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Posts Tagged ‘surreal’

Well, now, here’s a slightly odd coincidence – just the other day I was writing about the film career of the Hungarian-British director Peter Sasdy, and (in a couple of quite separate venues) about horror films with the disjointed, compelling logic of a bad dream. And then last night I stuck on a random DVD, solely for pleasure, and it turned out to be a bad-dream horror story directed by Peter Sasdy. Either my subconscious mind is rather more on the ball than its conscious equivalent, or a cry of ‘Whoo, spooky!’ is justified.

The tale in question was an episode of Hammer House of Horror, a 1980 anthology series which was very nearly the final gasp of the original incarnation of the legendary British production company. I would never argue that this is either a great TV show or a real example of what makes real Hammer horror movies so special – the TV budget means that the episodes are all set in contemporary times, making it feel somewhat more like an Amicus production, while the desire to sell the show to a US network means the horror and exploitation elements are too often watered down – but quite a few of the famous Hammer names are involved in various capacities, such as Sasdy in this instance.

This episode is entitled Rude Awakening, written by Gerald Savory, and its particular Amicus resemblance is somewhat heightened by the fact it stars that legend amongst British character actors, Denholm Elliott (he had previously played a hack horror writer in The House that Dripped Blood and one of the victims of Tom Baker’s voodoo paintbrush in Vault of Horror, both for Amicus). This is, as far as I’m aware, the only conjunction of Hammer and Denholm Elliott, but the result is one of the series’ more striking episodes.

Elliott plays Norman Shenley, a middle-aged provincial estate-agent whom the actor invests with all the understated seediness he often brought to this kind of part – although calling it understated may be stretching a point, as virtually the first thing we see Norman do is start letching over and groping his secretary, Lolly (Lucy Gutteridge). Norman is having an affair with Lolly, of course, although there is the slight problem that his wife (Pat Heywood) refuses to grant him the divorce he so desperately wants.

Anyway: a man named Rayburn (James Laurenson) appears, claiming to be the executor of a will with a large country house to be disposed of. He would quite like Norman to take a look at the place in his professional capacity, and our man cheerfully agrees. His enthusiasm is only slightly dented when the manor turns out to be a half-decrepit, cobweb-festooned old pile, complete with spooky doors that open seemingly by themselves and wall-to-wall suits of armour. But then a disembodied voice berates Norman for the murder of his wife, and the armour creaks into life to exact retribution on the hapless estate agent…

Who wakes up in a panic, rather annoying his wife in the process. It was all just a bad dream, apparently – but so realistic! Norman can’t get over it, talking to his wife about, and Lolly when he goes in to the office. He’s so obsessed with his odd nocturnal experience that Lolly suggests he drive out to see if the country house really exists. Discovering that he still has the map given to him by Rayburn in his pocket (somehow!), Norman finds the house is not there, but a phone box is. He almost dies when the box threatens to combust around him, spying a tramp who resembles Rayburn while doing so, but then enjoys a somewhat torrid interlude with Lolly (still in the phone box)…

Only to wake up yet again, back in bed with his unimpressed missus. One of the bricks you could throw at Rude Awakening is that the structure of the story becomes rather predictable as the episode progresses – Norman wakes up from his latest nightmare, restarts the day in question, only for events to go off at some odd tangent or other, normally resulting in him meeting an outlandish sticky end. The sticky ends get progressively more outlandish in the course of the episode – never mind being assaulted by animated suits of armour, Norman finds himself executed by undead domestic staff, almost killed when the building he’s in is demolished around him, and (most surreal of all) waking up midway through brain surgery to find himself dead on the operating table.

All good fun, if you like weird, not-especially-horrific horror, but the problem is really that it builds the viewer’s expectations of something really spectacularly surreal at the climax of the episode, and unfortunately it just doesn’t happen. The conclusion is reasonably clever, though, as is the way the script combines several different story types – Rude Awakening goes for, and pretty much achieves the triple by including elements of a recurring nightmare story, a precognitive dream story, and a can’t-tell-dream-from-reality story. It’s clear from early on that something fishy is afoot – Norman doesn’t seem at all surprised to find a dream artefact in his pocket while he’s supposedly awake, to say nothing of the fact that he doesn’t notice Lolly appearing in a different provocative guise in each new iteration of the story – but the resolution, when it comes, is relatively understated. It may be that it is in fact supposed to be blackly comic – after so many fake demises, Norman ends up assuming he’s asleep, which proves to be a serious mistake – but the script is not quite sharp enough for the results to be particularly amusing.

That said, there is, of course, a masterly performance from Denholm Elliott to enjoy, which is the episode’s main treat. Ineffectual and/or seedy men were really his speciality, usually in a supporting capacity, and he is, it almost goes without saying, on fine form here. He keeps you watching even after it’s become quite clear how the episode’s going to function, even if not where it’s going. And Sasdy has fun with the more surreal elements of the story, which are quite different from the stuff of the relatively grounded feature films he made for Hammer. Rude Awakening probably counts as only a minor item on the CV of both men, but it brings a certain style of surreal British horror to the small screen reasonably effectively.

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Every now and then a movie comes along which really makes you pause and scratch your head, not necessarily because it’s bad, but because it’s just so utterly unlike anything else on release. The same goes double when a movie of this kind manages to snag what looks very much like an A-list cast. Are they trying to show their credentials as serious artists? Is it perhaps some kind of situationist statement? Or does the director just have a fistful of incriminating photographs?

lobster

Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster is exactly this kind of film. Apparently set in what looks very much like the real world, Colin Farrell plays David, a middle-aged architect whose wife has left him. Under the rules of the odd society which is in charge, he is required to check into a special hotel for single people, where he is given 45 days to find a partner and fall in love with them. Should he fail to do so, he will be turned into an animal of his choice: quite naturally, he wants to be turned into a lobster. (David is accompanied by a dog, who it transpires is his brother, following an unsuccessful previous stay at the hotel.)

David soon settles in and adapts to the kindly-yet-terrifying regime of the hotel manager (Olivia Colman), making friends with some of the other singles there (including John C Reilly and Ben Whishaw – this may not be the biggest hit Whishaw appears in this month). As well as being indoctrinated in all the various advantages that being in couple brings, on a regular basis all the inmates of the hotel are bussed down to the local woods, where they hunt and tranquilise ‘Loners’, people who have opted to defy the conventions of society.

However, life at the hotel does not really work out for David, and he eventually becomes a Loner himself, managing to win the confidence of their leader (Lea Seydoux – this may not be the biggest hit Seydoux appears in this month). Ironically, of course, no sooner has he won his place in this most antisocial of societies than he finds romance blossoming between himself and one of the others (Rachel Weisz – this may not be the biggest hit a member of her household appears in this month). Will true love conquer all?

Well, the question presupposes that the words ‘true love’ actually mean something. I suspect the makers of The Lobster wouldn’t necessarily agree with this, for this film has one of the dourest, most cynical views of relationships I can remember seeing. There is hardly a hint of genuine affection between any of the couples at the hotel – their relationships are not romantic but simply transactional, a necessity which is more-or-less forced upon them. No-one questions the necessity for being part of a couple, it’s just accepted as an essential part of living.

The Lobster is widely being dubbed a comedy in reviews and promotional material, and it may be that this doesn’t sound to you like particularly fertile ground for big laughs. I would tend to agree, and in fact I suspect the whole ‘comedy’ label has come from the fact that it isn’t obviously anything else, and the central idea of people being turned into animals is quite a silly one. On the whole the film defies the concept of genre, or at least refuses to be bound by it – there are some blackly comic moments, all of them utterly deadpan (Farrell trying to take his trousers off with one hand cuffed behind his back, for instance), but also a fair amount of graphic material, and sections bordering on the horrific (this isn’t a film for animal lovers, either).

I can only presume that the big-name cast are doing this just to show that they are artists as well as stars. All of the performances are, well, game, with Farrell and Weisz in particular coming out with dialogue of the most affectless inanity with utter conviction (this is yet another of the film’s stylistic quirks). If they never quite manage to sell you on the idea that this film is set in a coherent other-world, well, that’s because it’s just too weird an idea to work in those terms.

It’s not as if the metaphor underpinning The Lobster is exactly difficult to decipher, either: the film is an ironic comment on the importance society places on being part of a couple (and anyone who tells you this doesn’t make a difference has clearly never had to contend with the dreaded single supplement on a package holiday). This extends to an implicit criticism of the lengths that people will go to in order to establish or maintain a connection with someone, although once again this is grotesquely exaggerated in the film.

Fair enough, there’s material for a film there, but The Lobster seems to run out of new ways of discussing it quite quickly. You get a strong sense of where the film is coming from quite quickly, but by the second half it’s starting to feel like they’ve run out of ideas and are just indulging themselves in arbitrary weirdness to pad out the film.

This is certainly an original movie, well-made, and with some serious talent involved – and it does contain some funny moments and interesting ideas. But in the end, it does feel a little bit self-indulgent, and it’s often not the easiest of films to watch. Nice to see something quite so weird getting a relatively big release, but I suspect that has more to do with the cast list than anything else.

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Me, in the office, the other day:

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

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

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

‘Really?’

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

‘Oh God yeah… who is it?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

moodindigo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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