Tag Archives: Arthouse

Garage (Ireland 2007)

Pat Sortt as Josie in the bar with Carmel (Anne-Marie Duff in the orange top)

Pat Shortt as Josie in the bar with Carmel (Anne-Marie Duff in the orange top)

The recent release of What Richard Did by Lenny Abrahamson (review to follow) has prompted me to go back to look at his earlier release from 2007. Both this and his 2004 first feature Adam and Paul were on my radar but I hadn’t found time to watch them. I’m glad now that I finally made the effort.

Garage is set in an unnamed small town in rural Ireland (it seems to have been shot in several different parts of the country, but mainly in the ‘West Midlands’) and its central character is Josie (Pat Shortt), a 40 year-old man who ‘runs’ the town’s filling station/garage situated outside the town on the main road. In reality he is mainly the caretaker as business is slack and we never see Josie actually serve anyone. He’s employed by one of his old schoolmates who is now an entrepreneur in the town and he lives a fairly solitary life, bedding down in a backroom of the garage. Josie is considered as a little ‘slow’ by the local community – but he is cheerful and friendly and most of the locals don’t make fun of him or abuse his trust. The one lout who does bully him in the bar is the exception. Josie’s life begins to change when his boss decides that there is more passing trade and that the garage should stay open longer. Consequently  Josie is joined by an ‘assistant’, a shy and gawky 15 year-old, David. Well-played by Ryan O’Connor, David is a ‘blow-in’ to the small community and therefore initially an ‘outsider’ like Josie in social terms. He’s intelligent and sometimes a bit spiky – a ‘normal’ adolescent – but he gets on with Josie and they become friends. This friendship leads Josie into contacts with the other local teens and perhaps makes him reflect on his loneliness. Indirectly, David’s presence will lead to a series of tragic events.

My first thoughts about the film were that this was a low-budget European art film. There are no genre indications as such except towards the setting of the small town and its possibilities for drama. The town and the handful of local inhabitants are presented in a realist manner and my thoughts turned towards the Dardenne Brothers – but not so intense. A review I read mentioned Bresson. There is gentle humour in the initial representation of Josie’s mundane daily rituals and his contact with various characters. There is also a sense of the relative tranquility of rural Ireland and the potential for some kind of magic in the evening light – although the skies that Josie so enjoys seemed foreboding to me with their scudding clouds. Gradually however, we realise that happy though Josie appears to be in his own little world, he still seeks the possibility of intimacy in a relationship. Eventually too, we realise that Abrahamson is using Peter Robertson’s beautiful cinematography to compose shots very carefully and to look for various forms of symbolism in the mise en scène. The film is slow and nearly always calm. Pat Stortt’s performance is exceptional. He was first a comedian specialising in physical comedy and he uses the skills of a physical comedian to create a distinctive gait for his character, as well as an appropriate voice. His performance also has a resonance since he is well-known in Ireland for a comedy series set in the same kind of location as that in Garage.

I was a little surprised to read in the Press Pack this quote from Lenny Abrahamson:

“Josie is really a contemporary village idiot character but the Irish village doesn’t have
any place for him anymore.”

I’m not sure I would use that term to describe a character in a contemporary drama. Of course, I know what he means but it does raise what might be the uncomfortable question at the centre of the film. If this is a realist depiction of Irish rural life, it suggests that there is no modern infrastructure to replace the traditional village community in what is usually seen as one of the more affluent and ‘developed’ societies in Europe. On the other hand, as events transpire, we might argue that the ‘regulation’ of contemporary society is what really makes Josie suffer – that and economic developments. The town’s residents who know Josie and tolerate him don’t really listen to him or help him with his problems. They are just glad that he seems happy. I was interested to read the range of IMDb comments. They include many Irish commentators, but also other Europeans. While most clearly liked the film and thought it praiseworthy, there are a couple of gainsayers, including one who argues that it isn’t a very good representation of a character with mild learning difficulties and another who argues that the residents are too morose and that the rural Irish are more likely to moan and get angry about their lot. These are fair points but as an arthouse film Garage works very well. The excellent production is enhanced by the presence of George Costigan in a small but vital role and Anne-Marie Duff as Carmel (who could probably act as a focus for another story). I can see why the film won one of the Cannes prizes and why Abrahamson and his collaborators are seen as one of Ireland’s most important filmmaking teams.

The final shot of this rather good trailer offers an example of the very effective lighting and composition:

Archipelago (UK 2010)

The holiday group (from left) Christopher, Patricia, Rose, Cynthia and Edward. The colour palette of pink/grey/khaki/blue is evident here on a desultory picnic trip.

This is the second film by writer-director Joanna Hogg and like the first, Unrelated (2007), it features an upper middle class English family on holiday. I confess that I really didn’t like the earlier film set in Tuscany. I admired it as a piece of filmmaking but most of the characters were so unappealing to me that I found it hard to watch. In particular I found the central character, a woman on her own joining a family group, to be intensely irritating. Because of this I approached Archipelago with some trepidation.

This time the family group is much smaller and the narrative seems more focused. The holiday on Tresco, one of the Scilly Isles, is a family tradition. They always stay in the same house and this time the holiday is a kind of farewell gathering for Edward (Tom Hiddleston), who has given up his city job in order to take up a voluntary post in Africa working on an AIDS project. He’s joined by his older sister and his mother. His father is supposed to be there but hasn’t as yet arrived. There are two ‘outsiders’ in the party. The first is Christopher, a professional artist who is tutoring Edward’s mother (and who is played by Hogg’s own art tutor, the painter Christopher Baker). The second is a live-in young cook, Rose, played by Amy Lloyd who is a professional cook with a drama school background. The mother (Patricia) and sister (Cynthia) are played by professional actors (Kate Fahy and Lydia Leonard).

Joanna Hogg has explained that there were two specific inspirations for her script. One was Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot and the other was a Paul Schrader article about Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (France 1966). Edward is effectively the man who is too ‘good’ for his own good and he finds himself in a family situation where although he is clearly troubled by his own indecisiveness, it is very difficult to communicate with his sister or mother – in fact he’s much more likely to have some form of communication with the two outsiders.

So, what does Joanna Hogg achieve in Archipelago? If you want a conventional art cinema review of the film, I highly recommend Jonathan Romney in Sight and Sound (March 2011). He nails the film very convincingly. I’m interested here in some other questions which I’m struggling to articulate. First I should say that as an ‘art object’, I think that Archipelago is very well put together. Every aspect of the film has been thought through carefully and executed with precision. There is a clear personal aesthetic which covers camerawork, editing and sound as well as narrative structure. This enables Hogg to present the landscape of Tresco – or rather the ‘environment’ of the island – as almost another character in the drama. There is no music in the film but the soundtrack is filled with the sound of the wind (which is of Kurosawa-like intensity at times) and birdsong. On the DVD commentary Hogg tells us that the birdsong is in effect an ironic commentary on the characters’ lack of communication with each other. The camera rarely gets close to any of the characters, preferring a discreet distance and often framing the three family members together in awkward (but often quite beautiful) compositions. There is much discussion about the philosophy of painting and art generally and several scenes are shot in a painterly style. Romney refers to a Danish painter I don’t know but on one occasion I thought an indoor scene was reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting.

In narrative terms the film is characterised by several significant absences. The father is absent and we learn about him only through the phone calls received by his wife (all of which, I think, we see from behind her) and Edward’s impressions of a rather gruff huntin’ and shootin’ man. The other missing character is Chloe, Edward’s girlfriend who is talked about but not seen. Visually, a symbolic absence is a framed print in the sitting-room which the family have taken down because they can’t stand it. Apart from the paintings of both the mother and her teacher, there is also an absence of any other cultural artefacts. No TV or radio, no music players, no newspapers, nothing really to intrude upon the introspective and stifling atmosphere. Cynthia owns up to have borrowed a book from her mother – but she confesses that she has hardly read any of it.

I think one of my questions is about audience responses to art cinema. Hogg’s work has been compared to such directors as Rohmer and Ozu – both in terms of aesthetic and family drama. This film reminds me of Antonioni a little. Of course there are many differences in such comparisons as well but my interest here is to observe that I view those films as texts about ‘other’ cultures. The more different it is (Japanese middle class life in the 1950s) the easier it is to distance myself. The British middle class milieu is in one sense much more familiar (I’ve often stayed with friends in relatively isolated houses in remote parts of the UK and abroad) yet also in a way completely alien. I couldn’t stand more than a few hours in the company of Patricia or Cynthia (even if I’ve sometimes behaved nearly as badly as they do – and I suspect we all have). Social class difference is for me still the defining feature of British culture. The way in which Rose is treated in the film fills me with fury but perhaps the best illustration of this is the implied criticism of Edward. Romney in his review has this description:

” . . . Edward is unassumingly pleasant, compassionate, idealistic – and irredeemably wet.”

It’s that use of the term ‘wet’ that is interesting. What does it actually mean? When Margaret Thatcher was savaging her way through the structure of British society, any of the (male) MPs in her own party who complained that she was going too far were dismissed as ‘wet’. The upper middle classes send their male children to boarding school, partly I think, to ‘toughen’ them up – to give them the confidence and arrogance to rule over the rest of us plebs. It clearly hasn’t worked for Edward who instead is sensitive but emotionally stunted. One of the teases of the film is that you hope that he will find some sort of emotional release with Rose – but this is a film in which narrative expectations are not likely to be fulfilled.

It seems that Joanna Hogg expects her audience to decode all the signs of repression in this family and to take their pleasure from the presentation of a well-crafted art object, but I can’t help wondering what her underlying motive is. Does she intend a political critique of this kind of upper middle class life? Perhaps the problem is mine in expecting some kind of social commentary to be progressive in some way? One specific point in respect: I found some aspects of Edward’s description of the project in Africa to be unbelievable and I’m not sure whether this was intended.

On the other hand, I think Joanna Hogg succeeds in creating an art film which successfully challenges audience expectations in an intelligent and carefully constructed way and I guess that can’t be a bad thing.

Here’s the UK trailer (the music doesn’t appear in the film):

Tsai Ming-Liang in Leeds

The 'Madame Butterfly' character awakes in her hotel room.

The Malaysian-Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang appeared at the Leeds International Film Festival in November over a couple of days as part of an event organised by Leeds University Centre for World Cinemas and the Taipei Representative Office. On the first day he introduced a screening of his film The Wayward Cloud (2005) and on the next day he took part in a study morning at the university followed by an afternoon screening of his short film Madame Butterfly and a Q & A. Before the screening he was presented with the LIFF’s first Golden Owl Lifetime Achievement Award by the festival’s director Chris Fell.

Madame Butterfly is a 36 minute short film produced for the celebration of Puccini’s 150th anniversary in Lucca organised by the ‘Centro Studi Giacomo Puccini’. This French/Italian/Taiwan production was shot, in Malay, in Kuala Lumpur. I need to describe the short, but doing so doesn’t really offer spoilers since ‘narrative resolution’ in the conventional sense isn’t what this film is about. The scenario is very simple – a woman is seen in a Kuala Lumpur Bus Station, attempting to buy a ticket home. But she doesn’t have enough money left after paying a hotel bill that was bigger than she had budgeted for. Although the bus company are willing to accept her offer to pay slightly less, she attempts to phone her boyfriend who she blames for the size of the hotel bill. The whole film is presented in three long takes, shot by Tsai himself on a digital video format (he doesn’t tell us what format, but he implies that the camera was quite large). The first two takes cover the scenes in the bus station, ending with a close-up framing in which the woman finds a hair in the soft bread roll that she is eating. The third shot returns us to the hotel where the woman awoke earlier to find her lover already gone, leaving only a couple of hairs on the pillow.

I’m not familiar with the Madame Butterfly story, so I accepted Tsai’s explanation that his interpretation of the story is that it is about a woman waiting for her lover to return after they have parted. I’m not sure what I thought when I watched the film. I was fascinated by the hustle and bustle of Kuala Lumpur’s bus station and this was effectively represented via Tsai’s camera which followed the woman as she moved through the crowds. As far as I could see, the camera was held quite low down which reminded me of the Ozu position of the child’s eye view (although of course Ozu didn’t move the camera to follow his characters in this way). I asked Tsai about this, but he denied that the camerawork was ‘designed’ in any way – he was simply trying to record what happened to the character. In the final scene, however, he told us that he waited with his actress all day in the bedroom, shooting her in bed asleep and waiting until the sun coming into the room provided the lighting that gave the image the mood or tone that he was looking for. Several critics have commented on this shot as depicting the ‘morning light’, but unless Tsai is playing with us, it must be the afternoon light.

The notion of a ‘playful’ director who tells us contradictory things about his work is something that accompanies many film ‘artists’. To sit in the wonderful surroundings of The Hyde Park Cinema in Leeds and to watch a short film and hear the director discuss his work is to experience a coherent art event. The audience, which was primarily composed of Chinese students in the stalls where I was sitting, had come to see the artist and were quite happy to listen to him for the best part of 45 mins before the Q & A proper. Tsai sees himself as an artist first rather than a filmmaker working in an industry. He isn’t worried by his relatively limited output. Now in his early 50s, Tsai has been involved in filmmaking for around twenty years in Taiwan and in that time he’s produced some twelve features and five short films or ‘segments’. That actually seems an impressive output to me but he stressed that he only works when he feels ‘creative’. (He also intimated that he felt old – God help the rest of us!).

There was surprisingly little discussion of the film as such and, as you might expect, Tsai didn’t wish to ‘explain’ it. It was clearly restricted in terms of budget and it should have used a song but the budget wouldn’t run to it. Thus one actor and the writer/director/camera operator comprised the crew. The sound is mostly ‘direct’.

Tsai was keen to promote his own status as an ‘artist’, claiming to be the only Asian film director to make ‘personal’ films and seeing the future as requiring arthouse cinemas to be more like galleries. He is clearly resigned to the death of ‘film as art’ for popular audiences suggesting that “audiences in Europe are changing – and not for the better”. The closure of traditional cinema palaces and the move to multiplexes in shopping malls means that “cinema is just another form of shopping”. (These ideas form the backdrop to Tsai’s 2003 feature Goodbye Dragon Inn, set in the last Taipei traditional cinema for its final screening – of King Hu’s 1961 classic film, Dragon Inn.) Tsai concluded that alongside galleries, universities were the only hope for future arthouse screenings. “Cinema must become culture”, he said. Perhaps we should get him into discussion with the new Culture Minister? It’s ironic that much as congratulations must go to Leeds University and the LIFF for bringing him over, elsewhere many UK university cinemas/film societies are increasingly showing mainstream films.

In the closing section, Tsai responded to the usual questions about influences, filmmakers he admires etc. In a follow-up to my Ozu question, he mentioned that Ann Hui had recently made a film that had the ‘atmosphere’ of Ozu. I think he was referring to The Way We Are (HK 2008). He confirmed his cinephilia by quoting Bazin on Chaplin and associated his decision to wait for the sun through the bedroom window in Madame Butterfly with a book written by “Kurosawa Akira’s assistant” called something like “Wait Until The Cloud Comes” – but I haven’t managed to find this title.

I had to dash for a bus so I missed the last few minutes, but it had been an entertaining afternoon and thanks must go to the Centre for World Cinemas and the LIFF and especially to the principal organiser Ming-Yeh Rawnsley who chaired the discussion and acted as translator.

Les herbes folles (Wild Grass, France 2009)

The stylised cinema sequence in which Marguerite stalks Georges.

I’ve seen relatively few films by Alain Resnais and certainly nothing since the 1970s. However, I was primed for Les herbes folles because several people had asked me to explain it. They seemed angry because it had been so frustrating.

Approaching the film from this perspective, I rather enjoyed the whole thing, but it did feel like an extended joke about cinema, narrative and the emotional responses of audiences. No bad thing perhaps? My enjoyment was heightened because three of the leads were familiar from many of the French films from the last few years. I hadn’t noticed before that André Dussollier has worked consistently with Resnais for many years, as has Sabine Azéma. I don’t remember seeing her before, but she seemed familiar somehow. (She is also Resnais’ partner.)

Plot outline (no major spoilers – they probably wouldn’t help anyway!)

Marguerite (Azéma) is a dentist with a passion for shoes and flying (i.e. being a pilot of a small aircraft). One day she buys some new shoes but has her bag snatched in Paris. Georges (Dussollier) is a (retired?) house husband in a solidly bourgeois outer Parisian suburb. He finds Marguerite’s wallet abandoned by the bag snatcher and eventually takes it to the police. A set of awkward relationships then develop between Marguerite and Georges, the police (Mathieu Amalric), Marguerite’s colleague Josepha (Emmanuelle Devos) and Georges’ wife (Anne Consigny). There are clearly ‘back stories’ for the characters that don’t fully emerge, so as an audience we must try to make sense of where these relationships might lead and what the characters’ motivations might be – or whether this is indeed important or not.

Resnais and narrative

There are several clues to the Resnais style/approach that make it much more accessible. First, Resnais is a fan of theatrical comedy and in particular the British writer-director Alan Ayckbourn. Resnais has adapted two of Ayckbourn’s plays. He also draws some of his cast from the Comédie-Française. I got a strong whiff of Ayckbourn in many of the encounters in Les herbes folles – which often seemed to comprise a series of sketches. Resnais has generally adapted either plays or novels as the basis for his films and in his early career he was associated with the avant garde nouveau roman movement, adapting works by the leading figures Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras. Les herbes folles is an adaptation of a novel by Christian Gailly called L’incident (1996). As far as I can make out, Gailly is also interested in narrative and self-reflexivity. I think I read somewhere that Resnais makes two jokes about adaptation in Les herbes folles. First he has an extended sequence in which Georges goes to a screening of a re-released Hollywood film, The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), a Korean War drama with William Holden and Grace Kelly. Resnais is often associated with the French New Wave of the late 1950s/early 1960s. I’m not sure he actually ‘fits’ that description, but showing visits to the cinema is a central feature of the films of Truffaut and Godard. You know that they will have chosen a specific film for a reason. Here, however, Resnais stages the sequence in a highly artificial way and he claims never to have seen the film – he is only using it because it is in the novel. At the very end of Les herbes folles, there is a short scene that appears to have no connection to anything else. Resnais says that it does occur in the novel – but elsewhere in the narrative.

Yet, to return to film references, the approach to narrative in Les herbes folles seems to invite audiences to think about other films that they might have seen. The opening of the film is quite striking, focusing mostly on the feet and legs of Marguerite with her yellow handbag. One of my first attempts to study film in terms of its textual detail focused on the opening to Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964) – which begins with a close-up of a yellow handbag and pulls back to follow the handbag’s owner, shown only from the rear and mostly from the neck down. Another famous Hitchcock opening, Strangers on a Train (1951) begins by following two pairs of feet/lower legs arriving at a railway station. I don’t know the extent to which Resnais was a Hitchcock fan but there are Hitchcockian elements in the humour/farce here. In fact the film moves easily between romance, film noir, comedy and horror. Rona watched the film with me and commented at the end that Resnais should leave ‘Lynch country’ to David Lynch. I’m not much of a Lynch fan, but I could certainly see something of Blue Velvet, especially in Resnais’ use of a bold of palette striking colours. The other strong thread running through the film is flying with Georges as what in the UK would be called an ‘anorak’ (having an encyclopaedic knowledge of a specific topic, usually requiring technical terminology/detail) and Marguerite referred to in terms of the female aviation pioneers of the 1930s. One film that also came to mind in the aerodrome sequences was Patrice Leconte’s Tango (1993). The Bridges at Toko-Ri also features a flying narrative.

So, Les herbes folles is an elaborate puzzle narrative – but don’t go expecting a satisfying resolution, there isn’t one. Enjoy its playfulness, lovely performances, glorious colours etc. Personally, I found it very funny. I’ve seen it described as ‘youthful’ and ‘skittish’ but it seems more like the (confident and assured) work of an 88 year-old who knows everything about cinema and feels able to indulge himself.

Here is the (terrific) American trailer in HD which illustrates most of the above. Enjoy!

. . . and here is the opening to Marnie (watch at least the first 7 minutes):

Kynodontas (Dogtooth, Greece 2009)

The 'children' perform for their parents in Dogtooth.

Not sure what to make of this film and perhaps I wasn’t in the best position to assess its merits – taking refuge on a very hot day and allowing my mind to wander at various points. This is the third feature by writer-director Giorgos Lanthimos. It won the prize in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes in 2009 and has since been well received by some cinéphile audiences and dismissed by some more mainstream audiences.

The main idea is to offer a metaphor/allegory for contemporary society via a focus on an anonymous (but affluent) Greek family. The father, who owns or at least manages a nondescript factory, has placed his family in a country estate which they are not allowed to leave. His wife is complicit in an arrangement that means that his three grown-up children have never left the estate. They have been deliberately mis-educated so that they have no knowledge of the outside world. The only other person allowed into the estate (blindfolded) is Christina – a security guard from the factory who is paid to service the son sexually. This, of course, provides  the possibility for the ‘inciting incident’ that drives the narrative forward in a conventional way. In some ways this is the key to the central problem with the film – although perhaps for some audiences it also provides the means of access.

The events that inevitably follow from Christina’s presence in the household draw on several genre repertoires – prison films, psychological experiment films, family melodramas etc. These narratives promise a resolution, but the film also draws on various art cinema models such as the films of Jean Cocteau or Luis Buñuel. Meanwhile, the style of the film is quite austere with careful framing and a relatively static camera. Some critics have suggested an observational documentary style. It is certainly effective in developing a mood. This is a mood or tone that on the one hand plays to our sense of voyeurism drawing us in to speculation about the sexual activities of three young adults who will be forced to ‘discover’ their sexuality. (None of the characters are named and they have few forms of intellectual stimulus available alongside many ‘distorting’ facts that their father has provided.) The overall approach also lulls the audience so that the isolated moments of real violence are even more shocking.

I can’t say that I enjoyed the film – but I can see that it is well-made (and certainly very well performed). I don’t think I gained any particular insights into a specific critique of contemporary society but I’ve seen suggestions that there is a metaphor for the Greek position within the EU discernible in the narrative. I think younger audiences might enjoy the film more because they may not have seen so many similar films from European art cinema. The film’s title has a specific meaning which I won’t reveal, but I should warn cat-lovers that this might not be the film for them!

If you don’t mind spoilers, there is a full review here which is quite helpful.

Hollywood squeezing out specialised films?

Last week in the foyer of a specialised cinema I stumbled over a large standalone promotion for the new Meryl Streep film Doubt. About 8ft high, 4 ft wide and 18 ins deep, the cardboard construction struck me as physical evidence of what’s been happening to specialised cinemas in the UK. I won’t name the cinema since I’m sure the situation has been forced on them  – and anyway, something similar is happening across the country.

Since the start of the year, it has been difficult to find new foreign language films on any kind of significant release (i.e. more than 20 screens across the UK). I’ve seen one film in the French Institute and half a dozen booked for my own courses and events. I’ve also been to a special event on Cuban Cinema, but in the general film programme the films with subtitles that I’ve seen have all been UK/US productions (Defiance, Slumdog Millionaire and Che). The screens I would have visited are filled with other American product – The Wrestler, The Reader, Revolutionary Road, Milk, Rachel Getting Married, Frost/Nixon and now Doubt. These films are all showing in multiplexes, so why are they on specialised screens as well? As far as I can see, there is no reason to think that they are ‘art films’ as such. To turn it round the other way, what should have been an important release – Tokyo Sonata, a Cannes prizewinner with a growing critical reputation, opened on just three prints. The only foreign language opening (discounting Hindi and Tamil films) with more than three prints has been A Christmas Tale with seven.

In these circumstances, cinemas have no choice but to put on the American films. OK, it’s all about getting Oscar-nominated films in front of the public, but this doesn’t wash. Where is Laurent Canet’s The Class? It is scheduled to open after the Oscar ceremony on February 27. My only other hope is Kim Ji-Woon’s The Good, The Bad and the Weird – a film I’m looking forward to seeing soon. This looks like a wide release – into multiplexes. I’m trying to find out if all the prints are subtitled.

So, am I getting paranoid? I don’t think so. True there are more foreign language films getting a release in the UK now, but when you investigate, it’s only one or two prints in order to bolster the DVD release. I don’t have anything against the so-called American ‘independents’, except that most of them aren’t – and they are crowding out what I want to watch.