Laerte-se (2017) – Film Review

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Available to watch on Netflix. This documentary explores the life of Brazilian cartoonist Laerte Coutinho, who in 2004 came out as a transgender woman after nearly six decades of living as a heterosexual man. The death of one of Laerte’s sons seemingly triggered a bout of gender dysphoria. This led to an exploring of the titillating idea of transvestitism: firstly in the fictional cartoon strips that brought her fame, and latterly in the dressing of her own body. Laerte is not strictly transsexual – she damn well likes her penis, and is disturbed by the notion of losing it – although she’s perturbed by her scrotum and yearns for breasts. But as this film makes delightfully clear, gender is a spectrum that should be considered (celebrated, even!) as a separate condition from biological sex. Laerte decries certain ‘fascists’ in the transgender community who try to put her down for not having had breast implants, implying that she’s somehow less of a woman because of it, a line of argument she rightly dismisses as ‘corporatism’. If gender identity is fluid then it should be entirely about choice, and nobody should be able to dictate how your body corresponds to said choice. Laerte-se is a forceful argument in this vein: one striking shot sees Laerte shaving in the shower, her penis protruding slightly from in between her legs, reminding us that genital and (performative) gendered sex can be quite different things. Laerte herself, as a human being, comes across as warm and likeable throughout, but rather distant – there are emotional barricades she puts up, seemingly to bar this documentary from full access, so that by the end she still remains quite an enigma. Her cartoons, which are generously deployed, give a glimpse of a deeper malaise and dissatisfaction, yet they’re always smothered with black humour – hinting at a more intimate well of personality, which the filmmakers never quite unmask. Still, as an examination of gender fluidity first and foremost, Laerte-se’s both fascinating and prescient. And its profundity ultimately boils down to a simple statement, as most profundities do: ‘human beings should be allowed to enjoy themselves, regardless of gender.’ What kind of asshole would disagree with that?

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My Life as a Courgette (2016) – Film Review

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When people tell me they believe the quality of films are in decline, I like to remind them that we’re currently in a Golden Age for animation. Not just the consistent powerhouses of Pixar and Studio Ghibli, but also smaller studios from all around the world, are investing in carefully considered, thoughtful stories with absorbing narratives that just so happen to be animated. It’s incredibly lucky for all of us that as animation has moved into three dimensions, it has also moved closer to a multidimensional approach to characterisation and the perplexities of the wider world – as so far most inane comic book blockbusters have failed to do. A shortlist of brilliance, from this decade alone: Toy Story 3, Frozen, Despicable Me, Anomalisa, Kubo and the Two Strings, The Little Prince, Moana, Zootropolis, Your Name

Add to that list The Red Turtle, which I raved about last week, and the alternately adorable and harrowing My Life as a Courgette, which I’ll rave about now.

I haven’t seen a film quite so tonally audacious as this one for a very long time. There are moments with the sweetness and innocence of licking a lollipop in summer; there are other moments with the bitter and undeserved cruelty of finding you’ve dropped it. It’s a tale with an unsettling synopsis: a 9 year-old boy, Icare, nicknamed Courgette by his alcoholic mother, finds himself, due to a very dark twist of fate, landed in an orphanage with a group of kids who have equally turbulent pasts. Drug addiction, murder, sex abuse, and the deportation of immigrant relatives are just some of the issues these little – tragically little – human beings have had to face. One heartbreaking recurring moment, for example: a girl runs onto the orphanage’s porch whenever she hears a car’s engine, calling out ‘mum!’ We know, of course, her mum will never come.

What’s amazing is that these serious issues are never overplayed for easy, sentimental tears; nor do they ever threaten to cast a permanent shadow over the slight, 66-minute film, which in total is an uplifting experience. Scenes of a ski resort trip, a disco, a Halloween party, and many more are infused with such joy that I can only attribute them to a supreme empathy shown by the filmmakers in their depiction of childhood. Perhaps it’s the especially fractious nature of the world at this time that causes me to be so moved by these scenes of communal, shared enjoyment; perhaps it’s more simply a nostalgia for childhood days of yore, an emotion that I’m normally suspicious of, but not in the case of this film. It’s hard to be suspicious when you’re laughing your socks off, at the innocent ways in which these kids discuss the intricacies of sex. And when Courgette discovers love for the first time, it’s not only impossibly sweet, it’s also believably life-altering.

This film is both bitter and sweet to its core, an oxymoron that plays out in the technical accomplishment of the animation itself – a stop-motion universe of just about recognisably human figures who have exaggerated, sickly pale faces, as unnerving as a clown’s, yet with wide open eyes inviting empathy, and overt primary colours (garish dashes of blue, yellow, and red) shading their hair and the shadows around their eyes. It’s a striking palette that serves the story, even as it resists beauty in a way the Pixar and Studio Ghibli aesthetics, for instance, certainly don’t.

The beauty instead comes from the script, by the terrific Céline Sciamma (Girlhood, Being 17), from a novel by Gilles Paris, which comprehends a child’s perspective so acutely, and with a warmth that’s impossible to resist. And of course credit is due to first-time Swiss director Claude Barras, most certainly a talent to watch, who so ably deals with the book’s, and Sciamma’s, sharp tonal shifts.

The greatest testament I can give to this rich film is this: despite everything the kids go through, it really makes you long to be a part of Icare’s life as a Courgette.

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The Red Turtle (2016) – Film Review

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If you have any doubts left that animated films can be amongst our most serious and profound artistic statements (you shouldn’t), this film should dispel them with the easeful grace of a turtle’s fin gliding through water. It doesn’t shout about how profound it’s being: quite literally, there’s no onscreen dialogue (beyond the odd ‘hey!’). It doesn’t beat you around the head with capital-S ‘Symbolism’, either. But in a hushed way, with only a whisper of pretension, its simple tale of a man washed up on an island who first attacks and then befriends a giant red turtle manages to convey all aspects of life from birth to romance to parenthood and death – and then back again to a kind of rebirth. All in just 80 minutes.

It’s a Studio Ghibli co-production, which might account for its radical simplicity -unshouted messages of environmental concern are at the heart of My Neighbour Totoro and many other of the great studio’s works. And indeed here too, exceptionally well-drawn backdrops of the natural world make an unshowy argument for the environment’s inherent beauty and the importance of our custodial duty in preserving it. Stormy seas and crystal blue waters, expanses of sand and towering palm trees, birds flying and turtles soaring – these are all exquisitely detailed and painstakingly coloured, as we’ve come to expect and now unfortunately take for granted with Studio Ghibli.

Yet The Red Turtle departs in many ways from the studio’s oeuvre, co-produced as it is with several other studios including France’s Wild Bunch and Belgium’s Belvision, whilst directed by an outsider: the Dutch-born, London-based Michaël Dudok de Wit. This seems to me a fittingly global setup, for international cooperation is the only way in which we can truly act to preserve the environment. But the difference is most apparent in the human figures: Studio Ghibli’s characters have always been clearly expressed through their eyes, the so-called windows to the soul. Here, the eyes take the form of just single black beads, which as many reviewers have pointed out owes a greater debt to Hergé’s Tintin comics than anime, and which means that we learn more about the character’s personalities from their overt body movements and physical interaction with surroundings. As such, the mise-en-scène is generally more distant, the camera tending to point down at the living figures from far above when they’re on land and far below when they’re in the sea, giving them space to move around and convey their emotions to us, cleverly, without the need for close-ups.

This distancing effect also powerfully conveys the film’s key message: that the natural world is far bigger than all of us tiny human beings who inhabit it, and surely it will carry on long after we’re gone. Our hero is dwarfed in almost every shot by sand dunes, enormous trees and rock structures, and in the film’s most dramatic moment a frightening tsunami. His vulnerability recalls last year’s The Revenant, where Leonardo DiCaprio was similarly both oppressed and enchanted by his surroundings, but of course it also recalls all battles with nature that have been a consistent fascination in our narrative fictions from The Odyssey to Robinson Crusoe to Life of Pi. I’ve long believed that the stories we tell mirror the deepest fears in our collective subconscious, and the fear that the world we inhabit could one day swallow us all up and leave no trace of our existence is a common one, no doubt because it’s not just very likely to happen at some point but practically a certainty. As I’m sure I don’t need to stress, rising sea levels due to our incessant and stupidly short-sighted polluting makes our continued existence on this gorgeous planet diminishingly likely. In its final shot, The Red Turtle breathes a sigh of dismay at this future extinguishment, whilst showing us how nature will carry on regardless, like a newborn turtle making its first dangerous journey from sandy shore to the sea.

As you may have gathered, if you have children, this might not be the animated film to share with them at a young age. Or maybe it is – we do all need to understand, from a very young age, how the environment is so much more important than mankind’s ego-driven pursuit of profit, or else we run the Trumpian risk of speeding up our eventual demise. And this film is positive at heart: it believes that if we stop, look and listen to the natural world, rather than simply exploiting it, we can not only extend but, perhaps more importantly, also greatly enrich our species’ lifetime.

So do go to see The Red Turtle, please, and take as many people with you as possible: you will be enchanted by almost every one of its 80 minutes, I guarantee. You could just switch off and enjoy the extravagant visuals if you prefer – but I say choose to ignore the underlying message, and dismiss it as hippie nonsense, at all of our peril.

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I usually post a trailer at this point, but the one for this film gives away vital plot elements that I was careful to conceal in my review – and, what’s worse, it also contains a majority of the film’s most impressive shots. A common gripe with trailers, but particularly grievous in this instance. Avoid, and head straight to the cinema.

Frantz (2016) – Film Review

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François Ozon’s 17th film in 20 years (amazingly prolific for a 21st century director) is certainly one of his finest. It’s a bold idea: a remake of a 1932 drama, Broken Lullaby, by one of the greatest directors of all time: Ernst Lubitsch. Broken Lullaby is one of that sly master’s lesser efforts though, certainly more suited for a reboot than the eternally fresh To Be Or Not to Be or The Shop Around the Corner. And besides, Ozon takes intriguing liberties with his source, inventing a second half to Lubitsch’s tale (itself based on a play by Maurice Rostand), in which the supporting woman powerfully seizes centre stage away from what was previously a narrative concerning a returned soldier.

The woman is German and is called Anna (Paula Beer), and at the start of the film she’s mourning the death of her fiancé, Frantz, at the end of the First World War. She finds out that a Frenchman called Adrien (Pierre Niney) has been visiting her fiancé’s grave on a daily basis, for reasons that are initially unclear, but help to create a satisfying web of narrative suspense throughout the film’s first half.

Psychosexual implications abound, with the unsettling thought that Adrien might be trying to replace the deceased Frantz in Anna’s affections; this has an undoubted whiff of the ‘doubles’ and necrophilia of Vertigo about it. And, like that film, our understanding of the principle character’s motivations change with a perspective shift in the second half. It follows Anna in travelling to France, and so we start to see the more fantastical aspects of her obsession with Adrien.

We also witness the knife-edge tension between her home nation and his, and several scenes of xenophobic mistrust between French and German locals are very well handled by Ozon, demonstrating the colossal tensions brought about by the war even in the early years of peace. One particularly pointed scene sees Anna sitting in a French café as the locals stand up to salute a trio of soldiers with a loud rendition of La Marseillaise, and Anna’s uncertainty as to how she should act, her embarrassed awkwardness, accidentally exposes the veiled threat of nationalism lurking beneath even simple, understandable acts of patriotism. The Nazis could just have easily happened in France, had the economic situation been anywhere near as dire as Germany’s in the interwar period, and Ozon is quick and thoughtful enough to be aware of this.

Less well handled are the film’s lurching transitions between black and white and colour photography. These might be intended as a tribute to the truly great film about interwar Germany, Heimat, but they still feel heavyhanded. And the luscious colour photography in particular manages to overkill the Romanticism of the scenes of romance (scenes filmed in fields and forests and streams, with poetry recited). I wish it had stuck to the crisper black and white tones throughout, which reveal so much fascinating detail in the contours of the actor’s faces.

And what faces! Pierre Niney’s is thin and aquiline, inviting sympathy with his kindly eyes, yet also inviting suspicion with a hyper-alertness that seems to be working hard to mask some terrible secrets. And Paula Beer’s is pretty in a quiet way, searching and inquisitive and young (the actress is only 22), yet clearly downcast with the weight of the world already. Mature. François Ozon seizes on these unique features to exploit the finest two performances thus far in all of his films, using the complex shadows of Pascal Marti’s photography to maximise each one’s impact in a most impressive way.

Ozon’s got another film coming out this year, of course he does, but he’ll have a tough job matching the repressed passion of this one. Even if he could sometimes do with a wee bit more of Lubitsch’s legendary lightness of touch.

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A Monster Calls (2016) – Film Review

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The uncharitable might dismiss this film as saccharine hokum. And saccharine it is – tears flow bountifully, as befits a film based on a children’s book about a boy whose mother is dying of cancer and whose only friend is an imaginary tree (voiced by Liam Neeson, who of course suffered a very public loss of his own). But is it hokum? I don’t think so; it’s got some vital things to say about grieving. Key to appreciating the film is acknowledging that the boy, who appears in every scene, is not a likeable character. Conor O’Malley (played with immense courage by 14 year-old Lewis MacDougall) is caustic and aggressive, lashing out physically at the school bullies who have given him hell and, more troublingly, some of his loved ones who haven’t. Spielberg would recoil at such a thing, but I greatly admire how it refuses to sentimentalise youth. As the mother’s health continues to deteriorate, so does Conor’s rage understandably build up. But if we watch closely then we start to realise that this outwardly expressed anger is really directed at himself, and we begin to feel for the poor kid. As does the imaginary tree monster of the title, who acts as some kind of subconscious counsellor, relating three (lushly animated) stories that are designed to demonstrate how there’s no such thing as right and wrong. These stories finally draw out a truth, a nightmare, from within Conor that lies at the heart of all human beings when they’re put in the position of witnessing the long drawn-out death of a loved one. It’s an unimaginably painful truth, and it’s especially awful to hear when coming from the mouth of a pre-teen. But its nakedness helps to make this one of the most honestly therapeutic films that I’ve seen. And as such, A Monster Calls is necessary viewing – not hokum. With an added bonus: excellent supporting turns from Felicity Jones as the dying mother, Sigourney Weaver as the embattled grandmother, and Toby Kebbell as the handsome but flakey divorcee father. I accept that it’s very middlebrow and rather artlessly directed, but then every type of -brow has to deal with death at some point, don’t they?

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You can watch it online now: http://player.bfi.org.uk/film/watch-a-monster-calls-2016/?gclid=CI7jzt7u4NMCFc687QodydUBBQ

The Handmaiden (2016) – Film Review

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An adaptation of Sarah Waters’ acclaimed Victorian-era erotic thriller Fingersmith, The Handmaiden transposes the action to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s. Directed by Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Stoker), who also worked on the adapted screenplay, this is a big step up for a director mostly known before for his highly stylised scenes of ultraviolence. Like far too many talented directors, Chan-wook’s technical audacity has been squandered away on an obsession with gratuitous gore and cold, empty characterisations that, filmed in the right lighting, are perceived as Art by easily duped critics. He has shown more sympathy for the mechanics of vengeance than, say, real people, which I’ve always found disconcerting.

Which makes The Handmaiden all the more of a surprise. It’s not just beautifully photographed, evocatively scored, and sumptuously designed (in sets, lighting, colour, make-up and all other departments). It’s not just unusually gripping and tense from beginning to end, like no other film I’ve seen this year. It’s also a major, accomplished piece of humane filmmaking. Thrillingly driven by a myriad of emotions, of which vengeance is thankfully but a minor one, the characters here live and breathe in three dimensions, they have complex and contradictory webs of desire, and they act in consistently surprising ways. It’s Chan-wook’s first novel-on-film, as opposed to a shop-of-horrors designed expressly to shock.

He gets some great performances from the leads. Kim Tae-ri flitters between hysteria and calm as Sook-hee, a pickpocket hired by the con artist Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) to act as handmaiden to Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and convince her to marry him. Hideko is a fabulously wealthy orphan, and it’s the fortune rather than the woman that the Count is after. So the pre-hatched plan is to send Hideko off to a mental asylum shortly after they marry and then split the stolen dowry with Sook-hee. But human foibles get in the way. Hideko starts to fall in love with Sook-hee, not the Count, which complicates the double-crossing at play. And Sook-hee in turn falls for Hideko. Or does she…?

As The Handmaiden progresses we are shown the same crucial scenes of wooing and lovemaking from the perspective of different characters, and it has the disorientating (but thrilling) effect that our assumptions concerning who is ‘performing’ in the romantic and sexual liaisons of the three main characters are continually readjusted. Love and sex are two areas in life where the strong-willed can be reduced to weakness, and as such they are powerful tools to be used in manipulating others. As the plot twists and turns, we begin to question whether the purity of love or sex can ever exist at all, or whether there will always be an element of performance to them. The pivotal sex scene between Sook-hee and Hideko, for example, starts with them pretending to be man and wife on their wedding night, so are we to believe that the grunts and groans which follow are genuine, or are they all just a part of the scene’s role-playing? Is Sook-hee preparing Hideko for her first night with the Count, or is she enacting her own desires upon this beautiful woman beneath her? Can there ever be a complete connection between lust and love, we wonder?

The film bravely poses an answer to all of these questions in its final scene, which of course I won’t dare to spoil. But look out for it, and consider its meaning very carefully. I believe the ending is the most audacious and inspiring thing that Chan-wook has yet committed to film, and even if it comes directly from Sarah Waters’ book, the boldness required to bring it to life onscreen is remarkable.

Still, the film is not perfect: Chan-wook can’t resist a lengthy scene of grizzly torture, which clearly gives him as much of a hard-on as the sex scenes, what with its lavish close-ups of mutilation. I’ve heard nary a word about this particular scene in the press’s lengthy discussions on the film’s morality, a dispiriting example of how violence is perceived as more ‘normal’ in the world of film than sex. People will sit quietly through scenes of the most excessive bloodletting and be unperturbed, yet lose their shit when they see two naked women getting it on.

Indeed, there has been some criticism that the explicit scenes of lesbian lovemaking are an uncomfortable example of male wish-fulfillment fantasy rather than an ode to female liberation, because they’re filmed by a guy director. To these accusations I would reply that not only were these scenes far more explicit in the original novel, Fingersmith, but also that the author herself gave this film her seal of approval, demonstrating that Chan-wook has stayed close to the spirit of his source material rather than indulging in his own masturbatory fantasies (though of course he could be doing both, at least he’s not doing the latter in any unjustifiably excessive way).

Taken overall the film is a resplendent celebration of female sexuality, and this couldn’t be clearer. Even in this day and age, that’s an astonishingly rare thing to find in cinema (it’s more frequent in pop music, one of the main reasons I’ve become attracted to that form above film in recent years). Most art films are so eager to prove their smarts and tell us something downbeat about humanity that they forget the main reason why we have sex: because it’s fun. I recently watched Raw, a horror film that is being applauded on the arthouse circuit for linking sexual awakening to cannibalism, without anyone acknowledging how deeply, deeply silly that concept is even on a surface level – cannibalism is an aberration in human nature, whereas sex is a universal part of it, so equating them doesn’t make much sense at all.

Stick to The Handmaiden, which is a film about fucking that’s the real deal: sex as pleasure, as performance, sometimes as manipulation, but most importantly, when it’s good, as love.

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The Salesman (2016) – Film Review

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We all know the Best Foreign Film win at this year’s Oscars was a middle finger up to Trump’s Muslim Ban rather than a genuine award based on merit. Director Asghar Farhadi’s refusal to attend the ceremony was the real statement being applauded as The Salesman was crowned – we all knew it, and the audience of celebs all knew it as they gave their obligatory standing ovation. How many of them had seen the film, I wondered?

I reserved my ovation until after I had seen it, and an ovation it deserves – if a muted one. Asghar Farhadi is one of the very best writer/directors working in film: a troubled humanist, a keen and subtle political commentator, a generous and wise handler of actors. Yet The Salesman is a minor effort when measured against his high points – certainly not a patch on the great A Separation, and not even close to the lesser The Past (absolute must-sees if you haven’t already). Still, and this is a testament to his brilliance, it deserves to be seen.

The film follows a young married couple who, in a familiar Farhadi motif, seem content on the surface, but deep down there lies another story. Cracks are forming, quite literally in the film’s opening sequence where an entire apartment block’s foundation is shown to be collapsing and the camera homes in on a splintering window. The symbolism is heavy-handed here, some would say pretentious. But I would argue that it’s potent, visually showing us in a few frames what the words between this couple will manage to evade, namely that their marriage is built on an unstable foundation. The events of the film will serve to expose this fragile bond between them.

The pair are performing the lead roles in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman at a local theatre (just as they’re performing in their own marriage). The choice of play is important because it’s another drama about a married couple whose relationship involves skirting around the truth.

Similarly to Miller’s classic, The Salesman has a lot more interest in the male role, with the female largely a passive observer of the man’s deceitful self-destructiveness. It’s a disappointing flaw in both, yet less forgivable in Farhadi’s film, because unlike Miller’s play the action pivots around a terrible event happening to the wife. Farhadi seems more concerned with the effect on the husband. For a humanist, that’s an unfortunate lapse.

Still, if you can accept the androcentrism, there is meat enough on The Salesman for it to be worth a nibble. As with his past films, Farhadi’s focus on the divisions within a relationship can be read as a commentary upon the divisions – religious, moral, political, and other – in modern Iranian society, which has fascinating implications. Never does he come down firmly on one side of the traditional/modernising divide, seeking instead to demonstrate Renoir’s famous adage that ‘everyone has their reasons’, which is why I repeatedly call him a humanist. The ‘villain’ in The Salesman, the wife’s attacker, is shown to be so pathetic and weak that you can’t help but sympathise with him, even as you shudder at his representing an old order of misogyny. Meanwhile, the avenging husband appears increasingly sinister despite the most honourable of intentions, defending his wife, which gives the film an intriguing spin on the revenge thriller.

So The Salesman is a tough moral puzzle, like all of the best Farhadi films, and what’s more it has a genuinely riveting final half an hour in which husband and attacker finally confront each other. The intensity of the probing handheld camerawork, nevertheless always restrained by the director’s cool touch, lets the tension builds in a genuinely unpredictable manner. What will win out, we wonder, hysteria or rationality?

This is a minor yet worthwhile work by a major director, then. Have you seen Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man or Spielberg’s A.I.? That’s the sort of level we’re talking about here – flashes of genius, but no masterwork.

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Elle (2016) – Film Review

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Agent provocateur Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers, Basic Instinct, Showgirls – to name just a few of his films to have pissed people off) was forced out of Hollywood to make this film in France. Why? Because it was, inevitably, a risky project that required a fearless leading lady, and Hollywood so rarely produces such women.

Verhoeven initially flirted with the idea of casting Nicole Kidman as the central rape victim with a dark past of her own, and the prospect is intriguing – Kidman did choose extremely daring material once upon a time (To Die For, Dogville, Birth) but has increasingly opted for safe fare like Paddington and Lion, so a return to danger could easily have electrified the screen. Alas, it was not to be. Other actresses to be touted include Sharon Stone, Julianne Moore, Charlize Theron, and Marion Cotillard. All wonderful, but there was really only ever one woman with the guts to take this on, and her employment precipitated the entire production’s move to France.

Isabelle Huppert. Probably the finest actress in the world right now, an utterly fearless performer with some of the late 20th and early 21st century’s most demanding roles under her belt (The Piano Teacher, Amour, Louder Than Bombs, Things to Come etc. etc.). Waspish and cynical and unloving at times, amusing and generous and warm at others, there is little space on the human spectrum that she is unable to manoeuvre into with the quickest of glances or facial tics. This works a treat with Elle, a film that careens wildly from horror to comedy to miniaturist character study in a moment’s notice. It leans heavily on Huppert’s supreme ability as the centrifugal force preventing it from taking off into Showgirls-like lunacy.

The film begins with a cat calmly observing the rape of Michèle Leblanc (Huppert), who once her attacker has gone sweeps up the broken window glass on the floor, has a bath and carries on with life as normal. Why doesn’t she call the police? There is a reason, and it has to do with a controversy from her childhood – a shady, violent, appalling secret that helps to explain much of her bizarre future behaviour, if perhaps in too trite a pop-psychological way.

We discover that she is the head of a PS4 games company which specialises in allowing players to live out misogynistic fantasies, including a graphic orc rape scene that Michèle declares is not realistic enough – needs more orgasmic convulsions from the woman, she says. Already we are in troubling and murky moral waters: if Michèle is complicit in a culture that glorifies aggressive sexual behaviour then can it be said that she is somewhat responsible for her attack? Does she really believe that women, deep down, can enjoy the experience of being raped? And, whisper it… perhaps did she enjoy being raped?

As the film pans out we are given a new reason to be disturbed in every scene. Without giving the game away, it might be best to warn readers that there are many more rape scenes to come, some of them real and some of them not, on the way to a, well, quasi-revenge. We become more and more convinced that Michèle is a sadomasochistic deviant who seeks out abuse in all aspects of life, not just in the bedroom and her private fantasies, but also in relationships with friends and family.

Peter Bradshaw questioned in The Guardian if this film was ‘post-feminist? Pre-feminist? Non-feminist?’ I think the answer is in the title: it’s called Elle and not Elles. It’s a look at how one woman reacts to a heinous crime and should not be extrapolated to represent all women’s reactions to misogyny and rape culture. Try and make a reading of this film in relation to feminist studies and you will inevitably fall into Verhoeven’s vicious trap – what kind of modern, enlightened woman actually seeks out sexual abuse? You’re guaranteed to be pissed off. That title is a way out, claiming this film as a contained character study rather than any kind of political commentary.

Still, Verhoeven’s deliberate shock tactics are what ultimately hold the film back from greatness. Cold, ever so cold, his gallows humour is not enough to cover up an unnerving misanthropy. All of his characters are stupid and/or violent with little to redeem them; it can be seen as an arty version of Game of Thrones in that respect. I’ve always been wary of aggressive cynicism, which can make for compelling viewing in the moment but all too easily cops out from examining the real complexities of human beings, so I don’t thrill to Elle in the way so many critics have done.

Of course Elle is subtler than Game of Thrones, and it is saved by some wonderful social satire: a central dinner party scene has a delicious disdain for bourgeois convention and contains several laugh-out-loud moments. We need Verhoevian-style provocations in filmmaking because it keeps the medium alive – art should be challenging, I believe that completely, and Elle continues in the richly sarcastic and shocking vein of Buñuel, Cronenberg, Lynch, and many others. But art should also be moving, transformative, and alert to the balance of good and evil in this world (I think of a masterpiece like The Night of the Hunter).

Elle is too flat and delighted to wallow in the squalid horrors of being alive to be truly challenging: it works nicely as horror-comedy, but not well enough as human drama.

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Mini-Review, Logan (2017)

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I don’t feel qualified to write a full review of this, not having seen any of the other X-Men films. But I can happily report that I enjoyed my 2 hours in its company, and therefore owe this brief recommendation. Director James Mangold (I Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma) has a keen eye for rural Americana and Logan successfully transfers some of the heavy mythos of the Western into the Marvel universe. Wizened and fading, Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart neatly imply their mutant parallel America is no country for old men, whilst a young Hispanic girl thrown into the mix gives the codgers a rude and much-needed kick up the rear end. All of the usual superhero-flick irritants apply: clunky dialogue, villains with baffling motives, tongue not firmly enough lodged in cheek. But the bloodier-than-usual action scenes raise the stakes so that you can believe real damage might be inflicted on any of its heroes at any moment. So it has a tense uncertainty that is rare in any form of blockbuster these days. Until you start to wonder whether any of its monsters and/or humans feel any sort of pain at all as they gush the red stuff…

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Film Review: Moonlight (2016)

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‘Where is my reflection? … I am rendered invisible.’

So goes a quote from the classic of queer black cinema, Tongues Untied (1989), a film about the enforced cultural invisibility of gay and black Americans. Nearly three decades later, the brilliant Moonlight posits an answer: try looking in the sea.

The sea is the backdrop for three key transformative moments in this drama. In each moment as we hear the waves and see the water lapping on sand, we can feel the tide of protagonist Chiron’s soul tugging at him in a direction of change, sometimes towards acceptance of his sexuality and sometimes away. In and ‘out’.

I find it fascinating that the other truly excellent film nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, Manchester by the Sea, is another one where the sea is a major presence. That film saw Casey Affleck seemingly crushed under that body of water’s powerful, intimidating expanse, a terrible and constant reminder of his grief. But in Moonlight it is more complex still: the stunted, coiled, and emotionally damaged main character looks out upon the sea and although he sometimes sees oppression, at other times he sees a chance for rebirth, for transformation.

Because water is amorphous and liable to change, and Moonlight is all about change. It can be slotted into that genre called the ‘bildungsroman’ (coming-of-age narrative) in that it follows a young man’s journey from childhood to adolescence and into early adulthood. This genre is exceedingly old-fashioned, and dates back at least to Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1796). Still, miraculously, Moonlight succeeds in putting an entirely fresh spin on it.

Its central figure has three names, which are also the names of the three chapters of the film: Little, Chiron, and Black. We first meet him as a silent, damaged, tiny child who knows he is a victim of bullying by kids who call him ‘faggot’, but doesn’t understand what ‘faggot’ means. His mother is addicted to drugs and his father is absent, two clichés that permeate the fictitious worlds and too often the realities of African-American children. ‘Little’ will strike up an unusual friendship with Juan, a drug dealer who is in many ways responsible for his mother’s condition, but who is also a constructive father figure and teaches him how to swim (in the sea).

Juan is a complex character imbued with tremendous gravitas by Mahershala Ali. He shows us what this film knows better than most coming-of-age stories, which is that nobody who is a formative influence on a child is ever going to have a simple good-or-bad binary effect. ‘Little’ may learn some important lessons from this charismatic figure, but he may also become dangerously infected by the allure of criminality.

The next section jumps to the teenage years of Chiron (his birth name). Still facing the daily bullying of uncaring thugs, combined with the diminishing mental health of his still-addicted mother, Chiron must choose between hiding from and confronting his queer urges. He must also choose whether to confront said thugs with aversion and silence, which is his natural state, or with a confrontational violence that he may have picked up from Juan. Who is he: Little or Chiron?

Or Black? The jump from the second to the third part of the film is where the most dramatic change occurs in Chiron. I won’t deign to spoil the surprise, as its jolt is a large part of the film’s power. You must see it for yourself, and then observe what growing up can do to a man’s sense of self. Chiron must confront the conception of his identity in the bravura final twenty minutes of film, which is the finest sequence of moving image I have seen in the past year.

This multilayered man is performed by the triple-threat Alex Hibbert (Little), Ashton Sanders (Chiron), and Trevante Rhodes (Black), and if there was any justice in the world they would be sharing the prize for Best Actor with Casey Affleck at the Oscars this year. The rest of the ensemble cast is equally outstanding and includes not just the Oscar-tipped Ali but Naomie Harris (a great turn as the mother, recorded in just three days), Janelle Monáe (not just a mean set of pipes), and Jaden Piner/Jharrel Jerome/André Holland (as close friend and potential lover-across-the-ages Kevin).

There are too many people to sing praise to for this intensely cinematic production, which must be seen on the big screen. But special mention to cinematographer James Laxton and of course director Barry Jenkins. Together they forge a distinctive visual style that, in its spiralling tracking shots and dreamy images of mankind subsumed by the natural world has been compared to the films of Terrence Malick.

Perhaps on a surface level this is valid, but Barry Jenkins is a much, much better director than the Malick of late: whereas Malick’s dreaminess is a result of vague on-screen philosophical discussions with himself, Jenkins’ is always at the service of getting deep inside the head of a character for whom verbal expression is a matter of great difficulty. Jenkins’ careful direction of Laxton’s beautifully mounted photography is always in the service of universalising a complex drama about coming to terms with one’s own identity, a crisis that anyone can comprehend and which shoots this film far beyond Malick’s limited reach into the realms of great filmmaking.

Moonlight is that rare thing, and I try really hard not to bandy this term about: a masterpiece.

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