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