Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Review of The Double (2014)

Eraserhead and Three Colours Blue are not two films I would tend to link, yet somehow director Richard Ayoade, in a Dr Frankenstein-esque move, manages it in his follow up to his debut Submarine, The Double. It’s an odd, perversely beautiful experience, and it shows Ayoade to be a director with not just a vision, but a talent in bringing that vision to us in a full-bodied, uncompromised way.

We begin with the first of many sequences set on a dark, dingy underground; our hero, Simon (Jesse Eisenberg), is sat alone in an empty carriage. A faceless man walks up to him- “you’re in my seat”. Simon looks confused. The man reiterates. Simon looks around the carriage, and it is empty. But Simon is not a man who asks questions, and soon he moves out of the way.

Pay close attention to how this scene is shot, because it provides clues which underline the rest of the film. Note how Ayoade makes it look as though there is no light on the outside of the train, and what little light there is in the train is dim, and casts long shadows; this lighting pervades the rest of the film, and even in the very few moments where the setting is outside, Ayoade shoots it in such a way (heavy on the fog and the black hues) where we still feel as though as we are inside. This is an obvious tactic, but Ayoade uses it so unrelentingly and so constantly that it works perfectly; the whole film contains a sense of unrelenting dread, and a palpable, nightmarish quality.

For a story about a man whose doppelganger appears from nowhere, is better than him at everything, and makes his life hell, this approach is fitting.  We need to feel uncomfortable to be involved in the story, and Ayoade is very good at doing this. I have mentioned the lighting, and his use of down lighting which means that eyes are often in shadows, but Ayoade also uses spare, industrial sets which are pokey, damp, and dingy. His colour scheme is dark, with the exception of blue in a number of sequences, and whilst the way in which it is used is obviously part-homage to Three Colours Blue, such as the use of that light fitting, it also becomes a valid motif for freedom and hope on its own terms. Finally, Ayoade uses beautiful camerawork which underlines completely what the film is about; using an array of techniques, such as the whip-pan and the tracking shot, as well as a very neat use of symmetry. It’s a beautifully made film, and the beauty informs the dark heart lying at the centre.

And dark, as you have probably gathered by now, is the word. The plot is a terrifying one at its centre, and Eisenberg’s brilliant, twitchy, neurotic performance (as well as his brash, bold and wordy one when he’s the double) is marvellously appropriate. Ayoade sparingly uses his reliable supporting cast, but the standout is definitely Mia Wasikowska as Hannah, Simon’s love interest.  She’s a very talented actress, and in Ayoade’s blank, impersonal world, she comes across as the only character who is really, truly alive. Everyone else is confined (the use of Simon’s apartment is where the parallels with Eraserhead come in), but she is the only one who feels really trapped. Even Simon, for all his earnest puppy-dog yearning, accepts his fate.

Finally, the whole thing is undercut with a sly, black humour which could derail the film, but simply exacerbates the moments where Ayoade delivers the chills. This is ultimately a fascinating film and a superb visual exercise that marks Ayoade out as an auteur of great talent. I highly anticipate his next work.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Review of Calvary (2014)

John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary announces itself with a shot that is perfect. It makes itself quietly evident to us, and before it is over we know we are going to be watching a masterpiece. It is a fixed camera shot of Father James Lavelle, played by Brendan Gleeson, in a confession booth, hearing that he is going to die. He is looking down, and then he looks up; his face is marked by an impenetrable and palpable sadness that he will carry for the rest of the film. It leaks out of his eyes, and emanates from his every gesture. He is a man for whom life has run out of surprises. When the man who is confessing to him announces that “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old”, he shoots back, quick as a flash “that’s quite the opening line”. Written down, this might seem like he is callous, but as we come to know, he is not. He is a very good man.  Flawed, but good, and his humour is a defence against the numerous wrongs in life which have stacked themselves up against him. The man then tells James that he was abused systematically by a priest over a number of years, and that he is going to kill James in one week. Not because James was the abuser, but in seeing revenge as futile, he instead observes that “killing a good priest… that’s a shock.” The camera remains fixed on James’ face. We see how this news impacts him, and we see that he is simply too tired to be impacted at all. He takes what he is told on board, contemplates it, accepts it. He looks sad, but as we have noted, he looked sad before.

The film unspools slowly from this point, counting down the days. It methodically views his actions and his life, and it finallt forms a character study that can claim to be whole. Most of the film consists of James quietly going about his day-to-day business as a priest. For example, early on in the film he goes to a woman called Veronica (Orla O’Rourke), who he notes has been wearing sunglasses. She has been beaten, although she doesn’t seem too fazed; as James also notes, she is a woman who has many lovers. Nevertheless, James then goes about the island, quietly inquiring as to who did it, with the intent of telling them to stop. He sees this as little more than his duty. These scenes are a good representative of the film as a whole; quiet, meditative, and thoughtful.

Indeed, the film has a certain tranquil serenity, and a purity, which eventually evolves into pure and unbridled sadness, as it quietly observes the affairs of James Lavelle. We see that his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly), having just been released from hospital after a suicide attempt, has come to stay with him for a short while. We learn that their mother died, and that this was probably what spurred James on to become a priest. This impacted Fiona deeply, as she felt that she had lost two parents as opposed to one. In one of the many heartrending sequences in the film, Fiona states these feelings to James in beautifully plain terms. He looks at her, his eyes well up. He hugs her. Kisses her head. Holds her close to him.

We may also observe the people on the island. They are a truly horrible lot of people, and one may very well question the fact of how this many utter bastards came to be in one place. Dylan Moran plays an alcoholic millionaire called Michael Fitzgerald, abandoned by his wife and children, and he announces himself by urinating on a famous painting. Chris O’Dowd plays Jack Brennan, a butcher with a callous disregard for the feelings of anyone he is around. Domnhall Gleeson, who conveyed such integrity in Richard Curtis’ “About Time” here has a brief scene as a killer and rapist of young girls. There are more; something struck me as odd about the way in which they were written. After the film was finished, my girlfriend observed that each person we know on the island could represent one of the deadly sins. Along with the seven-day structure, this could very well fit. There is also arguably a case to be made that James is already living in hell. The truth is, I do not know, and such theories are for others to piece together. But I do agree that the people on the island represent circumstances which James tries to overcome, and has probably had to overcome for some time; burdens which he rises above with dignity and grace.

The film is also shot with a classical formality which allows us to observe the actions in a serene, unobtrusive way. There is a lot of bold colours, a lot of white and black in this film, and lots of cutaways to people surfing in the sea and the beautiful Irish landscape. McDonagh creates a peculiar sense of place in this film, in which shots vary in their composition; in some moments, he goes for symmetry. In others, he goes for placing the object at the corner of the screen. Sometimes he pivots, pans, or swivels, and on a number of occasions he keeps the camera still. The writing is subtle, effective, and makes its points quietly without making a point of them. It quietly pries open the themes of racism, sex, and sin. As James states near the end “there’s too much talk of sin. Nobody talks much about virtue.” This is a virtuous film.

The film also asks big questions about the nature of complicity of the abuse in the Catholic Church. It carries with it a sense of hurt, and pain, for the atrocities committed, but it also knows that violence should not beget violence. It is a pacifistic film that views violence as what it is; horrible. One fearless moment sees James state his detachment from the abuses that have been enacted in the church. Not because he does not think they are awful, but, perhaps, because they are too awful.

This marks one of James’ characteristics; sobering honesty. Another moment sees James accused of being judgemental, and before he can think he shoots back “yes, I am. But I try not to be.” We learn he has a problem with alcohol, and an actual one, not a contrivance added to give the film “depth”, whatever that means. We also learn that his priesthood is probably also him striving for forgiveness for his past mistakes. Yet we come to love him, and as the film quietly puts its pieces in place, we realise that how well we have come to know James, how completely. We know where he came from, who he is, where is going. He may not be perfect, and in one scene we tenderly observe how brutal he is capable of being, but we forgive him for he is on the proper path.

Thinking back over the film, and its portrayal of James’ character and human behaviour in general, I am only now realising how deeply and profoundly this film has touched me. It is a truly sad film, one of the saddest and most devastating I have seen, containing a number of scenes which hit me like a sledgehammer in their lack of sentiment and ruthless, unblinking honesty. The central performance from Brendan Gleeson is flawless in its observation. It is a film pitched at the highest level of purpose, and I would venture to suggest that anybody with any respect for the medium of film will take this into account when considering its capabilities. It has an unblinking eye for the nuances of human behaviour, and uses those to devastating and heart-wrenching ends. It inspires conversation, thought, and debate. It is a film that is as honest about religion, faith, and human nature as Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

Ultimately, Calvary comes to represent an attempt to convey the sum total of the worth of a human life, and it succeeds, and I wept, and wept.  

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Review of You're Next (2011)

You’re Next is an interesting failure; about one fifth interest, four fifths failure. It starts out, and spends half of its time as, a generic slasher film crossed with home invasion flick, laced with black comedy and what could be theoretically be termed family drama if it bothered to be credible. Then an interesting thing happens around the halfway mark- far too late if you ask me- and the film attempts to become a subversion of the genre, begging the question “what if one of the people being picked off actually could fight back?”.

But for it to work as a subversion, it would have to signpost itself as that, but it does not and as a result it reduces the most interesting thing the film has to a gimmick. Think of films like Man Bites Dog, or Funny Games; horrific films, but using their horror to some kind of higher purpose. This had the potential to be one of those films, or something approaching it, and it basically screwed up.

The story; a family of parents, three brothers, a sister, and each’s respective spouse or girlfriend gather at an old house in the middle of nowhere; you know, one of those old houses with a wooden interior and a confusing layout the film-makers never bother to clarify to the audience. The family itself, comprising attractive hipsters, don’t get on for contrived reasons I won’t bother to explain here (the film descends into histrionics very early on, and uses superficial and lazy writing to highlight these frayed tensions; oh no, one brother called the other one fat). Then, of course, an arrow from a crossbow comes through the window and pierces one of the family in the head. Then one through the heart of another family member. And so on and so forth, all by men wearing white animal masks. 

At this point, I grew very bored very quickly. There was something about the interplay of the family coupled with this tired slasher schtick that rubbed me up the wrong way. The film is far too morose and formal to be funny, which it occasionally tries to be, and director Adam Wingard shoots the film with the life sucked out of it, all static shots too closely zoomed in, with dark hues, greys and browns; even the blood is muted. Thus, moments with potential such as the vaguely amusing moment where, when discussing who should run out the house, one brother proclaims “I’m the fastest, but I have an arrow in my back,” are completely wasted.

Oh yeah, that’s another thing; the dialogue in Simon Barrett’s screenplay. Varying from functional to downright bizarre, one can’t ignore exchanges such as this;

A: “What are you doing?”
B: “We need to make sure all the windows and doors are locked.”
A: “What?”

There are a lot of moments like that in this film.

As I have mentioned, the film does pick up, and while I suppose what I say now could be considered a spoiler, it may decide whether you think this film is worthwhile or not. See, after most of the family have been picked off, it turns out that one of the girlfriends, Erin (played by Sharni Vinson, in the only performance that isn’t one-note) is incredibly deft at killing people. In fact, as she is cornered by one of the men wearing animal masks, she kicks him, and pounds his head with a meat tenderiser over and over (and over) again. This scene, which recalls the infamous head-stomp from Drive, was the potential turnaround for the film, as it is so often the case that the people being attacked are needlessly vulnerable; it is highly plausible that someone could fight back. But instead we are dragged back through the usual quagmire of clichés, tropes and beats from other films (I counted, in no particular order, The Shining, Halloween, The Strangers, Night of the Living Dead and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre). This central premise is never treated as anything other than a way to deliver the slasher formula. 

There’s a bit more to the film; I’ve purposely left out the other big twist, which occurs at around the same time, but that one is a little easier to see coming anyway. There was real potential for something interesting here, but it spends too long setting up and relying on the hoary old clichés when a fresher, more offbeat approach (which the film occasionally, tantalisingly demonstrates) would have served this material a lot more effectively.

As a final point, this is what is considered quite typical of horror films lately. The sole purpose of horror films is to scare people; at no point was I scared in this film. I winced at a use of garret wire, a stabbing, an embedded nail, and a particularly inventive use of a blender, but there was no fear or terror. This film, for all its faults, is very typical of what horror has descended into lately. How many more men in masks killing people can we take?

Review of The Apartment (1960)

It is hard to imagine a nicer, and more well-meaning and dignified character than Jack Lemmon’s C.C Baxter in Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment”. We first meet him in a voiceover, where he talks us through his company, and his role in it. There is a lot of talk of “floors”; he is on the 19th. A pan through the floor he works at reveals him to be an office drone; one of many, doing a job that involves a typewriter, paper, and one of those wheels with business cards and contact names on it. We learn shortly after that he rents out his apartment to men from his office, so they can have an affair in it. Often, these will over-run and he will wait outside his own apartment. He has earned a reputation amongst those in his apartment that he does not particularly want.

These early scenes are among the most crucial in the film, because they set up Baxter as a weak, yet honourable man. We sense, from the way that he allows himself to be booted out of his apartment very late at night, that he rents out his apartment purely because he doesn’t wish to upset anyone. A number of times, for example, he just about works up the courage to tell someone that no, he wants his apartment to himself, but he always buckles right at the last moment. With this said, the fact that each visit from his colleagues earns him brownie points towards a promotion doesn’t help either. He is a man bulldozed by “the system”.  

From this description, you would expect Lemmon to be a timid and quiet individual, but look at how he moves in his scenes. The film is shot, unusually for one made in 1960, in 2:35.1 widescreen, and he uses all of the space surrounding him. He knows when to stoop his shoulders, when to stand up straight, how to moderate his voice. His performance highlights a complete control, and understanding of the character. Take, for example, the scene where he has just bought a bowler hat for $15, and is showing it to his love interest, Miss Kuberlik (a shining Shirley Maclaine). He tries it on at a number of angles, and his smile never wavers, even though she is clearly depressed and uninterested. He is a man of ceaseless, boundless energy, and he radiates at the centre of this film like a beacon.

It is a good job, then, that the film surrounds him with material worthy of this performance. More than worthy, in fact; this is a film that, despite its billing as a comedy, is tackling some very heavy themes. For example, a major plot point about halfway through the movie is that, upon being jilted and basically prostituted by the insensitive cad Jeff D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), Miss Kuberlik intentionally takes an overdose of sleeping pills. This isn’t meant to be funny, and this is where the film, for me, turned into a drama; we take the plight of this poor woman very seriously, and the ensuing scenes where Baxter nurses her back to health are given more gravitas and pathos as a result. We come to care, deeply about these two characters, and we feel as though we are personally entwined in their happiness come the closing scene.

However, yes, there are moments in the film that are very funny. Lemmon being propositioned by a neighbour in the apartment block to donate his body for medical research, on account of the lovemaking being heard, is a masterpiece of understated comedy in and of itself. And the film is careful around its steamy centre, rising above smut and allowing for little glimpses and clues to come through here and there; the, might I suggest, rather phallic nasal decongestant that Lemmon uses in a key scene. With regards to the dramatic elements, as opposed to clashing with each other, the film settles into a sort of harmony, with one element feeding the other. It’s a balancing act and a tightrope walk, and the film does it carefully, and with precision. You can view it as a progression from the pure comic theatricality of Lemmon and Wilder’s previous film, Some Like It Hot.

What we are left with is ultimately a film that is almost joyous. Not necessarily because of the content, but because of the steady hands of the direction, acting, writing and production. It is a film that puts us at ease from the opening shot, and we watch, spellbound, as this group of geniuses weave a timeless tale that defies expectations. It’s a giddy and exciting work, and the enthusiasm and craftsmanship of all involved is nearly palpable.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Review of The Guest House (2012)

To merely call Michael Baumgarten’s “The Guest House” bad would be seriously understating what a truly dire catalogue of cinematic blunders it actually is. It is a piece of anti-cinema, a work that is so dispiriting, baffling, clichéd and unprofessional that I had to actively fight against my will to carry on watching.

The film is basically Before Sunrise, but with a lesbian couple and set over a weekend in Los Angeles; Rachel is played by Ruth Williams, and her character is the daughter of an overbearing father (Tom McCafferty). She keeps protesting how she’s 18, yet she finds herself grounded for staying out late with her boyfriend, who dumps her in the films' opening scene. She is tasked with looking after Amy, played by Madeleine Merritt, who has come to work with Rachel’s father and is staying in the eponymous guest house. It is not long before sparks fly, and the two are “in love”, making out in hideously filmed softcore sex scenes in which nudity is scarce, soft-focus is in abundance, and passion is lacking.

There are so many things this film could have been, but they are truly done a disservice by a script and direction that suggest unprofessionalism of the highest order. It’s shot on an HD digital camera, and it looks terrible; from the very first shot, in which a car driving through LA is obstructed by a random tree in front of the camera, we know we’re dealing with something bad. And as it becomes apparent that the films’ habit of looking like the exposition in a terrible porn film (you know the type) is not going to be shaken over the brief, yet tedious, run time, we start to focus on other things instead.

But the dialogue is a crashing bore, and if this is a love story (and not an erotic film, at all, as the films’ cover and poster suggest) then it is one of the most incompetently handled love stories ever put on screen. At no point did I ever, ever believe that these two people had any emotional connection of any kind whatsoever. Instead, we are given a number of stock clichés which ring jarringly false; the “bonding” through the streets of LA, taking a shower together, making breakfast in bed, one playing a piano solo for the other, and so on. But neither character is at all interesting enough to warrant the time we are expected to spend around them, and the acting is simply perfunctory. There was potential for a certain erotic pull in the sex scenes, but this too is completely ruined by the ham-fisted camerawork and the lack of conviction or connection between the two actresses. It fails as a love story, it fails as a drama, and you’d better believe it fails as porn.

I could go on. I won’t. Bottom line is, don’t watch this film. In an act of solidarity, I’ve already forgotten most of it myself. 

Review of Peeping Tom (1960)

Man is marked, as a species, by his need to document. Even the earliest cave-paintings are attempts, however crude, to make immortal a moment in time and to relive it forever. It was only natural that we should invent the movie camera, as it is the ultimate documenting machine, and it is even more natural that we should incorporate sound into the films; the more that is being documented, the better. The camera as a symbol has been around since the early days of cinema, such as in Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera, and even a film as recent as Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo highlights how a man can become obsessed with photographs, projecting his own images and fantasies onto them. Indeed, living in the “selfie” generation that we do, where a USP of a phone is how many megapixels it has, we can see that this obsession with documentation is not slowing down. It is simply something that defines us as human beings.

Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom” is about documentation, and the attachments a man can have to a camera. The opening scene, which was obviously an influence on John Carpenter’s “Halloween”, sees the subject of this film, Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Bohm) follow a prostitute with a camera concealed in his coat. We take the perspective of the camera, and follow her into the room where Mark murders her. The next day, Mark returns to the crime with his camera again, filming the police looking for evidence, the body being placed into the ambulance. A man in the crowd spots him and questions him. He claims to be with a newspaper; the Observer.

It is clear from the outset that Mark is lonely. His eyes have a habit of bulging, and they reminded me of Peter Lorre’s portrayal of the paedophile in Fritz Lang’s M, another film which tried to make us understand the mind of a psychopath. His manner is awkward and his voice is clipped and strange, yet people are drawn to him, and he is not exactly unpopular. Women seem to like him, and one person at the film set he works for keeps badgering him about a collaborative project. But he likes to spend his nights alone, watching and rewatching the footage of his murders. It becomes apparent that his ultimate goal is to photograph the exact moment of death, by concealing a knife in the tripod of his camera. We learn about Mark, and his cruel treatment at the hands of his father, but we never truly pity him; he’s just too evil for that.

Pay close attention to how Mark is framed; more often than not, it is either next to or hunched over a camera. One key sequence sees him taking a woman called Helen (Anne Massey), who he is genuinely, emotionally interested in for a date. She requests that he leave his camera at home, but he is reluctant, and clutches onto it for dear life. It has become an appendage to him, a third eye. Indeed, we learn to view it as a distancing tool. Mark is clearly a person who has trouble with emotional attachment, so he steps back behind the camera, distances himself from his subject, and acts how he wishes.

Perhaps this explains our fascination with cameras; it allows us to be removed from what is in front of us.

Powell’s direction helps immeasurably; there are a lot of bold colours on this film, and a lot of reds, and a number of moments see a person being startled by having a light shined on them. One thing the film is very good at doing is showing how intrusive the act of having a camera put on you actually is; we like to document, but we do not necessarily like to be documented. Powell milks these little moments from Leo Mark’s brilliantly objective screenplay cleverly, and for a film that is so heavily involved in the nature of film-making, it is fitting that the film is as meticulously directed as it is. He is also careful to place the camera just a little bit too close to his material; we feel as though we are intruding, and as though the light is being shined on us in turn.

I cannot help but observe that whilst the film does seem rooted in its time, it is undoubtedly more relevant than ever. As I have said, we are living in a time now where we are all basically film-makers. Home movies are becoming more and more prevalent, such as the 7 second “Vine” videos which litter Youtube, the ready availability of pornography, the Snapchat phenomenon. We simply like to film things. To this end, this film is a cautionary tale. If we all like to document things, then it stands to reason that some of us will want to document the darker impulses of the human behaviour. In an age where the Internet makes the most gruesome and terrible videos imaginable accessible to all, this film is a necessity. 

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Review of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover

The central paradox of Peter Greenaway’s “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” is that it manages to contain scenes of unspeakable and unutterable cruelty and sadism, and yet throughout there is a palpable sense of compassion and humanism. This is a film which opens with a man being forced to eat dog excrement, and yet it reduced me nearly to tears with its scenes of love-making. It contains perhaps one of the most evil characters seen in a film, and also one of the most stirring romances. It is a film which plumbs the depths of the most transgressive and despicable of human behaviour, and also presents us at our best. It’s a film composed entirely of dichotomies and juxtapositions, but instead of frightening or overwhelming the audience, it transfixes and absorbs.  

Let me explain. Michael Gambon plays Albert Spica, who is a snarling beast of a man. Every other word out of his mouth is an insult, a command, or both. He presides over the Le Hollandais restaurant, and day in, day out takes a seat there at the centre of a table, with his wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) on his right side, surrounded by his lackeys. His behaviour is, to put it mildly, terrible. He thinks nothing of humiliating everyone in his company, especially Georgina, and he is prone to intensely violent outbursts, such as in one very distressing scene where he destroys his entire kitchen. Georgina is brittle, and yet composed; she is used to and tolerates her husband’s behaviour, but does not allow herself to be dragged down with it. Early on in the film, she locks eyes with the mysterious, book-reading patron sat at a table by the front door. He, Michael (Alan Howard), starts an affair with her, and the scenes with them together were the ones I found most affecting. Finally, there is the chef; a composed Frenchman called Richard Borst (Richard Bohringer), he is the omnipresent eye of the restaurant, who sees all, understands all, and knows what to say and to who. He provides the rooms, and cover, for Michael and Georgina’s affair.

The plot, taken by itself, would be contrived and relatively dull, so what is this film actually about? That in itself is hard to say. Many have posited a political reading of the film, and whilst I can understand that, we are living well outside of the Thatcher era and the film still has unspeakable power. It is too good to be reduced to a political allegory. Instead, I think the best approach to the film is to treat it as an essay on human nature. This explains why the film can be so grotesque, and yet so beautiful; we are being presented with both of those extremes in unflinching detail, and as an audience we cannot help but be humbled. It helps that Greenaway has an instinctive and visceral eye for what we as human beings respond to; the screams of a child, the beauty of well-prepared food, the horror of seeing someone create a scene in a restaurant, the union of a couple who are in love. 

A further paradox is how the film, which is very clearly shot on a set, is so cinematic. This could only exist as a film, and it uses all of the aspects of the medium. Michael Nyman’s score is a masterpiece in and of itself, accentuating scenes and lending a pompous formality in all the right places. The camerawork is to die for. The film is shot largely (but not completely) on a 180 degree plane, with shots that are often symmetrical, The camera has a habit of gliding in and out of rooms, and in an early scene we are taken through the industrial, gloomy outside into the sparse kitchen which is densely populated with people chopping, frying, saucing and plucking, and then into the lavish restaurant, which has a red décor. The lighting, too, lends an enormous amount to the film, with the harsh red lighting in the hallways, the white lighting of the bathroom (which is the cleanest room in the film), the dark black of the outside setting. It is a film composed entirely of broad strokes, and it seems fitting for a film which has a number of crucial scenes centred around books that Greenaway has an authorly control over everything that is going on in each scene. He approaches something operatic, and indeed, his crescendo, the final scene, is a piece of startling, astonishing cinema that is simply unforgettable.

It is also worth mentioning that, as well as being an essay on human nature, the film too works as a study of appearance, utilising its artifice to say something about artifice. I have mentioned the tracking shot from outside through the kitchen and into the restaurant; whilst that could be taken, and appreciated, as masterly film-making and pure cinema, it also works very well as a tour through the human body; we start with the outside aspects which influence us (the ingredients being delivered), which go through the brain (the kitchen, where men and women repetitiously chop), and then out of our mouths and into the wider world (the restaurant, where Michael Gambon spits and snarls at everyone in his company). As this film chillingly highlights, sometimes that process goes horribly wrong.

A lot of the effect, too, comes from the actors. Gambon in particular is fearless, committing fully to a role which most other actors wouldn’t touch, but for me the most affecting role in the film was Mirren’s, and her love affair with Michael was the reason why the film was as impactful as it was. There came with it the genuine feeling of a couple falling in love, and this belies the film’s true, humanistic core. Because there are, truly, some terrible things in this film. But, because we are allowed to condemn them, we are reminded of a common humanity. This is reinforced by the films reliance on the truly universal aspects of existence; food, sex, violence, fear, taboos, vomit. Only someone with something missing inside would not be repulsed by this film. Which is why it’s so beautiful.  

Review of The Past

For me, the title of Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past” is a misnomer; this film is not so much about the past as it is about communication. The film begins with a scene at an airport. A woman is stood, expectantly, with a smile teasing her lips. A man enters the screen. He is bearded, aloof, and has a scatterbrained air about him. A pane of glass separates the two, and when she calls for his name, he cannot hear her. A third party points him to her, and he realises. Geddit?

It turns out that she is his ex-wife and he is there to finalise the divorce. They separated, or he walked out, some years ago, and she has kids who weren’t his in the first place. She is called Marie and is played by Berenice Bejo, who you may remember from The Artist, and he is called Ahmad and is played by Ali Mosaffa, who I am unfamiliar with as an actor, but who does excellent work here.

She drives him to her house, and it is clear that there is a familiarity between them. The truth is that she did not expect him to come; there are repeated references to “last year”, where he didn’t turn up. He claims that he was genuinely unable to make it; she doesn’t care, or want an excuse. When they arrive at her house, the first thing he does is fix the bike of a young child called Fouad. Fouad is the son of Samir (Tahar Rahim, who was so excellent in The Artist), and Samir is going out with Marie. If Ahmad is made sad by this revelation, then he is not quick to show it, and it is here we learn that Ahmad and Marie are not going to get back together. He is, however, surprised, and asks why he wasn’t told. He was told, Marie says, she sent it in an e-mail. He didn’t check his e-mails. Communication.

We piece together bits and bobs about each character. Marie has a hot temper. Ahmad is quiet, contemplative, and always has time for children. Why did he walk out? Because he was depressed, but also because we sense that he was simply dissatisfied with his life, along with his ex-wife’s dissatisfaction with him. Samir also has a hot temper, but we also learn sometime later that he is living with immense grief; his wife has been in a coma for several months due to a suicide attempt. Pay attention to how he forces his finger under people’s chins when he wants them to look at something. Fouad is a problem child, but we are also willing to forgive him; one quiet but effective scene bluntly explores the impact of having a mother in a coma, filtered through the simplistic morality of a young child.

The most important role in the film, however, goes to Lucie who is played by Pauline Burlet. At first, she appears as though she is a normal teenager; sullen, sulky, unwilling to be at home, but as the film goes on we learn more and more about her, and we realise that her actions have a far more sinister, tragic meaning behind them which I won’t ruin here; but, I will say, they are connected to the idea of communication.

If you have seen A Separation, Farhadi’s 2011 masterpiece, then you will have some idea of what this film is like, and how it is about what it is about. This is, however, a much quieter and understated film. The frantic editing and camerawork of A Separation is only here in one or two sequences, and the camera remains stationary in several crucial scenes. The style of the film is naturalistic, the acting seems wholly “real”, and there are no visual flourishes or a colour scheme, aside from a pervasive brown that doesn’t seem too pointed, simply the product of the settings.

I admired this film. I admired how Farhadi drew a credible family unit, and I admired his attention to detail with the characters. I admired how each character felt real, and I especially admired the quiet, non-judgemental manner in which the dilemmas and situations were presented to us. But did I love this film? Nowhere near as much as I did A Separation. The film was a fierce, evocative and brutal film which was exploring a number of themes in detail, and with an unwavering eye. This film is, as I have said, really only about communication, and for me does not dwell on the past as much as the title would imply. It is a character study, but A Separation was a character study and more.

Perhaps I’m being cruel to compare this film so mercilessly to its predecessor. But it’s clearly made in the same vein, and they both highlight his style. There is a lot to this film, and it does reward a careful audience. It is a contemplative, thoughtful piece. It seems harsh of me to say “but that’s it”, but, well, that’s it.