Monday 23 December 2019

The 20 Best Films of 2019: An Alphabetical List

There wasn't much time available in which to put this together, and ideally I would have liked to have scribbled a little bit about each entry.  Instead, if I've written about a film on either this site or Letterboxd, then the film's title will be a clickable link which will take you to the relevant review.  I have a terrible feeling I've forgotten at least one really important film in this list, and I'm also slightly annoyed that I couldn't squeeze in Robert Rodriguez's Alita: Battle Angel, which nonetheless deserves a mention as the best of the rest.  So, in no order other than alphabetical, here are my picks of 2019:

La Belle Époque (Nicolas Bedos)

By the Grace of God (François Ozon)

Capernaum (Nadine Labaki)

Doctor Sleep (Mike Flanagan)

For Sama (Waad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts)

Ghost Town Anthology (Denis Côté)

The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)

It Must Be Heaven (Elia Suleiman)

Jeanne (Bruno Dumont)

Joker (Todd Phillips)

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot)

Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)

Monos (Alejandro Landes)

On a Magical Night (Christophe Honoré)

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma)

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (Martin Scorsese)

Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker (J. J. Abrams)

La vérité si je mens! Les débuts (Michel Munz, Gérard Bitton)

Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello)

That's it for this year!  See you in 2020 - have a great Christmas! 🎄



Thursday 19 December 2019

On a Magical Night (Christophe Honoré, 2019)

On a Magical Night marks the sixth collaboration between director Christophe Honoré and actress Chiara Mastroianni, and it follows the general rule that these two are at their best when working with each other.  While Love Songs remains the pinnacle of the pair's work together, On a Magical Night - which reunites Honoré and Mastroianni for the first time since 2011's Beloved - sees the two drive each other on to good effect.  Mastroianni picked up the best performance award in Cannes' Un Certain Regard section for On a Magical Night, a film which sees her equal Louis Garrel's record of half a dozen stints in front of the camera for Honoré.  The cast is rounded out by Vincent Lacoste (who returns from Honoré's previous film Sorry Angel), the excellent Camille Cottin, Benjamin Biolay, plus some serious star power in the form of the welcome presence of Carole Bouquet, who doesn't make enough films these days.

Mastroianni's Maria has been married to Richard (Biolay) for 20 years, and the couple have now hit a wall in their relationship.  Following a major argument, Maria moves out of their apartment, but doesn't go very far - in fact, she checks in to the hotel directly across the street from the marital home.  From her room in the hotel, she can watch Benjamin moping around in the aftermath of their row; the particular room Maria's holed up in - 212 - carries significance, as its number is shared by a section of civil code which outlines spousal obligations.  So far, so straightforward, but events take a strange turn when Maria is visited by a ghost from the past in the form of the young Richard (Lacoste).  From this younger version of her husband, Maria learns all about Richard's first love Irène (Cottin), who soon joins the couple in the hotel room.  Like Richard, Irène has also turned the clock back, and appears to be the age she was when she and Richard were in a relationship.  All of this gives the initially baffled Maria - who remains her actual age throughout - plenty to think about as she considers both the state of her marriage and her next move.

As a studio-bound affair featuring just a handful of actors, On a Magical Night could quite easily be a play (and Honoré is no stranger to theatre), yet at no point does it feel stagey.  While much of the action takes place in the hotel room, Honoré lets his film breathe via a late seaside scene and, most memorably, the road which separates Maria's hotel and apartment.  Shots of this avenue play a big part in creating the film's wonderfully rich atmosphere; as the snow begins to fall on this quiet street - which prominently features a seven-screen cinema - the beauty of the mise-en-scène is something to behold.  However, the icy spectacle also serves to remind us that Richard and Maria are in the winter of their relationship, and it's going to take a mighty big snow shovel to dig them out of it.

While there isn't a weak link among the small cast, and Mastroianni is as good as we've come to expect, it's actually Camille Cottin who steals every scene she's in; since starting off in a series of two-minute sketches for TV, Cottin has racked up an impressive list of film credits and has shown that she has range beyond comedy, with her turn as a no-nonsense detective in Iris proving how good she can be in a serious dramatic role.  While On a Magical Night certainly falls on the lighter side of drama and has some gently humorous moments, Cottin expertly brings out the pathos in her character, yet is always ready to utilise her impeccable comic timing when required.  But to focus exclusively on Cottin would be to do a disservice to Honoré and the rest of his fine cast, who have here created an atmospheric, intelligent and engaging work, one which could even be said to be rather - ahem - magical.

Darren Arnold


Sunday 8 December 2019

The Life of Jesus (Bruno Dumont, 1997)

Bruno Dumont's 1997 debut feature The Life of Jesus has recently been treated to a 4K digital makeover, with this restoration enjoying a release both in cinemas and on home video.  Sometimes too much is made of restored versions of films, and most of us have at some stage been burned by this marketing tool, with many a much-trumpeted release failing to produce a noticeable difference between prints old and new.  However, in The Life of Jesus' case there is a huge gap in quality between this release and those which preceded it; over the years, the film hasn't always looked in the best of shape, but this pristine new version really does look like it was shot yesterday.  There's an added poignancy to this re-release in that the film's star, the charismatic David Douche, died in a house fire four years ago today.  The Life of Jesus was Douche's sole acting credit, which is a not uncommon statistic among the non-professionals who populate much of Dumont's work.  On hearing of Douche's death, some who knew him were surprised to learn of his big-screen adventure; he apparently never spoke of his starring role in a film which had wowed audiences at Cannes.

If you've never seen the film, it's worth mentioning now that The Life of Jesus isn't actually about the life of Jesus.  It's an oblique title (which does become slightly clearer after multiple viewings), one shared with a book by Breton writer Ernest Renan.  In Renan's 1863 bestseller, Jesus was portrayed as a great leader, yet one who was categorically human - thus, acts such as his miracles were rejected outright; Renan didn't do this out of disrespect, but rather felt that his take on Jesus would improve Christ's standing as an important historical character, albeit one who should be subjected to the same biographical scrutiny as any other notable person from the past.  Naturally, this approach ruffled a few feathers, but Renan sincerely felt that, in humanising Christ and stripping away the supernatural aspects of the gospel, he was affording greater dignity to Jesus and his achievements.  While Dumont's film is not an adaptation of the book, the use of Renan's title does feel strangely apt: just as Christ's feats - as according to Renan - required no superhuman powers, acts of evil in the film aren't rooted in the diabolical.  In Dumont's films, the spectrum of good and evil is usually somewhat narrower than is generally accepted, yet there's often a yearning for spirituality, too; since The Life of Jesus, Dumont has explored these themes on more than one occasion, most prominently in Outside Satan.

Now you know what the film isn't about, here's the gist: Freddy (Douche) and his friends while away their days in a small provincial Flanders town, with their go-to activity being to race their mopeds through the streets and around the surrounding countryside.  None of these aimless young men appears to be gainfully employed; beyond motorbikes, the only shared pastime of note they have is playing in the local marching band.  That said, the epileptic Freddy owns a pet finch which he takes great care of, and he does have a girlfriend in Marie (Marjorie Cottreel), who works as a cashier in the local supermarket.  Marie and Freddy's relationship is tested by the latter's erratic behaviour, and once Kader (Kader Chaatouf) - a young man of North African heritage who's been subjected to the casual racism of Freddy et al. - enters the fray and begins to vie for Marie's affections, you just know that this isn't going to end well.  On account of his epilepsy, Freddy is no stranger to hospitals, but it's actually when he's attending one as a visitor that we get the film's sole explicit biblical reference: as the brother of one of Freddy's friends lies dying of AIDS, we see a picture on the wall of the raising of Lazarus.  But, in line with Ernest Renan's theories regarding Jesus' abilities, there will be no resurrection for this unfortunate patient.

Even after a dozen films - and we'll be reviewing his latest next month - The Life of Jesus still stands as Dumont's most accessible work, with only Hadewijch and Flanders mounting a serious challenge to that title.  While it occasionally flirts with the transgressiveness which would turn full-bore with Dumont's next two films - Humanity and Twentynine Palms The Life of Jesus plays as a direct and engrossing work, one which at no point feels like a first film; the fluency displayed in much later works such as Camille Claudel 1915 is fully evident here.  In his films, Dumont has seldom strayed from his own back yard, using the backdrop of the Flanders he knows to great effect.  It has often been said that he frequently uses the landscape as a character in its own right, and nowhere is this more apparent than in The Life of Jesus, in which we see Dumont's home town and its environs in different seasons.  But, regardless of whether it's a stifling summer or a snowy winter, Freddy's life never changes very much - until the final reel.  Late on in the film, we glimpse an ant running along Freddy's bare arm, while he in turn looks to the sky - seemingly newly aware that he, just like the insect, is part of something much bigger.

Darren Arnold

Images: 3B Productions

Thursday 21 November 2019

By the Grace of God (François Ozon, 2019)

François Ozon is a filmmaker who almost always comes up with something interesting.  Some of his earlier works were associated with the New French Extremity, and for many years this prolific, mischievous director has seesawed between high frivolity (8 Women, Potiche) and more sombre concerns (5x2, Time to Leave).  While sitting down to watch an Ozon film, you're pretty confident you'll find him working in one of these modes - or maybe even both, as in In the House and Young & Beautiful.  His most recent film prior to By the Grace of God was Double Lover, which played almost as a self-parody: borderline transgressive, trashy and sloppy, it was a film which saw Ozon treading water as he went through the motions of adapting Joyce Carol Oates' 1987 novel Lives of the Twins.  While admittedly rather fun, it was cookie-cutter Ozon which presented nothing especially new.  But the throwaway Double Lover provided no hint as to what Ozon would do next: his latest film is a truly staggering work, one quite unlike anything else in the director's filmography.

As with the terrific Oscar-winner Spotlight, By the Grace of God is concerned with the Catholic Church abuse scandal, and Ozon is quite open about the similarities between the two films.  However, By the Grace of God does differ from Tom McCarthy's movie, not least in that Ozon's film was made as the trial of one of its characters was still in progress; an unusual move, certainly, yet one which imbues the film with a sense of freshness and immediacy which is almost palpable.  By the Grace of God was not only made while these court proceedings were underway, but the film itself was dragged into the courts as Bernard Preynat, the priest depicted in the film, attempted to block its release.  Incredibly, this €6 million production was only cleared for release the day before it was due to hit cinemas.  Indeed, the story of By the Grace of God's production would make for a gripping film in itself.

Ozon's film follows three grown men, all of whom were childhood victims of Preynat (Bernard Verley).  The first chunk of the film is devoted to Alexandre (Ozon regular Melvil Poupaud), a calm family man who's shocked to learn that Preynat, under the Cardinal's protection, is still working with children.  As a result of this discovery, Alexandre decides to take action, and a church psychologist arranges a meeting between victim and abuser, which is intended to aid the healing process.  Preynat doesn't deny what happened, and while he seems pleased to see that Alexandre has grown up to be a well-adjusted member of society, the priest doesn't seem especially sorry for the crimes he committed, merely stating that they were the symptom of an illness; he's certainly not looking for forgiveness.  The slightly surreal meeting ends with the truly sickening, horrifying sight of Alexandre being persuaded to take Preynat's hand as a concluding prayer is recited.

The more cautious Alexandre then gives way in the narrative to the headstrong François (Denis Ménochet), another victim, yet one who wants to cause maximum damage to the Church.  Like Alexandre, François has grown up to become a content and fulfilled adult, yet his atheism drives him in a way which Alexandre - who still attends church with his young family - can't fully relate to.  Nonetheless, Alexandre and François have more than enough in common as they look to take on Cardinal Barbarin (François Marthouret), who seems chiefly concerned with putting his institution's reputation ahead of its victims.  The film's title comes from a quote from the Cardinal, who stated that it was "by the grace of God" that the statute of limitations precluded most of the abuse cases making it to court.  Make of that what you will.

Emmanuel (Swann Arlaud), the third and last of the film's main characters to be introduced, is by far the most damaged of the Church's victims.  Prone to seizures which are linked to the trauma of his abuse, the unemployed Emmanuel appears to have spent his entire adult life on his uppers, and lives in a shabby apartment with a girlfriend he constantly argues with.  But through meeting Alexandre, François and other victims, Emmanuel gains a sense of purpose as this trio of very different men join forces in order to seek justice.  While the three main actors are all terrific here, it's Arlaud who steals the film with a truly incendiary performance, with his Emmanuel representing the impact of the Church's crimes at its worst: for every Alexandre (or François) who managed to get on with their life, there are many Emmanuels out there, stuck in a rut, broken and forgotten - if they're still alive.

By the Grace of God is an immaculate, quietly devastating work which continues telling a story the world needs to hear.  While someone might suggest you should just watch Spotlight instead as it covers a lot of similar ground, By the Grace of God's existence is hugely important, as it serves as a European angle on a problem which has affected many parts of the world; hopefully, there will be more films which highlight the Catholic Church abuse scandal in other territories.  While it may well be Ozon's best film, By the Grace of God is also the least typical of the director's works, and his fingerprints are nowhere to be found here; it provides final proof, if any were needed, of this genre-hopping filmmaker's versatility.  While normal service will most likely be resumed with his upcoming Eté 84 (which also stars Poupaud and has already finished shooting), this welcome departure for François Ozon is a vital, urgent work, and one of 2019's best films.

Darren Arnold


Monday 11 November 2019

Monos (Alejandro Landes, 2019)

Alejandro Landes' absorbing, unsettling Monos has received no end of rave reviews since it debuted at the beginning of this year.  Before it made its way into cinemas, it picked up numerous festival awards, including the top prize at last month's London Film Festival.  As with two other notable LFF 2019 titles - Portrait of a Lady on Fire and The Lighthouse - you just know that the Dutch-backed Monos won't quite live up to the hype that's preceded it, but it is a taut, muscular and impressive work.  Landes' film appears to have been primarily designed as a sensory experience; admittedly, there's not much of a plot here, but that's not too much of a hindrance in a work which requires you to do little more than buckle up before it takes you on its nightmarish, hallucinatory journey.

The title refers to a group of child soldiers who are based at the top of a windswept, rain-lashed mountain, where they guard their American hostage Doctora (Julianne Nicholson).  The members of Monos, who are only identified by code names, receive their orders from a murky organisation known as, er, The Organisation, who frequently send a messenger known as - yes - The Messenger (Wilson Salazar) to oversee some of the soldiers' training.  The Monos and Doctora are joined by a dairy cow named Shakira, and the soldiers make a point of treating their bovine companion with great care - the logic being that supporters will no longer lend them things if they don't look after them.  It's a hard life for all on the mountaintop - wet, cold and very muddy - yet the Monos stick to their orders in a manner which belies their age.

Just as we're getting used to this setup, the Monos' compound comes under attack, and the group are forced to flee to the jungle, where the conditions they must endure - mosquitoes, mudslides and so on - make their erstwhile home seem like a luxury resort.  From this more makeshift base, Doctora realises that her odds of escaping have increased, as the Monos and their prisoner are now housed in less secure surroundings and, more crucially, the group is now characterised by in-fighting; among the many squabbles, a break from The Organisation is mooted.  Gone is the previous unity, and it could be argued that the children are now merely returning to something resembling their natural state.  Lord of the Flies is an obvious comparison point here - so much so that we even get to see a pig's head on a spike; refreshingly, Landes is quite transparent about his influences.

Monos is such an immersive experience that you soon forget to keep asking the many burning questions about the Monos, including: Who are they fighting?  Are they involved in a much bigger conflict?  Are they heroes or villains?  Why are they holding Doctora?  Context is lacking, which only adds to the argument that Landes wants us to respond to his film on a more primal level; a thunderous, unnerving score by British composer Mica Levi (Under the Skin) plays a huge part in conjuring an oppressive atmosphere, one in which you constantly feel as if you're on the verge of witnessing something terrible.  Monos really has to be seen in a cinema, as any stepping back from its enveloping madness only leads us to deal with the film in more logical terms - and this thrill ride can't withstand such scrutiny.  While Monos isn't quite as convincing a waking nightmare as those we've come to expect from Gaspar Noé (Irreversible and Climax being prime examples), Alejandro Landes' film is nonetheless a compelling, idiosyncratic and highly singular work. 
Darren Arnold

Images: trigon-film

Friday 1 November 2019

Intimate Audrey in Amsterdam (1/11/19–31/1/20)

Beurs van Berlage in the heart of Amsterdam welcomes the acclaimed living biography of Audrey Hepburn.

From November 1st to January 31st, walk behind the screen and through Audrey's life as a Flemish child, wife, mother and ambassador. 

Audrey was born in Brussels and spent her youth in the Netherlands. Her roots are Flemish. After the war, she returned to launch and bestow a trophy bearing her name for the BNMO veteran organization.

This extraordinary exhibition, which successfully brings Audrey home to her roots, was made possible by NH Collection hotels.

600m2 featuring hundreds of original and re-printed photographs, memorabilia, dresses and accessories as well as her never before seen fashion drawings and humanitarian writings. 

Words/image: Intimate Audrey

Thursday 10 October 2019

Two of Us (Filippo Meneghetti, 2019)

Fassbinder favourite Barbara Sukowa gives a fine performance in this touching but rarely sentimental film which depicts a lesbian relationship between two pensioners; it's far removed from the likes of Blue is the Warmest Colour or current critical smash Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but, considering its focus on a couple of a certain age, it's arguably a more daring picture than those two Cannes-winning titles.  It's also a most assured feature debut from Filippo Meneghetti, who carefully handles material which could easily have ended up as overcooked as the scorched contents of the two frying pans which feature in key scenes here. 

Sukowa's Nina lives across the hall from Madeleine (Martine Chevallier), and to everyone in their lives they're viewed as simply being friends and neighbours.  However, the two have actually been a couple for many years, and are now planning on moving to Italy.  Nina has no family, but the widowed Madeleine has two grown-up children and a grandson, all of whom live in the same town as her.  Madeleine resolves to tell her family about her plans to sell up and move away, but bottles it at the crucial moment.  Nina is furious, and lets Madeleine know it; shortly afterwards, Madeleine suffers a major stroke.  In a very short span of time, Madeleine and Nina's relatively minor problem of how to break some news has been replaced by something truly shattering.

With surly round-the-clock carer Muriel (Muriel Bénazéraf) now looking after the stricken Madeleine, Nina no longer gets to spend much time with the love of her life, and her attempts to rectify this involve increasingly risky - and, to be honest, rather creepy - methods.  In addition to the belligerent Muriel, Nina must contend with Madeleine's daughter Anne (Léa Drucker, excellent), who initially appreciates Nina's neighbourliness - until the penny drops.  Upon realising what was going on behind her late father's back for so many years, Anne is in no mood to grant Nina any further access to Madeleine, who is now showing some small signs of recovery.

With the impressive Chevallier's Madeleine rendered mute for much of the film, it's not too surprising that this ends up largely being Sukowa's show, and she certainly puts it all in with a character who isn't, in the main, terribly likeable, yet the love and devotion she exhibits often serves to cancel out her bad behaviour - at least in the viewer's eyes.  But it's the tenderness at the heart of the relationship between these two women which elevates the film into something way beyond ordinary, and in Two of Us Meneghetti has crafted an authentic, moving and grown-up piece of cinema, one which hopefully won't fly under the radar.  It screens at the London Film Festival tomorrow and on Saturday.

Darren Arnold

Images: Dulac Distribution

Wednesday 9 October 2019

#21XOXO / The Sasha (S. & I. Özbilge / M. M. Peiró, 2019)

The Culture is a collection of eight short films which screens at the London Film Festival on the 11th and 13th of October, and every film in the programme takes a look at online culture - something which only recently seemed very futuristic but is now firmly embedded in our everyday lives.  I've only seen a quarter of the films which feature in The Culture, but the ones I've watched have been quite impressive; on this basis, the other 75% of the programme should be worth catching.  The selection includes one film from the Netherlands and two from Belgium, although Belgian title Zombies - a co-production with DR Congo - has thus far eluded me.

The Belgian film in the programme which I have seen is #21XOXO - a clever, witty and rather adult slice of animation which sees a young woman use various forms of technology in her search for love.  As we all know, it's now possible to line up potential partners without even leaving the comfort of home, which is exactly what our protagonist does here; while such practice isn't especially new, it's nonetheless a significant marker of how social interaction has dramatically changed since the advent of new technologies, and the film reminds us of this as it forces us to consider our online selves.  #21XOXO is a fun, refreshing and colourful short, one which turns up something new just when you thought there wasn't much left to say about those who spend their days glued to one screen or another.

The Dutch offering in The Culture takes the form of The Sasha, a contemplative look at the work of astronaut Charles Duke, who was a member of the three-man crew on the Apollo 16 mission.  Among his other lunar duties, Duke was charged with taking photographs, and it's this aspect of his work in the Descartes Highlands that The Sasha focuses on.  Duke attempted to take a photo of the entire Earth from space, but the iconic image we all know as The Blue Marble was actually taken during the next (and final) Apollo mission.  There's a fascinating personal touch in the Apollo 16 story: Duke left a picture of himself, his wife and their two sons on the lunar surface, which he of course photographed.  On the back was an inscription: "This is the family of Astronaut Duke from Planet Earth. Landed on the Moon, April 1972", followed by the signatures of Duke's family.  In addition to their virtual visit to the moon via this photograph, Duke's wife and sons had lunar craters named after them. 

Nowadays, we can all enjoy a lunar excursion of sorts thanks to Google Moon (where the Duke family photo can be found at marker 20 in the Apollo 16 site), and footage from this has been used in The Sasha; thus, the film features the traditional chemical photography of Duke's pictures alongside the sophisticated 3D rendering of the moon's surface as provided by Google.  This illustrates just how far technology has advanced in the years since Apollo 16 (although we haven't set foot on the moon since the year of that mission).  As such, it's easy to see why the film has been grouped with #21XOXO, even if the two films boast very different styles.  The Sasha proves to be a hypnotic, eerie and thought-provoking work, one which will leave you reflecting on that old family photograph which, although now almost certainly bleached beyond all recognition, remains up there on the lunar highlands.

Darren Arnold


Tuesday 8 October 2019

Instinct (Halina Reijn, 2019)

Dutch actor Marwan Kenzari enjoyed a huge international breakthrough just a few months ago, starring as Jafar in the live-action version of Aladdin.  His role in Instinct - which opened in the Netherlands last week and plays at the London Film Festival on Saturday - is markedly different to the one he played in that Disney blockbuster; while still very much the villain of the piece, his character in Halina Reijn's directorial debut is far removed from the pantomime shenanigans of the Grand Vizier.  In Instinct, Kenzari conveys a very real menace which underlines his abilities as a serious dramatic actor.  Unfortunately, he and his co-star Carice van Houten are let down by a faltering script and rather uncertain direction, and Instinct never lands the knockout blow which, judging by its arresting early stages, it seems certain to deliver.

Van Houten's Nicoline is a psychologist who moves from job to job and doesn't appear to have much interest in staying in the one place for too long; her latest gig involves working in a prison for those convicted of serious offences.  Nicoline is experienced and assured, and few things seem to faze her, but this soon changes when she's charged with evaluating Idris (Kenzari), a man with multiple convictions - all of which pertain to violence against women.  Idris, who is on the verge of some unaccompanied parole, is clearly a very dangerous man but seems to be a fairly compliant inmate, and can often be quite charming - which is, presumably, how he snared many of those who went on to become his victims.  Idris' act - if it is an act - seems to persuade Nicoline's colleagues that he has been rehabilitated, but his assigned psychologist has real doubts.

While Nicoline appears to have the measure of Idris - you get the impression she's seen similar men countless times - there's something about this particular prisoner which gnaws away at her in a way she can't rationalise, and it's not long before her icy professionalism goes out of the window.  What follows is an increasingly preposterous game between Idris and Nicoline, one which sees the psychologist unravel as the prisoner toys with the mind of a woman who could well determine which side of the prison wall he ends up on.  Who's kidding who?  More pertinently, who cares?  In pitching the charismatic Idris against the aloof Nicoline, Reijn has created a strange level playing field, of sorts: Idris, unlike Nicoline, often seems to be doing things by the book, but does this current state of affairs mean we should blot out his terrible crimes?  After all, Nicoline's transgressions appear to be limited to this anomalous instance of unprofessionalism.  

Instinct's promisingly pulpy setup is the sort of thing which might just have worked in the mischievous hands of, say, François Ozon or Paul Verhoeven (side-note: Van Houten and Reijn both starred in Verhoeven's Zwartboek); the material really needs cranking up to a level where it would become enjoyably absurd (cf. Elle, L'amant double).  But Halina Reijn - who we're far more used to as a presence in front of the camera - seems to consciously pull back from such an approach, rendering Instinct an ostensibly trashy yarn that's had its guilty pleasures excised; it's a film caught between two stools.  It isn't a terrible movie - but it is a very frustrating one; while the two leads are very good, they're chained to a script which misses many opportunities to open up into something much more satisfying.  While Reijn hasn't made a bad job of her first feature film, she has opted to play it far too safe; given the subject matter, it seems most ironic that Instinct comes across as a film in which very few risks have been taken.

Darren Arnold

Images: Topkapi Films

Monday 7 October 2019

Spring Fever/Eyes on the Road (A. Snowball/S. Kolk, 2019)

Spring Fever is one of seven films which make up London Film Festival shorts collection ...In an Age of Consent.  "De Week van de Lentekriebels" is, as many of you will know, a schools sex education programme which is well established in the Netherlands.  As with any sex ed class anywhere on the planet, "Lentekriebels" ("Spring Fever") has attracted some criticism and controversy, but much of the world has admired the way in which the programme has demystified sex and relationships for Dutch schoolchildren, thereby leading many a youngster to happy and healthy teenage years.  Anna Snowball's short, lively documentary captures snippets of the discussions in a Dutch classroom where "De Week van de Lentekriebels" is currently underway.

As you would expect, many of the pupils initially struggle to keep a straight face when discussing such a topic - but, to be fair to them, their teacher is no different - yet the smiles and nervous laughter soon give way to some thoughtful questions and answers; it's clear how little these children really know about the subject, but their friendly, good-humoured teacher is able to dispel a few of the myths and assumptions her pupils have picked up in their short lives thus far.  This could be an excruciating exercise for all concerned, but the children have no intention of making things difficult for their teacher.  The film provides an interesting glimpse into a situation many of us won't have encountered firsthand (or if we did it took a very different form); Spring Fever is very simple, but fairly effective. 

A separate LFF collection of seven shorts - Drive It Like You Stole It! - also features a Dutch film in the form of Eyes on the Road.  This film concentrates on three young women who are on a road trip in a car they appear to be living in.  The film's title is directly connected to the comments made by one of the women concerning another's driving, but this moment of friction (which soon dissipates) is not the, or even a, major event here.  Rather, the women's freewheeling conversation takes a turn into a dark and troubling area where they discuss a friend who was subjected to a terrible assault.  While this is a grim subject matter in itself, things get worse when differing opinions start to surface.

Although Eyes on the Road is to be applauded for dealing with a difficult issue, it's unfortunately not a very satisfying piece of work.  The actresses all do quite well, but there simply isn't enough in the script to keep Eyes on the Road going for its duration; even at a brief 17 minutes, the film still feels padded out.  The ending is also highly disappointing, and it's a great pity that what appears to have been a good idea has been so poorly executed.  Eyes on the Road has the air of an arbitrary chunk of a feature film, albeit one you probably wouldn't want to sit through.  But, if for some reason you do like the sort of cinema experience where it feels as if you've turned up late and left early, then it might just be for you.  It screens at the LFF on the 10th of October.

Darren Arnold


Sunday 6 October 2019

The Prince's Voyage (J-F. Laguionie / X. Picard, 2019)

Xavier Picard, director of the excellent Moomins on the Riviera, teams up with veteran animator Jean-François Laguionie for this quasi-sequel to the latter's 1999 film A Monkey's Tale.  Laguionie has been working in animation for over 50 years yet, A Monkey's Tale aside, his work isn't especially well known beyond continental Europe.  While Laguionie's films bear similarities, in both mood and appearance, with those of Michel Ocelot, he's never really experienced anything like the same success as that enjoyed by his lauded contemporary (as a side note, Ocelot's BAFTA-winning The Three Inventors was filmed in Laguionie's home).  That said, Laguionie did receive an honoray award (and a standing ovation) at this year's Annecy IAFF, where A Prince's Voyage premiered; it continues its festival run at the London Film Festival, where it screens today as part of the Family programme.  The film will go on general release in early December.

When Prince Laurent is washed up on an unfamiliar shore, he's rescued by young Tom, whose name is just one letter away from that of Kom, the main character from A Monkey's Tale; Laurent notices, and comments on, this similarity.  Tom takes the injured Laurent to convalesce at the home of married couple Victor and Elisabeth who, like Tom and Laurent, are monkeys, as indeed are all the characters who populate the film.  Elisabeth is a botanist who is working to find a solution to the forest which seems bent on reclaiming every building it comes across, including the remote, abandoned museum where the couple now reside.  Victor is a professor who has long been obsessed with proving that other monkey civilisations exist on the same planet, a theory which has made him a black sheep in his academic circle.  So when Laurent - who speaks, but in another language - arrives, Victor sees the prince as a golden chance to prove his hypothesis to his peers.  Laurent is cultured and sophisticated, but, in scenes which nod towards François Truffaut's The Wild Child, acts in a primitive manner simply to irk the professor.

While Laurent doesn't care for the professor or the stern Elisabeth, he's far more taken with Tom, and the two enjoy spending time together, learning each other's language and trading stories about their different cultures.  This shared curiosity gives Laurent and Tom the urge to discover the sights of the nearest city, and the pair sneak out to spend a night exploring various metropolitan delights.  Laurent is struck by the sullen nature of the city dwellers, who fail to respond to his cheerful greetings as they trudge home after a day's work.  The city's population are allowed to have fun in the evenings, however, and Laurent and Tom join them in various leisure activities, including a showing of a film which, amusingly, riffs heavily on King Kong.  As the only member of the audience who's laughing at the spectacle, Laurent has to leave the screening, and as he and Tom begin to head home they are pursued by some shadowy figures; the prince's fortunes are about to take a turn for the worse.

As you'd expect, the animation in The Prince's Voyage is top notch, and at 77 minutes the film by no means outstays its welcome - although a late development which introduces some new characters feels slightly unnecessary.  As with much of the aforementioned Michel Ocelot's output, The Prince's Voyage isn't the ideal film for very young children; the LFF screening is subtitled - although an actor will read out the subtitles, via headphones, for the benefit of younger audience members - which is rather telling.  Unless a version with English audio exists (or is planned), the film probably won't travel much further than the majority of Laguionie's efforts.  While it's all a little bit low-key, there is much to like here, and the simple, clear message - that we shouldn't be afraid of the Other, but rather should look to what unites us all - is a fine one for children and adults alike.

Darren Arnold


Saturday 5 October 2019

Transnistra (Anna Eborn, 2019)

Anna Eborn's Transnistra was produced with support from the Flanders Audiovisual Fund (VAF), and earlier this year it scooped the VPRO Big Screen Award at the IFF Rotterdam.  It continues its festival run today with a screening at the London Film Festival, and although it has enjoyed real success on the festival circuit, it's difficult to see it having much of a life as a theatrical release.  However, this documentary may just find a more suitable home on the small screen; indeed, winning Rotterdam's Big Screen Award guarantees it a screening slot on Dutch channel NPO 2.

As its title just about tells you (it's one vowel short), the film takes place in the breakaway state of Transnistria, which most of the world considers to be part of Moldova.  Eborn's film isn't really concerned with Transnistria's history nor its position in the world; there's no exposition here, so you'll have to read around the film if you don't (and wish to) know about the post-USSR birth of the republic and the ensuing conflict with Moldova.  Instead, the director focuses on half a dozen 16-year-olds: one girl, Tanya, and her five male friends.  Naturally, more than one boy has their sights on Tanya's affections, and the group dynamic shifts according to who she's closest to at any given time.  The youths spend much of their time hanging around a factory that appears to have been abandoned halfway through its construction, although in summertime they do enjoy swimming and generally messing around in the water.  There's little ambition in evidence until Tanya mentions she would like to move to Greece for work; this statement does not go down well with her peers.

While nicely shot (on 16mm), Transnistra can't overcome the dull and largely unappealing nature of the six people it chooses to track; Tanya is fitfully interesting, but the five boys soon become virtually interchangeable to us and, seemingly, to Tanya.  Quite why we're watching over 90 minutes of this group, who go through the film without doing or saying very much of note, is something of a mystery.  The film remains just on the right side of watchable, but it's a one-paced effort that left me with no idea as to what Anna Eborn was trying to say.  Take away the setting, which admittedly is rather novel for audiences outside of the former USSR, and you may as well be watching any bunch of bored, aimless teens.

What is quite exasperating is that there is more than one opportunity for Eborn to jump into more interesting waters; there's no better example of such oversight than when Tanya's little brother signs up for military academy, which seems like an ideal starting point for an examination of the state he's pledged to defend.  But the film sticks to its pedestrian path, with the director seemingly uninterested in anything which strays from the ennui depicted here.  Transnistra may not be a bad film per se but, most frustratingly, it chooses to disregard what many viewers will want from a documentary.

Darren Arnold


Friday 4 October 2019

Cold Case Hammarskjöld (Mads Brügger, 2019)

Cold Case Hammarskjöld sees feather-ruffling filmmaker Mads Brügger turn his attention to the mysterious death of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld.  During the Congo Crisis, Hammarskjöld was en route to attempt to broker a ceasefire between Katangese troops and UN forces, but was killed in a plane crash in what was Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia).  Congo had only recently gained independence from Belgium, and tensions were high in the region; Hammarskjöld was keen for newly-independent African countries to establish themselves and escape the long shadow of colonialism, and naturally this stance brought about many enemies.  It was widely known that mining companies such as Belgian venture Union Minière would benefit from the removal of Hammarskjöld, but quite who, if anyone, is responsible for his death - MI6, the CIA and South African intelligence have all been suggested as possible saboteurs of the plane - has remained the murkiest of mysteries for well over 50 years.

Brügger's investigation takes him to various African locations, including the spot where the Douglas DC-6 carrying Hammarskjöld went down; for much of the film, Brügger is joined by Göran Björkdahl, who possesses a metal plate - purportedly from Hammarskjöld's plane - which his father obtained while visiting the crash site in the 1970s.  Although Brügger is digging (quite literally, at one point) to find out the truth about Hammarskjöld's death, it's clear early on that the film, in many ways, is more the Mads Brügger show than anything else; perhaps this is to be expected, given his past life as a TV host.  There's a showboating, flippant and baiting side to Brügger, who's first seen proudly sporting an all-white outfit; later, he - like Melania Trump in Kenya - dons a pith helmet, that symbol of white colonial rule.  He also, for no discernible reason, chooses to dictate to two equally baffled secretaries.  But such eccentric behaviour masks a man who is actually quite adept when it comes to obtaining sensitive information, and Brügger goes further than many would dare, unearthing some unpleasant, genuinely disturbing findings concerning post-colonial Africa.

Black witnesses were not seen as credible at the time and place of Hammarskjöld's death so, as you'd both hope and expect, Brügger tracks down a number of of them, and they all recall certain common elements from that day in 1961: the sight of a second, smaller aircraft; a flash of light in the sky; a loud, gunshot-like noise.  From these (and other) interviews, a hypothesis emerges: a bomb was planted on the unguarded aircraft before it took off from Léopoldville, but this explosive device failed to detonate; thus, a backup plan was put into action, wherein a fighter jet was scrambled in order to shoot down Hammarskjöld's plane.  A Belgian-British pilot who served with the RAF in WW2, Jan van Risseghem, is here alleged to be the man who carried out the mission.  Van Risseghem died in 2007, but his links to breakaway state Katanga are well documented.  There's also the matter of a playing card - the ace of spades - which was apparently tucked under the dead Hammarskjöld's shirt collar; apparently this calling card - a "death card" - signals CIA involvement, although instinct tells us it may well have been planted by someone completely unconnected to Langley.

All this is sufficiently troubling, but Brügger's enquiries eventually lead him to an organisation called the South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR).  Don't be fooled by its benign name - this was a shadowy paramilitary outfit which worked with the Apartheid regime, and its alleged activities range from involvement in Dag Hammarskjöld's murder to the spreading of AIDS (under the guise of giving vaccines against the virus) in order to eradicate black Africans.  SAIMR was headed by a figure known as "Commodore" Keith Maxwell (among other aliases), whose written ravings reveal an unhinged character, one who'd possibly read Heart of Darkness one too many times (but still missed Conrad's central point).  Maxwell has frequently been likened to Auschwitz's "Angel of Death" Josef Mengele, which perhaps tells you more than you wish to know about his deeds.  It's hard to work out what, if anything, is true among Maxwell's diaries, and a valid question is asked more than once: why would such classified, incriminating information be written down?  Cold Case Hammarskjöld is an unnerving, chilling and frequently horrifying film, and it stands as one of the year's finest documentaries.  It screens at the London Film Festival today and tomorrow.

Darren Arnold


Thursday 3 October 2019

The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea (Syllas Tzoumerkas, 2019)

The Netherlands Film Fund is one of the backers of The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea, which features a fine lead performance by Angeliki Papoulia, an actress best known for her work with Yorgos Lanthimos - namely Dogtooth, Alps and The LobsterSargasso's mood and feel are both very much in line with those found in Lanthimos' work, and Syllas Tzoumerkas' film is certainly a good fit for the rather clumsy "Weird Wave" label that's been thrown around for the past decade.  With its exposure of the darkness that lies at the heart of a seemingly sleepy town, comparisons to the work of David Lynch are as inevitable as they are helpful to the film's marketability, although to my mind it has more in common with Claire Denis' brilliant, if horrible, Les Salauds and Carol Morley's mood piece murder-mystery Out of Blue.

Papoulia plays what is quite possibly the angriest chief of police ever seen on screen, and her drunken, foul-mouthed but dogged Elisabeth strongly recalls the recent turns by Patricia Clarkson in the aforementioned Out of Blue and Nicole Kidman in Destroyer.  The film begins with Elisabeth leading a city anti-terrorist unit, but a botched raid forces her and her son to move away to a small, remote seaside town, which she thoroughly resents.  When Elisabeth isn't berating virtually everyone who crosses her path, she's drinking; sometimes, she combines these two pastimes to predictably chaotic effect.  Things get more interesting for Elisabeth when seedy lounge singer Manolis (Christos Passalis) is found dead on a beach; it's apparently a suicide, but the chief of police decides to dig deeper, which reveals a lot more about the town and its inhabitants.  Elisabeth takes a special interest in Manolis' sister, Rita (Youla Boudali, who co-wrote the film with the director), a withdrawn, timid young woman who has a grim job at an eel farm.

It's fairly clear that Elisabeth has more interest in getting to the bottom of things than the director does, and Tzoumerkas is far more concerned with peppering his film with religious imagery and nightmarish vignettes than he is with anything as trifling as the forensics of police work.  The mystery aspect, such as it is, doesn't take much solving by the viewer, but it doesn't really matter when there's such a rich, dark atmosphere to soak up, not to mention a leading actress on top form.  The supporting performances are good, too, with Passalis' standout moment coming when his creepy Manolis has an onstage meltdown and treats his audience to an expletive-heavy tirade against his, and their,  hometown; Manolis recalls Dave from Lost River, who in turn echoed Blue Velvet's Ben.

The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea is generally strong stuff - although Attenberg remains, by some distance, the best film out of the Weird Wave titles; if Sargasso has a weakness, it lies in the director's attempts to align his film with the movement via button-pushing.  After viewing the likes of Dogtooth, not many will be shocked by what is presented here, and the few explicit scenes in Tzoumerkas' film feel more tired than transgressive.  There's also a clunky, overdone analogy involving eels and the ocean of the title, which really should have been pruned back.  But, on the whole, The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea is an absorbing, atmospheric and well-made riff on the hard-boiled cop movie.  It screens at the London Film Festival today and tomorrow.

Darren Arnold