Friday, 15 October 2021

Prayers for the Stolen (Tatiana Huezo, 2021)

Utrecht native Huub Bals may be best known as the creator and director of the International Film Festival Rotterdam, but right up until his premature death—aged just 51—he worked hard to set up what was then known as the Tarkovsky Fund; following his death, the fund would take on its creator's name as it sprang into action to aid filmmakers in the developing world.  Bals firmly believed that, with the necessary support, many fine films would come from outside of Western Europe and coastal North America; he also held forthright views on the quality of Dutch and American movies, and felt that great cinema was more likely to come from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe.  For more than 30 years, the Hubert Bals Fund has assisted in the production of numerous prestigious, well-received titles, including Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Cemetery of Splendour, Alejandro Landes' Monos, and Carlos Reygadas' Japón.  

One of the fund's most recent beneficiaries is Tatiana Huezo's Mexico-set feature debut Prayers for the Stolen, which plays today at the London Film Festival.  An adaptation of Jennifer Clement's eponymous novel, Huezo's film focuses on a rural mountain community under the thumb of the cartels; here, forced disappearances are a regular occurrence, and the frequent, ominous rumble of 4x4 vehicles headed for the village instils fear among the residents—particularly those who have young daughters.  Should the day arrive when the cartel's footsoldiers come calling, village girl Ana (played by Ana Cristina Ordóñez González and Marya Membreño) has a contingency plan in place: a concealed, child-sized hole in the garden.  As the film begins, Ana is shown being helped into this space by her mother, and it soon transpires that this is a drill the two will need to carry out fairly regularly if Ana is to remain out of harm's reach.

Just as the roar of SUVs is rightly feared, so is the drone of the helicopters that haphazardly spray a noxious substance on the nearby fields; it is in these pastures that many of the villagers eke out a living by collecting poppy sap, which is later used to make heroin.  It's clear that several girls have already been taken from the village, and when Ana visits a hairdresser for a radical cut—on the pretext of preventing lice—it's chillingly clear that a boyish look may go some way towards keeping the local girls off the gang's radar.  The entire community lives under the Damoclean sword of the cartel, and a meeting at the local school reveals how staff there are forced to abandon their pupils at short notice; while the parents clearly want this sympathetic and well-liked teacher to stay, it's equally obvious that everyone in the room knows the penalty for defying orders.

Much if not all of Prayers for the Stolen's tension comes from wondering how the seemingly inevitable abduction attempt is going to play out; from the outset—and in line with the principle of Chekhov's gun—it's a given that Ana will eventually have to climb into that cramped burrow in her garden, but not knowing what will happen when she's in there is precisely what keeps us hooked.  It's a brooding, lyrical film, one that occasionally sees childhood innocence transcend the brutal violence of the criminal gangs, and the two young actresses who portray Ana at different stages of her life give fine, authentic performances.  While the futility of taking on the cartel is plain to see, there are several moments when the sense of oppression is supplanted by the quotidian, which might suggest that normality isn't necessarily a thing of the past.  One suspects that Huub Bals would highly approve of this subtle, confident work, which serves as further proof of the ongoing value of his filmmaker fund.   

Darren Arnold

Wednesday, 13 October 2021

Azor (Andreas Fontana, 2021)

Belgian actor Fabrizio Rongione is synonymous with the work of the Dardenne brothers, and while the same could also be said of Rongione's fellow Brusselian Jérémie Renier—admittedly a much higher profile actor—it's actually Rongione who's currently in the lead when it comes to appearances for the Dardennes, with the scoreline currently standing at 6–5.  Outside of his work with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Rongione has proved to be a difficult actor to cast correctly, although this hasn't prevented him from carving out a steady career on both stage and screen.  Andreas Fontana's debut feature Azor hands Rongione a juicy leading role, and the actor responds with an excellent performance, one that will hopefully give casting directors some valuable guidance as they look to place Rongione in future projects.

As with another LFF 2021 title, Prayers for the Stolen, Azor plunges the viewer into a Latin America where both corruption and forced disappearances are commonplace.  The backdrop for Azor is Argentina at the dawn of the 1980s, a time when the country's Dirty War was still raging.  Into this volatile situation arrives Swiss banker Yvan de Wiel (Rongione) and his wife Inés (Stéphanie Cléau), and while these Europeans appear to have a superficial understanding of what is going in the country, we get the sense that no outsider can truly appreciate what is unfolding through this period of political instability.  Given his profession, you won't be surprised to learn that Yvan is in Argentina for business reasons—and while you may well be thinking that no foreigner in the right mind would consider holidaying in Argentina under the junta, Azor has a languorous side to it, which is symbolised by a scene in which seemingly carefree citizens (and Inés) enjoy apéritifs as they lounge around a sun-kissed pool.    

Although Azor is quite clearly taking place in a country firmly in the grip of fear, it contains few if any overt examples of the terror acts that led to tens of thousands of people vanishing without trace.  This omission is presumably because Yvan and Inés are mixing in rarified circles that are ring-fenced from the horrors inflicted on so many ordinary Argentinians.  Yet this illusion of calm creates a palpable sense of unease, as the violence always seems to be left just outside of the frame.  It's clear that the diplomatic Yvan sees all of this in very simple terms: he's there to do his job, not stir the pot.  That said, there is the not insignificant matter of Yvan's partner and predecessor, René Keys, who has mysteriously disappeared, and Yvan struggles to get any leads from those he speaks to, although a few offer their opinions on the missing banker; according to one character, "Keys has completely lost his mind."  Yvan is later seen heading upriver on a boat, and you half expect someone to declare, "Mistah Keys—he dead."   

Resting somewhere between Franz Kafka and Joseph Conrad, Azor is a film about violence that refuses to show violence.  There are a couple of occasions when we're concerned for Yvan's safety, but on the whole there's a sense that the banker is protected by both his status and his general reluctance to express political opinions—that said, he employs an increasingly risky strategy in persisting with the investigation of Keys' disappearance.  As with Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Azor drops a European protagonist into an unfamiliar milieu that he cannot fully get to grips with, and in turn director Fontana shifts this perspective on to the viewer, for whom the film frequently remains an elusive, opaque effort—which is not to say that Azor isn't worthwhile.  On the contrary, it's an immaculate work that expertly sustains its oppressive mood.  Rongione has never been better, and he's ably backed up by Cléau, who was so good in Mathieu Amalric's The Blue Room.  The Dirty War casts a long shadow over the Argentina of today, and Azor—which screens today and tomorrow at the London Film Festival—admirably succeeds in conveying the fraught atmosphere of a terrorised, traumatised country.

Darren Arnold

Images: Be For Films

Monday, 11 October 2021

Inexorable (Fabrice du Welz, 2021)

Since his excellent 2004 feature debut The Ordeal, filmmaker Fabrice du Welz has consistently come up with strong, engaging work, and his seventh full-length film Inexorable very much continues this tradition.  Despite his Belgian nationality, du Welz has often been linked with the New French Extremity; as with Gaspar Noé—incidentally, another non-French director strongly associated with the movement—du Welz always brings a fine sense of mischief to his films, and we can just about smirk along with the director as he has us squirming in our chairs.  Inexorable sees du Welz reunite with Benoît Poelvoorde, that fine Belgian actor who starred in the director's Adoration (pictured above).  Poelvoorde arguably helped pave the way for the New French Extremity with his 1992 shocker Man Bites Dog, a grim, disturbing film, yet one laced with jet-black humour.  While Inexorable is by no means as gasp-inducing as Man Bites Dog, there is a vague sense here—as in Adoration—that du Welz is taking Poelvoorde back to where it all began.   

Inexorable, which screens tomorrow and Wednesday at the London Film Festival, has some superficial similarities with Welsh horror The Feast, which also played at this year's festival; each film sees a mysterious young woman arriving to work at a palatial house ruled by a bossy matriarch, and this setup leads to predictably messy results as the interloper causes merry mayhem.  And although both films feature a smattering of memorably gory moments, there the comparisons end as The Feast—which nonetheless stands as a reasonably strong debut film—eventually trips over its own ambition, whereas du Welz uses all of his experience to keep Inexorable on track until the very end.  The aptness of the film's title becomes obvious long before the end credits roll; this really is a film that does exactly what it says on the tin.  Come to think of it, most of the titles of du Welz's films are pretty descriptive: witness, say, the intense infatuation on display in Adoration, or how The Ordeal puts both its protagonist and audience through the wringer.  

Bestselling author Marcel (Poelvoorde) and his editor wife Jeanne (Mélanie Doutey) live in a chateau with their young daughter Lucie (Janaina Halloy), whose dogged determination leads to the family expanding to include the majestic Ulysses, a Pyranean Mountain Dog.  Ulysses is a lovely boy, but it's very clear that he's in need of a bit of house training.  Just as Lucie is losing patience with her new pet, he suddenly takes off to explore the family's huge estate; the girl and her mother frantically search for the dog, who is returned by passing stranger Gloria (Alba Gaïa Bellugi).  A highly relieved Jeanne is extremely grateful and insists that Gloria comes inside for a drink, during which the guest declares that she knows how to train Ulysses.  After a fun and productive obedience session in the garden, Gloria agrees to return the next day so that Ulysses can continue with his training; Lucie, who appears to have no friends at school, is delighted with both her dog's progress and the newcomer's presence.  It isn't long before Gloria engineers the sacking of the help, à la Parasite, which swiftly leads to Jeanne offering Gloria a live-in position with the family.  

The dynamic changes when Marcel—who is struggling to make progress with his latest novel—is flattered to learn that Gloria is a keen fan of his work; what's more, she can quote long passages verbatim from Inexorable, the author's most recent smash.  With Jeanne out of town for a couple of days, things really start to hot up, and what follows plays out as a stylish, well-wrought melodrama worthy of Claude Chabrol, a filmmaker who would no doubt have greatly enjoyed this fizzing example of the bourgeoisie under the microscope.  In the interview in the video below, Fabrice du Welz states that he wanted Inexorable to be a simple, streamlined affair, and it's certainly the sort of film where we should heed D.H. Lawrence's advice to trust the tale and not the teller.  What's particularly admirable about the film is that it knows when to take its foot off—it would be very easy to overcook this material, and du Welz seems acutely aware of this.  While Inexorable is often a difficult watch—as if its director would want it to be anything else—it's also a gripping, wonderfully assured piece of filmmaking.

Darren Arnold

Images: BFIFlanders Image

Saturday, 9 October 2021

Our Men (Rachel Lang, 2021)

In Christophe Honoré's superb 2007 film Love Songs—arguably its director's finest work—Louis Garrel, in a scene as moving as it was unusual, employed the NATO phonetic alphabet to convey the death of his girlfriend.  In a remarkable coincidence, and for very similar reasons, Garrel also uses the same code, "Delta–Charlie–Delta" ("décédé", meaning deceased), in Rachel Lang's Our Men, where its use is no less haunting.  In Our Men, Garrel stars as Maxime, a French foreign legion commanding officer who's leading a tricky mission in Mali; when one of his men is killed during an ambush by Islamic insurgents, it's down to Maxime to report the death and here, as in Love Songs, Garrel puts his intense features to good use as he grimly relays the news.  

Garrel's turn in Our Men provides a reminder of both the sort of part he's been offered in recent times, and how these roles differ from his work as a younger man; his early appearances in the likes of Honore's Ma Mère and Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers saw the actor cast as louche, erratic types, but more recently the tendency has been to match him with relatively upright roles, such as when he played Alfred Dreyfus in Roman Polanski's absorbing J'Accuse.  The steady Maxime is a fairly typical part for the Garrel of today, even if the actor can still rise to the challenge when tasked with channelling his inner weasel, as evidenced in Woody Allen's most recent film, Rifkin's Festival.  But Garrel has done well to avoid the sort of typecasting that once seemed inevitable, and he's always an engaging, watchable presence.  Maxime's wife, Céline, is played by the excellent Camille Cottin, a performer who, like her co-star, has worked with Christophe Honoré; also as with Garrel, Cottin has successfully edged away from her earlier roles, with a recent string of dramatic parts demonstrating a range beyond comedy.  

While Garrel and Cottin are the two biggest stars in the film, their characters make way for a younger couple, Ukrainians Nika and Vlad (Ina Marija Bartaité, Aleksandr Kuznetsov).  The taciturn Vlad is under Maxime's command, and Nika, who has only recently arrived on the army base in Corsica, soon befriends busy, affable lawyer Céline, who asks Nika if she would be interested in babysitting her and Maxime's son; it is through this job that Nika gets to know some of the other legionnaires' wives.  With Vlad away on duty, Nika cuts a rather lonely figure, and even on the few occasions when Vlad returns home, he seems distant and is reluctant to discuss Nika's hopes of starting a family.  Vlad does buy a puppy, however, and this very cute canine does provide good company for Nika as she fills her long days.  But Nika still feels rejected by the absent Vlad, and the welcome attention she receives from another man leads to a rather predictable complication.      

With its focus on the soldiers' partners in general and Nika in particular, Our Men may surprise those expecting to see wall to wall scenes of warfare; while the film does indeed spend some time "over there", the combat never feels especially authentic, so it's probably just as well that the real meat of the story takes place away from the warzone.  Our Men, which screens this weekend at the London Film Festival, is a strong film, but sadly it seems inevitable that its release will be overshadowed by the death of its young star: six months ago, Ina Marija Bartaité was killed when a drunk driver knocked her off her bicycle.  This tragedy occurred ten years on from the untimely death of Bartaité's mother Yekaterina Golubeva, who, as well as starring in Bruno Dumont's Twentynine Palms and her partner Leos Carax's Pola X, appeared in two films by Claire Denis.  It is not inapt to suggest that Denis' Beau travail—one of the most memorable films about life in the foreign legion—would form a fine double bill with the engrossing, affecting Our Men.

Darren Arnold

Images: BAC Films

Thursday, 7 October 2021

Playground (Laura Wandel, 2021)

Laura Wandel's debut feature is a taut, crisp tale that unfolds entirely within the premises of a Belgian school; in line with the film's prosaic English title, much of the action takes place during break times, which frequently host activities far more sinister than the good-natured games for which they were intended.  While watching Playground, you're never very far away from an instance of bullying, and Wandel presents such scenes in a most unsentimental manner.  While there are countless films centring on adolescence and its associated growing pains, Playground finds a rare direct line to the emotions experienced by those children who endure bullying; on a relatively good day, such kids will merely feel uncomfortable, whereas the worst days will see sheer terror take hold of these victims.       

As Playground begins, Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) is anxiously beginning her first day at a new school.  Nora's older brother Abel (Günter Duret) has already headed into the building, but this fact doesn't provide much comfort for the young girl, who is loath to part with her father Finnigan (Karim Leklou) at the gates.  Once she's eventually inside the school, Nora cuts a withdrawn, isolated figure in class, and during break time she seeks out her brother in the playground; Abel tries to shepherd Nora away from the group of children he's with, but his sister's dogged approach—as evidenced earlier at the school gates—reveals that Abel is toady to several bullies who are roughing up the new kids.  As Nora suddenly finds herself in the bullies' sights, Abel instinctively steps in to defend his little sister; from this point on, Abel's school experience becomes a living hell.

Nora goes on to make friends with a couple of her classmates, one of whom promises to invite Nora to her imminent birthday party; however, Abel's ceaseless humiliations—which reach a nadir when he's dumped in a skip—prompt these girls to gradually alienate Nora, and the eagerly awaited party invitation fails to materialise.  In turn, Nora—who now views Abel as the cause of these soured friendships—starts to resent her older brother.  Finnigan is most concerned by his children's behaviour, and he eventually manages to prise the truth from Nora; while his pro-active approach appears to somewhat defuse the situation, his children are still quite unhappy as they slog their way through the interminable school day.  After a meeting involving Abel, his tormentors and their respective parents, an uneasy truce is brokered, and this paves the way for Abel to revert to his role as a perpetrator of bullying; naturally, Nora is not impressed. 

As the literal focus of the film—the camera rarely leaves her pale, pensive face—Nora acts as our conduit to this world, one that will initially seem quite alien to those of us who left school decades ago.  Yet Wandel's great achievement here is to place us in Nora's shoes, and with that we experience the full-bore nightmare that the school experience can be for some children; the film's French title, Un monde ("a world"), neatly encapsulates the all-consuming nature of the milieu Nora inhabits.  The camera almost invariably remains at Nora's height, so the various adults she interacts with are often reduced to off-camera voices; such is the relentless focus on Nora, her peers are frequently filtered out in much the same manner.  Maya Vanderbeque is simply terrific as Nora, and Laura Wandel moves things along with great economy and little fuss; the film screens at the London Film Festival on Monday and Tuesday.

Darren Arnold

Images: Tandem

Thursday, 23 September 2021

France (Bruno Dumont, 2021)

Some months ahead of the autumn 2019 theatrical release of Bruno Dumont's Joan of Arc, the director declared that his next project, On a Half Clear Morning, would star Léa Seydoux and Benoît Magimel.  Obviously, much has happened in the world since that announcement was made, and while Seydoux remains at the heart of Dumont's latest, both the film's original title and male lead were jettisoned along the way; the movie now carries the somewhat inferior title of France, while Magimel has been replaced by Benjamin Biolay.  In case you've somehow managed to avoid the news, Seydoux has seen another of her films fall victim to pandemic-induced delays; by this time next week, we should know whether the 25th entry in the James Bond series has been worth the wait—or if it's much like the previous 24.  With her casting in France, Seydoux joins the handful of big-name stars who have topped the bill in a Bruno Dumont film; while Dumont's previous ten feature films (and two miniseries) have largely featured non-professional performers drawn from his native Flanders, he has diverged from this tradition on a few select occasions—most notably in his work with Juliette Binoche and Fabrice Luchini, both of whom have two appearances for Dumont in their sparkling filmographies.  

As France begins, Seydoux's eponymous news anchor is attending a press conference given by French president Emmanuel Macron, while her producer Lou (Blanche Gardin) cheerfully mugs away in the hope that these antics will tickle France (spoiler: they do).  This opening quickly establishes France's lofty status: she's a very big deal in the world of journalism, and even Macron knows her name.  There are some awful chroma key effects here, and it is doubtful that many will be convinced that Seydoux and Gardin are in the same room as Macron.  As it transpires, this isn't the last example of terrible greenscreen to feature in France, and the penny soon drops that known perfectionist Dumont is deliberately employing sub-par process shots, presumably in order to illustrate how so much that is fake is assumed to be real.  For France is about how news is presented, and we witness the title character's efforts to stage situations so that they make for the best TV—irrespective of whether she's reporting on migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean or the plight of Tuareg rebels.  As someone who manipulates stories that are subsequently broadcast as straight reportage, France is clearly not viewed with any sympathy by Dumont, and this same disdain extends to those who eagerly lap up crass journalism.  Here, such consumers are symbolised by the gaggle of adoring fans who continually tail France in the hope of a selfie or an autograph; while France usually obliges with such requests, she's quick to mock her followers once they're out of earshot. 

Although much of the film focuses on France's professional life, we do get to see both her opulent apartment and her family: husband Fred (Biolay) is a novelist, and although he's someone who has enjoyed some success in the creative arts, he's much less famous than his wife.  Fred and France have a young son, Joseph (Gaëtan Amiel), and it is while on the school run one morning that a distracted France is involved in a minor collision with Baptiste (Jawad Zemmar), a young man on a moped.  France makes a real effort to befriend and compensate Baptiste and his family, and something seems to have shifted in the presenter's demeanour; she decides to take some time out from her glittering career, and checks into an exclusive Alpine retreat.  There, France meets fellow guest Charles (Emanuele Arioli), and it is an indiscretion with this seemingly charming young man that will prove to be very costly for her.  Having engineered countless news reports of her own, France now finds herself at the centre of a contrived scandal, and the outlook is bleak; live by the sword, die by the sword, etc.  Yet even worse is to come for France, and a queasy, showstopping scene slyly illustrates the ghoulish sensationalism so prevalent in bottom-rung news reporting. 

While it may not be particularly accurate to describe France's title character as a straw target, there's a seeming obviousness to the film that will initially wrongfoot viewers accustomed to Dumont's work; it all feels a bit on the nose.  Yet as the film progresses, it becomes apparent that there's something else at work behind the superficial, garden-variety swipe at the media; France is used to both playing to the camera and crying on demand, but as the post-accident version of her becomes more prone to moments of introspection, her tears appear to be genuine.  Not for the first time in a Dumont film, the director films his star in striking close-up as they look skyward; while this moment explicitly recalls Joan of Arc, it also has much in common with the closing scene of Dumont's very first feature film, The Life of Jesus, in which the main character stared at the heavens with a newfound awareness.  Given all that's preceded this shot, it seems almost unthinkable that France might entertain the notion that there's something more important than herself, yet, although this isn't what could be described as a Damascene conversion, it appears that something inside France has changed for good.

Seydoux, clearly aware that she's playing a caricature for much of France's lengthy running time, is good value in her role, and her presence no doubt contributed to the wide distribution the film enjoyed on its domestic release in late August.  Biolay isn't given a great deal to do—although he is involved in one huge scene—and largely appears to be channelling his part in On a Magical Night.  As France progresses, it becomes increasingly Dumontian, and Jawad Zemmar gives the sort of performance so typical of non-professionals in the director's films—as does Fabian Fenet, who was so good in his substantial role in Joan of Arc.  Fenet has a smaller part this time around, yet he features in a pivotal scene, and his presence—alongside Léa Seydoux and Blanche Gardin, no less—provides a welcome reminder of how adept Dumont is when it comes to getting a tune out of these untutored actors.  With much of France set against the backdrop of the big city, there's a welcome change of scenery in the final reel as Dumont moves the action to the Opal Coast he knows so well, and it is here that we experience the film's most moving scene.  For this brief stretch, Dumont is both literally and figuratively on home ground, and as France takes in the windswept landscape, she states simply: "It's beautiful here".  Indeed.

Darren Arnold

Tuesday, 7 September 2021

London Film Festival 2021: Programme Launch

The 65th BFI London Film Festival (LFF) in partnership with American Express today announced the full 2021 programme line-up that will be presented both in cinemas and virtually, incorporating some of the most popular elements of the successful 2020 edition into the full large scale Festival model. Over twelve days from 6 – 17 October, flagship venue BFI Southbank and the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, the LFF Gala venue for 2021, will make London’s South Bank one of two London hub’s at the heart of the film festival experience. Films will also screen in a number of cinemas in London’s West End, with a selection of films at 10 venues in cities and towns across the UK. Audiences will enjoy a rich and varied programme of fiction, documentary, animation, artists’ moving image, short film, restored classics from the world’s archives as well as programmes of exciting international works made in immersive and episodic forms. The Festival will also be accessible online to audiences across the whole of the UK with a specially selected programme of feature and short films available on BFI Player, with online short films and online events free to access. The LFF Expanded programme of Immersive Art and XR will have a large physical exhibition at 26 Leake Street and the National Theatre and also be available UK-wide and internationally via bespoke virtual exhibition space, The Expanse.

The LFF is one of Britain’s leading cinema events and one of the world’s most important film festivals and the programme offers audiences the chance to be the first to see some of the most anticipated new films from around the globe, including a host of new works destined to be major awards contenders. The LFF competitive sections will return recognising remarkable creative filmmaking achievements, and be presented at BFI Southbank. The winners will be selected by a soon-to-be announced jury across four categories: Official Competition, First Feature, Documentary and Short Film and The LFF Audience Award, introduced in 2021, with Festival-goers voting for their favourite film of the Festival. The winner of the IWC Schaffhausen Filmmaker Bursary Award in association with BFI will also be announced at the virtual Awards Ceremony. 

Presented in partnership with the National Theatre, LFF Expanded will return in 2021 and will feature work from artists and creative teams working in immersive media including virtual, augmented and mixed reality from across the UK and internationally. With the full programme being announced later in the week, the strand will showcase vibrant and daring new work which will be exhibited both physically and virtually to audiences in the UK and globally via the virtual exhibition space, The Expanse. 

The Festival includes many ways audiences can engage with the LFF for free, including an international programme of short films featuring established and breakthrough film talents, Screen Talks with major filmmakers and actors and online Q&As across the Festival. The LFF Expanded strand of Immersive Art and XR will also be free to access both virtually and in-person at LFF Expanded at 26 Leake Street and LFF Expanded at the National Theatre and Rambert for the duration of the Festival.

Source: BFI

Image: Diaphana

Tuesday, 31 August 2021

Titane (Julia Ducournau, 2021)

Back in 2016, filmmaker Julia Ducournau's first feature Raw gained much attention, and in the half-decade since its release it has steadily built up a strong cult following.  A grim tale of cannibalism that tipped its blood-drenched hat in the direction of body horror maestro David Cronenberg, Raw was fairly strong—ahem—meat, and a quite striking debut.  Having made quite a splash with her first film, Ducournau had many eyes on her as she prepared her keenly-anticipated follow-up, which was preceded by a most cryptic synopsis: "Following a series of unexplained crimes, a father is reunited with the son who disappeared ten years ago. Titane: A metal highly resistant to heat and corrosion, with high tensile strength alloys, often used in medical prostheses due to its pronounced biocompatibility".  While I don't think anyone learned a great deal from that logline—except, perhaps, that titane is French for titanium—it certainly managed to create a fine sense of mystery for a film that held on to its secrets right up until it premiered at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

Of course, as many will now know, Titane did more than just premiere at Cannes: it scooped the top prize—the Palme d'Or—and in the process became the talk of the festival; anyone fretting (or hoping) that Ducournau would stumble with her second feature can now safely turn their attention elsewhere.  While at least some of Julia Ducournau's concerns haven't really shifted on from Raw, Titane is a superior film in almost every way.  Typically, the Palme d'Or attaches a heavy weight of expectation to its winner, but Titane effortlessly lives up to its tag as the film of the most recent edition of the festival; crucially, the film has considerable replay value, and in terms of content it is some way from being as outré as the headlines have suggested.  Certainly, the film is a fairly wild ride when compared to most of the summer offerings it has recently shared the multiplex with—Titane's general release serving to highlight it as a relatively shocking title, whereas the film would have come under far less scrutiny had its distribution been limited to the arthouse circuit— but it is by no means as transgressive as the hyperbole might have you believe. 

That said, Titane isn't exactly your run-of-the-mill tale, although its automobile-heavy opening stretch may mislead those who, having bought a ticket for F9, somehow find themselves in the wrong auditorium.  Titane begins with a young girl distracting her father as he's driving along, which quite predictably results in an accident; we fast forward some years to discover that the prominently-scarred girl has grown into a woman who dances for a living.  The woman in question, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), is shown performing an exotic routine on the bonnet of a muscle car at a motor show frequented by leering young men.  See what I mean about potential confusion with F9?  Once she's finished her shift, Alexia receives an unwelcome approach from one of the show's sweaty, insistent attendees, and this ignites a gruesome murder spree.  Now on the run, Alexia decides to avoid detection by transforming her appearance in a bid to pass off as Adrien, a boy who's been missing for a decade.  Alexia cuts her hair and straps down her breasts, with both of these moves registering as merely uncomfortable, but she also decides that her nose isn't quite right; now, this part will make you wince.  Oh, and did I mention that Alexia has recently fallen pregnant?  And that the father just happens to be a car?

With the baby bump now concealed and her makeover complete, the impostor presents herself to Adrien's father, fire chief Vincent (Vincent Lindon), who appears to be the only one to overlook Alexia's hopelessly unconvincing turn as a male impersonator; the careworn Vincent, whose attempts to transform his own body involve painful-looking steroid injections, is so overjoyed by this reunion that it seems he just can't, or rather won't, see what the rest of us can see.  Lindon, as always, is terrific, while newcomer Rousselle delivers a superb performance—and she really has to, in order to keep up with her veteran co-star.  These two performers make it easy for the viewer to buy into this knowingly preposterous setup, which is propelled along by both Jim Williams' excellent score and tracks from The Zombies, Future Islands and The Kills.  With Titane, Julia Ducournau has served up a slice of audacious, supremely confident filmmaking; buckle up and let it take you where it will.

Darren Arnold

Images: Diaphana

Wednesday, 18 August 2021

Benedetta (Paul Verhoeven, 2021)

Believe it or not, half a century has now passed since the release of Dutch director Paul Verhoeven's first feature film, Wat zien ik!? (aka Business is Business).  In the years since, Verhoeven has shocked audiences both in Europe (Spetters, De vierde man) and across the pond (Robocop, Basic Instinct), all the while cementing a formidable reputation as an enfant terrible with major box-office clout.  As time has gone on, Verhoeven has slowed down—perhaps understandably, given that he's now 83 years old—and significant gaps have appeared between his projects; the Dutch-language Zwartboek was his first film in six years, and a full decade would pass between its 2006 release and his return to cinemas with Elle.  While his new film, Benedetta, has appeared a mere five years on from Elle, you do wonder when Verhoeven might decide to call it a day.  It will be a pity when he does as, ever since the mid-1980s, the release of a new Paul Verhoeven film has always been something of an event, and neither his reduced output nor his return to Europe from Hollywood—it is now over 20 years since his last English-language effort, Hollow Man—has impacted on the anticipation that precedes a new Verhoeven movie.

Benedetta premiered in competition for the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and while it didn't win—Titane, which will be reviewed here shortly, scooped the main prize—the film nonetheless enjoyed a high-profile outing at the first post-COVID edition of the festival.  As is almost always the case with Verhoeven's films, Benedetta is a work that sets out to ruffle more than a few feathers, yet it falls some way short of the transgressiveness of many of the director's prior films, including its immediate predecessor, the enjoyably trashy Elle.  The success of the controversial, highly successful Elle owed much to the committed performance of Isabelle Huppert, who received an Oscar nomination for her electrifying turn; I fully expected Huppert to turn up in Benedetta, and I can only speculate that the role filled by the excellent Charlotte Rampling was originally penned with Huppert in mind.  Given that Huppert played a similar part in Guillaume Nicloux's 2013 adaptation of Diderot's The Nun, perhaps it wouldn't have been the best idea for her to be cast here, if indeed she was offered the role; plus, it's always good to see Rampling at work.

Benedetta is adapted from Judith Brown's book Immodest Acts, and the title character is played one of Isabelle Huppert's Elle co-stars: the terrific Belgian actress Virginie Efira, who can consider herself very unlucky not to have been among the winners when Albert Dupontel's superb Bye Bye Morons netted a glut of César awards earlier this year.  In Benedetta, Efira's nun has been in a convent since the age of eight, and during her time there she's claimed to have been on the business end of several miraculous happenings—such as visions of Jesus and the acquisition of stigmata.  All of this is viewed with some scepticism by Rampling's stern abbess, whose demeanour grows yet more severe upon the arrival of a new charge in the form of Bartolomea (Efira's fellow Belgian Daphné Patakia), a rebellious type who wastes little time in entering into a romantic relationship with Benedetta.  On Bartolomea's frantic introduction—she's trying to escape her abusive family—the abbess points out that the convent isn't a charity, and asks the desperate girl if she has money; this frank discussion brilliantly illustrates how quick God's earthly ambassadors can be to move the goalposts when the time comes to help those in need.  1-0 to Verhoeven.

With Benedetta, Paul Verhoeven has set out his stall somewhere between Jacques Rivette's stately La Religieuse and Ken Russell's scabrous The Devils, yet the end product serves up neither the emotional point of the former nor the biting critique of the latter; furthermore, Verhoeven's film doesn't give the viewer much of an opportunity to invest in its characters, despite the sterling efforts of both Efira and Rampling.  And in spite of its best efforts to offend, Benedetta feels an oddly tame, muted affair—compared to 30 years ago, the bar has been raised considerably vis-à-vis what is considered to be outré, and Verhoeven is doing little more than treading water here as he rifles through the index cards of his past successes; in all honesty, it's quite disappointing to discover that this director's attempt at nunsploitation has resulted in one of the subgenre's milder entries.  It all feels a bit reheated, and the casting of Lambert Wilson and Olivier Rabourdin only serves to recall their work in Of Gods and Men—a much more affecting tale of monastic life.  Still, for all that, Benedetta generally works as lurid, pulpy fun, which is pretty much what we all want and expect from a Paul Verhoeven film.  You won't change him now.

Darren Arnold

Image: Pathé

Wednesday, 4 August 2021

Brickbats at Fifty: The Devils Hits the Half-Century

Ken Russell in 1971
A couple of years ago, I wrote a little something on this site concerning the book I'd written about Ken Russell's The Devils—but hey, that's editors' perks for you, such as they are.  Anyway, it is now a full 50 years since the film was first released in cinemas, and to mark this occasion the BBC has published a fine article by author Adam Scovell.  Adam got in touch with me when he was putting the article together, so you may well find one or two quotes of mine in there—but don't let that put you off from reading this excellent piece.  You can view the article here.

Monday, 19 July 2021

Mothers' Instinct (Olivier Masset-Depasse, 2018)

Mothers' Instinct gives Belgian actress Veerle Baetens a great opportunity to flex her acting muscles; the Brasschaat native has previously impressed with strong turns in the likes of Robin Pront's The Ardennes and Felix van Groeningen's The Broken Circle Breakdown, with her performance in the latter receiving wide acclaim while netting several Best Actress awards from film festivals around the world.  These three films provide evidence of Baetens' considerable range as a performer, and the most recent of these titles, the 1960s-set Mothers' Instinct, is a sly, clever work, one in which the actress appears to be having a great deal of fun as she plays a character who keeps us guessing all along; there's a great game going on between Baetens and her co-star Anne Coesens, as both play equally inscrutable characters in this mischievous, simmering thriller. 

Baetens' Alice and Coesens' Celine live next door to one another and are on very good terms, yet even this close friendship is eclipsed by that of their two little boys, who spend a great deal of time together; the film isn't that old before Celine's son falls to his death from an upstairs window, and it is from this tragedy that the film's setup clicks into place: Alice feels that Celine is tacitly blaming her for what happened.  While Alice was the sole witness to the accident but didn't have enough time to alter the terrible course of events, she was in no way responsible for the child's death; but whether it's a form of survivor's guilt or something else, Alice is uneasy around Celine, and even suspects that the bereaved mother is consumed by a jealousy that will drive her to take revenge on those on the other side of the wall.  But is any of this real, or simply a state of mind on the part of Alice?  Celine certainly seems very fond of Alice's son, but the boy's jittery mother just can't take this kindness at face value. 

Based on a novel by Belgian author Barbara Abel, Mothers' Instinct is a taut, imaginative work, one which comes to the boil nicely as all the passive-aggressiveness eventually gives way to something more overtly hostile.  While many have likened the film to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, it actually feels more closely related to Claude Chabrol's thrillers of the 60s—although, given that Chabrol was known as the "French Hitchcock", perhaps it doesn't really matter which, if either, of these masters you choose to reference.  The decision to set the film in the 1960s means that we're treated to an immaculate recreation of the decade's styles and fashions, all wrapped up in a sumptuous colour palette; you strongly suspect that Mothers' Instinct wouldn't be quite as much fun without these sets and costumes, given that the production design is as big a star as either of the excellent leading ladies.

While Veerle Baetens' performance may be the more eye-catching, Anne Coesens matches her co-star every step of the way, and there's a lot of nuance in her portrayal of the grief-stricken Celine.  The classy all-Belgian affair that is Mothers' Instinct seems a rather unlikely work from Olivier Masset-Depasse, a filmmaker previously best known for 2010's Dardennes-esque Illegal, but it's always nice to see a bit of versatility behind the camera as well as from stars like Coesens and Baetens; Masset-Depasse is actually married to the former, who has been an ever-present in her husband's theatrical features, which date back to 2006's Cages.  While he hasn't made too many films, Mother's Instinct proves that Masset-Depasse continues to grow as a filmmaker, and it will be worth keeping an eye on his next career move.    

Darren Arnold

Images: Haut et Court

Tuesday, 6 July 2021

Preview: Babi Yar. Context (Sergei Loznitsa, 2021)

Based entirely on archive footage, Babi Yar. Context reconstructs the events leading up to the massacre of 33,771 Jews in German occupied Kiev in September 1941, and the aftermath of the tragedy. “Just as other Holocaust crimes, the tragedy of Babi Yar is almost devoid of authentic visual representation - Nazi authorities banned photo and film cameras from the places of mass executions. However, it is possible to reconstruct its historical context through archive footage, documenting the years of German occupation of Ukraine. My aim is to plunge the spectator into the atmosphere of the time”, comments Loznitsa.

Babi Yar. Context is Loznitsa’s 7th film presented in the Official Selection of the Festival de Cannes. “I’m deeply grateful to Thierry Fremaux for his support and appreciation of my work! It’s a great honour and a great pleasure to be in Cannes again and, most importantly, it’s an opportunity to share this urgently relevant story. Babi Yar. Context is not a film about our past, it’s about our present and, possibly, about our future”, says Sergei Loznitsa. The film is produced by Atoms & Void with the support of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Foundation, and will be screened in the Séance Speciale section of the Festival.

Source/images: The PR Factory

Tuesday, 29 June 2021

Preview: Holgut (Liesbeth De Ceulaer, 2021)

Siberian villager Roman and city boy Kymm venture into the vast Yakutian wilderness, hunting for a rare reindeer, while cloning-scientist Semyon hunts for mammoth remains. Their quests drive them far North and eventually down into the melting permafrost. Ancient bones rise up from the ground and wild animals seem to have disappeared. 

In the midst of an ongoing mass-extinction of fauna and flora, of a Siberian Ivory Rush, and at the dawn of de-extinction, a contemporary myth unfolds. While Roman, Kyym and Semyon close in on their goals, both the frozen earth that they walk on and reality itself melt into another state. Holgut boldly combines elements of fiction and documentary and manoeuvres effortlessly from captivating reality to visual poetry. Down the mammoth-hole, science fiction seems to become reality and reality seems to become myth.

Director's statement: 

Climate change and the 6th mass extinction are upon us: temperatures and water levels are rising, land is crumbling and species are going extinct at a rapid rate. Holgut stems from these tragic events and from the defining human influence lying within. How to survive and grasp this incredibly fast-changing world, one that often seems to be heading for doom? 

We are part of the natural world. When we lose parts of this world, we lose parts of our self. Our stories get punctured, they become incomplete and we can get lost. The mammoth’s tale of extinction reveals a fascinating narrative that unravels over millennia and has an ending still unknown. At the fortnight of the mammoth’s rebirth, I wonder how we will look back at this critical moment hundreds of years from now.

Source/images: Flanders Image

Thursday, 3 June 2021

La Civil (Teodora Ana Mihai, 2021)

It has just been announced that Belgian Flemish film La Civil by Teodora Ana Mihai has been chosen for the Official Selection of the Festival de Cannes 2021, in the ‘Un Certain Regard’ section. Following on from Hugo Claus’s The Sacrament in 1990 and Lukas Dhont’s Girl in 2018, this is only the third time in recent history that a Belgian Flemish production has been included in the prestigious official selection.

La Civil is the first fiction feature by Belgian-Romanian director, Teodora Ana Mihai (born 1981). The film tells the story of Cielo, a Mexican mother searching for her daughter who has been abducted by members of a drug cartel. As the authorities fail to help her, Cielo takes things into her own hands and gradually turns from housewife to avenging activist. The film was shot in November-December 2020 in Durango, Mexico, during the COVID-19 pandemic. La Civil is based on real events and is the result of several years of extensive research undertaken by the director in collaboration with Mexican writer Habacuc Antonio de Rosario.

The film was produced by Menuetto (Hans Everaert), an Antwerp-based production company in coproduction with high-profile partners, including the Dardenne brothers from Belgium (several Palmes d'Or), Cristian Mungiu from Romania (Palme d'Or) and Michel Franco from Mexico (Silver Lion, Venice). Cinéart will release the film in Belgium [and The Netherlands] in late 2021. “I am truly happy with this selection in Cannes. I’m incredibly grateful that it has been possible to tell this heart-breaking story of families who lost their children to drug cartels. La Civil is a film about a strong woman and mother who refuses to be a victim and defends herself. She is motivated by a primal force to find her daughter at whatever cost. It is a universal story that will touch everyone", says Teodora Ana Mihai.

La Civil was inspired by the terrifying stories of drug cartel victims and their families, such as the compelling and tragic life of Miriam Rodríguez, recently featured in The New York Times. The atmosphere of La Civil is reminiscent of the crime drama series Narcos, but is narrated from the victim’s point of view. Mexican writer Habacuc Antonio De Rosario co-wrote the screenplay with Teodora Mihai.

Source/images: The PR Factory

Monday, 24 May 2021

Magic Mountains (Urszula Antoniak, 2020)

Lex (Thomas Ryckewaert), a Dutch writer of popular novels, has money and fame but no peace of mind since Hannah (Hannah Hoekstra) left him years ago. Lex wants to close the relationship in a symbolic gesture and asks her to go with him to the mountains for a last climb together. Voytek (Marcin Dorocinski), a professional mountain guide, is hired to take the two to the remote starting point and leave them there. But Voytek senses that Lex is unstable and refuses to leave Hannah alone with him.

Director's note:  We don’t have rituals for closing relationships. After we are left by the person who was the centre of our life, there is no funeral that will symbolically make him or her pass and leave our life. In ‘tinderised’ times, people move in-and-out of relationships in search of happiness - ‘leaving behind’ is part of the search. Lex needs to give a meaningful end to his relationship with Hannah, once his partner in life and climbing. Their last climb together, his symbolic gesture to close his past with her, will be the start of his new life.  “Help me to forget you” - Lex almost obliges Hannah and I think he is right in that. Relationships come with responsibility.

Mountain climbing and relationships have similar symbolism. Both are based on trust. “She was always second.” - says Lex to Voytek about Hannah. Both in life as in climbing, Hannah was always following Lex.  “Now she goes first” - answers Voytek, and he lets Hannah climb alone as anticipation of the final countdown between her and Lex.  In Magic Mountains the action sequences belong to her, rather than him. Actress Hannah Hoekstra demanded to do the climbing scenes herself. Like her character in the film, she is unstoppable and unbeatable.

Source/images: Wide

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Maya the Bee: The Golden Orb (Noel Cleary, 2021)


Following on from both her eponymous 2014 big screen adventure and 2018's The Honey Games, lovable bee Maya makes a welcome return to cinemas with The Golden Orb.  Maya's third feature film was due to be released last year but was put back on account of the COVID-19 pandemic; rather than go direct to streaming—a route that has become commonplace over the past year or so—The Golden Orb has been held over until cinemas are able to reopen.  Although it's a second sequel, The Golden Orb works just fine as a standalone film, so no prior knowledge of Waldemar Bonsels' apian creation is necessary; it's hard to believe that it's now well over a century since the publication of the book featuring Maya's first adventure.  With its simple message, vibrant colour scheme and appealing, top-drawer animation, The Golden Orb, like its two predecessors, is aimed squarely at younger children, but there is much here for older children and adults to enjoy, too.

When Maya and her friends finally reappear in cinemas (on May 17), you will soon discover that the title character and her best friend Willi don't share the patience of the film's distributors, as their eagerness to say goodbye to lockdown sees them emerge prematurely from their hive; one calamitous glowworm-related incident later, and the bees' queen decides to separate the pair before they can cause any more trouble.  In all fairness to Willi, it was Maya who was the architect of the situation, but irrespective of how the blame should be apportioned, the queen feels it will take something remarkable to make her change her mind regarding the sanctions she plans to impose on the young bees.  Thankfully, something remarkable does come the way of Maya and Willi when they are entrusted with the orb of the title.  Spoiler alert—the orb is actually an egg, from which an ant princess duly hatches.

While this development occurs quite early on in the film, there's still plenty of well-paced excitement to come as the two bees strive to deliver the princess to the other ants; it's quite a mission, and there's an added complication as some dastardly beetles—who are engaged in a turf war with the ants—are going to extreme lengths to get their claws on the cute newborn, who has formed quite an attachment to a surprised Willi.  Along the way, the bees encounter a couple of well-meaning but rather clueless soldier ants who, as so often seems to be the case with ants in animated works, are sporting army helmets.  The energetic proceedings are occasionally punctuated with songs, with nefarious beetle Bumbulus proving to be the real star of the show when it comes to taking the mic.  As the pursuit rages on, the princess' party offer an olive branch (or rather, a leaf) to the beetles, which hints that unity may be a better option for all concerned.

Given the uncertain futures of cinemas and the films which play in them, The Golden Orb's release provides an excellent opportunity for families to get along and support both the film and the venues that will be hosting it; filmgoing is a part of life that can be hard to return to once you've been away from it for a while, but a trip to your local cinema is fairly certain to provide a quick reminder of the joys of watching a film on the silver screen.  Three years ago, I saw The Honey Games in a cinema in France; back then, none of us had any idea of the drastically changed world its sequel would be released into.  While there is little doubt that the viewing habits of many will have changed permanently during lockdown, the efforts of those behind the The Golden Orb's release deserve to be rewarded with solid footfall as the film rolls out in cinemas; this cheerful, optimistic slice of animation is just the thing to jump-start your year at the movies.  Showtimes and tickets are available here.

Darren Arnold

Images: Strike Media