Saturday 23 December 2017

Happy Holidays!

Merry Christmas from - see you all in 2018!

Thursday 30 November 2017

Son of Bigfoot (Ben Stassen / Jeremy Degruson, 2017)

Ben Stassen's 2013 animated movie The House of Magic, while initially rather underwhelming, was a film which certainly improved with repeated viewings.  Since that effort, Stassen has co-directed (with Vincent Kesteloot) Robinson Crusoe, but for Son of Bigfoot the Belgian filmmaker has reteamed with his House of Magic partner Jeremy Degruson.  Happily, Son of Bigfoot, which features terrific animation, stands as Stassen's best achievement so far, and the humour in it should appeal to both children and adults alike.

The story centres on Adam, a young teen who is finding school rather difficult on account of a trio of bullies who won't give him any peace.  Adam's problems are compounded by both his hair and feet growing at a rate which neither scissors nor shoes can keep up with.  As the boy struggles to keep these strange developments from his (single) mum, the mother/son relationship becomes rather strained.  With not much in life going his way - there’s also a complication involving a girl he likes - Adam starts to think about tracking down his mysteriously absent father.

The movie's title has already informed us, assuming Adam is the son in question, who his dad is.  We soon have it confirmed that Adam's father is indeed Sasquatch, and he's been living in the woods for years in order to avoid detection by an evil pharmaceutical company who are desperately searching for a hair growth formula.  Adam locates his dad in the forest, but is soon joined by henchmen from the nefarious corporation; thankfully, some determined woodland creatures are on hand to lend support to Bigfoot and son.

As mentioned earlier, Son of Bigfoot's animation is especially good, and in technical terms the movie is easily the best of Stassen's films.  For a film where much of the focus is on hair, the animation has to be just right, and here the style is both convincing and appealing.  For perhaps the first time, Stassen's studio nWave have made a film that can at least take on the likes of Dreamworks, Blue Sky and Pixar, even if it will probably come off second best.  It remains to see where nWave will go from here - earlier this year, they parted ways with the heavyweight StudioCanal (who were nonetheless involved in Son of Bigfoot), although Stassen claims that his company will now move on to more expensive productions.  While many Bigfoot movies have come and gone over the years - Bobcat Goldthwait's Willow Creek being a recent, nerve-shredding example - Son of Bigfoot stands as a fresh, child-friendly take on the legend.

Darren Arnold

Images: StudioCanal

Friday 13 October 2017

Nico, 1988 (Susanna Nicchiarelli, 2017)

The German singer Nico, much to her chagrin, was - and is - best known for her work with the Velvet Underground; 1967's The Velvet Underground and Nico (yes, the one with the banana on the cover) is a seminal work widely regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time.  Nico, 1988 is a Belgian co-production - filmed in English - which concentrates on the last two years of the singer's life which, somewhat bizarrely, saw the onetime member of Andy Warhol's crowd set up camp in the northwest of England.  From this unlikely base, the film follows Nico as she embarks on a series of European dates which are, at best, spottily attended.  Backed by a ragtag band of musicians who, by the singer's own admission, are a bunch of hopeless junkies, Nico's live performances see the singer operate in one of two modes: indifferent or angry.

As with the bulk of her backing band, Nico (Danish actress Trine Dyrholm, terrific) has a taste for heroin and does not take particularly good care of herself.  Haunted by the memory of the son she only had a small part in raising, she seems bent on self-destruction, and making music doesn't give her the outlet or satisfaction she so desperately needs.  The ex-model has no trouble attracting men, and at least two of her entourage become smitten with her, but these dalliances appear to be no more fulfilling to Nico than anything else her life has to offer.  One of these suitors, her makeshift manager Richard, goes above and beyond the call of duty when he proves instrumental in reuniting Nico with her son Ari, who is both a grown man and extremely troubled.

Anyone with even the most cursory knowledge of Nico will know that this doesn't end well for her; while Nico, 1988 is not the most flattering portrait of the singer, we do get to see a real human being trying to break through the haughty sense of entitlement, and Nico's maternal instincts work to show her at her best.  Ari himself is a likeable sort, but even though he didn't have much to do with his mother while growing up, he obviously has a similar, if more vulnerable, personality to the woman who gave birth to him (while the film mentions he was raised in France by his paternal grandparents, it fails to name the father: French superstar Alain Delon).

Of course, Nico was never much of a singer, and her insistence that people stop referring to her Velvets/Warhol work only highlights the thin and patchy nature of her solo efforts.  Her stance is one that we've seen many a time: the star who distances themselves from what it was that made them famous (and continues to be the source of any present interest).  Nico's contempt for virtually all around her (barring Ari) is a textbook example of someone who can't really come to terms with the fact that her fame is both in the past and down to others.  She - as her erstwhile mentor would have put it - had her 15 minutes; the real problem was what to do with all the years after that time.

Nico, 1988 in some ways recalls London Town from last year's LFF: both films give a snapshot of the life of a music icon (in London Town's case, Joe Strummer was the star in question), and the films share a similar ramshackle charm which greatly helps an imperfect movie become a hugely enjoyable cinema experience.  John Gordon Sinclair - an always likeable presence - fumbles terribly with an accent that seesaws between Rochdale and Rutherglen, but such problems don't distract from the fun.  Strange to think that a film about the last days of a heroin addict might be described as "fun", but this really is a warm, highly watchable piece of cinema.  It plays at the London Film Festival on the 14th and 15th of October.

Darren Arnold

Image: Celluloid Dreams

Wednesday 11 October 2017

Quality Time (Daan Bakker, 2017)

While it misses more often than it hits, Daan Bakker's portmanteu film is nothing if not original, and it would have made for a far bolder choice for the Netherlands' submission to the Oscars; although shortlisted, Quality Time lost out to the rather pedestrian Layla M.  Bakker's film contains five separate stories, each of which features a different man and his own crisis, and, as is the case with many anthology films, the quality of the segments is far from consistent.

The first, and best, section features Koen, a man who is tired of the regular family gatherings where he's unfailingly called on to devour ham and guzzle milk as some sort of party piece.  Koen's "act" greatly amuses all but himself, and the section follows him from dreading the occasion to going through the motions at the event.  Koen is represented by a white dot not dissimilar to the ball in early videogame Pong, and he speaks in a robotic monotone.  As his story progresses, other, equally rudimentary dots appear on screen and interact with Koen as the party gets into full swing.  It's a clever, amusing stretch of the film, and while Koen's consumption at the party is no funnier to us than it is to him, the feat pulled off by Bakker is impressive: before the end of Koen's story, a machine-voiced spot on the screen has become a character we've bought into.

The second section is not as successful, but does intrigue as the apparently traumatised Stefaan takes a camera and tours some of his childhood haunts.  Quite what's happened to him is hard to discern, but it's a melancholy segment in which the slightly threatening Stefaan often seems close to harming those who now populate the places from his past.  We're left to piece it all together from brief glimpses of the photos he takes, but it's all just a bit too opaque to be properly satisfying.

The middle story features a time machine, as Kjell goes back to rectify the childhood trauma that he feels has affected the rest of his life.  This sounds like a relatively straightforward tale, and it is until it's hijacked by a bizarre, extended medieval interlude.  As the section plods on, it runs out of both steam and focus, and what started out as an interesting idea winds up something of a mess.

The fourth instalment is, by a country mile, the strangest of the five stories.  It's hard to know where to start with this one, but it features a man called Karel and an alien abduction.  There's definitely a Lynchian sensibility at work in this one, with imagery that could easily have come from the recent, third season of Twin Peaks, and it gets things back on track after the two rather disappointing tales that have preceded it.

The final section sees Jef trying just a bit too hard to endear himself to his girlfriend's parents.  After what's immediately preceded it, Jef's story is particularly jarring as it is the most straightforward of any of the tales.  While it's fun to squirm along with Jef as he does his best to please, it doesn't really go anywhere until a killer caption appears at the very end.

Quality Time is certainly different, partially successful, and always ambitious.  While a bit more consistency would have been welcomed, Bakker has done well to link these seemingly disparate tales to a single theme, and pathos is to be found in all of the film's sections.  Of course, with the best served up first, you could always bail after Koen's story, but, as anticlimactic as the following sections are, that really wouldn't be very fair; Bakker's film deserves to be seen to the end, and it has just enough about it to warrant your time .  It screens at the London Film Festival on the 12th and 14th of October.

Darren Arnold


Sunday 8 October 2017

Cargo (Gilles Coulier, 2017)

Cargo is a solid and highly watchable drama focusing on the fortunes, or more accurately misfortunes, of a Flemish family of fishermen.  Early on in the film, the head of the family falls overboard during a violent storm and is placed on life support.  The eldest son, Jean, who is also a single father, takes on the day-to-day running of the business.  Times are tough, plus the ship is staring down the barrel of a highly expensive engine replacement which is proving impossible to secure funds for.

The taciturn Jean is at the centre of the action, but his two brothers also feature significantly: Francis is pleasant, dependable, yet struggling with his own private issues, while the feckless William - who Jean has no time for - suddenly pops up and wants a say in the future plans for the boat.  With the need for repairs ever more pressing, Jean has some difficult decisions to make, especially as there is a willing buyer lined up for the ship should he wish to sell.  The animosity between Jean and William means an agreement on how to proceed is not going to be easy to come by; matters are further complicated by Robert, a fellow boat owner who encourages Jean to sell up and join his crew - and in any case, Robert does not want to see Jean break the law by fishing with a ship that hasn't been approved as seaworthy.  Amidst all of this, Jean earns a little extra cash by occasionally working as a long distance lorry driver, which brings its own problems such as having to deal with stowaway migrants.

While the film features fine acting from all concerned, the landscape here emerges as a character in its own right; the port and the sea - the two main locations - are captured in a way that really conveys the hard, bleak lives of these people.  The title is something that doesn't really make sense up until very late on, and unfortunately this development threatens to tip the film into a melodrama unworthy of the careful, unsensational material that's preceded it.  The other notable misstep in the film is a nocturnal episode involving Francis, which plays very much like Gaspar Noé-lite and appears to have wandered in from another film.  These minor quibbles aside, Cargo stands as one of the best examples of Dutch-language cinema we've seen in recent years, and is very much recommended.  Quite how this failed to be put forward for the Oscars yet the starry-but-sloppy Racer and the Jailbird did is something of a mystery, as there is little doubt as to which of the two films is superior.  It screens at the London Film Festival on the 13th, 14th and 15th of October.

Darren Arnold


Friday 6 October 2017

So Help Me God (Jean Libon / Yves Hinant, 2017)

So Help Me God, which screens at the London Film Festival on the 8th and 10th of October, may as well be called Strip-Tease: The Movie, given how it’s indebted to, and so closely aligned with, the successful and groudbreaking TV show that gradually peeled back the layers on its subjects.  On first impressions, it does seem rather strange that the film isn’t explicitly associated with a brand that goes all the way back to the mid-1980s; while Strip-Tease may not be particularly well-known overseas, throwing the show’s name somewhere in with the original title (Ni juge, ni soumise) would no doubt make it an easier sell in the domestic market.   Directed by Strip-Tease’s co-creator Jean Libon alongside Yves Hinant, So Help Me God employs the show’s core approach (no narration, no interviews, no captions) to come up with a feature-length portrait of judge Anne Gruwez. 

So, why should Gruwez be afforded significantly more time than Strip-Tease’s usual subjects?  Well, a fair chunk of the duration is spent with the camera pointed at the other side of Gruwez’s desk, where there’s a range of people who, to varying extents, have fallen foul of the law; it’s not as if the entire running time is spent fixed on the magistrate.  Libon and Hinant's unblinking gaze on these individuals forces us to evaluate the veracity of their claims - which makes the ni juge part of the original title seem rather ironic.   But the star of the show is Gruwez, a stern, unflappable and, it must be said, not particularly likeable presence, but there’s something fascinating about watching her interact with those who come before her. 

The real jaw-dropping aspect of the film - which doesn’t dissipate as the film progresses - is that we’re privy to these incredibly sensitive legal conversations; you’ll find it very hard to believe that this isn’t some elaborate mockumentary.  The magistrate, who lives with her pet rat and pootles around in her old Citroën 2CV, is the sort of eccentric who is infinitely more likely to be written than found, and this one of the film’s major selling points.  Many will leave the cinema assuming they’ve just seen a piece of fiction; a scene where a suspect is exhumed so a bone sample can be taken is so surreally, nightmarishly over the top, it'll almost certainly be the point where some viewers will feel that this has to be staged.  Needless to say, it isn’t, nor is it the most disturbing episode in the film, which arrives a bit later on and involves a young woman and a suitcase; in that case, the perpetrator makes no effort to deny what they've done.  Such candour would be welcomed if it wasn't so chilling.

Brilliantly edited - presumably endless footage was filmed before it was pared down - and with a purposeful pace, So Help Me God’s place on the big screen may be more down to its running time as opposed to any inherent cinematic qualities, but it’s a clever and thoughtful work that deserves as wide an audience as possible.  Come to think of it, perhaps Strip-Tease is missing from the title as this film does not achieve the TV show’s usual goal, as the somewhat inscrutable Gruwez keeps a very tight lid on her inner self - but in any case, it's her professional life that will keep you engrossed from beginning to end.

Darren Arnold

Image: SSIFF

Wednesday 4 October 2017

Chez nous (Lucas Belvaux, 2017)

Screening at the London Film Festival on the 10th and 11th of October, Belgian actor-director Lucas Belvaux's film shares a number of features with Dany Boon's Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis: the Nord-Pas-de-Calais milieu; actress Anne Marivin; crowd scenes filmed at RC Lens' stade Bollaert-Delelis; oh, and the word chez in its title.  It does significantly deviate from Boon's über-smash in that in no way could Chez nous (English title: This is Our Land) be described as a feel-good movie; it is, however, an absorbing and well-crafted film that has enough momentum to get past some heavy-handed moments.

Single mother Pauline (Émilie Dequenne) is a nurse who, while making a home visit, discovers the elderly patient has died.  Pauline waits for the ambulance and a Dr. Berthier (André Dussolier) to arrive for the formalities.  Berthier knows Pauline quite well as he treated her late mother and now does the same for her ailing father.  The pleasant if reserved doctor invites Pauline round to his house for dinner, where he promptly springs it on her that she's his ideal choice to run for mayor of their town.  Pauline is flattered but declines, although some difficult patients in her already tough job make the offer seem even more attractive, and, greatly encouraged by her friend Nathalie (Marivin), she eventually agrees to stand.

The party she's representing - the fictional RNP - are headed by Agnès Dorgelle (Catherine Jacob), a steely politician who has apparently softened the image of the far right by breaking with her father's party and its more in-your-face brand of politics; working from a nominally reformed manifesto, Dorgelle Jr.'s EU-bashing, jingoistic, anti-immigration stance is recognised by most for what it is: a slicker, covert repackaging of the same militant views.  Getting attractive, clever, affable everywomen such as Pauline to act as poster girls is exactly what the RNP need if they are to make serious inroads into mainstream politics.

Standing for an extreme party unsurprisingly brings its tough moments, and Pauline's life grows even busier when she reconnects with Stanko, her boyfriend from high school.  Stanko is caring and kind to Pauline and her children, yet there's another, sinister side to his life, which is tied in with a murky past involving Berthier.  With the election looming, Berthier tells Stanko to keep away from Pauline, as he feels that Stanko's illegal activities - should they be exposed by the press - would sink Pauline's chances of winning.

Chez nous attracted some controversy when it was released in France earlier this year, given how closely Jacob's character resembles Marine Le Pen.  Arriving in cinemas before the presidential elections took place, Le Pen's supporters fumed at the perceived attack on their leader.  While France - unlike the UK and the US in recent times - ultimately rejected voting for an extreme, Le Pen nonetheless went the distance, losing only in the final round to Emmanuel Macron.  While Macron's victory was decisive, Le Pen's Front national had moved from fringe dwellers to a party that won a full third of the vote, and this fuelled the new populist right fire that Brexit and Trump had ignited.  The unsettling thing about Chez nous is that it shows a pleasant, reasonable woman being seduced by a party she doesn't really share an ideology with; Pauline is no extremist crackpot, and Belvaux's film shows how a well-adjusted person - one who's only slightly disillusioned - can be lured into darker waters.  The film does deal with some thorny issues, and no doubt Belvaux and Dequenne felt relieved that their Belgian passports put some distance between them and the subject.

Dequenne tends to light up any film she appears in, and here she's as appealing as ever, yet she's an actress who never quite seems to get the full recognition she truly deserves.  Sure, she's won a couple of times at Cannes, but she's a really remarkable performer who seems destined to remain underrated as lesser Francophone actresses hog the upper echelon.  The veteran Dussolier, like Dequenne, is a very likeable, completely dependable presence, and his part here again proves that he can do creepy when required; further evidence of him in this mode can be had in 21 Nights with Pattie and Resnais' Wild Grass.  Guillaume Gouix, best known from his role in TV series The Returned, provides good support as Stanko, who's a far more complicated character than he first appears.

There are moments where Belvaux could have dialled it down a bit - in one scene, a TV documentary can be heard in which the narrator talks about a non-native crab that's taking over the English channel, and Jacob's Le Pen avatar is just a bit too broad to be properly successful.  Naming the town Hénard is also rather clunky (it's a contraction of the old name for Hénin-Beaumont, a town in Le Pen's constituency which has an FN mayor).  At the other end of the spectrum, there's a sublime moment when Berthier corrects a party colleague who's described Stanko as a neo-Nazi - nationalist revolutionary is the term to use, apparently; the brilliant, telling riposte is that not everyone's studied political science.  With its atmospheric northern French locations - which the director failed to fully exploit in his disappointing One Night - Chez nous stands as Belvaux's best film for quite some time, and it works very nicely as a solid drama with a political slant.  The DVD/Blu-ray is available in France.

Darren Arnold

Images courtesy of Le Pacte

Tuesday 3 October 2017

Racer and the Jailbird (Michaël R. Roskam, 2017)

Once you get past its terrible English title, Racer and the Jailbird is a passable crime drama which manages to engage the viewer even as it becomes increasingly ludicrous.  It's the third feature from Michaël R. Roskam, who previously directed two very solid works in the form of Rundskop and The Drop.  The star of those two movies, Matthias Schoenaerts, here reteams with Roskam, and for this film he's joined by Adèle Exarchopoulos, a highly capable young actress best known for Blue is the Warmest Colour.  It's largely thanks to Exarchopoulos' performance that Roskam's film always remains on the right side of watchable.

Schoenaerts' Gigi is part of a Brussels-based gang of armed robbers.  Exarchopoulos' Bibi is a rich kid who also happens to be a very competent racing driver.  The two meet, and sparks fly, although the film neatly sidesteps the obvious (which would be: Bibi becomes the gang's getaway driver) and takes a very different route, as Gigi does all he can to conceal his life of crime from the woman he's besotted with.  For quite some time, the film posits the idea that this arrangement may just work, but we all know that the roof will fall in on Gigi sooner or later; when it does, we're curious to see which way both the film and Bibi will go.

Overstuffed and somewhat undercooked, Racer and the Jailbird works quite well as slickly-made trash, but as the lengthy running time progresses and the ridiculousness piles up, it's a hard film to take seriously.  Eventually, there's a development involving Bibi which marks the point where the film properly jumps the shark, and from then on it's difficult to believe that the director is being sincere.  The remainder of the film is drowning in bathos, and it's hard to know quite what Roskam expects us to make of this stew.  What started off as a taut semi-polar really starts to sag, although an impressive extended shot - presumably a nod to Claude Lelouch - makes for a nice touch at the very end.

While the film is by no means terrible, it's all just a bit too silly, and it's disappointing that Roskam has not kicked on from the The Drop; in his short filmography, this latest effort is easily his weakest movie.  Exarchopoulos, as already mentioned, is great, and Schoenaerts typically puts it all in (in every film he's starred in for Roskam, he's never acted in the same language more than once - that's versatility for you).   The problem with the film lies not with the performances or the mise-en-scène, but in the screenplay - Thomas Bidegain is credited as co-writer, and the film's hardened-crim-forges-relationship-with-innocent setup smacks a little too much of his Rust and Bone (which also starred Schoenaerts, so comparisons come leaping out from the screen).  Bidegain is a very fine writer whose collaborations with Jacques Audiard have produced some of the best cinema of the past decade, but here we can only assume he's 'phoning it in and/or doing it for an easy payday.

Racer and the Jailbird is a good-looking slice of pulp, albeit one which would work much better as an 85 minute experience as opposed to the horribly bloated 130 minutes we're faced with.  While this rote thriller makes for an undemanding evening's entertainment, everyone is right to expect a lot more from Roskam at this stage of his career.  The film has been submitted as Belgium's entry for the Oscars, but it's hard to believe that this is the very best the country has to offer.  It screens at the London Film Festival on  the 4th, 5th and 7th of October (the earliest of those dates coinciding with its release in Belgian cinemas).  It will be released in the Netherlands on the 2nd of November.

Darren Arnold


Saturday 30 September 2017

Let the Corpses Tan (Hélène Cattet / Bruno Forzani, 2017)

Cattet and Forzani's third feature - which screens at the London Film Festival on the 9th and 10th of October - is the first of their films to feature something resembling a coherent narrative, and as such marks a progression for the directors.  While it easily clears the low bar set by their overrated debut Amer, it lacks the nagging creepiness that made their second film, The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears, so compelling.  It seems unlikely that their new film will improve their commercial standing, with distribution outside of the festival circuit destined to be very limited.  As with their previous two features, Let the Corpses Tan sees the Brussels-based couple look conspicuously south to Italy, where this time around their eyes are not so much on (re)creating a giallo but rather fashioning something closer to a spaghetti western; although, that said, Corpses does cast the net slightly beyond that country and subgenre, with the film approximating a look and feel that anyone reasonably familiar with 70s Euro exploitation flicks will instantly recognise.

The film, unsurprisingly for this pair, proves a difficult one to get a grip of in its opening stages, and the first few minutes are as jarring, fragmented and elusive as anything in their previous two features.  Just past the ten minute mark, however, the directors' credit suddenly appears on screen, and this proves to be a watershed as the film immediately clicks into a framework that we all know and recognise: an escorted armoured truck is brought to a halt by a criminal gang, who kill everyone inside (and outside) of the vehicle before making off with the cargo - a cool 250 kilos of gold.  Following the robbery, the gang hole up in their remote hideaway - an ancient, sun-kissed lair that's home to a kooky female artist.  Full of caves and ancient ruins, this retreat towers over the surrounding valley and provides a good vantage point - although this doesn't stop two police officers surprising the gang, and an extended, bloody shoot-out commences.

The scenario is one we've seen countless times, and Cattet and Forzani have appropriated a configuration we're used to seeing in countless films by the likes of Tarantino, the Coens, Martin McDonagh, and so on.  As well as the cops vs. criminals face-off, matters are complicated as a series of betrayals ensue as the glittering gold proves just too tempting for the thieves to honour any agreement they may have had.  It's a well-worn setup, but the difference lies in the directors' immaculate mounting of the piece; every single sound and image here has been painstakingly crafted in a manner that's the antithesis of the quick, cheap, often shoddy exploitation cinema of the 1970s that the film so obsessively riffs on.  Even when the main narrative begins, the film still contains the odd (and very odd) avant-garde interlude, but these don't get in the way to any significant extent.  As the climax rages, it's often hard to work out who's firing at who, with many close-ups of the various participants' eyes proving disorienting.  It's almost as if the filmmakers are pulling back from delivering the linear conclusion befitting of the yarn we've been spun for the last hour or so.

It's hard to know if we really learn much more about Cattet and Forzani from Let the Corpses Tan - even after just two films, their impeccable technical skills were obvious.  One thing they do prove here, though, is that they can do tension - a scene where a police officer avoids gunfire by creeping through caves is suitably well wrought.  An on-screen clock, which frequently punctuates the action, paradoxically keeps the nerves jangling while being of no real relevance to the proceedings (early on, the getaway driver glances feverishly at his watch as he speeds away, but beyond the obvious need for a quick retreat there's no clue as to what particular deadline he's trying to meet).  Come to think of it, the clock's effect, which is inversely proportionate to its use, perhaps neatly sums up Forzani and Cattet's raison d'être of form over content.

Let the Corpses Tan is definitely worth 90 minutes of your time, but, just as with the directors' previous two features, the slavish, monomaniacal recreation of something that there's already countless examples of begs the question: why?  If you opt to clear the snow from your driveway with a teaspoon instead of a shovel, isn't the net result the same?  And should anyone really care?  Maybe, then, this film and its predecessors are more about Cattet and Forzani's journey, and less about the results we get to witness on screen.

Darren Arnold

Images: Shellac Films

Thursday 28 September 2017

Catherine / Ivan Tsarevitch (B. Raes / M. Ocelot, 2017/16)


Catherine, a charming Belgian short, sees the title character rapidly work her way through a series of childhood pets, all of which are claimed via unfortunate accidents.  One day Kitty arrives, and this pretty feline is clever enough to account for Catherine's carelessness, with the two enjoying a strong bond which continues as the girl turns into a woman.  Thrown into the mix is Dwight, the shy and awkward boy (later man) across the street, who seems to have a knack of popping up whenever one of Catherine's pets dies.  It's clear that Dwight has feelings for Catherine, but he doesn't especially register with her as she can't really see past the cat she dotes on.

With a warm, appealing animation style and great use of colour, Britt Raes' film makes for a delightful twelve minutes of entertainment; it's by no means without humour, but is ultimately a very poignant tale which carries a universal message about the time that remains.  The film manages to be both tough and tender, and very young children may find it to be a bit upsetting in places - having said that, the bittersweet power of Catherine is likely to move children and adults alike.  You don't have to be a cat lover to enjoy this film, although being one might help.

Catherine screens at the London Film Festival on the 7th and 8th of October.  On the earlier of those dates, it plays with Michel Ocelot's Ivan Tsarevitch and the Changing Princess.  Ocelot is a legend in the world of animation due to works such as his Kirikou movies, and this film sees him working in silhouette mode à la Tales of the Night.

Just as with Tales of the Night, Ivan Tsarevitch is an anthology film, and while it's half an hour and two stories shorter than Tales, the standard is just as high.  The stark, beautiful animation helps bring a quartet of children's stories to life, and, as is the case with all the best fairytales, there's a lurking menace present in each segment that will delight both younger viewers and accompanying adults.

Ocelot's films always come as a breath of fresh air in a crowded children's market where the emphasis is all too often on the formulaic.  Ivan Tsarevitch and the Changing Princess was released in French cinemas last year, and is available on DVD as part of a nice double pack which also includes Tales of the Night.

Darren Arnold


Tuesday 19 September 2017

HF Film Review Archive

As this incarnation of Holland Focus is still in its early stages, I thought it might be good to beef it up a bit by linking to the film reviews I wrote for the print version of the magazine.  A full decade of reviews can be found in the folder linked to below - these are mostly scans, of which the quality is variable, although there are some that were printed directly from PDF files of the magazine.  Once you click on the link, you'll find a set of folders - one for each year from 2007 to 2017; within these you'll find that things get somewhat sloppier in terms of file types and naming, but everything should be there in some shape or form.  For most of the articles you'll find that the date of publication is scribbled on an edge of the page, and if this isn't the case then the name of the file should clearly indicate this information.  The preview images should, in many cases, give a good indication of what film is reviewed in any given file, and you can download any of the files or folders.  You can find it all here (or you can click on the folder image above).  Please note that all of these articles are copyright © Holland Focus 2007-2017.

Tuesday 12 September 2017

Jeannette (Bruno Dumont, 2017)

Jeannette, l'enfance de Jeanne d'Arc (English: Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc), which screened at this year's Cannes, has had a rather atypical release in that it debuted on French television one week before appearing in cinemas.  Word has it that the TV and cinema versions do differ a little, but the fact that most could watch the film for free has obviously impacted on the domestic theatrical release: it would appear that a lone print is touring Paris' MK2 cinemas during the first week, while screenings in cities including Lille, Dunkerque and Amiens - all firmly within director Bruno Dumont's native Nord-Pas-de-Calais - are also taking place.

Set during the Hundred Years' War, Jeannette's story is adequately described by its full title, as we witness Joan of Arc first as a young girl, then a teenager, before finally heading off to battle - basically, it ends at the point where virtually all other films about the Maid of Orleans begin.  Plot-wise, there isn't much else to say, and the bulk of the film sees Joan among her sheep in the sand dunes (of Wissant, where Dumont's Ma Loute was also shot) as she gradually gets to grips with her calling.  What the title doesn't tell you is that this is a musical, although one that most definitely doesn't carry the broad appeal of La La Land.  The film is based on two works by Charles Péguy, and his turn of the century writing comes to life as lyrics set to the music of electronicore artist Igorrr.  Refreshingly, the vocals were recorded live on set, as opposed to the usual process of lip-syncing to playback.  This makes the two lead performances all the more remarkable, plus it lends the type of authentic immediacy we've long since associated with this director.

The title character is played by two actresses, who, looks-wise, are a good fit for each other.  Lise Leplat Prudhomme takes on the role of the 8-year-old Joan, and the teenaged version is essayed by Jeanne Voisin; the younger Joan is known as the Jeannette of the title, whereas the diminutive suffix is dropped by the time the future saint hits double figures.  Each actress gets an equal share of screen time, with the film pretty much split down the middle as it depicts these two stages of Joan's life.  While it's easy to simply think that Dumont's film is about the young Joan of Arc, it's rather poignant to consider that she was actually never anything other than young, given that she perished at the stake just a few short years after the events shown in this film.  Most biopics focusing on a subject's youth tend to show someone who went on to have a reasonably full life, or at least made it beyond their teens, whereas the childhood depicted here comprised the bulk of Joan's existence. 

Jeannette is yet another good example of Dumont turning up unknowns who give truly captivating performances.  His major find here is highlighted within the film's first few minutes as Prudhomme, in a bravura sequence, sings and dances her way through an extended number among the dunes.  It's an engrossing, amusing and oddly moving opening, and the young actress greatly impresses in the time (nearly an hour) in which she's on screen.  By the time it gets to Voisin's chance to shine, the novelty factor is slightly diminished - the older actress is, somewhat unsurprisingly, a slicker performer, and the raw appeal of her predecessor is notably absent.  But Voisin is very watchable, too - scenes with her and a rapping Ch'ti uncle (Nicolas Leclaire, the most typically Dumontian member of the cast) make for the film's comic highlights - and we should remember it's not her fault she's on second.

Watching the performers here is a reminder that Dumont works better in full-on Bresson mode, i.e. when he casts non-professionals - while Camille Claudel 1915 and, to a lesser extent, Ma Loute both showed that he can operate perfectly well when accommodating big stars, it's the unfiltered, direct essence that Dumont is able to draw from largely untutored performers that gives his work a unique edge.  DP Guillaume Deffontaines, in his fourth collaboration with Dumont, expertly captures the windswept vistas of this part of the Pas-de-Calais, and his camerawork is always inventive (although never intrusive), which is especially important given that most of the film takes place in a single location.

Dumont's films are not for all tastes, so if you're familiar with his previous work chances are you'll know if this film is for you.  Anyone who's studied his career will note how, post-Camille Claudel 1915, he's taken something of a left turn and planted one foot (perhaps just one toe?) in comedy: P'tit Quinquin - series 2 of which is due next year - was a semi-humorous retread of his earlier L'humanité, while Ma Loute took the same basic template and cranked up the broad comic elements.  Jeannette manages to be humorous (can any film featuring headbanging nuns really be anything else?) yet sincere, and at no point does Dumont appear to be mocking his subject or her beliefs. The film's closing shot is really quite affecting when you consider the fate that soon awaits the unknowing Joan.  Go from this to Jacques Rivette's Jeanne la Pucelle and you'll have quite a double (or should that be triple?) bill. 

Darren Arnold

Images courtesy of Memento Films

Monday 11 September 2017


Welcome to Holland Focus in its new, very different form.  You might be familiar with the print magazine which, for many years, was produced by iet and Freek Fuijkschot, and if that’s the case, you are most probably also aware that earlier this year iet and Freek decided to call time on that operation.  This was a real pity, as the magazine was an excellent publication, but iet and Freek had worked hard on it for many years and I think they fully deserve to free up some time in their lives for other things.

For a full decade, I’d contributed the film review page to the magazine, and my association with iet and Freek actually goes back even further, to when I wrote for a newspaper they edited.  Having thoroughly enjoyed working with them for many years, I felt that it would be good to keep Holland Focus going in some way, and so, after a bit of thought, I ran my ideas past Freek and iet.  Happily, they agreed, and I’m really grateful to them for doing so and for being so encouraging.  Oh, and iet designed the very nice logo you see at the top of the page, which I think I’m right in saying was used for the entire life of the print version of the magazine.  I’m pleased to be able to bring that here, as to me it forges a nice link between Holland Focus then and now.

Now entirely web-based, this new site will be dedicated to articles on cinema; film journalism is my background, after all, so I thought it would make sense to focus on movies in general and reviews in particular.  While film reviews will be the norm, other articles on cinema should pop up from time to time - be they profiles of directors, festival coverage, etc.  Although the description along the top of the page gives the geographical area we’re mainly concerned with, there are many other possibilities for posts here, i.e. a review of a Hollywood film by a Dutch director, or a report on a Belgian co-production set and filmed in none of the three places listed in the site’s description, to give but two examples.  I’ll be trying to rope in one or two other writers along the way, and if you’d like to contribute something to the site (in either English or Dutch), please get in touch using the form on the right.

Anyway, the first review is currently being prepared and should appear on the site very shortly.  Although our professional association has now ended, I will still enjoy keeping in touch with iet and Freek, but in any case I’d like to take this chance to thank them publicly for all the great years we had at Holland Focus - and for allowing me to take the name forward.  I hope they will be pleased with this new venture.

Enjoy the site.

Darren Arnold