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Posts Tagged ‘Sandra Huller’

Been to the cinema much recently? No, me neither: if you’d told me at any point in the last decade or so that there would be a four-and-a-half-month gap between visits to the pictures, I would have concluded that this indicated my leaving the country, going to prison, or having some kind of medical emergency. Nice one me, I suppose, as a medical emergency has indeed been to blame. However, for whatever reason, attempts to drag the country back to something resembling how things used to be have been in progress and this weekend saw the re-opening of the first cinema in Oxford.

Naturally I was there, but I wonder, I wonder. I am as critical as anyone of the efforts of those in power and their media cheerleaders to persuade everyone to resume their old lifestyles, mainly for the benefit of the bottom line and the continuation of the old economic model. People have, perhaps, begun to question what they took for granted, or were told, and even glimpsed another way of living more to their liking. Certainly the virus has shredded our former way of life, and it is foolish to pretend this can quickly or easily be repaired.

Then again, am I not just as worthy of scorn for clinging to the hope that the old model of cinema can be preserved? As you may have surmised, I used to go to the cinema two or three times a week, on average, occasionally far more often than that. Often this wasn’t because I had a burning desire to see a particular film, but I enjoyed following the schedules, finding new and unusual things to write about – even the simple routine of going to the cinema (buying my ticket, taking my seat, waiting for the lights to go down, watching the adverts for the umpteenth time) was something I genuinely took pleasure in. You don’t get any of those things just streaming something.

I hope it’s too early to make predictions, because the signs were not especially positive – although the whole experience was a little surreal, to be honest. It turned out I had forgotten which of my cinema cards was which, for one thing: that would have been unthinkable back in March. (Though looking on the bright side, my membership has been extended until the middle of next year.) There were all the masks and bits of hand sanitising equipment you would have expected, all for the benefit of… well, just me, if we’re honest about this. I had the whole screen to myself. Now, I should say that this was not that unusual even back in the old days, given some of the obscure films I went to see at funny times, and the afternoon showing of a subtitled art-house drama on a sunny August day would likely never pull a big crowd. But even so.

Notably few commercials, and – other than one for vodka – most of these were for either charities or public health agencies. Not many trailers, either – well, one, to be precise, for Tenet (which feels like it is rapidly becoming the last great hope of mainstream cinema for this year). According to the trailer Tenet is (or was) released in July 2020 – but, given the time-mangling nature of the story implied by the trailer, this actually feels oddly appropriate, and it’s far from the only film which had its publicity campaign overtaken by events: all over the city centre one could see buses still decked out in advertising material for movies which were supposed to open in March, and never did: ghosts of a vanished future.

Anyway, I went to the cinema to go to the cinema rather than see any particular film. The one I ended up going to see was Alice Winocour’s Proxima, which had a hopeful, slightly science-fictiony-sounding title – although had I known going in that Winocour also co-wrote the accomplished but slightly heavy Mustang I might have managed my expectations a bit. There you go: always do your research, friends.

Proxima does indeed turn out to be slightly science-fictiony, by which I mean it is a film about space exploration rather than an actual piece of science fiction. Or is it really about something else? Eva Green plays Sarah Loreau, a woman whose lifelong ambition has been to become an astronaut: her daughter (Zelie Boulant-Lemesle) is named Stella and her cat is named Laika, after the Soviet space dog. At the start of the film it looks like her dream has come true, as she is selected for Proxima, a long-duration space mission and a crucial part of the programme which will culminate in putting a person on Mars.

Rather tellingly, the first thing Sarah worries about once she gets this news is sorting out her childcare for while she’s away: Stella will have to go and live with Sarah’s former partner Thomas, an astrophysicist (Lars Eidinger). Then it’s on with the training, and having to sort out some sort of modus vivendi with the American mission commander, Shannon (Matt Dillon), who seems openly dubious about her abilities. As the training regime grows increasingly gruelling, Sarah becomes aware of the strain all of this is placing on her relationship with her daughter and the concerns of her psychiatrist (Sandra Huller).

I know what you’re thinking: Gravity knock-off. Well, I can see where you’re coming from, but no it isn’t, not least because none of the film actually takes place in space – it’s all resolutely earthbound, about the training process rather than the actual mission. A big chunk of it looks like it was shot at Star City in Russia (officially the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre), with some scenes being filmed around the Baikonur space centre. I’m not as much of a space enthusiast as some people whom I know, but even so, the nuts and bolts of the training regime are fascinating and occasionally unexpected, assuming the film isn’t just making things up: trainee astronauts watching upside-down TVs to prepare for work in zero gravity, for instance. I think this naturalistic element of the film will be quite engaging enough to satisfy many viewers.

On the other hand, though, by the end it is quite clear that the movie isn’t really about a woman preparing to go into space: it’s about a mother on that journey. Every element of the story is viewed through the lens of the relationship between Sarah and Stella and Sarah’s attempts to preserve the bond between them. We are invited – maybe even commanded – to sympathise with Sarah and accept that the maternal connection is one which the male-dominated space exploration establishment do not appreciate. At one point Sarah commits a massive breach of mission protocols in order to keep a promise to her daughter, and it is presented as a transcendent moment of togetherness rather than someone being dangerously irresponsible. It doesn’t quite sit well with a film which is implicitly critical of the chauvinist American alpha-jock played by Dillon (when asked how he feels about a French woman joining the crew, his response is that he’s happy, because they’ll have someone around to do all the cooking). Dillon’s character suggests that Sarah’s preoccupation with her daughter makes her a bit of a liability, but the really odd thing is that the film implies he is correct, while simultaneously presenting her as a sympathetic, admirable figure. (Then again I am neither a woman nor a parent, just someone who occasionally enjoys space films: I fully expect other people to have very different takeaways where Proxima is concerned.)

Well, apart from that it is competently written and directed, with a very good performance from Eva Green and solid support from everyone else (Boulant-Lemesle gives an extremely self-assured turn for one so young). As I said, the nitty-gritty of the story is fascinating, I just couldn’t buy into the film’s idealisation of motherhood, or the suggestion that mums who go into space are making some kind of unique sacrifice – plenty of fathers go into space, after all. Is Winocour suggesting they are all distant, cool parents without much of a connection with their kids? Oh well. Not the best film of the year, nor the worst, and so probably the kind of thing we should be hoping for going forward, if we really want to see the restoration of something resembling the old days. That still feels like it’s a long way off, though.

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There are certain questions that my parents seem to enjoy asking me on a regular basis, such as ‘When are we seeing you again?’, ‘You’re sure about keeping the beard, then?’ and ‘What on Earth are you doing with your life, man?!?’ My father in particular is fond of ‘What’s the strangest film you’ve seen lately?’, knowing that my tastes are rather broader than his own. For a while now my stock answer has been The Lobster, which is admittedly in part because I can’t face the prospect of trying to describe either Anomalisa or a Shane Carruth movie to one of my parents, but I think I may have a new answer, and it is Toni Erdmann, written and directed by Maren Ade.

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The story concerns Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a music teacher in late middle-age who has devoted his life to bringing jollity to those around him, whether they want it or not, and his devotion to all manner of pranks and japery extends to carrying around a set of comedy dentures in his top pocket. When he finds himself suddenly at a bit of a loose end, he decides to pay a surprise visit on his daughter Ines (Sandra Huller), who is a high-powered management consultant in Romania, and whom he feels he should really try to have a closer relationship with.

The trip is not really a success, with Ines vaguely embarrassed by her shambling, ursine dad and his comedy teeth, and Winfried increasingly convinced her life is joyless and sterile. Ines sees him off with some relief, and is therefore understandably startled when he reappears in her life in the outlandish guise of the entirely fictional Toni Erdmann, an absurdly bewigged and bedentured life coach (and sometime German Ambassador to Romania whenever he finds a particularly gullible mark). Is he just trying to cheer her up? Or is he actually intent (whether consciously or not) on completely destroying her career?

Yes, in case you were wondering: this is indeed a German comedy film, and the most acclaimed in years (it’s up for an Oscar this year). Yes, Germans do make comedy films, apparently, regardless of the popular stereotype, although if Toni Erdmann is a typical example of the form, it is perhaps not entirely surprising that they have failed to travel particularly well outside their country of origin.

Now, let me qualify that by saying that Toni Erdmann is a really, really good film, and very striking and memorable – I might even go so far as to say it is almost unique in my recent experience. But there are ways in which it doesn’t so much break the rules of comedy as feed them into a woodchipper. For one thing, most people would agree that one of the secrets of great comedy lies in its rhythm and pacing, and I think it’s fair to say that many of the world’s great comedy films – Bringing Up Baby, Sleeper, Carry On Screaming – do their thing and get away by round about the hour-and-a-half mark. Toni Erdmann goes on for nearly three hours, and you are aware of quite long scenes going by where people wait for lifts or discuss oil-industry outsourcing in a notably humourless way.

Then again, I think the longeurs are definitely part of the film’s odd charm, for it is possibly the most lugubrious movie I have ever seen: at no point does it actually seem to be inviting you to laugh. All the characters seem to be only one bad day away from breaking down and sobbing, and it is directed with long, naturalistic scenes of people just wandering about and waiting.

It should probably be depressing or embarrassing more than funny, and for the first hour or so I thought this was a movie which was doing a very effective job of reinterpreting Ricky Gervais’ schtick from The Office, in that Winfried initially comes across as more of a tragic individual than the hilarious clown he clearly thinks he is, with his laborious, silly jokes annoying the people around him rather than amusing them in any way. He does seem like a man grappling with some kind of late-life crisis; perhaps intimations of his own irrelevance, for his ex-wife doesn’t need him, and neither does his daughter.

Or does she? For a while there seem to be very distant echoes of Tokyo Story, as the father struggles to come to terms with the fact that he is simply a very minor and peripheral part of his daughter’s life, but then the focus of the film shifts and we start to see events through Ines’ own eyes – and we are suddenly aware that perhaps she is not quite the all-conquering and satisfied professional that she professes to be, and that her dad may have a point. Slowly she begins to find herself complicit in some of his more ridiculous stunts, and even beginning to realise that the two of them have more in common than she might like to admit.

All of this is handled with tremendous deadpan subtlety, marvellously underplayed to the point of near-inertia, and the result is a film which is more often just mesmerisingly weird rather conventionally funny. Some bizarrely off-kilter moments add to the impression that the whole thing has wandered off the reservation on some fundamental level – an ickily graphic scene revolving around cakes and sex, and a truly strange tableau of a party full of naked business folk and a mutant Bulgarian Wookiee. On the other hand, an impromptu bravura performance of a Whitney Houston song may just challenge Trainspotting 2‘s sectarian pub scene for this year’s funniest moment.

Yet there is warmth, here, too, and wisdom – as underplayed as every other part of the film, of course, but no less present for all of that. The film is as unconventional in its ending as in nearly every other element, but by its conclusion the main characters have become warm and sympathetic, despite everything that has gone before. You’re not quite sorry to see it finish, because it has been nearly three hours, after all, but you almost certainly feel it has been time well and distinctively spent. I have no idea how representative Toni Erdmann is of the German comedy scene – very much not, I suspect – but it is a very impressive movie for all its peculiar distinctiveness.

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