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.

By the Sea (2015)

Intimate story of crumbling relationship, directed by Angelina Jolie (Pitt), is pure self-indulgence for director, not the viewer.

By the SeaUSA
2*

Director:
Angelina Jolie Pitt

Screenwriter:
Angelina Jolie Pitt

Director of Photography:
Christian Berger

Running time: 125 minutes

Do you remember the scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Second World War–set Inglourious Basterds in which U.S. Lieutenant Aldo Raine, played by Brad Pitt, attends a film premiere in Nazi-occupied Paris and pretends to be an Italian? “Bahn-dzhohr-no”, he says, oblivious to the deep Southern accent that escapes his lips and thus turning an otherwise tense moment into comedic gold.

By the Sea, a film set in the 1970s on the French Riviera and directed by Pitt’s wife, Angelina Jolie (who on this production is credited as Angelina Jolie Pitt), poses a similar issue for the actor, but this time his accent is not played for laughs, and that is a big problem. The words leave the mouth of his character, Roland, without a problem, and there is no hint of the accent he played up in Tarantino’s film, but his inarticulate speech is near incomprehensible to the French-speaking viewer. And yet, his French interlocutor, a bar owner named Marcel (Niels Arestrup), does not bat an eye. Perhaps he is used to his clients mumbling.

The rest of the film is also a mess. Angelina Jolie Pitt has never pouted more in any of her roles, and that is saying something. She stars as Vanessa, a former dancer and Roland’s wife of 14 years, who spends all of her time in their hotel room, motionless on the bed, with a tear slowly rolling down her check, or looking out onto the cove in front of the villa-esque hotel, or draped over the furniture, or catching some sun on the balcony while sporting obscenely big sunglasses.

The story is way too small for the two-hours-plus running time: Having recently been through a devastating tragedy that the film acknowledges in one of the first scenes and then makes unnecessarily explicit nearly two hours later, the couple temporarily relocates to the South of France so that Roland, a novelist, can write his next big work. No prizes for those who can guess the title in advance. But he spends most of his time getting drunk at Chez Marcel while a depressed and heavily medicated Vanessa fades into the wallpaper.

Luckily for Vanessa, she discovers a peephole in their wall and starts spying on the newlyweds next door, living vicariously through their sexual gymnastics as she misses out on such intimacy in her own life. As time passes, Roland joins her, and they do grow closer, although the painful episode in their lives remains unaddressed until it is almost too late.

The images are absolutely stunning, and so is Jolie Pitt’s wardrobe, but the richness of the physical exteriors cannot make up for the sad emotional interiors that never get properly fleshed out. Instead, Jolie Pitt piles on the visuals, with some striking editing (including a magnificent cut from the couple in bed at night to Roland alone in bed in the morning) and very brief but repetitive and ultimately ludicrous inserts of indefinable liquids that supposedly give a sense of Vanessa’s state of mind.

One of the few good moments occurs almost as an afterthought. While the main contrast is between Roland and Vanessa on the one side and their neighbours, the French couple, on the other, Roland also meets up with an elderly couple on a bench at the water’s edge one day. The conversation is very short, but the affection and understanding these two people have for each other are immediately obvious.

We catch a glimpse of them again later at the bar, where they are holding hands and talking like the good friends they continue to be after decades of marriage. The loquacious but sensitive Marcel also tells Roland how much he misses his wife who recently passed away, and all of these stories serve to isolate Roland in a bubble of melancholia that he resists by ordering drink after drink.

At the heart of the story, however, is the stasis and the decay of Roland and Vanessa’s relationship. Early on, the camera blatantly tells us where the hurt lies, when Vanessa goes grocery shopping and sees a child, whose innocent face we see in close-up … twice. Unfortunately, the tension fades into the background as neither Roland nor Vanessa wants to address the nagging strain on their marriage, and no one ever raises their voice until very late in the final act. Vanessa starts to play a game she does not understand, Roland becomes jealous, and they try to grow closer again by watching a kind of porn: the French couple’s raunchy workouts.

By the Sea is certainly not as bad as Guy Ritchie’s laughable Swept Away, but it is far off the mark. Drowning in stylistic flamboyance and with a narrative that is spread very thin, the film shows that its director, as she made clear with Unbroken, has enormous talent for visual showiness but lacks the skills to keep us interested when the story falls short of its extended running time.

Between Valleys (2012)

In film about the same man (or is it two different men?) in divergent situations, hysteria takes away from what could have been an insightful take on how similar we are.

between-valleysBrazil
3*

Director:
Philippe Barcinski

Screenwriters:
Philippe Barcinski
Fabiana Werneck Barcinski

Director of Photography:
Walter Carvalho

Running time: 80 minutes

Original title: Entre vales

The two men look identical. One is an economist and lives with his wife and child in a nice house in São Paulo, Brazil. He is called Antonio. The other, looking much more haggard but otherwise an exact copy of Antonio, works on an enormous rubbish heap outside the large metropolis and sleeps wherever he can. His name is Vicente.

Between Valleys (Entre Vales) cuts between the two characters throughout its 80-minute duration, running out the clock by making us ask more and more questions about the two characters’ relationship to each other. Director Philippe Barcinski also uses his camera in a peculiar way that emphasises the instability of perception when it comes to a specific object, but in the end we can feel satisfied that we have been given all the information we were looking for.

The film’s pre-credits opening scene shows us Antonio (played by Ângelo Antônio) drunk behind the wheel of his car, racing down an empty road in the dead of night. We don’t know who he is yet, but this does not bode well for the character. The first scene after the credits comprises many shots of workers on a seemingly endless landfill, as truckloads of rubbish are being dumped and spread out over a vast area, and the workers scurry across the discarded trash in seemingly random patterns, picking here and there and salvaging a piece of plastic that can be exchanged for a few reais from the recycling companies.

But before we can know what this scene means, Antonio appears with his son a short distance from the site to inspect a potential location for a new landfill. Antonio seems to have it all, but over the course of the film, he will lose almost everything that he values and end up drunk in the car.

At the same time, we see the journey of Vicente, who works on the landfill but whose beard is surprisingly short for someone who appears to be homeless and who has little knowledge of the operations on the landfill. Who is this man? Is it really Antonio, at some point in the future or maybe even the past? Will we eventually see at what point Antonio became Vicente or vice versa?

These are questions that are at the forefront of our minds as we watch the film, and the film has few surprises. The two worlds collide forcefully at critical moments, as Between Valleys tips its hand very heavily by cutting back and forth between the two characters, showing the one to be shaken by events in the other one’s life.

In the end, we do get an answer, but the truth of the story is not really the goal of the director, as by the time we reach the end, we will already have formed a very clear understanding of the notion that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Unfortunately, the character arc is not entirely believeable, but it is certainly more palatable than the two scenes of hysteria that first Antonio and then his wife provoke. These two scenes actually do more harm than good to the characters, as we may easily have empathised with them, had they not wallowed in their grief with such extravagance and persistence.

But Barcinski’s one visual trick that has some weight has to do with the presentation of his close-ups of a model of a landfill, which Antonio constructs with his son. The shots often rack in and out of focus, and although we at first have no idea why such shots were allowed to appear in the film, toward the end of the story, we come to realise the full significance of this approach.

Between Valleys is not an extraordinarily thoughtful film, and its moments of high emotion elicit no such feelings in the viewer, but it is an enjoyable and unsophisticated portrayal of the unexpected course a life can take as the result of tragedy.

Viewed at the International Film Festival Bratislava 2013