Monthly Archives: May 2015

Jauja (Argentina-Denmark 2014)

Dinesen and his daughter as seen in the Academy framing with rounded corners

Dinesen and his daughter as seen in the Academy framing with rounded corners

The Argentinian director Lisandro Alonso has developed a reputation for festival films in the ‘slow cinema’ mode. This means that his films are shown by leading festivals but struggle to get cinema releases in many territories. Jauja (his fifth feature) is a slightly different proposition since it stars the internationally-known Hollywood actor Viggo Mortensen (who is also credited as one of the producers and the music composer on the film). Perhaps because of this, Alonso has managed to attract funding and support from many sources including the US, Mexico, Brazil, France, Germany and the Netherlands. The film won the FIPRESCI critics prize at Cannes and two other international awards and certainly in the UK it has had a higher profile on release than the director’s earlier films.

Mortensen plays Captain Dinesen, a Danish military engineer in the late 19th century who is assisting the Argentinian Army in their genocidal campaign to survey and ‘clear’ the ‘jungle’ – the desolate area in Patagonia sparsely populated by indigenous peoples. (The English word ‘jungle’ has connotations of tropical rainforest but its original Sanskrit/Hindi meaning is ‘arid wasteland’ – precisely describing parts of Patagonia.) He has with him his teenage daughter. It isn’t explained why she is there and her presence is disturbing for some of the soldiers. Almost inevitably she starts a relationship with one of them and the couple then run away from the camp. Forced to go looking for them, Mortensen’s character makes his own journey into the unknown.

‘Jauja’ refers to a magical place and at the beginning of the film a title explains this. In colonial ‘Latin America’ it became associated with similar concepts such as ‘El Dorado’. In this instance it seems to me that it refers to what might be termed the fantasy at the heart of the colonial melodrama. In some ways this film reminded me of Tabu, the Portuguese film which so captivated me in 2012. The two films aren’t necessarily the same in style, but there are some parallels about colonialism and both employ a time shift so we see characters in the present with links to the colonial past. In Jauja the link is not really explained but Viilbjørk Malling Agger, who plays Dinesen’s daughter, also plays a young woman in a country house in modern Denmark. Without spoiling the ‘plot’, I’ll simply note here that the Captain’s search for his daughter takes him to some odd places and some strange experiences. There are two linking motifs between the two time periods – a dog and a toy soldier.

The colonial 'other' – the indigenous people who live in the 'jungle'

The colonial ‘other’ – the indigenous people who live in the ‘jungle’

Captain Dinesen in Fordian mode searching for his daughter

Captain Dinesen in Fordian mode searching for his daughter

The search for a daughter (common I understand to several of Alonso’s stories) in the context of a ‘hostile territory’ in the 19th century brings to mind John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) in which John Wayne plays a Civil War veteran searching for his niece presumed abducted by Comanche raiders. Alonso selected the Finnish cinematographer Timo Salminen (best known for his work with Aki Kaurismäki) to shoot Jauja and Salminen is quoted as seeking a John Ford look for this quasi-Western. He appears to have come across the idea of an Academy (1.33:1) frame with rounded edges during post production and then imposed it on the 1.85:1 footage. The effect works particularly well because of the deep-focus compositions which stretch the gaze into the far distance – proving that barren spaces can be captured in depth as well as in the breadth of a CinemaScope image (see the article and interview with Mortensen by Mar Diestro-Dópido in Sight and Sound May 2015 plus the review of the film by Adrian Martin for more detail on this). The Academy framings also act as a reminder of Kelly Reichardt’s feminist revisionist Western Meek’s Cutoff (US 2010).

I enjoyed Jauja and I found the various aesthetic devices and ideas about the colonial (mis)adventure both interesting and stimulating. I think the Danish connection came about because of the multilingual Mortensen’s interest in the script. Alonso and his co-writer Fabian Casas welcomed a different ‘voice’/language that would be ‘strange’ in an Argentinian film (i.e. not Spanish/French/Italian or English). The colonial past of Denmark is not so widely known as that of other European nations but it is an important element in Danish culture. Besides Greenland, the Faroes and Iceland, Denmark also possessed widely scattered small territories in the Caribbean and India and participated in the slave trade. Dinesen stands in for the European colonial adventurer while the Argentinians themselves are like the ‘settlers’ in North America and Australia who set out to eradicate indigenous peoples. The Argentinian Army officer in the film refers to ‘coconut heads’ – a made up name that Alonso thought would be strange but “not offensive” (see the interview in Sight and Sound). It sounds pretty offensive to me and I suspect to many others. Perhaps as the Luis Suarez racism charge suggests, these issues are rather differently dealt with in the Southern part of South America (i.e. Argentina, Chile, Uruguay)?

So, what does the wider release mean for this ‘slow cinema’ film? I suspect that there has been a fair amount of bewilderment amongst the more mainstream arthouse audience. For my part I enjoyed the chance to gaze on the tableaux set up by Alonso and Salminen and to use the time to think about some of the issues. But I was aware that at the end of a long working day I was prone to losing concentration and potentially falling asleep. On the other hand, a big screen in a darkened cinema auditorium is also far more likely to hold my attention over the whole film than a small screen in my living room – when it is so easy to pause or switch off a DVD. Festival films are meant to be seen in cinemas, even if many critics now watch them on much smaller screens. I also have Alonso’s Liverpool (2008) on disc – I wonder how that will work out?

Stones for the Rampart (Kamienie na szaniec, Poland 2014)

The 'Grey Scouts' attempt to rescue a prisoner of the Gestapo

The ‘Grey Scouts’ attempt to rescue a prisoner of the Gestapo

Unlike several other recent mainstream Polish films in the UK that have been released ‘on date’ with Warsaw, Stones for the Rampart had to wait over a year after its Polish release. An adaptation from a 1943 ‘patriotic novel’, the film directed by Robert Glinski offers a story about older teenagers who are members of a clandestine Scout troop known in English as the ‘Grey Ranks’. Worried by the possibility that the boys’ actions against the Nazi occupiers of Warsaw might create more trouble than it is worth, a group of the Scouts are recruited into the ‘Home Army’ – the official Polish resistance. There are a number of links/categories that this film brings to mind and, although it is clearly a very specific context, it does reveal generic features. The most obvious link is to Andrzej Wajda’s trilogy of war-time films produced in the 1950s and in particular the first part A Generation (1955). This too was based on a novel about teenage resistance fighters in Warsaw (with Roman Polanski as one of the younger boys). The new film also relates to Hollywood’s attempts to enable familiar genre films to appeal to younger audiences through stories featuring younger versions of generic characters, e.g. in films like the Westerns Young Guns (1988) and Young Guns 2 (1990). Finally we might consider this Polish film as another example of European film industries re-visiting the Second World War and national myths about resistance to occupation (or in the German case, resistance to Nazi ideologies such as in Sophie Scholl (Germany 2005)).

Probably the first point to note is that in re-visiting the resistance struggle in Warsaw, contemporary filmmakers are working in a very different context to Wajda in in the 1950s. They are not under any pressure to highlight the importance of the communist resistance groups – indeed they may feel pressurised not to mention them. I confess that I do not have the historical knowledge about the Polish resistance in Warsaw to know when the communist resistance becomes important. The Home Army with its allegiance to the Polish government-in-exile in London was certainly the much larger force and I didn’t register any direct references to communist activity. The sensitivity of these issues makes it very difficult for non-Polish speakers to decode all the subtitled dialogue and written texts shown in the film. I’m not surprised therefore to discover what seem to be very negative comments about this film. In the review in the Polish version of Newsweek, Michał Wachnicki lambasts the film for poor dialogue and lack of realism. Google Translate itself offers only a rough approximation of Wachnicki’s arguments but he seems to be quoting Hollywood films such as Saving Private Ryan and Full Metal Jacket as successful war films. I would have thought that a film like Rossellini’s Rome Open City would have been a better benchmark. By contrast, the most positive English language review is from an American priest. Father Dennis Zdenek Kriz from Chicago suggests that the film offers important moral questions about the sacrifice of young lives in a just cause.

What do I make of all this without the language and cultural historical knowledge? The young people depicted are on the whole middle-class with all the resources that implies. The air of ‘amateurish’ resistance is contrasted with the brutality of the Nazi occupiers towards the working-class people on the street who are randomly executed in retaliation. In some ways the film is quite ‘realist’ in showing credible psychological reactions to events – the ending of the film is poignant in the confrontation between a young German soldier and an equally inexperienced ‘scout leader’/student. The complex relationship between the Home Army leadership, the scout troop and the other more isolated ‘agents’ (including the parents of the boys who have roles their children don’t know about) isn’t perhaps as clear as it might be. What is clear, however, is that the Home Army is a much more substantial force in 1943 than the resistance in many other Nazi-occupied countries. The inclusion in the narrative of the relationships between the young men of the scouts and their girlfriends is potentially problematic and this is perhaps where I feel most inadequate to deal with the dialogue.

I’m glad I saw this film and I wish it had found a wider audience in the UK. As far as I know it has only been seen at selected Cineworld cinemas. It is certainly an interesting addition to the increasingly large collection of WWII stories of resistance.

Trailer (no English subs):

The Salvation (Denmark/UK/South Africa 2014)

The 'bad guys' with Eric Cantona riding high in the saddle (second right) and lead by

The ‘bad guys’ with Eric Cantona riding high in the saddle (second right) and led by Jeffrey Dean Morgan as ‘Delarue’

Globalisation seems to be producing ‘international films’ (films made in English and in ‘universal’ genres) at a faster rate than at any time since the 1960s. This is particularly noticeable in the case of The Salvation which takes us back to the European Westerns of the 1960s-70s. I’ve racked my brains to think of a Danish national dish that would help to name this genre revival alongside ‘spaghetti’, ‘sauerkraut’, ‘tortilla’ and ‘paella’ – not to mention ‘curry’. It’s a silly game but it does point to the same seeming urge to create a Western which fuses the elegaic style of John Ford with the operatic tones of Sergio Leone. As Ed Buscombe, the doyen of UK film scholars dealing with Westerns, points out in Sight & Sound (May 2015), The Salvation is unusual in not being a ‘revisionist’ take on the genre like most of the occasional westerns of the last few years (see our recent post on The Homesman). Instead it is resolutely traditional in combining plot elements from High Noon and the style of Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter (1973) with direct nods to various other well-known Westerns. It does have the presence of ‘sticky oil’ which poisons the water supply and is seen by the villain as the potential source of wealth but Buscombe suggests that this element too was already present in a Gene Autry film from the 1930s.

This is a classy production from Zentropa and its British and South African partners. The solid cast is headed by Mads Mikkelsen, effortlessly portraying the taciturn western avenger and Eva Green as a mute femme with eloquent eyes. The supporting Brits include Jonathan Pryce and Douglas Henshall. Eric Cantona gets a couple of lines but the sole American Jeffrey Dean Morgan almost steals the show as the villain Delarue. The creative team is entirely Danish with a pedigree that goes back to the early Dogme films. Director Kristian Levring directed Dogme #4 The King is Alive (2000, set in Namibia) with co-writer Anders Thomas Jensen (who also wrote Dogme #3 Mifune (1999)). DoP Jens Schlosser had also shot The King is Alive and his knowledge of Southern Africa must have contributed to the single most striking aspect of the film’s visual style. Most of the film was shot in South Africa and as far as I can see, the two settlements portrayed in the narrative were built as sets but there was also a considerable amount of CGI needed to turn the veldt into the high plains of North America. I did feel conscious of the ‘difference’ in the image compared to the Leone films made in Spain or the US/Mexico. It was especially apparent in the night scenes and the red skies. I’d need to see the film again to try to work out what was different in the image. This distraction didn’t last long and I quickly forgot about it as the narrative progressed.

(Eva Green) watches as her husband is buried in the remote town. The mesa behind her in the distance is a CGI addition to the South African landscape.

Madelaine (Eva Green) watches as her husband is buried in the remote town. The mesa behind her in the distance looks like a CGI addition to the South African landscape (although similar features are found in South Africa).

I watched the film in a virtually deserted multiplex screen on a sunny afternoon. The trade view was that despite a strong showing in Denmark, in the UK the film would face a tough struggle and that was indeed the case when the opening weekend was deemed ‘soft’ with meagre returns from a wide release on over 100 screens. The wide release might seem appropriate for a film that cost €10.2 million (source Cineuropa) but I’m not sure that the film wouldn’t have done better as an arthouse release on fewer screens – despite its solid genre basis. A couple of years ago I chose Louis Malle’s clever spoof of aspects of the spaghetti Western, Viva Maria! (1965) for an evening class public screening and was pleased by the response. I didn’t expect to attract a younger audience but the older arthouse audience generally enjoyed the film. There is still mileage in the Western but it needs careful handling. It felt like The Salvation was rather ‘thrown out’ onto screens by Warner Bros. with little promotion. It deserves a better fate and I recommend looking for it on DVD.

I was going to show the trailer but it stupidly shows most of the plot for the first part of the movie. Here’s a nice pic of Mads Mikkelsen instead:

The-Salvation2

The concept of the ‘global Western’ is discussed in Chapter 2 of The Global Film Book.