Sunday, 31 July 2016

Shoot The Pianist

When the Francois Truffaut's 1960 second feature "Shoot the Pianist" begins, we expect it to be about Chico (Albert Remy), the man who starts the film running away from unseen assailants, his right eye blackened, ready to collapse at any moment. He strikes up conversation after being helped up by a passerby, who waxes lyrical about love and marriage. Chico feigns interest, but when he parts ways with the man, he runs away in the opposite direction. Marriage is the last thing on his mind. Eventually he takes refuge in a dance club; he knows the pianist, who goes and plays by the name of Charlie, but who is really called Edouard (Charles Aznavour), according to Chico. Charlie is not initially noteworthy, a little aloof and detached, until he starts playing the piano. His face composed, he does his best to dodge his brother's ceaseless monologue. We can't quite tell if he's annoyed by his brother, passively tolerant, or regards him warmly; that is, until the people chasing Chico enter the club, and Charlie upends a stack of crates to stop them from getting to his brother. Clearly, then, there's filial loyalty there.

This enigmatic aura surrounding Charlie and his motivations is really what the film is about. After this, Charlie is in just about every scene. It turns out the men chasing Chico are after some money Chico pinched from them after a robbery; the actual details are a little unclear. The film is much more interested in the inner turmoil of Charlie, and what happened to him to make him so emotionally stunted. This isn't to say he's a recluse; his voiceover/interior monologue reveals him to have a healthy interest in (and eventual relationship with) his coworker at the club, Léna (Marie Dubois), but as the film explains, things have happened to him and he's undergone many metamorphoses over his life, juggling tragedy, success, and withdrawal.

This really is a fascinating film about the inner workings of an mysterious character, with a face that is compulsively watchable. This is all down to Aznavour's performance; a legend in France, I must confess I have never encountered him before in my adventures into chansons, but here he is compelling, and the film rests on his passive, reserved performance. We may not know precisely who he is, but we want to.

The plot begins to unfold around him; the purusuers take him and Lena hostage, with guns, at one point, and the manager of the club disapproves of his and Lena's union, resulting in a brutal fight. And yet despite these lashings of film noir tropes, the film never seems to present Charlie as in any danger. The hostage-takers seem too warm and genial to be really threatening, discussing their fondness for women and other banalities.

The film eventually boils down to the statement that Charlie, despite being benign and good of heart, seems to be a magnet for trouble wherever he goes. One could argue that this is because of his family of crooks, but the extended flashback midway through, which reveals a previous tragedy, is all on him, in some way, but also not really, because he didn't mean it. The film suggests that this is perhaps Charlie's curse; he is too benign, and too happy to let things just happen to him, ultimately a little too unwilling to try and change his circumstances; although that's arguably unfair, since his circumstances seem to have a habit of catching up with him.

This central tension of his character, of a seemingly good but ultimately enigmatic man mired in bad circumstances, is what carries the film. The direction is par excellence, as was Truffaut's standard; the film has a zip and go about it that is never less than compelling. It's all in the editing; look at the way Truffaut conveys the messiness of the opening chase scene with direct violations of the 180 rule, shooting this way and that way, describing less of the mechanics of the chase but more of a sense of someone being chased. There is a palpable musicality to the film, as befits Charlie's profession, and all of the characters seem to be swaying to some kind of beat or another. The on-location shooting also conjures up a sense of place, and in a few shots we are grounded in the club, Charlie's apartment, the well-trodden streets. It runs a good line of familiarity.

This is a masterful work, no doubt a masterpiece, and shows that Truffaut arrived out of the starting gate, raring to go. It spryly explores the mysteries behind our actions and deftly examines the way our motives can be a mystery to ourselves more than anyone else. This is a simple story told with economy, and for that the wider moral implications loom larger than life. And it proves the rule that there is nothing more fascinating than the human face in the cinema.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Le Pont Du Nord

Jacques Rivette's "Le Pont Du Nord" from 1981 is an interesting film, not least because it defies categorisation in any way you try and read it. I think it works best when viewed as an example of guerilla film-making, since that's effectively what it is, some years before that cadre of American filmmakers (Larry Clarke, Robert Rodriguez) took their cameras to the streets to film what their vision, and some years after Melvin Van Peebles arguably invented the genre. And yet it stands outside of those examples, since whilst those filmmakers resolutely worked within a genre and tried to emulate a genre, Rivette only uses his genre (the conspiracy thriller) as something of an afterthought, secondary to the process of guerilla film-making itself.

Rivette was, after all, all about method, and that seems to take preference within his films. In the liner notes he speaks of an inner juxtaposition, of the almost documentary-style nature of his film, and the highly strung plot. And yes, there is a plot, despite all this tedious stuff about methods and juxtapositions and all that. Mother and child Pascale and Bulle Olgier play two unrelated women, Baptiste and Marie, whose paths cross three times in one day, and whom Baptiste argues their being together must be fated. From there they explore a shady and ill-defined conspiracy involving a map modelled on a child's game, a briefcase containing... Something, and several men labelled as "Max" by Baptiste and hence deserving of scorn. Marie has just been released from prison; we have no idea where Baptiste has come from.

There's also Marie's partner Julien (Pierre Clementi), owner of the coveted briefcase, and seemingly the original Max (Jean-Francois Stevenin), who both cycle through benign and threatening at any given scene in the film.

What does it all mean? I don't know, but looking for meaning in a film like this seems counterintuitive. It seems to purposefully defy all meaning. In a Hollywood film, it would be a high-stakes affair with lots of scenes of Tom Hanks running through rooms looking for clues, but here, it is simply what Rivette presents it to us as. And it does contain an eerie, otherworldly beauty, mainly as a result of the on-location shooting in Paris, nearly devoid of interiors, and the rhythmic, simplistic editing.

I realise I have largely described this film instead of actually reviewing it, but this is no simple work. I loved it. It was quietly compelling, and culminates in a final sequence, with Baptiste and Max sparring opposite each other on a bridge, framing a Parisienne canal that's glimmering in the late evening sunlight, that has an indescribable lo-fi pulchritude, like the hazy neon glow you get from a Daniel Johnston record.

Odds are, if you know of this film, you know about Rivette, and already have an opinion on his methods and aims. If you've bought into his vision (I have), this will be an immensely rewarding venture. If you've never heard of him, this isn't a bad place to start. Look past the wilfully enigmatic style and engage in the beats, and the style.

Monday, 25 July 2016

The Duke of Burgundy

Peter Strickland's "The Duke of Burgundy" is a surprisingly linear, straightforward love story that explores an element of BDSM that has remained relatively unexplored in the movies up until this point; the perspective of the person who desires to be dominated. We've had (most famously) the man who desires to dominate (although most people would rightly discredit that), and we've also had the union of one who must serve, and one who must dominate (Steven Shainberg's "Secretary"). Here we have someone for whom the desire to be dominated is an all-encompassing hole in her very being; she can't live without it.

The film begins in the expected manner; Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) arrives at the house of her lover, Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna), who in a series of stilted and terse conversations, orders her to perform actions of servitude, such as cleaning her study, rubbing her feet, washing her lingerie, and so on. Cynthia is young, impish, somewhat reminiscent of a young Audrey Tautou; we can't initially tell if she's enjoying this treatment, but she complies nevertheless. Evelyn is stern, approaching the stereotypically cross schoolteacher.

We find out a little about the pair; they live in the countryside, and Evelyn is a lepidopterist who gives talks at a local institute. Then, we see the opening sequence again, but bookended  by Evelyn's preparation; she is wearing a wig, and is following orders written on a piece of card, given to her by Cynthia. Evelyn is, in fact, much more nervous than she appears to let on. Her face is a picture of the concealment of panic and discomfort, her eyes flit, her mouth is drawn.

From here the film explores the true nature of their relationship, with Evelyn doing her very best to accommodate all of Cynthia's desires. Where the film is a triumph is in its refusal to shy away from the true nature of their union, and the way Cynthia's need to be dominated seems to come from an insatiable place deep inside her. To this end, this is the most honest film yet made about BDSM, and anybody who finds themselves with a lover into kink, or who is into kink themselves, should watch it, because it will inspire the right conversations, and it asks just how far you can, or should, go for someone you love. It understands the rituals and routines that people in the lifestyle fall into. To someone who doesn't have the desire for kink inside them, the acts can seem cruel, unusual, and impossible to enjoy. It is this truth that the film understands deeply, and explores with insight and verve.

It helps that the film has a real technical calibre; Peter Strickland, who impressed with Berberian Sound Studio, here cements his place as a British director with vision, a more humanistic Ben Wheatley, He creates a world to live in with this film, a spacious house with luscious overgrown greenery adorning the outside, and musty closets and old leatherbound books adorning the inside, and a vast forest surrounding them. Pater Sparrow's production design and Zsuzsa Mihalek's set design are a triumph in themselves. The score from the band "Cat's Eyes" works as though the film was made around it, which is the highest compliment you can give to a film score. And the cinematography is sumptuous, a fantasia of rich colours and stark, moody lighting.

And at the centre are the two performances, from Knudsen and D'Anna, as two people desperate to please, and even more desperate to be pleased. They are, at their core, two people who are deeply in love, much like everyone else. I was not being contrarian when I said the film was a love story; look at the structure, and it becomes apparent how conventional it is, with the exception of the nightmare sequence beginning with the zoom between Evelyn's legs (you'll know it; a little on the nose, but still spellbinding).

More than anything, it understands that just because you're the one with the whip doesn't make you the person in control; people who need to dominate are actually much rarer than the other way around, and reaching some kind of equilibrium on the topic requires negotiating, empathy, and understanding. In turn, the film understands this, and it follows this theme with logic and remorselessness. This is a classical work of great technical and emotional mastery, deeply rewarding, perversely beautiful, and above all, honest.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Review of The Legend of Tarzan

The latest of iteration of Edgar Rice Borrough's "Tarzan" legend is by turns tedious, monotonous, sluggish, turgid and overwhelmingly grey, both in tone and production design. And that's just before you get to the post-colonial minefield the film tries to address at the same time. It tries to be a sweeping adventure story and an exploration of Saidian otherness at once and doesn't just fail, but falls completely flat. It's also the first film where the usual splendid Christoph Waltz seems to be spinning his wheels; now that is scary.

This differs from the usual Tarzan storytelling in that it occurs long after Tarzan, going by Lord Greystroke (Alexander Skarsgard, not hiding his accent or his abs), has been adopted by the West as a savage boy, and actually sees him making the return from London back to his home in the Congo, with his wife Jane. What's interesting is the way this is set up; the film initially and briefly purports to be an exploration of his sense of belonging in the two places Tarzan has come to know, and his reluctance to return to where he was raised amongst apes. The film even threatens to come across as some kind of Dark Knight Rises by way of Joseph Conrad, for a time, with the reformed hero struggling to accept his prior identity as lord of the jungle, and all that.

I say "threatens" because the film never realises these grand visions, and settles for a number of uninspired flashbacks and moody shots of Skarsgard frowning into the middle distance as an exploration of the central character's mental state. The plot undergoes similar burnout as it starts out with Christoph Waltz (playing Leon Rom) under orders from King Leopold to get some diamonds from the natives to help fund Leopold's dominance. The leader, Mbonga, agrees, but only on the condition that Tarzan be bought to him (why this is is revealed partially in multiple flashbacks).

Tarzan, despite the goading of the prime minister (Jim Broadbent, doing his thing), is reluctant, until Samuel L Jackson as an American aide convinces him by warning him of some kind of slave trade. Then we meet Jane (Margot Robbie), who we find out had a failed pregnancy in one of the clumsiest bits of expository dialogue I've seen.

And so on and so on, but not really, because by the time Tarzan is in the jungle it feels like hours have passed, and nothing feels at stake. Even his abs, gazed upon at length, do nothing to save it.

This feeling of detachment, that nobody involved really feels involved, is what permeates the film, from the script to the score to the costumes and sinks it before Tarzan has even arrived back with his natives. I want to say it's a shame, but there's something old fashioned about Burrough's stories, and not in a good way; the whole white saviour narrative thing has always been contentious as far back as "Heart of Darkness", but given the current political climate in particular this film just feels unnecessary. (I hate to get political, but the film has allusions to politics, so I might as well address them).

It's clearly just muddled and unwilling to stick to any particular guns one way or another. The closest the film gets to a postcolonial statement is the recurring motif of Rom strangling various natives with his treasured crucifix, dangling from his hand at all times; a metaphor on whites that I won't spell out for you. There are occasional attempts at portraying the natives as a more than one-dimensional community, and it succeeds briefly, until it resorts to the old tropes (the only named native spends a good half hour of the film mute and in a cage).

But this political element is secondary; if the film had been exciting in any capacity, I could have forgiven it as problematic popcorn fodder, but it simply wasn't. The usually reliable David Yates, responsible for the most emotionally resonant Harry Potter films, fails to deliver, never rising above a sense of studio nonchalance and just getting it in on time and under budget. You know you've got a muddle on your hands when the climactic battle needs expository dialogue referring to a brief flashback an hour earlier in the film to remind you what's actually at stake.

And even with that, you still feel like nothing's at stake. By the time the hour has passed and we actually get to see some vine-swinging, I had long since checked out.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

The Exquisite Corpus

Peter Tscherkassky’s “The Exquisite Corpus”, running at 19 minutes long, feels like Plunderphonics crossed with early Russ Meyer; a pastiche cum montage of black and white soft-core porn from what one might fondly refer to as “the golden age”, it does the opposite of what Debord was trying to get at with his inversion of existing art. This is REtournement, if you will, taking various clips and highlights of eroticism of yore and editing it to a sort of ne plus ultra of eroticism.

And so, hands tenderly unzip stiff jeans and stroke the invisible treasures inside; seagulls dominate the soundtrack, along with what sounds like Mogwai turned down; a man casts his net with a naked woman and jaunts around on a boat; a man looks left and right at a woman on either side of the screen, smiles, nods bashfully; a woman seductively crosses her legs. At the end, a haze of erotic pull circles a small boat in a blur; just like the sex obsessed, initially focussed with the desires buzzing around our heads, as Thom Yorke might say.

The real hardcore is hidden from view, as it was in the original works, but this work does more than suggest. It's not coy, and neither will I be.

The result, instead of obscuring the eroticism, instead accentuates it. This is not a deconstruction, but calling it a celebration seems a touch glib. It’s an exercise, but more than that, because it captivates as well as instructs. It’s simply a spellbinding triumph of new meets old, or old meets new, and it does a very clever thing in capturing the rhythms of sex, of lovemaking, and being edited to that beat, whilst at the same time presenting those things. More than a curio; like “Since I Left You”, it works as itself and should be enjoyed as thus.