Tuesday, 27 November 2007


A few comments on the films I managed to catch during the first half of Brighton’s annual CineCity festival. Expect more to follow in due course…

LUST, CAUTION (Ang Lee, 2007)
NB Mild spoilers
Ang Lee’s latest starts out impressively as an espionage set in Japanese-occupied China, with an added theme about the impetuousness of youth. Then, just when all is looking well, it gives all that up for a kinky S&M story in the mould of 91/2 Weeks. And, as Ben Grimm was wont to say – “what a revoltin’ development that is!” What is it with art movie audiences and S&M? They way they find it simultaneously so titillatory yet so self-congratulatory audacious? It’s like having your bodice-ripping cake and eating it. But more to the point, when are they going to shut up about it?

PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (William Dieterle, 1948)
It’s not giving too much away to say this has the plot of Girl in the Fireplace minus the clockwork robots. In fact, one of its weaknesses is the time it takes the protagonist to figure out the premise – clearly he doesn’t go to see many movies. With themes of impoverished artists, otherworldly muses and impossible love, it unsurprisingly became a favourite of the Surrealists. It’s perhaps not the classic that endorsement might suggest, but presents an endless array of colourful characters portrayed in exquisite black and white photography.

SACCO AND VANZETTI (Peter Miller, 2007)
A well-made documentary on the notoriously rigged trial and murd… sorry, execution of two Italian-American anarchists hauled in during 1927. While ostensibly charged with a robbery, they were clearly on trial for their politics; harangued about it during cross-questioning, and even the real culprit owning up doing nothing to stem the prosecution! However this seems to expose the chief weakness of the film – a focus on the minutiae of the case against them at the expense of any real examination of the political milieu they were part of. For one example, we’re told solidarity actions occurred for them as far away as China – yet we never stray outside the courtroom long enough to look at these in any depth. At its worst it could be accused of counterposing ‘good’ anarchists (noble innocents given to taking in stray animals) against ‘bad’ ones who post letter bombs. Maybe there are other options…

SILENT LIGHT (Reygadas, 2007)
NB Fair to middling spoilers
You couldn’t ask for a film more beautifully composed than this, but I couldn’t help feeling there was something of the emperor’s new clothes about it. A man from a conservative religious community pondering leaving his family for another woman – we naturally expect him to “follow his bliss”, right? Okay, here he doesn’t. But is there anything more here that that straightforward, almost schematic reversal of expectation? We never learn how the experience transforms their relationship, any more than we learn what was wrong with it in the first place. Ultimately the characters stay like their silent prayers – outside and beyond us.

(Expert opinion was also divided over the single magic realist movement, a pivotal turn that ain’t for spoiling here. A friend was insistent one such moment alone in a film can only ever be considered a cheat. I found myself going with it, perhaps because the whole film portrays events in such a numinous way it didn’t feel so much of a wrench.)

4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS (Mungiu, 2007)
“Enjoy the film” finished the guy doing the introductions, then caught himself. “Well, that’s maybe not the term…” Indeed this bleak naturalist drama about the perils of backstreet abortions in Soviet-era Romania isn’t exactly ideal first-date material - but it is compelling viewing. Filmed in (near-on) real time and often deliberately scuppering your expectations of film narrative, it so neatly captures a sense of verite it often becomes hard to work out just where its strong style is coming from.

During post-show questioning, the introducer (a Romanian critic whose name I now embarrassingly forget) seemed to dislike comparisons to fellow Romanian Puiu’s 2005 film The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, emphasising one was set during dictatorship and the other after. Nevertheless, the counterposition of the sick and fragile human against the remorseless weight of bureaucracy does seem similar to our foreigners’ eyes. In some ways what’s so horrific isn’t the travails the girls must endure but the stoic way in which they accept them – as if such is but the way of life. Let’s hope Romania can become a home to a realist cinema that’s vital rather than just worthy.

(The festival also showed Mungiu’s earlier Occident, made in 2002. Conversely this was a farce-like comedy, albeit a pretty heavily black farce. This played well with interweaving and overlapping its characters, but couldn’t really compare against its successor.)

QUINTET (Altman, 1979)
NB Proper spoilers!

Every now and again an unfairly overlooked gem is rediscovered and restored. But with increasing frequency the corpse of a turkey is dug up for another flogging. Of course Robert Altman made some great movies, but I defy anyone to spot his handiwork on this klunker. It’s most reminiscent of Zardoz (Boorman, 1974), presenting a human race laid low not by external disaster but its own feeling of ennui. It’s a film about people who have lost the will to live… and the rest of the review almost writes itself from that point.

The premise is the jaded ensemble have had nothing to do but play games for so long they have resorted to playing a killer game. Which is actually a reasonable premise, except you get neither any sense of the game’s strategy nor any reason to care much who lives or dies. In fact you end up waiting hopefully for the next bumping off, just because each one brings the end of the film closer.

Throughout I kept wondering just what the new ice age setting had to do with anything. (Admittedly it does provide the sole saving grace – some cool sets, filmed on location at Montreal’s crumbling Expo site.) The general consensus seems to be this is a Cold War metaphor. Except this ‘metaphor’ (everything’s gone cold and no-one likes each other) is absolutely unilluminating on its subject. It’s more like a pun than a metaphor, except puns are supposed to be funny.

While Zardoz is often the subject of ridicule, I must admit to a sneaky soft spot for it. It’s absurd, incoherent, gimmicky and pretentious, but with all that ceaselessly inventive. Quintet shares all its failings but develops none of its saving graces. It was best left out in the cold.
(Yes it’s CineCity everywhere else but Cine-city on the website… what would Super-man and Spiderman have to say?)

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