Monday, April 14, 2014

Review: THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL: Shall I yet learn love?


Everyone who knows me and has heard me ranting like a tramstop psycho about how much I hate Wes Anderson's films will be intoning Wha!? after their own fashion. More on that later.

Set in the fictitious country, Europe, east of centre, of Zubrowka, this is the tale of how legendary concierge Gustav H. who pampers the rich and wintry dowagers among his guests to a sexual extent and is rewarded after the death of one with a priceless painting from her collection. The remainder of her family are stirred to jealous action. A chase and fun ensue.

To his credit, Wes Anderson has crafted an enjoyable tale that moves at a clip and doesn't flab out in the third act while he struggles both resolution and attempts to smuggle great clanking deus ex machina moments past his audience. It's pretty good. Why am I being so nice? Why did I pay for a cinema ticket and choctop tax and sit in the dark with a lot of other people on a beautiful autumn day in Melbourne to watch what I expected, from the execrable trailer I endured for the past summer, to be dreck? Well, I suspected, from some varying reviews, that it would have its good points.

Here they are:

Ralph Fiennes. He plays a campy Ronald Coleman, the kind of Ronald Coleman we might have seen on screen if he'd been allowed more of himself there; intimidatingly urbane but equanimitous, an observer of strict protocol but no snob in real world situations. This would fail without Fiennes or someone from the very very few like him. Just as he made the bad guy in Schindler's List the most magnetic thing on screen he inhabits the solar centre here. This is because for all the literary quirks of the character, for all his fussiness here and resignation there his words and actions feel natural. Anderson has gone for the same kind of thing as the butler in Arthur (John Gielgud breaking his gravitas with blunt swearing) but Feinnes refuses to surrender to the cheapness of the ploy and plays his expletives the same way he played them as Amon Goeth, as though that's what he'd say anyway. What this loses in laughs it gains in sympathy and in a film so long on artificial charm and so short on the natural variety, this is a golden hen's tooth.

Narrative tropes: We begin the film by going through a series of spheres of narrative as a young literary pilgrim hangs a hotel key on to the monument to the writer of the book The Grand Budapest Hotel that glitters with them. She then sits on a bench nearby and reads that tome which has a cover of a pink we shall see again. As she reads we hear the voice of the middle aged author who turns into Tom Wilkinson attempting to film an introduction to it which gives way to his younger self, Jude Law, who is told the story of the film by the Hotel's owner, Zero Mustapha (F. Murray Abraham), of how he came to own the hotel. In this sphere, the narration goes beyond the conventional voiceover to sound like the written word. When a character says a line it is followed in Law's voice by something like, "he said."

See what I did there? I put the bit that describes the speech in quotes. I am clever. Well, I am reporting cleverness, he wrote.

This is a film as much about storytelling as it is about nostalgia and the passing of epochs. Perhaps because of this Anderson has reigned in his urges to destroy his own narratives with mishandled final acts and keeps the tale moving at a clip. This film, unlike any other of his, is never sluggish (fans would use the word lackadaisical there).

Cineform. Anderson represents the different eras or spheres of the tale with appropriate aspect ratio. For the 1930s it's the 4X3(ish) academy ratio. For the 1960s it's scope (2.35:1) and for the present day it's the more standard 1.85:1 (the majority of cinema releases but also, cleverly, the shape of contemporary tv screens). This kind of time/form mix has usually been highlighted by contrasts between black and white and colour and even different colour timing. Anderson keeps as much as he can centre screen and the changes are, remarkably for him, as unobtrusive as the reel-end cigarette burns were in the film projection aeon. Anderson presents one and only one scene in black and white and its well chosen (by recalling Schindler's list, apart from anything else).

 Evocation: Anderson has created a Europe that never could have existed but feels comfortable and so appealing that we are lulled into a kind of cinematic paralysis as we watch. This is in evocation of the kind of film Hollywood studios set in Europe in the 1930s, a filmic space to indulge in alien traditions of privilege and rebellion and to meet forces like fascism with cheekiness and win. It's strange but filtered through familiarity. The signs we read are in English. Zero's uniform cap bears the words Lobby Boy. Everyone speaks English in their own accents: Adrien Brody is a harsh NYC, Fiennes is a natural sounding uppercrust English, Tony Revolori is all LA as the young Zero but F. Murray Abraham is cultured Manhattan as the older Zero, and so on including, delightfully, Saorise Ronan in her native Irish lilt. This is Lubistch's Warsaw in To Be or Not to Be or Design for Living. It's Chaplin's Vienna in The Great Dictator. The evocations are pointed and, for once with this director, entirely appropriate. And they work.

And here's what bothered me:

While the calling of the old cinema to stand in for a sense of loss is poignant and effective, at the edges there's something else going on that made me wince. Every time I saw characters as cartoony silhouettes scurrying down steps against obvious backdrops or flagrant use of models or anything that pushed the vintage cart out a little further I recognised something I wish I hadn't. Each of those moments, and there are many, feels not like the innovation of a familiar scheme, a cineartiste improving on tradition, but a style lift from someone else whose profile is low enough for it not to be noticed. I just kept thinking of the name Guy Maddin.

Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin has been making feature films since the 1980s which blend the look of silent cinema expertly with an earthy worldliness which feels contemporary. The result is startling. A glittering ice nymph might emerge from a night sky made of black velvet and sequins, look around her and say: "well, fuck me." The thing is that in Maddin's realm that is not meant to draw a belly laugh, more a wry smile, and any serious themes will emerge as they need to through the weird stark kind of camp. They do emerge and in a setting as alien as Eraserhead still is, and we are visiting a strange new world. Everything in a Maddin film is as obssessively placed as anything out of an Anderson one and you are meant to notice and respond but Maddin's films end up feeling more rewarding because they feel truer. His cinema seems a happy coincidence between therapy for compulsion and real joyous expression. Anderson's feel like a beg for approval.

I've always thought the Pascal's wager of post-modernism (it works whether you get it or not just like this phrase) was a twee evasion. Wes Anderson's po-mo grated with me because it always felt try-hard. And, more immediately, his films played for me like the guy who finally hears the latest joke and tells it in its tatters as though it's fresh. His big jokey setups are so intent on impressing that you can hear the old collapsable telescope creaking. Yes, he knows his Nouvelle Vague and his Preston Sturges. Yes, he knows his British Invasion b-sides. Yes, he can arrange all of them into tableaux that drone with overarticulate dialogue. But what does it amount to beyond a few adolescent themes masked by good casting?

For me it amounts to wasted time, his and mine, as attention-deficit whining like Rushmore, Royal Tennenbaums or Life Aquatic push out their increasingly sludged up flows. Anderson isn't the Kubrick of quirk, as I heard one reviewer declare, he's its Michael Bay, delivering the mightest and most powerful form of tweeness since .... his last one. That's what I saw in the trailer that infuriated me so much but drove me to at least see if my hatred would endure. Would I be charmed by this critics' darling and mooted contemporary master?

Well, no. This film is mildly enjoyable but consistently so. The charms it offers are like the cakes and pastries in the little pink boxes that litter its screen, pretty, perfectly sugared and textured, impressive as artifacts, and utterly unpalatable to those without a sweet tooth. Ralph Fiennes' Ronald Coleman riff just makes me want to see a Ronald Coleman film. Grand Budapest Hotel makes me want to see any of the films it evokes rather than it ever again. It's enjoyable. No, it's the best Wes Anderson film yet but coming frmo me that only means I didn't find it infurating or wearisome three quarters of the way through. Faint praise? Faint film. Sometimes faint is what you want. Well, faint is what this is. Enjoyable. Faint. Oh, good, here's my tram.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Ghostlights That Failed: More Imaginative TV Fiction

A sci fi premise in the first episode was quickly discarded to become a show about little people evading big people.

90s paranoia premise in which a man's identity is erased. His pursuit by a mysterious malevolant group makes a FUGITIVE of him which means that, apart from a sprinkling of conspiracy tidbits, he's really just going to place to place lending a hand. The finale was apparently intriguing but dismissive programming by the network and a lack of strong continuity left me uninvolved.

Another in the wake of Twin Peaks begat X-Files, Dark Skies might fare better now on the coat-tails of Mad Men as it was Johnson-era USA. The alien invasion thread was a lot stronger than its 60s progenitor The Invaders but the thing soon flubs down into encounters with the famous (one of the co-leads meets the Beatles) and soon to be famous (Jim Morrison, student filmmaker who screens a potentially damning reel of film and then, when it ticks off, says "this is the end"). The presence of the late great character actor JT Walsh could not save this from disappointing.

Not only in the wake of the X-Files but from the same team. Chris Carter wanted something even darker than the murk Scully and Mulder moved through. They cast beautifully, including Lance Hendriksen in the lead as Frank Black and Terry O'Quinn as his chief contact with the vigilante Millennium Group and the mood was a pleasant sombreness. But there were problems.

First season was serial killer of the week during the final wave of that genre on cinema screens and, while there was a gloomy apocalyptic thread sewn throughout it didn't really amount to much. Second season concentrated on the approaching apocalypse and saw Frank turn from the Group and get pursued by it. This mixed jarringly with the continued serial killer theme and felt as patchwork and messy as the conspiracy arc in the X-Files. The finale was astouding and daringly ... final ... but ... the third and last season saw Frank go back to the FBI and bounce between an attempt to explain away the apocalypse of the last season as a local incident and get on with the now routine weirdo killer of the week.

Despite perhaps over half of the episodes approaching real greatness the reason I seldom recommend it to folk looking for something from the coffers of a dark 'n' troubling nature is that the consistency is just too low to expect them to wade through the lot. I can watch this for the atmosphere alone but the middling really does outweigh the good.

Made to cash in on the success of The Twilight Zone, this series ran for three years in the early 60s. Apart from a few impressive episodes from writers like Harlan Ellison that influenced 80s sci fi cinema The Outer Limits' default position had to do with evil aliens who were thinly veiled communists. This might lend an archeological thrill to current viewing but the pre-school level of allegory and insistence on a very few variations on a theme give it an exhausting air of diminishing returns.Twilight Zone rand for five seasons and changed its own game several times. Outer Limits never managed to consistently rise above its sponsors LCD requirements despite some fine talent involved.

An attempt to render the Twin Peaks scenario more accessible by applying generic horror fiction templates to a soap opera. If that sounds dismissive it's only because of the temporal context. If you made it today, scene for scene in 16:9 you'd have a season of American Horror Story. Some enjoyable characters like the little boy and his sister's ghost as well as bad guy in chief Sherrif Buck. After Twin Peaks' intrigue and during the X-Files much fresher approach to things like supernature American Gothic didn't stand a chance. We're a lot more eager now to add irony to what we don't get or might otherwise ridicule. Some very fine moments, though.

Great idea! Put a suave James Bond type in a western setting based on a train filled with gadgets that pushed the envelope of nineteenth century technology and have him fight supervillains. This steampunk scenario was cast in the 60s so it has a certain grooviness to boot. The leads and villains are well cast and there are babes falling from the scenery. So whats wrong? Hard to say exactly but it's as though the premise seemed enough for the writers so that they never seemed to go beyond the wow factor: hey Belle Epqoue torpedos! Beyond that it's really only babes fatales swooning o'er Dan West and panto villains in frock coats. For contrast, google some of the cp graphic novels around and pay some heed to the roll call of steampunk animes from Japan. That's how to do it. This first go does get a lot started, though. Pity it ventures so timidly beyond.

Winning theme of cold war fed paranoia of alien invasion glued to a Fugitive kind of wandering capable hominid. 60s style all over the place. What's wrong? It's the Fugitive with aliens. The assimilation of the latter is borrowed from almost every episode of The Outer Limits and is diverting enough but just never peaks. See also Dark Skies which was little more than an update.

Through a mumbled science explanation two scientists move around in time and find that the future is easier to change than the past. Several Twilight Zone episodes posed deeper questions with shorter screen time and lesser effects budgets.

Great idea! Vampires are real but a minority that faces the bigotry of the majority. They drink synthetic blood at bars and have their own night clubs. Vampire blood is a highly hallucinogenic aphrodisiac declared illegal but in use as a very black market item. All good stuff until you get into tight corners and start adding other creatures with any powers you want to save the day until the idea of the magic that separates human from humanoid-beast fades away and it chows down to the same soap as anything else. I gave up after the 3rd season, having failed to get through the opening shots of the following one.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Review: TRACKS: What Without Why

I remember this story from the time and how it felt, in however slight a way, that things were changing in the world. There was a little in the media about it but it didn't really come alive for me until the edition of National Geographic landed at the door of my subscriber family home. What I recall first from reading that was the golden hue of the cover and the impression that I was looking at a demi-god descended. What I don't recall was the reason this young woman trained for years to make a trek of thousands of kilometres through such hostile terrain. This film, as a narrative fiction ought to anchor itself on that very thing. Goody, closure!

Whether it is the sweep of the aerial photography of the terrible beauty of the land or that it is effectively personified in the subtle power of Mia Wasikowska's face what I saw was the same as the magazine story: the feat outranks the need. We get a good idea of the time and patience Davidson put in to do this mighty thing and there is a real sense of determination on screen but we just don't get why. Some scenes of childhood trauma are inserted and mount towards a confrontation that never quite happens. So, if it was a massive exercise in emotional analgesia it's still a mystery, by the end credits.

Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock was made only a few years before Davidson's feat and it used its setting to show the spooky effects of overdressed Edwardian stiffness confronting and perhaps being consumed by an alien nature. This film works best when it is showing us something similar, landscapes that could be from a planet simliar to ours but a slight kick further towards the star. But how effective can this be when we already know that Davidson who began life in rural hardship in western Queensland. The learning curve between the nature she was born into and this amped up version is a gentle one. The sense of conquest is only lessened by her own account.

The opportunity to extract herself from the chattering crowd seems reasonable but spending that much time and effort in her impatient mid twenties suggests a kind of sociopathy rather than hermit-like reclusion. The self administered secular baptism that we know is coming feels like much more than relief but, really, that's all we are privy to. We are given many signs of the magnitude of the physical journey but are left guessing about the personal one.

Mia Wasikowska has power as a screen presence and this performance does nothing to subtract from that. What she does give feels natural but it still falls short as she is simply not given enough to work with. This creates the same tension whenever we see an accomplished player in an undistinguished piece, a Michael Fassbender in Jane Eyre, an Ellen Page in Inception, a De Niro in  ...  anything since Goodfellas. Was director John Curran unable or perhaps unwilling to overegg the splendid visual pudding before us with character depth? Is Davidson herself a poker faced misanthropic thing of stone (well, she did famously have a fling with fatwa-bound and camera-shy Salman Rushdie but .. ok, apart from wowing at that when I read it, that really has no place here)?

There is a decided lack of moment at points that ought to shake with it. Finding a safe swimming hole. Reaching the coast (oh come on that is not a spoiler). The very hard thing she is forced to do along the way (which I won't spoil). None of these things feel that important (even the very hard thing). Similarly, the sense of the danger she frequently finds herself in is suspense-free. All this is strange considering it is the story of someone whose confrontations with nature form the essence of the tale. Without the provision of anything else, a more than sketchy commentary by Davidson as a character on her journey for example, we are left wondering "so what" at an endeavour that few in the comfort of their cinema seats would dream of undertaking. Whether she is or not it just feels as though she's pretty much ok for the whole trip. A few prickles in the grass here and there but she's essentially fine.

We might be thankful that the relationship with National Geographic photographer Rick Smoalan is not overblown into a burgeoning romance of life-affirming power that lures Robyn back from the emotional wilderness and into modern wellness. It's played out quite naturalistically with help from a believably socially awkward Adam Driver but soon begins to serve as an assurance that Davidson is never really going to be tested unto death in the wilderness. One international poster for the film features the pair in a kneeling embrace on desert sands. If anyone pays for a ticket to this thinking they're in for a love story then I hope the choctops are good that day.

Oh and, is it too hard to imagine beyond an off the rack orchestral score for something like this. The pan flutes in Picnic at Hanging Rock added something alien to both civilisation and nature which fuelled unease and a real spookiness throughout. An electronic score comprised of the sounds of the locations would, with a little imagination draw the eerie beauty of the land out from the slide show we get.

So, we still don't why this extraordinary thing was done by this extraordinary person. We do know that it was done. With a mechanism designed to extract the conflict and jeopardy from everyday life and deliver a concentrated dose of it for our emotional and philosophical well being how can we end up with this dilution? How can, in other words, this cinematic representation be less engaging than the lines around the photographs of a few pages of a magazine from the 70s? All I know is that it shouldn't. Why don't I read the book, then? After this feckless teaser the best I'll say is that maybe I shall.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Review: WADJDA

Wadjda wants a bike. She can't afford one yet but that's all she wants. She sells football bracelets that she makes herself to the other girls at school but they aren't going to do it. The next time she's up before the headmistress they are taken away and declared forbidden so that's gone, too. Oh, Wadjda (pronounce it Wazhda) lives in Riyadh, capital of Saudi Arabia and girls there don't ride bikes.

Her father is an occasional visitor as he wanders the social realm in search of a wife who can lift his social status and bear him a son. Her mother works a job across town which makes her dependent on a driver (she's not allowed to drive).

Between school and home there's Abdulla, also about eleven, whose trades taunts with her that are energised by their frankly sweet mutual attraction. There's also the everything shop bursting with all kinds of cheap rubbish inside but puts on display on the footpath a small squadron of kids bikes that gleam with freedom. Freedom has a price and it's way beyond what the bracelets are going to rake in.

So far this might as well get in line with all the other inheritors of Italian neo-realism, a genre that ventured great truths through spare means. For that, all it would have to do would be to follow Wadjda's progress in getting the bike or not and, happy or sad ending, that would fill the checklist. But something else is happening here.

The first scene of this film involved her joining her classmates in a devotional song. She's crap at it and is sent out of the room. A few scenes in will tell you that it wasn't singing but the song. She'll happily sing along to the foreign pop in her room as she twists the bracelets into being. She's just not a joiner. She doesn't reject her family's religion but doesn't express any piety either. When the opportunity to make the ticket price of the two-wheeler compels religion she takes to it with the seriousness of a child making a discovery. Does it make her religious? See the film.

That classroom song is staged as a kind of verite scene of daily life, routine by which we see our heroine in context. It is also a direct tribute to Robert Bresson's Mouchette from 1967. Mouchette, though pretty and capable is a social leper. While she shares her fellow teenager's joy at things like dodgem cars she finds it impossible to truly connect with anyone until an encounter with an older outsider offers a kind of escape. She failed choir practice, too, and was humiliated for it.

Wadjda's intelligence (made electrically animate by Reem Abdulla whose bright grin both knows and cajoles) keeps her apart from everyone in her life and brings to the fore the intelligence of the women who surround her which has long been as veiled as their faces out of doors.

There has been some commentary about this film, the first Saudi film directed by a woman, suggesting that come opportunity was taken to serve the constraints of Saudi society to Western audiences as a kind of neo-realist exploitation flick. As we see Wadjda approach her goal we wonder how much of the freedom she expects of it will materialise and how fleeting it might be as the world around her seems daily to fit her up for silent subservience.

To my mind if there has been any distancing it is that of writer/director Haiffa Al-Mansour who must put her own distance between her own experience and the world of Wadjda, to actively seek an alienness in the familiarity. By the time we see Wadja catching sight of the dangerous liberty in front of her we get the distinct feeling that the same feeling ran rampant in the mind behind the camera that brought this vision to the screen.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Top 10 Intense Films (Anniversary of Eraserhead Premiere)

Not necessarily the best nor even my favourite intense movies. Just the first ten I could think of.

Eraserhead: premiered this day in 1977. My favourite film and the only one I know that Kubrick wished he'd made.

Irreversible: One that doesn't get a lot of viewings because it only really needs the first. The point to the reversed timeline is the eradication of moral identification. It works. It's tough because that works. It's extraordinary.

Martyrs: Starts as a very icky revenge tale but suddenly gets bigger and unblinkingly scary ... as the violence lessens.

Solaris: Intended to be the Sovyeet answer to Vest's decadent running dog 2001 Tarkovsky's exploration of the Lem novel took off into its own universe, entered a haunted house of loss and desire. The ending punches guts.

Two or Three Things I Know About Her: Godard's essay on prostitution for consumption began with a newspaper article but he goes beyond it into a city crammed with fashion colours seared by a nagging whisper of dissent, climaxing not in the supermarket items in a row up like a skyline but in the cosmos he finds in the bubbles and swirls of a cup of coffee.

Apocalypse Now: How a long and slow film with very little of the warfare it promised on screen can have held my attention like a real life situation for more than twenty times over as many years is puzzling but true. Martin Sheen occupies the screen for most of the film's two plus hours and doesn't smile once.

Night of the Living Dead: Made for $5 in 4X3  black and white when the mainstream was scope in technicolour this still beats all its descendants in grip and economy.

Arsenic and Old Lace: Yep, a comedy, a screwball comedy at that, but one blacker than the hobs of hell as two old spinster aunts find that their career of mercy murders is about to be exposed and don't seem to mind a bit. Moves faster than the human heart until its owner is a few minutes into it.

The Exorcist: Friedkin approached the genre piece as though it was a true story. All the generic traits were discarded, recalling that empathetic pain and fear are most effectively related by making them look real. They do. THEN you get the mystique and dry ice horror because then the alienness of it also feels real.

Repulsion: Catherine Deneuve is driven insane from fear and we're in the back seat. Polanski still had a few gems to make but he never topped this for intensity.

Thursday, March 13, 2014


Woody Grant is a wintry old man at the end of his life. His wife, long indifferent to him, either ignores him or is in his ear about something. One son has reached middle age on the verge of highly local celebrity and the other works a job failing to sell home entertainment systems to people who just want to browse. One day Woody receives a letter that tells him he's won a million dollars. He starts walking. The place he needs to claim from is one and a bit states away in Nebraska so he needs to get a move on. He does but he keeps getting hauled back by police or the underachieving son and more nagging. Finally, his son who has tried to tell the old man that the win is actually a scam to trick people into buying magazine subscriptions but Woody doesn't seem to get beyond the words WINNER and WINNER printed in gold either side of the big bursting star and pot of gold in the centre of the letter. So they set off.

Ok, you know where this is going. Father and son road trip blending quirky comedy and serious life discussions in a big ol' road movie. All of that is there and is unfortunately emphasised by the trailer. But to say it's more than that is both inadequate and saying too much. It's inadequate as the tale unfolds to reveal layers and sides of characters that delight with the discovery in a finely judged display of narrative and character perspective. Too much because the road trip scenario if done well needs only minimal description. You dig it or you don't. I do. I've been left short changed now and then (Little Miss Sunshine or this same director's About Schmidt) but not here.

This is the America of Robert Frank and The Handsome Family where your cousins' second question after "how are you?" is "how long did it take to drive here?" But we're not having a giggle at the hicks for more than a little handshake phase. These people are as wily as city folk even if their manifest fantasies sadden us at exposure. When, waylaid from the goal by circumstance, Woody and his son David camp at their cousins place in Woody's home town, the story enters a medieval movement as visions of the pot of gold stir the locals to schemes and greed. Darting around this and averting disaster by aborting an interview with the local paper, David learns some poignant things about his father which prey on our minds as we watch the remainder unfold.

It goes where you think it will but boy does it keep you going alongside. Bruce Dern made his career by stepping from one intense centre of gravity after another but Woody reminds me more of his subtle turn in the satire Smile as the small town Vietnam vet made good who really wants the local beauty pageant to embody the new, positive America he thinks he fought for. Here, Woody, at the end of his life holds decades of disappointment in and expresses his later life's desire in greatly reduced form as the simplest of things (go and buy a ticket to find out what they are). Dern will have to pull a Bengal tiger out of a hat to better this as a swansong.

Will Forte as David must find the futility of regret while still young enough to avoid it and old enough to prevent youthful stupidity. We need him between Woody and the venal world with its rustic smiles and wicked thoughts. He gives us a weariness that might yet wake. June Squibb (also in About Schmidt) gives us a hell of a lot more detail that the trailer's cantankery suggested. If there is a little herk herk with the ways of the country there is also the keen-eyed greed of an Ed Pegram (a magnetically bullish Stacy Keach) and a folk songbook's worth of regret and heartache in Peg Nagy's single gaze at Woody as he goes by towards the end.

All of this lives in a landscape of powerful black and white cinematography that Alexander Payne took from colour hi-def into that pallette of Robert Frank and added a grain-noise filter the way that big hitters in the 90s added vinyl crackle to their digital recordings. Add a purpose-built score of gently lapping jazz and folk to whisper around all that fading agriculture and a greatly diminished Mount Rushmore and you get something designed to the last pixel that feels as real as roadside mud. I've liked most of Payne's movies like Election and Sideways but I've never known any to settle from the injections of quirk and self-conscious gravity as this piece, without overweening, without easy sentimentality. This is a masterpiece.

Monday, March 3, 2014


Adele is a teenager in one of France's provincial centres. Her interests are existential literature and self-definition. The second of those is the tough one. She tries a boy. Doesn't work. On the way to dumping him she sees and can't stop seeing a slightly older girl with blue hair. After taking a tantalising pass from one of her female schoolfriends and then getting rebuffed for taking it too seriously the next day she suspects she has found her path. When she walks out of a gay friend's party and into a girls only bar Bluehair glides down to the rescue from the pit of bulls and cougars and the rest is history.

Kinda. Adele and Emma (Bluehair) share a love stronger than the most ferocious of peer group onslaughts and one more nurturing than all of the literature to which Adele has professed devotion. And we get to see it in daily sunshine and nightly dimmed bedroom glow. And see it and see it and see it.

Every review of this film cordons off a moment for the sex scenes. They are clearly erotic to begin with and that has more to do with their role in intensifying the relationship, same as in real life. As cinema there is a completeness to them which goes against the initial sense to become more observation than celebration, more Kubrick or Matthew Barney than 9 1/2 Weeks. While the eroticism greys down into Masters and Johnson laboratory conditions plainness at no time is the spectacle remotely pornographic. This is a film that lingers rather than states, inviting us to stand nearby and absorb it. The wonder of it is how seldom the epic running time feels laboured. The sex is not laboured, no more than the loose ramble of the conversations or the insistence on scene-length closeups. Part and parcel.

But this film is more than mere aesthetic approach. The tale of the two women moves with a kind of stately verite. Apart from the sudden caesura that seems to take us across years while feeling like a single scene, the pace is decorous and encourages examination. Examination is important here as we are going to go beyond genre where the love at the centre of the love story is tested to destruction but strong enough to defy the divides of oceans or death themselves and into the uncomfortable realm where it is denied unto death. If we liked the erotic spring we are going to have to live with the wintry pain as well.

That, for me, is where this film is at its strongest. While it has served above and beyond the call of love story duty in the first half it settles down to live with the harder stuff. When love turns into affection management and personal administration. Adele continues to serve as painter Emma's muse, starring in life size high impact canvases. Adele finds her vocation in teaching preschool where she finds constant bright fulfillment and the eye of the (h)unque in residence. The latter follows her through days of fete-ing as the face of the inspiration of a rising local artist and the realisation that her biggest impression on Adele's social circle is the pasta she feeds them with. The fiercely independant mind we saw in her adolescence is allowed only grazing in this new role. It's not that Emma has no  problem with this, it's that she doesn't notice that it has happened.

In a more mainstream film, Adele would emerge from this experience full of fight and corner Emma over with a spiky argument about being trivialised, reduced to a likeness on canvas and spaghetti chef. All we need to see the the size of the serving dish and hear the praise for the food which arrives at the point where the champagne has created a mass appetite. Adele begins to look around and we don't wonder as we see Emma's eye wandering and her body language preparing for a transfer of affection to someone else. Then, when we get the big confrontation we don't need to hear dialogue from Husbands and Wives because we feel as sad and tired as the characters.

But if we really wanted to see emotional violence we have to wait until the first meeting of the pair after their separation. The longing barely visible through their restraint swells and bursts through like a demon on the rampage, giving us a sex scene that, fully clothed and unfulfilled, is the most powerfully erotic of all of them. It is also heart-rending. We are looking at what feels like the final act of pure attraction between these two lovers and find the energy exciting only long enough to be gutted by its ultimate emptiness: burning love by programmed robots. This is a common scene in real life but I've never seen it so powerfully realised in fiction. It is the single strongest moment in this film so well supplied with them.

If you looked at the poster for this or any other promotional material and formed the impression that it was a low-substance wish-wash you might want to watch it if only to revisit the lesson about first impressions. It's not just French and pretty faces. This is a serious study of human attraction, youth and experience and features some of the strongest performances and visual direction you will see all year. These are three screen hours which do not quite feel long enough.