Monthly Archives: June 2009

Katyn (Poland 2007)

The General attempts to lift the spirits of his Polish officers on Christmas Eve 1939.

The General attempts to lift the spirits of his Polish officers on Christmas Eve 1939.

I’ve waited a long time to see this film and I wasn’t disappointed. It may be the best film released in the UK this year – not in terms of technical accomplishment or artistic endeavour (whatever that means), but simply as a personal statement and a representation of enormous emotional feeling. Director Andrzej Wajda was 13 when the war began and his father, a cavalry officer, went off never to return. In the 1950s Wajda became one of the leading figures in the humanist art cinema celebrated across the world. For fifty years he has waited for the opportunity to make this film in which inevitably he would have to explore not just what happened in 1940, but also what it meant for the Wajda family and for Polish society.

If the name ‘Katyn’ doesn’t mean much to you, you should know that in 1940 Stalin authorised the murder of 20,000 and more Polish military officers and intelligentsia who were being held by the Red Army. The subsequent massacre in the Katyn forest outside Smolensk in Western Russia was uncovered by the Nazis in 1943 when they invaded Russia and used to make anti-Russian propaganda. It was then claimed as a German atrocity by the Russians in 1945 when they liberated Poland. The British fare badly as well since they refused to confirm the Russian responsibility for the massacre in 1943 for fear of offending Stalin as an essential ally.

What I found surprising (because I didn’t read about the film beforehand) was how Wajda tackled something so close and painful. Like many recent films about the ‘Eastern European War’, the outcome of the events is well-known so the script can’t really aim for surprising twists or narrative suspense. Wajda makes important structural decisions such as focusing primarily on the women at home rather than the men captured in 1939 when the Red Army invaded Poland soon after the Nazi attack. He selects characters who are archetypal Polish officers and their families – the General, the captain, the lieutenant, the engineer/pilot. He moves the story on quickly to show us the methodical actions of the Nazi and Soviet administrations and their attempts to remove all the potential leaders of Polish resistance. He shows us the immediate aftermath of the Russian occupation of all Poland in 1945 and compares the Nazi and Russian attempts to use Polish deaths for propaganda purposes. He hones in on the terrible decision for the survivors – to knuckle down and build the new Poland under Russian hegemony or to remain true to history – and perish nobly. When he does eventually show us the executions, we are aware of the true horror of what these events mean, not just in 1945 when the reality of the deaths is confirmed, but over the next 45 years of a Polish state established on lies.

I got home from the screening and read long screeds of complaints about the film on IMDB from people who found it ‘boring’ or ‘amateurish’. I’m always a little wary of such comments, especially when they come from Poles who recognise soap stars in the cast etc. and of course I can’t comment on the Polish dialogue, only on what the subtitler has offered. (I did recognise one of the players from We Are All Christs and from my perspective the casting was very good.) On the whole though I think these comments come from younger viewers whose sense of film language has been dulled by American action movies and holocaust melodramas. They seem incapable of following the plot and easily lost if the film moves slowly. On the other hand, I have to admit that Wajda himself takes no prisoners. If you don’t know the history it is easy to get lost. Next to me in the cinema were a young couple who talked through the opening credits and I had to bite my lip to stop myself telling them to shut up. Possibly they were young Poles not used to an art cinema ambience? Anyway, they soon quietened and watched the film in silence.

For me though this was a beautifully made film with a strong sense that every image was considered and every moment filled with subtle gestures and symbols – or perhaps they were heavy-handed for some taste? Inevitably there have been comparisons with Wajda’s 1950s trilogy of films about the Warsaw risings and their aftermath. I was prompted to think about these in the sequences in which young resistance fighters return to Kracow and attempt to avoid the soldiers of the new regime in 1945 as they refuse to accept the Russian view. I’m an old romantic, but for me the women were all believable and very beautiful, which made the pain of the narrative even sharper. The young women made me think of the German film about Sophie Scholl and I hope that this will be a film that young people will watch and will be moved by.

For a long time, I thought that Katyn would not be released in the UK. There are strong Polish communities in the UK dating from the arrival of Polish forces who escaped in 1939. They supported the Allied war effort and became part of British as well as Polish history. Wajda points to the difficult relationship between Britain and Poland in the dialogue amongst the Polish prisoners held by the Russians. There is another story to be told about Britain and Poland. I’m pleased that the UK Film Council supported Katyn‘s release. I hope as many people as possible get to see it.

Rock On!! (India 2008)

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Rock On!! is an interesting Hindi film recommended by one of itpworld’s Indian commenters. It scores highly on IMDB (8.2) and was clearly popular in India on urban multiplex screens as an example of a new kind of Bollywood film. However, in the UK it died at the box office, faring badly compared to most Hindi releases with a screen average below £1,000 and being trounced by a Tamil release, Dhaam Dhoom (which has a very low IMDB score).

Viewed from the UK, Rock On!! feels like a fairly conventional take on a rock nostalgia story. Magik were a band that ten years ago were on the verge of ‘making it’ but the compromises they would have been forced to take in order to get a recording deal caused a split and the band broke up. Now there is a chance to re-form for the four band members. Will they take it? Wikipedia suggests that the film draws on the UK film Stir Crazy (1998) and a Korean film about which I know nothing. Maybe, but the genre is so well known that such comparisons can be easily made and I don’t think we should take too much notice. More interesting is the attempt to portray four characters from different backgrounds – two middle-class college boys, an Indian Christian and an Indian character from a European background. The film has music sequences but they are used much more like the performance pieces in a (fictional) music biopic than in a typical Bollywood film. The music itself is what I would call mainstream AOR with some Bollywood flavour. It’s melodic and pleasant but very smooth. The lyrics are sung in Hindi and the relatively old-fashioned feel is emphasised by two songs played by other acts, one in English and both much closer to modern US/UK sounds.

The story itself is not particularly interesting apart from the sociological details but I watched it quite happily. What is important, I think, is that the film provides an opportunity for the young urban middle-class in India to identify with a genuinely Indian take on a global cultural form. The production context too is interesting. Excel films was founded by Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani in 1999. Akhtar is clearly a young man with a future. At 35 he has directed four features, produced others and in Rock On!! takes one of the lead roles as the wealthy young man who writes the lyrics, acts as lead singer and then turns to investment banking when the band splits up.

rockonrollinstoneAnother interesting feature of the film’s release was the appearance of the four leads on the cover of the Indian edition of Rolling Stone magazine – another example of the Americanisation of middle-class Indian youth? Rolling Stone lost all its credibility as a serious music and culture magazine a long time ago. The quartet went on to play concerts in various Indian cities.

When I think about it, I can see the connection between this film and Rang De Basanti in terms of a kind of youthful romanticism. I think it could have had a bit more edge though. I’m a bit fed up of the American college kid thing now. Couldn’t we have some Hindi movies about working class kids who become great cricketers? (I was heartened to see that the Bollywood box-office, coming out of the strike between multiplexes and producers, was unable to recover during the weeks of the IPL and then the 20-20 World Cup).

Danny Boyle – life after Slumdog

Screen International this week reported that Danny Boyle has signed a three year deal with Fox Searchlight and Pathé, the two companies behind the successful distribution of Slumdog Millionaire. Slumdog is still making money around the world with theatrical currently showing $358 million and DVD already at $30 million in the US.

Boyle is said to be keen to link up with Indian filmmakers Shekhar Kapur and Anurag Kashyap and has acquired the rights to the book, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta, a collection of essays about the city by a returning former resident. Shekhar Kapur is best known for Elizabeth in the UK, but more importantly he made Bandit Queen (India/UK 1994) with part-funding by Channel 4. This was one of the first films to attempt to marry aspects of British and Indian popular cinema. Anurag Kashyap is a younger (37) filmmaker with wide experience as an actor, writer and director. He has worked with Mani Ratnam and with Deepa Mehta, but it was his own film, Black Friday (India 2004), about the 1993 Mumbai bombings, that Boyle watched in his preparation for Slumdog.

The success of Slumdog means that Danny Boyle will have great freedom to choose his next projects. But it doesn’t mean that he has become a critical success. Anyone who wants to gauge the challenge that Slumdog‘s success has presented to the critical community should look at the last two issues of Cineaste magazine. Robert Koehler wrote one of the silliest reviews of Slumdog I have seen and what was worse he wrote about the film claiming deep knowledge of India and Indian Cinema. Taken to task in the latest issue by Rahul Hamid, Koehler then compounds his folly. I don’t want to rehash all the debates again, but Koehler seems unable to accept that Slumdog is an Indian story about aspects of contemporary globalised Indian life adapted and mounted by Brits and Indians working together and drawing on recent Indian film styles.

Two French Thrillers

Diane Kruger and Vincent Lindon

Diane Kruger and Vincent Lindon in Pour elle

Two French thrillers were released in the UK by Metrodome without too much fanfare in May and June and I managed to see both in the same week on digital prints at the National Media Museum. My first reaction, much like last Summer’s when a swathe of French films appeared, was why don’t we get British films like this on a regular basis – interesting genre films with star names presented in ‘Scope? What’s not to like? Well quite a lot if you are certain British critics, but I was engrossed.

The two films are actually quite different. Of the two, I think Pour elle (Anything for Her, France 2008) worked best. It reminded me of classic crime thrillers – what the French call polars. The set-up is very simple. A young mother, Lisa (Diane Kruger) is arrested and convicted for murder on seemingly incontrovertible evidence. Her husband, Julien (Vincent Lindon) believes she didn’t do it and determines to spring her and reunite the family (Oscar is their young son). And that’s it. In some ways, the situation is pure Hitchcock with an innocent man forced into dangerous and criminal acts because he loves his wife. The difference is that Hitchcock would cast Cary Grant. The woman would be Grace Kelly and it would all take place in a glamorous fantasy world. But Julien is a teacher in a nameless Paris suburb (much like the teacher in Entre les murs). This time, however, we learn little about his classroom, except that his students seem rather docile and the writer/director Fred Cavayé has a little joke when one of Julien’s students gives a short talk about George Simenon and Maigret – as Julien looks out of the window pondering his next move.

Vincent Lindon is terrific – he could easily be a character in a polar by Jean-Pierre Melville with his gravelly voice, lugubrious expression and ‘bashed in’ face giving him the look of Belmondo crossed with Lino Ventura. The main criticism of the film appears to be that it is implausible – in other words that ‘ordinary people’ like this don’t do extraordinary things such as springing the partners from prison. Teachers can’t be ‘extraordinary’. Pah! I’ve known several extraordinary teachers, at least one of whom was an ex-paratrooper. But that’s not the point. If this was a Hitchcock film, nobody would worry about plausibility – and nobody criticises Batman for not being plausible. Pour elle is a genre movie and it includes several genre tropes related to getting hold of money and prison breaks. As long as the characters are plausible and the plotting shows intelligence, I don’t have problems.

Cavayé has the neat device of Julien pretending to write a book about a famous prison escapee (played by Olivier Marchal, director of 36, Quai des orfèvres). Julien gets all the pointers he needs, but can he carry them through? Much depends on whether we believe that he loves his wife and son and that he would do anything to keep them together. I think the script is generally pretty good. Everything is held together by Lindon and the action sequences are genuinely exciting and convincing. If you’ve seen 36, the ending is in some ways similar.

I hope that this does as well as Tell No One from 2007. It’s not as glamorous as that film and doesn’t have the same central Paris chic. It’s more noirish in every way. In France the film made around $5 million and in the UK it opened in the Top 20 from only 43 screens and with a healthy screen average of over $3,400. This bodes well, but the film probably won’t make it to North America as Paul Haggis and Lionsgate have already announced an American remake. That’s a shame, I think. Lindon is terrific and for much of the film, I idly wondered where I’d seen him before. He’s a prolific actor in French cinema and TV, but a little research soon answered my question – he’s the drunk who helps the three lads escape from the police when they try to steal a car in La haine (a film I must have watched a dozen times).

Claire (Sandrine Bonnaire, right) confronts Elsa (Catherine Frot, left) in Mark of Angel

Claire (Sandrine Bonnaire, right) confronts Elsa (Catherine Frot, left) in Mark of Angel

The other recent thriller is Mark of an Angel (L’empreinte de l’ange, France 2008) – a more problematic proposition for me. I was drawn to the film as it was produced by the same team responsible for La tourneuse de pages (The Page Turner, France 2006) and features the same star, Catherine Frot. La tourneuse de pages is terrific and I hoped for more of the same. The two films are both psychological thrillers/melodramas which again have a Hitchcockian feel and Mark of an Angel also has something in common with Claude Miller’s Ruth Rendell adaptation Betty Fisher and Other Stories (France 2001). The narrative set-up is that Elsa (Catherine Frot) sees a small girl at a children’s party attended by her son. She becomes obsessed with the child, convincing herself that the girl is her own daughter who she had been told had died soon after she was born. Elsa is separated from her husband and struggling to work and look after her son. Her obsession leads her to inveigle her way into a tentative friendship with the girl’s mother Claire (Sandrine Bonnaire) in order to observe the child more closely.

The criticism of this film has also been based on ‘implausibility’, but this time it is complicated by the opening title that informs us that the film is based on a true story. I certainly fell into the trap of pursuing the implausibility argument, but only because I had the nagging feeling that Catherine Frot was too old to play the role of Elsa. I’m a bit ashamed of this reaction. Ms Frot is an excellent actor and I’m all in favour of starring roles for older women. There is no real reason why she shouldn’t play characters a few years younger than herself, although film is a pretty unforgiving medium. I’ve since revised my initial reaction for two reasons. First, I happily accepted Vincent Lindon as an older father in Pour elle, so why not Catherine Frot in this film? Secondly, children born to mothers in their mid-forties are now more common and in narrative terms it actually helps the film since it makes Elsa seem more ‘other’ in comparison with the younger Claire as the supposedly ‘natural mother’. It seems to me that Elsa also dresses younger at times.

Lots about the film worked very well for me. In fact it worked too well. I watched several scenes through my fingers because I found them painful and excruciating (i.e. extremely effective). There are some pure Hitchcockian moments in the film, including a wonderful sequence in a theatre where the girl is performing in a school ballet and both women are watching her. On my first viewing I found the ending of the film very hard to take. For some other viewers this was because they deemed it implausible. For me it just wasn’t ‘enough’ – I was hoping for more of a melodrama ending. I think it retrospect, I was too harsh on the film and I suspect that on a second viewing I would be more favourable. I don’t know anything about writer/director Safy Nebbou but he seems to have made several films that sound interesting – I’ll certainly look out for them.

Postscript (11 October 2009)

In her review of the film in Sight and Sound (June 2009), Catherine Wheatley suggests that Pour elle might be the first ‘Sarkozy-era thriller’. Her argument is that aesthetically the film is a slick, Hollywood-style action thriller, but with a production design that emphasises the cold unsympathetic state. She casts Julien as a conservative symbol ( a teacher of French) and specifically a representative of a traditional French community under siege. The police and the criminals are, she argues, predominantly Arab whereas Lisa and Oscar are almost ‘angelic’.

I’m not averse to this reading and indeed I did feel a sense of Julien almost like a Michael Winner style ‘ordinary man’ against the ‘filth on the street’. But I think that’s pushing it. On the whole, I still think that the script justifies Julien’s move to taking enormous risks. He is a driven man with an obsessive love for wife and child. The charge of racial typing does make me think again, but I’m not sure that the effect is quite what Wheatley argues. I will continue to reflect on this.

Bradford – World City of Film!

The National Media Museum is one of Bradford's film jewels

The National Media Museum is one of Bradford's film jewels

What a surprise to wake up and discover that you live and work in the world’s first city of film. I knew we were bidding of course and I remember somebody filming one of my evening classes in the National Media Museum, but I confess that I’m still surprised. I guess you don’t really appreciate what you’ve got when you use it all the time.

So now we have a world heritage site in Saltaire and world city of film status, both conferred by UNESCO.

So, please come to sunny Bradford, once the wool capital of the world and now known for its model industrial village and its film heritage.

Bradford City of Film website

Saltaire World Heritage site

For those outside the UK, the City of Bradford is actually quite small, but the Metropolitan District Council of Bradford includes several small towns and industrial villages and the total population is approaching 500,000.In the part of the district where I live, the following films have been shot, at least in part: The Railway Children (1970), Yanks (1979), Brothers in Trouble (1995), My Son the Fanatic (1997), Yasmin (2004) and numerous TV series. My area’s best known current film industry figure is Simon Beaufoy, scriptwriter of The Full Monty, Yasmin and Slumdog Millionaire and our key locations are the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway, Dalton’s Mill and East Riddlesden Hall. The rest of Bradford District has plenty of film history to shout about as well.

Keighley Picture House

Keighley’s Cinema, opened in 1913 and has been continually in use since then apart from a few years in the 1990s.

La fille coupé en deux (France/Germany 2007)

Ludivine Sagnier as Gabrielle

Ludivine Sagnier as Gabrielle

Written by Stephen Gott

Warning: The following contains extensive plot spoilers.

Having recently had the opportunity to see one of the original films of the “nouvelle vague“, Claude Chabrol’s Les Cousins (1959), it was interesting to see Chabrol’s latest release The Girl Cut In Two (2007) and find out if he was still riding the ‘wave’. I think the answer is yes and that there’s still plenty of life in the old surfer yet. The perversity of Les Cousins is repeated here, but perhaps with more relish, by the director.

As in the earlier film, we have a character called Charles, but although he lives in the country, he is no innocent. We also have a Paul, a wealthy playboy, who to say the least is unstable. Both men have been damaged and corrupted by sexual encounters with members of authority in their youth. For reasons unclear, they dislike each other – a situation made worse by the appearance of Gabrielle, a local TV weather-girl who they both desire. Charles is a successful writer, who lives with his “saintly” wife, in a house containing paintings of female nudes and phallic like sculptures. He also owns a town appartment, where he seduces the innocent Gabrielle (interestingly, the name on the appartment door is ‘Paradise’). Later, he takes her to a private club to meet some of his friends and guides her up a spiral staircase to a twisted world of sexual perversion.

Up to this point, Gabrielle had been wearing light, soft colours, but from now on she begins to wear more blacks and greys. Infact, it’s at this point that Charles loses his interest in her, as she loses her innocence, leaving the way clear for Paul. Paul is a loose cannon, in one of Chabrols favourite targets, the bourgeoisie. His family and their friends are portrayed as mainly cold and boring, with the exception of his younger sister (who eyes up every passing male with a pulse). They literally have the power to get away with murder (Paul it seems, had drowned his elder brother,whilst a child and later, with his friends, he had kidnapped a young girl). As the film progresses, Paul realises that Gabrielle doesn’t love him and is still infatuated with the satanic like Charles and becomes more and more unstable. In a scene which echoes Les Cousins, he points an unloaded gun at Gabrielle and then at his own head. At this point of the film Gabrielle is seen to be wearing more reds and is driving around in a red sports car. In fact, Chabrol book-ends the film in a predominance of red, as if warning the viewer of the dangers with in. In a film which is loaded with Langian mis en scène,we must not forget the Hitchcockian voyeurism. Like Charles, who gets his kicks by watching Gabrielle have sex with his friends, Chabrol reminds us that we entertain ourselves by watching the lives of others, whether it be on film, TV, or in real life. At the end of the film he turns the tables on the viewer by having Gabrielle stare back at the film audience (a technique he used in the final shot of Les Bonnes Femmes in 1960).

Chabrol  continues to give us his view of the world. It’s an imperfect world but a world I think he still believes in. In a kind of epilogue to the film, Gabrielle’s magician uncle (who is known as Mr Merlin) takes her to his hotel “The Renaissance”. He offers her a new beginning in his magic show, a sequence which is shot in a style similar to the films of Georges Méliès, the French filmmaker and magician who was not only in at the dawn of “Cinema” but was perhaps the man who first gave film its “Magic”.

Kirschblüten (Cherry Blossoms, Germany/France 2008)

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Hokusai's 'Red Fuji'

I enjoyed this film that sneaked out in the UK on a single print from Dogwoof – who appear to have offered it no support at all. In Germany it was a significant hit (1.1 million admissions) and it seems to have had a reasonable distribution in North America. The reviews in the UK were generally OK I think, but in the US I’ve come across some real stinkers in which the filmmaker is accused of banality and ‘hippie fripperies’. It’s clearly a film that touches the ‘superior art’ button in some critics. I know I’m prone to this kind of response, so I’ll proceed with care.

Doris Dörrie is a German filmmaker who I’ve tended to associate with comedies – often about gender relations. I’m not sure that I’ve seen any of her earlier films. If I have, I don’t remember. I watched this film without any other preconceptions and was quickly aware that the narrative in the first half closely follows that of Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953). Perhaps more surprising, the second half of the film corresponds more closely to aspects of Zhang Yimou’s Riding Along for Thousands of Miles and also includes sequences that could remind audiences of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. In a way, none of this is surprising since the central narrative ideas are universal. However, any filmmaker foregrounding a debt to Ozu needs to tread carefully. I thought Dörrie’s script and direction, and especially the performances of her leads, kept the narrative simple and provided a moving experience for the audience. Others clearly don’t agree.

Trudi (Hannelore Elsner) und Rudi (Elmar Wepper) – the parents

Trudi (Hannelore Elsner) und Rudi (Elmar Wepper) – the parents

If you don’t know Tokyo Story, it involves an older couple living in Osaka who decide at short notice to visit their grown-up children in Tokyo. Their son and daughter have busy lives with jobs and families and the parents feel as if they are imposing. They visit a spa to relieve the burden and the only real welcome they receive is from their dead son’s young widow. There is also another son who doesn’t live in Tokyo. Dörrie locates her parental couple in rural Bavaria and their children in Berlin and Tokyo. Ozu’s young widow becomes their daughter’s lesbian partner. Dörrie also utilises two other Ozu traits – trains and what has been termed the ‘pillow shot’. The film is a rail fetishist’s dream with numerous railway scenes in both Germany and Japan. The ‘pillow shot’ in Ozu’s mise en scène is a ‘cutaway’ to a shot of a deserted street or landscape placed between the shots of characters inside buildings and engaged in some form of discourse. Personally, I thought that Dörrie used this idea very well and I didn’t find the images banal.

There are a number of specific Japanese elements in the German sequences that become of great significance when the story moves to Tokyo. The first is the work of the artist Hokusai and specifically his famous series of woodblock prints, 36 Views of Mount Fuji produced in the 1830s. Hokusai was very popular in Japan and woodblock prints were arguably the world’s first mass medium. Contrasted with this is a much more modern Japanese cultural form, butoh – a form of contemporary dance developed in the 1950s. Both the relatively old and the new Japanese cultural forms have fans in the West and Dörrie uses this as the basis for the trip to Japan. The Zhang Yimou film Riding Along For Thousands of Miles sees a father travelling to rural China to film the folk opera that was his dying son’s research objective. In Cherry Blossoms, the quest is to see one of Hokusai’s views of Fuji, the ‘shy mountain’. The quest means engagement with a totally different language and culture and finding a sympathetic local to act as a guide.

Japanese culture produces many festivals, often associated with seasonal phenomena and the spirits that inhabit places of natural beauty. The blooming of the cherry tree for a few weeks in Spring is the signal for ‘viewing parties’ – social gatherings beneath the trees. (The festival is known as hanami.) Dörrie uses one of these in a Tokyo park as a central focus for her Japan-set narrative – one in which a bewildered German tries to find some form of spiritual connection. Unlike Coppola whose film controversially offers a postmodernist view of Tokyo, Dörrie just lets us struggle with her German character to comprehend another culture through mundane actions like buying a cabbage. If this is cinematic banality (“unoriginal and boring”) for some critics, I think that they must inhabit very different worlds to the one I experience.

I think that most adults in their thirties with ageing parents or most couples in their sixties with grown-up children will find this film to be moving and gently provocative in thinking about how they feel as parents and children. If it also gets anyone interested in Ozu, Zhang, Hokusai or simply visiting Tokyo that would be a bonus. I’d certainly recommend it. The music is also terrific with some pieces by Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Here is the trailer from the film. Spoiler – it rather gives away the plot twists, but apart from that gives a fair indication of the film.