplating the death of the liege (David Thewlis) he has always been loyal to and usurping his position, although not without some definite encouragement from his ambitious wife (Marion Cotillard), culminating in some radical new ideas in landscape gardening and a damn big fight. However, the director sets out his store for his vision of the play with the uncompromising decision to open the film with an establishing shot of a dead baby.

This initially seems a bit shocking and possibly tasteless, but it’s so much in tune with everything else going on in the film that you sort of forget about it (and it is in line with a fairly common reading of the play, that either Lady M has post-natal depression or has actually lost a child). Dead parents, dead children, death, blood, and madness: this might well be a very good place to make a joke about just why this is called the Scottish play, but I have the preservation of the Union to consider.

This is not a film which makes much effort to step lightly around such matters, nor indeed leave much to the imagination. Unlike, say, the Kurosawa version, in which most of the bloodletting occurs discreetly off-camera, here Macbeth’s assorted victims are gorily carved up on camera – when they’re not being burnt at the stake, anyway. As well as Thewlis, said victims include a not especially-recognisable Paddy Considine as Banquo and Elizabeth Debicki as Lady Macduff, with Sean Harris as Macduff, also going through the wringer somewhat before events are concluded.

So you can’t fault the casting of the supporting roles – nor is there much wrong with the two leads, which almost goes without saying where Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are concerned. For once Cotillard does not quite dominate the screen – one can almost sense the colossal struggle she is engaged in to keep her natural accent under control – but she does very good work in bringing the necessary vulnerability and pathos to a character who it’s too easy to just treat as evil incarnate.

Fassbender, however, doesn’t just give a proper movie star performance as Macbeth, but does a proper acting job as well. Macbeth isn’t just a crazed tyrant in this film: he’s a man who can’t quite bring himself to accept the consequences of his actions, and as a result has to treat everything going on around him as a bit of a joke. Fassbender makes his bonkers joviality rather disturbing to watch, but also offers flashes of the man in torment within. He’s not what you’d call sympathetic, exactly, but neither is he a complete monster.

Neither of these are exactly radical interpretations of the main characters, but then on one level this is not the boldest or most innovative take on Macbeth, either. The film offers a few interesting choices of staging – the witches are so utterly down-to-earth, almost mundane in their presentation, that one is almost surprised when Macbeth and Banquo give them a second look, while to its credit the film does find a new and unusual way for Birnham Forest to come to Dunsinane at the climax. But on the whole it’s a very orthodox presentation of the play, for all its savagery and darkness.

However, as a piece of film, Macbeth manages to be extremely distinctive – in many ways this looks pretty much like you’d expect a lowish-budget art house adaptation of Shakespeare to, with dour, naturalistic cinematography, what look suspiciously like non-professional actors in some of the minor roles, and strange wild stabs of what I can only call visual pretension – battle scenes keep slipping into slo-mo, vivid filters make it look as though the air itself is turning to blood, and so on. Overall, though, the thing comes together to be a singular and coherent vision that feels entirely appropriate for his particular play.

But is it a completely successful one? The generally-positive reviews Macbeth has received suggests so, but I found it to be a tough film to engage with – it’s just so relentlessly bleak and doom-laden, with most of the directorial and dramatic pyrotechnics held back for the final act. A little less fidelity to Shakespeare earlier on might have a resulted in a more balanced offering. As it is, the film becomes increasingly more impressive as it goes on, and it’s certainly well-worth watching, but it never consistently feels like a movie in its own right, just an extremely accomplished adaptation of a well-staged play.

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What exactly are cinemas for? It’s an odd question, I admit, but looking around the fare on offer at my local multiplexes at this current moment in August, there are several animated childrens’ films, a couple of very broad comedies, a bonkers philosophical action movie, and a couple of science-fiction adventures. Some of these are very good, very accomplished movies, but the only film around at the moment which honestly feels like it’s trying to say something significant about the everyday reality of being alive as an adult human being is Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which has been knocking about for a month or so now. Everything else is largely just cake and jelly.

And is this necessarily a bad thing? Cinema tickets are expensive, after all – and coming from someone who usually goes about 60 times a year, that’s an informed opinion – and why should any sane person pay to be depressed? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s just me, but sometimes it is rewarding to go and see something a little more challenging and a little more rooted in reality. It seems strange that as often as not, to find this kind of thing you have to go and watch a film in another language.

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Which brings us to Two Days, One Night (title en Francais: Deux jours, une nuit), by the Dardennes brothers. I must confess to not being very familiar with les freres in question, but this movie has had glowing reviews and features a lead performance from Marion Cotillard, whom – broadly speaking – I will happily go and watch in anything. This movie finds her very much in the gruelling social-realist genre, but she is as compelling as ever.

Cotillard plays Sandra, a young wife and mother somewhere in suburban France (or possibly Belgium). As the film opens, she has just recovered from a bout of depression and is preparing to return to her job in a local factory – but a phone-call from a colleague changes all that. In her absence the boss has decided her presence is not strictly necessary, and offered the rest of the workforce a choice: either they can have her back, or they can receive their annual bonus. Her colleagues have decided they would rather have the money and Sandra is out of a job.

However, due to some irregularities in the original vote, it is due to be restaged the following Monday, and if Sandra can persuade enough of her colleagues to change their minds, she may yet keep her job. The film opens on Friday afternoon, and covers the intervening weekend and the morning of the vote itself (hence the title).

As you can probably imagine, there aren’t a lot of laughs in this one: the film follows Sandra as she treks around the flats and houses of her various co-workers, pleading with them to reconsider their decision when the second vote is taken. The responses she meets vary considerable: some are apologetic, others sympathetic, some guilt-stricken – one of her visits results in violence. The story of the film is really that of how Sandra herself copes with and reacts to these responses – she is elated in those moments when she finds someone prepared to listen, more often crushed when understanding is not forthcoming.

It is another brilliant performance from Cotillard, who retains her almost uncanny ability to project raw human feeling without seeming at all showy or self-conscious. From the very beginning of the film, Sandra is clearly an ordinary woman having serious difficulty in keeping things together, and this only gets worse as the film proceeds – the movie ends up skirting some very dark places before its conclusion.

On the face of it, this is just a personal and rather bleak story, but it seems to me to be deeply informed by the realities of life in France these days – which I’m sure are not that different from those of life in the UK, or many other places in Europe. You could easily imagine Ken Loach knocking out a similar film in English, with the same ultra-realistic and understated, but utterly compelling approach. Nearly everyone is struggling for money, with many people taking on second jobs – legally or not – in order to make ends meet. The resulting pressure is causing the basic fabric of decent society to break down: selfishness is largely supplanting compassion and understanding for many people, while others find themselves horribly conflicted: one of Sandra’s colleagues tells her, weeping, that he hopes she succeeds, even though he knows that it will be a catastrophe for him if she does.

The directors don’t make explicit political points, although the abdication of moral responsibility by Sandra’s boss is made clear, and he and Sandra’s bullying foreman are the least sympathetically-presented characters. The film is more about the effects of the system on vulnerable human lives, and the importance of relationships and society in making life worth living – there are moments of real joy in this film, even such simple ones as Sandra and a couple of friends singing along to the radio together (Fabrizio Rongione gives immaculate support as Cotillard’s husband).

This is a profoundly moving and gripping film, that doesn’t conclude in the way you may be imagining (nor the other way, either). There is real darkness in it, but also real light and a sense of humanity: also that of a woman going through an ordeal and finding herself made only stronger by it. Realistic and serious this film may be, but it’s also very affirming in its own way, and worth watching just for Marion Cotillard’s performance.

*Okay, so they may be Belgians, and some of them are definitely women, but that doesn’t help the joke much.

 

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From a movie about cricket, to a movie about… you know, one good thing about operating a no-spoiler policy when reviewing films is that occasionally it prevents you from using some of the most obviously tasteless gags that might otherwise occur to you (if you are afflicted with a mind like mine, anyway). Going beyond the pale in terms of the funnies is more of a danger with some films than others, and I must say that the potential for sick jokes when discussing Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone (original title De rouille et d’os) is probably greater than most. Restraint is demanded of me anyway, as this is a superior movie in every department.

As the film opens we meet Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts), a young man making his way to the south of France with his young son – we don’t see the situation they have left, but everything suggests it was not a pretty or healthy one. Ali is living on the fringes, and takes refuge with his sister and her partner. Eventually he gets a job as a bouncer at a swish local nightclub, where he is called upon to help a glamorous young woman in distress. She is Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), independent-minded, perhaps with troubles of her own. Ali leaves his number with her, but nothing else comes of it.

And then… Well, here we enter somewhat murky waters, as Stephanie undergoes a Significant Personal Event at her workplace (she trains killer whales). This Significant Personal Event is so fundamental to the course of the story that it hardly qualifies as a plot spoiler, but the makers of the film still clearly want it to come as a surprise to the viewer: the trailer for this movie is carefully assembled (one might say to the point of disingenuity) in order to avoid giving it away. Put it this way, she doesn’t just have her annual leave request turned down.

Anyway, following the Significant Personal Event, Stephanie finds herself in need of a friend and for some reason turns to Ali, even though they have only met once. What follows is the slow and awkward coming together of two completely different people, Stephanie vulnerable and struggling to come to terms with the realities of life, Ali outwardly carefree, with all the apparent sensitivity and emotional intelligence of a concrete breeze block. And yet it is completely convincing and very affecting.

On one level Rust and Bone is a slightly unusual film, in that it is as utterly dependent on its special effects as any summer blockbuster, but the intention here is for the audience to leave the film with, ideally, no idea that any cinematic wizardry has occurred. These are what used to be called subtle effects, intended to be invisible rather than eyecatching. Well, the virtuosity on display is incredible, as the work involved permeates most of the movie, and I consistently found myself wondering ‘how on Earth did they do that so convincingly?’ – an uninformed viewer might be completely taken in by the display. On the other hand, I wonder if this wasn’t distracting me just a bit from the story itself – I should have been drawn into the scene more than simply marvelling at the quality of the CGI.

On another level, this film had the potential to be a melodramatic weepy of the first rank – the story is bookended by tragedy and potential tragedy, punctuated by anguish and misery, and the actual through-line of the plot is not tremendously original. In some places it’s also a bit implausible – at one point, quite late on, Stephanie becomes Ali’s manager in his sideline as a bare-knuckle boxer, and her willingness to do this comes out of the blue somewhat. Also, the climax is set up by a plot development which smacks just a bit too much of coincidence (once again, decency precludes me going into too much detail).

However, the film succeeds, partly because it is resolutely unsentimental about all of the characters and their situations – Ali’s poverty is not treated as something picturesque or in some way character-forming, we see him scavenging for food in rubbish to feed his son and committing petty theft. Stephanie’s own situation is graphically presented too, and the early stages of the central relationship are not the stuff of chocolate-box romance. This is a film trying hard to ground itself in a recognisable world with characters who seem to be real people.

This is of course due to the quality of the central performances, which is the other main reason for the film being as good as it is. It almost goes without saying that much of mainstream English-speaking cinema is at best undemanding and at worst actively stupid. Marion Cotillard has been lucky enough to make most of her major English appearances in films by significant directors who are intelligent men, but even so, for Michael Mann she wound up playing a gangster’s moll, and for Christopher Nolan a fragment of someone’s memory and the long-lost daughter of a supervillain: not, perhaps, the most heavyweight of parts. Rust and Bone is a movie which really allows Cotillard the opportunity to let her talent shine and she is remarkable, somehow managing to radiate emotion without any obviously laboured technique or visible ‘acting’ worth mentioning. Matthias Schoenaerts is just as good – in fact he may possibly be even better, in that he’s playing someone who doesn’t let his emotions show and most of the time seems to be trying to mask them from himself as much as other people.

Cotillard and Schoenaerts are so good that the story is completely compelling throughout, even though much of the telling of it is rather understated. The trailer for this film is soundtracked by soaring music and is full of remarkably colourful, vibrant images, promising a lush and passionate experience. Well, there’s a degree of cherry-picking going on here, I would say: there are remarkably photographed and edited sequences dotted through this film, but most of it is much more restrained and naturalistic (the soundtrack is probably most notable for its eclecticism, featuring contributions from both Katy Perry and John Cooper Clarke, for example).

And while this works to the film’s advantage for most of its length, I think the director misses a trick in the closing stages – there isn’t the transcendent, overwhelmingly romantic climax that I suspect could quite easily have had more emotionally fragile audience-members sniffling into their snack wrappers. Normally I would have applauded the evasion of such open sentimentality – but the important thing is that this film does not deal in sentimentality, but in genuine sentiment – real emotion – and thus had surely earned the right to its big finish. I would not have begrudged it one.

The conclusion the film has instead is satisfying and appropriate, and in keeping with the rest of it, so it by no means damages the film. It’s just that this is one of the very few flaws in what is one of the best dramas of the year, with possibly the two best performances I’ve seen, subtitled or not. Not always the easiest of films to watch, and a serious work throughout, but enormously well-made and rewarding.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published February 5th 2004: 

If you were just starting out as a film director, I suppose one of the things you might do in order to quickly establish yourself would be to develop a signature style – a collection of trademark shots, images and themes running as a sort of common thread through all your work. Your resume would have a sort of consistency, your fan base would probably grow faster, and people who worry about that sort of thing would be reassured that they always knew where they stood when it came to your films.

Of course, as time went by and you wanted to stretch your wings and maybe do something just a little bit different, this very consistency might well start to work against you. People would come to your films looking out for your trademark stuff and end up completely overlooking the rest of it, no matter how impressively executed. ‘Stop ruminating unimpressively and get to the goddam review!‘ I hear you cry. Well, okay, punters, this week we’re looking at Tim Burton’s Big Fish, the film which led me aboard that particular train of thought.

This is a story about that old favourite of a theme, the troubled father-son relationship. No, wait, come back – because although that particular chestnut has been flogged to death (nice metaphor – what sparkling form I’m on just now), this is a film with much to commend it.

Billy Crudup plays Will Bloom, an American in Paris (no, this isn’t a musical) who finds himself summoned home to Alabama when his father is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Edward Bloom (played with sparklingly roguish charm by Albert Finney) has been a salesman by trade but a teller of tall tales by vocation for all of his life. Basically he tells a pleasing, fantastical, and utterly fraudulent version of his life to everyone he meets (the young Edward is played – with, it must be said, a rather erratic accent – by Ewan McGregor). He tells tales of befriending giants, playing fetch-the-stick with a werewolf, and sailing from Vietnam to America with some conjoined twins. Edward’s refusal to reveal any of his true self to his son has been the cause of some friction between them, and it’s up to Will to find some resolution before it’s too late.

Yeah, well, it doesn’t sound like much, I’ll admit, but the meat of the film consists of the extraordinary tales Edward tells of his youth. Going into too much detail about these would only spoil them, but suffice it to say that they are as inventive and scary and drily funny as one could hope for. There seemed to me to be a distinct whiff of the works of Roald Dahl throughout the film – there’s a big friendly giant and a witch, but also hints of the darkness and pain that characterised much of Dahl’s writing. McGregor is an ebullient lead, and he’s well supported by the likes of Danny de Vito and an increasingly consumptive-looking Steve Buscemi. Helena Bonham-Carter pops up too, oddly less-recognisable under her witch’s make-up than she was as a chimpanzee in Burton’s Planet Of The Apes (now there’s a movie with a lot to answer for!).

In the past I’ve always been a bit of an agnostic regarding Tim Burton. Some of his films I’ll happily admit are terrific – the two Batmans, Ed Wood – and they all look extraordinary, but the worlds he puts up on the screen are often so skewed and divorced from reality that I find it hard to connect with them emotionally. But this isn’t the case with Big Fish – the ‘real world’ sequences with Finney and Crudup (also Jessica Lange and Marion Cotillard as their wives) buttress the fantasy, provide a bridge into it, and lend the film a certain emotional gravitas. Burton directs these scenes with an utter naturalism one wouldn’t believe him capable of – it’s the equivalent of Damien Hurst painting a lovely landscape, and it’s surely to Burton’s credit. The actors help: Finney is an appropriately larger than life figure and Crudup’s performance is very nicely judged so as to be memorable without crowding the film.

There’s a slight incoherency to some parts of the film – ideally the progression of Edward’s fantastical life story should match Will’s increasing insight into him as a person, and it doesn’t – and it would have been more satisfying if the script had come up with a psychological explanation for Edward’s story-telling with a bit more depth to it than ‘stories are more interesting than real life’. The film also can’t resist a slightly predictable climax which blurs the lines between reality and fantasy, unnecessarily I thought. But Big Fish remains a film which manages to be very funny without ever being crass, imaginative without ever losing its grip on reality, and moving without being sentimental. Tim Burton’s best film in nearly a decade – recommended.

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