Friday 15 October 2021

Prayers for the Stolen (Tatiana Huezo, 2021)

Utrecht native Huub Bals may be best known as the creator and director of the International Film Festival Rotterdam, but right up until his premature death—aged just 51—he worked hard to set up what was then known as the Tarkovsky Fund; following his death, the fund would take on its creator's name as it sprang into action to aid filmmakers in the developing world.  Bals firmly believed that, with the necessary support, many fine films would come from outside of Western Europe and coastal North America; he also held forthright views on the quality of Dutch and American movies, and felt that great cinema was more likely to come from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe.  For more than 30 years, the Hubert Bals Fund has assisted in the production of numerous prestigious, well-received titles, including Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Cemetery of Splendour, Alejandro Landes' Monos, and Carlos Reygadas' Japón.  

One of the fund's most recent beneficiaries is Tatiana Huezo's Mexico-set feature debut Prayers for the Stolen, which plays today at the London Film Festival.  An adaptation of Jennifer Clement's eponymous novel, Huezo's film focuses on a rural mountain community under the thumb of the cartels; here, forced disappearances are a regular occurrence, and the frequent, ominous rumble of 4x4 vehicles headed for the village instils fear among the residents—particularly those who have young daughters.  Should the day arrive when the cartel's footsoldiers come calling, village girl Ana (played by Ana Cristina Ordóñez González and Marya Membreño) has a contingency plan in place: a concealed, child-sized hole in the garden.  As the film begins, Ana is shown being helped into this space by her mother, and it soon transpires that this is a drill the two will need to carry out fairly regularly if Ana is to remain out of harm's reach.

Just as the roar of SUVs is rightly feared, so is the drone of the helicopters that haphazardly spray a noxious substance on the nearby fields; it is in these pastures that many of the villagers eke out a living by collecting poppy sap, which is later used to make heroin.  It's clear that several girls have already been taken from the village, and when Ana visits a hairdresser for a radical cut—on the pretext of preventing lice—it's chillingly clear that a boyish look may go some way towards keeping the local girls off the gang's radar.  The entire community lives under the Damoclean sword of the cartel, and a meeting at the local school reveals how staff there are forced to abandon their pupils at short notice; while the parents clearly want this sympathetic and well-liked teacher to stay, it's equally obvious that everyone in the room knows the penalty for defying orders.

Much if not all of Prayers for the Stolen's tension comes from wondering how the seemingly inevitable abduction attempt is going to play out; from the outset—and in line with the principle of Chekhov's gun—it's a given that Ana will eventually have to climb into that cramped burrow in her garden, but not knowing what will happen when she's in there is precisely what keeps us hooked.  It's a brooding, lyrical film, one that occasionally sees childhood innocence transcend the brutal violence of the criminal gangs, and the two young actresses who portray Ana at different stages of her life give fine, authentic performances.  While the futility of taking on the cartel is plain to see, there are several moments when the sense of oppression is supplanted by the quotidian, which might suggest that normality isn't necessarily a thing of the past.  One suspects that Huub Bals would highly approve of this subtle, confident work, which serves as further proof of the ongoing value of his filmmaker fund.   

Darren Arnold

Wednesday 13 October 2021

Azor (Andreas Fontana, 2021)

Belgian actor Fabrizio Rongione is synonymous with the work of the Dardenne brothers, and while the same could also be said of Rongione's fellow Brusselian Jérémie Renier—admittedly a much higher profile actor—it's actually Rongione who's currently in the lead when it comes to appearances for the Dardennes, with the scoreline currently standing at 6–5.  Outside of his work with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Rongione has proved to be a difficult actor to cast correctly, although this hasn't prevented him from carving out a steady career on both stage and screen.  Andreas Fontana's debut feature Azor hands Rongione a juicy leading role, and the actor responds with an excellent performance, one that will hopefully give casting directors some valuable guidance as they look to place Rongione in future projects.

As with another LFF 2021 title, Prayers for the Stolen, Azor plunges the viewer into a Latin America where both corruption and forced disappearances are commonplace.  The backdrop for Azor is Argentina at the dawn of the 1980s, a time when the country's Dirty War was still raging.  Into this volatile situation arrives Swiss banker Yvan de Wiel (Rongione) and his wife Inés (Stéphanie Cléau), and while these Europeans appear to have a superficial understanding of what is going in the country, we get the sense that no outsider can truly appreciate what is unfolding through this period of political instability.  Given his profession, you won't be surprised to learn that Yvan is in Argentina for business reasons—and while you may well be thinking that no foreigner in the right mind would consider holidaying in Argentina under the junta, Azor has a languorous side to it, which is symbolised by a scene in which seemingly carefree citizens (and Inés) enjoy apéritifs as they lounge around a sun-kissed pool.    

Although Azor is quite clearly taking place in a country firmly in the grip of fear, it contains few if any overt examples of the terror acts that led to tens of thousands of people vanishing without trace.  This omission is presumably because Yvan and Inés are mixing in rarified circles that are ring-fenced from the horrors inflicted on so many ordinary Argentinians.  Yet this illusion of calm creates a palpable sense of unease, as the violence always seems to be left just outside of the frame.  It's clear that the diplomatic Yvan sees all of this in very simple terms: he's there to do his job, not stir the pot.  That said, there is the not insignificant matter of Yvan's partner and predecessor, René Keys, who has mysteriously disappeared, and Yvan struggles to get any leads from those he speaks to, although a few offer their opinions on the missing banker; according to one character, "Keys has completely lost his mind."  Yvan is later seen heading upriver on a boat, and you half expect someone to declare, "Mistah Keys—he dead."   

Resting somewhere between Franz Kafka and Joseph Conrad, Azor is a film about violence that refuses to show violence.  There are a couple of occasions when we're concerned for Yvan's safety, but on the whole there's a sense that the banker is protected by both his status and his general reluctance to express political opinions—that said, he employs an increasingly risky strategy in persisting with the investigation of Keys' disappearance.  As with Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Azor drops a European protagonist into an unfamiliar milieu that he cannot fully get to grips with, and in turn director Fontana shifts this perspective on to the viewer, for whom the film frequently remains an elusive, opaque effort.  Which is not to say that Azor isn't worthwhile; on the contrary, it's an immaculate work that expertly sustains its oppressive mood.  Rongione has never been better, and he's ably backed up by Cléau, who was so good in Mathieu Amalric's The Blue Room.  The Dirty War casts a long shadow over the Argentina of today, and Azor—which screens today and tomorrow at the London Film Festival—admirably succeeds in conveying the fraught atmosphere of a terrorised, traumatised country.

Darren Arnold

Images: Be For Films

Monday 11 October 2021

Inexorable (Fabrice du Welz, 2021)

Since his excellent 2004 feature debut The Ordeal, filmmaker Fabrice du Welz has consistently come up with strong, engaging work, and his seventh full-length film Inexorable very much continues this tradition.  Despite his Belgian nationality, du Welz has often been linked with the New French Extremity; as with Gaspar Noé—incidentally, another non-French director strongly associated with the movement—du Welz always brings a fine sense of mischief to his films, and we can just about smirk along with the director as he has us squirming in our chairs.  Inexorable sees du Welz reunite with Benoît Poelvoorde, that fine Belgian actor who starred in the director's Adoration (pictured above).  Poelvoorde arguably helped pave the way for the New French Extremity with his 1992 shocker Man Bites Dog, a grim, disturbing film, yet one laced with jet-black humour.  While Inexorable is by no means as gasp-inducing as Man Bites Dog, there is a vague sense here—as in Adoration—that du Welz is taking Poelvoorde back to where it all began.   

Inexorable, which screens tomorrow and Wednesday at the London Film Festival, has some superficial similarities with Welsh horror The Feast, which also played at this year's festival; each film sees a mysterious young woman arriving to work at a palatial house ruled by a bossy matriarch, and this setup leads to predictably messy results as the interloper causes merry mayhem.  And although both films feature a smattering of memorably gory moments, there the comparisons end as The Feast—which nonetheless stands as a reasonably strong debut film—eventually trips over its own ambition, whereas du Welz uses all of his experience to keep Inexorable on track until the very end.  The aptness of the film's title becomes obvious long before the end credits roll; this really is a film that does exactly what it says on the tin.  Come to think of it, most of the titles of du Welz's films are pretty descriptive: witness, say, the intense infatuation on display in Adoration, or how The Ordeal puts both its protagonist and audience through the wringer.  

Bestselling author Marcel (Poelvoorde) and his editor wife Jeanne (Mélanie Doutey) live in a chateau with their young daughter Lucie (Janaina Halloy), whose dogged determination leads to the family expanding to include the majestic Ulysses, a Pyranean Mountain Dog.  Ulysses is a lovely boy, but it's very clear that he's in need of a bit of house training.  Just as Lucie is losing patience with her new pet, he suddenly takes off to explore the family's huge estate; the girl and her mother frantically search for the dog, who is returned by passing stranger Gloria (Alba Gaïa Bellugi).  A highly relieved Jeanne is extremely grateful and insists that Gloria comes inside for a drink, during which the guest declares that she knows how to train Ulysses.  After a fun and productive obedience session in the garden, Gloria agrees to return the next day so that Ulysses can continue with his training; Lucie, who appears to have no friends at school, is delighted with both her dog's progress and the newcomer's presence.  It isn't long before Gloria engineers the sacking of the help, à la Parasite, which swiftly leads to Jeanne offering Gloria a live-in position with the family.  

The dynamic changes when Marcel—who is struggling to make progress with his latest novel—is flattered to learn that Gloria is a keen fan of his work; what's more, she can quote long passages verbatim from Inexorable, the author's most recent smash.  With Jeanne out of town for a couple of days, things really start to hot up, and what follows plays out as a stylish, well-wrought melodrama worthy of Claude Chabrol, a filmmaker who would no doubt have greatly enjoyed this fizzing example of the bourgeoisie under the microscope.  In a recent interview, Fabrice du Welz stated that he wanted Inexorable to be a simple, streamlined affair, and it's certainly the sort of film where we should heed D.H. Lawrence's advice to trust the tale and not the teller.  What's particularly admirable about the film is that it knows when to take its foot off—it would be very easy to overcook this material, and du Welz seems acutely aware of this.  While Inexorable is often a difficult watch—as if its director would want it to be anything else—it's also a gripping, wonderfully assured piece of filmmaking.

Darren Arnold

Images: BFIFlanders Image

Saturday 9 October 2021

Our Men (Rachel Lang, 2021)

In Christophe Honoré's superb 2007 film Love Songs—arguably its director's finest work—Louis Garrel, in a scene as moving as it was unusual, employed the NATO phonetic alphabet to convey the death of his girlfriend.  In a remarkable coincidence, and for very similar reasons, Garrel also uses the same code, "Delta–Charlie–Delta" ("décédé", meaning deceased), in Rachel Lang's Our Men, where its use is no less haunting.  In Our Men, Garrel stars as Maxime, a French foreign legion commanding officer who's leading a tricky mission in Mali; when one of his men is killed during an ambush by Islamic insurgents, it's down to Maxime to report the death and here, as in Love Songs, Garrel puts his intense features to good use as he grimly relays the news.  

Garrel's turn in Our Men provides a reminder of both the sort of part he's been offered in recent times, and how these roles differ from his work as a younger man; his early appearances in the likes of Honore's Ma Mère and Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers saw the actor cast as louche, erratic types, but more recently the tendency has been to match him with relatively upright roles, such as when he played Alfred Dreyfus in Roman Polanski's absorbing J'Accuse.  The steady Maxime is a fairly typical part for the Garrel of today, even if the actor can still rise to the challenge when tasked with channelling his inner weasel, as evidenced in Woody Allen's most recent film, Rifkin's Festival.  But Garrel has done well to avoid the sort of typecasting that once seemed inevitable, and he's always an engaging, watchable presence.  Maxime's wife, Céline, is played by the excellent Camille Cottin, a performer who, like her co-star, has worked with Christophe Honoré; also as with Garrel, Cottin has successfully edged away from her earlier roles, with a recent string of dramatic parts demonstrating a range beyond comedy.  

While Garrel and Cottin are the two biggest stars in the film—which also features Lucie Debay and Claire Denis mainstay Grégoire Colin in supporting roles—their characters make way for a younger couple, Ukrainians Nika and Vlad (Ina Marija Bartaité, Aleksandr Kuznetsov).  The taciturn Vlad is under Maxime's command, and Nika, who has only recently arrived on the army base in Corsica, soon befriends busy, affable lawyer Céline, who asks Nika if she would be interested in babysitting her and Maxime's son; it is through this job that Nika gets to know some of the other legionnaires' wives.  With Vlad away on duty, Nika cuts a rather lonely figure, and even on the few occasions when Vlad returns home, he seems distant and is reluctant to discuss Nika's hopes of starting a family.  Vlad does buy a puppy, however, and this very cute canine does provide good company for Nika as she fills her long days.  But Nika still feels rejected by the absent Vlad, and the welcome attention she receives from another man leads to a rather predictable complication.      

With its focus on the soldiers' partners in general and Nika in particular, Our Men may surprise those expecting to see wall to wall scenes of warfare; while the film does indeed spend some time "over there", the combat never feels especially authentic, so it's probably just as well that the real meat of the story takes place away from the warzone.  Our Men, which screens this weekend at the London Film Festival, is a strong film, but sadly it seems inevitable that its release will be overshadowed by the death of its young star: six months ago, Ina Marija Bartaité was killed when a drunk driver knocked her off her bicycle.  This tragedy occurred ten years on from the untimely death of Bartaité's mother Yekaterina Golubeva, who, as well as starring in Bruno Dumont's Twentynine Palms and her partner Leos Carax's Pola X, appeared in two films by the aforementioned Claire Denis.  It is not inapt to suggest that Denis' Colin-starring Beau travail—one of the most memorable films about life in the foreign legion—would form a fine double bill with the engrossing, affecting Our Men.

Darren Arnold

Images: BAC Films

Thursday 7 October 2021

Playground (Laura Wandel, 2021)

Laura Wandel's debut feature is a taut, crisp tale that unfolds entirely within the premises of a Belgian school; in line with the film's prosaic English title, much of the action takes place during break times, which frequently host activities far more sinister than the good-natured games for which they were intended.  While watching Playground, you're never very far away from an instance of bullying, and Wandel presents such scenes in a most unsentimental manner.  While there are countless films centring on adolescence and its associated growing pains, Playground finds a rare direct line to the emotions experienced by those children who endure bullying; on a relatively good day, such kids will merely feel uncomfortable, whereas the worst days will see sheer terror take hold of these victims.       

As Playground begins, Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) is anxiously beginning her first day at a new school.  Nora's older brother Abel (Günter Duret) has already headed into the building, but this fact doesn't provide much comfort for the young girl, who is loath to part with her father Finnigan (Karim Leklou) at the gates.  Once she's eventually inside the school, Nora cuts a withdrawn, isolated figure in class, and during break time she seeks out her brother in the playground; Abel tries to shepherd Nora away from the group of children he's with, but his sister's dogged approach—as evidenced earlier at the school gates—reveals that Abel is toady to several bullies who are roughing up the new kids.  As Nora suddenly finds herself in the bullies' sights, Abel instinctively steps in to defend his little sister; from this point on, Abel's school experience becomes a living hell.

Nora goes on to make friends with a couple of her classmates, one of whom promises to invite Nora to her imminent birthday party; however, Abel's ceaseless humiliations—which reach a nadir when he's dumped in a skip—prompt these girls to gradually alienate Nora, and the eagerly awaited party invitation fails to materialise.  In turn, Nora—who now views Abel as the cause of these soured friendships—starts to resent her older brother.  Finnigan is most concerned by his children's behaviour, and he eventually manages to prise the truth from Nora; while his pro-active approach appears to somewhat defuse the situation, his children are still quite unhappy as they slog their way through the interminable school day.  After a meeting involving Abel, his tormentors and their respective parents, an uneasy truce is brokered, and this paves the way for Abel to revert to his role as a perpetrator of bullying; naturally, Nora is not impressed. 

As the literal focus of the film—the camera rarely leaves her pale, pensive face—Nora acts as our conduit to this world, one that will initially seem quite alien to those of us who left school decades ago.  Yet Wandel's great achievement here is to place us in Nora's shoes, and with that we experience the full-bore nightmare that the school experience can be for some children; the film's French title, Un monde ("a world"), neatly encapsulates the all-consuming nature of the milieu Nora inhabits.  The camera almost invariably remains at Nora's height, so the various adults she interacts with are often reduced to off-camera voices; such is the relentless focus on Nora, her peers are frequently filtered out in much the same manner.  Maya Vanderbeque is simply terrific as Nora, and Laura Wandel moves things along with great economy and little fuss; the film screens at the London Film Festival on Monday and Tuesday.

Darren Arnold

Images: Tandem