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