Friday 24 March 2023

BFI Flare: Willem & Frieda (John Hay, 2023)

This coming Monday marks the 80th anniversary of the bombing of the Amsterdam civil registry office, and this attack on the bevolkingsregister succeeded in destroying some 800,000 identity cards, thus making it much harder for the Nazis to verify the numerous fake IDs that were circulating courtesy of the Dutch resistance.  While this daring act saved countless lives, it also led to the execution of a dozen underground members, one of whom was the artist Willem Arondeus.  Today, you can view some of Arondeus' fine paintings in the Rijksmuseum, and while the Naarden native's art is discussed in the theatrical cut of John Hay's documentary Willem & Frieda—which screens today and tomorrow at BFI Flare—it is Arondeus' wartime resistance activity that is the main focus of presenter Stephen Fry's enquiries.  That said, Arondeus' artistic talent and underground work did intersect as he set about the intricate business of creating stacks of false papers that would, all being well, survive Gestapo scrutiny.

As its title suggests, John Hay's film has another subject in its sights: Frieda Belinfante, the Dutch cellist who also joined the resistance; there, she became firm friends with Willem Arondeus, and the pair worked tirelessly to produce forged documents for those facing Nazi persecution.  Remarkably, Belinfante's work with the underground was facilitated by none other than Henry Heineken, who kindly agreed to purchase her cello for a vastly inflated price.  At that point in WW2, neither Belinfante nor Heineken had much need of the instrument, but this crucial transaction—which, in present-day terms, involved a handsome six-figure sum—allowed the brewer's accounts to pass muster while granting Belinfante a significant war chest, which she duly ploughed into various resistance activities.  Unlike Arondeus, Belinfante was Jewish, but Fry stresses how both artists fought relentlessly against the terrible injustices inflicted by the Nazis.  The ultimate fates of the two friends were rather different, however: a couple of years after the war, Belinfante moved to the US, where she died in 1995 at the age of 90; in July 1943, 48-year-old Arondeus was executed by firing squad on the sand dunes just west of Haarlem.      

Willem Arondeus pleaded guilty to the attack on the civil registry office and claimed sole responsibility for the explosions—which had been meticulously planned so that no one would be harmed—and it is thought that this may be why two doctors in the group received clemency at the last minute.  Of those who organised and carried out the bombing, only Frieda Belinfante eluded the authorities; in the aftermath of Arondeus' death, she carefully edged her way to the safety of Switzerland via Belgium and France (the jaw-dropping story of Belinfante's months spent evading the Nazis is indeed worthy of its own film).  While Willem & Frieda sees Arondeus' unwavering devotion to the resistance covered in some detail, we also learn a bit about the man behind these courageous acts: in 1941, the increasingly risky nature of underground activity forced Arondeus to separate from Jan Tijssen, the love of his life, who returned to Apeldoorn, where the two had first met.  The couple never saw each other again.  In the years that followed, Jan would go on to marry and have a son, poignantly named Willem. 

Despite the heroic efforts of Willem and Frieda—and many others on the side of the Dutch resistance—the legacy of the German occupation is borne out by a horrifying statistic: by 1940, the Jewish population of the Netherlands was in excess of 140,000, but at the end of WW2 this figure had been slashed to 40,000, meaning that more than 100,000 Dutch Jews perished over the course of the war.  Stephen Fry, who—like so many of us both inside and outside of the Netherlands—knew nothing of the title subjects prior to this documentary, is simply fantastic as our guide through this incredible story, and his personal connection to the material is obvious; whether marvelling at the damage caused to the civil registry office (and Anne Frank's diarising of the event) or recoiling at the compulsory yellow badge used to single out Jews, Fry's sincerity is plain to see.  Hay's sobering film is a hugely important work, and it marks a fine way for us to sign off from this year's BFI Flare.  Just before we wrap things up, it is perhaps worth mentioning that, in case you missed them, two other Flare 2023 selections—Winter Boy and Monica—were reviewed on the site prior to the festival.

Darren Arnold

Images: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday 22 March 2023

BFI Flare: Bodies Bodies Bodies (Halina Reijn, 2022)

On Sunday, Halina Reijn's Bodies Bodies Bodies will be the final film to screen at this year's BFI Flare, where it comprises part of the festival's Best of Year strand.  As far as this selection of highlights from the past 12 months is concerned, Reijn's second feature as director is anomalous insofar as it is the only film in the strand not to have played at last year's London Film Festival.  The other titles in Best of Year are Laura Poitras' opioid epidemic documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, Elegance Bratton's autobiographical military tale The Inspection, and Georgia Oakley's feature debut Blue Jean; with its focus on a closeted schoolteacher, Oakley's superb film has a strong thematic connection to the late Ron Peck's Nighthawks, the quasi-sequel to which is also included in this edition of Flare.  While Best of Year consists of just four titles, each film is very different from the others, and all are worth seeing; holing up in London's BFI Southbank with this quadruple bill would be a fine way to end your Flare experience for this year.  

Groningen native Reijn's directorial feature debut Instinct was a work that promised much but ultimately delivered very little; the filmmaker's follow-up feature—her first to be filmed in English—is a notch or two up from the wildly uneven Instinct, and as such it marks some progress on the part of its maker.  Backers A24—who also produced The Inspection—were certainly pleased with Bodies Bodies Bodies, so much so that they picked up Instinct for North American distribution.  The past year has seen A24 turn out much better, wittier and more intelligent horror movies than Bodies Bodies Bodies—Ti West's X and its prequel Pearl are both greatly superior works—yet Reijn's film has enough about it to keep the viewer engaged.  Like many a horror, Bodies Bodies Bodies is set against the backdrop of a dark and stormy night, and the director is quite happy to lean into familiar tropes as she spins the story of a bunch of (mostly) rich Gen Z-ers attending a hurricane party in a mansion.       

After some initial bickering, the guests decide to play the wink murder-style game of the film's title, and it isn't long before David (Pete Davidson), the waspish host of the party, is found dead, his throat slashed by an unknown assailant.  Cue much hysteria and suspicion among the survivors, who have to deal with this shocking discovery while stumbling around a huge, unfamiliar house, one that, thanks to the storm, is presently lacking electricity and mobile phone coverage—the latter of which, we can only presume, is more offensive to these self-absorbed individuals than the sight of David's bloodied corpse.  As the night wears on, the bodies pile up, and eventually just two members of the group remain; each maintains her innocence, and the evidence—or lack of it—makes it hard for the viewer to decide which of these young women is responsible for the mayhem of the past few hours.  That we have seen one of these final girls bludgeon someone to death should make it easy for us to draw a conclusion, but Reijn and screenwriter Sarah DeLappe have other ideas, leading to a big reveal that is genuinely impressive.   

Bodies Bodies Bodies is largely populated with intentionally unlikeable characters, and such films often struggle to maintain viewer interest; with this in mind, it is to Halina Reijn's credit that she manages to make her film consistently involving.  That Reijn has her tongue planted firmly in her cheek is obvious from the casting—in addition to former Saturday Night Live fixture Davidson, Bodies Bodies Bodies features a string of performers also better known for comedy: Shiva Baby's Rachel Sennott; Conner O'Malley of Late Night with Seth Myers fame; and Borat Subsequent Moviefilm star Maria Bakalova.  Of the cast, it is Sennott who makes the biggest impression as Alice, a glowstick-adorned podcaster who may be the closest the film gets to a sympathetic character.  Propelled along by both a superb Disasterpiece score and a thumping Charli XCX theme song, Bodies Bodies Bodies is a more effective modern whodunnit than the much-vaunted Glass Onion, and it signals even better things ahead for Halina Reijn.

Darren Arnold

Images: A24

Monday 20 March 2023

watchAUT: Eismayer / I Am the Tigress / Vera / The Fox

Following on from Saturday's look at some of the titles screening at this year's watchAUT Austrian Film Festival—which runs from Thursday to Sunday at London's Ciné Lumière, with tickets available here—today we'll run through the remainder of the festival's offerings, beginning with David Wagner's army tale Eismayer.  Wagner's film scooped the International Film Critics' Week Grand Prize at the most recent edition of the Venice Film Festival, and it boasts a fine performance from Gerhard Liebmann as the title character, a closeted drill sergeant who falls for one of his recruits.  Eismayer is a harsh, feared ruler of his men, with his pop-eyed ranting both masking his secret and signalling someone who's seen Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket a few too many times.  While both the film and its main character feel slightly overfamiliar, this is an involving, highly watchable tale, one that presents a credible depiction of military life as it relays the true story of an unlikely romance. 

Documentary I Am the Tigress follows bodybuilder Tischa Thomas as she prepares to leave New York for a competition in Bucharest.  The event marks Thomas' first time outside of the US, and directors Philipp Fussenegger and Dino Osmanović probe deep into the life of this mother and grandmother, in the process creating a portrait that is often as uncomfortable as it is intimate.  Much of the film's running time is devoted to the relationship between Thomas and her coach/friend/factotum Edward, and the late scene between these two on a Florida beach is nothing if not surprising.  Shot over a two-and-a-half-year period, I Am the Tigress has much to say about gender and identity, and Thomas is shown being verbally abused by a stranger on account of her appearance; while watching this unpleasant sequence, it is dispiriting to consider the likelihood that the ignoramus criticising the bodybuilder's physique would have similarly objected back when Thomas weighed 300lbs.  Fussenegger and Osmanović's judiciously edited film is by no means an easy watch, but it's certainly compelling.

Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel's slippery docudrama Vera tracks its title character as she ambles through life in the shadow of her late father, spaghetti western icon Giuliano Gemma.  Following a minor road accident involving 8-year-old Manu, Vera befriends the boy's single father, which at first seems a more rewarding venture than hanging out with her self-absorbed boyfriend, a wannabe filmmaker whose interest in Vera is seemingly fuelled by her money and connections; at one point, he begs her to contact Monica Belluci about starring in his latest project.  Vera's rapport with the young Manu affords her a rare opportunity to talk with someone who doesn't view her as merely the daughter of a celebrity; she also spends time with a few other people, including her sister Giuliana, and a scene with Asia Argento serves to highlight the injustice of being defined by a famous parent (to further confuse matters, Vera appeared in Argento's directorial debut and a couple of films by Asia's father Dario).  Shot on grainy 16mm, Vera is both an affecting portrait of a somewhat lost soul and an intelligent meditation on the complications of secondhand fame.

Hot on the heels of Adrian Goiginger's sophomore feature Above the World comes his third film, The Fox.  Based on the life of the director's great-grandfather, The Fox follows the tale of young Austrian Franz Streitberger, who enlists in the army just a couple of years before the commencement of WW2; upon the annexation of his homeland, Franz is drafted into the Wehrmacht and is deployed in France as German troops tighten their noose on the Allied forces.  Yet despite the war that rages around him, Franz has a major distraction in the form of an orphaned fox cub he's rescued from a forest.  Keeping this arrangement a secret from most of his fellow soldiers, Franz goes to great lengths—including insubordination—to look after the animal, and the two form a deep bond.  The Fox unleashes a devastating one-two in its final reel, and it's difficult to say which of these blows hits hardest.  This is a real gem of a film, and a terrific choice to open this year's watchAUT; although another German-language war movie is currently grabbing all the headlines, the quietly shattering The Fox fully deserves a similarly wide audience.

Darren Arnold

Saturday 18 March 2023

watchAUT: Frau im Mond / Rubikon / Matter Out of Place

For its second edition, watchAUT Austrian Film Festival showcases some of the best new cinema and a silent-era classic from—you guessed it—Austria.  The first watchAUT, which took place in late 2019 at London's Picturehouse Central, included such prestigious titles as Marie Kreutzer's The Ground Beneath My Feet and Jessica Hausner's Little Joe.  For watchAUT 2023, the festival shifts to another London venue, South Kensington's Ciné Lumière, where it runs from Thursday to Sunday (click here for tickets).  Among the titles on offer are David Wagner's military tale Eismayer, bodybuilding documentary I Am the Tigress, and Adrian Goiginger's WW2 movie The Fox, the latter of which opens the festival on Thursday evening.  The 2023 lineup is rounded out by Asia Argento-starrer Vera, environmental documentary Matter Out of Place, and two science fiction films made nearly a century apart.   

The earlier of these SF films, Fritz Lang's Frau im Mond, serves as the festival's closing film, and this year's watchAUT provides a rare opportunity to see Lang's final silent movie in its full-length version with live piano accompaniment.  Based on the eponymous novel by the director's wife Thea von Harbou (who also wrote the script), this 1929 space exploration epic is still a remarkable work, and its prescience is quite breathtaking; that the film contains the first ever countdown to a rocket launch is nothing short of incredible.  While the acting in silent films can often be rather broad, Frau im Mond features some fine performances, with the best turn coming from German star Willy Fritsch as the entrepreneur who acts as the catalyst for the lunar mission.  Variously known as Woman in the Moon and Girl in the Moon, this near three-hour spectacle is not without its lulls, but its inclusion here is most welcome—especially considering how the film has long taken a back seat to Lang and von Harbou's other science fiction masterpiece, Metropolis

Sticking with the space theme, Leni Lauritsch's debut feature Rubikon is a thoughtful sci-fi movie which takes place in a time when the earth has been polluted beyond all habitability.  Virtually all of Lauritsch's claustrophobic film takes place inside the space station of the title, where a soldier, a scientist and a geneticist attempt to find consensus on a critical issue: should they head back to earth in the hope of helping any survivors, or remain in the safety of their fully self-reliant environment?  It's a decent premise, and the film has its share of tense moments; while it's perhaps a bit too long for what is essentially a three-hander centring on one core argument, Rubikon is an inventive and generally engaging affair, and Lauritsch and her crew work wonders with the €3 million budget.  There are times when the movie recalls William Eubank's haunting 2011 film Love, another microbudgeted science fiction effort that tends towards the cerebral.  While Rubikon contains more than a passing nod to green issues, environmental concerns are front and centre in another festival selection: Nikolaus Geyrhalter's Matter Out of Place.

Geyrhalter's impressive documentary opens with one of the most arresting sequences in recent cinema: a digger scoops away at a small section of green field, and it isn't long before the topsoil gives way to a jumble of barely-degraded landfill, including glass, plastic, tyres, and even a scrap of newspaper on which the type is still legible.  None of this makes for a pretty sight, but the real horror comes from learning that they stopped burying waste here in the 1970s, which is when a nearby incinerator was built.  After this dialogue-heavy opening—two observers comment on the various items that are unearthed—Matter Out of Place is a largely wordless affair until it gets to its final sequence, which records the painstaking cleanup operation at Nevada's Burning Man festival, an event which coined the phrase that lends the film its title.  Between these bookends, Geyrhalter's film goes on a globetrotting odyssey as it documents the ways in which different countries deal with waste collection and disposal.  It's an engrossing film, one in which the director's stunning cinematography stands at odds with the detritus on show.

Darren Arnold

Thursday 16 March 2023

BFI Flare: The Five Devils (Léa Mysius, 2022)

Five years and numerous screenplays on from her directorial feature debut Ava, Léa Mysius once again steps behind the camera for The Five Devils, which screens today and tomorrow at BFI Flare.  As a screenwriter, Mysius has collaborated with the likes of Arnaud Desplechin, Claire Denis, Jacques Audiard and André Téchiné, and that The Five Devils can hold its own against anything else in Mysius' filmography says much about its tremendous quality.  Of the films Mysius has written for and with others, Desplechin's somewhat underrated Ismael's Ghosts—a quite wonderful distillation of its director's main themes—is the one that has most in common with The Five Devils; both films are narratively complex works that deal with past trauma in a sophisticated, nuanced way.  Perhaps what is most striking about The Five Devils is that at no point does it feel like the work of a director who has made just one previous feature.   

Of course, it is quite reasonable to conclude that Mysius' projects with Denis, Audiard et al. have allowed her to develop as a filmmaker in a way that goes far beyond the experience of writing and directing Ava.  In Ava, Mysius drew a brave, César-nominated turn from the excellent Laure Calamy, and The Five Devils features an equally impressive lead performance, with Blue Is the Warmest Colour's Adèle Exarchopoulos stepping up as put-upon swimming instructor Joanne.  Joanne's young daughter Vicky (Sally Dramé)—who is relentlessly bullied by her schoolmates on account of her hairstyle—possesses an otherworldly ability to both detect and recreate scents.  Vicky's dad, taciturn fireman Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue), is a somewhat distant husband to Joanne, and the strain on the couple's marriage increases with the arrival of Jimmy's sister Julia (Swala Emati), who lodges with the family upon her release from prison.  

With the sole exception of Jimmy, no one is pleased to see Julia back in town.  Vicky—who immediately noticed the scent of alcohol on her aunt—sets about digging into Julia's murky past, and to do this she uses her finely tuned sense of smell to travel back in time.  From this point on, the narrative seesaws between past and present, often with no clear signpost as to which is which; Vicky's appearance is identical in both timelines, while her parents and Julia look much the same then as now.  The main temporal reference point takes the form of Joanne's colleague Nadine (Daphné Patakia) who, in the present day, bears severe facial scars.  As the film progresses and Vicky continues her forays into the past, the backstories of Joanne, Nadine, Jimmy and Julia are filled in; it isn't a spoiler to say that there aren't many uplifting moments to be had as Vicky navigates this minefield of memories—although a karaoke rendition of Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart" provides a few minutes of near-levity.

The Five Devils' brand of magical realism strongly recalls that of Céline Sciamma's Petite Maman, but whereas that film saw time travel bringing comfort to its young protagonist, The Five Devils uses memories merely to illuminate the present.  Despite the warmth of its tactile 35mm cinematography, Mysius' film is, at its core, as icy as the lake that Joanne regularly uses for early morning dips (despite presumably having free, unlimited use of a heated indoor pool—read into that what you will).  Exarchopoulos and Dramé give superb performances as the mother and daughter caught in the maelstrom of the past, while Belgian actress Patakia makes the most of her limited screen time to impress as Nadine, who is arguably the most intriguing character in a film that is by no means short on mystery.  Criminally overlooked at last month's Césars, where its solitary nomination (for Guillaume Marien's fine visual effects) predictably came to nothing, The Five Devils is a terrific, mature and highly intelligent work, one that demands repeated viewing. 

Darren Arnold

Images: Le Pacte