IN CINEMAS/ON CURZON HOME CINEMA
Things to Come
A calm has descended upon French cinema recently, a cinema which so often has been wild with invention: from the tragicomic, barely restrained insanity of La Règle du Jeu to the delirious fantasies of Jean Cocteau to, of course, the boundary-shattering New Wave films of the 60s, it has been ripe with formal experimentation and a profound understanding of how cinema does not need to be realistic, or even naturalistic, in order to convey truth. Lately though, as stated, a certain calm has descended, with low-key minimalism and handheld photography the defining features of a range of films including Blue is the Warmest Colour, A Prophet, Dheepan, Bang Gang, anything by the Dardenne brothers, and now Things to Come.
I admire all of the above, beyond the psychologically dubious films of the Dardennes, because of their prioritisation of character above plot mechanics, but Things to Come is easily the most character-driven of them all. It is about one woman, a middle-aged academic, Nathalie, who was once a radical Communist but now looks upon the student protesters obstructing her entrance to work with disdain. She has settled into a privileged, middle-class lifestyle, with a husband and two children, and they are surrounded in their comfortable apartment by a multitude of books that form the foundation of their marriage. She bumps into a former student, now an anarchist writer, who derides her as a sellout leading a morally empty life, and it is implied that she agrees with him. But can she help it? Nathalie lives in constant fear of things to come (Death? Loneliness? Intellectual irrelevance?), and these bourgeois privileges help to maintain an order in her life that is cruelly exposed as a sham, first when her husband leaves and then when her mother unexpectedly dies.
Isabelle Huppert, as Nathalie, is the reason to watch this film. She is one of the world’s greatest living actresses, a superlative and nuanced performer who is equally unafraid to take bold risks (The Piano Teacher) or to play reserved support in an ensemble (Louder Than Bombs) depending on what the situation dictates. In Things to Come she takes centre stage, and unsurprisingly is a captivating presence, her impassive face betraying emotional tics that can be missed at a blink but when captured poignantly imply torrents of pain and apprehension. But she also ably carries the film into moments of levity, with one sequence in particular, where she searches for an elusive phone signal, a genuine comic delight. It helps alleviate the occasional boredom of the long philosophical discussions that lead to nowhere (on purpose, I’m sure), and the film’s inability to provide any of the supporting characters with quite the same depth.
Writer/director Mia Hansen-Løve is capable indeed, creating here a miniaturist portrait akin to Chekhov, and the lack of grand dramatic gestures is refreshing. Patience is required, and it is not entirely paid off, yet the whole is almost worthy of Huppert’s quiet magnetism: she is marvelous, much too marvelous for words.
You can watch it here online: https://www.curzonhomecinema.com/#!/film/CRZ_THINGS_TO_COME
I somehow missed it earlier this year, but I highly recommend checking out this Turkish/French debut feature from Turkish/French filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven, which can now be streamed online. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars and lost out to Son of Saul, a more obviously worthy picture but not, I feel, as honest or impressive an achievement.
It concerns five orphaned sisters growing up in Turkey with their grandmother, in a traditional rural community which places enormous value on arranged marriages and the domestication of women (the girls describe their home as a ‘wife school’). After being caught in some harmless play with boys at the beach, they are locked in their rooms by a disgusted uncle, who forces them to wear ‘shapeless, shit-coloured dresses’ and learn how to cook, in preparation for their pre-approved suitors. But burgeoning sexuality, coupled with an impatient appetite for excitement, leads the girls to find creative ways to escape and experience the world beyond – naturally including boys. Still, they must inevitably return to their family and imprisonment, and the arranged marriages that ultimately await them. Some of these will end happily, some in tragedy: not all of the girls will survive.
This sounds impossibly grim, and certainly the stifling nature of life for young women in a backwards patriarchal system is depicted without compromise. There’s no point beating around the bush with soppy notions of moral relativism: any society that allows the subjugation of women should be challenged, regardless of the culture (religious or otherwise) from which it has emerged. Therefore the youngest girl in the film, Lale, is a rebel who embodies this argument and confronts both her uncle and the system by which she has seen her sisters sold off like barnyard animals to the highest bidder. She dreams of escaping permanently to Istanbul, a symbol of autonomy in the film that might appear somewhat naïve after recent anti-democratic events. But it is the hope of a better future, embodied by a liberal, metropolitan society, that is important and not the specific city itself.
Through Lale’s energetic presence the film finds its way to overcoming a gloominess that infuses some of her older sisters, transforming it into a celebration of the indomitability of the human spirit under duress. Ergüven proves adept at creating dramatic heft from tonal contrasts, with the stifling claustrophobia of life in the house/prison set against some of the most joyous, liberated scenes in cinema this year when the sisters transcend their confinement, including a moment where their bodies gyrate in ecstasy at an all-female football match and, significantly because women are still not allowed to in some middle-eastern countries, a sequence where Lale learns to drive.
Mustang sustains to an exciting climax where the traditional and radical factions of the family are pitted against each other once and for all. Not all of these family members have been fully fleshed out by this point, and we do not care about some of them in the way we should, which betrays a lack of experience on Ergüven’s part. But we care plenty about Lale, the film’s feisty spirit of rebellion and, yes, that dreaded word ‘feminism’. More than enough to be immersed in and totally concerned by what happens until the very final frames.
You can watch it here online: https://www.curzonhomecinema.com/#!/film/CRZ_MUSTANG
AIM – M.I.A.
We’re supposed to believe that AIM is M.I.A.’s last album – a fairly common gimmick these days (remember when Eminem ‘retired’ in 2005?), and one I view with scepticism. But if it is to be her last, she will have left behind quite a legacy: five albums, of good to outstanding quality, two excellent mixtapes, and arguably the greatest single of the 21st century. Not bad.
A critical consensus seems to be emerging that AIM is too diffuse and lacks focus. I’m slightly baffled by these attacks – her music has always been diffuse, that’s an enormous part of its charm: Indian, Jamaican, Liberian, American, Australian aboriginal, British, and of course Sri Lankan themes, rhythms, and direct samples have ever been thrown into the mix for her own kaleidoscopic, genuinely disorientating, genuinely international, genuinely individual form of music. This is not just exciting on a primal level, but thematically supports her ambition to speak for a ‘Third World Democracy’, an invented construct which consists of a global underclass of refugees, immigrants, and the generally oppressed who fly across geopolitical borders just like the Paper Planes in her most famous song. Modern music and our increasingly globalised culture are diffuse in nature, which is why M.I.A. is one of the most important artists of our time, because she reflects this so dramatically and authentically.
As for lacking focus, M.I.A. actually seems as fiercely concentrated as ever on her favourite political themes, complaining about borders on ‘Borders’, visas on ‘Visa’, and lack of freedom on ‘Freedun’. Not quite sure how the critics missed them. Rolling in on her swagger van from the ‘People’s Republic of Swaggerstan’, she both parodies and embodies leftist ideals of universal humanism, scathingly one moment: ‘Do you wanna sign my petition?/It’s for the people with dedication’ and poetically the next: ‘I don’t need a religion/I’m a new frontier on horizons’. All of these lines come from a song which co-stars Zayn Malik, chosen I believe for his Pakistani heritage in another symbolic gesture towards the breakdown of traditional notions of nationhood. It’s all about focus, you see, and M.I.A. displays plenty of it.
That said, I would agree that this is her weakest album to date, but not for the lazy reasons cited above. It flounders a little because the creative energy is not as headspinning as on earlier instalments from her career, by which I mean the wordplay is not as funny or inventive (‘staying rich like an ostrich’ is one of the worst puns of the year), the choruses are not as addictive or hooky, and the beats are too often approaching second rate (only ‘Visa’ truly gets the pulse running). Not one song approaches the highs of ‘Galang’, ‘Bucky Done Gun’, ‘Paper Planes’, or ‘Bad Girls’. Collaborations with Skrillex, Blaqstarr, and Diplo don’t generate the cheap thrills that they promise to on paper.
Maybe that’s what people mean when they call this lacking in focus: quite simply, that it doesn’t have enough good songs. If so, they should be more careful with their words, because attacking an artist in such a way, especially one who is deliberately difficult to pin down, and is philosophically committed to blurring boundaries, is rather unhelpful. Still, AIM is a minor work, and one she should be able to improve upon in her next release. Because there will be a next release, right?
Skeleton Tree – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
I must admit that I approached this album with some dread. Last year Nick Cave suffered an unspeakably awful tragedy: the death of his teenage son, who fell from a cliff in Brighton, not far from where I currently live. Cave has hardly been a comfort at the best of times, obsessing over mortality, murder, and the macabre on his recorded output for over three decades. So an album from the darkest point in his life was a daunting prospect – not anywhere near approaching the unimaginable prospect of losing a child, of course, and I don’t mean to diminish Cave’s process of grieving in any way, but I knew that his perpetually adolescent morbidity would not leave him well-equipped to deal with such trauma, which would make for a fearsomely harrowing listening experience.
I was right. Yet looking into the making of the album complicates things, because writing and recording started in 2014, before Cave’s son died, and was completed in the aftermath, which throws into question how far the lyrics are a direct response to this tragedy or a premonition: the opening line for example, ‘You fell from the sky/Crash landed in a field/Near the River Adur’, appears to have been written beforehand, which is deeply unsettling. Cave’s been so consistently transfixed by the idea of death that both this and the rumination ‘I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world/In a slumber til you crumbled, were absorbed into the earth/I don’t think that anymore’ could easily have coexisted on any of his previous albums, so contextualising them in the event of his recent loss is both inevitable and questionable.
What is truly undeniable, however, is the haunting devastation of the music, so relentlessly bleak as to be almost voyeuristic in its insight into Cave’s turmoil. The Bad Seeds never rock, never break out into the magnificent fury that epitomises their legendary live performances, instead being subdued to the point of claustrophobia. Harmony, melody, and tunefulness are all elements that can’t survive in this arid environment, built up from waves of reverberated feedback and electronically derived howls of despair that quietly fill in the caverns audibly gaping in Cave’s normally unassailable baritone. Like Johnny Cash in the American Recordings albums, his voice’s struggle to sustain a note or even stay in tune makes the human suffering behind it all the more apparent. That’s why I think this album is voyeuristic, because it’s defined by Cave’s need to openly exhibit his pain.
I understand this need: it is the artist’s impulse. But I feel it necessary to take an objective stance and declare this album a weak one, despite my sympathy for the tragic circumstances in which it was made. It is flat in tone and the music rarely achieves transcendent moments (Else Torp’s vocals on ‘Distant Sky’ are an exception). I would not recommend it to anyone who is grieving, nor would I turn to it myself, because there are already far more varied, tricky, and accomplished albums out there: John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, for instance, or Iris DeMent’s My Life, or Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog. These all tackle the experience of losing a loved one in both specific and universalised ways, tackling a wide range of emotions that console as well as despair, therefore overshadowing the singularly insular Skeleton Tree.