Film 2019: Things to Come (L’Avenir)

Though you won’t read this until the usual Sunday slot, a collision of demands and a working Sunday meant that this weeks Film 2019 had to be watch on a grey, wet, windy Saturday morning. It didn’t feel quite right.

Things to Come (L’Avenir) is a 2016 film, written and directed by Mia Hansen-Love, inspired by the experiences of her mother, and written with Isabelle Huppert in mind for the central role of Nathalie Chevaux, a middle-aged Philosophy teacher whos husband of twenty-five years chooses to leave her. It’s the third of those three Huppert films that I collected as presents for myself at the end of last year, and another film I hadn’t seen before.

Frankly, if the film starred anyone other than Huppert, I doubt I would be retaining it. Though it’s not disappointing, especially not in the sequences that see Nathalie staying with her favoured student, Fabien (Roman Kalinka), on an anarchist collective farm ‘in the mountains’, which are beautiful, the film for me suffers from two major absences: the first is a story, the second emotion.

Things to Come (a misleading title, given the near-absence of forward progression) starts with the Chevaux family – Nathalie, husband Heinz (Andre Marcon) and children Chloe and Johann – on a ferry of sorts, visiting an island to stand at the tomb of the writer Chateaubriand, who appears to have greater significance for Heinz than Nathalie.

What this symbolises is beyond me: I am not familiar with Chateaubriand other than as a name (I learn from Wikipedia that he was also a prominent statesman, anti-Napoleonist, Royalist). Indeed, I am generally ignorant of philosophy, save for what scraps of it I have determined from experience, so the point sails over my head by the width of the orbit of Jupiter.

From there, we jump several years into the future. The children are grown, Nathalie and Heinz are established, settled, in all respects. Their lives are comfortable, intellectual, busy. Both teach, different disciplnes, different establishments. The strikes then current in France are of no matter to Nathalie, who refuses to acknowledge pickets and politics, insisting on her right to teach, and her students’ right to learn.

The main cloud on their horizon is Nathalie’s mother, Yvette (Edith Scob), hypochondriac, neurotic, needy, with a penchant for calling out the fire brigade for no practical reason. Nathalie has a second issue: she is a published author and editor whose publishers are starting to hassle her about modernistic layouts, designs, covers etc., to update and increase her ‘marketability’: a case of the medium bent on obscuring the message.

And there’s Fabien himself, a former student, turned writer and teacher and radical. Nathalie is blind to any faults in Fabien – she was a communist herself, back in 1968, though the conservative Heinz wasn’t – and in another film this woyuld be where the sexual tension would be inserted. But that’s not what their relationship is about, not even impliedly. They greet and separate with the French double air-kiss, but that’s all. Nathalie, though still attractive for her age (she is Isabelle Huppert, remember), appears to have no physical urges of any kind.

What we have is a portrait, almost a still-life. It’s a courageously long introduction, because it’s over 21 minutes into the 98 minute film, long past any point an American or British film would tolerate, before Chloe intercepts her father as he leaves his school? college? to tell him she knows he is seeing someone else, and that he must choose, and soon.

We know how he will choose – if he chooses Nathalie there is no film – but it’s not until the 29th minute that he tells his wife.

The rest of the film is the fall-out from that, except that things never seem to go any further. Nathalie and Heinz’s separation is placid and civilised. Yes, she has some waspish comments for him, but rather fewer than might be expecyed from a woman spurned after twenty-five years of expecting her husband to love her forever. We’ve see the comfortable relationship they’ve had, in which the only differences are philosophical, which is why we can believe that this pair were once in love, but over the course of the uncoupling, Nathalie’s main emotional responses are frustrated annoyance at Heinz taking books she wanted to keep, and the thought of no longer being able to visit his family holiday home in Brittany, where she has worked for so many years on the garden. The marriage itself? No.

But this, and the subsequent divorce, are just the first separation. Nathalie decides she has to put her mother into a rest home, only for the old lady to refuse to leave her bed, or eat until Nathalie returns from Brittany. But offstage, she suffers a fall and dies, resulting in a funeral, a service, a philosophical reading and, in a rare moment, tears in a Paris Metro carriage.

And the difficulties with her publihers escalate, to the point where her past works look like being retired. Nathalie takes refuge at Fabien’s collective, where she is comfortably the oldest there and out-of-date too. She takes her mother’s fat old cat, Pandora, which tears off into the forest at the first opportunity. Though Nathalie scorns the cat, wantsrid of it, claims to be allergic to it, she’s constantly calling for it’s return – one loss too many?

But she is free, total freedom. No husband, no children, no mother, nothing to tie her down. Nathalie can do anything she wants. Fabien believes she’ll soon find herself another man, though she pours scorn on that idea, due to her age. Though there is another moment when she cries, alone in her farm bed but for Pandora, Nathalie has no want for emotion. Alone in the cinema, a man in his thirties pursues her, a hand on her knee, changing seats, following her away from the cinema. He catches up with her, tells her she’s beautiful, forces a kiss on her, but she tells him she doesn’t feel like it and walks away, and helets her.

The film then jumps a year. Chloe has just given birth, a baby boy. Nathalie is still waspish with Heinz, producing tears in her daughter after her father leaves, but nothing else has changed. It’s just a year has gone by, and Nathalie’s freedom of action has not led her to alter her life on bit. There’s a final visit to the farm, in winter, to leave Pandora for good, a hit of grass and a night scene wih Fabien that would otherwise be pregnant with the implication that they’re finally gonna fuck, but this is not that film, and whilst on the one hand I applaud the refusal to indulge in cliche, the implication is solely in the context and none of it in the characters, and is like the rest of the film curiously still, almost inert.

In the morning, Fabien hugs Nathalie at the station as she returns to Paris – implying one final separation out of her life – and drives back to the farm along snowy roads. This is the only scene of the film that does not take place around Huppert. Nathalie returns to Paris and a Xmas Dinner, relieving Heinz of his keys to their former home after he retrieves one last book.

That leads into the ending. Endings in films like this are problematic, because there has been no real beginning. An ending implies the stopping or cessation or completion of something separable as a discrete phase or period, but the lack of any kind of progression makes an ending impossible to achieve. All you can do is you, and how and where do you do that?

Hansen-Love chooses to do this by having the baby cry, Nathalie leave the meal to comfort it whilst the young ones eat. She cradles the baby, sings to it, a romantic love song. The camera pans back into the hall so that we can see the three young ones at table eating on the left, Nathalie with the baby in another room on the right, a wide gap between them, and a final edging away so only the rooms can be seen, no people. On the soundtrack, a stilted version of ‘Unchained Melody’ sung by a woman for whom English is not her first language, leads into the credits.

I have an adage, almost an aphorism. The irreducible minimum requirement of fiction is that it must make us care about something that never happened to someone who never existed. Nathalie Chevaux interests me, but in the end I find I cannot really care. She is purely of the mind, striving to express all things as a mental exercise, a philosphical stance or point. I don’t say that she is wromg, or that Mia Hansen-Love has made a bad film in portraying someone whose thinks and acts that way, just that I need the infusion of Thought and Emotion, and Things to Come does not give me the other half of the equation.




Film 2019: The Plague Dogs

I bought this DVD as a curiosity, and because it was cheap (cheapness is an essential factor for curiosities). Like many of my generation, I bought ‘Watership Down’, after hearing so much about it, in my late teens. I followed Richard Adams on to ‘Shardik’, which was less impressive and which caused me to only borrow ‘The Plague Dogs’ from the library, despite it being set in my beloved Lake District, and featuring route maps of the dogs’ flight drawn by the Blessed Wainwright himself.

I took it out of the Library on a Friday afternoon and started reading it after tea. I stayed up until somewhere between 2.00 and 3.00am, determined to finish it in a single session. Not because it gripped and enthralled and I had to find out how it ended, but because I was determined to get it over and done with for good, and not have to drag myself back to it on Saturday.

I never read it again. Even with those wonderful Wainwright maps, I wouldn’t buy it. I went to see Watership Down the film twice whilst I lived in Nottingham, but I avoided The Plague Dogs film.

So why now? For that, the credit (or blame) has to go to  my fellow blogger George Kitching, of the superb Lakeland Walking Tales site, and his two part account of following the Plague Dogs’ trail.

George and I differ on the merits of the book. Of course, he has the advantage of having read it within the past forty years. At the time, I thought it grossly overwritten, and badly in need of a dictatorial editor to tell Adams to cut it down by a hundred pages, and get over yourself with this Animal Testing ranting. Let not it be thought that I’m anything but against it myself, but Adams himself admits that part of the book is a polemic, and he totally loses any perspective in his writing and grinds on about it long after his point is doubly made.

The film exists in two versions, the theatrical cut which runs for 86 minutes, and the original director’s cut, which lasts 103 minutes. Only in Australia has the full cut been commercially released and the version I have watched is the common version. I was not impressed.

The film follows the book in general. Rowf, a black labrador/retriever cross, voiced by Christopher Benjamin of all people, is a test subject at Lawson Park Research Centre near Coniston in the Lake District. He is constantly drowned and resuscitated to test the ultimate limits of stamina. Snitter, a smooth fox terrier, voiced by the great John Hurt, has just undergone a brain operation to confuse subjective/objective experiences. The two escape and go on the run, causing havoc, before they are impliedl;y drowned in the Irish Sea, trying to escape the Army.

That sounds like a very thin summary, but this is ultimately a very thin film. Whereas Adams can go in deep on the dogs’ reactions, and amplify the public reaction to how the dogs are, untruthfully and callously, stigmatised as carrying the Bubonic Plague, the film, by adopting a naturalistic approach that runs deeper than the same team’s adaptation of Watership Down, denies itself that asset and forces itself to go no deeper than the surface of the dogs’ own reactions and understanding.

As a result, the film becomes a chase story, as superficial as that sounds, and forfeits any chance of real structure. Rowf and Snitter encounter the ofdd sheepdog here or there, but the film’s only other character of substance is the Tod, a wily fox, voiced in deep Geordie by James Bolam to the point of vocal caricature.

That lack of structure is a real problem. The dogs clatter around. Time passes at odd rates without any idea of how long things are taking. There is very little sense of location, despite the fact that the film is determinedly ser in the Lake District, or at any rate in a Lake District. Real names and places are mentioned, Coniston, Dunnerdale, Thirlmere, Glenridding, Ravenglass. A genuine map of Middle Eskdale is used late on. Some accurate buildings are shown – a coop general store in Coniston, the road under the railway bridgeinto Ravenglass – but these only compound the film’s biggest mistake which is its over-exaggerated, over-styled, and phoney Lake Distruct fell-country.

Of course, part of this is my personal bugbear. Anything set in the Lake District has to undergo a fine-toothed comb examination from me as to its accurate depiction of the Lakes. The 1974 Swallows and Amazons film always falls apart during the heedless sailing scenes when boats flicker to and from between Coniston Water, Windermere and Derwent Water from second to second. I am far too harsh on the subject of authenticity for any film or tv series’ good.

But the film makes this a rod for its own back. By insisting upon naturalism, in the movements of animals and humans, by including accurate buildings, it sets itself a standard that it then conspicuously abandons. The countryside is unreal. It’s exaggerated both vertically and horizontally. Fells and mountains crowd together in formations that bear no resemblance to the Lakes. One repeated long, deep, straight valley image turns up in what must be at least three different places, far apart. Occasional mountain outlines appear out of context, including two Great Gables, nowhere near either Wasdale or Gable’s surrounding fells.

It makes the film feel rootless. As well as no sense of structure, or of time, there is no genuine sense of place.

One thing that does the film credit is that it restores Adams’ original ending. In the book, Adams’ editor (amongst others) persuaded him to a deus ex machina ending where naturalist Sir Peter Scott and Snitter’s not-dead-after-all master turn up to save the dogs from the Army, aided by a complete character reversal from the book’s most unpleasant human, but writer and director Martin Rosen has them instead swimming out to sea from the beach at Ravenglass, heading for an island that is a place of dream. The dogs disappear into the mist, and it is left open as to whether they reach any island, but in the context of the film’s determined solidity, the implication is that they drown, that this is their means of escape.

So I’ve seen it, and for the first time since I began this series in the first week of January last year, I have come to a film I shall not keep, nor bother watching again. My thanks to George for inspiring this experiment, nevertheless, and I shall be interested in any comments he wishes to make.

Film 2019: Fantasia

After three weeks of critical responses, I felt in need of something I could just luxuriate in and enjoy unreservedly. Given that of the six remaining films in this first phase of Film 2019, my total number of viewings is exactly one, this weeks choice chose itself.

It’s about a year ago that I watched the belated sequel, Fantasia 2000, and pronounced it a very much inferior effort, not least for the fact that it felt cramped and compressed, given insufficient time to achieve anything of real merit in itself, let alone in comparison with its predecessor. The original Fantasia was a controversial project from its first conception, a film that was a commercial disaster, and regarded as a failure for many decades. Time has justified it, and though there are elements of the film that still induce a wince rather than satisfaction, it has established itself as a classic, and a justification of Walt Disney’s original intent.

It’s easy to forget that, alongside all his manifold faults, some of them truly despicable, Walt Disney was nevertheless an artist. Though we’ve grown up alongsidde Disney Studios as an unrelenting, triple-tested, conservative (on every level) organisation, Walt in his heyday ploughed everything the Studio made back into the films, so that the organisation was in permanent financial danger. The films came first, and you have to respect that.

There’s no doubt that Fantasia was ambitious, even as it was pretentious. It was only Disney’s third feature length film, less than a decade after Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and indeed it was almost an accidental film, originating with the Sorceror’s Apprentice sequence – intended to restore Mickey Mouse’s waning popularity – going so far over budget as a separate short that it could never recoverits costs.

Instead, Disney went for the notion of a film that would replicate a concert performance and provide a more extensive experience. He already had conductor Leoplod Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra for The Sorceror’s Apprentice, and musicologist Deems Taylor enthusiastically signed up to act as the film’s narrator and explainer of the separate pieces.

Many musical pieces were considered and rejected, one of them, Claude Debusy’s Clair de Lune after being completely finished. The original intent was for new pieces to be completed on an occasional basis, and replace other parts of the programme, so that Fantasia could be re-issued constantly with no two releases the same, but this idea was killed off by the film’s commercial failure, coming as it did when World War 2 shut off European releases.

And though some critics hailed the film as a masterpiece, others were highly critical – of the Orchestra’s performances, Stokowski’s orchestrations, the choice of animation themes, the whole idea of vulgarisating classical music, destroying its integrity by distracting audiences with visual imagery to begin with. The only living composer featured, Igor Stravinsky, was highly critical of the treatment of his Rite of Spring, the selections made from his ballet, the reshuffling of their order, the performance.

I didn’t get to see the film myself until the back half of the Eighties, not long after acquiring a (bootleg) cassette of its soundtrack. From years of Disney Times (every Easter and Christmas had an hour long programme showing clips from various Disney films, the only time they were ever on TV) I had seen short clips, usually from the Nutcracker Suite or Dance of the Hours, but the whole film – or rather an edited version that reduced much of the Taylor role – was a fantastic revelation. It was also marred by the audience, which recognised a segment of Dance of the Hours that had been adapted into a TV advert for Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut chocolate and insisted on singing the lyrics: morons.

The only problem was that this was not theoriginal soundtrack, but a completely re-recorded version.

But when the film was released on VHS Video, one time only, 50 days and never ever again, with original soundtrack, I grabbed it. However, the version I have on DVD is the original, wholly restored, almost two hours long and including the original Intermission (when I was starting to watch films, in the cinema, in the Sixties, they would still have this bloody Intermission, a ten to fifteen minute interruption of the entire movie. I’m not sure whether the intention was to give the audience a breather since they could hardly be expected to watch for ninety minutes at a time, or whether it was just to give the cinema a chance to sell ice creams from a tray: either way, it just bored and frustrated me.)

Fantasia is arranged and presented as a concert programme. Curtains draw back, musicians assembled – best evening dress, instruments in hand – tune up. Taylor, in tails, appears from the back, looking stiff as he sticks a hand in a pocket to indicate the informality of the affair, but smiles eagerly as he explains what is to come.

There are eight pieces, broken into two halves, each piece balancing out its opposite number in the other half. Stokowski starts with Bach’s Toccata and Fugue, which still sounds unusual in full orchestration as opposed to on, say, a Cathedral organ. Taylor describes it as ‘absolute music’, as opposed to music that tells a story or paints a scene. It’s a weak choice, visually, for the opener, blurring eventually from images of Stokowski conducting, musician playing (in a backlit space highlighted by flashesof blue, gold and red on their instruments) into abstract shapes, primarily violin bows, making rhythmic moves.

But things pick up immediately with Tchaikowsky’s Nutcracker Suite, a series of dances, short in form, ideal for vignette scenes, as first fairies bring morning dew to the awakening day, then a series of unusual plants or fishes – mushrooms, thistles – incarnate the various national dances before the stirring Waltz of the Flowers (a first musical highlight for me) sees the fairies sweep summer out, through autumn to winter. Lovely.

The Sorceror’s Apprentice follows, a comic extrevaganza, with Mickey and the broom, that jaunty, dancing theme, the epic-comic build-up, the wonderful overall siliness to it. And of course, after running out from the end of the music, Mickey continues running up to Stokowski’s podium, to shake hands and congratulate him. That little bit is a touch too silly, and feels like Disney is really congratulating himself and patronising Stokowski, though from what I understand, that wasn’t their relationship at all. It just hits a wrong note, that’s all.

I’m tempted to say that Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring hits nothing but wrong notes. It’s the piece that does the least for me in the entire show, with its eschewal of strong melody and distinct phrases. I find it disjointed and undeveloped, and in places cacophonous, and it’s the only part of Fantasia to truly depend on its visual story, the history of the world, depicted with then-scientific accuracy, from the creation of the planet, through unicellular life to the extinction of the dinosaurs. The imagery is powerful and dramatic, and towards the end, as the dinosaurs turn, as if hypnotised, into the symbolic march to their own destruction in desert conditions, it attains a level of unsentimentalised pathos that reminds us that although the dinosaurs lasted 2.5 millions years, they died. We haven’t got near that yet. We are looking at our own end, oneday.

This stark moment is, perhaps properly, followed by ‘a 15 minutes intermission’. The musicians carry their instruments and leave, the curtains close, a Flash Card confirms the Intermission. Not for fifteen minutes, thankfully. Of itself, this stilted moment is unnecessary to the film and appropriate only to the time in which it was made. Aside from historical completeness, no-one would miss it, not even me, but after the closing of the Rite of Spring, some form of break is actually helpful.

We resume with a bit of silliness that’s also beneath the film’s genuine standards, with first a bit of jokiness among the players and first a double bass, then a clarinetist fool abooutwith a bit of jazz, the Taylor introduces the ‘Sooundtrack’ which fools about with some patterns to represent various instruments. This is thankfully very short, and leads us into the meat of the second half, three very strng pieces, visually and musically.

The first of these is Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the ‘Pastoral’, still one of my favourite peces of classical music. This was practically the last addition to Fantasia and provoked Disney’s only serious difference with Stokowski, with the conductor disagreeing with the decision to portray a symphony about a country day in mythological terms, with cute and twee Greek Gods, fauns, cherubs, centaurs etc, though Taylor thought it a fascinating interpretation. Yes, the art does lean heavily towards the twee, but it perfectly fits what is aseamless edit of the whole Pastoral that reduces it to about eleven minutes without it feeling short-changed.

This gorgeous piece of music was the real foundation of my uninformed and sporadic enthusiasm for classical music, and I love itto this day.

It’s also the only place where this DVD version, and all future presentations of Fantasia, differs from the historic original, for the erasure of a few seconds of racist stereotyping, a little black centaur, with ‘pickanniny’ braids, polishing the hooves ofa white centaur. It was the times, we grimly tell ourselves, as we have to do: remember it was there, but cut it out and be gone.

Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours follows, occupying the same, raucous comic slot as the Aorceror’s Apprentice. It’s a four part ballet suite, gracious, athletic, energetic, and the dances are perfirmed, very skilfully I must say, by the most unlikely troupes of animals, ostriches, hippos, elephants and alligators. You can’t really describe this, but it’s a child’s joy and comic masterpiece, and even as we get older, we can just let our minds melt away and relish some glorious slapstick that, for all our current high-speed CGI today, can juat not be matched.

And so to the final piece, or rather two widely different pieces spliced into one, the sacred and the profane, though not in that order. Here was another area of intense controversy about the film, both for the linking of Schubert’s euphoric, intense Ave Maria with Modest Mussorgsky’s devil-ridden Night on Bald Mountain, and for the many complaints of parents that their children were terrified by the imagery used to portray the latter.

It is indeed intense. The story and the art is about the devil Chernobog, coming to life in the night, unfolding great leathern wings as he comes into being from the top of a bare, forbidding mountain, summoning to him devils and ghosts and skeletons from their graves, to swirl around him in a miasma of evil, until the angelus bell rings, to herald the coming of day and the driving of evil back into its pretence. It’s dynamic and horrifying, and even in a piece that has the Pastoral, I find this part to be the sequence I most await: musically, it is incredible.

And light brings the Ave Maria. Just as rhe music and the imagery of Mussorgsky are the most dynamic of the film, the Ave Maria is still and cleansing. Worshippers, distant, shadowed, carrying torches that look like orange yellow balloons, walk in line, two abreast, across a waking countryside, through a cathedral-like forest, until a narrow gap opens before them into an idyllic country. Though Disney rejected the closing image of a Madonna as being too overly eligious, even the atheists amonst us can recognise a pastoral paradise opening, and feel a leaning we do not recognise.

So, Fantasia. It is what it is and what it is is magnificent, for all its flaws. In another and better world, which I shall as usual call Earth-2, this is but the first version, the progenitor of a multitude of Fantasias, each subtly different.

There is one other film that echoes this idea. Though it doesn’t properly qualif for Film 2019, I shall bring it out before we go on into the Box Sets part of this year’s programme. If you wish to look it up in advance, it’s called Allegro Non Troppo.

Film 2019: Birth

I don’t think there’s any point in pretending that I bought this DVD for any other reason than Nicole Kidman, for her unusual, short-haired look that is so totally uncharacteristic but which is so effective. I bought it once, and let it go and bought again, late last year, but I am no nearer understanding it now than before, a state that I think is shared by Director and co-scripter Jonathan Glazer.

I was tempted to describe Birth as a film with a great hollowness at its centre, but I tink that’s misleading. I think rather it has a multiplicity of hollownesses to it, as much perhaps as one for each character as well as one for the film itself. It sets out to explore an idea that fascinates Glazer, as well as Kidman, who wanted the central role and who does as good a job as anybody in it, but it fails to either root the idea properly or, ultimately, to see it through with any conviction.

The film begins with a disembodied voice, lecturing about non-belief in reincarnation. This is Sean, never to be seen, except as a black, hooded silhouette in a snowy Central Park, running briskly for some distance before collapsing and dying under a bridge. The camera cuts to a baby being born.

The lecture is meant to be ironic, but instead it’s too heavy-handed and blatant. We jump ten years, to a party in an apartment block of rich people. Sean’s widow, Anna (Kidman), has agreed to marry Joseph (Danny Huston), and everybody’s congratulating… him. Not her, or them, just him. This was something I noticed early on: Anna is a prize, a trophy, not real. She has a job, although we don’t know what she does, although for that matter we don’t know what Joseph does either. That’s supposed to be because it doesn’t matter, it’s of no relevance what either of them do, what any of the people in this film do, but instead it creates a lack of solidity that makes everyone unreal. They have no roots, no purpose.

A lot of people are at the party, and it’s a while before we work out who everybody is, which contributes further to the film’s nebulous nature. There’s Anna’s mother (Lauren Bacall), her pregnant sister Laura, Sean’s brother Clifford, very much out of place, his wife Clara (Anne Heche) deciding at the last minute that their engagement present needs a ribbon, but instead rushing out in the dark to bury it in the Park, and buying a silver-framed mirror instead.

And there’s a silent, sullen-faced ten year old boy who follows her, watching her, who then invades the party. He (Cameron Bright) is called Sean. He invades a later dinner party to tell Anna that he is Sean, her dead husband, Sean.

This is the centrality of the film. Has Sean the lecturer been reincarnated as Sean the ten year old boy? Nobody believes it. Nobody, that is, except Anna, and not at first but long before the end she has become besotted with this unprepossessing boy, believes in him passionately in the face of everybody else, loves him as Sean, her husband, whom she has never stopped loving ten years after his death, and who plans to run away with him and marry him when he turns twenty-one.

It’s ridiculous, both in concept and execution. Anna starts with natural scepticism, but unlike everybody else, Sean’s seemingly impossible knowledge of Sean and his life with Anna, convinces her that it’s real. Every other person who knew Sean, in life, who roundly declares this is not Sean is dismissed.

This is supposed to feed our air of uncertainty, our difficult to suspend disbelief. What it really is is Anna convincing herself of what she wants to be convinced, that the husband she loves has returned to her.

It doesn’t help that as either Sean, Bright is so unprepossessing. He’s an intense but monotonised-voiced kid who’s either oblivious to the obvious distress he’s causing Anna in the beginning, or else doesn’t care about her as long as he gets his way. Which, notwithstanding his genuine love for Anna, is not a million miles away from Joseph, whose own disturbance is more important than Anna’s.

Apparently, until a fortnight before shooting commenced, Birth was supposed to be about Sean, until Glazer’s fascination with what Kidman could bring to the part (and let us not forget that, aside from being seriously gorgeous, Kidman is a seriously superb actress), it became about Anna.

The film’s problem is that it cannot really commit itself to its semi-supernatural basis. Its conceit is that a ten year old boy convinces a woman in her late thirties that he is her husband. It’s a fantastic prospect in every sense of the word, and Glazer fails to anchor it in any form of realism by making the characters into cyphers. And the film can’t sustain itself so far as its proposition is concerned, letting everything down by revealing it all as a fake. Worse still, an unsupported fake.

You see, we’ve already seen the con in action. The buried engagement present. Because Sean was screwing his sister-in-law Clara, was conducting a love affair with her. To prove his love for her was greater, he brought Clara all Anna’s love-letters, unopened, though he wouldn’t leave Anna. They were to be a spiteful engagement gift, but Clara couldn’t go through with it at the last minute. Sean the boy followed her, dug it up, memorised all the personal details in the letters.

And even the con collapses in an improbable manner. Sean the boy loves Anna, but all it takes is Clara telling him that if he really were Sean the husband, he’d have come to her first to break him of his obsession. And all it takes is Sean telling Anna he’s not Sean to break her of her obsession. No, it doesn’t wash.

The film does nothing to explain how and when Sean fell in love with Anna in the first place, and even less to explain why Anna starts to fall for the boy. It then cuts its own throat in a weak coda in which Anna apologises to Joseph and begs him to take her back (which he does) by repetitively insisting its wasn’t her fault. Then there’s the wedding, accompanied by a voiceover from Sean, having a school photo taken, explaining that he can’t explain it (because Glazer can’t), that he’s better now and smiling for the only time in the film. Which leads to Anna paddling in the sea in her wedding dress and looking like she hasn’t got the courage to walk out. It’s a non-ending ending of someone who hasn’t got an ending, and what little merit the film has is washed away with it.

So does Birth have any merit? It’s low-key, and deliberately paced, it’s Park scenes are wintry and bleak with a stark beauty and it has Kidman. Her short hair, unadorned wardrobe and short, clipped sentences are intended to signal a woman still in mourning, inside and out, someone who has let her sexuality and glamour go (so, the nude scene where Anna and Joseph are having sex fits in…?). That theory runs up against the fact that the short hair makes us focus upon Kidman’s face more clearly, and that even downplayed she is just too naturally attractive, whilst the quiet, close-fitting wardrobe demonstrates that whilst she is slender and slim, she’s got curves where you’d expect them. Dammit, when she’s still sceptical of Sean, she teases him over her needs and how he, as a ten year old boy, can’t satisfy them.

But for Kidman, I wouldn’t think twice about retaining this film, but she rises above its failings luminously, and is always worth seeing. Not that i’ll be re-running this film too many times.

Film 2019: Comfort and Joy

Writer-Director Bill Forsyth made four Scottish films in the first half of the Eighties, all made on various lengths of shoestring, the first two of which being dominated by various members of the Glasgow Youth Theatre, who popped up in his later two in small parts. After that, he was poached by Hollywood, where he made the well-received Housekeeping, then seemed to disappear from public consciousness (two later films, at lengthening intervals, were flops).

Comfort and Joy is the last of those Scottish films. The first three, That Sinking Feeling, Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero, all featured in Film 2018. I’d seen Comfort and Joy when it was in the cinema (probably my local cinema, the Burnage Odeon) and found it very funny, but it’s noticeable that I don’t think I’ve seen it again since, and it was only the watching of the other three last year that impressed on me that I’d never bought the film on DVD. So, here it is.

I remembered enjoying it, and thinking it was Forsyth back on track after the disappointment of Local Hero (which, three decades later, I thoroughly enjoy), and being under the impression that it had been as big a success as Gregory’s Girl, which I now find it wasn’t. And, three decades later, watching the film for what may only be the second time ever, I find it a tremendous disappointment.

Some of that is obviously personal. Bill Patterson stars as Allan ‘Dicky’ Bird, a local radio DJ, whose shows are as empty-headed and fluffy as you can imagine.  Not that we know him at first: in a cleverpiece of misdirection, Forsyth opens on a tall, elegant, well-dressed, gorgeous redhead (Eleanor David) shoplifting in a Glasgow Shopping Centre in the run-up to Xmas. Allan drifts in and out of the background, observing Maddie’s actions. As she leaves, he follows her, catches up to her, Store Detective about to arrest her, but no. He tells her she’ll be the death of him, they both pile into his car, they actually live together and have done for four years. They’re in love. I’d be in love with her (though I’d be a lot more worried about the kleptomania that Allan).

They fit well together. There’s an air of ease about them together, comfort and joy. They share a wavelength, their conversation is light and bantering, a pair who know each other and speak that private language all couples do, based in shaared emotion and happenstance.

And then Maddie starts going around their flat, removing ornaments from shelves and putting them in a box. Allan waches her amused for a while, Maddie’s eccentric, it’s part of why he loves her. Even so, eventually he has too ask what she’s doing. She’s leaving him. Tonight. She’d meant to talk to him about it for months but the opportunity never came up. There’s a truck due tonight, she’s taking all his things.

The abruptness of it all, in the midst of genuine content, the fact that the flat is practically stripped to the bare bones because everything is hers, and that Maddie won’t tell him why, it being a done thing, decided upon, it’s too late to talk now, is meant to be disruptively funny. It’s shocking, to the point of absurdity. It’s meant to be funny, I found it funny in 1984 but I don’t find it funny now. Because I’ve had a marital breakdown, I’ve been where Allan is here, being the one that was still in love. I don’t find it funny, becaue I can’t find it funny.

Forsyth never gives a reason or a hint of a reason, but then that’s not the point of the break-up. It’s not what the film’s about, it’s the catalyst, the MacGuffin. The point is to put Allan ‘Dicky’ Bird into a state of turmil, to empty out his comfortable life, to make him suggestible. It hasn’t affected his professional career, he’s just as empty-headed as usual on the radio. Mind you, we don’t hear him till after so we don’t get to do a before-or-after, which I think would have made the film stronger in that respect, maybe he is down.

The point is, Allan himself feels his show, his clownish on-air persona, to be empty-headed. He’s looking for something new, something to be a change of direction, a change of flavour as he and the film put it. And it comes at random, taking us into the meat of the film.

Stuck in a traffic jam, Allan finds himself next to an ice cream van, Mr Bunny, in which there’s a very pretty girl with long curly hair (of course she’s pretty, she’s Clare Grogan, here billed under her Equity name of C.P. Grogan). On a whim, and because she smiled at him, and despite her being in her early twenties and Allan being early Forties, he follows the van, out into the Wild West suburbs of North Glasgow. There’s even a railway bridge tunnel to go through or, in Alice in Wonderland symbolism, a rabbit-hole to drop down.

Because just after Allan succumbs to temptation and buys a 99, with raspberry, from talkative Trevor (Alex Norton, later of Taggart) and the silent Charlotte, two guys in ski-masks pull up and start attacking the van with iron bars: whee, we really are in Glasgow, aren’t we? And just before driving off, one of them wants Dicky Bird’s autograph.

What the film is segueing into is Forsyth’s take on the infamous Glasgow Ice Cream Wars (a topic introduced to him by Peter Capaldi, who comes from a Scottish ice cream family). It’s the old, established Mr McCool line, run by an impeccably Italian family who give off the old Mafiaair, and the independent, semi-cowboy Mr Bunny (formerly Mr Softy) upcomers.

Allan can’t believe that so violent a war is taking place in suburban Glasgow, under his DJ nose, and about something so trivial as ice cream. The McCool’s ask him to arrange a meeting, as a neutral, but all they’re doing is using him to find the Mr Bunny factory so they can smash it up. Allan’s trying to impress Charlotte, except that Grogan is being woefully underused in the film: she gets to hang around looking decorative, one lengthy speech all in Italian, and the would-be relationship dies an unstarted death when Forsyth seems to forget it.

Because the ‘twist’ is, and it falls as flat as everything is now becoming, that these two sides are family: Charlotte is Mr McCool’s daughter, Trevor – who comes from an old-established fisn’n’chip shop background – his nephew. Allan’s completely irrelevant.

But he’s also essential to solving this problem, by steering both families into a highly-profitable joint venture, ice-cream fritters. That’s it, a cold but intact ball of ice-cream in a deep-fried batter. Everybody goes nuts for it. And Allan gets 30% off the top on account of a) it’s his idea – even if he stole it from a station on-air recipe and a thriving Chinese industry and b) only he holds the secret of the ingredient that preserves the ice-cream from melting in the deep-fat fryer: the Chinese don’t give this secret out to just anyone, he points out, hoping to flim-flam the audience past the fact that Forsyth can’t come up with a reason they’d share it with him.

(I think we’re meant to assume it’s because he’s Dicky Bird, local personality, has his autograph requested everywhere he goes.)

So, that’s the war over. And we leave Dicky Bird in the studio on Christmas Day afternoon, volunteering to cover the shift of a colleague married with children, and just presenting a relaxed, unhurried, lightweight show. He’s still without the mysterious Maddie, he hasn’t tried to get anywhere with Charlotte, he’s just a local radio DJ again, without a thought in his head.

Which isn’t necessarily that bad. It’s not my sort of thing and you’d have to strap me onto a rack before you could get me to listen to it, but Forsyth slips in a scene, in a quiet and almost irrelevant section of the film, where Allan visits his surgeon friend, Colin (a laid-back to the point of being almost horizontal Patrick Mallahide), whilst he’s doing his rounds. He introduces Dicky to an eldeerly lady who’s been there two months. She’s quietly delighted. She listens to his show every morning, she’s always up early, and she enjoys it immensely.

It’s a reminder to us, and implicitly to Dicky, that even being an empty-headed local radio DJ isn’t meaningless, that there are folk for whom this is a welcome pleasue, a comfort and joy, and that they and he are not to be despised because our tastes and preferences are different.

No, Comfort and Joy now doesn’t work for me, at all. Whilst the lead players are all good actors, there are two many awkward and stilted players in the minor roles, who bring a wooden aspect to the film, whilst the look of the film, from its film-stock to its sweeping vistas of Glasgow inner-city motorways, conveys the impression of a TV film, even though this was a full commercial cinema release. It’s definitely the weakest of Forsyth’s Scottish films (I have heard, from every source I’ve seen, that the belated sequel, Gregory’s Two Girls, is awfy bad, but as not even the rack could get me to profane my love for the original film by watching that, I’ll never have to decide).

So: almost fourteen months since I started this Sunday morning film series, and this is my first all-out disappointment, I shalln’t rush to give ita third spin.

Film 2019: Villa Amalia

Benoit Jacquot’s 2009 film, Villa Amalia (adapted from Pascal Quignard’s novel of the same name) is the second of the Isabelle Huppert films I mini-spreed upon for my birthday last year. It’s a film that, now I investigate further, has a much more mixed reputation than I had originally believed, with opinions seriously divided, and after watching the film I can understand why.

Huppert stars as Ann Hiden, a highly-regarded concert pianist and composer, real name Eliane Hidelstein. The film begins with Ann trailing her partner of fifteen years, Thomas (described in most synopses as her husband, though in the film Ann regularly denies being married) to a house in Choisy where she sees him kissing another woman passionately.

Simultaneously, she is approached on the street by a man who recognises her, but whom she does not recognise. He calls her Eliane, which startles her, but not until he gives her his name, Georges Roelh (Jean-Hugues Anglade), which on his business card appears as Georges Roelhinger, does she recognise him as a childhood friend with whom she was once close.

This isn’t what you’re expecting it to be. None of the film is what you expect it to be. The discovery that Thomas is having an affair undermines Ann’s life. In the synopses, again, it’s described as destroying her certainty about her life, which I take it is derived from something more explicit in the book. In the film, Ann takes the decision firstly to break with Thomas (who is so dumb he can’t equate Ann’s abrupt decision with the possibility she knows he’s shagging around and is so equally dumb he thinks he can win her back with romantic gestures and pretending his affair didn’t mean anything: I worry about my gender at times).

But Ann is going further. She is breaking away from all her life: her apartment, her pianos, her careeer, her CDs, her clothing, everything that links her to the life that was, and it’s to be done both quickly and, to a degree, maliciously, since the closing is to take place at a weekend when Thomas is on holiday abroad, so that he returns to a home cleared and sold in his absence (mind you, on him it looks good).

Only Georges will remain as a link from one life to another. It’s not a romance (he is gay, and still mourning for a deceased lover), though he does at one moment, impulsively, desperately and foolishly, try to kiss Ann. He’s willing to let her have the small house at his Brittany home, which she wants as a ‘hut’, to live minimalisticly, though once she has cashed in everything she has, literally, Ann disappears.

She travels from country to country, shedding clothing and indentities as she goes along until, on the island of Ischia, she finds a small, dilapidated one-level house with a stunning view of the island’s cliffs and the still, blue Mediterranean, It’s called Villa Amalia and, after making friends with the elderly Amalia, neice of the woman for whom it was named, she takes up residence.

Eventually, it becomes her permanent residence, as the film seems to suggest. Before that, as a consequence of developing a cramp after swimming out too far into the bay, Ann is rescued by the young,attractive Giulia (Maya Sansa) with whom she enters into a lesbian relationship that’s ninety-nine point nine percent offscreen.

Also, when Ann’s mother (from whom she is estranged but whom she visits in mid-film, in Brittany) dies, her father turns up at the funeral. Initially, Ann runs from him, because after starting her on the way to becoming a musician, he abandoned his family after her younger brother, Nicola, died aged 6. He ran away, Ann is running away, Q.E.D.

It has the feel of that. As I may have mentioned before, I like Isabelle Huppert, and would be willing to sit through a ninety minute film during which all she does is lick postage stamps and affix them to envelopes, providing the camera is on her at least ninety-five percent of the time, and she is such a brilliant actress that I am sure she would give that far more subtlety than the part deserves, but Villa Amalia on a first viewing is not one of her great films.

Those who praise it refer to it as a study of a strong independent woman remaking her life with determination after a terrible betrayal, and that is a valid description of the concept and the story. But the idea is, for me and many others, undermined by many factors, but principally by the combination of Huppert’s performance and the deliberately bitty and disjointed approach Jacquot takes as both Director and Scripter (although this is apparently an exact echo of the book).

Huppert’s performance is decidedly low-key from beginning to end. There is no great energy to her performance, and she takes part in many silent scenes, not least in the impressionistic travelling sequence when she drifts from country to country and identity to identity, rarely speaking, detached from her surroundings, most often seen from back view. At no point does the story give us or her any opportunity to see her as she was, who she was, what she did, how she spoke or laughed or cried. Jacquot begins at the end, which is itself a beginning, but we only know Ann in this new and unestablished role.

And that’s a criticism of the film as a whole. Jacquot works in an elliptical style, never offering explanations until the end, when they are both too late and too banal. Scenes are kept short, frequently dark, and fade to black continually, leaving the audience to construct what happens in between. In practical matters that’s not too difficult, but characters are introduced without introduction, and the audience has to work things out for themselves.

This is not a bad thing, in itself, but Jacquot, for all his experience, produces far too little connecting tissue at times. Take the minor role of Veri, another old schoolfriend of Ann-Eliane, who enters the film by just letting herself into Ann’s mother’s own home with her own key. How do we know she’s not a previously unmentioned relative of Ann, a sister? We don’t. We work out she’s a friend because she clearly knows Ann as Eliane, but her role is symbolic of the film: Ann is cutting off all her former life, and Jacquot cuts it off firmly too. Neither Ann nor the film ultimately grow enough roots to be secure.

And the arrival of Papa (a cameo by Peter Arens) is both a contradiction of this and a too-late and too dull attempt to cast Ann in a ‘like father, like daughter’ mould that completely diminishes her. And the thrown in information that Papa is Jewish, making Ann half-Jewish, for all that when religion has been involved she’s been shown as being Catholic, like her mother, is an unattached and in context pointless strand.

I’d long realised that by the nature of the film, it would not have an ending, just a place to stop. There were several points in the closing minutes, up to a good ten minutes from the actual end, where the curtain could have been drawn with a degree of at least intriguing randomness, but Jacquot chose to stop in a relatively trite place, with Ann returning to Villa Amalia and opening its doors and shutters.

But of course I’ll keep the DVD and of course I’ll watch it again. Opinions can change, even mine, but in the meantime it’s Isabelle Huppert, and although she lets herself look drawn and aging, especially in the early part of the film, she’s still a delight to see, especially when her hair is brushed out long, and even when she is projecting an air of indifference and detachment, she is always fascinating to watch.

Film 2019: Mulholland Drive

And she didn’t wake up but it was all still a dream. Or was it?

Despite my love for Twin Peaks, I’ve never been a follower of David Lynch’s films, so much so that I was more than surprised to discover that he’s only directed ten in total. With Mulholland Drive, bought last year, saved for 2019, seen for the first time, I have now seen exactly half of his output.

I approached watching the film with as little information as possible, with clean hands and composure, as you might say. I was thus not aware that Lynch had originally pitched the idea as a television series, had filmed a pilot episode that had been rejected, leading him (as was done with the Twin Peaks pilot, even though that was accepted) to extend the film to create a complete story. It explains a lot.

Mulholland Drive admits of no one convincing interpretation. In part this derives from the implantation of a variety of scenes featuring characters, mostly unnamed, who have no apparent relevance to what seems to be the central story. These are remnants of what would, we assume, have been sub-plots and plots in an open-ended TV series, here echoes of stories we never even begin to see for themselves. Anyone who attempts to fold these into one over-arching story is setting themselves an impossible task.

The main strand centres itself upon Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), Rita (Laura Elena Harring), Diane Selwyn (Watts again) and Camilla Rhodes (Melissa George and Harring at different stages). Betty, bright, blonde, perky, outwardly naive, is an aspiring actress from Ontario, arriving in Los Angeles to stay at the apartment of her Aunt Ruth, who’s someone in the industry, away in connection with a film, whilst she gets her career going. Rita, dark-haired, sultry, is an amnesiac who has lost her memory after a car crash on Mulholland Drive (a surprise stop, a gun pointed at her), who was wandered down the hill, taken refuge in Aunt Ruth’s apartment and fallen asleep, to be discovered in the shower by Betty.

‘Rita’ (who takes the name from a film poster starring Rita Hayworth) has hundreds of thousands of dollars in her handbag, and a mysterious triangular blue key. Betty sets out to help Rita rediscover her identity, despite the dark-haired woman’s fears and refusal to bring in the Police.

Elsewhere, moody and arrogant Director Adam Keshler (Justin Theroux) is under pressure to cast an unknown actress, Camilla Rhodes, in his latest film (title and story unknown, but set in the Fifties with teen music of the period). This is coming from the Mob. Adam however rebels, refuses, smashes up the Santigliani Brothers’ limo, as a result of which the film is shut down completely. He returns home to find his wife Lorraine in bed with Billy Ray Cyrus, the pool guy, retaliates by pouring pink paint into her jewellery box, and winds up in a cheap hotel with his credit revoked.

A mysterious character named the Cowboy advises Keshler to hire Camilla Rhodes for the film. Keshler hires Camilla, at this time being played by Melissa George.

Also, an incompetent assassin kills a guy for a book of telephone numbers. In trying to rig the scene to look like a suicide, he shoots a fat woma in the next cheap office, through the wall, forcing him to also have to kill her, a male cleaner and his vacuum cleaner.

The assassin has nothing else to do with the film, no more than the guy who wants to eat at a certain Winkie’s diner because he’s twice dreamed of being there, afraid, and seeing a horrible face through the wall, and who finds the guy out back of the diner and collapses in terror.

No, David Lynch films are not noted for orthodox narrative and cohesive structure, but Mulholland Drive is deliberately oneiromatic and impressionistic by comparison with his normal work.

Betty takes Rita out to the above-mentioned diner for something to eat, but Rita recovers a name, Diane Selwyn, after she sees a waitress’s name-badge of the same first name. Diane’s address is located, the  girls break in, find the body of a blonde on the bed, dead several days.

In between times, Rita helps Betty rehearse her lines for an audition. The lines are cheap and nasty, and Betty is unconvinced by them, but when she plays her audition, with the veteran ex-star who will be playing opposit her, her reading is wholly different, compelling, deeply sexual, riveting, and a far cry from the perky, naive Betty. Everyone applauds her, a career is born.

The body has terrified both women. Rita starts hacking at her hair, but Betty persuades her to ccalm down, fashions for her a blonde wig that makes her look an awful lot like Betty. She also invites Rita to share her bed that night, rather than sleep on the sofa in a towel again. They have enthusiastic sex and Betty tells Rita that she loves her.

At 2.00am Rita awakens, and insistes on Betty accompanying her to a weried, all-night club, Club Silenzio. There, the MC resides over multilingual tapes; nothing is real. Rebekah Del Rio performs an a capella Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying’ that makes both women cry, butwhen she collapses mid-song, that too is a tape. Betty finds a square blue box in her handbag, with a triangular keyhole.

They return to Aunt Ruth’s apartment. While Rita gets the key from its hiding place, Betty vanishes. Rita turns the key. She vanishes. The box falling makes a noise. Aunt Ruth checks she hasn’t got a prowler and goes back to bed.

The remainder of the film takes place in what may be a different reality, an alternate timeline, the recent past of the reality to which everything so far has been a fantasy or a dream. Watts is now Diane Selwyn, from Ontario, a would-be actress, but one whose career has failed, and who is bitter. She is living with Camilla Rhodes, now played by Harring, a much more successful actress, with whom she is in a lesbian relationship.

Camilla’s been cast in Keshler’s film. In order to demonstrate to an actor how hewants a kissing scene played, Keshler acts it out with Camilla. He orders the set cleared, except for Diane, at Camilla’s request, so Diane can watch Camilla being kissed.

Diane loves Camilla passionately but Camilla doesn’t love her. She ends the physical side of the relationship and Diane throws her out. Later, Camilla sends a car for Diane, that brings her to Mulholland Drive, and makes a surprise stop. There’s no gun this time, just Camilla to lead her to a party at Keshler’s house, for successful people. Betty’s landlady (Ann Miller in her last role) is now Keshler’s mother. At the table, Keshler announces he and Camilla are to marry, except that both are laughing too hard to get the word out. A blonde actress, Melissa George again, stops to talk to Camilla, kisses her intimately in front of the humiliated, tormented Diane.

Next, Diane is in the recurring Winkie’ss, hiring an assassin to kill Camilla. The waitress’s name-badge reads Betty. She’ll know when it’s done because she’ll find a blue key. That blue key’s already turned up in Diane’s apartment. Two small shieking, giggling, arm-waving people – the elderly couple who say with Betty Elms on her flight into LA, crawl under her door and chase her into the bedroom, where Diane pulls a gun out of her bedside table and shoots herself in the head.

The last word takes place back at the Club. A blue-haired woman in a balcony box seat slowly pronounces, “Silenzio”.

And she didn’t wake up but it was all still a dream. Or was it?

The dream imterpretation – that Betty and Rita are a fantasy equivalent, a happy ending version of Diane Selwyn’s life – was an early interpretation from many critics and film-goers, and I have to admit that it’s my first thought too. In true Lynchian fashion, there are elements in the Diane sequence that can be seen as filtering back into the fantasy of a strange, troubled, mysterious adventure, that nevertheless fulfils Diane’s thwarted aspirations in two key areas: Betty is a superb actress and Rita is in love with her (is she though? Only Betty says it, and immediately they make love, Rita takes over as the dominant half of their relationship, so much so that Betty vanishes. But isn’t that like dreams, settingyou up and droppingyou through trapdoors?)

Many people think that interpretation too simplistic, and that it doesn’t account for the whole film. Me, I’d have liked to have seen Mulholland Drive the series, though Lynch prefers the film, and to have seen where the unfinished strands might have led. Though I enjoyed the film immensely, and was fascinated by it, my ultimate analysis is that all the strands were unfinished. I realise that means I’m supposed to finish them myself, and maybe further viewings will begin to do that for me.

I don’t have any clever last line for this film. But I will be watching it again. And soon.