Thursday, 18 July 2019

Henri Storck, Part 3: De patroon is dood (1938)

De patroon is dood. Image: Fonds Henri Storck
The final film we'll look at in our overview of Henri Storck's "social films" is an appropriately solemn documentary of the funeral of Belgische Werkliedenpartij leader Emile Vandervelde.  De patroon is dood was one of five films made by its director in 1938, and it closes out the Cinematek "social films" set in a manner which underlines Storck's greatness.  It may lack the immediacy of Borinage or De huizen van ellende, but De patroon is dood shows another side of Storck as he records a sober state occasion in an inventive yet unfussy manner.

Camille Huysmans. Image: Eric Koch (ANEFO) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Emile Vandervelde was a leading figure in both Belgian and international socialism, and earned the nickname "The Boss" long before it was hijacked by a certain singer-songwriter from New Jersey.  He held several ministerial posts, with his final cabinet role being Minister of Public Health in Paul van Zeeland's government.  Critical of King Leopold II's creation (and direct rule) of the Congo Free State and eager to intervene in the Spanish Civil War, Vandervelde was a strong proponent of internationalism, but he would nevertheless come under pressure from younger members of his party as his career (and life) headed towards its conclusion.  His strong socialist ideals very much lined up with those of Henri Storck, so the existence of this film isn't too surprising, and it serves a dual function as both tribute and public record.

Émile Vandervelde 1919
Emile Vandervelde. Image: Harris & Ewing [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Storck's deftly edited short film - it's less than half an hour long - captures both the scale and spectacle of the obsèque as huge crowds take to the streets of Brussels.  The funeral was held on the penultimate day of 1938, and it was a cold, grey and wet Friday, but this didn't deter those who wished to pay their final respects to a man who'd served his people right up to the end.  Storck expertly records the mourning, the flags, the flowers and, most poignantly, the torches which are held aloft as the brief December daylight fades.  We also hear from two future Prime Ministers in the form of Léon Blum - who by that stage had already held office twice in France - and Camille Huysmans; their presence here serves to further underline the great importance of Emile Vandervelde to Belgian politics, and De patroon is dood does much to secure the legacies of both its director and his subject.

Darren Arnold

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Henri Storck, Part 2: De huizen van ellende (1937)

The booklet which accompanies the Cinematek Blu-ray/DVD set which includes De huizen van ellende refers to the film as a "fictional documentary".  While this may sound like an oxymoron, it's actually a pretty fair description of a film in which non-professionals play out scenarios closely matching real events they were directly involved in.  As such, De huizen van ellende isn't far removed from the work of Jean Rouch, that master of the ethnographic film, who correctly observed that subjects will always be affected by their awareness of the camera.  Four years on from Borinage and minus Joris Ivens (who at that time was in Spain with Ernest Hemingway), Henri Storck had overhauled his technique and now included dialogue in a film which took an unblinking look at Belgian slum housing and all its attendant problems.  In many ways this is a companion piece to Borinage, as the subject of the earlier film - the 1932 miners' strike - chiefly served to highlight the truly terrible living conditions of the workers and their families.  There's a further link in that the French titles of these two films share a highly apt word: misère.

De huizen van ellende, in both content and message, bears similarities to the 1935 John Grierson production Housing Problems, which documented how the same issue was presenting itself on the other side of the English Channel, where the Greenwood Act - which encouraged councils to demolish slum housing and build new homes - had been passed in 1930.  These two films charted the same, very real problem, and both stood as pieces of propaganda in which the filmmakers' feelings could hardly have been more obvious.  Despite the awful living conditions witnessed in both works, there is a shared optimism as these films look to the future and the promise of the new, planned housing estates which would significantly raise the living standards of those who had endured (and survived) life in the slums.  As De huizen van ellende comes to a close, we are shown the demolition of slum dwellings, and the viewer can share in the joy of the onlooking crowds, who are delighted to witness the razing of these miserable, unsanitary buildings.

Before this most welcome release, however, Storck presents us with a suffocating, claustrophobic litany of deprivation: overcrowding, pitiless landlords, tuberculosis, maternal mortality, evictions, lack of schooling, loan sharks... surviving another day amidst such squalor and disease was about as good as it got for the slums' forlorn inhabitants.  And although this impressive slice of docufiction does end on a relatively uplifting note, we are all too conscious of the sad fact that the outbreak of WW2 would soon see Belgium facing far bigger problems than slum accommodation; the UK of Grierson's film, which during wartime would host many exiled Belgians as well as the Belgische regering in Londen, would endure an even greater housing crisis as the Luftwaffe bombs rained down.

Darren Arnold

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Henri Storck, Part 1: Borinage (w/ Joris Ivens, 1933)

Joris Ivens
Joris Ivens. Image: NOS [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl], via Wikimedia Commons
It is hard to overstate the importance of Henri Storck's contribution to documentary film.  The Oostende native was one of the founders of the Royal Belgian Film Archive and appeared in two classics of 20th century cinema: Jean Vigo's Zero for Conduct and Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.  These achievements alone would make for a formidable CV before you even begin to consider Storck's 50+ years as a director.  Storck died 20 years ago, but we can still see much of his pioneering work thanks to the archive he helped establish; Cinematek (as the KBF is now known) have released an excellent series of Blu-ray/DVD sets featuring some of the director's best documentaries.  Over the next few posts, we'll take a look at one of these sets, a dual-format release containing three titles known as "the social films".  Although rather expensive, this release (and Cinematek's work in general) is definitely worthy of your time and money.  The discs are region-free, and Dutch, English and French options are included, as is a nice booklet with notes in all three languages; it's clear that Cinematek are really pushing for Storck's work to reach as wide an audience as possible.
Borinage. Image: Fonds Henri Storck
The first film in the set, Borinage, is arguably Storck's finest (half) hour.  It is a collaboration between Storck and Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens, and it documents the effects of the miners' strike of 1932 in the area of the title.  Ivens and Storck initially set out to make a balanced, objective documentary on a subject most of Belgium was indifferent towards, but upon arriving in the Borinage and witnessing the abject poverty and appalling living conditions firsthand, the pair soon changed tack.  The unsympathetic nature of both mine owners and police is plain to see, and Storck and Ivens formed a good relationship with the striking miners and their families.  While the filmmakers were able to capture genuine footage, they also collaborated with the workers in order to film reconstructed scenes (a practice Storck would return to in future films), with the impoverished miners accepting nothing more than bread as payment for their efforts.
Jean Vigo
Jean Vigo. Image: unknown/неизвестно [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The scale of the poverty on display here really has to be seen to be believed, and it is incredible to think that this is 20th century western Europe on film.  The inhabitants of the overcrowded hovels are shown resorting to increasingly desperate measures, ranging from using their own floorboards as firewood to drinking from a flooded cellar in the absence of potable water.  It's the sort of thing you might read about in Zola (whose Germinal, filmed by Claude Berri in 1993, unfolded against the backdrop of a miners' strike), but seeing real footage of starving, unwashed, uneducated children facing yet another interminably bleak day is a most upsetting experience.
Chantal Akerman - video still (cropped)
Chantal Akerman. Image: Mario De Munck [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Borinage was originally a silent film which played with Dutch and French intertitles, although in the 1960s these were replaced by a voiceover by Cinematek co-founder André Thirifays; this later version is the one included on the Cinematek DVD.  The absence of dialogue somehow lends a greater authenticity to the work, although Storck would change his approach when it came to the next entry in the "social films" set (De huizen van ellende), which we'll discuss in an upcoming post.  Henri Storck didn't stay wholly rooted in the documentary format, and even directed a fictional feature film (1952's The Smugglers' Banquet); his working methods were a clear influence on many, including his compatriot Agnès Varda.  Please give half an hour of your time to Borinage if you've never seen it - it's a remarkable documentary, and its preservation alone is a major cause for celebration.

Darren Arnold

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition (26/4/19–15/9/19)

Danny Torrance's jumper from The Shining
Seven years ago Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition could be experienced at Amsterdam's EYE Filmmuseum and has since wound its way (via cities including Toronto, Frankfurt and Barcelona) to London's Design Museum, where it runs until the 15th of September.  This terrific exhibition features countless props, costumes, annotated scripts, lenses, posters, and so on, and you should make every effort to see if it ever turns up anywhere near you.  It even gives you the opportunity to see the sole Oscar won by Kubrick, which was awarded to the director for his groundbreaking FX work on 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Kubrick may have made just 13 feature films in 46 years, but he's as good a shout as any for the label of 🐐.

Axes used in The Shining's most famous scene
The exhibition's impressive entrance area sets the mood nicely, with the initial fanfare from Richard Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra providing its usual frisson.  You swiftly emerge into a room which is slightly overwhelming, and it's difficult to work out where to start when faced with four walls of artefacts and a couple of central islands featuring yet more exhibits.  The staff do point out that this part is non-chronological (as, it soon transpires, is the rest of the exhibition), so there's no real problem in dotting around and finding less busy spots.  This first room presents assorted Kubrickiana from various stages of the director's life and career, and it's in here that we find an interesting Dutch connection in the form of a mention of a film called Aryan Papers.  You may not have heard of this film as it was one of Kubrick's discarded projects, and it's never received anything like the amount of discussion and scrutiny afforded to his abandoned epic Napoleon.   

Oscar-winning costumes from Barry Lyndon
For Aryan Papers, which was to be a film about the holocaust, Kubrick had lined up Dutch actress Johanna ter Steege for the leading role.  At that point (the early 1990s) ter Steege was best known for her award-winning performance in George Sluizer's Spoorloos, and she travelled to England to meet with Kubrick, who was greatly impressed by the actress.  Once the role was confirmed as hers, ter Steege waited for the call to start work on the production, and she would receive frequent, reassuring updates from Kubrick's producer (and brother-in-law) Jan Harlan, who told the actress not to worry about any postponements or delays.  During this extended period of downtime ter Steege turned down other roles, but eventually she received the dreaded news that Kubrick had decided to abandon the film.  This decision was at least partly influenced by the fact that his previous film, Full Metal Jacket, had appeared shortly after another Vietnam War movie, Oliver Stone's Platoon, and Kubrick felt that this close proximity had not been especially helpful.  So when he learned that Steven Spielberg's thematically similar Schindler's List was due to be released before Aryan Papers, he decided to call time on the project.  Kubrick would complete one more film - Eyes Wide Shut - before dying, aged 70, in 1999.

2001: A Space Odyssey's Space Station V
Following the first room, there are ten separate displays, each devoted to a single film.  Kubrick's first three movies aren't included here, but everything from 1957's Paths of Glory on gets a substantial space in which props (and other items from the relevant production) are often augmented by a clip from the given film.  Quite naturally, chances are you'll spend longer in the rooms which focus on your own particular favourites, but the final area, devoted to 2001, is probably the pick of the bunch, with The Shining's patch coming a close second.  The Full Metal Jacket display has some interesting photographs of Beckton Gas Works, which stood in for ruined Vietnamese buildings, but I didn't spot any pictures of Cliffe, the village where some of the open country scenes were filmed.  I used to live not too far from Cliffe, so I've included a snap of my own of the area which, over three decades ago, temporarily became Vietnamese countryside.

Cliffe, one of the locations for Full Metal Jacket
There is a great deal to see at the exhibition, and perhaps the biggest recommendation that can be given is that, like many of Kubrick's films, it genuinely feels as if it has real replay value.  It would take many hours to read and study everything on display, so a second visit is sure to reveal details which weren't noticed first time around.  We are fortunate that Kubrick lived and worked in an age when practical effects still dominated - just think how much would be missing from this show if his work was driven by CGI.  Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition will almost certainly leave you with the desire to jump back into the films, so make sure you have a decent selection of Kubrick movies lined up for the days following your visit to this justifiably popular attraction.

Words/images: Darren Arnold

Thursday, 20 June 2019

The Hummingbird Project (Kim Nguyen, 2018)

Director Kim Nguyen's eclectic filmography includes the likes of the DR Congo-set War Witch (which was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar) and the excellent, snow-drenched Two Lovers and a Bear, and it's the offbeat spirit of the latter which inhabits The Hummingbird Project.  The film's Belgian funding is reflected in the casting of Flemish actor Johan Heldenbergh in a fine supporting role, but the film's two main stars are Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgård, who play cousins attempting to install a long-distance fibre optic cable.  While the premise doesn't sound terribly exciting, The Hummingbird Project manages to be a consistently engaging movie, helped no end by the winning performances of two eminently watchable actors.

Vincent (Eisenberg) and Anton (Skarsgård) are employees of a stock trading company headed by the ruthless Eva (a scenery-chewing Salma Hayek).  The cousins have an idea of how they might make millions, if not billions, of their own, which involves running a cable, one that can transfer data at speeds greater than those of the existing network, all the way between Kansas and New York.  In order to achieve such a speed, the cable itself must carry virtually lossless data at breakneck pace and, more importantly, run in a straight line, which involves much drilling, not to mention negotiations with not-always-amenable landowners.  As the pair resign from Eva's company to pursue this secret project, their ex-boss is bent on discovering and disrupting their plans.  Vincent and Anton rope in the affable Mark (Michael Mando, so good as villain Vaas in Far Cry 3) to oversee the complicated drilling work, and the project receives considerable funding from the less affable - but extremely wealthy - Bryan Taylor (Frank Schorpion). 

Not too far into the film, there's a development involving Vincent which instils a fresh urgency to the cousins' project; Eisenberg brings real pathos to his role, and while his fast-talking, perma-smoking, jittery frontman may fool those around him, the viewer is privy to the pain which lies behind those haunted eyes.  In contrast, Skarsgård's Anton is an introverted, socially awkward type who dreams of the country life, yet he seems quietly fulfilled by his family in a way which highlights the hole in Vincent's existence; a touching scene sees Vincent ask if it would be OK if he took Anton's kids out for ice cream once the mammoth project is completed.  Anton's affirmative response may appear casual, even throwaway, but there's a real sense that he knows just how much this simple act of belonging would mean to his cousin.

For all its poignancy, The Hummingbird Project isn't scared to mix things up a bit by throwing in  some well-judged humour, with a comic highlight being the spontaneous victory dance performed by the normally buttoned-down Anton.  The way in which this moderately serious tale is punctuated with moments of levity draws parallels with the work of Nguyen's compatriot Denys Arcand, whose The Decline of the American Empire is explicity recalled in a scene in which Eisenberg's character visits the bathroom.  You suspect that the great Arcand, whose latest film The Fall of the American Empire continues his examination of the degrading effect of money on civilisation, would approve of Nguyen's own idiosyncratic take on the race to the bottom.

Darren Arnold


Monday, 17 June 2019

Intimate Audrey (1/5/19–25/8/19)

Intimate Audrey is a ‘bespoke’ exhibition on the life of Audrey Hepburn created by her son, Sean Hepburn Ferrer, to celebrate her 90th birthday anniversary in her birth town of Brussels, Belgium. All of its profits will go to EURORDIS-Rare Diseases Europe and the Brugmann and Bordet hospitals in Brussels.

Intimate Audrey is een unique tentoonstelling over het leven van Audrey Hepburn, opgericht door haar zoon, Sean Hepburn Ferrer, ter gelegenheid van haar 90ste verjaardag in haar geboortestad Brussel. Alle winst zal worden gedoneerd aan EURORDIS-Rare Diseases Europe en aan ziekenhuizen Brugmann en Bordet gelegen in Brussel. 

Composed in large part of unpublished photographs, it focuses entirely on the woman - not the icon. It is the woman behind the legend who is ‘coming home’.

De tentoonstelling zal voornamelijk bestaan uit nooit eerder vertoond fotomateriaal, documenten en objecten die tot haar behoorden, de tentoonstelling zal zich uitsluitend richten op de vrouw die ze was en niet het icoon. Het is de vrouw achter deze legende die terugkomt naar de stad waar ze het licht heeft gezien.

The exhibition, laid out over 800 square meters over the first 2 floors of the Gallerie Vanderborght in Brussels, includes several hundred original and re-printed photographs, a limited amount of memorabilia, dresses and accessories, as well as her never before seen fashion drawings and humanitarian writings.

De tentoonstelling, die zich uitstrekt over 800 vierkante meter op de twee eerste verdiepingen van de Vanderborght galerijen in Brussel, omvat honderden originele en herdrukte foto's, een gelimiteerd aantal souvenirs, jurken en accessoires. Maar evenwel haar ongepubliceerde werken zoals haar mode ontwerpen en humanitaire geschriften.

Words/images: Intimate Audrey

Monday, 3 June 2019

The Devils (Devil's Advocates)

Time for a shameless plug here: the book I've been working on for the past couple of years or so is finally available!  It's part of the Devil's Advocates series of books, each volume of which contains an analysis of a notable horror film.  My own particular entry looks at Ken Russell's 1971 shocker The Devils—a film which has never ceased to impress me since I first encountered it a full three decades ago.  The book is published by those fine folks at Auteur, and is available both in brick-and-mortar bookshops and online from, among other places, the following Amazon stores:

UK   –   France      Canada

US      Germany      Spain

Italy      Australia      UAE

Japan      India      Mexico

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Kursk (Thomas Vinterberg, 2018)

It's hard to believe that next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the Kursk submarine disaster, which saw 118 men lose their lives during Russia's first significant naval exercise since the fall of the USSR.  Although only on a training mission, the Kursk was carrying a full complement of live weapons, and these were the source of an accidental explosion which saw the stricken vessel sink to the bottom of the Barents Sea.  Shortly after settling, a second, much larger explosion - which registered 4.2 on the Richter scale - was recorded.  It was hours before anyone realised that the submarine was missing - its rescue buoy, reportedly welded in place, had failed to deploy - and many days before a rescue team was able to get inside the vessel; by that stage, as we all know, it was far too late.  The Russian government came under much criticism for its handling of the incident - after locating the submarine yet failing to attach a diving bell to it, the government rebuffed a number of offers of help from other nations including France, Germany and Israel, with President Putin - who at that point had been in his role for just a few months - eventually accepting help from the UK and Norway.  The British-Norwegian teams of divers worked to help access the submarine and facilitate the recovering of the bodies.

The real horror at the heart of the Kursk story lies not with the deaths of those who perished as a result of the initial explosions and subsequent flooding - although that is horrific enough - but in the submarine's ninth compartment, where 23 men managed to hole up in the dark and cold.  In this area, the men had an air pocket that would have sustained them for a while, but nothing like the time it took for help to arrive.  The released parts of a letter written by a Captain-Lieutenant, who fumbled his way around the page in the dark while using his illuminated wristwatch to note down the time, are the only real personal glimpses we have of what it was like for these men who, as it turned out, were hideously unlucky to have survived the explosions and their immediate aftermath.  The Captain-Lieutenant is played by Matthias Schoenaerts, an appealing and dependable actor who captures the essence of someone who was both liked and respected by his men, and who did his best to keep everyone's spirits up in the face of a clock which was always going to run out.

Kursk, a production from Luc Besson's EuropaCorp, sees Schoenearts reteam with Thomas Vinterberg, with the two having previously collaborated on 2015 literary adaptation Far from the Madding Crowd.  Vinterberg's roaring success of a debut feature, Festen, was released before the Kursk even sank, and in the intervening years he's largely struggled to live up to his first film, although his Oscar-nominated Jagten was terrific.  He is, however,  a consistently interesting filmmaker, and one who has always worked fairly steadily, although a fairly orthodox film like Kursk provides him with few opportunities to apply the kind of off-kilter flourishes we might expect from this director.  The pan-European cast also features Léa Seydoux, Colin Firth and Max von Sydow; if nothing else, the production, which may well be dismissed by some as a Euro-pudding, stands as a display of international co-operation that's in sharp contrast to both the belligerence at the core of the Kursk story and the current global political climate.

That the sinking of the Kursk (which, like the Titanic, was widely considered unsinkable) comes early in the film and not at the climax tells us much about the scale of the terror here; in many movies, the critical explosions would come after a long buildup.  Kursk proves to be a tough watch - as a film based on terrible real-life events, its preordained outcome hovers over the entire running time; matters are made much worse through watching the near-miss of the diving bell as it fails to lock onto the sub.  Some of these men came so close to being saved, but the tragic tale sticks to its awful path, as it must; it's like Open Water on a much larger scale.  Kursk is a competent if rather workmanlike film, yet one which grows more disturbing once you've seen it; it's only in the hours and days after seeing the film that the sorry fate of these men will really haunt you.  EuropaCorp's films - outside of Besson's own directorial efforts - tend to be fairly generic, and the starry Kursk is no exception.  But regardless of its merits, Kursk's very existence serves as a reminder of a disaster many of us won't have thought about for some time.

Darren Arnold

Images: EuropaCorp

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Sick, Sick, Sick (Alice Furtado, 2019)

Now that May is upon us, the Cannes Film Festival is just around the corner - and for this year's edition they have, quite appropriately, paid tribute to Agnès Varda via the terrific official poster.  By my reckoning, there are only three Dutch titles on offer at the festival, with Sick, Sick, Sick being one of them.  Below you can find a bit more information on this intriguing film, which I hope to see once it begins its international rollout. (DA)

Please note: all the following words and pictures are copyright © 2019 THE PR FACTORY.

The Brazilian-French-Dutch coproduction Sick, Sick, Sick by Brazilian director Alice Furtado will have its World Premiere at the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs (Directors' Fortnight) in Cannes. It is her feature debut as director. 

Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1987, Alice Furtado graduated in cinema at Universidade Federal Fluminense (Brazil), and post graduated at Le Fresnoy (France). She directed the short films Duelo Antes Da Noite (2010) and La Grenouille et Dieu (2013). As an editor, she worked in Eduardo Williams' first feature El Auge del Humano, and Os Sonâmbulos, by Thiago Mata Machado. 

Sick, Sick, Sick (Sem Seu Sangue) is a film about love and its destabilizing potential. Love that puts the mechanic, productive functioning of routine to test. It is also a film about desire, this strong and passionate feeling that can motivate people to be better than they ever thought they could be, but that can also lead to doom. These two feelings, love and desire, walk hand in hand as a double edge sword. They enhance each other but can also be a very destructive (and yet, powerful) combination. - Alice Furtado

Synopsis: Silvia is an introspective young girl who is not interested in the daily routine between family and school. Everything abruptly changes when Artur arrives unexpectedly in her class, after being banned from several other schools. Silvia is amazed by the vitality of the boy, who actually suffers from a serious illness - hemophilia. The two immerse themselves in an intense and brief coexistence, interrupted by an accident in which Artur bleeds to death. Silvia gets sick and sees her life turn into a strange nightmare. The mourning gradually becomes an obsession, and obsession becomes a goal - Silvia will do anything to bring him back to life.

Friday, 12 April 2019

The Sisters Brothers (Jacques Audiard, 2018)

It can often be rather worrying when an established director makes a film in a foreign language for the first time, but the stakes seem especially high when the filmmaker in question is arguably the greatest director working today.  It's fair to say that Jacques Audiard's stunning run from Read My Lips through Dheepan has cemented his place as one of the true greats - a director who rarely seems to put a foot out of place.  Audiard had much to risk by stepping out of his comfort zone to make a film in English; his prior work was always highly nuanced, and filmmakers working in another tongue can often pass over the subtleties of that language.  Happily - and possibly surprisingly - Audiard comes up trumps with The Sisters Brothers, a terrific western  that can proudly sit alongside his other works such as Rust and Bone and A Prophet.  The film's quality is evident from the off, and any doubts we may have had are quickly extinguished.

Set in the unforgiving Oregon of the 1850s, the film follows hitmen brothers Charlie and Eli (Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reilly) as they carry out the bidding of a wealthy Commodore (Rutger Hauer).  As gunfighters, the brothers prove to be as good as anyone around, and even when the pair are outnumbered, they're never outgunned.  Eli is the more sensitive of the two, while Charlie regularly drowns his own demons in alcohol, which often leaves him in no condition to ride - although it seems that little can blunt his fighting skills.  The Commodore sends the two to hunt down Warm (Riz Ahmed), a timid and sickly-looking gent on his way to California with the Gold Rush.  Taking no chances, the Commodore has also hired Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), a private detective who locates and befriends Warm; Morris grows uneasy at the thought of the grisly end which awaits Warm when the Sisters catch up him, and he and the would-be prospector set out for California together.  With this complication in place, the Sisters find themselves on the trail of both Warm and Morris.

When the two parties eventually come face to face, Audiard brilliantly wrong-foots us and the story takes an unexpected turn.  To detail it here would be to say a little too much, but suffice to say that Warm has been working on a formula for locating gold, and this becomes central to the fates of all four men.  This development comes as part of a whole which feels at once fresh and familiar; Audiard and his trusted co-writer Thomas Bidegain, not for the first time, have created a world in which there's a perfect balance of light and shade.  It is fair to say that the way you view each of the four main characters will change - probably more than once - over the course of the film's running time.  All of this is captured magnificently by the great Belgian cinematographer Benoit Debîe, who recently lensed Gaspar Noé's Climax; Debie makes a major contribution when it comes to putting us in the thick of lawless, dusty 19th century America (although the film was actually shot in Spain).  There are few cinematographers whose work is worth viewing regardless of the director they're teamed with, but Debie's sterling efforts are always worth seeking out; all the better when he links up with the likes of Noé and Audiard.

The Sisters Brothers is adapted from a novel by Canadian author Patrick deWitt, who wrote the screenplay for Terri, which coincidentally also starred John C. Reilly - who's on double duty for The Sisters Brothers, with the actor also taking on the role of producer (alongside Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, no less).  You can see the appeal of the story to Audiard: criminals feature prominently in all of his films (bar A Self-Made Hero), and the same concerns are prevalent here - even if the milieu marks new territory for the director.  A recurrent theme in Audiard's work - of the man who tries to turn away from a life of crime - is also present in The Sisters Brothers.  So, the essence of the film actually isn't so different from what we have come to expect from Jacques Audiard, even if the packaging is unfamiliar.  What is noticeably different this time around is that Audiard pushes more characters to the forefront; usually, his films focus almost exclusively on one or two people, but here he manages to spread the load among the four main characters and, remarkably, they are all equally fascinating.  As such, it's something of an ensemble piece, one which features a quartet of actors on top form.  Whether Audiard ventures into English-language filmmaking again remains to be seen, but what isn't in any doubt is that The Sisters Brothers is a must-see film of tremendous quality.

Darren Arnold

Images: UniFrance

Monday, 1 April 2019

Agnès Varda (1928–2019)

Less than a week ago I wrote a few words about the death of Scott Walker, and since then we've learned that another cultural heavyweight has left us.  Agnès Varda, the Belgian filmmaker who contributed so much to the French New Wave and beyond, died of cancer on Friday.  Varda was a prolific director who busied herself to the very end - her latest film Varda by Agnès premiered less than two months ago, and her 2017 documentary Faces Places was nominated for an Oscar and can now be viewed on Netflix.

Varda was a maker of both narrative films and documentaries, but actually never seemed happier than when she was occupying that opaque space between the two - see Jacquot and Jane B. by Agnès V. for prime examples.  She was married to the legendary French director Jacques Demy, whose frequent cinematic forays into fantasy worlds stood in sharp contrast to the pragmatic non-fictional cinema Varda was so fond of.  It is now nearly 30 years since Demy died, and the widowed Varda worked hard to maintain her late husband's legacy, overseeing restorations and re-releases of the likes of Lola and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

A full decade ago, I reviewed Varda's then-current The Beaches of Agnès for the print version of Holland Focus.  You can view a washed-out scan of that article here; now, as then, I'd recommend that you give this excellent film a look.  Like Demy, Agnès Varda was a true giant of cinema, and our screens will be much poorer without her.

Darren Arnold

Image: Le Pacte

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Scott Walker (1943–2019)

By Unknown photographer - Dutch TV programme Fenklup 
Beeld en Geluid Wiki, CC BY-SA 3.0 nlLink

Yesterday brought the sad news of the death of singer Scott Walker.  Walker was a virtually peerless artist whose discography ran the gamut from sixties chart-toppers to avant-garde experimenta.  Blessed with the perfect pop voice, the man born Noel Scott Engel proved hugely influential; indeed, he was one of very few musical artists whose output would motivate and invigorate David Bowie.  To my ears, Walker's masterpiece was always The Electrician, which appeared on The Walker Brothers' final album Nite Flights, and this track really got under Bowie's skin.  Bowie's stab at capturing the mood created by The Electrician took the form of his fine 1995 track The Motel, and you can read an excellent in-depth article about Bowie's relationship with The Electrician here.

But what does any of this have to do with film/and or the Netherlands?  Well, Walker composed the music for several films, most recently Vox Lux (pictured above), which I saw (and wrote a capsule review of) at last year's London Film Festival.  Walker's few film scores were outstanding, and you got the sense that it was work which suited him down to the ground; such backseat endeavours meant there was no need for that most reluctant of stars to employ the golden voice which had endeared him to more than one generation.  Outside of Walker's bespoke work for cinema, The Electrician was used, most memorably, in Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson.

Besides the top photograph, taken in the 1960s when Walker appeared on popular Dutch TV show Fenklup, is there a Netherlands connection of any kind?  Well, Nite Flights did feature a track named Den Haague, and Walker, like (but before) Bowie, did record a great cover version of Jacques Brel's Amsterdam.  That track is included in the terrific compilation album Scott Walker Sings Jacques Brel - a collection of Walker's late 60s recordings of songs penned by the legendary Belgian singer-songwriter.  Now might be a good time to (re)acquaint yourself with it?

Darren Arnold

Vox Lux image:

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Beautiful Boy (Felix van Groeningen, 2018)

Acht jaar geleden bevond ik mezelf in een hopeloze situatie. Met de rug tegen de muur. Wanhopig zoekend naar een uitweg. Wetende dat ik drastisch mijn levenswijze moest veranderen of ik zou al snel de wortels van groen gras voor eeuwig kunnen bewonderen. De wil om te veranderen was er. De moed ook. Alleen kon ik niet. En nu na al die jaren ben ik blij dat ik toen de juiste knoop heb doorgehakt. Voor mij was Beautiful Boy dan ook een bittere pil om te slikken. Ik had niet gedacht dat ik het er zo moeilijk mee zou hebben. Het was dan wel geen crystal meth of iets gelijkaardigs waar ik problemen mee had, maar er zijn in deze indrukwekkende film zoveel herkeningspunten dat het wel leek alsof het een beetje mijn verhaal was. Een lawine aan gevoelens passeren de revue hier. Trots, vertrouwen, wantrouwen, wanhoop, ontreddering, hoop, geluk, verdriet en moedeloosheid. Een uitzichtloze strijd die van beide kampen onmenselijke krachten eist en een niet te vermijden afloop kent. Ofwel slaagt de persoon erin ofwel moeten diegenen die hem omringen lijdzaam toezien hoe hij zichzelf de vernieling in drinkt, spuit, snuift of slikt. Ik had het er moeilijk mee.

Het mooie aan de film vond ik het feit dat men zich niet enkel en alleen toespitste op de verslaafde Nic (Timothée Chalamet), maar ook op de mensen die hem omringen (vader David Sheff door Steve Carell en stiefmoeder Karen door Maura Tierney). Als verslaafde heb je in je hoogdagen geen enkel besef wat leed je deze mensen aandoet. Alles draait rond het naar binnen krijgen van datgene wat je lichaam nodig heeft. Het is dus niet zoals in Christiane F. – Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo en Animals waar je getuige bent van de geleidelijke aftakeling van de verslaafde zelf. Zowel op fysiek als psychisch vlak. Niet dat Nic er spic en span blijft uitzien de gehele film. Naar het einde toe zie je de vreselijke gevolgen van het dagelijkse gebruik van methamfetamine. Die wazige blik en grauwig, onverzorgd uiterlijk. Maar voornamelijk zijn wisselende gemoedstoestanden en agressief gedrag tegenover anderen is vreselijk om aan te zien. Zijn smeekbedes en beloftes zijn niets meer dan een excuus om weeral te bedelen voor extra cash om het spul waar zijn lichaam naar hunkert, terug aan te schaffen.

Het enige wat ik tegen mijn vrouw zei achteraf was: “Ik hoop dit nooit mee te maken met één van onze twee kids want dit is een echte nachtmerrie”. Als ouder van twee opgroeiende kinderen breekt me het angstzweet uit bij de gedachte dat dit me zou kunnen overkomen. Hoe erg je ook je best doet om ze te beschermen tegen de boze buitenwereld en je ze overlaadt met liefde en aandacht, het moment dat ze zwichten voor de middelen die hun levensbestaan rooskleuriger maakt, weet je dat je een ongelijke strijd gaat voeren. Een gevecht waarbij je, tegen al je oudergevoelens in, op een bepaald moment misschien wel de handdoek in de ring moet werpen en aan jezelf moet bekennen dat je de strijd verloren hebt. Een kind afgeven is vreselijk. Maar de band met je kind verbreken, pretenderen dat ze niet meer existeren en hopen dat ze zonder kleerscheuren uit die periode geraken, is volgens mij tientallen keren erger.

Niet alleen qua thema is Beautiful Boy indrukwekkend te noemen. Ook het acteren van Steve Carell en Timothée Chalamet is weergaloos schitterend. Je voelt gewoonweg de wanhoop bij Steve Carell die zijn zoon tracht te helpen en telkens beseft dat dit niet lukt. Een vader die zich op de problematiek stort en als een onderzoeksjournalist tracht te begrijpen wat de beruchte drugs bij zijn zoon Nic aanricht. Als komiek heeft Steve Carell mij nooit weten te overtuigen. Met deze rol is mijn respect voor de acteur echter alleen maar toegenomen. Timothée Chalamet’s performance is zeker Oscar-waardig te noemen. Geen moment krijg je het gevoel dat hij maar een rijzende ster aan het Hollywood firmament is die acteert. Het voelt authentiek, oprecht en ongeforceerd aan. Deze twee hoofdrolspelers mogen hun tuxedo al klaarleggen voor de Academy Awards.

En ook regisseur Felix van Groeningen (Belgian and proud) mag met beide heren rustig aanschuiven op de rode loper. Thematisch leent de film zich uitstekend om er een overdreven Hollywood spektakel van te maken. Maar hij slaagt erin om het sereen en realistisch te houden. Artistieke beelden worden verwerkt in een eigenzinnige montage waarbij er lustig heen en weer wordt gesprongen in de tijd. Flashbacks volgen elkaar op waarbij de herinneringen van zowel Nic en Davis in elkaar overvloeien. Ik wist dan ook soms niet waar het verhaal zich op de tijdslijn situeerde. Maar dat is dan ook het enige minpunt dat ik kan bedenken bij deze voor de rest indrukmakende film. En dit alles voorzien van een smaakmakende soundtrack. Ik had nooit verwacht Territorial Pissings van Nirvana te horen in een film.

Voor de meeste filmliefhebbers zal dit niet meer zijn dan een gewoon familiedrama over verslaving. Misschien vinden ze het ook wel eentonig vanwege de oneindige cyclus van herleven en hervallen. Op mij maakte het echter een verpletterende indruk die heel wat emoties loswrikte. Ik hoop dat iedere persoon die in de val loopt van welk verdovend middel dan ook, dat ze ook kunnen terugvallen op een liefhebbende, ondersteunende familie vol begrip, om er uiteindelijk ergens in hun leven vanaf te geraken.

Peter Pluymers 

Words: copyright © 2019


Thursday, 28 February 2019

Climax (Gaspar Noé, 2018)

During the past 20 years, Gaspar Noé has made just five feature films.  Climax - which has recently been released on DVD and Blu-ray - appeared after the shortest gap in his filmography, following his 2015 3D feature Love.  The list of people you could share a Noé film with is as short as the director's résumé, as his works are never an easy watch.  That said, both Love and Climax have marked a relative mellowing, of sorts, for the director; coincidentally or not, these films are the only two to be made by Noé since he turned 50.  Yet, if these works can indeed be said to be tamer, it says more about the films that came before (most notably 2002's Irreversible), and Noé's work, even at its most palatable, is not for the faint of heart.  I once attended a screening of his Enter the Void which was introduced by the director, and was struck by how affable, funny and charming he was.  If you met this guy in the street, you'd never believe he was the man behind some of the most black-hearted cinema we've ever seen.

Climax, which stars the excellent Sofia Boutella, is a film of two very distinct halves.  Near the beginning we are presented with the full credits, along with a reference to the film we've just seen.  Hang on, is this story going to be told backwards, à la Irreversible?  Not really, although we do see part of the ending at the beginning, making the bulk of the film, quite appropriately as it turns out, one big flashback.  For the first main section, we're privy to a dance troupe's final rehearsal before they're due to head off on tour.  We witness them performing their energetic routine, and even if, like me, you have no interest in dance, you are very unlikely to be left unimpressed by this incredible extended sequence as various voguers, waackers and krumpers all do their thing in front of Noé's camera.  That this is all done in a solitary take makes it all the more remarkable - for decades, we've grown tired of cinema's tricks and CGI, but to watch this group perform like this with no edits of any kind is refreshing in a way that's hard to describe; it almost makes you feel as if a reset button has been pressed and cinema has got its mojo back.  It's pure bravura filmmaking, and certainly the most exhilarating dance sequence I've ever seen on film.

Following these exertions, it's time for a party to mark the end of the intensive rehearsal period.  The dancers break off into couples, and we get to eavesdrop on the various conversations, which almost invariably involve bitching about other members of the troupe.  Noé breaks from his one-take approach here, and dips in and out of the different discussions in a fidgety manner.  None of the dialogue is particularly consequential, but it does give each of the characters a little more room to establish their personalities (prior to this, we've just seen fragments of recorded interviews with each member).  After this pause for breath, there's another exciting, prolonged dance sequence, this time focusing on the dancers' individual talents; as before, Noé chronicles this with an unblinking eye, although this time around it's from an overhead vantage point.  And then, most surprisingly, another set of credits appears - which serves as a line dividing the film's two very different parts.  Noé's debut feature, I Stand Alone, contained an on-screen warning which gave you 30 seconds to abandon the cinema before the film really plummeted into the cesspool.  Climax's mid-film credits could be similarly viewed as a warning, albeit of the coded variety - after all, don't we normally leave once the second lot of credits roll?  Indeed, one person at the screening I attended adhered to this protocol.

If you choose to keep watching, you'd best buckle up.  As part of the celebrations, the majority of the dancers have been swigging sangria, and it soon transpires that someone has spiked the bowl.  It doesn't take long for the troupe to realise what has happened, and accusations soon fly.  Who's behind this scarcely matters (although watch carefully and you'll spot the perp), as the dancers are now powerless in the grip of a highly potent hallucinogen.  While we can't see what they see, we are still presented with something resembling a waking nightmare in which all hell breaks loose; in case we're in any doubt about this, the last stretch of the film sees the camera flipped upside down as the chaos unfolds against suitably infernal red emergency lighting.  This post-credits section is arguably the lesser half of the film; it's remarkable in that it all appears to be filmed in a single take (although some very clever edits are more likely), but anyone familiar with Noé's work will be presented with something which looks slightly reheated.  Which doesn't stop it from being uncomfortably compelling - the film is many things, but being dull is never one of them.

Climax doesn't really show too many signs of progress as far Noé's career is concerned, but it does reinforce his position as a filmmaker of incomparable, fizzing technique; few directors have mastered sound and image in the way that Noé has and, just as with with his previous four features, Climax is a technical marvel.  It also has Noé's fingerprints all over it, in everything from the use of Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter on the soundtrack to its trademark Godardian intertitles.  What's all the more remarkable is that the whole thing was put together in a matter of weeks; working without a script, Noé started the film in early 2018 and had it ready for screening at the same year's Cannes in May.  That's a quick turnaround for any film, let alone one as dizzying and dazzling as Climax.  While it's not a film that can be recommended unreservedly, it's certainly one to carefully consider should you find yourself jaded with present-day narrative cinema. 

Darren Arnold

Images: Wild Bunch

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Holy Tour (Méryl Fortunat-Rossi / Valéry Rosier, 2018)

More than a decade ago, I walked just a few short steps from my house to watch the Tour de France go by at the end of the street.  Having no interest whatsoever in cycling, I found the event to be surprisingly enjoyable, and it took just a matter of minutes out of my day.  While I'm glad I made the minimal effort required to glimpse the peloton, I really can't comprehend why people would camp out by the roadside for a couple of weeks or so to witness the same spectacle.  I'm aware that the subjects of Belgian documentary Holy Tour are looking to make a bigger holiday out of the event, and it's probably fair to say it's not all about the Tour for them, but their devotion and obsession with the race is something to which I can't relate.  But to each their own, and, for all my lack of interest in the sport, Holy Tour proves to be generally tolerable.

The documentary's two directors appear to share my indifference towards the race, as the film is not so much about the Tour de France as it is about its followers - specifically, those who pick a spot in their campervans where they can while away the days before the cyclists flash past.  In Holy Tour's case, such fans are almost invariably of retirement age (so time off from work is obviously not a complication), and most are married couples.  As such, there are the expected conversations and minor squabbles, and a lot of time is spent scrambling for a signal of any kind so the race's progress can be tracked.  Many of the people featured here hope to be glimpsed on TV once the Tour gets to where they're camped, and you can fully understand the frustration of someone who, having built an entire holiday around a few seconds of an event, has their view obscured by inconsiderate types once the critical moment arrives.  Parisians, it should be noted, do not come out of this very well.

The people featured here are quite hard to warm to at first, but as the film progresses these subjects become much more relatable and appealing; the film takes an upturn once the conversations open up to include things other than the Tour.  It's never riveting, but it's also never dull, either, and the film's brevity is very much a plus point.  There is one very dark development which occurs, and while it seems rather out of place in the context of this otherwise quirky film, it does much to engender sympathy for the party involved.  At its core, the film is very human, even if it's not terribly exciting.

While audiences may or may not be drawn to Holy Tour on account of their level of interest regarding the Tour de France, it's actually a film which, in terms of identity, balances itself on a knife-edge: it's a documentary about the event which features little footage of the actual race, and as such it may prove disappointing to the cycling fans who've paid for admission.  On the other hand, those who enjoy a good fly-on-the-wall documentary may well be put off by what looks like a sports film; it's certainly a tricky one to market, and whoever has the job of selling this has an unenviable task.  As documentaries go, Holy Tour is closer to lanterne rouge than it is to maillot jaune, yet it has just enough about it to make for a cautious recommendation.

Darren Arnold


Friday, 11 January 2019

Dilili in Paris (Michel Ocelot, 2018)

For many years, director Michel Ocelot has been the go-to guy for sumptious, intelligent animation.  His immaculate feature films always make for a nice alternative for families with younger children, and their soothing ambience is a far cry from the loud and garish cartoons which are so often found in the multiplex.  Ocelot's films carry a most distinctive style, and, while Dilili in Paris is immediately identifiable as being the work of the director, there's quite a stylistic departure in place as his unmistakable 2D characters are placed in front of photographic backgrounds.  This novel approach works remarkably well, with the backgrounds greatly contributing to the wonderful atmosphere created by this engaging, humorous, yet occasionally troubling work.

Set during the Belle Époque, the film sees the Dilili of the title arrive in Paris from New Caledonia.  This young, impeccably mannered Kanak girl cheerfully takes in the sights and sounds of the City of Light, encountering casual racism and a galaxy of famous names as she gets involved in some sleuthing.  The mystery she's trying to solve regards a spate of kidnapping which is occurring in the city; there is a pattern in that all the victims are female, and it must be said that this premise is a dark one for any film, let alone a family one.  Thankfully, Ocelot's deft handling of this potentially very upsetting subject matter ensures that any little ones watching shouldn't find anything too traumatic in what unfolds.  As she attempts to find those responsible, Dilili has a helpful sidekick, Orel, who holds an impressive list of contacts that can only be described as a Who's Who of the Paris of the time.  Through Orel, Dilili encounters the likes of Bernhardt, Pasteur, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin, Satie, Curie and Claudel - and that's by no means an exhaustive list of those who pop up during the course of the film.  You will have noticed that these important historical characters include a number of successful, pioneering women, which turns out to be very relevant once Dilili and Orel discover the thinking behind the crimes.

Dilili in Paris manages to be both a charming, intoxicating walk around Belle Époque Paris and a commentary on some very contemporary issues.  Despite being an animated work, it's one of the most atmospheric recreations of Paris seen on film for some years, and Ocelot brilliantly conjures a city many of us know and an era which remains endlessly fascinating.  While it makes for fine entertainment, the film also possesses huge educational potential, with its countless figures from history providing many jumping-off points for discussions on the important developments which occurred during the French Third Republic; any one of the featured luminaries would make for a substantial school project.  However, first and foremost, and despite its slightly sinister edge (which is nothing unusual for Ocelot), Dilili in Paris is a wonderful slice of escapism from a director who rarely, if ever, lets us down.

Darren Arnold