Wednesday, 4 May 2022

To Plant a Garden Is to Believe in Tomorrow

On today, her birthday, both the Audrey Hepburn Garden (a playground) and a bust by Dutch artist Kees Verkade will be inaugurated at the corner of Ixelles' rue de l'Arbre Bénit and rue Keyenveld - where the actress was born 93 years ago. The 1993 bust is a gift from Sean Hepburn-Ferrer to the Brussels municipality. UNICEF Ambassador Audrey Hepburn devoted her energy to defending the rights of children around the world, putting her fame at the service of the weakest and giving voice to their suffering. This playground is a reminder of the battles she fought on the behalf of children worldwide. There is a second cast of the statue in the park of the municipality of Arnhem in the Netherlands.

Symbolically, the two statues are found in the cities where she spent her childhood. The Mayor, Christos Doulkeridis, the Alderman for Green Spaces and Plantations, Audrey Lhoest, and the Alderman for Town Planning, Yves Rouyet, are happy to inaugurate Ixelles' new green space located at the intersection of Keyenveld and Arbre Bénit streets. Like the actress, discretion and elegance are combined to give life to this new green area. In June, a statue of 'Little Audrey' will be inaugurated in the garden of Le Louise Hotel Brussels - MGallery Hotel Collection, formerly Sofitel. 

Source: Rodrigue Laurent Press

Images: Rodrigue Laurent Press / Intimate Audrey

Wednesday, 27 April 2022

BFI Flare 2022: the stats

The 36th edition of BFI Flare: London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival (16-27 March), the UK’s leading LGBTQIA+ film event, closed on 27 March and celebrated being presented back at BFI Southbank after two years of being delivered online due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Overall the Festival saw 25,023 attendances across BFI Southbank and on BFI Player, with an additional 4.5k online views of BFI Flare events, which included the Festival’s Programme Launch on BFI Flare Facebook and BFI YouTube. 58% of all ticket buyers were new to BFI Flare.

Partnering for the eighth year, BFI Flare and the British Council made five LGBTQIA+ short films from the BFI Flare programme available to global audiences for the duration of the festival with the ground-breaking Five Films For Freedom. The LGBTQIA+ digital campaign attracted over three million views from around the world with figures from international content partnerships still to be counted. The project allows audiences worldwide to show solidarity with LGBTQIA+ communities living in countries where human rights are restricted and this year’s selection spanned from China, Croatia, India, Panama and the UK.

Over 12 days between 16– 27 March, BFI Flare welcomed its audiences back to its home venue with 56 feature premieres and 84 shorts screened from 42 countries. For BFI Player, 10 features premiered virtually and 6 short films were screened for free plus Five Films For Freedom.  The Festival hosted 6 World Premieres, 7 International Premieres, 1 European Premiere and 25 UK Premieres from across the features programme. BFI Flare welcomed 174 filmmakers and their teams (106 international, 68 UK-based) in person from 33 countries. Two filmmakers joined the Festival virtually. 

Particular favourites at this year’s edition included Opening Night film GIRL PICTURE, with director Alli Haapasalo presenting the film fresh from its screening in this year’s Berlinale and its World Cinema Dramatic Audience Award win at Sundance. The Closing Night world premiere of, Kevin Hegge’s feature documentary TRAMPS! celebrated the unique cross-fertilization of British art, fashion, music and film in the early 1980s, foregrounding the queer talent which came out of the London scene. Special guests included Jeffrey Hinton, Scarlett Cannon, Dave Baby, Michael Costiff, Philip Sallon, David Holah, Les Child and Princess Julia who opened the Closing Night party with a TRAMPS! inspired DJ set.

Source/images: BFI

Wednesday, 20 April 2022

Films of the New French Extremity (1–31/5/22)

The BFI have announced full details of CRUEL FLESH: FILMS OF THE NEW FRENCH EXTREMITY, a season of brutally compelling films that explore intimacy in a violent world. Running throughout May at BFI Southbank, the programme explores the unique moment in cinema history that sent shockwaves through arthouse sensibilities. This season will feature the work of filmmakers such as Claire Denis (TROUBLE EVERY DAY), François Ozon (CRIMINAL LOVERS), Leos Carax (POLA X), Marina de Van (IN MY SKIN), Lucile Hadžihalilovic (LA BOUCHE DE JEAN-PIERRE, with Hadžihalilovic attending in person), and Gaspar Noé, the latter of whom will also be subject of a special focus in May. 

FOCUS ON: GASPAR NOÉ coincides with the release of the filmmaker’s new work VORTEX (2021), and will include in person appearances from the director. The centrepiece event of the focus will be Gaspar Noé in Conversation on 10 May, during which the one-of-a-kind filmmaker will reflect upon his work so far, including VORTEX, which will be on extended run at BFI Southbank when it is released in cinemas UK-wide on 13 May. IRREVERSIBLE (2002) is built around Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci, trading on their popularity and charisma as a real-life couple to make their violent descent even more assaulting. In 2019, Noé returned to the film to tell the story in chronological order; IRREVERSIBLE: THE STRAIGHT CUT (2002) goes beyond a linear reassembling of the narrative.

Contextual events during the NEW FRENCH EXTREMITY season will including opening event SEX AND DEATH, BUT MAKE IT ARTHOUSE, a richly illustrated talk on 3 May that will introduce the key titles, filmmakers and thematic preoccupations of this distinct film movement. There will also be an online panel discussion – HORROR À LA FRANÇAISE – available for free on BFI YouTube from 11-31 May. As part of the season a four-session course running every Tuesday – CITY LIT AT THE BFI: NEW FRENCH EXTREMITY – will consider the historical, cultural, social and political context for this phenomenon and seek to examine a number of these films in detail. There will also be a NEW FRENCH EXTREMITY collection on BFI Player, available concurrently with the BFI Southbank season.

The closest thing to a comedy to be found in this programme, MAN BITES DOG (Rémy Belvaux/André Bonzel/Benoît Poelvoorde, 1992) is a Belgian mockumentary that follows a crudely charismatic serial killer who is delighted to be the subject of a documentary that will cover his thoughts on the ‘craft of murder’ and classical music. In the exceptionally creepy Belgian horror THE ORDEAL (Fabrice du Welz, 2004), a traveling entertainer becomes stranded in a remote mountain town and is taken in by an affable local, who nurtures a dangerous obsession. Without any women or music, Fabrice du Welz deliberately avoids horror clichés to make something truly strange.

Source/images: BFI

Friday, 25 March 2022

The World to Come (Mona Fastvold, 2020)

The entirety of BFI Flare's Best of Year strand will be screened on Sunday, which marks the close of this year's edition of the festival.  The strand's title is quite self-explanatory, and this roundup of highlights from the last 12 months features the likes of animated docudrama Flee and Pedro Almodóvar's Parallel Mothers—two high-profile films that have enjoyed considerable success over the past year or so.  While anything in Best of Year is likely to be worth seeing—the section also includes acclaimed prison drama Great Freedom—the real gem in the strand takes the form of Mona Fastvold's outstanding second feature The World to Come, a film that was granted the most modest of theatrical releases before landing on VOD.  In placing The World to Come in Best of Year, Flare's programmers have both recognised its greatness and provided a rare opportunity to see Fastvold's film on the big screen.  As with every film in this strand, tickets for The World to Come have sold out, but it is always worth checking for any returns that may become available—or you can rent (or buy) the film from iTunes.

Set in the mid-19th century, The World to Come focuses on the hard, isolated and cheerless lives of those working the American frontier, with Abigail (Katherine Waterston) and Dyer (Casey Affleck) eking out a living on their remote New York homestead.  When their young daughter Nellie (Karina Gherasim) dies of diphtheria, Dyer and Abigail are quietly devastated; he was always a man of few words, and although it feels as if Abigail is much more talkative, much of what she has to say is presented in her diary-fuelled voiceover.  It is through this means that the grief-stricken mother offers a number of stark revelations: for one, Nellie's death has disabused Abigail of any notion of a better world to come, hence the film's title.  Abigail lives her life both in her head and through her private journal, and she places great emphasis on what is written down; more than once, she wonders if she makes any sort of appearance in the ledger in which Dyer tallies up the farm's income and expenditure.  And speaking of tallies, it isn't long before another enters the film: Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) and her husband Finney (Christopher Abbott) move into a neighbouring farm, and it isn't long before the couples become acquainted over dinner at the new tenants' place.

The confident, spirited and chatty Tallie is markedly different from Abigail, whose life of drudgery is now punctuated by brighter episodes as Tallie makes frequent visits to Dyer and Abigail's farm.  As with their wives, the two men are very different characters: the taciturn Dyer, while vaguely resentful of the time his wife spends with her new friend, always remains a polite, respectful presence, whereas Finney is a spiteful, controlling man hiding behind a veneer of respectability.  Dyer's main flaw is that he doesn't really understand his wife (or himself, for that matter), and while he hopes for another child with Abigail, he gives her time and space as she mourns Nellie; Finney, on the other hand, views his own childless home as an aberration for which Tallie must shoulder the blame.  Furthermore, while Dyer keeps careful records of his crops and animals, Finney puts similar effort into logging his wife's whereabouts, and his suspicions increase as Tallie and Abigail spend more and more time together.  It should be said that Finney's concerns aren't unfounded, as by this stage the two wives have become much more than friends, and while both women appear to have found happiness in this relationship, Tallie's husband has no intention of accommodating a fairytale ending.   

The performances are uniformly excellent, with Waterston particularly impressive as the deep-thinking Abigail, a sensitive woman largely at odds with her unforgiving surroundings; Oscar winner Affleck, who also produced the film, is careful not to distract from the two players at the heart of this story, yet his subtle supporting turn remains a low-key delight.  It is a great pity that The World to Come has slipped between the cracks opened by the various COVID-induced lockdowns; additionally, several other, recent period lesbian dramas, most of which were inferior to Fastvold's film, all received wider publicity and distribution.  It is by no means inapt to claim that The World to Come is a significantly stronger work than both The Favourite and Ammonite, and it fully deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Céline Sciamma's sublime Portrait of a Lady on FireThe World to Come's inclusion in this year's edition of Flare will hopefully reignite interest in what is a moving, lyrical and haunting work.         

Darren Arnold

Wednesday, 23 March 2022

The Divide (Catherine Corsini, 2021)

The Divide, which screens as part of this year's BFI Flare from March 25–27, is director Catherine Corsini's 14th feature film.  Incidentally, each of Corsini's two most recent efforts starred a prominent Belgian actress: Cecile de France headed the cast of 2015's Summertime, while Virginie Efira played the lead in 2018's An Impossible Love.  For her latest film, Corsini has opted for Franco-Italian actress Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, a performer who might best be described as an acquired taste; over the course of her not inconsiderable career, Bruni-Tedeschi's performances have ranged from reasonably affecting (5x2) to downright insufferable (The Color of Lies), and you're never quite sure what she's going to deliver.  The same cannot be said for Bruni-Tedeschi's co-star in The Divide, the terrific Marina Foïs, who manages to light up pretty much anything she appears in.  Although these two actresses boast radically different styles, their pairing here proves to be a highly effective one.

Foïs' Julie and Bruni-Tedeschi's Raf are a couple at the terminus of their relationship, and the former has already made plans to move out when Raf falls, fracturing her elbow.  Julie arrives promptly at the hospital where Raf is being treated, whereupon it becomes clear that the clingy patient plans on using this injury as leverage—yet it's equally apparent that the accident has done little to change the state of the relationship, which itself could be said to be in need of emergency treatment.  Of course, and as anyone who's had to get in line for urgent care will tell you, the wait in ER can be both long and fraught, and it's going to be a while before Raf's wound is tended to; there's a glimpse of a display board indicating a current waiting time of eight to ten hours.  Among the other patients waiting to be seen is Yann (Pio Marmaï), a truck driver and apparent hothead who has sustained some nasty looking leg injuries; yet as his initial aggression subsides, Yann enjoys several conversations with the talkative Raf.  

As you'd expect, there are many members of staff circulating among the patients, and one of the most prominent is Kim (Aïssatou Diallo Sagna), a diligent nurse who attends to seemingly countless patients over the duration of her shift.  Although the situation in the hospital is suitably stressful in its own right, Corsini cranks up the tension by having the night in the ER unfold against the backdrop of France's "yellow vests" protests—which by this stage have turned very ugly, with violent clashes between police and demonstrators occurring in the streets close to the hospital.  While we're waiting for these two pressure cookers to collide, a link between them is already present in the form of Yann, a gilet jaune whose leg was injured by shrapnel as he scuffled with police officers.  Those inside the hospital follow the running battles via smartphones and TVs, yet we're painfully aware that it won't be too long before the ER's staff and patients will be able to view the mayhem without the need of technology.  Many characters come and go, but the film always keeps its main focus on the quartet consisting of Julie, Raf, Kim and Yann.

With The Divide's portrayal of both the emergency room and the gilets jaunes, Catherine Corsini has in effect doubled down: either of these stories, as depicted here, could easily make for a breathlessly fascinating film without the other.  While both of the film's two distinct sides make for compelling viewing, it's the stretches in the ER that prove to be stronger; perhaps this is to be expected, given that the film was made during lockdown, a period in which the filming of already-taxing crowd scenes would have involved yet more logistical challenges.  But the sequences inside the hospital are little short of electrifying, with an endlessly busy camera capturing the frantic essence of both emergency medicine and those who administer it.  The performances are strong, with the non-professional actress Aïssatou Diallo Sagna—a  real-life nurse who deservedly won best supporting actress at last month's Césars—warranting a special mention for her portrayal of the seemingly omnipresent Kim, a character who is at the very centre of the film's most intense moment.  Expertly made, urgent and taut, The Divide is a draining tour-de-force.  

Darren Arnold

Monday, 21 March 2022

The Novice (Lauren Hadaway, 2021)

Lauren Hadaway's compelling debut feature The Novice, which plays at this year's BFI Flare on March 21 and 23, is a highly assured psychological drama, one that examines the sporting obsession of a young student.  In a way, the film is the antithesis of current cinema release The Phantom of the Open, a crowd-pleasing comedy based on the true story of likeable chancer Maurice Flitcroft, a man who'd never played golf yet somehow managed to blag his way into the prestigious British Open.  Before the tournament, Phantom's protagonist made a few half-hearted attempts to get to grips with the sport, with his weak and minimal efforts standing in stark contrast to the blood and sweat spilled by The Novice's Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman), who is focused on the relatively low-stakes prize of a place on the university rowing team.  On the basis of Dall's gruelling routine as evidenced here, one shudders to think of the lengths she might go to if she had rowing's equivalent of the Open in her sights.    

Dall is an unsmiling freshman who works incredibly hard in class; on more than one occasion, we see her toiling away in an empty lecture theatre long after her fellow students and TA have called it a day.  Yet these academic endeavours pale in comparison with Alex's monomaniacal focus once she signs up for the rowing team, seemingly on a whim—as with The Phantom of the Open's hapless Flitcroft, Dall has no experience of the sport she's signed up for.  As the novice of the title, Alex is treated with disdain by the established members of the varsity team, although this does nothing to discourage the new girl, who barely seems to notice the stream of barbs and digs sent in her direction.  Rising at an ungodly hour to take to the rowing machine and/or water, Dall pushes herself so hard that her two coaches (Kate Drummond, Jonathan Cherry), who are so used to squeezing every last drop of effort from their charges, implore her to take it down a notch or three.

As Alex's efforts intensify, so does the viewer's feeling of unease; The Novice may begin like so many American college movies, but a real sense of foreboding gradually creeps in, and we begin to dread the ritual of Alex unlocking the gloomy boathouse, which occurs in an eerie early morning half-light in which a Lynchian jump scare seems not only feasible, but probable.  Although by no means an example of body horror, the film only grows more visceral as Dall's once merely sweat-drenched skin acquires raw, painful-looking blisters; there's also a fairly graphic scene in which Alex engages in self-harm.  Given that Dall tackles rowing with an almost religious fervour, it's hard to shake the idea that she's a flagellant, not unlike the one seen in another recent psychological thriller—which was also a debut feature—Rose Glass' outstanding Saint Maud.  Furthermore, Alex's seemingly arbitrary decision to take up rowing could be viewed as her answering a calling, of sorts.

While her raison d'être is to reach the pinnacle of the sport, Dall appears to gain no pleasure from her punishing training regime, and she seems to exist in a vacuum where the act of rowing is performed purely for its own sake; the other members of the team may as well not exist, and the real world, for the most part, melts away.  The Novice would make a good, if rather intense, double bill with The Perfect David—another title on offer at this year's Flare—in which a teenage bodybuilder goes to inordinate lengths in order to achieve what he deems to be the ideal physique.  Both films recall Gerard Johnson's excellent, unnerving Muscle, which also begins in a very real and recognisable world, only for the quotidian to take a back seat as a full-bore nightmare swirls around its protagonist.  Fuhrman, previously best known for playing the title character in the 2009 horror Orphan, gives a truly committed performance as the obsessed Alex, and director Hadaway ensures that the rest of the film complements this troubling, riveting turn.   

Darren Arnold

Images: BFI

Saturday, 19 March 2022

I Want to Talk About Duras (Claire Simon, 2021)

The renowned writer Marguerite Duras enjoyed both a successful career and a highly eventful personal life, and it is the latter that forms the focus of Claire Simon's I Want to Talk About Duras.  Simon's new film is not concerned with the author's teenage escapades in Indochina—that much-publicised period was covered in Jean-Jacques Annaud's eponymous screen adaptation of Duras' The Lover—but rather examines the relationship between the writer and youthful Breton Yann Andréa, a Duras überfan who, after many years of correspondence, found himself in the rather surreal position of sharing a home and bed with his idol.  There was an age gap of nearly half a century between Andréa and Duras, both of whom are now deceased, and their unlikely union could be compared to the one experienced by the title characters in Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude.  Simon's film, which screens as part of this year's BFI Flare on March 20 and 22, concentrates on Andréa's 1982 interviews with Marie Claire journalist Michèle Manceaux, during which the subject spoke candidly about his then-ongoing relationship with Duras.  

I Want to Talk About Duras isn't the first film on this subject: 2001's Cet amour-là, which starred the legendary Jeanne Moreau as Duras, also set about telling this most atypical of stories; coincidentally, Moreau served as the narrator for The Lover.  I Want to Talk About Duras differs from Cet amour-là in a key sense: Duras herself is largely absent from Simon's film, although the author does appear via archive footage that underlines some of the points being made in the interviews.  Instead of focusing directly on the author, I Want to Talk About Duras places Swann Arlaud's Andréa and Emmanuelle Devos' Manceaux front and centre, although Duras' presence is still keenly felt; not only is the writer the main topic of discussion, but we can hear her clumping around on another floor of the home she shares with Andréa.  What's more, she frequently resorts to a disruptive tactic in the form of calling the telephone which sits just next to her partner.  As such, Duras is a ghostly, unnerving presence, one who always seems to be hovering around the edges of the action.

For a film centring on Marguerite Duras to relegate the title character to the periphery seems rather perverse—doubly so when it stars the incomparable Emmanuelle Devos, whose casting here tantalisingly hints at what she could have done if handed the role of Duras (anyone who doubts Devos' suitability for such a part need look no further than her terrific turn as Violette Leduc—another author who was no stranger to scandal—in Martin Provost's excellent biopic Violette).  It is to Simon's great credit that I Want to Talk About Duras survives both this daring move and the equally bold stroke of splicing in a sequence from Duras' 1975 film India Song, which practically invites the viewer to think about which film they'd rather be watching.  Devos' Michèle Manceaux doesn't have to say a great deal while her tape recorder absorbs Andréa's thoughts on Duras, but there are numerous occasions when the camera remains fixed on her face as she listens intently; Simon clearly understands how best to use Devos' wonderfully expressive features.  

Much of what Andréa has to say conjures up a most unflattering picture of Duras, who is painted as a domineering control freak, one who dictates virtually everything in the relationship, ranging from Yann's diet to his sexuality.  It's a disturbing arrangement, yet one in which Andréa seems to have found some sort of contentment—even if he fails to truly comprehend the setup's unwholesome nature.  With this film, Simon has set herself several stiff challenges—in this sense, it recalls Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth's The Five Obstructions—but what is perhaps the biggest potential pitfall of all comes in the form of the film being a two-hander, a format which may be fine for the stage yet often founders in the far less forgiving medium of cinema.  Simon sidesteps this by opening the film up whenever a flicker of staginess threatens to creep in; in addition to the aforementioned extract from India Song, there's a mesmerising crepuscular scene detailing Mancieux's walk home after a long day of interviewing.  Of course, much can be overlooked in a film starring these two fine actors, and Swann Arlaud exudes the same sort of sensitive fragility he channelled so effectively in François Ozon's outstanding By the Grace of God.  Despite the myriad obstacles Claire Simon places in her own path, I Want to Talk About Duras is an engaging, invigorating work.

Darren Arnold

Images: BFI

Thursday, 17 March 2022

Fanny: The Right to Rock (Bobbi Jo Hart, 2021)

This hugely enjoyable documentary—which screens as part of this year's BFI Flare on March 18 and 19—charts the rise, demise and resurrection of Filipina-American rock band Fanny.  It is probably quite accurate to take the view that Fanny were, and are, something of a band's band, and this conclusion is borne out by the parade of talking heads that populate Bobbi Jo Hart's absorbing film; among those interviewed here are producer Todd Rundgren, Kate Pierson of the B-52s, Bonnie Raitt, Def Leppard's Joe Elliott, Earl Slick, and Gail Ann Dorsey.  Of course, the band themselves do much in the way of talking here, although original member Nickey Barclay is conspicuous by her absence; word has it that Barclay is quite happy for her time with the band to stay firmly in the past.  Although Fanny are a very different act from Canadian heavy metallers Anvil, whose career was given a tremendous boost by the release of Sacha Gervasi's excellent Anvil! The Story of Anvil, it is easy to imagine Hart's film similarly renewing interest in its subject. 

Fanny were formed in California in 1969, with the initial lineup consisting of Barclay, Alice de Buhr, Brie Brandt, and sisters June and Jean Millington.  Shortly before the recording of Fanny's debut album—they were the first all-female rock band to release an LP through a major record label—producer Richard Perry, firmly of the opinion that the group would fare better as a four piece, dismissed lead vocalist Brandt (who would return a few years later to take de Buhr's place on drums).  Five years and as many albums on, Fanny called it a day, and the final incarnation of the band featured Suzi Quatro's sister Patti, who had replaced June Millington.  Ironically, Fanny's biggest hit arrived in the wake of their split, with "Butter Boy"—penned by Jean Millington about her ex-boyfriend David Bowie—climbing into the Billboard top 30.  Although Fanny were the envy of many musicians—after all, they had a multi-album record deal and got to tour the world—it's clear that they never made the impact they, and many others, felt they deserved.  

The band actually enjoyed more success in the UK than in their native US, with the glam rock stomp of their later recordings proving popular with British audiences of the time, and Fanny recorded their third album in London's Apple Studios, with longtime Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick lending his hand to the production; fittingly, a Beatles cover ("Hey Bulldog") was included on the record.  If these recording sessions formed a link between the group and the UK's greatest-ever band, Fanny had an even stronger connection to Britain's greatest-ever male solo artist: for decades after his relationship with Jean had ended, David Bowie championed Fanny's music, and it's obvious that he genuinely considered them to be criminally underrated.  Jean would go on to marry and have children with Bowie's guitarist Earl Slick, who is good value in Hart's film, as is the Thin White Duke's bass player Gail Ann Dorsey. 

On the evidence presented in Fanny: The Right to Rock, it is not difficult to understand what Bowie saw in this band; Fanny were incredible musicians and songwriters, and it is highly unfortunate that they first appeared during a period when it was hard for an all-female rock band to be taken seriously.  While Fanny may have been ahead of their time, they paved the way for other bands such as the Runaways and the Go-Go's, whose respective frontwomen Cherie Currie and Kathy Valentine are featured here; they and all the other interviewees offer useful insights, yet the film's standout presence comes in the form of the witty, engaging and charismatic Brandt.  Happily, Fanny: The Right to Rock proves that the band weren't content for their story to end in the mid-70s, and Hart follows the efforts leading up to the formation of Fanny Walked the Earth, a new iteration of the band which saw Jean, June and Brie record together for the first time in nearly half a century; the resulting self-titled album—like the film that documents its making—is a very strong work, one that should see Fanny receive the recognition that unjustly eluded them first time around.

Darren Arnold

Images: BFI

Friday, 4 February 2022

Tralala (Jean-Marie Larrieu / Arnaud Larrieu, 2021)

Tralala marks the fifth collaboration between Mathieu Amalric and the Larrieu brothers, and it is now almost twenty years since their first film together, the medium-length A Real Man.  Amalric is one of several performers favoured by the Larrieus, with the likes of Karin Viard, Sergi Lopez and Maïwenn all making multiple appearances for the brothers, although it is only the last of this trio who appears alongside Amalric in Tralala .  The most recent Larrieus film to feature Amalric (or Maïwenn, for that matter) was 2013's Love is the Perfect Crime, which may just be the brothers' best work.  Between that film and Tralala, the duo directed 21 Nights with Pattie, a tonally uncertain yet largely enjoyable work that featured a strong leading performance by the excellent Isabelle Carré, an actress who, despite appearing to be a good fit for the Larrieus' sensibilities, has yet to make another film with the brothers. 

In addition to his glittering career as an actor and his status as the go-to guy for both Arnaud Desplechin and the Larrieus, Mathieu Amalric has carved out a formidable reputation on the other side of the camera—his most recent directorial effort, Hold Me Tight, can be currently seen alongside Tralala at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (Amalric also participated in one of the festival's Big Talks).  As the title character in Tralala, Amalric gives the sort of performance familiar to his devotees, with the raffish charm he exudes going a long way towards carrying a story that is sometimes rather thin, yet never anything less than entertaining.  Amalric is backed by a fine supporting cast: in addition to the aforementioned Maïwenn, Tralala features enjoyable turns from Josiane Balasko, Denis Lavant, Jalil Lespert and Galatéa Bellugi; although a relative unknown among the starry, experienced cast, Bellugi manages to quietly steal almost every scene she's in.      

Amalric's Tralala is a penniless busker who lives in a tiny city apartment that has no basic amenities; what's worse, the building stands on the brink of demolition, and Tralala needs to have a serious think about his options, such as they are.  After a day of busking in the city centre, Tralala encounters an attractive young woman (Bellugi), and the two go for a drink at a bar; the woman goes to pay the tab but doesn't come back, and the waiter returns to hand Tralala the not inconsiderable change.  Greatly intrigued by this mysterious stranger, Tralala has few clues about who she is, although a lighter she's left behind seems to be a souvenir from Lourdes.  Tralala uses the money he's just acquired to make his way to the city of miracles, where he attempts to track down the young woman; after a fruitless, exhausting first day in which he loses his guitar (thanks to Lavant's aggressive fellow busker, who doesn't take kindly to others working his patch), Tralala finds refuge in a flophouse owned by Lili (Balasko), who mistakes Tralala for Pat, her musician son who left Lourdes many years ago and hasn't been heard from since.    

As a man with little to lose, Tralala decides to go along with this, and from this point on he steps into Pat's shoes.  While Lili is adamant that this is her son, others are less than convinced, and in this sense the film recalls the basic conceit of the otherwise completely different Titane.  Still, Tralala does his best to make a go of it as an ersatz Pat, although this means negotiating tricky encounters with his subject's old flames Jeannie (Mélanie Thierry) and Barbara (Maïwenn), the latter of whom has a very close connection to the person who lured Tralala to Lourdes.  As the enquiries made by Tralala regarding the young woman have largely been met with hostility, this only serves to deepen the mystery surrounding this ethereal character, the memory of whom continues to haunt Tralala even as he's busy juggling the various components of his complex new identity.  Amalric, that most dependable of screen presences, always does enough to keep the sheer preposterousness of the scenario at bay, even if this diverting confection does not represent the Larrieu brothers at their very best.  But as with its title character, Tralala nonetheless possesses a ramshackle charm.     

Darren Arnold

Wednesday, 2 February 2022

Lucie Loses Her Horse (Claude Schmitz, 2021)

At the beginning of Claude Schmitz's beguiling debut feature, which is currently screening at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, more than half of the film's original French title—Lucie perd son cheval—fades away, leaving the name "Perceval" on the screen.  This neat touch is much more than a gimmick, though, as Schmitz's film strongly recalls Éric Rohmer's Perceval le Gallois, along with the work of a clutch of other French masters; beyond its debt to Rohmer's singular take on the Arthurian legend, traces of Lucie Loses Her Horse's DNA can be found in the likes of Robert Bresson's Lancelot du Lac and Bruno Dumont's Joan of Arc.  But perhaps more than any of these fine influences, Lucie Loses Her Horse owes a great deal to the work of Jacques Rivette, a director who frequently incorporated the world of theatre into his films.   

Like Dumont, Rivette took a tilt at the Joan of Arc story, and while his two-part epic Joan the Maid's influence can be seen in Schmitz's film, it is actually Rivette's more overtly theatre-centric works such as L'Amour fou and Va savoir that inform Lucie Loses Her Horse's exploration of the slippery relationship between theatre and cinema.  Even the title of Schmitz's film is positively Rivettian, although if you waited around three hours to see Celine and Julie Go Boating's title characters finally jump in a vessel and take to the water, rest assured that Lucie (Lucie Debay, terrific) and her equine companion are parted in the early stages of Schmitz's sly, playful work.  Upon losing her not so trusty steed, Lucie—kitted out in a fine suit of armour—promptly begins searching for the animal, in the process encountering two other female knights (Hélène Bressiant, Judith Williquet), both of whom have also managed to become separated from their horses.  To lose one horse may be regarded as a misfortune, etc... actually, that quote doesn't quite fit this scenario—but hopefully you get the idea.

This medieval-themed episode comes wedged between two very different sequences: in the prior one, we witness Lucie the actress saying goodbye to her young daughter (Nao Wielemans-Debay) before she heads off to work; in the second, Lucie and the other two horseless knights—who, as it turns out, are fellow actresses—wake up in a theatre in which they're playing in a production of Shakespeare's King Lear.  In case you don't count this as sufficiently meta, consider that Lucie's child is played by Lucie Debay's real-life daughter (Debay's partner is musician Antoine Wielemans, of Belgian indie act Girls in Hawaii), and also that Lucie Loses Her Horse morphed out of one of Schmitz's theatrical productions, Un Royaume, whose performances were truncated on account of the coronavirus pandemic.  That one of the film's production companies is Le Théâtre de Liège, who staged the play on which the film is partly based, demonstrates how blurred the lines have become between the two works (and, by extension, the two media).

Before we get to thinking of where the MacGuffin that is Lucie's horse may have wandered off to, is it at all possible to establish which if any of these incarnations is the real Lucie?  Is all the knights and horses stuff part of a fugue state, or simply another performance by the actresses?  And does it really matter?  Much of the film focuses on the increasingly chaotic backstage drama that unfolds at the theatre, most of which is fairly inconsequential yet oddly compelling.  What we have here is essentially a shaggy dog story, one which remains completely absorbing should you allow yourself to go along with the joke.  With Lucie Loses Her Horse, Claude Schmitz has planted one foot firmly in cinema and the other in theatre, resulting in both a deeply strange hybrid work and an alluring twilight world; it's a film as mischievous as it is haunting, and one strongly suspects that the late M. Rivette—Saturday past marked the sixth anniversary of his death—would have greatly enjoyed this unique meditation on theatre and cinema.  

Darren Arnold

Images: IFFR

Monday, 31 January 2022

Altijd alles anders (Christiaan van Schermbeek, 2022)

When you hear the name Paul Röttger, there's a good chance that you might think of his starring role in the TV adaptation of Jan Terlouw's Oorlogswinter, a series that was first broadcast all the way back in 1975 on what was then known as Nederland 1 (now NPO 1).  A few years later, Röttger was seen on the big screen in another tale of the Netherlands under German occupation, Wim Verstappen's Pastorale 1943.  The part of Michiel van Beusekom in Oorlogswinter might quite reasonably be viewed as Röttger's defining screen role, although he also played the title character in Simon Winner and appeared in the Dutch version of classic British sitcom Porridge.  Yet for the past three decades or so, Röttger has been more or less exclusively focused on theatre; his pioneering efforts with the Rotterdams Centrum voor Theater (RCTh) have rightly earned numerous plaudits for the actor–director, who also founded the institution.  

What sets Röttger's work with the RCTh apart is that, at its core, it's all about inclusivity, and his company Theater Babel Rotterdam consists of performers from all walks of life—race, gender, sexuality, physical ability, or mental condition form no obstacle for those who'd like to work in one of Röttger's productions.  There's no gimmick here—Röttger has complete belief in this project, and he has worked tirelessly to carve out a space for people who are shunned by so many; this fine film from Christiaan van Schermbeek captures the sincerity of a man who has devoted himself to providing opportunities for anyone and everyone who harbours the desire to work in theatre.  Van Schermbeek is no stranger to the International Film Festival Rotterdam, where Altijd alles anders is currently premiering in the RTM strand, and over the past twenty years a number of his medium-length works—most notably the Simply Cinema series of films—have played at the festival.

While Altijd alles anders generally takes a holistic view of the work of Theater Babel Rotterdam, it does spend some time on individual interviews with a number of the company's members beyond Paul Röttger, and such segments frequently prove to be both illuminating and moving.  One of the film's most touching moments comes fairly early on, when Stijn, a likeable young man with a real talent for drumming, rues the day when he came close to joining a band.  The reasons it didn't work out had nothing to do with his musical ability, and Stijn says that he doesn't consider it to be a missed opportunity; rather, he views the way he is as being the real missed opportunity.  There's something quite heartbreaking about the highly perceptive Stijn's candour, yet he's a great example of the sort of individual who, without the exceptional tutelage of Paul Röttger, would most likely have spent much if not all of their life on the margins of society.   

As a documentary, Altijd alles anders is something of a no-frills affair, with van Schermbeek opting for a pragmatic approach as he gets up close and personal with both Röttger and the actors he's guiding; it's fascinating to watch the company's rehearsals from the vantage point of a camera that's quite literally among the actors, and such a bold move captures both the immediacy and energy of the group in a way that could never be matched by the fly on the wall technique.  What if any difference this strategy might make to the performers is impossible to gauge, but you sense that van Schermbeek is just as well to jump right in like this; after all, as the great ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch once pointed out, subjects will always be affected by the presence of a camera.  In a way, Christiaan van Scheermbeek's approach mirrors that of Röttger's: both men are keen to roll up their sleeves and cut directly to the heart of the matter.  Altijd alles anders is both a fine record of Paul Röttger's work with RCTh and a deceptively simple film; it contains moments that stay with the viewer for a long time after the end credits have rolled.

Darren Arnold

Images: IFFR

Friday, 28 January 2022

Met mes (Sam de Jong, 2022)

Back in 2015, Sam de Jong made quite a splash with his debut feature Prins; four years later, he moved into English language cinema with New York story Goldie.  Although de Jong's irreverent take on Dumas' De drie musketiers—a TV movie shot in a mere ten days in German-speaking Belgium—premiered on NPO 3 just last month, his third and latest theatrical feature, the Dutch language Met mes, has already been unveiled.  Marrying an eye-popping colour scheme with inventive sound design, de Jong's new film successfully navigates several tonal shifts before arriving at its conclusion, and it is to the writer–director's credit that proceedings never become too predictable.  With any luck and the right marketing, Met mes should find an audience beyond those who encounter it at the 51st International Film Festival Rotterdam, where it's currently screening.

Met mes focuses mainly on two characters: Eveline (Hadewych Minis) is a television presenter who has just quit her job in order to make a hard-hitting documentary exploring various social issues, and it is while shooting this that she crosses paths with teenager Yousef (Shahine El-Hamus), who acts as a distraction so his friend can steal Eveline's expensive VHS camera.  When her insurance company refuses to pay out on the grounds that the crime hasn't been reported, Eveline goes to the police station; there, she proceeds to give a statement, and as Yousef was the only one of the thieves that she actually saw, she describes the young man as best she can, but embellishes her story—as per the film's title—to include the detail that she was threatened at knifepoint.  Naturally, the mention of such a weapon sees the matter escalated, and the police soon track down Yousef who, while not exactly innocent, certainly isn't guilty of a crime of this nature. 

Amidst all the garish visuals and witty sight gags (the one involving the police officer who takes Eveline's statement is a real standout), de Jong hands his audience an interesting dilemma: while we're presented with a victim and a perpetrator, the hard truth is that both of these characters are in the wrong—so who should we side with?  Despite his ill-judged involvement in the theft of the camera, Yousef comes across as a reasonably steady character, although the same description could equally apply to Eveline if we overlook her dishonesty when it came to filing the police report; neither Eveline nor Yousef are the worst people one might encounter, yet the viewer is forced to constantly reevaluate the pair's actions (and their consequences) as the situation grows more serious.

Curiously, Met mes recalls another IFFR 2022 title in the form of Bruno Dumont's France; each film sees a famous TV personality—one who is quite happy to manipulate real events to make for "better" television—begin to unravel in the wake of an unfortunate encounter with a young man of north African heritage.  Just as France's eponymous news anchor eventually seems to lose her bearings as far as the line between verity and fabrication is concerned, Met mes' Eveline attempts to absorb Yousef's crime and its aftermath into the documentary she was making when her camera was stolen.  But no matter what is going on at any given point in Met mes, Sam de Jong's audacity and energy go a long way towards sweeping the audience along for what proves to be a highly entertaining diversion, one that displays a fine sense of the absurd.  

Darren Arnold

Images: IFFR

Wednesday, 26 January 2022

A Human Position (Anders Emblem, 2022)

As with his 2018 debut feature Hurry Slowly, A Human Position—currently screening at the International Film Festival Rotterdam—sees director Anders Emblem firmly on home territory in the western Norwegian town of Ålesund; in a further parallel with Hurry Slowly, A Human Position's leading role is played by Amalie Ibsen Jensen.  The excellent Jensen brings a haunted quality to the troubled Asta, a young journalist working for an Ålesund newspaper, for which she reports on matters including football, proposed redevelopment, and the various cruise ships lined up in the town's expansive port.  Asta performs well in her job, one which appears to serve as a welcome distraction from some darker issues lurking around the edges of the reporter's life; in one scene at the home she shares with upholsterer/budding musician Live (Maria Agwumaro) and an incredibly cute cat, Asta is shown applying some sort of cream to her stomach before she turns in for the night.

While most of the stories covered by Asta leave little in the way of a lasting impression on the young woman, things change when she stumbles across the sorry tale of Aslan, an asylum seeker who once worked in the town but has since vanished; word is that Aslan has been deported, but Asta senses that there's something more to the story.  As she digs deeper into the mystery, Asta encounters much in the way of red tape, and she speaks to several town officials, all of whom seem to have mastered the art of talking a lot while saying nothing.  Yet the passive aggressiveness that meets these enquiries does little to deter Asta, who doggedly sticks to piecing together Aslan's movements in the time leading up to his disappearance.  As with Antonioni's L'Avventura, there's a nagging feeling that this puzzle is one bound to remain unsolved.

While A Human Position feels far from didactic—Emblem largely invites the viewer to interpret the film however they like—it implies that Aslan's fate is the fault of both everyone and no one.  As such, it recalls Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon, a film that cast a cold, unblinking eye over the notion of collective responsibility (or lack of it).  The wealth and stability of Norway stand in sharp contrast with the circumstances that the unseen Aslan sought asylum from (and has purportedly been returned to).  It is to the film's great credit that we get a real sense of the missing man, and just as Asta seems to make a tangible connection to him via the chair favoured by Aslan during his work breaks, the viewer is able to form a picture of this notable absentee (his choice of seat highlights an obvious motif in A Human Position, given that Asta and Live's home is scattered with chairs in various states of repair).  Asta, unlike many others in her hometown, has opted to be interested in Aslan's story, and this same choice is extended to the viewer. 

Although it clocks in at less that 80 minutes, A Human Position could certainly be classed as an example of slow cinema; it's a deliberately paced tale, full of long static takes and icily impressive shots of Ålesund—a town in which Asta and Live appear to be two of just a handful of inhabitants.  While the film encourages us to fill in the blanks around the stories of both Asta and Aslan, there's never the sense that Emblem is trying to frustrate his audience; despite its refusal to tie up its various loose ends, A Human Position stands as a curiously satisfying experience.  It's a measured, haunting slice of cinema, and the sparsely populated streets of Ålesund provide plenty of room for both Asta and the viewer to mull over the many possibilities regarding the sad, strange case of Aslan.  While always a low-key affair, A Human Position is a memorable, affecting work.

Darren Arnold

Tuesday, 11 January 2022

Looking for Muriel

The late Alain Resnais (pictured above, courtesy of Eureka Video) was a true giant of cinema, and his 1963 film Muriel, or The Time of Return is a longstanding favourite of mine.  While Resnais made several films widely considered to be classics (including Last Year at Marienbad, Night and Fog and Hiroshima mon amour), I have an unshakeable belief that the shattering Muriel remains his crowning achievement.  For some time, I had wanted to write a detailed study on this extraordinary film, and in early 2020—just before COVID cast its long shadow over the world—I started work on Looking for Muriel, which has just been published simultaneously in hardback and paperback by BearManor Media.  I thoroughly enjoyed both working with the team at BearManor and exploring the many diverse areas surrounding Muriel, and I hope this comes across in the writing.

I'm very grateful to each and every person who buys my books, so should you choose to order Looking for Muriel: A Journey Through and Around the Alain Resnais Film, please know that your purchase is greatly appreciated.  The book is available directly from the publisher, as well as from a number of retailers, including Walmart, Amazon and Google, all of whom are linked to at the very bottom of the page (to find these buttons, be sure to use the web version of the site and scroll all the way down).  If you'd like to check if the book is available from your country's Amazon, simply visit that particular store and plug the following number into the search box: