The Shape of Water (2017)

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a stylish glimpse of an unusual love story set amid Cold War paranoia in Baltimore in 1962.

The Shape of WaterUSA
4*

Director:
Guillermo del Toro

Screenwriters:
Guillermo del Toro

Vanessa Taylor
Director of Photography:
Dan Laustsen

Running time: 120 minutes

The wonderful thing about fantasy films is that the bar of realism is set slightly lower than in most other stories. It’s not so much that the filmmaker can get away with more but that we relish the deviations from the strictures of reality, or realism, instead of criticising them. Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is set in Baltimore in the early 1960s, in the midst of Cold War paranoia, with set design that is magnificent, rich in detail and full of colour, but the film is also indisputably a work of exuberant imagination.

We begin underwater inside an apartment filled with watery silence. A young woman is peacefully sleeping in mid-air (or, rather, mid-water) above a couch. At least, we tell ourselves she is only sleeping. The image is mesmerising, and it derives its power not from the visuals alone but also from the accompanying voiceover. The narrator, who will shortly reveal himself as the woman’s neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins), asks us, “If I spoke about it… if I did… what would I tell you?” By framing the story through this voice-over and emphasising the act of telling, the film firmly establishes itself as a (narrative) tale.

The woman is Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), and she works as a janitor at the government-run Occam Aerospace Research Center, whose main goal seems to be to beat the Soviets at this whole space thing, although the film is light on details. Her best friend, whom she has worked with for a decade, is the garrulous Zelda (Olivia Spencer), who spends most days speaking enough to carry entire conversations all on her own. She has to, not only because Elisa is quite shy but because she is mute, and she has lifelong scars on the side of her neck to prove it.

One day, a giant water-filled container arrives at the research centre, and the many-starred military officials mention something about it being one of the most sensitive shipments they have ever received. It turns out to be an amphibious humanoid – a fish-man – that has the shape and size of a man but is covered in scales and has nictitating membranes, like windshield wipers, instead of normal eyelids. Most importantly, it doesn’t speak, although it does squawk.

Thus, rather predictably, Elisa and the creature strike up a relationship. She plays him music and even feeds him the eggs she packed for lunch. He shows very little caution and is almost immediately taken with her. The feeling is mutual. In a beautiful scene delivered in sign language to her neighbour, Elisa explains that, for the first time, lack of speech is not a “lack” at all. But she is not the only one to take an interest in the creature: By virtue of their own status as outcasts or outsiders (the mute Elisa, the gay Giles, the black Zelda and the Russia-born Dr Hoffstetler), a number of people around her are drawn to and sympathise with this foreigner par excellence.

With respect to these outsiders, the film gently sketches their hopes and dreams, with the exception of Zelda, whose race and its limited value in 1962 Baltimore are only superficially and indirectly implied, for example when others engage in casual racism. The most egregious behaviour in this regard is that of Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon), an odious man who only washes his hands before using the bathroom and rapes his wife in a very icky scene that takes place in broad daylight. He is the menacing power figure who looks down on anyone who doesn’t look like him, whether they are women, blacks or scale-covered critters.

Del Toro’s light touches throughout the film ensure more than a passing guffaw. One of the most cited moments is bound to be Elisa’s recurring masturbation in the bath tub every morning, which alternates with shots of eggs boiling in hot water on the stove. And most scenes involving one of the centre’s highest-ranking scientists, Dr Robert Hoffstetler, are precariously balanced on a knife’s edge between seriousness and uproarious comedy thanks to the facial expressions of actor Michael Stuhlbarg. And whenever he meets with a foreign power, the passwords that are exchanged at the rendezvous have something Coen brothers-esque about them. 

The director is also particularly sly with his transitions, and one example is the cut from severed fingers being dropped into a bag to Corn Flakes poured from another bag for breakfast. The implicit connection grosses us out even as we acknowledge the purely abstract connection with a laugh.

Elisa and the Amphibian Man (played by Doug Jones), as the credits call him, grow closer and eventually engage in an obviously consensual moment of bestiality that will undoubtedly draw laughter at every screening. Their silent bond is unbreakable and beautiful, although an imaginary black-and-white song-and-dance number late in the film feels wholly out of place.

Something else that feels out of place is the amount of access that the low-ranking Elisa has to what is supposed to be the research centre’s prized possession. She visits her amphibious friend nearly every day without ever facing punishment for trespassing. Fantasy films loosen the restrictions on how we perceive their realism but not their credibility, particularly if the story is set in a real world–like environment. And these visits in The Shape of Water push plausibility beyond breaking point.

While the meaning of the title is not at all apparent, the visuals are stunning, and not since Alfonso Cuarón’s 1998 Great Expectations has there been a film so focused on reminding us of the colour green. From the doors at the research centre and the punch clock time cards to Elisa’s dress, any number of items of furniture and, of course, the blueish shades of green in the water are ever-present and frame the tale as something out of the ordinary that vibrates vital energy.

There is no question this is the most solid piece of filmmaking that Guillermo del Toro has ever delivered, and while it is much more mature than your average fantasy film, it has the kind of magic that transports the adult viewer to a wonderland most often associated with nostalgia for childhood.

Viewed at the Bratislava International Film Festival 2017

April’s Daughter (2017)

April’s Daughter manipulates us almost as well as its central character, whose charm wrecks the lives of everyone around her.

April's Daughter / Las hijas de AbrilMexico
4*

Director:
Michel Franco
Screenwriter:

Michel Franco
Director of Photography:
Yves Cape

Running time: 105 minutes

Original title: Las hijas de Abril

It should be “April’s Daughters”, plural, not “April’s Daughter” as the official English title would have us believe. The distinction is important because the daughters, plural, are important. In fact, there are three of them. But there is only one April, and thank god for that.

Set in the city of Puerto Vallarta on the exotic Mexican coastline, the story gives us the calm, then the storm that turns into a hurricane fast. April (played by Emma Suárez, who, the film never ceases to remind us, is in fact Spanish) is a single woman who looks younger than her biological middle age. She is full of life and in control of her own destiny, but she is living on her own, and her relationship with her two daughters is complicated. Then again, her two daughters seem to have their own share of problems.

In the opening scene, played for deadpan comedy, the elder daughter, Clara, who wears the same pyjama-like blouse throughout the entire film, is making breakfast. In the next room, her half-sister, Valeria, is having sex with her boyfriend, so loudly the walls are nearly shaking. The boyfriend is 17-year-old Mateo (the striking, curly-haired Enrique Arrizon), and their sex drive seemingly has not abated since they discovered Valeria is pregnant. Valeria asks her sister not to let their mother know about the pregnancy, but Clara doesn’t listen, and one night, April turns up at the house.

Seemingly generous and caring, April turns up at Valeria’s father’s house in Guadalajara to seek help, but he wants nothing to do with her. From the looks of it, he is just paranoid or overreacting, but we soon realise that April is a something of a sociopath as she turns into a busybody who wants to be in control of Valeria and, when the time comes, her daughter, too. Clara, who is all but catatonic throughout the entire film, offers no support to her sister and simply relents to whatever demand their mother makes. Both daughters’ inaction leads to April taking major decisions on their behalf, one of which is to have Valeria’s rights as a mother terminated.

April’s behaviour in this regard is bad enough, but then her libido kicks into overdrive. The object of her affection? Valeria’s boyfriend and baby daddy: Mateo. While not at all unexpected, this is a fascinating development because the young Mateo is so vulnerable. He is not married to Valeria, is barely out of school and still lives at home with parents who want nothing to do with raising their bastard granddaughter. Predictably, he lets April take control of the situation, as this relieves the pressure on him to be an adult, even if it means he has to sleep with his daughter’s grandmother. But in the process, this young man is thoroughly emasculated, a point that is driven home by the fact that, after just a few days or weeks of living with her, he can no longer get it up. 

While Clara, who runs a print shop, is a cipher who speaks little and does even less besides eating and smoking, the supposedly immature Valeria gradually comes into her own. This kind of growth (the only real development manifested by any of the five central characters), which lights the fuse of the fireworks in the film’s final act, grants the story a deeply satisfying conclusion. Her actions transcend revenge and highlight the superiority of her morality of that of those who stabbed her in the back.

With very little fanfare, director Michel Franco reveals some shocking behaviour on the part of April. But because all of this takes place in the middle of the summer under the glare of near-constant sunlight, it takes a while for the full scope of April’s wickedness to hit us in the face. The visuals, often single takes, draw little attention to themselves and let everything play out in real time without emphasis or acceleration.

This glimpse of a master manipulator (obviously, April, but also, not insignificantly, Michel Franco) is engrossing, even though there is little sign of character development beyond the kind Valeria undergoes against her will. The chill that Mateo’s parents exude and the webs in which April spins everyone around her with her charm are both comically absurd and shockingly diabolical. This volatile tone, along with Emma Suárez’s starring turn in the lead, offers an absorbing experience that takes us all over Jalisco and into Mexico City, where Valerie cuts the Gordian knot with the sword of a mama bear.

Viewed at the International Film Festival Bratislava 2017

Undertow (2009)

In the Peruvian Undertow (Contracorriente), it takes a tragic loss of life – and the appearance of a ghost – to make a family man comfortable with his own sexuality, which, the film suggests, also makes him more of a man.

Cotracorriente / Undertow (2009)Peru
4*

Director:
Javier Fuentes-León

Screenwriters:
Javier Fuentes-León
Julio Rojas
Director of Photography:
Mauricio Vidal

Running time: 100 minutes

Original title: Contracorriente

“There are a thousand ways to be a man”, says the boyfriend of Undertow‘s main character, the handsome curly-haired Miguel (Cristian Mercado), whose wife, Mariela, is close to giving birth to their first child. In his tiny fishing village on the Peruvian coast, being a man necessarily involves having a family (unless you’re the priest), and having friends depends on acting like a man.

In the film’s stunning opening close-up, Miguel turns his head and gently places it on Mariela’s bare belly to feel the baby kicking. He suggests it will be a boy and playfully calls the baby “Miguelito”. Mariela scolds him, concerned it might be a girl and that she might be confused if she heard her father calling her “Miguelito” through the womb. Babies can hear everything, she says. So can we, just a few minutes in, as it is made clear that in this town a man is a man and a woman a woman.

This makes Miguel’s extra-conjugal relationship with Santiago (Manolo Cardona) something of an existential problem, and despite being in a relationship that has clearly matured over time, Miguel is still far from comfortable viewing their bond as something entirely “manly”.

And yet, it is clear the relationship is not some infatuation. Eschewing the uncertainty that so often accompanies the start of a same-sex liaison, especially in a conservative society like this one in rural Peru with its (religious and non-religious) traditions, director Javier Fuentes-León starts his début feature in medias res, after the two have already known each other for a period of time.

Santiago, an artist who mostly keeps to himself, is an outsider in town and gets on some people’s nerves as he goes around taking photos of people and events to paint at home. His house even gets egged on a regular basis by children whose parents no doubt sanction their actions.

The first time we see Santiago and Miguel together, their interaction is intimate and informal. Clearly, this is not some fugacious fling. But Miguel has compartmentalised it as something that only takes place far from home, and he takes care never to meet or speak to Santiago in public. Understandably, Santiago’s frustration eventually reaches boiling point, particularly as Miguel is settling further into his role as a traditional family man. “I’m sick of playing dumb. You can; I can’t”, he admonishes him.

And then, out of the blue, a mere 30 minutes into the film, Santiago drowns. But there is no time to grieve as he announces his own death to Miguel, by showing up in the form of a (very lifelike) phantom in Miguel’s own home. And he keeps showing up, everywhere, the physical manifestation of Miguel’s memory of him, or of his guilt. Santiago is bound to wander aimlessly until his spirit finds peace. 

Thus begins one of the most thrilling, emotionally gripping sequence of scenes imaginable, as Miguel grows used to being out and about in public with his (albeit late and invisible) boyfriend, because no one can see them. It goes without saying that this is the perfect way for Miguel to grow in confidence, at least until the inevitable ceiling hits him on the head: The moment the town finds out about Miguel’s recent dalliances with the man they all simply refer to as “the artist”.

Along the way, former obstacles fall the one after the other, and halfway through the film, when the couple even recreates the most famous shot from Fred Zinnemann’s From Here to Eternity, there can no longer be any question in even the most conservative viewer’s mind that Miguel and Santiago should be afforded the same empathy we have always granted their equally fictional mixed-sex counterparts.

Santiago’s persistent presence in the film is as comical as it is beautiful. There are no scenes of anguish over him being dead – after all, to Miguel he looks and feels just as real as before – and even in death he has remained as understanding of Miguel’s fragile domestic situation as before: When he turns up next to the bed while Miguel is having sex with his wife (but thinking of Santiago), he covers his eyes but encourages Miguel to continue as if he weren’t there.

Undertow‘s final moments are deeply moving and tie a neat bow on Miguel’s blossoming into manhood, adding colour and closure by way of an honest conversation whose absence made the final moments of Brokeback Mountain feel like an open wound that would never heal. 

Yes, love is selfish. Miguel doesn’t play right by Santiago while he is alive, and even after his death he refuses to acknowledge their relationship. He wants to maintain his reputation in the eyes of the community by having a wife and a son. He wants to have his cake but eat his banana, too.

But by the time we reach the ending, an allegorical connection with Jesus Christ, who carried his cross along the Via Dolorosa in full view of a crowd of people after fighting long and hard with his inner demons, becomes clear. This is a man. This is what a man does when he is honest about who he is. He keeps his promise. And he ensures the one he loves finds peace, even if that means he has to sacrifice his companionship forever.

Zero for Conduct (1933)

Using all the tools at his disposal to take on the establishment, the 27-year-old Jean Vigo shows life as it is and film as it can be in Zero for Conduct.

Zero for ConductFrance
4*

Director:
Jean Vigo

Screenwriter:
Jean Vigo

Director of Photography:
Boris Kaufman

Running time: 40 minutes

Original title: Zéro de conduite

Orson Welles was 25 when he started shooting Citizen Kane, a film whose tongue-in-cheek, broad-strokes reference to media magnate William Randolph Hearst landed him in hot water but ultimately re-defined the parameters of the possible in movie making. Seven and a half years earlier, under very different circumstances, a 27-year-old Frenchman named Jean Vigo, the son of a prominent anarchist assassinated for his beliefs, had started production on a medium-length film that also took a shot at re-inventing the wheel and arguably succeeded beyond the director’s wildest dreams.

The title was Zero for Conduct (the full title is subtitled “Young Devils in School“), and it is a visionary take on childhood rebellion against oppressive school structures. These 40 minutes are a corner stone of what film enthusiasts refer to as the “poetic realism” movement, to which Vigo would contribute just one more film – his only feature, L’Atalante – before his tuberculosis-induced death at the age of 29.

Poetic realism refers to a loose array of socially conscious films made in France during the early years of “sound cinema” that focused on working-class characters. Besides Vigo, the best-known directors of the movement included Jean Renoir (Les bas-fonds / The Lower Depths, 1936), Julien Duvivier (Pépé le Moko, 1937) and Marcel Carné (Le Quai des brumes / Port of Shadows, 1938).

Nearly 75 years after it was made, Jean Vigo’s controversial take on the French educational system (the film was banned until the end of the Second World War) remains an astonishing accomplishment because it is not a stale vision of the world weighed down by the technology of the time. The title refers to the punishment meted out to school children, no matter how small the alleged infraction: detention on Sunday.

Although made shortly after the advent of the “talkie”, a development that halted the strides made in cinematography over the previous decade, Zero for Conduct is remarkably supple, thanks in no small part to its 26-year-old cinematographer, Boris Kaufman, the younger brother of the cinema’s first visual wizard, Dziga Vertov. And the storytelling, albeit frequently patchy, somehow lifts the viewer into the clouds thanks to the playful nature of the events as depicted.

The opening scene is particularly attention-grabbing: Unfolding as a scene from a classic silent film, it contains a strong score by Maurice Jaubert and no audible dialogue. Inside one compartment of a moving steam train, two young school boys are amusing themselves by blowing balloons and pretending they are a woman’s breasts, which they naturally proceed to fondle.  They also smoke cigars, blow on a miniature trumpet and perform the old “pulling off your thumb” trick in close-up, all while the one adult in the scene (an as yet anonymous character opposite them) is so fast asleep the boys imagine he might be dead.

As soon as the train pulls into the station, however, reality sets it, and it does so by penetrating the film itself: The dreamland of silent cinema fades away as the boys get off the train and we hear a soundtrack reproducing their movements and dialogue. They are returning to boarding school after the holidays and discover that the man who was sleeping in the train is in fact the new school monitor, Huguet, played by the wonderfully youthful Jean Dasté.

The casting of Dasté, who had débuted in Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning the previous year, as the only likeable teacher (who even imitates Chaplin’s Tramp to amuse his students) is inspired and ultimately strengthens our resolve against his creepy colleagues.

Vigo effortlessly interweaves the children’s gaiety and inclination for mischief with more serious incidents of injustice at the school. And the tone is always light, even as events seem to be heading towards their inexorable conclusion: large-scale rebellion. He does this by depicting the authority figures as rather pathetic. The clearest example is the headmaster, played by a thickly bearded dwarf with a high-pitched voice who stores his bowler hat under a glass dome. The contrast between his high position in the school hierarchy and the lowly way in which he is represented is so stark it is all but certain to elicit laughter from the viewer.

The tall, gangly apparently mute housemaster, Beanpole, who steals from the children and is generally odious, cuts another comical figure. Huguet makes a drawing of him by hand, which comes to life and turns into an animation of a stick-figure Napoleon Bonaparte. Earlier in this same classroom scene, a boy tossed a ball into the air before a jump cut made it disappear in mid-air. These are very brief, arguably inconsequential moments for the narrative, but they do add a level of playfulness that borders on magical realism.

The most famous scene, however, is the late-night pillow fight that precedes the climactic uprising. Using slow motion and producing a kind of indoor snowfall with purely conventional means (feathers), Vigo demonstrates his skill at turning the mundane into something enchanting, fashioning beauty out of childhood rebellion. This scene has been reproduced in a group of films as distinct as Fanny and Alexander and Billy Elliot, and there is no question Zero for Conduct influenced the depiction of school episodes involving Antoine Doinel, the school-flunking central character in François Truffaut’s début feature, The 400 Blows.

Although it is more a collection of well-staged fragments rather than an elegantly maturing narrative, Zero for Conduct is a kind of magic. Filled with anger at authority figures, it also hurls its derision at and cuts them down to size by using a novel approach to realism that seeks to break free and soar towards the skies: poetic realism.

Loving (2016)

Never in a rush to get to its well-known conclusion, Jeff Nichols’s Loving builds to a serene but emotionally devastating final scene capping this story about an unassuming couple’s historic Supreme Court battle.

LovingUSA
4*

Director:
Jeff Nichols

Screenwriter:
Jeff Nichols

Director of Photography:
Adam Stone

Running time: 120 minutes

In the opening scene, she tells him she is pregnant. This is the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1958, and they are not yet married, but the news visibly tugs at his heart. These two rarely show any emotion beyond a look of love or fear, but their feelings for each other are never a mystery.

They are Richard and Mildred, and their marriage defied Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law. After spending years raising their children and waiting for the issue to wind its way through the justice system, they finally saw it reach the United States Supreme Court, which would go on to decide the landmark case of Loving v. Virginia in their favour.

Richard being white and Mildred being black, they were allowed to get married in the District of Columbia, which had never enacted any laws against interracial marriages. However, upon returning home to their town in northeast Virginia, they were arrested for unlawfully co-habitating in violation of the state’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924.

Director Jeff Nichols gives subtle hints to the notion that many whites in power at the time saw Richard and Mildred as two people engaging in abominable activity, and that Richard was somehow tarnishing his own race. This idea was commonplace at the time, and one need look no further than the laws in the Southern states at the time, which only prohibited whites from marrying other races but had no problem with non-white races marrying each other.

But despite all the legal restrictions on their love, the couple, portrayed in the film by (non-Americans) Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, keeps their heads down and does their best to make a good home for their children. After a judge rules that they are not allowed to be in Virginia at the same time for the next 25 years, they move to a small apartment in a low-income Washington, D.C., neighbourhood. Richard works on construction projects, while his wife takes care of the growing family at home.

But Mildred misses her family back home and the wide open spaces of rural Virginia where she wants her boys and girl to run around without fear of getting run over by a car or being assaulted by a random stranger in the street. Inspired by the March on Washington in the summer of 1963, she writes a letter to Robert Kennedy, at the time serving as the country’s attorney general, asking for help with their situation. Surprisingly, she gets a phone call from a lawyer at the ACLU who figures this case could ultimately lead to a nationwide repeal of anti-miscegenation laws.

There are only a few points on which the film commits a serious lapse in judgement. Cast in the role of the lawyer, Bernard S. Cohen, is comedian Nick Kroll, who, even in the most somber of circumstances, appears to be on the verge of bursting out laughing. His first appearance in the film is also played for laughs, but Kroll’s brand of comedy, which usually involves him staring awkwardly at someone when his character is in an uncomfortable situation, is the wrong fit for this story and alienates the viewer. This performance is particularly grating given the subdued emotional tone projected by the two leads.

Nichols makes another miscalculation during oral argument at the Supreme Court. While he decides not to show the faces of the justices, he does use the original audio from Chief Justice Earl Warren’s introduction of the case to remind us of the real-world provenance of the story. And yet, he uses Kroll and his voice, as well as Jon Bass, who plays fellow attorney Philip Hirschkop, to address the justices. Had Nichols used the original audio, this scene would have played much better for numerous reasons, not least of which is that Kroll’s performance consistently seeks to convey farce instead of solemnity.

Another moment that appears to belong to a different film results from parallel editing that seeks to heighten the tension in the cheapest of ways: by alternating between tension at work (a heavy bag of cement drops from a great height) and the seemingly carefree adventures of boys running through the neighbourhood streets. The violent climax of the scene is no surprise but wholly unbecoming of Loving‘s generally restrained approach to telling its story.

On the whole, however, the film’s various components – long as they sometimes take to come into view – all fit very tightly together to tell this historic tale of quiet resistance against entrenched injustice. The story of an unassuming couple just seeking to be accepted for being what and feeling how their surname says is told with compassion and focus. And by the time we reach the peaceful final scene and its promise of a future rooted in the soil of Virginia, it is near impossible to keep the tears from flowing.

Año uña (2007)

Año uña uses photographs to tell the story of a sweet but ultimately impractical friendship between a US college student and a Mexican teenager in Mexico City.

Año uña, Year of the NailMexico
4*

Director:
Jonás Cuarón

Screenwriter:
Jonás Cuarón
Director of Photography:
Jonás Cuarón

Running time: 80 minutes

Alternate title: The Year of the Nail

In Jonás Cuarón’s simple but attentive fiction film début, Año uña (The Year of the Nail), we find ourselves rooting for a 14-year-old boy in his quest to be intimate with a female college student. Perhaps it’s because of the genuine likability of this naïve young boy, a horny Mexican teenager named Diego (played by Cuarón’s real-life half-brother, Diego Cataño), or because of the leisurely conversations between him and his crush or because both are in on the game.

Made up entirely of still photographs (around half of them in black-and-white), the film’s form is reminiscent of Chris Marker’s La Jetée. But although the two works are visually similar, at least initially, they have little in common beyond telling their stories at a much more sputtering pace than we’re used to. The reason why Cuarón decided on this approach was not because of any particularly artistic sensibility but because of necessity. Over the course of a year, he had taken thousands of photographs of his then-girlfriend, Eireann Harper, and Cataño interacting with each other. He subsequently reordered the pictures and added new sounds – voiceovers and diegetic dialogue – to shape a different story from the real images.

The resulting sequence of pictures is an array of fleeting moments captured and emphasised for however the filmmaker desires. It moves from greyscale through desatured colour to colour photographs that very obviously originated on film. Some of the images are out of focus, others are very sharp. These are all fleeting moments tied together by sounds, thoughts and bits of dialogue to create a mosaic of an experience that belongs to no one and to everyone.

Occasionally, there is the slightest of movements across a picture to simulate a pan that somewhat changes the composition or plays with the forms inside the frame. Because the film is based on photographs taken of people who were often not aware that they would end up in a motion picture, some of the faces have been blurred, presumably out of respect for their privacy.

The film opens with this explanation:

From 2004 to 2005 I photographed my surroundings.
At the end of the year, I ordered the images in such a way that they suggested the following narrative.
These are documentary images. The moments and characters are real.

Only the story is fictional.

There is some initial setup in which we see Molly (Harper), a US student on an exchange programme in Mexico City who is constantly embarrassed by her loud-mouth Yankee friend, Katie, yearning for a more personal relationship with the country and its people. The first image we get of Diego is accompanied by a voice-over informing us that he jerked off three times the previous evening. And he is obsessed with the idea of seeing his fast-maturing cousin’s breasts.

Traces of Y Tu Mamá También, which Cuarón’s father, Alfonso, had directed just a few years earlier, are easily discernible (oversexed boy lusts after older woman), but it is to the young Cuarón’s credit that he skillfully keeps us wondering about the outcome without ever frustrating our hopes or expectations.

The story plays out over a year during which we see Molly the gringa move from having trouble getting her mouth around words with indiginous origins, like Quetzalcoatl, Tlalnepantla, Chicoloapan and Tlacuitlapa, to fluently saying the Spanish tongue twister that Diego taught her. Meanwhile, Diego develops from a horny 14-year-old to a horny 15-year-old who is infatuated with whichever girl is closest to him, and the most consequential development is that his ingrown toenail (whence the English title) is finally treated. The significance of the nail – slightly uncomfortable when it is there but immediately forgotten after it is removed – is self-evident.

Some of the best moments in the film are those, obviously also drawing from the narrative well of Y Tu Mamá También, in which voice-overs are juxtaposed with each other to create dramatic irony and insight into the characters that would have been difficult in a live-action film. Another point of reference here is the slightly socially awkward interaction between Diane Keaton and Woody Allen’s characters on the balcony in Annie Hall (Allen used subtitles instead of voice-overs).

The spontaneity of shooting with actors is lost here, as the conversations recorded after the fact come across as stilted and unconvincing, although the insistence and the breathy, moaning inflection of Cataño’s voice precisely convey his character’s annoyance at not being able to get what he craves. For some reason, almost all of Molly’s voice-over is produced as a loud whisper, which becomes increasingly bothersome as the film progresses.

In addition, the focus is scattered all over the place: Not only Diego and Molly, but also Diego’s mother, his cousin and a few others get their own scenes and voice-overs that are tangentially related but never an integral part of the central storyline.

The ease and skill with which Cuarón creates comical yet recognisable trains of thought in the teenage Diego’s head is simply remarkable. Año uña is a very funny film because the viewer can identify (with) the often silly notions of romance and intimacy that Diego is dealing with, such as when he considers the possibility of drowning in order for Molly to give him mouth to mouth. But the perspective is always gentle and understanding, and while it misses the hammer blow of a Y Tu Mamá También, it is nonetheless a beautifully conceived and strikingly executed work of story telling.

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Caught between the Scylla of returning to face a tragic past and the Charybdis of living a frustrating present, Lee Chandler assesses the path forward in Kenneth Lonergan’s deeply affecting Manchester by the Sea.

Manchester by the SeaUSA
4*

Director:
Kenneth Lonergan
Screenwriter:
Kenneth Lonergan
Director of Photography:
Jody Lee Lipes

Running time: 135 minutes

In his third cinematic meditation on loss, Kenneth Lonergan boldly interweaves two parts of storyline with devastating effect to create a rich tapestry of events in the past that explain, insofar as it is possible to explain flesh-and-blood people, the sombre emotional mood in the present. Manchester by the Sea is in no hurry to unpack all the emotional baggage. But the deliberate rhythm helps the viewer to digest the immensity of the trauma that stretches many years of heartache and to comprehend, if not always empathise with, the central character and his stunted reactions to the world around him.

Casey Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, a janitor whose face shows little sign of life. He is currently living in Quincy, a city that falls under the Greater Boston area in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In the film’s early scenes, we learn about as much about him as we will until the halfway mark. He fixes the plumbing in a few apartment blocks but has no social compass to guide him in conversations with the tenants. He barely interacts with the people around him. He goes to bars to drink and not to pick up women. And more often than not, he ends the night by getting into a fight with a total stranger.

But throughout this dour introduction, we hold on to the relatively optimistic opening scene, in which Lee, his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), and Joe’s son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), are out on a boat. Joe is steering, while Lee is horsing around with his nephew, playfully comparing himself with his Joe and being a happy-go-lucky uncle.

But there is something eery about that opening scene. Besides the lack of any close-ups of the action and the characters, the boat, advancing as it does, looks almost static because the camera is moving at exactly the same speed. Our mind tells us there is movement, but the boat’s immutable composition dead in the centre of the frame makes us question our eyes. This is the perfect shot to kick off a film whose power lies in its gradual disclosure of the distinction between immediate and remembered events. Films, even those depicting events long ago, create an illusion of immediacy with the greatest of ease. Without any visual or audio markers to the contrary, the viewer is most likely to assume that any scene takes place in the film’s “present”, but with this shot Lonergan tips his hand, reinforcing both the artistry and the authenticity of the film.

We soon learn that this opening scene is set in the past. It is a memory. A few scenes (and many years) later, Lee learns that Joe has just passed away from congestive heart failure. He sets off to the hospital in the seaside town of Manchester by the Sea, where his awkward interactions with people he seemingly knows rather well immediately draw our attention. And then we get another flashback, set a few years earlier in the same hospital, when Joe learned his time on Earth would be much shorter than he had expected.

There will be many more flashbacks throughout the film. Some will seem happy; others will be devastating. At times, they appear to be traces of simpler times. At other times, they bring back hidden pain and sadness with the force of a sledgehammer. In retrospect, they are all tinged with sincere humanity but also an overwhelming melancholia.

For nearly half the film, Lonergan holds his narrative cards close to his chest. Lee learns his brother’s will designates him as guardian of the teenage Patrick. Lee, who views Manchester with a heavy heart because of all the death it has wrought on his family, wants no part in being Patrick’s caretaker father and has no desire to stay longer in town than necessary. The director gradually reveals the immense tragedy at the core of Lee’s character not as a stream but as a trickle that slowly brings to light the reasons for the present-day misery. But even the presentation has layers to it, and Lonergan’s film is nothing if not an onion that keeps peeling, continuously bringing the characters and the viewer closer to tears.

Halfway through the film, Kenneth Lonergan makes one absolutely inexcusable mistake: He injects himself into his film in the wrong way. Lonergan has had cameos in all of his films to date. In his début feature, the sublime You Can Count on Me, which might just be one of the best films of the past few decades, he starred as a priest, a role in which his deadpan discussion of fornication with a member of his congregation was one of many simultaneously serious and deeply comical highlights. In Margaret, he makes three short appearances at the other end of a telephone line as the lead character’s father. Displaying an awkwardness unmatched by any of his other roles, Lonergan’s trio of scenes traces the decline of a relationship but are overindulgent.

In Manchester by the Sea, the director shows up as a bystander on the street who loudly questions Lee’s parenting skills. This moment is harmless enough, but when Lonergan leaves, a separate shot shows the camera momentarily following him – an anonymous, peripheral character who never shows up again – before a cut back to Lee and his nephew, Patrick. This reeks of narcissism at best and incompetence at worst.

Although more bold than Margaret, this 135-minute examination of the way in which tragedy’s tentacles continue to leech happiness from the present is not a challenging film to watch and inspires little desire to be watched a second time. Lonergan deserves ample praise for making his flashbacks so unobtrusive and for tying them so firmly – yet initially inconspicuously – to the present-day narrative.

Time does not heal all wounds. We don’t forget the worst things that have befallen us. But while we mourn, the world is changing. And when we suddenly allow ourselves to open our eyes, perhaps the new configuration of people and relationships might just appear slightly more manageable.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

An unusually serious film from director Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a joy from start to finish.

Grand Budapest HotelUSA
4*

Director:
Wes Anderson

Screenwriter:
Wes Anderson

Director of Photography:
Robert Yeoman

Running time: 100 minutes

The Grand Budapest Hotel, besides being a much more serious film than we’re used to seeing from director Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), makes many a direct play for the hearts of Central and East Europeans.

With its mixture of exquisite period detail, albeit slightly exaggerated, overt references to historical turning points in the region and a typically “Wesandersonian” presentation of the story as visibly but immersively fictional, the film is almost certain to be well received both behind the former Iron Curtain and around the world.

In 1985, an elderly gentleman looks straight into the camera and starts telling us a story that takes us back, first to 1968, and then to 1932, as the rise and fall of the Grand Budapest Hotel, a luxurious establishment somewhere in the Republic of Zubrowka, is displayed in all its alternately decrepit and extravagant excess.

The abovementioned Zubrowka, obviously named after one of the best vodkas I have ever tasted, Poland’s bison-grass infused Żubrówka, is almost as difficult to place as The Simpsons’ city of Springfield. The opening scene, set in a cemetery in the fictional city of Lutz, obviously refers to the Polish city of Łódź, and yet the name of the hotel refers to Hungary, although it is located in the “Sudetenwalt,” or Sudeten Forest, which suggests pre–World War II Czechoslovakia, or thereabouts.

The doubly encased storytelling mechanism (the man in 1985, a nameless author, shares with us how he came to meet the owner of the hotel, Mr. Moustafa, in 1968, who told him the story – one that dates to 1932 – of how he came to possess the grand establishment) is further framed by the very first scene, in which someone opens a book titled “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, neatly divided into chapters. Also, the exterior of the Grand Budapest Hotel is not life-size but rather immediately recognisable as a small, detailed model; many other tricks that sometimes bring to mind Anderson’s work on the stop-motion The Fantastic Mr. Fox continue to make it clear this is a tale enriched by reality rather than one seeking to emulate it.

While Mr. Moustafa is the proprietor in 1968, played by the wonderful F. Murray Abraham (who recently had an equally short but deeply satisfying role in Inside Llewyn Davis), he is but a teenage boy – first name Zero – in the story taking place in 1932, when he starts his work as a lobby boy, in service of the hotel’s famous concierge, Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Monsieur Gustave personally tends to every need of his guests, and often those needs require him to spend some time in their private rooms, especially if they are blond.

Monsieur Gustave is great fun, soaked as he is in his L’Air de Panache perfume. Although fastidious to the point of being obsessive, he also has a big heart, and while he has his doubts about Zero’s qualifications to carry out his duties, he quickly warms to the boy and teaches him everything he knows. He also protects him with his life, and his magnanimity, or even friendship, is rewarded when he is locked up after being framed for the murder of a former hotel guest, Madame Desgoffe und Taxis, simply known as Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, enchanting as ever, even as she plays an 84-year-old woman).

The film presents itself as strictly removed from reality, but the traces of history are recognisable and remain potent despite being altered. The Nazi lightning symbol of the “SS” has been modified to appear as “ZZ” in this film, and the delicious pastries are provided by a fancy bakery called Mendl’s, very likely drawing its inspiration from the Austrian producer of gourmet foods, Julius Meinl. Sometimes, not unlike the approach taken by Joe Wright in his film adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the lighting changes to indicate a shift in tone, done in such a way as to bring it closer to the theater (in other words, overt performance), and eschews any attempt to give the film an air of grittiness.

And yet, as Anderson has proved so often in the past, his characters can still elicit emotions in us even though they belong to a world so obviously different from our own. Friendship and family are two key themes in the films of the director, and here, too, despite the countless cameos (many well-known actors each appear only in a single scene, including Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Bob Balaban) and the film’s many moments of whimsy, it ends with a sudden rush of emotions as we come to realise how beautifully The Grand Budapest Hotel and its characters fit together, how much they have been through and how much we have enjoyed their adventures, notwithstanding the unspoken Nazi and communist uprisings that we can read between lines.

This film brims with creativity and ingenuity, as even a ride in a funicular or a bobsled can turn into something unforgettable (for the latter, think of the game of “hotbox” in The Fantastic Mr. Fox rather than bobsledding at the Winter Games). The emotions are also there, very competently handled by Anderson, whose direction of the young Tony Revolori, as Zero, elicits a performance that is flawlessly part of the film. There is also one of the most unusual escapes from prison you will have ever seen on film and a handful of small pans that produce, as Anderson learned so well in The Darjeeling Limited, moments of visual bathos that are as hilarious as they are unexpected.

A very different kettle of fish compared with his other films, this is perhaps Wes Anderson’s most subdued film to date, but he deftly handles the balance between the comical and the dramatic, yielding a work of beauty, comedy and mystery that is every bit as enchanting, funny and ultimately moving as some of his best films.

The Revenant (2015)

After an attack by a bear leaves him fighting for his life, a 19th-century trapper marches on alone through the snow to face another foe.

The RevenantUSA
4*

Director:
Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Screenwriters:
Mark L. Smith
Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Director of Photography:
Emmanuel Lubezki

Running time: 155 minutes

Few things are more dangerous than a man who has nothing left to lose. Interesting, then, that the first act of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant, set in the sub-zero temperatures of a 19th-century winter, crystallises both of these, and it does so in the most visually memorable way possible.

With snow covering a stunning landscape nearly untouched by white society, the image we have of this part of the Louisiana Territory is one of ravishing beauty hiding terror in the form of roaming bears and bison and a number of Native American tribes, some of whom are at war with each other. In the midst of all of this, an all-male hunting party is exploring the land when it is attacked and almost entirely decimated first by an arrow-wielding indigenous tribe and then by a grizzly bear protecting its cubs. The man who suffers the brunt of the latter attack is the bearded Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is traveling with his half-Pawnee son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). Glass is mauled to pieces but remains alive, and that is where the story really kicks in.

The film is based on real events that took place in 1823 in the northwestern part of present-day South Dakota, when Glass, having sustained staggering injuries during the attack, was buried in haste and left for dead before he made his way back through the wilderness and rejoined his company. As is to be expected, The Revenant (which means “the one who comes back”) compresses the original timeline, but it also focuses in great detail on the interior life of Glass as he fights his own mortality and deep scars, both physical and spiritual, to make it to the end.

Using numerous dream sequences and quite a few moments in limbo between dream and reality, the director imbues his main character with notions of tradition, introspection and survival that are subtle and do not require big action scenes. That is not to say that the film eschews such scenes, and the first act contains a major battle between the Americans and the Arikara tribe, presented with both flair and nuance by the finest director of photography at work in the industry today, Emmanuel Lubezki.

Building on and vastly surpassing the camera work on his and Iñárritu’s previous film, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), which was restricted almost entirely to a single location, Lubezki uses his camera here with the kind of Midas touch we saw in Children of Men, or a less pretentious Panic Room, lensed by Conrad W. Hall and Darius Khondji. Many of his takes are very mobile and last much longer than takes tend to do in major commercial films (the production budget on The Revenant was $135 million).

As a result, we get scenes in which we see the characters’ movements captured without changes of shots or visible editing, but the scale can vary from the intimate — Glass hides behind a rock in the river as the camera smoothly glides above the surface of the water towards and around him to give us his point of view both directly and indirectly — to the epic: Glass’s company is attacked, and after a significant amount of action, Glass shoots an Arikara tribesman who has been hiding high up in a tree. The man falls to the ground, where he is brutally and bluntly attacked by a white man with the butt of a rifle. The camera rushes over to them, when an arrow hits the man in the face. He keels over, and the camera rises up to meet an Indian on horseback, whom the camera promptly pursues at his level. All of this in a single, seemingly unbroken take.

The scene is simply extraordinary, but the level of action will blind many to the talent behind the scenes to succeed in bringing the images to life in this exact way.

While the action can be gruesome and in-your-face — during the bear attack, the grizzly sow gets so close to us her breath briefly fogs up the lens — much of the film slowly brings into focus the headspace of its central character, and Iñárritu uses both sound (the soundtrack fades in and out at some points) and image to get us to experience life in Glass’s skin, a task that is far from easy.

We understand early on why Glass wants to make it back to his men, but the idea of revenge stays with us a full two hours after that, thanks to subtle reminders in the screenplay in the form of a disgruntled, wide-eyed trapper, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy, in peak form), who only looks out for himself and will do anything to get his way, and the story of a tribesman, Elk Dog, who is looking for his daughter and who we sense would kill to get her back.

First and foremost, the film is about revenge and survival, but there are solid hints about the need for something transcendent to give meaning to the brutal, untamed wilderness of the Wild West, which consists not only of cowboys riding across wide open spaces and past sandstones buttes but also of trappers in parkas trudging through thick forest foliage and past sharp granite cliffs.

Unlike Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, whose aspect ratio was 2.76:1, Iñárritu’s film is only being screened at 2.35:1. And yet, the scenery practically begs the eyes to tell the head to move from side to side and drink in all the frigid beauty, albeit underpinned with simmering fury and overcast with menacing danger.

We do not always understand how Glass manages to find the way home, and the contemplative scenes that ring with the soft elocution of the Pawnee language may be tedious to some in the audience, but in the end, there is no escaping the director’s master stroke of enfolding his crude scenes of violence and endurance in a softer sheen of humanity. Even a particularly grisly scene with a horse, more or less plagiarised from the Icelandic Of Horses and Men (Hross í oss) by Benedikt Erlingsson, or the depiction of a bison stampede in the dead of night, has a calm about it that we do not expect.

While it could have made fuller characters out of its Native Americans, who do not rise above mere symbols of mysticism, the film is a master class for those seeking to tell stories about determination and perseverance. It is beautiful and unforgettable, and Iñárritu’s struggle to make it was well worth the toil.

On Body and Soul (2017)

Two deers in a snow-speckled forest punctuate awkward social scenes at a bloody Budapest abattoir to create a memorable film with a dreamy, unconventional “two people meant for each other” narrative.

On Body and SoulHungary
4*

Director:
Ildikó Enyedi
Screenwriter:
Ildikó Enyedi
Director of Photography:
Máté Herbai

Original title: Testről és Lélekről

Running time: 115 minutes

In the dead of winter, deep in a snow-speckled forest, a stag moves closer to place its chin ever so gently on the back of a wide-eyed doe. Light snowfall covers their fur. This peaceful, luminous scene – intimate despite the frigid temperatures – is like something out of a dream. Back in reality, it is summer in Budapest, where Endre, a middle-aged financial director at an abattoir, meets the porcelain-faced, blonde-haired Maria, the young new quality inspector who is all but expressionless except for a slight deer-caught-in-the-headlights look.

These two very different milieux alternate back and forth for a while until we realise they not only complement each other but are in fact directly connected: Every night, both Endre and Maria, who have never met before, have exactly the same dream in which the former is the stag and the latter is the doe. But unsurprisingly for a film from Hungary, a country whose film industry has specialised in works vibrating with a kind of magical realism for a number of years, this revelation does not come as a particular shock to either of them, although fortunately the flurry of magic slowly draws them together. Not coincidentally, all of this plays out against a story doing the rounds at the abattoir of two people who used “mating powder” meant for the cows and suffered some serious(ly hilarious) side effects.

The scenes at the abattoir are very graphic, and while we do not see the actual killing of the animals, we do see how the cows are decapitated with blood spurting forth in all directions. Logically, there is an obvious fear that the same will eventually befall the two deers, but director Ildikó Enyedi, who crafted the film based on her own screenplay, deftly ties the characters’ dreams and reality together in ways that make a great deal of sense while showing us both the brutality of falling in love and the serenity of being in love.

On Body and Soul drops hints along the way to give rough sketches of its two central characters but does not flesh either of them out in any great detail. This is the right approach, given that the film exists on a level that is more spiritual than physical, and any prolonged explanation or back story would have made Endre and Maria too heavy. It is never explained why Endre has a crippled left arm or how Maria has come to recoil from any physical contact, but it small (albeit, perhaps intentionally so, never perfect) ways, they complement each other.

By the time the two have grown closer together and Maria has decided it might be a good idea to get used to being touched, we get an absolutely stunning moment of beauty and subtlety that encapsulates the atmosphere of the film as a whole: After creepily staring at couples making out in the park, she lies down and feels the gentle sting of the blades of grass on her exposed skin. She falls asleep, only to be awoken by the park’s sprinkler system. But when she raises her head, she is smiling, aware that this is the first time she has had this experience, and the water that runs down her cheeks looks like tears of joy.

Another shot that stands is one that shows the stag running at full speed while the camera does a lateral tracking shot at the same steady pace. Like something out of a dream, giving the impression of happening for real but showing us something we could never have witnessed without film, this shot is the definition of pure cinema.

While the scenes with the deers are breathtakingly peaceful and gorgeous to look at, grisly moments captured early on at the abattoir will likely be upsetting to many viewers, in particular those who are non-carnivores by choice. Maria’s inscrutable demeanour, which at turns renders her asociality completely farcical, becomes more relatable during the comical scenes with her pediatrist (yes, you read that right). At the same time, Endre’s acceptance of her quirkiness is neither hands-off nor contrived, and by the time we reach the climax we want the two of them to be together so much that some of the more ridiculous developments become wholly palatable.

On Body and Soul is definitely a very different kind of love story, but for those willing to look past the blood and snow and see the two extremes join together in the middle, this is a delightful film whose unexpected humour will stay with you for days.

Viewed at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival.