Concluding our look-back on the films of 2009 with the toppermost of the poppermost. Feel free to check out the previous installments: the Silver , the Bronze, and the Tin-plated and Turkey.
I’ve previously been slightly agnostic about Darren Aronofsky’s films, finding them a little too insistently art-house. The Fountain in particular reeked of someone trying that bit too hard for effect. But this takes quite a left turn into a low-key, almost documentary style at which (so it turns out) Aronofsky excels.
The film stakes it’s territory on the thin line between narcissism and self-harm. Mickey Rourke demonstrates this by playing the anti-Rocky, the has-been too dumb to stay down, keeping up his lifelong dedication to making the same mistake twice. You see almost everything coming, but the fact he can’t is the hook which makes the experience almost unbearable! (That and the Memorabilia Fair scene, which reminded me of far too many small press events I’ve been to!)
Let The Right One In
For some reason I’m never quite sure of, one of the most vital ingredients of a horror film is a sense of locale. The uncanny needs to be rooted in a place, the merely nebulous is harmless. As it turns out, snow-covered Seventies Stockholm works almost perfectly – at one and the same time drably provincial and compellingly sinister, bland suburbs bordering dark forests. A common horror motif is the portal, the point where the horrific punctures into our consensus reality. But here the whole landscape is that portal.
One admitted weakness of this otherwise excellent film is the ending, which (if inventively executed) brings things back to a more conventional revenge fantasy. But after that disappointing finale the coda felt much more successful, it’s creepy suggestion not hitting you until after you’ve left the cinema.
However the disjunction between the two exposes something illfitting on a more fundamental level. The film repeatedly hints that the vampiric girl is actually the boy’s anger. She turns up just as he vents his rage by stabbing a tree. Later they communicate through tapping a shared wall, like two halves of the same person. ‘Let the right one in’ means ‘let that rage be released’. However, from what little I glean from the source novels (by John Ajvide Lindqvis), she is less a mysterious apparition and more of a realized character with a long backstory. Of course something more direct and symbolic better suits the medium of film. But proceedings here fluctuate between honouring the book’s intentions and going off at it’s own tangent, with the result of having to close with two rival endings.
Yet for all that carping, this was a highly atmospheric highlight of the year. Despite the recent wearying cultural saturation of all things vampiric, two of my favourite films from last year featured them so perhaps there’s... um... blood in the concept yet.
Synecdoche, New York
This is the biggest and boldest example of the genre technically known as “the headfuck film”, at least since David Lynch hit us with Inland Empire three years ago. No less a personage than Roger Erbert has called it the film of the decade! And while I can imagine others reacting quite heavily against this film (or perhaps running away at great speed), surely no-one could deny its brilliance. I’m not sure whether there’s fewer laughs than in Charlie Kaufman’s previous films, or whether they’re just being played slower so they start to sound like screams. (Truth to tell, there is something about the combination of ceaseless formal playfulness and big-issues intensity which is hard to take, like eating chalk and cheese.)
There’s little point in even trying to describe the plot, whose metafictional elements continually radiate out until they take over the film like an ever-more-virulent virus. (As Alan Moore wrote those many years ago: “the backdrops peel and the sets give way, and the cast gets eaten by the play.”) There’s even little point in trying to review it under any pretense of an objective basis, at least after a single viewing. But (for all it’s worth) I took it’s theme to be a critique of the realist genre, or at least the notion that art allows us to remove and isolate elements of life for study and contemplation – like the stage is a microscope. There’s an almost zen message, those who strive the hardest to comprehend life will fail the deepest.
As suggested earlier whilst discussing Let The Right One In, films tend to work better when they are filmic. Peter Strickland’s debut is a good case in point. We learn early our heroine has some sort of secret, but (before finally spilling the beans) Strickland intercuts the narrative by giving her quite hallucinogenic perspective scenes. They work like injections of ‘pure cinema’ into a body of literary inheritance, working to a delirious effect. (The trailer below gives some measure of this.) One simple but strangely effective shot of Katalin looking through woodland is particularly memorable. Strickland later commented in The Wire magazine that, had he been unable to secure the rights for the Nurse With Wound track he used, he’d have considered scrapping the whole film!
The jarring ending is perhaps a little more suspect. The film looks about to resolve itself into a more conventional and feelgood conclusion, which happily it avoids. But is the actual ending merely a means to dodge that happening, leaving us with no kind of conclusion at all?
The White Ribbon
Other films here haven’t been treated to a fuller analysis through sheer shortage of typing time. With this latest from Michael Haneke, however, I’m not actually sure I’m up to it! Instead here’s a few near-random remarks...
As with his previous film Cache, he conjures up a dark mystery in the midst of an apparently blameless world – this time a bucolic-looking German village on the cusp of the First World War. And yet again, he deprives the viewer of a tidy or literal denouement. As he has complained himself, “the questions that people are looking for an answer to are the least important part of the film.”
Indeed it’s interesting to read reviews and message boards replicating what the townspeople do in the film, insisting all the wrongs which go on must have a single source – and so keep up the pretence they’re not symptoms of something inherent. Yet the rarely stated but ever-present shadow of war surely insists upon this second reading. The phrase “the world won’t end” is used at least twice, a sure indicator that their world will.
A recurring motif is the contrast between interiors and exteriors. Even in period films it’s rare to see interiors on screen in genuinely pre-electric-light gloominess, mostly we just magically ‘see’. In fact Haneke was so insistent on this that technical reasons forced him to shoot in colour, only later transferring to his intended black and white. The contrast between these and the rolling fields is notable. A parallel image is the contrast between the caged and the wild bird.
On the Film 4 site, Anton Bidel compares this film to Clouzot’s infamously poison-riddled Le Corbeau. But perhaps the differences are more instructive. Le Corbeau is a morality tale, it’s characters just pointers to the point it seeks to make. The characters here are much more realised and (unnoticed by most reviews) far from simple textbook examples of repression. There’s even a love story (hardly a staple of Haneke movies), though conducted by outsiders to the town. At one point, when the Pastor’s pet bird dies, his young son dutifully offers his own. Yet even this image is characteristically double-edged, for this was a wild bird he had previously promised his father he would free once recovered from its injuries.
Postscript: At the preview of The Road, director John Hillcoat predicted the cold financial climate would result in fewer good films for the next eighteen to twenty-four months – that investors would instead play it safe. So, perhaps this is a good time to remind ourselves that overall last year’s crop of movies was such a good one.