This just in! I felt myself to be writing too much about my favourite films of 2009 to go into one digestible entry, so at the last minute devised a whole new top category heading – expect the Platinum Awards to get their ceremony shortly. In the meantime you’ll have to make do with second-best, but there’s some pretty good second-best efforts here!
And check out the Silver, the Bronze, and the Tin-plated and Turkey awards already presented.
The great thing about this film is that it doesn’t just duplicate the look of those great Seventies SF dystopias, but also takes up their bleak form. Typically it juxtaposes the grandiose with the mundane, putting a man on the moon but merely to give him the most boring caretaker job of all time. Such films always looked both grandly utopian and slightly unsettling, like someone’s utopia would always be someone else’s dystopia. (There always seemed the thinnest of lines between, for example, Silent Running and The Parallax View.) And here you just know those pristine whites won’t stay pure-looking for long, the antiseptic will become septic. It’s hard to say more without venturing into plot spoilers...
Formally speaking, the main development of this film from Andrea Arnold’s previous, Red Road, is that we are given no ‘guide’ character to lead us into the sub-class underworld – we’re just plunged straight in that sink estate.
Indeed, for about the first fifteen minutes, it dedicates itself to displaying the chief character in the darkest possible light – she’s foul-mouthed and fist-ready, the epitome of chavness which the tabloids rail against, already alienated from everyone and everything around her. The cool thing is that, while it goes on to contextualise this character, it never flips or whitewashes her. Rather than allowing us to become her confidant, she remains at one remove. So in one stroke any resemblance to Billy Elliot and such odious ilk is entirely superficial.
But more to the point, this is also why it doesn’t seem accurate for The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw to call Arnold “Ken Loach's natural successor” – however well-intentioned the compliment. While Loach laments the disappearance of class solidarity, Arnold takes it’s absence almost as a given. She is more lyrical than Loach, more psychological than political. Film Four’s Jon Fortgang puts it better when he says she “suggests an episode of EastEnders' directed by Michelangelo Antonioni.” But she perhaps has most in common with Lynne Ramsey or Pawel Pawlikowski.
There is admittedly something slightly list-ticking about the taboo-busting nature of Park Chan-Wook’s vampire love story. And I’m not sure that it’s actually about very much. But it’s so relentlessly inventive, throwing up ten times the ideas you’d find in a regular film, that you can’t help but be swept along by it.
And it sets itself against a recent trend I’ve noticed in vampire lore – where the fanged beasts are either sexy and seductive or revolting and feral. Surely if such a figure is going to be at all interesting, it has to be a paradoxical combination of both. Happily, that’s the case here.
One little detail appealed to me. I could understand how Superman (for example) refrained from flight while posing as a norm. After all, you’re either flying or you’re not. But what about his super-strength? How come he never once absent-mindedly used it against a sticky desk drawer or an overtight jar lid? Here one vampire forgets themself and brings those undead biceps to bear in public, with what could euphemistically be described as ‘consequences.’
A Serious Man
I couldn’t quite bring myself to join in the critical love-fest for the Cohen Brother’s previous offering, No Country For Old Men. Obviously it was a bold departure from their previous work, which had sometimes bordered on flippancy, which did suggest a developing maturity. But I somehow never quite got the film, which left me feeling infuriated as much a beguiled.
A Serious Man feels like a kind of rapprochement between that film and their earlier work, like someone no longer striving to act grown up who is now at peace with their younger years. It has a pleasing either-way quality; it reads perfectly well if you just take it as a simple mid-life-crisis comedy, yet you’re equally able to see in it some kind of parable. Starting with a self-enclosed and self-evident parable from the past, even when it jumps into the main storyline I contend what we are watching is still a kind of meta-parable.
The humour often appears as merry interludes to the story but actually provides an integral element. Typical is the tale told to our troubled protagonist Larry, when he sees his Rabbi for advice. A Jewish dentist is befuddled to find a sign from God in the strangest of places, something which troubles and preoccupies him. But finally he stops worrying about it and simply gets on with his life. This works well as a gag, our hero coming away only with some pointless anecdote when he was in need of capital-A Answers. Yet it is his answer – to stop worrying about life and start living it. Even if God were talking to you, how equipped would you be to listen? Everything else is (as one character puts it) “mere surmise, sir”. Serious man – lighten up!
At the same time, nothing in the film is ever quite so neat or feelgood. From the introductory parable onwards, we are given no easy route to ride through life’s ills unscathed. As CH Dodd said of parables, “the meaning is sufficiently in doubt to tease the mind into active thought.”
The Jewish traditionalist setting not only lends itself to parables, but also offers an appealing kind of holism. It’s not that our protagonist’s maths problems and ethical concerns reflect one another – the suggestion is more that they are actually linked, like Hebrew letters which could double as numbers, different means of expressing essentially the same thing.
Perhaps the film’s biggest weakness is its inattention to its female characters. Of course it’s a perspective story, we don’t see the world as it is but through the lead character’s eyes. But while Larry’s son is granted his own plotlines, his wife and daughter are seen only through the impact they have upon him. Perhaps the most-developed female character in the film is the peasant wife we see only in the beginning. Of course this film is set in the male-dominated Sixties, but even so this seems something of a lapse. The unknowableness of women is a common Cohen shtick that sits ill with their new claims to maturity.