The Cinema of Romances

Pic: Dorje De Burgh

David Turpin is a screenwriter (The Lodgers, The Winter Lake) and musician, as The Late David Turpin.  With the release of his new album Romances – a collaboration with a ‘cast’ of ten different guest singers that was inspired by his work in film – David discusses five unusual cinematic love stories that have been influential on his own work.

 

My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991)

See My Own Private Idaho at the right age, and it’s with you for life.  Gus Van Sant’s best film is many things – a sympathetic portrait of young people on the fringes; a palimpsest of Shakespeare’s Henry IV; a road movie as deeply affecting as Paris, Texas – but most of all, it’s an extraordinarily tender and melancholy unrequited love story. River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves are one of the most iconic couples of the 1990s, precisely because they don’t fit together – and because this is evident to everybody (both in the film and watching it), except for Phoenix’s poignantly guileless hero. The justly famous campfire scene between the leads is one of cinema’s most moving depictions of the insufficiency of words to express feeling. It’s beautifully played by Phoenix, of course, but it’s also worth noting that Reeves’ dependable air of benign obliviousness was never better – or more tragically – used than here.

 

The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, 2014)

Peter Strickland’s rarefied love story takes place in a world without men, where lepidopterologists Cynthia and Evelyn (Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna) conduct a relationship defined by ritualised performances of dominance and submission. The film’s genius lies in how its surface – impeccably evoking the misty, sapphically-fixated ‘eurotica’ of the mid-1970s – both conceals and illuminates its inner meaning. Unlike the ‘Eurotrash’ it invokes, The Duke of Burgundy is a deeply humane and moving story about the ways in which we abnegate ourselves for our lovers – and the fear of failing to sufficiently embody others’ desires. The reversal of roles, in which we come to understand the ‘dominant’ partner (Knudsen) as imprisoned by the desires of her ‘subordinate’ (D’Anna), is one of erotic cinema’s most astute, and moving, deconstructions of its own myths. The Duke of Burgundy is both a wholesale work of onanistic fantasy, and its own opposite.

 

Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942)

Based on a florid bestseller by Olive Higgins Prouty, Now, Voyager is, in many ways, the quintessential 1940s melodrama – not least for its touching faith in the power of psychotherapy. It’s also the perfect vehicle for Bette Davis, whose transformation from drab ‘Aunt Charlotte’ to glamorous ‘Miss Vale’ is achieved via The Talking Cure and some truly spectacular hats. As Jerry – the married man to whom she becomes close while visiting Rio de Janeiro – Paul Henreid judges his performance perfectly. In other words, he understands that this is Davis’ show. What makes Now, Voyager more than an exquisite piece of camp (although it is that too) is its genuine wisdom. Charlotte and Jerry cannot ultimately be together (‘Don’t let’s ask for the moon, we have the stars!’ Davis exclaims), but their romance has made each of them better able to accept their course in life.  It’s a touching affirmation of love as the path to self-knowledge, however long the affair itself may last.

 

The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986)

The Fly is a marvel of dramatic economy featuring only four significant roles – the central couple (Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum) and a pair of potential love rivals (John Getz and Joy Boushel). The romance between unworldly Seth Brundle and no-nonsense Veronica Quaife may have been helped by the fact that Goldblum and Davis were a couple at the time, but it’s also written with warmth and empathy, as well as the razor-concision one expects from Cronenberg. We all remember the inside-out baboon, the acid-vomit, and the leprous body-parts on the bathroom shelf, but what’s striking about The Fly is the humanity and eroticism that peeks out between these gruesome highlights – as delicate as the stocking used to test the telepod device.  Although Cronenberg has been cagey about the film being read as an AIDS metaphor, its story of a couple facing disease – and the transformation of the afflicted into a social pariah and object of fear – has powerful resonance emerging the year after the first HIV antibody test was developed.

 

La Belle et la Bête (Jean Cocteau, 1946)

My favourite screen romance is Jean Cocteau’s exquisite adaptation of Perrault’s 18th-century fairy tale. Plundered by two Disney versions (animated in 1991; notionally ‘live action’ in 2017) that rinsed it of its eroticism and mystery, Cocteau’s still glows like a strange and lonely star.  Its uncanny visual highlights – living candelabras, the still-shocking appearance of the Beast himself (Jean Marais) – have the force of dreams, but Cocteau also finds magic in the everyday (as in the scenes of Belle hanging white sheets on the washing line). Josette Day plays Belle with self-possession, essential decency, and no trace of the ‘goody-goody’. One can actually see why she and the Beast fall in love – and Cocteau’s own celebration of Marais (his own long-time companion) is a romance in its own right. This is the only version of the story to get to the heart of the matter when – after the hairy wooer is transformed into human form – Belle asks, with a telling hint of deflation, ‘Where is my beast?’.

 

www.thelatedavidturpin.com 

Romances can be streamed/downloaded from Bandcamp at thelatedavidturpin.bandcamp.com/album/romances

 

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Review: My Cousin Rachel

DIR/WRI: Roger Michell • PRO: Kevin Loader • DOP: Mike Eley • ED: Kristina Hetherington • DES: Alice Normington • MUS: Rael Jones • CAST: Sam Claflin, Rachel Weisz, Holliday Grainger

The second big-screen outing for Daphne Du Maurier’s 1951 novel, My Cousin Rachel is a solid, faithful adaptation that would have played well on a Sunday afternoon at any point over the past six decades. In some ways, the mere existence of a film like this is cause for celebration – a resolutely old-fashioned entertainment somehow emerging in a Summer crowded with franchise landfill. That being said, there’s something rather square about Roger Michell’s adaptation that left this correspondent’s bodice largely unripped. Are descents into infatuation and jealousy supposed to feel so… cosy?

The story is more or less unchanged from Henry Koster’s underrated 1952 adaptation, which starred Olivia De Havilland and Richard Burton. Here, the leads are taken by Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin as, respectively, the mysterious Rachel and the hot-headed Philip, cousin of Rachel’s ill-fated husband. Philip’s suspicions are naturally aroused when his beloved cousin ends up six feet under with undue swiftness following his marriage to the suspiciously continental Rachel – although his plans for revenge are complicated when Rachel takes up residence at the family estate in Cornwall, inadvertently stirring his (rather adolescent) passions. But just how inadvertent is Rachel’s seduction of her ‘cousin’? And is she, as she says, a woman ‘trying to make her own way in the world’, or, as Philip initially believes, a cold-hearted murderess. Like Du Maurier’s novel, the film draws out this ambiguity for its duration before arriving at a conclusion that has becomes justifiably famous for… Well, you’ll have to see.

Visually, it’s put over with just enough flair to separate it from high quality television – and this isn’t necessarily a handicap. As Romantic costume pieces go, Michell’s film is never as immersive as Jane Campion’s Bright Star (although it does quote visually from that film in a handsome shot involving a field of bluebells); at the same time, it’s never as distractingly plasticky as Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak (with which it shares certain Gothic trappings, if not its outright supernatural slant). The middle-ground is very much the watchword here, the better to foreground the actors – an approach very typical of Michell, who can usually be relied upon to deliver a sympathetic showcase for his performers.

In that respect, the main attraction is clearly Weisz. Always a versatile actress, she doesn’t carry the assumption of transparency that made De Havilland an inspired choice for the part, but she plays ambiguity well, and Rachel falls neatly between the twin poles of her recent work. Weisz can conjure a sense of natural inscrutability, as she did in Joshua Marston’s little-seen Complete Unknown last year; but she also has a fine-tuned, and sadly under-exploited, facility for camp, heretofore relegated to Sam Raimi’s bloated Oz: The Great and Powerful. As Rachel, she plays both angles – unknowable reserve, and swishy black-veiled villainess. What’s more, she seems to be enjoying herself, and the feeling translates.

Of course, the real villain of My Cousin Rachel might not be Rachel at all, but the tortured suspicions of her wooer/nemesis Philip. In that sense, Du Maurier’s novel might be read as a treatise on the poisonous anger of masculine entitlement thwarted by feminine self-possession: the man expects that the woman reveal herself completely to him, for no reason other than that is it his prerogative to know, and hers to be known. Sam Claflin is clearly never going to rival Richard Burton for curdled virility, but he’s serviceable in the part. He’s a rather blunt actor, which can be a liability in its own right, but which actually plays well off Weisz’s hints and withholding.

As is usual for this kind of film, the supporting cast keeps some fine British character actors busy between meatier television commitments. Holliday Grainger is appealing as Philip’s own lovelorn admirer, Louise, while Simon Russell Beale and Tim Barlow make characteristic hay with smaller parts as family lawyer and faithful retainer, respectively.

 

David Turpin

105 minutes
12A (See IFCO for details)

My Cousin Rachel is released 9th June 2017

My Cousin Rachel – Official Website

 

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Review: Fifty Shades Darker

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DIR: James Foley • WRI: Niall Leonard • PRO: Dana Brunetti, Michael De Luca, E.L. James, Marcus Viscidi • DOP: John Schwartzman • ED: Richard Francis-Bruce • DES: Nelson Coates • MUS: Danny Elfman • CAST: Jamie Dornan, Dakota Johnson, Tyler Hoechlin

Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) was both a pleasant surprise and a let-down.  Kelly Marcel’s script managed to smooth the passage of novelist E. L. James’ trite plotting and tin-eared dialogue, while Taylor-Johnson gave the thing a certain elegance of tone.  Dakota Johnson’s witty turn elevated the material to such a degree that it would have made her a bona fide star if she’d had anything better to work with.  The downside was a bizarrely incurious approach to James’ toxic conflation of economic privilege with sexual mastery, although it would have been forgivable if the whole affair hadn’t been torpedoed by a stolid turn from Jamie Dornan, a last minute replacement for Charlie Hunnam, whose every move reeked of not wanting to be there.  Taylor-Johnson also showed a saddening disinterest in camp, despite opening her film with Annie Lennox singing “I Put a Spell on You”, and casting Marcia Gay Harden as a high society matriarch.

Fifty Shades Darker is a different kind of surprise, and a different kind of let-down.  It follows through on its promise of being trashier than Taylor-Johnson’s effort – but in all the wrong ways.  That James has fully wrested control of the property after her much-publicised clashes with Taylor-Johnson is evident in that the script for this instalment is the work of Niall Leonard, an occasional writer for British television who also happens to be her husband.  Those who felt short-changed by Marcel’s gutting of James’ flatulent prose style will be relieved to learn that Leonard has lovingly preserved its persistent air of blithe inanity.  Directorial duties, meanwhile, have now been assumed by journeyman hack James Foley, whose coruscating Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) seems a very long time ago.

The film has no plot, in any meaningful sense of the word.  It’s a story only in so far as it begins, various things happen, and then it ends.  These things involve a couple of spats between quickly reunited lovers Anastasia (Johnson) and Christian (Dornan), a wedding proposal that is inexplicably accepted no less than three times, a remarkably desultory episode involving a jilted stalker named Leila (Bella Heathcote), and a helicopter accident so blissfully unconnected to everything else that it feels like it’s been spliced in from a different film.  To call it soap opera would be an insult to the form.  There’s no drama, let alone melodrama.

Obviously, a nonsensical plot would be forgivable if the film worked as erotica, but there’s a rather low quotient of sex, and what’s on screen isn’t going to steam up anybody’s spectacles.  Curiously, the oft-touted “female perspective” of the franchise is little in evidence here, as Foley offers so many lingering close-ups of Johnson’s breasts being fondled, lathered, or oiled – and films Dornan so unflatteringly throughout – that one wonders whether he knows his audience at all.  The promise of sexual novelty also goes laughably unfulfilled.  A scene of Christian producing a nipple clamp only to demonstrate it on a fingertip and put it back in a drawer fairly sums up the proceedings, although the apotheosis of sexual cluelessness is actually reached early on, when cunnilingus is described as “kinky f***age”, as if it’s something practiced only by advanced disciples of the Marquis De Sade, as opposed to, you know, most people concerned with female pleasure.

That the film’s sexual politics are laughable needn’t necessarily be a problem.  The problem is that they’re laughable and depressing.  This correspondent wondered at the original’s inadvertent similarity to Pasolini’s Salo in its interweaving of economic and sexual power (albeit one presented without critique).  That noxious trope is repeated here, ad nauseam, with a side-serving of good old fashioned sexism to boot.  At one point, Anastasia is harassed by her sleazy boss, Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) – mainly so that she can realise the error of her ways after Christian balks at the idea of her having a job.  Later, when Christian “subdues” the deranged Leila by dehumanising and humiliating her, Anastasia suffers a pang of conscience not because Christian persistently treats women abhorrently, but because she is afraid that she will not be able to satisfy a man who is accustomed to getting “so much” from his lovers/slaves/purchases.

After valiantly wrestling with the material in the first instalment, Johnson seems to have all but thrown in the towel here.  She looks bored because she’s too good for this nonsense – and she is.  Dornan, by contrast, looks bored because he thinks he’s too good for it – and he isn’t.  That he is deeply uncomfortable in this role has been apparent since the beginning, but given how much of his part here involves basic functions like walking and standing, it’s mystifying how he manages to be a damp squib in every single frame in which he appears.  His taciturn press junket appearances may have become the stuff of legend, but given that people will be paying to see this film (although likely in smaller numbers than had initially been projected), it seems downright churlish to be all but somnambulant on screen.

All this grey does have a silver lining, though, and her name is Kim Basinger.  The veteran star makes hay with the role of Elena Lincoln, jealous deflowerer of the adolescent Christian – no mean feat when one considers that an endless montage of Anastasia walking the streets to a Sia power ballad takes up more screen-time than her entire performance.  There is one, and only one, moment of genuine excitement in Fifty Shades Darker, and it has nothing to do with Anastasia or Christian.  When Basinger and Harden get down to a face-slapping, napkin-flicking stand-off, Fifty Shades Darker delivers a moment of pleasure that no nipple clamp could ever eclipse.  These two broads know where it’s at.  If we absolutely must have more of this Fifty Shades guff every Valentine’s Day, is it too much to ask that they be given a fair crack of the whip next time around?

 

David Turpin

117 minutes

18 See IFCO for details

Fifty Shades Darker is released 10th February 2017

Fifty Shades Darker – Official Website

 

 

 

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Another Look at ‘The Witch’

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David Turpin casts a spell over Robert Eggers’ The Witch.

Erstwhile production and costume designer Robert Eggers’ feature debut, The Witch has been steadily accumulating superlatives since its premiere at last year’s Sundance Festival.  Sub-titled “A New England Folk-Tale”, the film is potently imagined and beautifully wrought – although its hold loosens considerably when it strays from its eerie highpoints and into more conventional horror territory.

The film opens in a 17th-century Puritan plantation, from which a particularly devout family, headed by severe patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) and his tightly-drawn wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), have been exiled for ‘prideful conceit’.  Relocating to the edge of an isolated forest with their five children Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), Mercy (Ellie Grainger), Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and infant baby Samuel, they begin to carve out a new, ascetic existence.  However, the forest is already home to a witch who makes a meal of Samuel, and whose malign influence permeates the family, leading to recriminations and an inevitable explosion of violence.

The Witch is anchored by an extraordinarily persuasive atmosphere, and by a set of performances far stronger than what one might expect in a conventional horror film.  Ineson and Dickie more than look the part of a careworn Puritan couple, and they play with terrific conviction.  The most startling turns, though, come from the young cast – particularly the luminous Taylor-Joy, and Scrimshaw, both of whom play a number of difficult scenes with nuance and subtlety.

The witch herself is a tremendous creation – albeit briefly glimpsed.  Played in different guises by Bathsheba Garnett and Sarah Stephens, she is somehow entirely of the forest, while being unnervingly otherworldly.  The forest itself is a governing presence in the film – as are the family’s animals, who take on increasing significance as the film progresses.

In fact, The Witch builds such a complete world – and out of relatively limited resources, at that – that it is almost a shame when its various parts begin to coalesce into quite a conventional horror film, complete with jump scares and writhing possession scenes.  Although there’s no faulting the conviction with which these elements are staged, they defuse the haunting stillness of much of the film – dissipating the tension rather than bringing it to a punctuating climax.  The Witch is too good of a film to use these devices – they merely point up the difference between the parlour trick of a stage magician, and the deep, unknowable magic with which the heart of the film concerns itself.

The ultimate direction of the film reveals itself at a very deliberate pace, and will not be revealed here (although it is given away by the film’s main poster, so prospective viewers may want to avert their eyes).  If the journey to this point is never particularly frightening, it does at times feel authentically transgressive, particularly in how the film plays upon the nascent sexuality of its younger characters – a source of energy denied by Puritanism, and therefore ripe to be mined by the supernatural or diabolical.  Hence, the film appears to be linking the emergence of sexuality – particularly female sexuality – to the return of the suppressed energy of a nature that can be held off, but never actually tamed, by colonial influence.  As such, it falls into a fairly venerable tradition of American storytelling, the prime example of which is probably Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown (1835), while also touching on the kind of linkage of feminine and natural ‘unknowability’ seen everywhere from the inscrutable forests of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990-1991) to the haunting moon-bathing sequence of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia (2011).

The Witch saves its hokiest touch for last, as a title card solemnly informs us that much of what we have seen is based on actual 17th-century accounts.  Glossing a pseudo-feminist supernatural story by invoking the authority of a culture that persecuted and murdered women for false accusations of supernatural activity seems a little cavalier, but there’s no denying the power of the period’s language.  People who find themselves reeled in by the knotty cadences of the language would do well to seek out Katherine Howe’s The Penguin Book of Witches, which collects many accounts of the New England witch trials, and testifies, at least, to the authenticity of the film’s surface.

 

 

 

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Review: A Bigger Splash

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DIR: Luca Guadagnino • WRI: David Kajganich • PRO: Michael Costigan, Luca Guadagnino • DOP: Yorick Le Saux • ED: Walter Fasano • DES: Maria Djurkovic • CAST: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaert

 

After their ravishing 2009 collaboration I am Love, director Luca Guadagnino and leading lady Tilda Switon have reconvened for an equally glamorous, but looser and loopier melodrama with A Bigger Splash. Less an adaptation of than a series of riffs upon Jacques Deray’s 1969 film La Piscine, A Bigger Splash gifts Swinton with an otherworldly queen bee part that seems tailored to her strengths, and finds outlandish new things to do with Ralph Fiennes. If the film’s collection of frissons is ultimately less satisfying than the knockout punch of I am Love, it’s still as enjoyable, refreshing, and ever-so-slightly discombobulating as a good holiday.

Swinton plays fictitious rock icon Marianne Lane (equal parts David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Chrissie Hynde), who is recovering from vocal chord surgery, and consequently cannot raise her voice above a throaty whisper.  To recuperate, she has retreated to the Italian island of Pantelleria with her lover Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) – only for their impeccably stylish idyll to be rudely interrupted by Marianne’s former manager/lover/enabler Harry (Fiennes), who arrives uninvited, and with his sullenly provocative newfound daughter Penelope (Johnson) in tow.

The scene is thus set for all manner of smouldering permutations and recriminations, as the quartet circle each other in various predator/prey configurations until somebody ends up face down in the swimming pool around which they habitually congregate.  Guadagnino, however, is plainly less concerned with the ‘suspense film’ dynamics of his story than with conjuring a particular sinister insouciance within which his very game cast can romp about.

Of the leads, Swinton and Fiennes give object lessons in the benefits of playing to and against type, respectively.  Simply watching Swinton occupy space on screen has always been a fascinating proposition, since her remarkable extended wordless take in Derek Jarman’s War Requiem (1989).  Guadagnino is plainly too fascinated by her singular way of moving – and by her just-so Raf Simons wardrobe – to ask anything as austerely demanding of her here, but there’s a limber grace to her near-silent performances that contrasts intriguingly with her constricted voice.  Fiennes, on the other hand, is thrillingly obnoxious – always voluble and frequently stark naked, he is the very definition of the unwanted house guest.  It’s as fascinating to watch him foisted on others as it is horrifying to imagine him in one’s own home.

Johnson – who was ill-represented by the unbearably naff Fifty Shades of Grey – makes the most of every opportunity to smoulder and sulk.  Crucially, however, she also brings shading and nuance to a character (played by a kittenish Jane Birkin in Deray’s film) who could easily have had none.  Schoenaerts draws the short straw.  While he and Swinton have a screen-fogging physical chemistry, he seems reluctant to enter into the swing of Guadagnino’s tangy melodramatics.  While some of the reticence is undoubtedly his character’s, at other points the odd discomfort looks more like his own.

The ever-lovely Aurore Clément has a sly small role, and Corrado Guzzanti enjoys himself as the local Carabinieri, but the key supporting player here is Pantelleria itself – volcanically beautiful, and regally indifferent to the petty squabbles of the mere mortals who inhabit it.  On the subject of regal indifference, Guadagnino’s gestures toward the hardships of illegal migrants entering Europe through the island never quite slot into the rest of the film.  This strand dangles underdeveloped, which may be an intriguing statement on the issue in its own right – but which also has the unfortunate side effect of swelling the running time of a film that could probably have benefitted from leaving 15 minutes on the cutting-room floor.

These are minor complaints, though, when A Bigger Splash as a whole is such a sly treat.  Like the David Hockey painting from which it – otherwise inexplicably – takes its title, the film mesmerises through its own glassy superficiality.  The pristine surface exudes good taste and – somehow, almost subliminally – hints at a sinister layer just beyond our reach.

 

David Turpin

15A (See IFCO for details)

124 minutes

A Bigger Splash is released 12th February 2016

 

 

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Review: Buttercup Bill

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DIR/WRI: Remy Bennett, Émilie Richard-Froozan • PRO: Emma Comley, Sadie Frost • DOP: Ryan Foregger • ED: Vanessa Roworth • DES: Akin McKenzie • MUS: Will Bates • CAST: Remy Bennett, Evan Louison, Pauly Lingerfelt.

 

Billed as a “psycho-sexual romance”, Remy Bennett and Émilie Richard-Froozen’s debut feature, Buttercup Bill never quite delivers on that promise – unless one counts a lengthy close-up of a phallic tree branch as the summit of symbolic sophistication. The film’s loose narrative involves Pernilla (Bennett) and Patrick (Evan Louison), lifelong friends who reunite in the wake of the suicide of a childhood playmate. Fairly swiftly, Pernilla and Patrick are engaged in some rather familiar erotic gamesmanship – often involving third parties. The question of why Pernilla and Patrick relate to each other in this fashion is intended as the film’s lure – although the mystery will hold the attention of few, and its solution will surprise absolutely nobody.

The film Buttercup Bill most closely resembles is Lost River (2014), Ryan Gosling’s garbled but not uninteresting directorial debut. Mercifully, Buttercup Bill’s low budget precludes the sheer self-indulgence of Lost River, but like Gosling’s film, Bennett and Richard-Froozen’s is less a fully formed feature than it is a curation of reference points – among which Terence Malick and David Lynch loom largest. Like Malick’s films, Buttercup Bill counterpoints the assumed interior life of its characters with a richly textured conjuring of their physical environment – beautifully captured here by cinematographer Ryan Foregger. Vanessa Roworth’s fine editing also feels intuitive more than linear, another echo of Malick – particularly in the later stages of his career. Lynch, the most compelling surface stylist of recent American cinema, is plundered for repeated – and incongruous – images of vampish chanteuses, and for the formal presentation of disquieting objects. A telephone booth in an overgrown expanse, for instance, takes on the character of Blue Velevet’s severed ear. Much of the borrowing is fairly blunt, and to no particular end – an early scene of a bleary-eyed Bennett answering a telephone cribs directly from Sheryl Lee’s performance in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992). While Malick and Lynch are both fine directors, their influence on American independent film culture is now so pervasive that the homages of younger filmmakers seem dispiritingly unimaginative.

Furthermore, while Gosling’s posturing was almost mitigated by an affecting turn from Christina Hendricks, Buttercup Bill stumbles with its leads. The controlled mise-en-scene suggests Bennett may have a compelling directorial career ahead of her, but her central performance is enervating – not least because of a vocal affectation that makes about half her lines unintelligible. As Patrick, Louison certainly captures his preening character’s juvenile narcissism, but leaves viewers none the wiser as to why he exerts such a magnetic pull for the film’s female characters. Of the supporting cast, the elaborately tattooed Pauly Lingerfelt is certainly a striking physical presence, while the exotically named Reverend Goat gives the film a momentary shot of energy with his wild-eyed (and very Lynchian) cameo as a preacher. A rich collection of soundtrack songs goes some way to giving interest to the film’s many longueurs – although the final selection is rather on-the-nose.

David Turpin

96 minutes

Buttercup Bill is released 4th September 2015

Buttercup Bill  – Official Website

 

 

 

 

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Review: Hard to be a God

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DIR: Aleksei German  • WRI: Aleksei German, Svetlana Karmalita  • PRO: Viktor Izvekov, Leonid Yarmolnik  • Music: Viktor Lebedev  • DOP: Vladimir Ilin, Yuriy Klimenko  • Ed: Irina Gorokhovskaya  • Cast: Leonid Yarmolnik, Aleksandr Chutko, Evgeniy Gerchakov, Laura Lauri

 

The final film by Russian auteur Aleskei German, Hard to be a God had been in gestation since the late 1960s, when German first encountered the Strugatsky brothers novel upon which it is based. German, who made only five other features in his near half-century career, died in February 2013, shortly after completing photography for the film, the editing of which was largely overseen by his wife and son. It is difficult to imagine a more striking, or uncompromising, final statement from any filmmaker.

Like Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), which was also drawn from material by the Strugatsky brothers, Hard to be a God is nominally a science-fiction piece, although such a description might also be hopelessly misleading. The film takes place on Arkanar, a planet that is superficially identical to Earth – albeit a 13th-century Earth by way of Bruegel and Hieronymus Bosch. Scientists who travelled to this strange planet in the hope of civilising it have failed miserably in their goal, with the film’s notional hero, Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik), now occupying the position of a strange kind of demi-god, alternately beloved and feared by the beleaguered masses.

Plot is of less consequence to German than the creation of an immersive world, and in this regard Hard to be a God is extraordinarily powerful. Shot in severe black and white, the film presents a seemingly unending sequence of indelible images – with grotesque ugliness coexisting with a strange, austere beauty. Its creation of a medieval environment is the most persuasive since Frantisek Vlácil’s Marketa Lazarova (1969) and the most imaginative since Vincent Ward’s The Navigator (1988), although neither of those films was realised on Hard to be a God’s towering scale. The effect is utterly, and often uncomfortably, transporting – never more so than when the ragged inhabitants of Arkanar abruptly stare directly into the camera, their simultaneously accusatory and uncomprehending expressions suggesting the unwitting subjects of a medieval Diane Arbus.

In the bleakness of its vision, and its preference for long takes, German’s film perhaps most recalls Béla Tarr – and it is every bit as challenging as that comparison suggests. There are even shades of Bruno Dumont in its strange combination of beauty and unflinching ugliness, although unlike Dumont’s recent P’tit Quinquin (2014), Hard to be a God makes every minute of its three-hour running time acutely felt. Most disconcertingly, while the film has the texture of an allegory, any definitive meaning proves elusive. Though it alludes, on a subterranean level, to the horrors of the twentieth century, and the perpetuation of these horrors into the twenty-first, the film refuses to allow the futility and derangement of its world to resolve into an easily digestible lesson for its audience. Arkanar is, in some ways, the ultimate embodiment of “history repeating”, but Don Rumata – like the audience – remains powerless to give meaning to its miseries. Depending on one’s perspective, this is either the film’s greatest strength or its most foreboding challenge. However one feels about it, though, Hard to be a God will prove impossible to shake.

David Turpin

12A (See IFCO for details)
97 minutes

Hard to be a God is released 7th August 2015

 

 

 

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Review: Clouds of Sils Maria

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DIR/WRI: Olivier Assayas • PRO: Karl Baumgartner, Charles Gillibert, Thanassis Karathanos, Jean-Louis Porchet, Gérard Ruey • DOP: Yorick Le Saux • ED: Marion Monnier • CAST: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz

 

In Olivier Assayas’s latest interrogation of the nature of performance and identity, Juliette Binoche fearlessly tackles the role of Maria Enders, a celebrated actress who comes face-to-face with several uncomfortable mirrors of her own personality. When Enders makes the fateful decision to accept the role of the older woman in a re-staging of the play that made her famous, with her own original part now taken by a Hollywood starlet, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), it would seem that the stage is set for a backstage showdown between maturity and youth. However, as the film unfolds, it becomes apparent that the greatest challenge to Enders’ sense of self may come, not from Jo-Ann, but from her own personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart).

 

Although the set-up is complex, Clouds of Sils Maria is Assayas at his most formally accessible. The running time is manageable, the narrative is linear, and the ragged jump-cuts that brought electricity to Irma Vep (1996) have been replaced with perfectly-judged fades to and from black. With the exception of one hallucinatory sequence on a foggy mountain road, the film has a calm surface, calibrated to showcase the uniformly strong performances.

 

As the veteran star facing an uncertain future, Binoche is completely arresting, minutely charting each ripple of doubt that disturbs Enders’ apparent self-confidence. The degree to which Binoche is (or is not) playing a version of herself is presumably intended to tantalise the audience, although it’s notable that Enders, who is splendidly dismissive of populist science-fiction, takes a harder line than Binoche, whose previous English-speaking role was in Godzilla (2014).

 

The film’s true revelation is Kristen Stewart, whose mumbled interiority proves remarkably complementary to Binoche’s regal bearing. More than earning her status as the first American to scoop a French Cesar award for Best Actress, Stewart makes something very real, and often quite poignant, of Valentine’s struggle with Enders, the friend/employer/idol, who both awes and stifles her. While Julianne Moore and Mia Wasikowska made a delightfully grotesque pantomime of the star/assistant relationship in David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars (2014), Assayas, Binoche and Stewart approach the same topic with greater analytical perception as well as greater sympathy.

 

Moretz has what is necessarily the smallest and most cartoonish of the lead roles, but she attacks it with gusto. Brief “found footage” glimpses of Jo-Ann’s near feral volatility are totally convincing, as is her honeyed poise at other moments. She and Binoche have a great scene late in the film when the gulf between Jo-Ann’s personae threatens, briefly, to close – although Assayas is, of course, too cool-headed to permit a full showbiz tantrum to appear in unmediated.

 

As much as Clouds of Sils Maria is about its central characters’ negotiation of “roles”, it’s also about the way in which Assayas tackles generic convention, inhabiting it while observing it from without. Clouds of Sils Maria is as much a backstage melodrama as Demonlover (2002) and Boarding Gate (2007) were “erotic thrillers” – that is to say, theoretically only. The result is that Clouds of Sils Maria can occasionally feel rather dry, with what would remain subtext in a film like All About Eve (1950) or The Star (1952) openly discussed between Assayas’s characters.

 

Although Clouds of Sils Maria is an unapologetically talky film, the good news is that the talk is consistently stimulating, especially when delivered by the unexpected but terrific pairing of Binoche and Stewart. Beyond that, by creating characters with self-awareness enough to elevate subtext to text, Assayas opens up the possibility for deeper, perhaps mythic, dimensions to exist in the unspoken realms of the film. Grander, intangible themes are persistently evoked by Assayas’s landscape shots of the Swiss Alps, a location as crisply bracing and coolly mysterious as the film itself.

 

David Turpin

15A (See IFCO for details)

123 minutes
Clouds of Sils Maria is released 15th May 2015

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