Monday, 15 September 2014

Review of Under The Skin (2013)

What is it that makes us human?

I do not mean in a specific sense, but rather in a more general one. What aspect is it, definable or not, that makes us as a species different from the apes, or the dolphins, or perhaps some as-yet undiscovered race lurking out there. I ask this question because Jonathan Glazer's "Under The Skin" has made me consider it. It is a film about an alien, played by Scarlett Johansson, who has come to earth to lure in men and do... Something, we are never quite sure, although it involves reducing them to sacks of skin. Where she has come from, why she is doing this, and what purpose it is serving, are irrelevant. She is both an alien, and alien.

Her other-ness is constantly made an example of. Early on we see her in a shopping centre, buying clothes, trying to fit in. But her face is distant and cold, and there is no doubt that she's going through the motions; how her face can go from expressive and friendly when she's talking to someone, to completely blank when she's left alone, is testament to Johansson's frankly stunning performance.

She carries on going through the motions. She sets about picking up men for the job she is doing. But something happens; as the film goes on, she begins to thaw a little. A chance encounter with a man (Adam Pearson) who has severe neurofibromatosis in his face results in her questioning her goals, Soon, she is experimenting with the typically "human" things, such as eating at a restaurant.

I have now described the plot up until about an hour into the film. I do not normally go as far as this, but this is a unique film. It could not be less concerned with the dynamics of story and motivation; it is predominantly metaphor and allegory. It has done a supremely genius thing in taking the trappings of your standard science-fiction story and turning them into an exposé of an entire species. This is not hyperbole; I have not seen a film with a higher command over the biggest (and, I suppose, smallest) fundamentals of existence, perhaps since I watched Three Colours Blue for the first time four years ago.

This is a film that understands us. It understands lust; look at how the men are drawn into Johannson's black room. It understands human empathy; look at how people help Johansson up after she falls down. It understands that the sound of a baby crying can unite all people to distress. It understands what it is like to be lonely, crucial since this is fundamentally a film about the ultimate loner. From the very first shot, which is a completely black screen slowly giving way to a small white speck, I assume earth, the film engages the viewer by showing them a picture of their existence from the outside, peering in.

It is, of course, opaque, maddeningly styled, and "arty" in a way that would make some people roll their eyes. I was not bothered by these things, because there was a higher purpose there. It is a film alive in all the ways that film can be, gently joyous, hitting notes of unrefined beauty in a number of key scenes. The cinematography by Daniel Landin is a marvel, and the editing by Paul Watts deserves a mention because he has taken what I assume were shards of film and composed them into a symphonic delight. All this is overlaid by the haunting, unsettling and distressing score by Mica Levi, which, punctuated by harsh violins and staccato, electronic sounding beats, is a masterpiece in and of itself.

Perhaps the most baffling thing, to me, is how this film was once a book, written by Michel Faber. It embodies the concept of pure cinema so well that to imagine it in another format seems... Well, alien. I am completely unfamiliar with the book, but I would be very interested to read it to see how it handles the themes that this film lays out so poignantly and thoughtfully, without ever quite spelling them out.

It is a masterwork. That it is one of the best films of the year is without doubt. But it is also miraculous, and highlights the power of film at its' most potent, to detail the human condition and allow an insight into us all. I'm fairly sure that's why we invented the arts in the first place. Yes, this is a film that goes that deep.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Review of Tom At The Farm (2013)

Tom At The Farm, the latest film from the prolific and prodigious Quebecois auteur Xavier Dolan and adapted from Michel Marc Bouchard's play, announces itself with a stillness and tranquillity bordering on the unsettling. This is unlike what we have seen from him before. It is also very effective; we see Tom (Dolan) driving towards the eponymous farm, in an overhead shot that recalls Haneke's "Funny Games". He destroys his sat-nav system in a rage. Then he arrives at his destination, and walks around. The camera follows him with a Kubrickian feel to it; think a rural "The Shining". His phone is out of signal. Nobody is at home. He walks around the farm, getting his bearings. 

In short, Tom is utterly alone, and Dolan's new found restraint has exacerbated this feeling into an almost nightmarish vision of isolation. These are new notes from someone who was teetering on the edge of repeating himself. Gone are the histrionics (mostly), gone is the slow-motion (mostly), and gone are the doe-eyed relationships obfuscated by the characters blinkered self-centredness (definitely). This is Dolan on horror mode, thriller mode, mystery mode, and the result is a confounding, taut and often beautiful tale full of small erotic pulls, subversive whims, and a certain dissonant quality. This is Dolan's artistic maturity.

Tom is at the farm for his recently deceased lover Guillaume's funeral. First he meets Guillaume's mother Agathe (Lise Roy), a widow. Something in her words, and Tom senses that she didn't know about Guillaime and Tom's relationship. That was some intuition; later, Guillaume's brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) wakes Tom up in the middle of the night, holds him down by the mouth and tells him that he isn't going to tell Agathe the truth, he's going to say something nice at the funeral, and then quietly leave Francis and Agathe alone forever. 

Quite why Francis is so desperate to conceal the truth from Agathe is never made clear; Agathe gives off no indication of being homophobic or backwards, and seems like the accepting type. She was expecting a girlfriend to turn up, but that's only because Francis lied to her in the first place. The film toys with incestuous overtones, but not too seriously. This is simply the first of many unanswered questions.

After a funny/painful/sad funeral scene, the film consists of the ever-shifting relationship between Tom and Francis, veering from the amorous (such as in a sequence where the pair rapturously dance the tango in a barn) to what feels like Stockholm Syndrome (in a scene where Tom refuses to leave the farm). It remains maddeningly enigmatic. For example, why does Tom feel such an affinity with Francis when he is so cruel to him? Why is Tom so willing to stay in such utterly hellish surroundings? What is Francis even doing? Is he a sociopath, or worse? Is a revelation regarding Tom and Guillaume towards the end to be believed?  

There is a scene, near the end, in a bar, which I suppose could be taken as an explanation for a fair amount of the above, but to me that seems like the easy way out. This is a film that doesn't want to answer any questions in particular, and that languishes in the murkiest depths of human nature. It's never willing to stick with one genre at any given time; the film can go from resembling "Calvaire" in one scene to some kind of hellish Mike Leigh picture in the next. Everything about it seems geared to keep the viewer on their toes. 

Thematically, it does match up with Dolan's previous work in the near-Oedipal overtones and the consistent obsession with the relationship between mothers and sons. But those are just Dolan's backgrounds; such as Fellini made films about women, Bergman about God, Kieslowski about human relationships, so to does Dolan stick with that one core idea. 

But here, we see him start to spin out a new web from this core, and seeing it is as exciting and bold as the films from the masters I have listed above; company in which I have long thought Dolan belongs, sure, but here is a film which would surely prove it to the sceptic. It's a fearsome, bold move and a fearsome, bold movie. 

Friday, 12 September 2014

Review of I Am Breathing (2013)

They should have been the perfect family. They had every right. The Platts. Him, Neil, her, Louise. Both of them young, intelligent, attractive. A beautiful son, Oscar. A home, loving family and friends. Everything seemed set.

But one day Neil discovers that there is something amiss in his foot, he isn’t walking right. At first he thinks it’s his shoes; he’s wrong. Some time after, he needs a walking stick. Then he is diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease, a progressive and debilitating condition which impairs crucial links in the brain, slowly destroying your ability to walk, move your hands, and eventually your ability to talk.

I am familiar with the disease. I have encountered people who have it. The current Ice Bucket Challenge is raising awareness and funds for research. But as Neil says two thirds into the film, “there’s nobody on this planet who will understand what it’s like.” I’m not going to try.  Emma Davie and Morag McKinnon, the makers of this documentary, are simply conveying Neil's battle with the illness. Do not lecture and do not try and convey what the disease is actually like. They portray, they present, they show.

You may think this this would be an unbearably sad documentary from the description I have just offered. You would have every reason to skip it. But wait until the end of this review before you make that decision.

There are, of course, moments of intense grief, but the principle emotion the film evokes is warmth and fondness for the gentle domesticities of family life. A great deal of time is given over to small, relatively trivial moments such as eating takeaway whilst watching The X Factor, playing on the Nintendo Wii, and dunking biscuits into cups of tea.

We get the sense that the film is saying to treasure these moments. Then Neil comes out and says so near the end, in one of his many small monologues, when he states that he wished he’d done so much more, such as spending more time with his family. In this regard, the film makes the healthy viewer grateful, and reflective. These are noble aims.

Another emotion that the film evokes is togetherness. We see how Neil’s wife, friends and mother all band together to help him. One moment sees Neil’s wife, Melanie, explain her selflessness; “I want to be there for him when he passes… He would be there for me.” This is as honest a film about love as I can think of, about the many kinds of love and caring we can have for one another. Neil is creating a letter for Oscar, so that he can know his father to some degree, and in the letter he leaves a list of tasks, such as rock-climbing and orienteering, to a different “Uncle”. Instead of mourning the fact that Neil is not going to be there for his son, the film instead seems to want us to celebrate the fact that even in death, we are surrounded by people we can rely on, who respect our wishes.

The film-makers chose the right subject in Neil. This is not to say that any person suffering from this disease does not have a worthwhile story to tell, but Neil in particular remains an enigmatic, funny and wise presence even as his various functions are taken away from him. Even when he is being winched into a chair, a process which is undignified by its nature, Neil remains dignified, never pitiful.

He explains that the moment his abilities to swallow and speak are lost, then he wishes to die. This film is not about the moral intricacies presented by the "right to die" debate, but in presenting Neil never relinquishing his own personal autonomy, I would be hard-pushed to see anyone who could not agree with Neil’s decision, if only because he seems to absolute and sure of it. 

The only flaws in this film are ones that cannot really be called flaws; I could say that the film is a million miles from a professional-looking documentary, and in fact is a little crude. But look at what is actually there on screen; Neil is there. His family are there. His blog posts are there. This is all we need; it’s all I needed.

I have now reviewed this film. You may still think that you have no need to see it, that you might find it unbearable. I cannot argue with that decision. But if your curiosity has been piqued, if you think that there is something in what I have described about this film; the compassion, empathy, or something other; then you will be rewarded. It inspires intense reflection, but above all, it makes one happy to be alive. I think Neil would be happy with that.