Monthly Archives: December 2007

Introduction to East European Cinema

‘Europe’ is a concept that embraces many ideas about national and regional identities. In the UK, we think we recognise ‘Western Europe’ and regions such as Scandinavia or the Balkans, but what does ‘Central Europe’ mean to us?

Up until the First World War and the re-drawing of maps, ‘Central Europe’ was subsumed in the empires of Austro-Hungary, Germany and Russia. The region produced some of the world’s great filmmakers, alongside writers and musicians, before Nazi occupation and the Cold War had their impact on cultural life. Now that Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Germany are back together in Europe, it seems a good time to reassess ‘Central European Cinema’ and to explore its future and its past. We’ll discover that there are no strict definitions of Central Europe and little agreement about how to study the film cultures of the region. It would be wrong to deny the unique identities of the various countries each with their own film cultures, but it is also worth emphasising that boundaries (geographical and cultural) have shifted many times over the last century and there is a common experience of several important events across the region. Two of these are the persecution of the Jewish community culminating in the Holocaust in 1943-5 and the experience of Soviet domination during the cold War.

Anna M.

I’ve spent an interesting time trying to decipher Anna M., a French film generally touted as in the mould of The Page Turner or Haneke films such as Hidden or The Piano Teacher. In fact it is something rather different and much more like À la folie . . . pas du tout, a film I used with students very successfully a few years ago. And the connection is quite spooky since the young woman playing Anna, a stunning performance by Isabelle Carré, was also one of the main players in À la folie. In the earlier film, Carré played the wife of a doctor who becomes the focus for an erotic obsession by a young artist played by Audrey Tatou. In Anna M., she is the young woman with erotomania — an obsessive love for the doctor who treats her after a failed suicide attempt. The two films share several narrative elements and even one identical shot, but overall they are quite different with À la folie working as a ‘twist’ narrative and being driven by Audrey Tatou’s distinctive screen persona. Anna M. is, in one sense, more conventional, but also more puzzling since its ‘significant objects’ and the clues they hold to Anna’s life are harder to pin down.

Anna M. is, I think, an auteur movie in the French sense. At least it was hailed at Berlin this year and its director Michel Spinosa has been interviewed as an auteur on several sites. I noted however, that in France it opened on 91 screens, expanding to 99 before dropping out of the French Top 20. (In the UK it opened on two prints from Metrodome.) The newspaper reviewers have been OK-ish about the film, but it has suffered the fate of many similar films. For the cinephiles, it is tainted by a too strong a reliance on genre and for the popular critics it is too slow or confusing in telling its story. I’m so tired of this, why not just deal with it on its own terms?

As with À la folie, I was drawn to comparisons with Polanski rather than the obvious Hollywood films (Fatal Attraction, Play Misty For Me etc.). Repulsion and The Tenant are two possible Polanski models. I quite like the ‘collapse into melodrama’ as one reviewer puts it and I enjoyed the frisson of horror in scenes with children and also Anna’s relationship with her mother (with its oblique nod towards Carrie). As Sight & Sounds reviewer suggests, there are hints that mother too may have history of mental illness. Bizarrely, most of the UK critics make little mention of the central cultural references in the narrative. Eventually I tracked down the painting which seems to link Anna’s obsession to the doctor — The Childhood of the Virgin by the 17th century Spanish painter, Francisco de Zurbarán . I don’t want to give the ending away, except to say that it is quite baffling unless you accept the obvious explanation (and, yes, the painting features). (The ending is filmed in the French Alps as one of the public funding agencies involved is the Centre Européen Cinématographique Rhône-Alpes.)

Anna works in the National Library restoring antique books (and stealing several, it would seem). She also connects the doctor with The Song of Songs. As an ignoramus in terms of Biblical and classical education I didn’t get much from these references as I watched the film, having to do my homework when I got home. Rather different cultural references are the songs from CocoRosie and Au Revoir Simone. I was reminded (somehow!) of watching Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, which conveys a sense of the ethereal world view of (suicidal) teenage girls. But perhaps this is not surprising since all the music for The Virgin Suicides came from the French duo, who recently toured with . . . CocoRosie. Isn’t the internet wonderful?

Both The Virgin Suicides and À la folie were directed by women. I must find out what women filmmakers and theorists have made of Anna M. — a film which takes an almost forensic interest in Isabelle Carré’s body, primarily as a means of staying as close as possible to Anna’s perspective on the world. Nevertheless, it raises interesting questions about the male and female ‘gaze’.

The other interesting feature of Anna M. is its CinemaScope ratio and amazing mise en scene. Again, I have to give credit to Catherine Wheatley in Sight & Sound for pointing out that the warm palette complements the choice of locations in suggesting late 19th century Vienna rather than 21st century Paris and that this fits with the Freudian allusions to the ‘case of’ Anna M.

Can I show this to students? I’m not sure.

Talk to Me

Kasi Lemmons and Taraji P. Henson on the set of Talk to Me

I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun in a cinema. Talk to Me has to be one of my favourite films of the year. I’ve always liked Don Cheadle and I’ve been a big fan of Chiwetel Ejiofor since Dirty Pretty Things. Director Kasi Lemmons I knew from that wonderful melodrama Eve’s Bayou so I was looking forward to Talk to Me — I just didn’t expect it to be so knock-out.

The structure of the film is that of the classic show-business biopic, although the action is compressed into the period 1966-72 with a brief coda ten years later. Many critics are sniffy about biopics, but if I’m interested in the star/personality, I can live with a conventional story arc. The difference here is that by starting in the mid 1960s, we don’t learn anything immediately about the early lives of the two central characters, Petey Greene and Dewey Hughes. Instead the narrative has to contrive ways of getting the two to tell each other about their backgrounds. One of the best examples of this is the terrific pool game in which Hughes/Ejiofor turns the tables on Greene/Cheadle.

Petey Greene was a radio star in Washington DC who was famous for ‘keeping it real’ and building up a large African-American audience during the period of Civil Rights triumphs leading into the Black Power period (when the backlash was felt). The film can thus draw on music, humour and politics as well as melodrama in terms of personal relationships. Perhaps the movie won’t be such an emotional experience for younger audiences, but I found the sequences dealing with the assassination of Martin Luther King enormously affecting. The music throughout was terrific (the great Terence Blanchard creating the score) but when Cheadle played Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come I was destroyed.

At heart, the movie is a male melodrama and deals with the emotional relationship between the two male characters. In a central dialogue exchange they both assert that they need each other — Dewey can do the things Petey can’t and Petey can say the things Dewey can’t. The two men symbolise the different approaches by African-American men towards ‘getting on’ and preserving a sense of clear personal identity — ‘keeping it real’. The whole film hinges on the ability of the two actors to represent the nuances as well as the dramatic emotional highs and lows of this relationship. In a way, I think that Cheadle has the slightly easier task. He has to represent a fast-talking ‘larger than life’ character. He does this brilliantly but we have seen him do it before. On the other hand, Ejiofor has a much less defined character — in the sense that Dewey has to be represented as ‘buttoned-up’ and conservative. But the character changes over the course of the narrative. Ejiofor actually has more to do to get this across, even if the performance has to be ‘smaller’ than Cheadle’s. I confess that I watched Ejiofor so closely that I sometimes thought I could see him changing gear. I had a similar feeling watching Samantha Morton, another actor I rate very highly, in the marvellous Control. I decided then that my ‘gaze’ was far too focused on the one character and that in the context of the narrative, the performance worked very well. I think the same about Ejiofor as Dewey (and many respected critics have praised Ejiofor for the role). What certainly worked well was the changing facial hair and head hair of the characters. Ejiofor in full beard at the end of the film was significantly different from the rather preppy young man at the beginning.

Costume as well as hair was terrific and gave me lots of pleasure as well as neatly marking the transition through the late 1960s into the 1970s. It also enhanced the very big performance by Taraji P. Henson which had a section of the audience behind me in full appreciative voice. I guess some might question the portrayal of the woman who formed the third point of a triangle with Petey and Dewey as quite so ‘out there’ in a film directed by a woman. However, I think Kasi Lemmons handled the male relationship very well and the women in the narrative are necessarily in the background — a consequence of sticking close to the facts in a biopic perhaps. There were some great performances from players in the minor roles, especially Martin Sheen as the studio boss and his secretary/receptionist Freda played by Alison Sealy-Smith who said more with a raised eyebrow than many actors manage with several lines of dialogue. Some critics have suggested that the early comic scenes in the radio station are very different in tone to some of the more dramatic scenes that come later. Again, it is demanded by the biopic structure and it works for me. Thinking about those scenes, I’m reminded of the wonderful ensemble playing in Robert Altman’s Cookie’s Fortune.

I’m looking forward to watching the film again on DVD — I understand that on the US DVD there are some interesting deleted scenes. Overall a great film — and another triumph for the Canadian film industry since the studio work was all filmed in Toronto as far as I could work out.

Kilómetro 31 (Mexico/Spain 2006)

Earlier this week, I went to Cineworld to see the Mexican horror movie, Kilómetro 31, with Nick. This was the third time we have been in the ‘De Luxe’ screen with the reclining seats as the only patrons. The previous occasions were also for subtitled films (the first Grudge film and Denys Arcand’s Oscar winner, The Barbararian Invasions). Each of these three films represented a chance taken by a distributor in opening subtitled prints in a multiplex. All clearly failed in Bradford (although to be fair, it was the early evening show). What to make of this? I checked the UK Film Council’s box office chart at the end of the week and Kilómetro 31 recorded one of the lowest screen averages of any film on a release of more than a few prints in my memory — an average of £187 for 27 prints giving a weekly box office of not much more than £5,ooo. That’s a pretty poor return for Yume Pictures who must have spent £25,000 getting the prints out. Unfortunately there was little if any promotion and only limited support from the specialised press. Yume have done some good work in getting cult films out there, but they boobed this time.

One question is whether the film would have done better showing a few weeks later at the National Media Museum — i.e. on a ‘specialised screen’. It might, but I also remember that The Host struggled last year at this time in both multiplexes and on specialised screens. Like The Host, Kilómetro 31 is not a ‘specialised’ film. It’s a popular genre movie that in its domestic market did sensational business and ended up as one of Mexico’s top box office films of recent years with 3.6 million admissions. The real problem is that UK audiences are not prepared to go for subtitled popular films. The arthouse audience seems to think that such films will be trashy and offensive and the popular audience perhaps thinks that they can’t enjoy a film with subtitles. This last doesn’t seem to be the case with the subtitled films I have shown to large student groups.

But is it any good you ask? We both thought that there were problems of pacing and plotting, but that overall it worked well and would certainly be worth showing to a student audience. For slightly older audiences (i.e. early 20s) it may be that the film suffers from coming at the tail end of the Ring Cycle and its American remakes. The ingredients are all familiar in the watery environments, young women with long black hair and a ghost child straight of The Grudge. Younger audiences might find these elements slightly less familiar. Of course, these generic tropes make the film much easier for critics to dismiss — stand up Xan Brooks in the Grauniad with a fairly sloppy mini-review. Once again, the venerable Philip French in the Observer shows a more measured approach, recognising what Kilómetro 31 actually is and granting that it does its job pretty well.

The story is based on a ‘local myth’ which is a familiar narrative in other horror movies. In this case it is La Llorona or the ‘Crying Woman’ who appears to motorists on the highway and who in her way is just as dangerous as the mad hitchhiker of urban myths (or indeed as the old women who seduce and murder passing samurai in Japanese horror). Director Rigoberto Castañeda has claimed that the script took a long time to develop and that he was not directly influenced by The Grudge which appeared during the shoot. Hmm, perhaps! But The Ring was certainly out earlier. Does it matter? Not really, what is interesting is how the familiar elements are used and what they mean in a Mexican setting.

One interesting link is to Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también in which the three central characters — from Mexico City — tour rural areas and Cuarón uses a voiceover to tell the audience something about the lives of the people by the roadside and how they have been overlooked, oppressed by the urban ‘neo-colonialists’. The four central characters here are urban motorists driving through a suburb where, at the time of colonisation, an Indian mother lost her child because of maltreatment by the Spanish (or as the subtitles intriguingly put it ‘a Spaniard man’). Like Y tu mamá también, Kilómetro 31 has a Spanish character as one of the protagonists. The film is a Mexican-Spanish co-production, but the inclusion of the Spanish character is also an important narrative element.

A second link is to other US horror narratives such as the Poltergeist films, in which a modern town/suburb is built over traditional burial grounds, allowing both a thematic of colonialism/materialism and the narrative promise of the ‘return’ of a ghost, who cannot sleep until injustice has been put right. This focus on the ‘phantasm’ is something which Guillermo del Toro has spoken about at length, especially in relation to his ghost creation in The Devil’s Backbone. I wonder what del Toro thinks of Kilómetro 31? The Mexican reviewers have generally claimed that Kilometro 31 is a ‘return’ for Mexican horror after a 20 year absence. They tend not to count del Toro’s Cronos (which I would certainly call horror), so I’m not sure what was the last Mexican horror film to be seen outside the country.

Finally, it’s worth saying that the film looks good in ‘Scope with a familiar (from The Ring) blue-green palette. Perhaps the most striking visual aspect is the director’s penchant for extreme close-ups. One kiss in particular sees two noses in profile edging towards each other from either side of the ‘Scope screen. Very disturbing!

Brick Lane

Tannishtha Chatterjee as Nazneen in Brick Lane

Seems a long time since I last posted. October/November are the busiest time of the year for me and I’ve taught lots of films, some several times over in the last few weeks. Perhaps between now and the New Year I’ll get to see more for pleasure.

And so to Brick Lane with no prior thoughts, having not read the book but aware of the controversy. I enjoyed the film, but I can recognise that there are problems. The most obvious comparison for me is with My Son the Fanatic (UK 1997), one of my favourite films of the 1990s. It isn’t that the narratives are necessarily similar, but something about the general theme of generations and coming to terms with living in another country — as well as a rather gentle and muted mise en scene disrupted by occasional bursts of colour and excitement. With Udayan Prasad directing Hanif Kureshi’s script, I think Fanatic wins out, but Brick Lane has much going for it.

I was impressed with the even-handedness of Brick Lane. The husband is not an ogre, but a well-meaning and thoughtful man with genuine feelings. The family feels like a recognisable family and the mother/central character should break the hardest heart. I’ve seen several reviews that make comparisons to Satyajit Ray, which seems a little strong, if well-meaning. In some ways the flashbacks to Bengal were the problem for me. I can see why they are there and separately, the scenes in Bengal and Whitechapel worked. But cut them together and I wasn’t sure. I gather from some reviews that this is an issue in adapting the book and perhaps that is why Fanatic with its original script seems more coherent. What does work very well in Brick Lane for me is the music and I’m rediscovering the beautiful voice of Natacha Atlas all over again.

Generally, I love ‘Scope films and the opening scenes of Brick Lane — in Bengal — work very well visually, but I’m less sure about the aesthetic decision when the film moves to London. There is nothing wrong with a London drama in ‘Scope (Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland is one of my favourite films) but it does suggest a ‘big’ film, either in scale or in melodrama excess. Brick Lane is perhaps a ‘small film’. But, despite my cavils, one which is well worth watching.