Au hasard Balthazar (1966)

The most memorable donkey in the history of cinema is an infinitely better actor than his human counterparts in Robert Bresson’s emotionally stunted Au hasard Balthazar.

Au hasard BalthazarFrance
3*

Director:
Robert Bresson

Screenwriter:
Robert Bresson

Director of Photography:
Ghislain Cloquet

Running time: 95 minutes

Even though they almost always deal with profoundly spiritual issues, most of Robert Bresson’s films cannot be taken very seriously because the acting is so unbelievably bad. The French director famously used amateurs because he considered them blank canvases onto which it was easier to project fictional characters than would be the case with professional actors. And yet, the result, inevitably, is people uncomfortably saying lines that sound like a machine reading a page instead of an actual person speaking his/her mind. It’s diction without emotion, and the result is one laughably robotic line reading after another. Luckily, the main actor in Au hasard Balthazar is not a human but a donkey. And he is unaffected by these demands from Bresson, which makes the film at least somewhat acceptable to watch.

One of Bresson’s most highly acclaimed films (in the 2012 Sight and Sound critics’ poll, it took the 16th spot, handily beating out the director’s other entry on the list, Pickpocket, at no. 63), Au hasard Balthazar is certainly very successful at its anthropomorphism. But while we see the donkey as a person, it is very unfortunate that we also tend to view the lethargic characters as donkeys, or even worse, inanimate still lifes incapable of change.

The most grating example of this passivity is the non-donkey lead in the film, Marie (Anne Wiazemsky). Early on, she tenderly places a crown of flowers around the head of her pet donkey, Balthazar. She sits back down on a bench and looks fondly at him. Behind her, a petty criminal, Gérard (François Lafarge), sneaks up and touches her hand. Marie’s response? She simply gets up and moves gingerly into the house. Looking back timidly at Gérard, she sees his gang of good-for-nothing buddies have joined him in brutally kicking poor Balthazar for their own amusement. She makes no effort to protect the donkey, nor does she display any particular revulsion at his suffering.

A few days later, after her family has hired out Balthazar to a baker, who coincidentally employs Gérard to deliver the bread, Marie spots the donkey alone next to the road. She strokes him, lovingly, as she always does, when she sees Gérard appear with a lascivious look on his face. She slowly moves back to her car, but Gérard follows her onto the passenger seat. But she says nothing, and she does nothing. Two tears roll down her cheeks. And then he rapes her.

A few days later, he does the same. Her response? She starts dating him.

This narrative progression is not only sickening but makes Marie one of the weakest characters ever to grace the silver screen. And worst of all, she does not demonstrate any trace of doubt or self-reflection or anger or shame. For her, resistance is not only futile but unimaginable.

But let’s forget about Marie for a moment, as she is clearly unworthy of our empathy and perhaps even discussion.

The plot advances episodically with very awkward transitions between its various parts. Balthazar grows older and is passed from one owner to the next, each of whom whips him, kicks him or smashes a chair over his back. Although Balthazar is merely a donkey, he often realises this treatment is inhumane and sets off for greener pastures. The same, alas, cannot be said for Marie. She may be a fictional human of flesh and blood but clearly has no common sense.

The actions (or rather, the lack of any action) around Balthazar continually become more and more peculiar. The first owner from whom the donkey manages to escape is a farmer. In its youth, the donkey’s trot turns into a full-fledged gallop while it is transporting a heavy load of hay, and the attendant instability causes the cart and its cargo to keel over. Within seconds, a group of rowdy townspeople, pitchforks in hand, arrive to take out their anger (?) on poor Balthazar, who manages to scamper away just in time. These people are cartoonish in every way, seemingly the French version of Frankenstein‘s mob, but there is no explanation for their sudden appearance.

Since she is one of the film’s two main characters, let’s return to Marie for a moment. Another head-scratching moment comes late in the film after she appears to have been gang raped. Naturally, Gérard is one of the aggressors. Our first glimpse of the devastating scene comes after the fact, when a group of people, including Marie’s childhood love and hopeful wannabe beau, Jacques, peer expressionlessly through a window as she sobs, bruised and naked, inside. His inaction is yet further proof that this film’s characters are wholly devoid of human emotion.

The film’s visual style relies on a great many close-ups – sometimes to an obsessive degree. The shots are mostly of hands and feet, whose meaning is open to interpretation, but also of Balthazar’s face. This kind of intimacy draws us close. We may not get any information about his state of mind, but by being closer to this victim of human cruelty and indifference, we feel we can almost stroke him and put him at ease. Such shots make us forget, even just for a moment, about the chilling interruption (a donkey braying) of Massimiliano Damerini’s otherwise gentle “Piano Sonata in A Major” that plays over the opening credits.

Au hasard Balthazar does not have the narrative focus of Bresson’s Pickpocket nor the visual clarity of his A Man Escaped. The motivation for its characters’ (in)action is mostly unclear or simply incomprehensible. The only character that appeals to our emotions is Balthazar. Sadly, his presence alone cannot lift the film out of the realm of mediocrity.

Rocco (2016)

In this documentary, one of the world’s most prolific porn actors, Rocco Siffredi, is mostly clothed but comes across as a professional lover and a congenial husband and father.

RoccoFrance
3*

Directors:
Thierry Demaizière

Alban Teurlai
Editor:
Alban Teurlai
Director of Photography:
Alban Teurlai

Running time: 105 minutes

Boogie Nights kept us guessing until the final shot about the true size of its central character’s money-maker. Rocco, by contrast, opens with a close-up. There’s no mystery about the extent of his endowment and thus very little reason to keep the viewer in suspense. The titular Rocco, whose full nom de porno is Rocco Siffredi, has starred in around 1,500 porn films during his three decades in front of the camera. He may just be the most famous porn actor who has ever lived, and he is about to retire. It is very disappointing, then, that this documentary detailing his departure from the world of XXX only scratches the surface and does its utmost to avert its eyes from the prize in more ways than one.

Born with the surname Tano in 1964 in the town on Ortona on the east coast of Italy, perhaps the most phallus-shaped country in all of Europe and complete with gonads, Rocco recounts how – even as a young boy – he felt such a fire between his legs that he started masturbating at the age of just 9. His mother caught him but gave him a complicitous smile of permission. And he has never looked back. At least, that’s the way he tells it.

Today, despite his brutal on-camera pounding of a bevvy of young women, many of them from Eastern Europe, Rocco also has a family: two clean-cut teenage sons and their mother, Rózsa, who has been with him for more than 20 years. His cousin, Gabriele, has also been his lifelong production partner at their Budapest studios. Unfortunately, Gabriele appears to be unprofessional at best and senile at worst, coming up with ridiculous narratives for the films while Rocco’s (and the target viewer’s) pure focus is whether there will be enough sex. At another point, Gabriele forgets to hit the record button.

And yet, through it all, Rocco appears to be the most laid-back guy in the world. He has no real social barriers and handily makes out with most of the girls during the casting sessions. Most notable, however, is the precision with which he questions his future sex partners as he seeks to determine exactly what they are willing to do – or rather, have done to them. Rocco does not hold back during sex and fills every one of his partners’ orifices with brutal force. A few early scenes are particularly shocking because we see the hot post-coital showers expose bloody and blue bruises on butt cheeks.

The interviews with Rocco reveal a man seemingly without a care in the world but with a firm connection to his late mother. He says he carries her photo with him wherever he goes. By the end, however, the final product is too fulsome to be credible. We get the briefest of glimpses of his family, but if Rocco has any friends we don’t see them. The various people who do drift in and out of his life are never introduced, and the third act, which never recovers from an absurd detour into the English countryside, is stunningly weak.

This final act, which mostly takes place in Los Angeles on the set of what is allegedly Rocco’s swan song as a porn star, is lengthy but flaccid. James Deen, in some ways the Italian Stallion’s American counterpart, particularly with regard to the aggression he brings to his sexual encounters, is Rocco’s co-star, but for whatever reason he is not interviewed, which leaves us with more questions than answers. The slightly bemused look he shoots in Gabriele’s direction speaks volumes, however, and the sentiment is one the viewer easily identifies with.

If humanising its subject was the goal, the film is more or less successful. While we get little insight into either his day-to-day life or his thoughts on the many decades of fame and fornication, the image that Tano/Siffredi projects is one of kindness, sincere emotion and a persistent hunger for buxom female flesh. But if telling a story with enough detail to answer our most nagging questions was Rocco‘s other goal, it fails (just like Gabriele when he tried being a porn actor) to rise to the occasion.

Moonlight (2016)

In Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, three fragments of a life make up a fragmented whole that is beautiful to look at but remains opaque to the end.

USA
3*

Director:
Barry Jenkins

Screenwriter:
Barry Jenkins

Director of Photography:
James Laxton

Running time: 110 minutes

Despite the fat, the muscle and the facial hair they put on over time to create a facade of machismo or of adulthood, many a man is still the same scared little boy inside he was when he was growing up. This is about as deep as Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight goes, unfortunately, and while this observation is a constant theme throughout the film and comes through in various ways, there is less to this widely praised coming-of-age film than one might have hoped for.

Moonlight is a three-part story depicting the life of a sensitive young man, Chiron, who is prone to bullying and grows up in a single-parent household in Miami. In the three parts, which sketch his life as a boy, as a teenager and finally as a young man, Chiron is played by three different actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes), all of whom bring sensitivity and a slight awkwardness to the role.

But the film’s most potent portrayal easily lies in the first part, and Jenkins seems to ackowledge as much in the opening shot: Juan (Mahershala Ali), a calm Afro-Cuban drug dealer in his late-30s, leaves his car to cross the street and speak to Terrence, an 18-year-old boy who works this street of the rundown Liberty Square neighbourhood for him. Terrence has clearly had his fill of drugs already and appears slightly dazed, but while he fidgets out of nervousness or fearfulness, Juan lazily puffs on his cigarette and asks him how his mom is doing. All the while, the camera drifts around them in an unbroken take, clearly suggesting that Juan is a bringer of peace and tranquility, an idea quickly made vivid when he sees and then saves Chiron, who is being chased by a group of bullies.

This initial encounter between the drug dealer and the taciturn boy, whose mother depends on drugs and makes money spending her nights in the bedroom, is unexpected, but Juan’s care is soon complemented by the evident compassion that his girlfriend, Teresa, has for the boy. This concern for Chiron’s well-being, which obviously helps him on his way to becoming an adult, is most pronounced in a beautifully written yet highly improbable scene in which Juan and Teresa explain, with the greatest tact imaginable, the meaning and implication of the word “faggot”, a word Chiron’s own mother used to dress him down: “‘Faggot’ is a word used to make gay people feel bad.” Although the intent is admirable, this moment set around the dinner table of a low-income drug dealer in the 1980s is wholly improbable – wishful thinking in a story that in all other respects clearly strives for realism.

Moonlight‘s most glaring fault is also its most appealing aspect for a wide audience: It tackles the issue of homosexuality very gingerly by using only one incident in each of the three parts to remind us that Chiron is gay; if not for these all too fleeting moments, we might have completely overlooked his struggle. The film includes only one sexual act, and it is shot from far away so as not to offend the non-converted. In this regard, the climax is particularly vexing because a nearly 20-minute build-up does not get the dramatic release we expect (and seek). Instead, it fizzles out entirely, and we’re left with nothing more than a very unsatisfying head-on-the-shoulder moment of intimacy.

The spectre of Juan, who only appears in the first part, hangs over the entire film, and in the final act, upon seeing how buff Chiron has become, dealing drugs and sporting the same gold grills as his late father figure, this moment of recognition hits the viewer with a pang of compassion. However much he seeks to emulate his hero, however, we quickly learn that inside the muscled body an emotionally insecure is still hiding, unwilling to engage intimately with those closest to him.

Except for the dialogue, which is so authentically rooted in lower-income Miami that is not always easy to follow, the film is immediately accessible thanks to its focus on a single character who ages in front of our eyes, albeit not as seamlessly as in the equally superficial Boyhood. Jenkins’s soundtrack raises the beauty and the grit into the artistic thanks to the inclusion of the Laudate Dominum movement from Mozart’s gorgeous classical piece “Vesperae solennes de confessore” and – at a pivotal moment – Caetano Veloso’s performance of “Cucurrucucú paloma”, best known from its appearance on the soundtrack of Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her (Hable con ella).

In the end, the film belongs to the actors, who emote and elicit our empathy thanks to their faces, their silences, their hesitation and their humanity. Surprisingly, one of the best-known players, Naomi Harris, who stars as Chiron’s drug-dependent mother, Paula, is the only one whose acting veers into over-the-top hystrionics as she momentarily portrays a character we’ve seen all too often before from characters who are drug addicts.

Moonlight is a well-intentioned, meticulously shot film whose rich colours and sense of place unfortunately never translate into sustained action or robust character development. Chiron gazes without interacting, is diffident to a fault and (except for mimicking Juan) shows little appetite for opening himself up to new experiences. This reticence ultimately leads to precious little progress and produces a film that merely pretends to be complex but is nothing of the sort.

The Danish Girl (2014)

Tom Hooper’s Danish Girl, which tells an important story about a historic, groundbreaking gender transition, struggles to confront its own identity crisis.

UK
3*

Directed by:
Tom Hooper

Screenwriter:
Lucinda Coxon

Director of Photography:
Danny Cohen

Running time: 120 minutes

The Danish Girl, which was 2014’s much talked-about transgender movie, puts on a very strange face right at the outset, for no apparent reason. Given the title, one would expect the film to open in Denmark, and indeed it does, except the landscape is about as un-Danish as one can imagine. Instead of the ever so slightly rolling countryside, we see giant mountains rising up from the coast. In fact, despite the plot (and this scene!) being set in Denmark, these mountains are in western Norway’s Møre og Romsdal county. For a film that is supposed to be all about its main character’s true nature, this is an absolutely unforgivable and truly puzzling moment.

The sudden fame of Caitlyn Jenner over the year immediately preceding the release of the film had catapulted transgender individuals onto centre stage at about the same time as the rest of the LGBT family was finally granted the opportunity to marry, on an equal footing with all the rights and responsibilities of heterosexual marriage, in the United States. Jenner was praised in some quarters and reviled in others by both gay and straight people alike, but it is rather obvious that the central character in The Danish Girl, Lili Elbe (born Einar Wegener), was chosen because she was the first person ever to undergo sex reassignment surgery — nearly 90 years ago — and because she is much more likable than Jenner.

Even if the film stupidly deceives us with its opening (and closing) visuals, the story of Einar (played by the very suitably delicate-featured Eddie Redmayne) accepting his inner Lili has the advantage of being both true and topical. It is a story that will find a certain audience, but the reasons are unfortunate. For one, there is very little drama, both internal and external. The film contains only a single scene of violence committed against Einar because of his sexually ambiguous features and provides precious little insight into his moments of self-doubt or self-reflection. He writes a diary to make sense of his feelings, but we never discover what he writes.

Luckily for him, but unfortunately for the film, there is surprisingly little drama in his marriage, too. Einar, an artist, is married to a fellow painter, Gerda (Alicia Vikander), who appears to care for him so deeply that she simply accepts her husband’s transition almost without blinking an eye. While her response is unquestionably loving and beautiful, it also removes any drama that might result in a better understanding of the situation from either side.

The major challenge here is to get the audience to fully appreciate the situation from Einar’s point of view. Despite his feminine features, he appears to be living a happy life with Gerda in the early 1920s, even though they have been trying without success to have a child of their own. Early in the film, Gerda asks Einar to pose for her in women’s clothing so that she can add a final touch to one of her paintings. Embarrassed, he acquiesces, and then he suddenly has a eureka moment with the fabric as he is stroking it across his skin.

Before long, he is wearing his wife’s clothes under his own, putting on makeup and dressing up to go out into the world as Lili. Gerda is a little surprised but not entirely shocked, until she discovers Lili has been seeing a young man, Henrik (Ben Whishaw), for companionship. While the viewer can come up with reasons for this behavior, the film does not provide them and instead glosses over any discussion of them entirely.

We get small but very simplistic hints to fill in Einar’s back story — for example, Gerda relates how she propositioned him on their first date, how she kissed him, instead of the other way around, and how it felt like she was kissing herself. The writing here is utterly transparent and about as helpful as having a gay character say he once played with a doll when he was a boy.

The story starts to pick up once the couple relocates to Paris, where Einar gradually starts to mimic the gestures of the women around him in order to appear more feminine when he behaves as Lili. Here, Einar/Lili and Gerda also meet up with Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), a childhood friend of Hans’s, who brings some much-needed complexity to the story line.

The film’s desire to be accessible has watered down the emotional turmoil that one would expect from Einar/Lili and Gerda. Its depiction of the many doctors who fail to understand Einar’s condition, each of whom comes across as vile if not sadistic, is just as ridiculous. At other times, shocking revelations are not followed by the expected conversations but rather by ellipses that are incredibly frustrating because the director does not have the stomach to show us how the couple argues.

The Danish Girl brought the world the story of a groundbreaking icon of the movement for acceptance of (unconventional) sexual identity, but its reliance on suggestion rather than a rich narrative and sturdier characters undermines its own significance. While the film is far more capably directed than Hooper’s laughable Les Misérables, it never comes close to the sheer whirlwind of passion that so vividly brought his The King’s Speech to life.

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Another Tom Ford film, another drama set mostly inside a character’s head, but this time, the passion the director showed in A Single Man is lacking and has been replaced by recurring removals of reading glasses.

Nocturnal AnimalsUSA
3*

Director:
Tom Ford

Screenwriter:
Tom Ford

Director of Photography:
Seamus McGarvey

Running time: 120 minutes

Once again probing the mental world of his main character, as he did with equally sumptuous visuals in A Single Man, Tom Ford follows up his much acclaimed début feature with another intimate psychological work, titled Nocturnal Animals. Taking a stab at metanarration, Ford evokes fear and anxiety in the viewer rather than any serious empathy for the characters, but instead of being emotionally engaging, this thriller is curiously superficial.

Opening at an exhibition with gorgeously composed full-frontal videos of corpulent elderly women dancing like cheerleaders in slow motion, the film quickly establishes the artistic surroundings of Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), the gallery owner. She seems melancholy and unfulfilled despite the show’s indisputable success and would later call it “junk, total junk”. (As a sidenote, I would encourage filmmakers to steer away from such descriptions of art in their films, as it makes the reviewer’s job of finding a pithy label for the relevant film way too easy.) Late at night, she returns to her carefully curated mansion with clean lines full of grey and black in the Hollywood Hills. Shortly after her car pulls in and the gate closes behind her, a dark-brown classic Mercedes pulls up.

The following morning, her butler shows her a package that has been delivered overnight. It is an as yet unpublished manuscript that shares its title with the film and is written by Susan’s ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom she hasn’t spoken to in nearly 20 years. From this point on, with her dapper husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer), away on business in New York City and making little effort to keep it a secret he is cheating on her, Susan immerses herself in the novel, which is ominously dedicated to her.

In the very first shot depicting the action of the novel, we see the same dark-brown classic Mercedes, which is an easy but effective way of signalling to us that this tale is going to be rooted in Susan’s world; more specifically, the story is artistically autobiographical for its writer, Edward. The main character, Tony Hastings (also played by Jake Gyllenhaal), is leaving on holiday for West Texas with his wife and daughter, but on the way there, they are pulled off the road by a gang of young men who seem to be drunk but are likely just slightly psychotic.

Calling to mind the stunningly intense beginning of Andrew Neel’s Goat, Nocturnal Animals presents a scene of emotionally taxing (although at times too lengthy and repetitive) action that demonstrates how Tony’s timidity and desire to avoid conflict eventually results in a reluctance to be aggressive in protecting his family, a hesitation that quickly leads to tragedy. The point of contact between the two very different films, however, is the similarity in people’s reactions to this event: In both films, we feel with the intimidated victim as he is bullied or coerced into doing something he doesn’t want to, although the assailants never use a physical weapon of any kind. And in both films, people told of the altercation react with surprise that the victim did not fight back.

Gyllenhaal embodies a character we can wholly relate to despite his evident fear and confusion about the inexplicable violence committed against him and his family and his uncertainty about whether and how he should retaliate. This is something Tony Hastings struggles with until the climax, and even then he is far from comfortable acting in a way that makes logical sense but goes against everything he believes in.

It should be obvious from this short description that the story-within-a-story set in Texas is far more interesting than its shallow Los Angeles counterpart, despite Ford’s flimsy attempts at creating interlocking visual transitions, which for the most part compare very badly with those in a similarly themed film such as Stephen Daldry’s The Hours. In Daldry’s film, the point of the transitions were often to connect characters in ways that were immediately recognisable, with every shared tick creating a bond between people in a purely cinematic fashion. It made the viewer privy to private but revealing moments and left her feeling empowered in a way that is unconventional but wholly within the domain of the cinema.

Ford’s film, by contrast, while dutifully producing a disparate smattering of transitions (bright red lights, similar surroundings, an L-cut) in an attempt to bridge the chasm between the two worlds, is far less sure of itself. It half-heartedly suggests points of contact, but the traces are few and far between and would demand repeat viewings to unpack, if they even exist, thus making immediate enjoyment all but impossible.

Often, the cut is simple, but it always returns to the same laughable image: a shaken Susan on her sofa with the manuscript in her lap, removing her thick-framed glasses as a way to calm herself and return her to her immediate surroundings. Amy Adams is a wonderful actress, but the over-repeated earnestness loses its initial power and quickly devolves into a caricature of earnestness.

Ford manages to tie things up rather neatly with the climax in the hypodiegesis, although the diegesis, which is also split up into a past (read: flashbacks) and a present, is a different matter altogether. The final scene of Nocturnal Animals is truly a missed opportunity, as a melancholy wait replaces what could have been a forceful punch in the gut: What if Edward had shown up but was played by someone other than Jake Gyllenhaal?

These Are the Rules (2014)

Pain, anguish and confusion are at the heart of this Croatian film about two low-income parents who are incapable of coping with tragedy. 

These Are the RulesCroatia
3*

Director:
Ognjen Sviličić

Screenwriter:
Ognjen Sviličić

Director of Photography:
Crystel Fournier

Running time: 75 minutes

Original title: Takva su pravila

Perhaps the best way to create tension is to have a character ask those questions that we, the viewers, are also thinking but that we know cannot be answered, at least not by those in the scene. In Croat director Ognjen Sviličić’s absolutely heart-wrenching These Are the Rules, a mother and father have to deal as best they know how with the sudden death of their only son, Tomica (Hrvoje Vladisavljević). The mother, Maja, keeps asking very basic questions that the father, Ivo, cannot answer, and this frustration ultimately leads to an arbitrary act of catharsis for them, but not for us.

The 17-year-old Tomica is consistently unwilling to share his life with his parents, who have grown used to him being holed up in his room. He gets beaten up and chooses to hide his bruises from his parents, especially the overprotective Maja, but he eventually relents and lets them take him to the doctor, even though he initially scoffs at his mother’s suggestion of getting stitches. But soon he falls into a coma and then into an eternal sleep, and we quickly come to share the parents’ sense of despair at this predicament they are in because their son sought to shield them from what seemed like unnecessary worries.

The rest of the film is relentlessly bleak, and the dread that starts to set in following Tomica’s hospitalisation at the end of the first act is easily on par with the emotion evoked by a similar plotline in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. In the case of Sviličić’s film, however, there is no dramatic breather provided by cutting away to other stories, and the knot in the pit of our stomachs never goes away.

Ivo and Maja are low-income Croats living on the outskirts of Zagreb. Ivo is a bus driver, while Maja appears to be unemployed. They reveal themselves to be out of their depth when it comes to not only handling their son’s secretive behaviour but also searching for meaning following a tragedy like the one they are thrust into when their son passes out while drawing a bath. Sometimes, the setting is to blame (overcrowded hospital waiting rooms, especially, as well as medical personnel who blatantly – and in this case, fatally – disregard the urgency of their patients’ conditions), but at other times they simply do not have the experience to ask the right questions. Their lack of engagement is not directly to blame for their son’s untimely demise, but it makes the process of coping so much more difficult, because there are no satisfying answers when they don’t know which questions to ask or whom to ask for help.

It is entirely understandable that the events leave them in shock, and the father’s decision to tell people things are not particularly serious is a lie whose purity of purpose the viewer should recognise (and sympathise with) immediately. But his and his wife’s inaction in the face of trauma leave us pining for help to arrive. They visit the police station to report the attack on their son, but instead of explaining the severity of their situation, they relate the events calmly to the officer and leave without any real prospect of a serious investigation. The same happens at the hospital and at the morgue, where they receive life-changing news without any detailed explanation or advice from a professional. Their response is always either to be inactive or to talk around the problem by asking questions that are inconsequential.

Despite the director’s well-chosen approach of frustrating the viewer with traumatic stasis, however, the climax is wholly unsatisfying because it plays out more like a dream than the grim reality full of obstacles we have come to expect. While the violence in the final act makes sense on paper, it is committed in a void: a public space that someone has no witnesses that could incriminate the aggressor. It is a fantasy, and its inclusion in the film goes against the pain and confusion at the core of the film.

Viewed at the Bratislava International Film Festival 2016.

The Unknown Girl (2016)

The Dardenne brothers’ worst film in memory has a tour de force performance by French actress Adèle Haenel.

la-fille-inconnueBelgium/France
3*

Directors:
Luc Dardenne

Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Screenwriters:
Luc Dardenne

Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Director of Photography:
Alain Marcoen

Running time: 110 minutes

Original title: La fille inconnue

Jenny initially seems like a professional, but then she sticks her nose in where it doesn’t belong, screws up an important police investigation and commits ethically questionable practices in the course of her launching her own amateur probe à la Nancy Drew, quickly diminishing she standing she had at the outset.

By the end of the The Unknown Girl, the latest film by Belgium’s famous social-realist filmmaker brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, everything is tied up neatly with a bow, and those primed to accept it will forgive the film its faults.

But before we reach the end, there is a whole lot to be irritated by, and even the dynamite performance of the gifted lead actress, Adèle Haenel, cannot save this from being one of the worst fiction films the experienced Dardennes have ever produced.

At the start of the film, a woman is found murdered on the side of the river in the city of Liège, across the road from a doctor’s office, where Jenny Davin, a young but dedicated doctor, has recently taken over and is making great strides in her career. On the night of the murder, Jenny is at the office lecturing her intern about the importance of setting one’s emotions aside lest they cloud the diagnosis of a patient. When the door buzzer sounds, she coldly explains that it is too late in the evening and that, if it were truly an emergency, the person would buzz again.

The next day, she learns that the deceased had been the same person who rang the buzzer moments before her death. Naturally, this news fills her with a sense of culpability. But what she does for the rest of the film becomes more and more difficult to empathise with, particularly because her actions stand in such stark contrast with (and change so quickly from) her earlier approach of prudence and professionalism.

Shot mostly as single-take scenes with a handheld camera, The Unknown Girl has a gritty visual aesthetic that closely mirrors the one on display in all of the brothers’ other award-winning films. Every one of the duo’s feature films since their 1996 début, La promesse, has been shot by Alain Marcoen.

It is easy to convince oneself that Jenny’s sharp focus on investigating the crime and discovering the identity of the girl has merit, particularly because a resolution would almost certainly bring closure and return things to normal. Over time, however, Jenny’s behaviour becomes more and more unprofessional, to the point that she even tells someone in desperate need of medical attention that she will only be available an hour later – the reason being that she deems her mission to collect information to be more important than delivering life-saving assistance.

As far as we can tell, Jenny has no professional background in tracking down criminals or solving crimes. That is what the police is for, and while this is only one of the items on their roster and their progress is not as swift as she would like, they have infinitely more experience. After all, by looking into the matter they are doing their job, whereas Jenny is abnegating hers.

The narrative is built on small details revealed along the way. Primarily, they involve one of her clients, a teenage boy named Bryan (Louka Minnella), who suffers from chronic indigestion, whose assistance in tracking down the person responsible for the title character’s death becomes less and less credible with every passing moment, even though Jenny persists, Columbo-like, in questioning him to the point of harassment.

It is thoroughly surprising that the directors would allow a great many of the answers to simply fall into Jenny’s lap. In a city of 200,000 people, there have to be many coincidences to solve this mystery, and they rain down upon her like manna from heaven. Almost all of her suspicions turn out to be well-founded, and we are compelled to believe that her decision to take time off from work in order to prowl the streets looking for persons of interest is praiseworthy because she moves ever closer to the truth. This kind of storytelling lulls the viewer into a sense of comfort that does not reflect the real world the Dardennes have taken care to reconstruct through their work, and it is a big disappointment to have to witness such flimsy filmmaking in this case.

And yet, if you can look past the lack of narrative complexity and the foolhardy behaviour of the central character, the film’s use of situations in which the main character enters forbidden spaces – a common trope in the Dardennes’ films – is executed with enough distance so as not to appear calculated even though the effect on the viewer is genuine anxiety for the character.

The Unknown Girl suggests that the revered filmmakers are slipping into a comfort zone and are no longer challenging themselves, and that is a real shame, because the tour de force performance they wring out of Haenel is nothing short of mesmerising. If their story had received similar care, this would have been a much more satisfying film.

Viewed at the Be2Can 2016 Film Festival.

A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (2009)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s prelude to his award-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives offers very little but looks exquisite and does hint at a deeper meaning.

letter-uncle-boonmeeThailand/UK
3*

Director:
Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Screenwriter:
Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Director of Photography:
Sayombhu Mukdeeprom

Running time: 17 minutes

Original title: จดหมาย ถึงลุงบุญมี
Transliterated title: Cdh̄māy t̄hụng loong buỵ mī

For the sake of clarity, this review refers to Apichatpong Weerasethakul as the film’s “director” while using the term “filmmaker” to point to the anonymous diegetic individual/s who is/are allegedly making the film in front of our eyes.

Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s short film A Letter to Uncle Boonmee – a trial run  for what would eventually become his Palme d’Or–winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives – eludes explanation to the uninitiated viewer and eschews plot in favour of feeling, which is always a gamble. However, while Weerasethakul does give us a bit more to chew on, it is only in the short film’s closing credits that we get a firm indication of the theme that we were witness to.

The images in A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, all linked to the small town of Nabua, are without a main character. Except for what appears to be an ape-like apparition lurking in the forest, there is only a single individual whose face we clearly see, and he never speaks nor does anything of note – in fact, he barely moves at all, and we certainly don’t know his name nor function in the story. But the director does give a subtle hint, as the man, like all of the handful of other characters we see in the film, wears a military uniform, a feature that receives some weight from a voice-over recalling how “soldiers once occupied this place” and that they “killed and tortured the villagers and forced them to flee to the jungle”. The many portraits we see on the walls inside the cottage presumably pictures of these villagers.

Furthermore, the closing credits are immediately preceded by a black screen carrying the following dedication, which briefly contextualises the action, albeit with extreme hesitation: “For Uncle Boonmee Srigulwong, who remained in northeastern Thailand for his past reincarnations, and for the residents of the village of Nabua who were forced to leave their homes.”

The film starts by repeating the words in the titular letter to the filmmaker’s uncle Boonmee. However, “filmmaker” is a very slippery term here, because neither of the two (different!) voices that speak the letter via voice-over belongs to Weerasethakul. The fact that the two voices audibly do not belong to the same individual is emblematic of the director’s approach to his story, which relishes the mixture of reality and fiction that is apparent at every turn.

In the short letter, reproduced below, the filmmaker talks about the film we are watching and how it likely fails to accurately depict the reality of his uncle’s living conditions. The making of the film is supported by off-screen dialogue later on about the wording of the letter itself, and we get a very modernist breaking of the fourth wall when we see someone swing the matte box away in order to change a lens and thus allow us to “see things more clearly”.

Uncle,
I have been here for a while. I want to see a movie about your life. So I proposed a project about your reincarnations. In my script, your house is in a longan farm surrounded by mountains. But here there are endless plains and rice fields.
Last week, I met a man I thought was your son. He works at the auto garage. But after talking to him, I thought he was your nephew because his father was a policeman who owned hundreds of cows. Judging from your book, I don’t think you owned a lot of cows. And you were a teacher, weren’t you? The man was old. He couldn’t remember his father’s name very well. Might have been Boonmee or Boonma. He said it was a long time ago.
Here in Nabua, there are several houses well-suited for this short film for which I got funding from England. I don’t know what your house looked like. I can’t use the one in my script since it is so different from the ones here. Maybe some parts of these houses would resemble yours.

These words play out on the soundtrack while we watch the camera gracefully track through the empty cottages, devoid of any life but vibrating with absence as we see room after room with bedding on the floor and portraits on the walls. There is a beautiful transition when the last tracking shot eventually opens onto a full-frame view of a golden sunset in the distance, beyond the lush greenery in the foreground. This moment is accompanied by a question as to whether Uncle Boonmee had a different view from his own home compared with the one we see in front of us.

The uncertainty, which extends to the identity of the subject himself, is clear as day in this letter. But it is interesting to note that even though the filmmaker, whoever he is, addresses this letter to someone who is likely already dead, and he is not sure that the final product will reflect his uncle’s reality, he is confident that his uncle has indeed had multiple lives thanks to reincarnation. Perhaps that explains the bizarre egg-shaped object in the garden, which puffs out thick plumes of smoke from inside itself throughout the film without any explanation.

The end of the film includes the abrupt and unexplained appearance of the hairy creature, which might also be the thing or person barely perceptible behind a thin pink curtain in the cottage on two occasions in the film. However, things move very quickly, and then, suddenly, the story is over, if it ever really started.

A Letter to Uncle Boonmee feels disjointed, reaching for mostly uninformative bits of voice-over to compensate for – or perhaps to attempt to mask – the lack of substance. The visuals pique our interest, but the ending will leave most filmgoers (certainly those who haven’t seen the subsequent feature film) scratching their heads and ultimately sinks what comes before.

Begin the Beguine (1982)

A slow-moving but heartwarming tale of a Nobel Prize–winning author’s return to the country of his youth is little more than a music video for Pachelbel’s “Canon”.

Begin the BeguineSpain
3*

Director:
José Luis Garci
Screenwriters:
José Luis Garci

Angel Llorente
Director of Photography:
Manuel Rojas

Running time: 85 minutes

Original title: Volver a empezar

The first few minutes of José Luis Garci’s Begin the Beguine tell us everything we need to know without using so much as a single word. A train arrives in the Asturian city of Gijón on Spain’s northern coast. An elderly gentleman gets off the train, but before checking into his hotel, he visits a downtown movie house called the Robledo, walks along the harbour where tiny fishing boats bob on the water, and then, at a football stadium, the sight of a chalk line beneath his shoe makes him visibly nostalgic, as do the cranes in the distance, symbols of development and the passage of time. We don’t know anything about this man, but we know this is the home of his youth, where he played football and went to the cinema, and we know this film will be about him catching up with the past.

Unfortunately, the catching up is as shallow as Johann Pachelbel’s recurring “Canon” (as well as Cole Porter’s titular ditty) on the soundtrack is repetitive. But the man at the centre, who wears a smile that tells us he doesn’t take anything too seriously, because wisdom or experience or merely the years he has spent on this Earth have taught him better, keeps our attention and connects with our hearts even when our heads tell us this is too simple a tale.

The man is Antonio Miguel Albajara, a native of Gijón who left because of Franco before moving to the United States and eventually ended up settling in San Francisco and teaching at the University of California, Berkeley. We later learn that he has just received the Nobel Prize for Literature and has made this detour on his way back home from the ceremony in Stockholm. Ostensibly, the reason for the detour is not so much to see the city of his youth as it is to see the girl of his youth, Elena. What happens between them, however, is nothing more than scene after scene of reminiscing, and the emotional connection remains superficial at best. Perhaps all the more so because of a secret that is withheld.

This secret is the real reason for Albajara’s return to Gijón, and it has to do with him knowing this will be the last chance for him to see the city and the streets he wrote about in his novels, and above all to relive the romance of his youth with Elena. To protect Elena from devastating news, he keeps the secret of his imminent release from the bonds of existence to himself and chooses instead to make the reunion one of blissful ignorance, as much for Elena’s as for his own sake. This decision, understandable though it may be, is not probed in any detail and ultimately remains firmly in the background. This would have been perfectly acceptable if the foreground had been interesting on its own merits, but that is not the case.

In the foreground, our attention is often directed to Losado, the buffoonish yet well-meaning manager of the hotel where Albajara is staying. It feels like every scene with him belongs in a different film, because the overacting is at times unbearable and does damage to the sincerity and the authenticity we would like to ascribe to Albajara’s interactions.

We learn that Albajara forsook not only his girlfriend but also a promising career as one of the best midfielders the town had ever seen, not to forget his best friend, “Redhead” (Roxu), with whom he shares a beautiful, tender scene in the middle of the film. Unfortunately, none of these events is treated with the seriousness or gets the elaboration they deserve.

The camera also has some peculiar, often downright amateurish moments to indicate loss: At two points in the film, the camera dollies either up or down to reveal Albajara sitting among a vast array of empty chairs – presumably to indicate that he is alone, or that the people around him have died or that the life he once had is no more.

And yet, despite its many faults, including a failure to ask how Albajara’s memory of Elena stacks up against his experience in the present, Begin the Beguine is full of warmth and thoroughly likeable. The primary reason for this is the quiet, subdued performance of Antonio Ferrandis in the lead, playing the character as a wise old man who has made peace with the world and is now also making peace with the past before he faces an uncertain future. Another reason is a wonderful scene in which the writer speaks to King Juan Carlos I on the phone.

But Pachelbel permeates the soundtrack as much as “Lara’s Theme” overpowered Dr. Zhivago, and ultimately we cannot help but think of the film as visual accompaniment to the music, instead of the other way around. During a final encounter at the airport, “Greensleeves” pops up in the background, and even though the connection is self-evident to the point of being simplistic, it is a joy to hear something else on the audio track for a change.

Begin the Beguine is a very shallow depiction of a key moment in the last year of a man’s life, but the central premise and performance are strong enough to carry it through its relatively short running time, and the film has to be commended for refusing to use flashbacks.

Unbroken (2014)

Story of Louis Zamperini gets sumptuous treatment in dramatically uneven retelling of his World War II ordeal.

unbrokenUSA
3*

Director:
Angelina Jolie

Screenwriters:
Joel Coen

Ethan Coen
Richard LaGravenese
William Nicholson
Director of Photography:
Roger Deakins

Running time: 135 minutes

Life is what happens while some are just trying to survive. In Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s epic, ambitious but also commendably restrained retelling of the life of Louis Zamparini, the canvas is vast and so, too, is the range of pain inflicted on a young man during wartime. Jolie proves to be enormously talented as a storyteller, but unfortunately the film is preoccupied with showing us that everybody has their reasons. In so doing, and by watering down the violence and bloodshed, it also commits the indefensible sin of downplaying the horrors of war.

Zamparini’s life was filled with good fortune but also a great deal of physical suffering at the hands of his captors, and the desire to survive obviously makes him a heroic character that deserves the big-screen treatment. The film plays it safe throughout, making sure to achieve nothing higher than a PG-13 rating by having children-friendly dialogue and restraining its depiction of violence; however, in its final moments it goes for broke by clearly drawing a visual parallel to Jesus Christ on the cross, and the absurdity of this comparison leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

British actor Jack O’Connell does a fine job in the lead, his clean-cut face serving him well as both the romantic representation of the wholesome American and ultimately as the object of sadistic affection of one of his detention camp guards in Japan, the feared Matsushiro Watanabe, better known as “The Bird” (Takamasa Ishihara).

The first half of Unbroken opens above the Pacific Ocean, aboard a B-52 bomber during the Second World War, where Zamperini is in charge of dropping the bombs at exactly the right moments. There are some hairy situations with the boys in the aircrew nearly losing their lives, and at the most dramatic point in the scene, the film cuts back to Zamperini’s early childhood in Torrance, California, with his Italian immigrant family. He was headed towards teenage delinquency when his older brother noticed how fast he can run, and suddenly, in a jump cut that comes as no surprise, we see him running as a teenager who has turned into an athlete of some renown.

After a few more scenes during the Second World War, we get yet another flashback to Zamperini’s early years, during which he sets off to compete in the Olympics in Berlin, Nazi Germany. This section of the film is magnificent, not only because of the overwhelming success of director of photography Roger Deakins in recreating the feeling of being inside the enormous arena, but also because of the subtle but powerful moment that is so brief the viewer might miss it on the first viewing: When all the athletes gather inside the stadium and the cauldron is lit, Zamperini looks behind him and sees a Japanese athlete looking back at him. They smile at each other in sportsmanlike camaraderie, both elated to participate at the highest level of their game. But as we watch them, the dramatic irony is evident as the bloody United States–Japan war scenes from earlier in the film still ring in our heads.

Once we return to the battlefield, we stay there, and it is a never-ending parade of misery for the poor Zamperini, who spends weeks on the open sea before being taken captive and held as a prisoner of war by the Japanese until after the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The quick pace of the first half slows down significantly in the second, as the screenplay focuses intently on Zamperini’s ordeal in the detention camps and the unjust treatment he receives at the hands of the androgynous Watanabe, whose ambiguous behavior towards the Olympic athlete make him a menace from whom we can only expect the worst. Viewers familiar with Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence will notice familiar traits in the Japanese sergeant, but unfortunately Ishihara doesn’t bring much to his performance except sexualised menace.

In the film’s final moments, however, Jolie reveals the story behind Watanabe, and while this explanation in no way excuses his actions, the glimpse into his own story does offer us a way of recognising the humanity in some of the most malicious people we have ever come across. But perhaps it is a good thing Jolie decided not to show Adolf Hitler at the Berlin Olympics.

“A lifetime of glory is worth a moment of pain”, Louis’s older brother tells him in one of the film’s many trailer-ready snippets of dialogue. “If you can take it, you can make it” is another oft-repeated saying. The inspirational power of these two expressions is lost because the moment we hear them, very early in the film, we know they will be important later on.

Given Deakins is the film’s director of photography (the visual stalwart of the films of the Coen Brothers, who co-wrote the film’s screenplay), it should come as no surprise that the images are gorgeous, as all the yellows and browns are tinged with gold, and the blues of the sky and the ocean hew between azure and a clear green-blue, respectively.

As Russell “Phil” Phillips, one of Zamperini’s crewmen aboard the bombardier, who endures much of the same hardship throughout the film, Domhnall Gleeson delivers a poignant, highly memorable performance. By contrast, Zamperini’s parents are caricatures of Italian-Americans, and his mother in particular, who never learns a word of English, is maddeningly simplistic.

With Unbroken, her second feature film as director, Jolie plays it too safe. Despite the publicity around the film that stresses the personal importance of the project to her, we feel little passion, and only a handful of scenes have the visceral quality we expect from a war film. The notable exceptions come during the characters’ near-death experiences, when the tension is handled admirably without sentimentality or exaggeration.

On the whole, however, the film is rather disappointing, with dialogue that is often stilted and situations that, while perhaps historically accurate, have little credibility when they are stacked together like here. It remains to be seen what becomes of Jolie as a director; as a storyteller, she is very capable, but as a filmmaker, she still has some way to go.